Thursday, 31 May 2012

Only the poor go to jail

Albert V Bryan Federal District Courthouse - Alexandria Va - 0016 - 2012-03-10
Blind Justice
Photo by dctim1
Read this: Woman Who Couldn’t Be Intimidated by Citigroup Wins $31 Million. Basically, it's widespread fraud documented at Citigroup. They admitted wrongdoing and paid $158.3 million to settle the claims. From the article:
Citigroup isn’t the only bank that’s been held accountable for processing bad mortgages. In February, Charlotte, North Carolina-based Bank of America Corp. settled a false-claims case with the government for $1 billion, without admitting wrongdoing. 
In May, Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG agreed to pay $202.3 million for endorsing unqualified mortgages for FHA insurance, and admitted wrongdoing.
Nobody went to jail. They're part of the problem that caused the financial collapse in America. Nobody went to jail.

Meanwhile, Iceland is arresting their bankers who caused their country's economy to collapse.

Meanwhile, a California man is facing life in prison for theft of $21 dollars worth of goods.

Meanwhile, another California man is facing life in prison for allegedly stealing 50 cents worth of donuts.

Is this the criminal "justice" system you want, America?

Update: and I just found this story about a current Senator being allowed to walk away from a bad mortgage and avoid paying a quarter of a million dollars to his troubled bank. No, that doesn't look odd. It doesn't look odd at all. It looks corrupt.

Monday, 21 May 2012

American Hypocricy

So everybody is upset that Eduardo Saverin, who:
  • Was temporarily a US citizen
  • Living in Singapore
  • Paid hundreds of millions of dollars in an "exit tax"
  • Is Brazilian
  • And financed an American company (Facebook) with his Brazilian wealth
... and decided to give up his US citizenship.

People claim it's because he's trying to skip taxes, ignoring the fact that the situation is far, for more complicated than it appears on the surface.

However, I don't see too many people exhibiting righteous anger that multi-billionaire Mark Zuckerberg may never pay taxes again.

Now Boehner is talking about supporting the "expat tax" against people who give up their US citizenship. When the number of Americans renouncing their citizenship is hovering (worst case scenario) around 0.0006% percent, most of those Americans are middle-class (i.e., non-wealthy) and you can probably count on both hands the number of rich people who give up US citizenship, is this really the best use of the resources of the US government?

Know your meme, baby!
Of course it is! The US economy is falling to pieces, China is likely to become the global superpower, and the US can't get it up, so let's use a little class envy to distract the masses! Hell, 48% of America is now classified as poor, so there's an excellent chance that honesty isn't going to help any politician get elected. America has hit the iceberg and now they're rearranging the deck chairs (the US might pull out of this slump, so perhaps a Titanic comparison isn't appropriate, but I'm not sure I like what America is turning into).

Getting back to Saverin: does anyone remember the Universal Declaration of Human Rights that the US signed? Look at Article 15 (2): No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his nationality nor denied the right to change his nationality.

What? Been watching Fox News and deciding that's a little bit too hippy for you? Consider the Expatriation Act of 1868 (remember your history kids: many of our founding fathers were still alive, kicking, and churning out laws). The preamble to that Act reads:
The right of expatriation is a natural and inherent right of all people, indispensable to the enjoyment of the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Ooh! Take that, Boehner!

Well, not that he'll give a damn. After all, this isn't about setting sound policy. It's about flogging the polls for a few points. There is nothing rational about this. If we were rational, we would be crafting laws that don't allow mega-rich Americans to dodge taxes, not punish the one or two wealthy people who decide to trade in their citizenship.

Or you can read this interesting article by Peter Dunn, where he explains the issues in detail.

So whatever your feelings on this topic are, just remember that Saverin has done something completely legal, just as has Zuckerberg. We hate the former not because he may have legally avoided some taxes (he didn't, but we'll skip that for now), but because we think this Brazilian living in Singapore who helped found a US company with his Brazilian fortune is somehow a traitor. No one is going to give a damn about Zuckerberg not because he's following the law (so was Saverin), but because he doesn't appear to be spitting on the flag.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

Congress may authorize propaganda against US public

Frederic Guimont
You've probably never heard of the Smith-Mundt Act. This was a law passed in 1948 which basically authorized the US to engage in propaganda efforts around the world. If you've not heard of this act, then you definitely don't know that it prohibits propaganda being directed against Americans.

Of course, if you're politically aware, you know that claiming there is no propaganda inside the US's borders is laughable. Hell, US advertising is not permitted to lie but the US news explicitly is. The US is bombarded with propaganda day and night. For example, if you've heard of the plans to punish the Brazilian Eduardo Saverin for giving up his US citizenship, it's almost guaranteed that you don't know the entire story. It's very complicated and has to do with how America is hunting down and punishing Americans for living outside her borders. Nonetheless, two politicians are using this as a political goldmine for milking poll results by punishing expatriates.

Of course, you probably also don't know about Donald Rumsfeld's plan, with the Pentagon, to allow foreign psychological operations (psy-ops) material to be distributed in the US, so long as it doesn't "target" Americans, thus finessing the language of the Smith-Mundt Act.

Today, Rep. Mac Thornberry from Texas and Rep. Adam Smith of Washing have introduced a bill to lift the domestic propaganda ban. From the article:
The new law would give sweeping powers to the State Department and Pentagon to push television, radio, newspaper, and social media onto the U.S. public. “It removes the protection for Americans,” says a Pentagon official who is concerned about the law. “It removes oversight from the people who want to put out this information. There are no checks and balances. No one knows if the information is accurate, partially accurate, or entirely false.” 
According to this official, “senior public affairs” officers within the Department of Defense want to “get rid” of Smith-Mundt and other restrictions because it prevents information activities designed to prop up unpopular policies—like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My prediction? If this doesn't pass this time, it will pass in the future. In a world where most Americans don't care that Obama authorized the murder of an American (which was subsequently carried out to great fanfare), when the Bush Administration announced they would spy against Americans, and the Obama administration happily continues to spy against Americans, it should be no surprise that politicians are finally going public with the desire to publicly spread disinformation against Americans.

It's beginning to feel like America has given up. Waging perpetual war against communists, terrorists, Eurasia, disloyal Americans, someone seems to be enough to keep the masses terrified enough of something to ensure that no one questions National Security.

Saturday, 12 May 2012

No, this isn't really funny

Update: It turns out that yes, she is mentally ill.

People have been replaying this for laughs:





Actually, I feel sorry for this woman. She's clearly nuts and the guy behind her is cracking up. She starts off with claiming ABC show Wipeout is “produced in Holland by gays, bis, and orgiers who like to see “people perishing.”

I have to confess that I was laughing at this. Her completely random and ludicrous remarks (by the way: all bisexuals go insane) sent me roaring. But then ugly reality reared its head and I realized that there are some people who would be swayed by her remarks. They're the same people who, back about 40 or so years ago, would have vehemently objected to me marrying my (black) wife. It's painful to see this.

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Is Europe's austerity a bad idea?

Kalypso Nikolaidis - EU
Photo by openDemocracy
So CNN has an article entitled European voters revolt against austerity, cuts. Here's a telling sentence from it:
The French turfed out the president who wanted to make them more competitive and less indebted — and voted for a candidate pledged to reversing the recent rise in the retirement age.
Hmm, "turfed out"? Actually, both candidates want to make France more competitive and less indebted, but they have radically different ideas about how to do this and painting Hollande, the new President of France, as simply being about for raising the retirement age, is a grotesque oversimplification. Of course, Hollande hasn't been forthcoming in how he's going to pay for many of his ideas and this has been one of the strongest criticisms against him.

Now think about political campaigns: how often do you find politicians say how they're going to pay for their programs? They generally don't because it turns out that people like when politicians provide services and "turf out" politicians who take away those services. Thus, as soon as a candidate says "I'm going to pay for X by taking money from Y", if Y is insignificant, he's not taken seriously. If Y is significant, he's just lost a huge block of voters! Keep telling people up front on how you plan to pay for things (vague promises of "cutting the pork" or "eliminating inefficiencies" don't count) and you lose an election. Better to take criticism for vague promises than specific threats.

But what is Hollande about? What are many Europeans about when they reject austerity? (Note that austerity, as it's typically preached, focuses on cutting spending and ignores the possibility of raising taxes). On its surface, if you blame the financial crisis on governments run amok and overspending, austerity sound great. Except that it's worth asking what an economic downturn is.

In an economic downturn, people are obviously spending less money. What money? Where did it go? It didn't disappear, but you might be forgiven for thinking that. Instead, the money is still there, but people aren't spending it. Paul Krugman (love him or hate him) actually gives a great explanation of this in his Baby-Sitting the Economy article on Slate.com.

If the money is not gone, why are people spending it less? Because they're afraid that with the downturn, they won't have a chance to earn it back. Small business owners have been skeptical of receiving tax breaks in the US because, as they've pointed out, there's no reason for them to reinvest this money to produce more output that people are not buying. Companies don't hire more employees during a recession. Businesses don't start ordering more raw supplies. Many argue that lower interest rates make borrowing more attractive and will help the economy recover, but the Fed slashed interest rates to an all-time low back in 2009 and the US economy is still struggling badly.

What happens is that when an economy turns down enough, the individual actors in the private sector cannot take the risk to increase spending and it takes aggregate behavior to change this. This aggregate behavior won't come from the private sector any more than the private sector would provide the US interstate highway system (which was a huge financial success, but not in a way that a private company could manage it). Thus, there's a clear role for government to step in and get the economy going again.

Which gets back to why people hate austerity. They hate it because it means they're getting fewer services for their taxes. However, more and more economists hate it because an economic downturn means fewer people are spending money and austerity reinforces the lack of spending. Get that? What needs to happen when the economy is so moribund is to jump-start the spending. You don't want to do this forever, though, because when times are good, you need to stop jump-starting and start cleaning up. When times are good is when it's good to save. When times are bad you rely on those savings. However, when the economy recovers, politicians will again find themselves with the dilemma of cutting services being very unpopular. Intelligently managing an economy is very difficult in the face of a democracy (note: this is not an attack on democracy, it's an observation of one of its problems).

In his new book, End this Depression Now!, Paul Krugman argues forcefully that austerity in an economic downturn only exacerbates the problem. Unfortunately for his critics, he has a host of both current and historical examples to back him up. Sadly, religionomics guarantees that people will sooner follow their beliefs than look at the facts and since Krugman has been labeled a socialist but since many Americans have no idea what socialism is but nonetheless hate it fiercely, getting tarred with that brush means many people simply won't listen to you.

The world is going to have to experience a lot more pain before they get beyond where they are now and, sadly, they're probably going to forget this lesson soon. For now, though, the people have spoken and are looking for growth opportunities instead of mindless and painful austerity programs.

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Who the hell is Ovid?

Your author on a ferry to Dublin, Ireland
I live in Les Lilas, a suburb of Paris, France, with my wife and daughter. I'm an American who's lived in five countries, have a fairly popular How to become an expat blog, an incomprehensible programming blog, one book on Perl Hacks and a Beginning Perl book on the way. "Ovid" is a nickname I picked up a long time ago and that's how most people know me online.

What I no longer have, though, is a personal blog. Given that my expat and technical blogs are, for obvious reasons, constrained to expat and technical issues, I have to be careful about what I write there. I'm tired of that. I want to be able to say "fuck" without offending more people than usual. I want to feel free to rant about the idiocies of economics, politics, or ramble on about dreams of being a writer.

My wife and daughter at a park in Paris
And so here we are. My old LiveJournal account is exclusively dedicated today to pointing people to my expat blog and returning there would be awful. Who still uses LJ? I'll probably repost some of my more memorable posts from LJ to this blog, such as how I caught my identity thieves, a story that went viral back in 2005.

In short, I'm going back to being able to write what I want, when I want. Damn, that feels good.

How the Record Companies Can Survive

If you're here, you've probably heard about me through the Overseas Exile blog about "how to move to a foreign country." Or maybe my tech blog. However, I've repeatedly found that I often want to write without being constrained to expat or technical issues. My LiveJournal account is an awful choice as they're dying. Thus, my new blog where I can write what I will.

For a long time people have struggled with issues with the recording industry's attempts to remain relevant while hunting people down and using bogus RIAA lawsuits against them and ignoring Fair Use claims. The problem, in a nutshell, is that the world economy is transforming into an information economy and the music industry views themselves as a manufacturing industry. But music is ultimately not a physical product; it's a product that is perfectly suited for the information economy.

recording
This is what it's all about.
Photo by Andre Savastano
The music industry has been struggling to figure out how to reinvent itself for the digital age but it turns out this is fairly easy once you understand what's actually going on. Not only will this help to keep the record companies in business, it will make the artists happier, too.

I am currently writing a new book on the Perl Programming language. My publisher paid me a sum of money, they provide editorial support, and I'm currently finishing the writing of the 17th out of 19 chapters. Once that's done, we'll finish some editorial tasks, complete the book's pre-production work and send it off to the printer. Then it will be marketed, distributed to bookstores, pitched to universities as a textbook and hopefully I'll earn more money. I know how to write. The rest of that stuff I don't know how to do. For a band hoping to get their big break, they're more or less in the same situation.

If you want, you can read about how record labels work and while the industry is different, the overall structure is the same. It's important to note that this is not what the music industry was in the past, not is it what it will be in the future. Currently the music industry is using the massive sledgehammer of lawsuits and lobbying politicians for legislation to protect their business model. If there is anything which could be seen as "anti-capitalist", it's industries demanding the government intervene in the market on their behalf, but there you go.

Mozart was an exception.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.
There was a time when being a musician wasn't a viable career opportunity. You might play locally, or, if you were really lucky or good, you might get a patron. Having the success of Mozart was simply unheard of. The recording industry changed that due to their comprehensive coverage of finding talent, producing their work, handling legal issues, distributing their work, marketing their work, developing related merchandise, arranging tours, and so on. So what would be an alternative to that industry?

Louis CK earned over a million dollars by producing his latest comedy album and selling it directly to the public via his Web site. He also did an AMA ("Ask Me Anything") on Reddit where Louis CK explained his Internet experiment.

Think about that: a million dollars. He's stated that he earned more by marketing that directly than by going through a studio. Many other artists have been trying this route, with varying degrees of success. In fact, one author took famed science fiction novelist Charles Stross to task on a post Stross made about the book industry, claiming that the publishing industry isn't necessary and that authors could make more money by publishing their ebooks directly. Stross destroyed him in a very telling response that is the key to how the music (and perhaps book) industries can reinvent themselves in the digital era:
Charles Stross
Charles Stross
Photo by theNerdPatrol
Rubbish. There's this concept called "division of labour" that I'd like to remind you of; if I had to run my own self-publishing op I'd lose half my writing time to what is essentially a peripheral activity (from my point of view).
And that's the key to how the Recording Industry can reinvent itself to survive.

Imagine that your Brave New Band is writing incredible music but stuck playing gigs in cheap pubs, enjoying the aroma of stale beer and the complete lack of groupies. Nobody buys your t-shirts because nobody knows who you are. However, you're good enough that one of your demo tapes has interested a label and they want you to sign. Being rather savvy, you're aware of how record labels can gross a million dollars putting out your work and you can wind up eating rice and beans in a run-down studio flat in London. What do you do? Shoot for fame with a label, risk losing creative control and still being broke? Or go it your own way?

That's where the music industry can reinvent itself. Mass producing a physical copy of the music, shipping it to stores, and suing the hell out of everyone who might "infringe" on their work is very expensive and in many cases, counter-productive. On the other hand, my wife recently paid €12 to download an album rather than pay €70 (!) for a physical copy. She wanted the music, not some daft cover art she could download for free anyway. She is happy to pay for the music, but she doesn't want to pay for all of the rest of the overhead (and she recently lost her entire music collection when her computer crashed and she's rather bitter about the cost of paying for it again).

So let the music industry handle the one area they can do: marketing. Let the musicians handle what they can do: music.

Money
Marketing costs money
Photo by 401K
So what makes this different? Think about how I mentioned my book working. I didn't pay anyone to market my book because my publisher is handling that. Similarly, I see a rise in music marketing companies coming along and telling artists: you produce the music any way you want and we'll handle marketing and sales via the Internet. Forget about music stores, physical copies of the music or even DRM. People are willing to pay for reasonably priced music and DRM hurts sales. If an artist wants to "go it alone", they either handle the marketing themselves (something that few people are really good at), or they're faced with paying exorbitant costs to marketing agencies.

If the music company is willing to back artists and pick up the tab on marketing for a cut of the sales, everyone wins by specializing in what they're good at.

Of course, the music industry isn't willing to reduce themselves to music marketing specialists. They want complete control over every aspect of the music, touring, merchandising, production, distribution and marketing. And they're willing to sue the hell out of anyone who stands in their way. The sooner they realize this, the sooner they can start exploring new possibilities in business. The old music industry is dying and the new music industry is beginning to emerge. The artists win, the music industry can win and the consumers can win.