Monday, April 25, 2005

Real Estate Bubble in Iraq?

  • In a sign of growing economic confidence, the real estate prices in Baghdad are on the way up:
    Residential real estate prices in Iraq's capital have quadrupled in many parts of the city, says Ali al-Difaie, 54, manager of a government office that processes property deeds. Difaie and real estate agents say the rise is driven by an increase in income since the U.S.-led invasion two years ago and the liberalization of building and property laws... Statistics are hard to come by, but Difaie says an average 3,000-square-foot home in Baghdad's upscale Mansour district sells for $300,000 now. That is four times the Saddam-era prices. Prices are similar in other middle-class neighborhoods around the capital, Difaie says.
  • The prices have initially risen following the liberation, but then were driven down by the security problems. Following the January election and improving security situation, the trend is up again.

Sad way to start the week

London - A 20-year-old Scottish woman is suing a hospital where she had an abortion in 2001 after one of her twins survived the operation.

Stacy Dow, who is raising her now three-year-old daughter Jayde with her parents, said late on Sunday she is seeking £250 000 (nearly R3m) to cover the costs of raising the child.

"I have got a child now that I wasn't planning to have and I believe the hospital should take some responsibility for that," she said.

She said the hospital in Perth, Scotland where she had her operation had failed "to take reasonable care to establish that the termination had been successful".

Dow was 16 when she learned in early 2001 that she was pregnant and immediately decided to have an abortion.

Although the operation was declared a success, she realised several weeks later after visiting a doctor that she was still pregnant with one of her twins.

She then gave birth in August of that year.

In a similar case in 2001, a 36-year-old mother from Stafford in central England received £10 000 compensation under an amicable agreement with a surgeon who had failed to end her pregnancy.

In that case too one of a pair of twins survived the operation.

Friday, April 22, 2005

A blog recommendation

I just read this blog from Ali in Iraq and I recommend it for those wishing to understand how Iraqis think.

Start your day right

Once in a while you get such a wonderful start on your day that you almost want to go buy lottery tickets. Today was such a day for me. One of the first articles I read today reported on a prank by three MIT students. They developed a computer program that produces academic gibberish. The program generates sentences taken from real papers but it leaves many words out and replaces them randomly with buzzwords common in computer sciences. It then adds meaningless charts and graphs. This in itself is just delightful, but these students actually got such a paper accepted at the Ninth World Multi-Conference on Systematics, Cybernetics and Infomatics scheduled to be held in Orlando in July. The title of the 4 page paper was "Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy".
The conference has been the victim before. An Australian computer scientist described 3 papers which were accepted in 2002. One submission juxtaposed lines from two different papers and another tried to sabotage itself by stating the proposed method "does not work at all".
When word of the hoax reached the symposium organizers they refunded the $390 fee the students paid to attend the meeting and have the paper published in the proceedings. One of the organizers stated that he doubted the paper fooled anyone who actually read it. I love it.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Dissatisfaction with NCLB

I am certainly no expert on the details of the President's educational package known as "No Child Left Behind", but I am beginning to read more and more that makes me doubt it is such a good deal for this country. As I understand the logic of the legislation, the schools are to show progress in the testing results of all children in various schools in order to avoid the dreaded label of "non-performing". That certainly makes good sense at first blush. Now that it has been in effect for awhile, however, the education establishment is beginning to howl that certain groups are holding them back because they are not performing through no fault of the wonderful teachers, administrators, school boards, etc. If children from poor neighborhoods with poor parents, children with learning disabilities, and other sub-groups of students were not included, the test scores would be just fine, thank you. One might have predicted such a response by the failing teachers and schools, but now we have a problem with the Bush administration going wobbly, it seems. The new Secretary of Education, Margret Spellings, was recently quoted thusly:"From now on, more students with academic disabilities will be allowed to take tests that are specifically geared to their abilities...". This sounds to me like gobbledegook that means lazy or unintelligent children will no longer be held to the same standards as industrious ones and the tests will be dumbed down so everyone can pass. If that is the case we have a situation where the emphasis is on raising the lower echelon of student and none on helping the gifted students which this country is going to count on to lead this country in every way. If we don't devise a way to avoid a stifling of our gifted students in early grades, this country is going to suffer greatly. Furthermore, the students who have been the recipient of an artificial support system in the educational system will eventually be required to compete in a real world where they will hopefully be judged on achievement rather than activity. Hope I am wrong.

The Georgia SAT Adjustment

The education establishment in Georgia and other states in the South is embarrassed yearly by the relative deficiency in the scores of our students who take the SAT. School systems have come up with all manner of ways to excuse and defend this situation, but now they seem to have the answer which I understand other states have previously adopted. Our University system consists of some 26 institutions of higher education and from now on students will no longer have to have a SAT score to be admitted to some 15 of these schools. If you have a C average and tuition money, you can get in these schools. This solves all sorts of problems. Students who show little academic preparation can now be counselled to simply pass on the SAT experience and go straight to college where their deficiencies will presumably be addressed in a less public fashion. After all, a healthy minority of our enrollees into our very pestigious University of Georgia needs remedial work to overcome lack of preparation by our public schools now. Our high schools will not produce a higher quality product but I would look for our relative SAT scores to increase nicely and everyone will feel a lot better.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

The Bolton Affair

The President has nominated John Bolton to be the Ambassador to the U.N. and the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee has failed to confirm his appointment so it can go to the full Senate. Best I can tell, his greatest sin according to the public comments from the democrats is that over the past 11 years, he was abusive to people who worked below him on the organization chart at the Department of State. He yelled at someone and in another case he asked that a guy who had lied to him about some intelligence report be transferred so he wouldn't be around Bolton anymore. Nobody can argue that a boss who is abusive to his underlings is a good guy, but some of the senators who are particularily excercised by Bolton's behavior (like Senator Dodd) were highly supportive of President Clinton of Monica Lewinsky fame. Maybe you can argue that their relationship wasn't abusive. The real problem, of course, is that Bolton is not a great fan of the way the U.N. has functioned and has suggested as much publically. Liberals can't stand that.

My conclusion on Pope Benedict is getting stronger

A homosexual advocacy group expressed "concern" that Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, "does not present a hopeful vision of the future or inspire optimism for affirming language, policies or outreach."

Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) noted that Ratzinger "authored a Vatican document condemning marriage and adoption by gay men and lesbians in July 2003."

A reminder from Glenn Reynolds

Sixty years after the end of World War II, there are still 62,000 American troops in Europe. They are stationed in 236 bases, including 13 training areas. The force has been reduced considerably over the years, especially after the Cold War ended in 1991, leaving over a quarter million American troops in Europe. But in 2015 there will still be 24,000 American troops over there, in 88 bases, and using four training areas. The 1st Infantry Division will return from Europe in 2006, and the 1st Armored Division will go home in 2008. Both of these units were originally sent to Europe in 1942. The only major combat unit that will remain in Europe will be the 173rd Airborne Brigade, which is stationed in northern Italy.
This is all because Ike went in without an exit strategy.

Habemus Papam

I don't use much Latin in my blog so the title of this one is a first. Since I am not Catholic, I do not have much knowledge of that religion's heirarchy so my ability to comment on Pope Benedict XVI is limited. It is hard not to notice all the interest in his selection by the news media who posted reporters in Rome to report on the color of smoke. For these reasons, I am pretty much a spectator and do not have much in the way of an opinion on the choice made by the 115 old men who gathered in the Cistine Chapel. Slowly, but surely, however, I am beginning to conclude they made a good choice. It certainly seems to be upsetting to the New York Times and others who make up the main stream media. It would be hard to find a better contraindicator than that.

Sunday, April 17, 2005

Technical Assistance

Much of the past couple of days was spent on an effort to install a wireless router in our beach house so we can use the laptop downstairs where it is cooler in the summer and often more convenient than our loft where the computer is located. The first problem I had was with what I assumed to be Bell South who provides our DSL broadband service. It seemed to me that the modem wasn't working so I called their help number and before it was over I had talked to 2 of their phone representatives who gave me very detailed instructions to make changes in my computer and modem intended to solve my problem. Each of them was well-intentioned and mostly competent but there was a problem. I couldn't understand either of them since they were Indians from India and maybe in India for all I know. So, I spent the better part of 2 hours trying to hold on to the phone receiver, type, make attachment changes in the wiring of the modem, and react to instructions from someone speaking with an accent so strong I had to repeatedly ask him to repeat what he had just said. After all that, they came to the wrong conclusion and I made two trips of 45 miles each into Charleston to get computer attachments which later proved unnecessary when another Indian working for Cisco Systems solved my problem with dispatch and less of an accent than the other two at Bell South. Or maybe I am just understanding them better. At any rate, I sure do wish we could get English-speaking workers who had expertise in computer technology to work for what ever these companies pay persons who provide this service.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A "scientific" anniversary

Thirty years ago this month, Newsweek reported: "There are ominous signs that the Earth's weather patterns have begun to change dramatically and that these changes may portend a drastic decline in food production -- with serious political implications for just about every nation on Earth. The drop in food output could begin quite soon, perhaps only 10 years from now." The headline? "The Cooling World." That's right: Just 30 years ago, scaremongers were telling us about global cooling . The alarmists never stop. Reminds me of Y2K fears.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Mark Steyn

One of the best columnists out there with far too little public awareness is Mark Steyn who writes for the Chicago Sun-Times. His latest can be read here.

This is just a sample of the column which deals with our CIA and its problems.

The CIA, as I wrote a couple of years back, now functions in the same relation to President Bush as Pakistan's ISI does to General Musharraf. In both cases, before the chief executive makes a routine request of his intelligence agency, he has to figure out whether they're going to use it as an opportunity to set him up, and if so how. For Musharraf, the problem is the significant faction in the ISI that would like to kill him. Fortunately for Bush, if anyone at the CIA launched a plot to kill him, they'd probably take out G. W. Bish, who runs a feed store in Idaho.

Monday, April 11, 2005

The great bake sale kurfuffle

I am at an age where I am often the recipient of favors based not on some deserving characteristic, but only because of my age. Senior discounts are widely accepted even though they make very little sense for most of us and younger persons should find them objectionable. If you set up a business where you gave seniors some kind of preference, nobody would raise an objection. What if you started a restaurant where you gave a discount to armed service members? Again, no objections. Lower prices for children? No problem. Lower prices for blacks? Higher prices for Asians? Might be some comment there, but you would get a large black customer base relative to Asians, but the lawyers would most likely not get too excited. Black preferences are pretty much accepted today. We have had preferences for a long time in education and the black power base guards them tenaciously. All this makes it hard to understand why the administrations at numerous institutions of higher education (Northwestern and SMU, for example) are in a state of high dungeon fighting the bake sales on campus which sell cookies and cakes to blacks for less than the price charged to whites and Asians. This is called hate "speech" and a threat to campus tranquility. And, of course, any discussion of the difference between admission preferences and cookie preferences is strictly avoided.

Saturday, April 09, 2005

More on Hagel

I have been doing some more reading on the personal accounts portion of Senator Hagel's social security proposal. If it passes, those workers age 44 and younger would have two choices. The first would be to take 4% of their payroll tax and put it into one of the investment choices currently in the Federal Thrift Plan. i am not sure if the worker can use more than one and when or if he can switch out of his choice into another, but they have that worked out for federal employees. The other choice is to simply elect the current social security system. A wrinkle I just learned of should answer some of the critics of the personal accounts. At retirement, the worker would be required to convert a portion of the retirement account into an annuity which when combined with the traditional Social Security benefit would pay the worker an amount which is at least 135% of the poverty level. The remainder of the account could be used to help with health care costs, pay college tuition for grandchildren, help children with a home purchase or simply retained for heirs. All of this seems reasonable to me, so it probably is doomed to be ignored.

Friday, April 08, 2005

A Math Lesson

I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal today that was a little depressing in that it really made me wish I hadn't avoided math so successfully when there was another option. This article discussed the fact that the prime number theory, called the "Reimann Hypothesis" was getting closer to being proved. This was advanced in 1859 by Bernhard Reimann and is now considered the most important unsolved problem in mathematics. There is even a $1 million prize to whomever proves it. Well, I am no threat to get the million since I can't even understand why they care if it is proved or not and I am also unable to understand the theory and the significance of prime numbers. One thing I read largely prevented me from studying the problem further. In her discussion, Sharon Begley made the point that there is an infinite number of prime numbers. O.K., I can accept that. But then she said the problem is "how big is that infinity?" Whoa. So now she is telling me some infinities are larger than others? Yes, and as an example she says the number of numbers divisible by 2 is infinite and so is the number of numbers divisible by 9. The first infinity is larger than the second. Furthermore, there is an infinite number of squares (4,9,16, etc) and cubes (8,27, 64, etc), but there are more primes than either of these infinite numbers. Here I am 66 years old and now they are telling me infinity is not just one big number out there somewhere. I pause here to think about all this.

The Hagel Plan

A good friend asked me what I thought of the Social Security plan advanced by Senator Hagel of Nebraska. I was vaguely aware that he had put forth one but knew nothing of its content, so I agreed to look at it. The details can be read here.
The plan is distinctive in that it is the only one out there. Bush doesn't have one and the dems certainly don't have one to compare with Sen. Hagel's, so about all one can do is look at the plan itself. The first thing every casual reader will notice is the retirement age would be raised to 68 from 67 in 2023. That is something the liberal demogogues will focus on in order to kowtow to their labor support, but it really is not too onerous since Hagel would leave the option to start getting benefits at age 62 for those who want to retire from labor intensive employment. They would get 63% of full benefits rather than the 70% that I get, however. Another feature of the Hagel plan is to revise the way Social Security benefits are calculated. We now use the wages earned over a 35 year period (up to a rising maximum) and the wage rate of current workers to determine benefit levels. Hagel would add a factor which accounted for what we can predict will be a rising life expectancy for the general population. This simply makes actuarial sense and is one of the problems the system faces now. Here again, the demogogues will protest in full throat that Hagel is going to reduce your benefits. That is true and inevitable if you don't have something to supplement your retirement funds. That is also why he proposes retirement accounts be made an OPTION for young workers (under 45 years old). It is the latter which the liberals oppose so vehemently. Hagel anticipates this and lays out in considerable specificity how the retirement accounts would work and they are largely proposed to mimic the ones now available to government workers via the Federal Thrift Saving Plans. There would be a Board which would manage the accounts and negotiate low administrative fees which should be low since the worker's money would only go into index funds which are naturally low fee ways to invest. In essence, the money would go into funds which invest in either stocks, bonds or a combination of both with very low risk profiles. Hagel even proposes a Default Account which would invest in say 80% stocks and 20% bonds when you are young and in later years would slide toward a more conservative mix of say 35% bonds and 65% bonds. The investment examples which Hagel gives have 10 year average returns of 5.45% to 11.9%, but his projections like all the others I have seen under estimate the potential of such accounts by ignoring the mathematical advantage over simple averages which are provided by dollar cost averaging. When you put a constant amount from your paycheck into a pool of money with unit costs which vary over time, you wind up buying more shares in the fund when stocks or bonds are down and fewer shares when they are up. Over a 30-40 year period, this can have an almost magical enhancement that is exceeded only by the phenomenon of compounding. Bush doesn't have the communication skills required to explain this to the country and the average individual is too ignorant of math to appreciate it, but if everyone did understand these positive aspects of investing, nobody could be against private accounts except liberals who don't want you to have any control over any aspect of your life except abortion.
In conclusion, I think the Hagel plan is quite reasonable in that it recognizes that something has to be done which lowers the benefits or increases the income for Social Security. His plan opts to decrease benefits slightly in the distant future and allows the worker to invest in himself and his or her heirs via a personal account which will more than make up for the reduced benefits. Since the amount you put into Social Security is now a tax (the money goes into the general revenues) the liberals will want to raise that rather than reduce benefits which are offset by investments. Another reason the liberals are so against private accounts, and you won't see this written down in a lot of places, is they know that their base is too stupid to opt in to something to provide intelligently for their retirement.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Obituary Lapse?

You have to search really hard to find any mention of the Cardinal Bernard Law matter in any of Pope John Paul's obituaries and career accounts. A few years ago, it seemed quite probable that Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston would have to face trial for his appalling collusion in the child-rape racket that his diocese had been running. The man had knowingly reassigned dangerous and sadistic criminals to positions where they would be able to exploit the defenseless. He had withheld evidence and made himself an accomplice, before and after the fact, in the one offense that people of all faiths and of none have most united in condemning. The church that has allowed no latitude in its teachings on masturbation, premarital sex, birth control, and divorce suddenly asks for understanding and "wiggle room" for the most revolting crime on the books. Cardinal Law isn't going to face a court, now. He has fled the jurisdiction and lives in Rome where he continues his work on a board which allows him to contribute to the process of appointing diocesan bishops. I suppose the consequences of this seemingly abhorent situation and Pope John Paul's contribution to it is being handled at a higher level now.

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