Monday, November 15, 2010

After stumbling with WordPress the first time, I have decided to go ahead and relocate this blog. I just kinda enjoy working with WordPress better...

The address of my new blog is and I look forward to blathering some more at you there!

Friday, October 15, 2010

Follow-up to the last post. That guy whose house got foreclosed on even though he never, you know, actually had a mortgage on it, is named Jason Grodensky. And as for the financial élite which is running civilization into the ground? Well, read all about it.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

For Which They Scam

It may come as a surprise to some (it certainly would have surprised myself of a year ago), but I have developed an interest in the financial news recently. Don't get too excited, it's not as though I'm going to become an investor or start wheeling and dealing – at least not any time soon, not with my head for business or lack thereof. It has simply become increasingly clear to me that anyone who really wants to understand what happens in our society has to pay attention to the business news, because that's where most of the real decision-making power actually is.

Now, as a loyal Canadian, I know I'm supposed to get all excited over whether or not Canada gets a seat on the UN Security Council (apparently not). On the other hand, everyone knows that decisions made in Washington, D.C. are at least as likely to affect our lives up here as anything that comes out of Ottawa. The fact is, for sheer spectacle, even in the heavily polarized Harper era our politics can't hold a candle to the bloodsport on the Potomac. Mea culpa.

That said, I can't be alone in seeing the signs coming out of the States as increasingly ominous, even threatening. It looks like the next phase of the financial crisis is upon us, and just like last time, it's in the U.S. mortgage industry. Everyone thought it would be balloon payments in commercial real estate, but no, apparently that's still to come. Instead, it's more fallout from the subprime mortgage bubble that we all know and love. As I understand it, what it boils down to is this. We all know the familiar story of how, during the bubble years, mortgage originating companies would sell mortgages to anyone with a pulse and then flip these mortgages to the banks, pocketing the difference plus their fees and walking away from the loan. The banks would then issue securities to investors, theoretically backed by these mortgages against real estate that was appreciating seemingly without end. Of course, this broke the relationship between lending and actually expecting to get paid back, which is why there are so many bad mortgages out there.

Now that the bubble has burst, lots of American homeowners either can't make their payments, or don't want to because they owe more than the house is worth (they have negative equity). Something has to happen to all those mortgages: either the homeowner manages to renegotiate, or the mortgage gets foreclosed on. And here's the rub: The foreclosure process is massively, jaw-droppingly corrupt and fraudulent. To be specific, there are two parts to a mortgage: the note, which is the IOU that legally establishes to whom the borrower actually owes the money; and the lien, which attaches the property that backstops the note in the event of non-payment. In 45 out of 50 U.S. states, only the note matters; the lien is, so to speak, just paperclipped to it. It seems that in the rush to sell as many mortgages as possible and fob them off to the Greater Fools at the banks, a lot of those mortgage originators – many of which don't even exist anymore – didn't bother to pass along the paperwork, namely the note. Untold numbers of mortgages are not clearly or correctly documented, meaning that not only is title to the houses unclear (a fact which may be causing grief for unsuspecting homeowners for decades to come), but many, many, many foreclosures are being performed on behalf of parties whose right to foreclose is not legally established, supported by fraudulent documentation. Check out this video where U.S. congressman Alan Grayson picks up the story.

To sum up, it appears that the U.S. mortgage system, which has increasingly become the underpinning for their entire economy, is an unholy Mongolian Charlie Foxtrot of unspeakable, world-historical proportions. There is an appreciable chance that their financial system, which the federal government has already committed trillions to propping up, will seize up for the second time in as many years. And if you're a homeowner who's unlucky enough to get foreclosed on (even by mistake, as in the case of at least one guy who, for God's sake, paid CASH ON THE BARRELHEAD for his house – he didn't even have a mortgage!), the courts can simply steamroll over you, so it's bye-bye to the rule of law.

This brings me back to why I've been so focused on the financial news lately. Everyone knows about the global financial crisis, and everyone knows that, in theory, the recession of the past couple of years is over and we're in a recovery. But the fact is, the 'recovery' is anemic at best, a large part of the workforce may be out of work more or less permanently, and the financial crisis hasn't run more than a quarter of its course. What's more, if you believe some of the commentators I've been reading, the whole story of economic growth that began with the invention of modern banking four centuries ago has reached and passed its peak, and all that's left to us and our descendants is the downside and a future of ever-diminishing expectations. That part of the story is a bit too big and lofty even for the high-minded likes of me. But more and more, the story of our times looks like the story of democratic institutions being captured by big money interests, who don't care if they run our entire civilization into the ground, as long as they get paid. Exhibit A: Our friendly neighbour to the south, the banana republic, for which they scam.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

"Basic Religion Test Stumps Many Americans" -- Except atheists, that is.

I am an atheist, in a world of mostly theists, or at least of people who pay lip service to theism. As such, whenever I get into an argument with someone over religious belief, it behooves me to be humble and try not to come across as a ranting, obnoxious know-it-all, no matter how strongly I disagree with them. That's the kind of accusation theists level at PZ Myers, for example, all the time, and I see where they're coming from, even though I find myself agreeing with him pretty much all the time about pretty much everything. It's a matter of style, not substance: good manners don't cost anything, do they?

Well, just this one time, I want to crow a little bit about the results of a survey reported in today's New York Times. Quoting: "Researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life phoned more than 3,400 Americans and asked them 32 questions about the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life... Those who scored the highest were atheists and agnostics, as well as two religious minorities: Jews and Mormons." To be specific, atheists and agnostics were the highest-scoring group, correctly answering an average of 20.9 out of 32 questions. White evangelical Protestants (the likes of George W. Bush) came in at 17.6/32, while white Catholics (the way I was raised) got just about exactly half the questions right.

The more you know...

Monday, September 06, 2010

My universe got a little more bearable today... iTunes 10 is out, and the user interface has finally been revamped to be MUCH less sludgy and slow to respond. It used to be I could practically go get a coffee in between clicking a control and seeing the results. Of course, it would be much better still if Apple didn't force me to use their gatekeeping software for every last aspect of managing my iPhone, but them's the breaks. I actually much prefer Windows Media Player or even Winamp (far gone, alas, from its anarchic Nullsoft roots, but still cool) for music listening on my PC, but I end up using iTunes despite its shortcomings because it's the only way to manage my portable music library. Them's the breaks.

Hmmm! What with the financial meltdown, environmental degradation, the specter of peak oil and all the rest of it, there are fields of endeavor where we're still making progress, or trying to. Take astrophysics, for example. It turns out that the fine structure constant might not be a constant after all. Isn't that gnarly?

Okay, okay, I'll explain. The fine structure constant is what you get when you take the fundamental unit of electric charge (the charge on the electron), the fundamental unit of quantum size (the proportion of a photon's energy to its wavelength, aka Planck's constant), and the fundamental speed limit of the universe (the speed of light in a vacuum), then swizzle them all together in a single equation. The interesting thing is that all the units of measurement cancel each other out and leave behind... just... a number. Not a number of anything, mind you, just a plain, dimensionless number: 1÷137.036. This means it doesn't matter if you measure the speed of light, for example, in kilometers per second, furlongs per fortnight, or any other unit of length per J. Random unit of time: every unit on top of the fraction gets cancelled by an equivalent unit on the bottom of the fraction, and vice versa. The resulting number is a so-called coupling constant that precisely characterizes the relative strength or weakness of the forces that bind the universe together, or blow it apart, or whatever it is they do. Neat, huh?

Except it looks like the dang thing actually might not be a constant after all. If recent measurements are correct, the fine structure constant might be different in different areas of space and/or time. Most people won't care, but to a physicist, cosmologist, and/or interested layman like yours truly, the implications are more than slightly mind-blowing. For one thing, the physicists tell us that a difference of 4% or so in the fine structure constant is the difference between a universe in which matter, and therefore life, as we know it, can exist, and one where they can't. Given that fact, those same physicists have long wondered just how the heck the universe could be so fine-tuned that there are actually people living inside it. How did we get so lucky? More and more, it's starting to look like the same reason why no one's unlucky enough to live unprotected at the bottom of the ocean, or the heart of the sun, or in the vacuum of interstellar space: because anyone who finds themself in that position immediately stops living. In other words, the universe looks like it was made for us because we're inhabiting the one part of it where we could live at all. What we call the observable universe, with its stars, galaxies, planets, seahorses, Greek ruins, and so on, is looking more and more like just a little local pocket of an unimaginably greater one in most of which the existence of not only life as we understand it but matter itself is flat-out impossible. Ouch. Feel your mind expanding yet?

Monday, August 23, 2010

Warning: WordPress's iPad app is a worthless piece of horseshit. I just spent well over an hour writing and refining a blog post, which I then attempted to post. The program hung for long enough that I assumed the posting had failed, but it wouldn't respond to any clicks; so, to make something happen, I hit the button to return to the home screen and try again.

The local copy of my post was gone.

I went to my blog. The post wasn't there.

WordPress deleted my local copy before verifying a successful post. Result: Over an hour of work, lost. Fuck this shit. Back to Blogger.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

I've been thinking for a while of moving away from Blogger (actually, I've mostly been thinking of things other than my blog, as you can tell by my posting frequency). Looks like Lisa beat me to it, at least in theory -- in practice, it looks like new motherhood has taken precedence.

My new, experimental for now, blog location will be Hope to see you there!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Have a look at this post. It gives a rough cost-benefit comparison of the $8 billion invested in the Deepwater Horizon (the drilling rig responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill) versus an equal investment in offshore wind power generation. All I could think while reading was that I wanted to see The Onion do a spoof news report about an offshore wind spill. I'm picturing fake newscasters standing on a sunny beach sensationalizing about the horrors of clean and pleasant offshore breezes, etc. And sure enough, the poster ironically refers to a "windspill" a bit farther down. C'mon, Onion guys, you up for it?

Friday, April 30, 2010

Son of the Return of It Came From OFTAA Towers!

Sigh... It's Friday afternoon and I decided to treat myself to a few minutes' reading and relaxation beside the river before heading home after work. So I pull up stakes around 5:30 pm and lordy, I come home to an ambulance out front of the building. There's police and fire out there as well as I type this. I come in the side door, and as two paramedics wheel in a gurney with lifesaving equipment, there's a young fella there to describe the scene he found on the tenth floor: A guy sitting with his back to the wall, passed out, legs splayed in either direction, clutching a bottle of vodka -- dead to the world.

I am so through with this place. Enough already! I've already toured a couple of the buildings on Riverside east of Lauzon, and Shoreline Towers is looking especially good. Fingers crossed there are no nasty surprises.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

If you know me, you know of my fondness for consumer electronics. That's why shopping at has started to seem a bit like I've developed a mild gambling habit. They sell refurbs, closeouts, overstocks, liquidations, etc. and all kinds of other junk cheap-cheap-cheap. It's all great, as long as the stuff works and doesn't fall apart five minutes after you get it out the door, but... well,  remember that old adage, "It's cheap for a reason."

If they accepted returns, or exchanges on non-defective products, they'd have to charge more and then they'd just be another store. And I really try to not take it personally when they oh-so-respectfully ask me to leave my backpack behind the front counter. But... Maybe I should gamble a stamp and risk an addiction to exercise instead? Isometrics don't cost any money to perform, do they?

A haiku:

I am self-obsessed
My white earphones scream "douchebag!"
I own an iPhone

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

So the iPad overheats in sunlight and has spotty and unreliable WiFi. I'm told I can't tether it to the 3G coverage I'm already paying for on the iPhone - I have to *COUGH*jailbreak*COUGH* pay all over again. (In fairness, I don't know yet if this applies to Rogers/Fido.) And, there seems to be no such thing as a legitimate movie-, TV- or music-streaming app that can be used in Canada: Hulu, NetFlix, Pandora and the rest remain but tantalizing pipe dreams. So what am I expected to pay good money for when it releases in Canada later this month? This thing is a wait-for-version-2.0 product, at best.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oh, brother -- the sun is shining, and Ann Coulter is out there making hay courtesy of a big, fat gift from Canadians. *sigh*

Her appearance at the University of Ottawa -- to be attended by about 100 students -- was cancelled due to a rowdy crowd of protesters. Even someone on my Facebook feed posted about how proud he was of what happened. For the record, I'm not. The value of hate speech laws prohibiting speech that targets identifiable groups is debatable at best. But being clueless enough to feed a well-remunerated, practiced troll like Ms. Coulter this kind of grist is just eye-rollingly stupid -- it'll keep her mill spinning long after one little appearance would have been forgotten. She's already planning to file a human-rights complaint of her own, and I can't say I blame her. Way to go, guys. *sarcastic golf clap*

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

I don't know if the Windsor Star will be printing my letter in response to Chris Vander Doelen's article from last week, so I thought I'd post it here.

Mr. Vander Doelen:

I have read your column from Thursday's Star objecting to the planning department's proposal to restrict new commercial building in Windsor. Requiring developers to re-use existing vacant space, or at least to show that new commercial space will not harm existing businesses in the BIAs, will, you argue, stifle new growth and investment. Like it or not, you write, the vast majority of the city's economic activity takes place at the edge of Windsor, "where the people are", not the core. Politicians should leave it to investors to decide how to spend their money, rather than scaring them off.

Leave aside the question of whether it is actually anti-business to safeguard existing businesses, even to the extent of imposing requirements on new investment. What your column really neglects is the fact that "the people are" at the edge of town for reasons that are no less artificial. For decades, cities generally (and Windsor is no exception) have been in the business of telling people what they can build and where. Just have a look at Windsor's zoning by-law: any area must be either a residential, institutional, commercial or manufacturing district. Most often, a 'residential area' means either a single-family dwelling, or an existing semi-detached or duplex structure. The only kind of new construction permitted is low-density single-family dwellings limited, with all accessory buildings, to 45% of the lot area at most. Even in higher-density areas there is no concept of mixed use -- that it might suit people to live, work and/or shop within walking distance. Small wonder if this has led to the inexorable creep of suburban sprawl, ever-increasing car dependency, and a ghastly vacancy rate downtown.

There is nothing natural or inevitable, or even particularly free, about the edge-city development model that you seem resigned to. It is largely an imposition, no less artificial than what the planning department proposes. Hollowed-out cities like Windsor are the result of decades of mandating the separation of where people live (in detached, single-family units) from where they work and shop (largely, strip malls and big-box developments that only masochists ever try to reach without a car). Toronto might be an expensive place to live, but that's largely because it still has so much mixed-use area in the core. It shows that people will vote with their dollars and pay to live in desirable places in the inner city -- but not if you let the inner city dry up and blow away. Windsor could do a lot worse than try to return to something like that model, instead of throwing up our hands and submitting to more bad consequences of past bad decisions. I support the planning department's proposal.

Lorne Beaton

I've been reading a lot about these issues lately, including listening to James Howard Kunstler's weekly pontification, I mean, podcast. I'm close to finishing The Geography of Nowhere and moving on to Jane Jacobs. The thoughts in my letter were set off by this posting on Andrew Sullivan's indispensable Daily Dish blog.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Now this is cool. A photographer was walking through a shopping center in Hawaii and spotted a crowd of tourists. He walked over to see what the deal was and took this photograph (yes, a photograph):

The model is wearing full-body paint, with some strategic underwear, and holding very still while blinking as little as possible. Colour me impressed.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Following up on yesterday's post about the underwhelming (but still a relief) announcement of a replacement for Windsor's old train station. Lately I've been developing more and more enthusiasm for the scale-down, pro-public transit, anti-automobile movement and some of the thinking that goes into it. Actually living in Toronto is debatable for me, but one of the reasons I love taking the train to visit there is that it's such a rewarding place to get around on foot. I don't have to deal with traffic, parking, the cost of fuel, all that nonsense -- just walk out the door, or take the efficient TTC if I prefer. A big group of us were there last year and spent the night at Stewart's place right on Dundas. In the morning when we decided to go out for breakfast, we didn't have to get into several cars and meet at some strip mall -- we just walked to the greasy spoon a couple of blocks away. Why can't Windsor be more like that?

That said, some people just go right off the rails with this stuff. The futurist Stewart Brand has a rather weird article from a couple of months ago extolling the virtues of slums. Yes, slums. Why? Because they're so green and energy efficient, silly! As he points out: "The Dharavi slum in Mumbai has 400 recycling units and 30,000 ragpickers. Six thousand tons of rubbish are sorted every day." He goes on to promote this as a model for the energy-efficient city of the future. Boy, sign me up!

Brand believes that this kind of thing will lead to just about everyone living in self-sufficient cities, which grow their own food in intensive hydroponic greenhouses. Contrast this with James Howard Kunstler, who insists that most of us will be moving back to the countryside and small towns because energy scarcity will (a) make a lifestyle based on the kind of mass mobility we now enjoy impossible, and (b) force us to go back to labour-intensive farming based on low energy inputs and without massive petroleum-dependent fertilization.

I agree with Kunstler when he says that the era of cheap oil has already begun to come to an end. (Remember the high gas prices from a couple of years ago? Matt Taibbi wrote a fairly infamous article in Rolling Stone last year attacking Goldman Sachs, and one of his claims is that their financial speculations were behind the run-up in the price of petroleum. Paul Krugman disagrees and says it really is the fundamentals -- that is, with the continuing growth of China and India, the demand really had begun to exceed the supply. Call me crazy, but I'm with the Nobel Prize-winning economist on this one. And peak oil means that the supply can never really go up again, only down. That means that as the economy recovers, not only will fuel go back up in price and stay there, we may even begin to experience shortages. What's more, this will become the permanent condition from now on. Makes me glad I don't, say, commute to a job in Toronto from my home in Newmarket. Sorry, Deb.)

However, I think Kunstler underestimates people's taste for high-energy civilization, and the potential means of preserving something like what we have now, however short-sightedly. There may be a lot more mass transit and commuter trains in our future (fingers crossed!), along with a lot more people having to pay big mortgages on worthless houses (unfortunately). But there are a lot of alternative energy sources out there, and even if they're not as cheap as oil, I think people will still pay through the nose, or take out a second mortgage on the planet's future if necessary, if it means they get to keep watching their big-screen TVs.

Monday, March 01, 2010

So, Windsor's getting a new train station. I wish I were more enthused. It sounds very much like a stopgap. Sigh... Well, at least *something* will be replacing that dingy old coffin within our lifetimes. But I had hoped for much more.

According to the city's transportation master plan, Windsor's rail lines were supposed to be rationalized and the Walkerville line would have been freed up. It runs right by where I live in Central Windsor, and I had visions of something to help me get to Tecumseh Mall more easily. Maybe a pedestrian walk for biking, and even some kind of light rapid transit like a busway down the line. God knows this city needs better public transit.

But based on what "Laliberte" (he? she? The article doesn't identify this person properly) says, clearly someone has gotten sick of waiting. So from the sound of it, we're going to get a new stopgap train station that is being planned for a time horizon as long as two, three, maybe even as long as five years. I hope it ends up being a bigger improvement than it sounds.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

On my Facebook news feed just now, someone has posted a link to, a site which promotes eliminating the "demeaning use of the R-word" -- meaning 'retard', 'retarded', et cetera. They're even promoting 03.03.10 as a day of action and offering themselves as a forum to organize local events to change the conversation. This comes a few weeks after Barack Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, got into hot water for some private remarks in which he disparaged people on the left of his own party as "fucking retarded", and this led to a further kerfuffle involving Sarah Palin's son Trig, who has Down Syndrome.

My two-bit opinion? The R-word is a lost cause, and I hope that those who advocate for people with mental disabilities won't waste too much of their energy trying to rescue it. Once upon a time, psychologists working with mentally limited people decided it would be useful to subdivide them into classes based on how they responded to testing. This is where the words moron, imbecile and idiot come from -- they were originally technical terms that classified descending levels of mental age and IQ. Naturally enough, a certain category of people -- let's call them by the technical term 'assholes' -- found it fun and congenial to use these words for general abuse and disparagement, and didn't worry themselves too much about who else might be pained by hearing them used that way. Psychologists fought back by coining the more humane term 'retarded', to emphasize delay or slowness to develop instead of a lack of capacity. And when those same people (or their spiritual descendants) did the same thing with the new word, psychologists and advocates fought back once more with new, slightly more happy-talk terminology like "mentally challenged". And the process continues.

This is hardly a new phenomenon. Even the word cretin comes from the French chrétien, meaning a Christian. Calling a mentally disabled or deformed person a Christian was a way of using language to remind the more fortunate among us to treat their less fortunate neighbours with respect, and accord them some dignity. But of course, the value of this attempt began to erode immediately, as it always does under the assault of the assholes, until today no one remembers it. I see no reason why this process will ever stop -- at least, as long as there are assholes among us.

The problem with assholes is that their lamentable condition leads them to keep acting the way they do, whether you treat them with respect or with the contempt they deserve. Really, the assholes we will always have with us, so I wouldn't worry about the R-word too much. It's the fight against the assholes among us that really counts.