The first of 2009. As is usual at this season the paperwhite daffodills are out (they are a little late this year) in our garden and I like the way they cluster around the olive trees. As always click on the image to see it enlarged and don't forget to visit of the olive tree blogging archives for further reminders of how nice olive trees are.
I'm going to nail my trousers to mast on this one*
During 2009 a member of the Eurozone will seek to leave. I'm going to hedge my bets on which member and on whether they'll manage to pull it off during the year but I predict that one of them will start the process to quit.
Why? because there is a horrible disconnect between the ECB's policies - which are OK for the Northern Euro group - and the needs of the southern (and Irish) members of the group. The economy of Spain pretty much imploded last year. I reckon Italy is going to hit the buffers this year. I suspect that Greece, Portugal and Ireland are in equally poor state.
There is also, of course, the question of the small nations such as Cyprus, Maltas and Slovenia. The islands will probably remain in the Euro. Since they have to import pretty much everything and they rely on European tourism for a large chunk of their income they have no incentive to switch from the Euro, and the same goes for most of the micro countries (Monaco, San Marino etc.) although Andorra might see benefit in joining a Spanish currency. Slovenia is more complex. Slovenia has a real economy with manufacturing and so on. It might well see a benefit in remaining a member of the Euro since the Euro should provide potential investors with some reassurance but on the other hand leaving the Euro might well help it with its exports. Slovenia has (IIRC) the former Soviet Union countries as major trading partners and the Russian Ruble is definitely sinking compared to the Euro.
The Irish might seek to retie their currency to Sterling - after all right now €1≈£1 - I'm not sure what the other nations might do if they need to restore their currency but they could well go back to Psetas, Lire and so on without much trouble.
Finally, and not part of the prediction, there are various countries (e.g. Estonia, Bulgaria) that have their currency effectively fixed to the Euro. If the Euro continues to remain strong, it would not surprise me if these countries decided to either change the exchange rate or to float it.
Background - as noted at TeleRead, Ars Technica and other places, the FTC (Federal Trade Commission) is holding a Town Hall to Address Digital Rights Management Technologies on Wednesday, March 25, 2009, in Seattle. They are soliciting comment and suggestions here and made the official announcement here. The latter describes the Town Hall agenda to be:
Opening remarks; demonstrations of DRM-related technology; panel discussions regarding burdens on, and benefits for, consumers, and other market and legal issues involving DRM; a review of industry best practices; and consideration of the need for government involvement to better protect consumers.
and at the comment page the comment subject is described as:
Digital rights management (DRM) refers to technologies typically used by hardware manufacturers, publishers, and copyright holders to attempt to control how consumers access and use media and entertainment content. Among other issues, the workshop will address the need to improve disclosures to consumers about DRM limitations. Interested parties may submit written comments or original research on this topic.
My comment (tracking number 539814-00405) on this is as follows:
I have done research (documented at my blog with follow up) that shows that DRM is utterly ineffective when it comes to preventing internet users from locating a "pirated" version of popular books. I am not a computer gamer but a cursory search has shown me that unlocked versions popular games which are known to be "DRM-locked" are also easily downloadable, much the same applies to other DRM protected content.
One reason why otherwise law-abiding people may search out unlocked versions of content that they wish to read (play etc.), or tools to unlock content that they have purchased, is that DRM schemes frequently end up orphaning purchasers as the provider of the DRMed content ends support for that DRM mechanism or download site or the consumer upgrades to a new computer. The dilemma is summed up neatly in this cartoon:
A recent example of this problem is the ending of the contract between Fictionwise and Overdrive which means that purchasers of eBooks from Fictionwise which were supplied there by Overdrive will no longer be able to reobtain them after Jan 31, 2009 in the original format, if at all.
A second reason why consumers may wish to avoid DRMed products is that the DRM mechanism may break other software, not work in their environment or open up a security risk. One good example of this was the Rootkit which was distributed for a short time by Sony until pressure forced them to stop.
Considering these issues I believe it would be wise for the FTC to mandate a "health warning" on DRMed products requiring that the DRM scheme (and potential side-effects) be clearly set out and to require that providers of DRMed products refund users who are unable to use the product.
Any number of terrorist lovers and/or jew haters marched in towns across France to protest Israel's right to defend itself. This is not a surprise. Nor, I suspect, is it a surprise that in Nice some people ("youths" no doubt) took advantage of the march to do a little free-lance wealth redistribution from the local shopkeepers. What was a surprise to me was that in the recently snowbound city of Marseilles there was a pro-Israel, anti-Hamas march(translation):
MARSEILLE (Reuters)) - Plus de 15.000 personnes selon les organisateurs, environ 5.000 d'après la police, ont manifesté à Marseille en soutien à l'intervention de l'armée israélienne dans la bande de Gaza.
(More than 15,000 people according to the organizers, aboiut 5,000 according to the police, demonstrated in Marseilles in support of the interventions of the Israeli army in the Gaza strip)
No mention is made of whether they modified the words of the Maseillaise to mention defeating Hamas...
The people who opine about how "a military solution" will never succeed regarding Israel's invasion of Gaza might ponder the opposite. How can "a terrorist solution" possibly defeat Israel? In military terms of course it cannot. And it doesn't seem to me likely that it would successfully convince the majority of Israelis to leave either. So Hamas' whole strategy is clearly never going to work either.
The same people might also think about Chechnya, espeecially when they claim that Gaza is a living hell, unparalleled humanitarian catastrophe etc. The Israelis could implement Grozny rules (AKA Hama rules or "Desert called peace" rules) and win because there is nothing that can stop them militarily. A few fuel air bombs over the major population areas would handle most of the problem. They'd probably end up killing around a million Palestinians but there wouldn't be anymore rockets from Gaza, Once the bodies were buried and the rubble cleared the survivors would have a lowly populated, fertile land to live in. The Israelis haven't done this, and are highly unlikely to do this. But the only thing stopping them is their own conscience.
At this point in time, the Israelis would accept (bar the odd nutbag) a solution which would grant the Palestinians staehood, give them pretty much the entire West Bank plus Gaza to have it in and so on with very few preconditions. The only thing they would really want is some kind of belief that the Palestinian state would
not attack them or permit others to attack from its territory
not collapse into anarchy
The problem is that I can't see the Palestinians agreeing to this convincingly. I can't actually see the Palestinians as capable of creating a functioning state or even having the desire to create one.
It may be that the only way to fix Gaza is to treat the inhabitants as children and remove pretty much all of their rights until a program of education has taught them how to be responsible grown-ups. As well as removing the right to free speech, communication, access to information and to defend themselves, this would include the right to procreate. I don't know whether it would be easier to sterilize the males or the females but there probably isn't another way to stop another generation of disaffected dysfunctional Palestinians from growing up.
A follow up to the previous thought. Let us perform a thought experiment. Assume that the non Arab Israelis depart Israel now leaving behind territory that is occupied solely by Arab Israelis. Assume that the Palestinians in all their various refugee camps are sent back to the former territory of Israel. Assume that Gaza + Israel + West Bank is now given UN etc. blessing to be a single country. What do we expect the country to look like? My bet is that it would shortly resemble either Haiti or Somalia. It seems highly unlikely that such a state would produce anything of value to the rest of the world except the exisiting tourist destinations and it's likely collapse into near anarchy would mean no one would visit them.
Compare the bleak picture above with the products of Israel. Everything from oranges to high tech via guns. Pretty much the only things the rest of the Middle East produces that are valued by the rest of the world are oil and gas. I also note that Israel and Turkey are major trading partners. Turkey, unlike its Asian neighbours, has a thriving economy which also produces a wide range of products. It is not clear to me why the rest of the Middle East is so barren as regards exports that require human effort to produce but it is. About the only place less productive than the ME is Africa.
England is a nation within the United Kingdom. The Union comprises England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Government believes that the Union benefits all parts of the United Kingdom. Within the framework of the Union, devolution allows different policies to develop in different parts of the UK, meeting the democratically expressed preferences of the people, adapting to specific circumstances and issues, and allowing public services to meet needs more effectively. All parts of the United Kingdom benefit from a strong economy and share critical common interests, in respect of national integrity and security, in facing global challenges which are played out on an international stage. People in the UK share common citizenship rights, which express in political, legal and social terms what it means to be from the UK. The rights and freedoms that are associated with our citizenship, expectations of mutual support and solidarity, and common institutions and cultural ties, bind us together and continue to unite us. The Government believes that we are stronger together, and weaker apart.
Compared to his predecessor's description of Scotland as a "proud historic nation" this isn't exactly a ringing endorsement. It seems like England is merely a sort of sub-nation. But it is perhaps worth fisking the damn thing sentence by sentence:
England is a nation within the United Kingdom.
In other words as I said above, a sub nation. Indeed what with the EU having national tendencies this seems to make England more of a sub-sub-nation. Let it be noted for the record that the capital of the UK is also the capital of England. This is not a coincidence.
The Union comprises England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
So? What has this statement of the obvious got to do with anything?
The Government believes that the Union benefits all parts of the United Kingdom.
And this may well be true. But I'm pretty sure that some parts benefit more than others.
Within the framework of the Union, devolution allows different policies to develop in different parts of the UK, meeting the democratically expressed preferences of the people, adapting to specific circumstances and issues, and allowing public services to meet needs more effectively.
Now we get to the weasel bit. There has never been a way for the English to democratically express a preference for devolution. Ever. And if "devolution allows ... public services to meet needs more effectively" how come there sin't any for England? Just asking.
All parts of the United Kingdom benefit from a strong economy and share critical common interests, in respect of national integrity and security, in facing global challenges which are played out on an international stage.
More statement of the bleeding obvious. Note that even though "all parts ... share critical common interests" they may also have other equally critical different interests e.g. when facing local challenges played out on a national stage.
People in the UK share common citizenship rights, which express in political, legal and social terms what it means to be from the UK.
Another line which is somewhat economical with the actualité. One common citizenship right is the right to vote. It is true that throughout the UK citizens may vote for local councilors, MPs and MEPs. However in Wales they also have the chance to vote for Assembly Members, in Scotland for MSPs and in N Ireland for MLAs. Only in England do we not have a chance to vote for representatives to a "sub-nation" assembly or parliament. And note that while referenda were held in Wales and Scotland to see if people wanted such a beast no such option was given to the English.
The rights and freedoms that are associated with our citizenship, expectations of mutual support and solidarity, and common institutions and cultural ties, bind us together and continue to unite us.
That's nice. Our common institutions bind us together. So therefore by implication the institutions that are non common - e.g. the Welsh & N Irish Assemblies and the Scotch Parliament do not bind us together. If we want the UK to be bound together perhaps we should remove these bodies then?
The Government believes that we are stronger together, and weaker apart.
And finally a lovely duck-billed platitude to round this off. No mention of motherhood, apple pie or the union jack but equally meaningless.
So what is missing? A bit of history perhaps. England has been a sovereign nation since the 10th century (more or less, other disclaimers may apply) making it one of the older nation states in the world and originated numerous concepts such as the rule of law and juries before it got entangled with Wales let alone Scotland or Ireland. A bit of gratitude would have been nice or even basic recognition of the fact that it is the English which finance the majority of the UK - and have done ever since we bailed out the Scotch in 1707. All in all the feeling one gets is that what he really wants to say is "OK OK you're a nation too. Now shut up and keep on paying for everything".
When HC released Lois McMaster Bujold's second Sharing Knife book I called them Clueless Morons. Some 18 months later as we arrive at the release for book 4 - the conclusion of the tetralogy - they seem to remain equally bereft of clue.
Let me explain. Firstly regarding book 4 which I reviewed the ARC of last month. This book is to be released in Hardcover shortly on the 27th of January. It is to be released in eBook form sometime later. Precisely when and for what price is unclear.
If you go to a site like BooksOnBoard then you pay $26.99 less a 6% discount to total $25.37 (or €18.04 if you pay in Euros). Unfortunately to get your hands on these electrons you have to wait until Wednesday, April 22, 2009. This does somewhat correspond what you read at Harper Collins eBooks where is offered at a 20% discount to the $26.99 list price (total $21.59) and a date of April 2009. At both these sites you are informed that the only ebook formats available are Mobipocket and Adobe.
As you see the price is lower, it is available sooner and in more formats. This seems to be wonderful news until you click on "Buy now"button, at which point you get sent back to the front page of Harper Collins eBooks. This is not calculated to fill me with joy regarding Harper Collins.
(I also note that the Hardcover link above has the cover picture for the book, a picture which the none of the eBook sites can produce)
So to recap I can buy this book in electronic format in either February or April for $20.00 or more.
If I go to Amazon.com I can buy this book in hardcover paper format for shipping on Jan 27 for $17.81 + shipping. If I go to Amazon.fr I can buy this book in hardcover for shipping in "February" for €20,39 with free shipping. Were I a US resident I could buy the hardcover cheaper than the eBook and get it sooner than the eBook, as a European I get it for roughly the same price as the eBook but sooner. This, as I noted 18 months ago is nucking futs.
Compare with Baen. Take David Drake's In the Story Red Sky which will be published May 2009. I can already buy (for $15) the eARC of this book (and have done so). I will undoubtedly buy the finished product when May comes around as part of the 7 books for $15 bundle and there is a good chance that I'll end up buying a paper copy too at some point meaning that Baen get somewhere north of $17 from me without complaint. HC are going to get whatever cut they have of €20.39 with a lot of griping and a positive intention to purchase the absolute minimum from them in the future.
But it gets better. If, as a good European, I decide not to patronise HarpercollinseBooks in the USA but instead go for their UK arm I can't buy the book at all. In fact I can still only buy one Bujold book - Paladin of Souls - just as I could 18 months ago.
In the interests of science I had a poke on the Pirate Bay and found a 1GB torrent of the letters K,L and M out of 13130 bootlegged SF ebooks. This includes all of Lois's works to date in plain text PDFs which are quite easy to extract and convert to the unprotected ebook format of one's choice. One suspects that Book 4 will show up on a torrent site pretty quickly. Given the nose-bleed ebook price and their general unavailability until some months after the release of the cheaper hard cover, not to mention the confusion about formats and availability, it really looks like HC actually want people to get pirated eBook versions.
Science Fiction writer Dr Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people: those who work to further the actual goals of the organization, and those who work for the organization itself.
There are many many examples of this in action, at the link above he discusses teachers unions and the TSA, and almost anyone who has been exposed the the creeping regulation of practically everything can think of more. However yesterday Instapundit linked to Mark Steyn's latest Orange County Register article where he discusses FEMA's example. He begins by noting that President Bush has designated the inauguration of his successor to be a federal emergency in Washington DC.
One reason why nobody's ever done that before is because a presidential inauguration is not (to be boringly technical about it) an "emergency." It's penciled in well in advance – in this case, so well in advance that for years Democrats have been driving around with "1-20-09" bumper stickers on the back of their Priuses. Emergency-wise, that's the equivalent of Hurricane Dan Rather wrapped around a lamppost in his sou'wester, hanging there in eager anticipation every night for half a decade. Generally speaking, changes of government are only "emergencies" in the livelier banana republics where this week's president-for-life suddenly spots the machete-wielding mob scrambling over the palace walls so nimbly he barely has time to dial the Liberian branch of FEMA and put in a request for extra Portapotties and a rope-line management team.
The proposition that a new federal administration is itself a federal emergency is almost too perfect an emblem of American government in the 21st century. FEMA was created in the 1970s initially to coordinate the emergency response to catastrophic events such as a nuclear attack. But there weren't a lot of those even in the Carter years, so, as is the way with bureaucracies, FEMA just growed like Topsy. In his first year in office, Bill Clinton declared a then-record-setting 58 federal emergencies. By the end of the Nineties, Mother Nature was finding it hard to come up with a meteorological phenomenon that didn't qualify as a federal emergency: Heavy rain in the Midwest? Call FEMA! Light snow in Vermont? FEMA! Fifty-seven under cloudy skies in California? Let those FEMA trailers roll!
And he points out the link between that and all the stimulus packages and bailouts we seem to be getting these days. It is not clear to me how the various bailouts and stimuli can fix issues like the utter collapse in Asian-Euro trade or the disaster that is much of Europe. Reading the former links and this one about the Eurozone I believe my "bold prediction" of 10 days ago is rather less bold than I thought it was.
What is clear is that bureaucrats are going to flock to the controls of the levers of commerce and thanks to Pournelle's Iron Law this fills me with dread.
Yesterday morning the new moon was visible over the olive trees at sunrise. As always click on the image to see it enlarged and don't forget to visit of the olive tree blogging archives for further reminders of how nice olive trees are.
I'm becoming more and more convinced that the Euro's current strength is unsustainable in the long or even medium term. It is, it seems to me, caused by sentiments like "it isn't as bad/unpredictable in Euroland" rather than any inate strength. When its strength causes sufficient pain that it can't be hidden it is likely to crack catastrophically as the weaker countries (Greece, Spain, Portugal, Ireland) are forced to take emergency steps to survive including a massive currency devaluation and probably some kind of effective default on their Euro denominated government debt.
Yesterday someone who I would not normally consider a financial genius, or even particularly financially knowledgeable said something along the lines of the following (I paraphrase):
"When the Japanese bubble burst they had 0% interest rates for 15 years before they got a recovery. Why should we assume that the same strategy is going to work any differently in the rest of the world this time around?"
I could add that the Japanese government also spent zillions on concrete (literally) public works and made all sorts of other attempts to get the economy back on track without much success. The bailouts proposed in Washington, London, Brussels etc. don't sound notably different except that the politically connected class that get the money are not, for the most part, construction companies.
So that's the bad news. And it could well get worse. Demand for things like steel has fallen off a cliff. Shipping rates are practically zero. The frivolous debt-driven excess consumerism has halted and that is not a good thing for the global economy unless we can find a way to replace that demand with something else.
However this is where the good news comes. The developed world can feed itself and, for the most part, provide itself with clothing and other basic necessities without much of a problem these days so we can afford to have some creative destruction. Of course we'll probably get a certain amount of non-creative destruction too because a whole bunch of assumptions regarding economic growth and taxes are going to have to be dumped and that adjustment is going to be painful. I wouldn't assume anyone under 50 will get a pension from any government for example.
But I also anticipate vastly increased use of the internet to disintermediate even more. If banks continue to not lend and not offer savers attractive rates we'll see alterntive sructures like saver cooperatives (mutual funds reborn if you like) which invest in viable businesses that the members trust. We'll likely see shop rents collapse as more and more shopping moves on line. Food will mostly still be bought in (super)markets but music, movies, games, books, gadgets, lots of clothes, jewelry and even things like building supplies are likely to be made available on-line for less. The high street is going to look rather different once all this has gone away, as may the out of town shopping malls. If owners of commercial property don't cut rents to retailers they'll simply see lots of empty sections. Even if they do cut rents this will mean an end to new commercial retail developments. The ROI will be MUCH worse than it was and the developers just won't be able to find investors who are willing to accept the returns.
Its going to be interesting for the next few years in very much the "Chinese curse" sense
For various reasons I got to thinking about the song called "The Streets of London". I believe the original is this folk/ballad version by Ralph McTell.
But it has been covered by many others. There is this approved cover by Mary Hopkin
And there is the Sinead O'Connor cover which is pretty good too.
All of which are very nice and moving. As are versions by Kay Skelton and some live wench called Alexandra who forogt the second verse. Not to mention, according to YouTube, a fair number of others. All done in a slow folksy tempo with lots of emo.
And then there is the Anti Nowhere League's version which does verse 3 instead of verse 1 and is done every so slightly faster.
I'm sure Mr McTell hates the last one but I think it's my fave.
David Cerny's wonderful EU sculpture is proving to be completely accurate - at least in regards to his depiction of France:
As the BBC (and those parts of the French media which are not themselves on strike) report:
Rail and air services have been disrupted as French public and private sector workers hold a one-day strike.
Many trains were cancelled, and a third of flights out of one Paris airport.
Hundreds of thousands of workers are expected at rallies later in the day to demand more government action to protect jobs and wages.
One interesting part of the BBC description is the phrase "public and private sector workers". There may well be some genuine private sector workers on strike (bankers perhaps) but the overwhelming majority of the strokers are
transport workers (SNCF, Air France)
post office workers
France Telecom workers
Air France, EDF, GDF and France Telecom may, in theory, be privatised. In practice though they are still embued with the spirit of public sector slacking. Hospitals are similar. They may not be officially government employees but government funds pay almost all their salaries. This, in other words, despite the description, is in fact a bunch of government workers afraid that they are going to either have work a bit harder or lose their jobs because the government can't afford to keep them in the feather bedded state they have become accustomed to.
The second point, and it's why I titled this piece as I did, is that their complaint is that the government should do more. This shows as much as anything else the infantilization of large chunks of the West - particularly the socialist leaning bits. Rather than come up with a plan of their own they want Daddy government to fix it for them. And if he doesn't fix it the way they want then they throw a tantrum in about the same way that a 2 year old does. Governments can certainly do some things but they have a fairly poor record when it comes to doing the right thing.
If it weren't for the fact that these children were inconveniencing the rest of us I'd be willing to let them be, but they are making it harder for the grown ups to actually do revenue earning stuff. Since it is this revenue earning that pays the taxes that pays their salaries it seems particularly stupid of them. Unfortunately explaining this to them doesn't work because they don't get it.
The International Coalition for British Reparations
For reasons that are unclear to me - though possibly because of this - I seem to have got on the mailing list for something called The International Coalition for British Reparations. I think this is a very ironic leg pull as one of the reasons why Britain is singled out for being "awful" is The Industrial Revolution.
Still they sent me a great press release today:
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Carrie E. Carnegie
Public Relations Director
International Coalition for British Reparations
What England Doesn't Want You To Know About The Global Financial Crisis
January 29, 2009-Nearly one month into the new year, the global financial crisis has not alleviated. Quite the contrary, in fact, as the crunch has spread and wrecked innumerable livelihoods. Much blame has been put squarely on the shoulders of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke for allegedly lying to the public regarding the appropriation of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP. The initial intent of TARP was to purchase bad assets from major banks so they could resume lending to people. This scheme was scrapped at the recommendation of our transatlantic neighbors, the British. They insisted the money be pumped directly into the banks, noting that once banks had more capital, lending would resume. As of today, banks are in even worse shape, and lending has not proceeded. It is of utmost importance to point out that the world would not be in this situation had it not been for one Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, 'father of modern economics' and a Brit. It was he who heralded the virtues of free trade and capitalism. His centuries-old philosophies have been carried on by British Prime Ministers, causing the turmoil we face today.
The British, and more specifically Gordon Brown, have been the root cause of several financial meltdowns recently. Iceland's economic bust, for example, can be directly traced back to Mr. Brown, who used antiterrorist laws to take over assets and operations of Kaupthing and Landsbanki, two Icelandic banks in the U.K. He then demanded the Icelandic government guarantee foreign deposits, causing Reykjavik to reimburse European savers up to €20,000 (causing a debt close to 100% of Iceland's GDP). Iceland has been left with a crumbling government and an uncertain future. This, however, has not discouraged Gordon Brown's megalomaniacal ways, as he went on to proclaim, in front of the House of Commons, that England had "saved the world."
Now Mr. Brown is facing his very own economic meltdown, as England is in woeful financial shape (and is even threatening to default). The blame for the crisis comes from sheer greed. For decades, they have been reaping the benefits of being a hub for the world's capital. This enabled them to build London into a financial mecca, allowing foreign companies to take over with no political obstructions. With many foreign institutions relying on the strength of the British economy, its unraveling has a worldwide effect, which could result in a catastrophe bigger than any in modern history.
British greed has put the world in a calamitous predicament — one that they are entirely responsible for mending. To that end, The International Coalition for British Reparations has called for the British government to pay £35,160,000,000,000 in reparations to the citizens of the world.
I do hope they sent a copy to "Occupant", 10 Downing St, London... I also note that given the current collapsing valuation of the pound £35,160,000,000,000 will probably be enough to allow a Zimbabwean to buy a crumb of bread in another couple of months.