Bob’s Junkmail, Number 206
Warning: This section might be boring, so here’s a picture that has nothing to do with Economics. Maybe it will alleviate some of the tedium. I met this lady when I was driving down a dirt road in Ecuador. We talked for a while, but she spoke something other than Spanish and I spoke my rough approximation of English, so neither of us understood a word. It was just like home.
CNN Headline: Banks Must Start Lending. And all along I thought the problem was that they made too many loans too people who didn’t repay. If banks are loaning money to X number of people, they generally pick the X people most likely to repay the loans. That’s because when a bank makes a bad loan, the bank usually loses money, and businesses should make money, not lose money.
If, all of a sudden, banks start loaning money to twice as many people, then the new loans will be riskier because, on average, the best borrowers have already borrowed. So when Congress yells at banks to make more loans, they’re yelling at the banks to take more risk on questionable loans. Isn’t that what started all these economic problems in the first place?
The U.S. Government is spending a lot of money it doesn’t have. This is not new, although the amount of spending and the deficit are very high. The budget deficit is, in theory, the amount of additional debt the country incurs in a given year. However, politicians like to cheat on the numbers. For example, George Bush always left the cost of the Iraq War out of the budget, listing it as an "emergency." Obama is including that in the 2009 budget.
A good way to measure the federal budget deficit is as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This takes into account the effects of inflation, the economy, and the results of the NCAA basketball tournament.
The 2009 U.S. budget deficit is a little over 12% of the projected GDP. This is the highest it’s been since World War II, when it hit 28%, 22%, and 24%. In 1918 and 1919, around the end of the first World War, the U.S. budget deficit was just under 12% and 17%.
How does the government borrow money? They issue Treasury securities (bonds, etc.) and sell them at auction. If I buy a 5-year Treasury bond, the government may pay me interest every six months and then will pay principal amount back after five years. This is considered the safest investment on earth, even better than gold, commodities, or Citibank stock (of which I am a proud owner).
Who buys these bonds? I’ve heard a lot about China financing the U.S. National Debt. In fact, China (government plus private companies) owns more U.S. Treasury securities than any other country, about $522 billion last June, and around twice that if you include other government debt. This is about 1/6 of the total owed by the U.S. to other countries. In January, China had increased its holdings of U.S. Treasury securities to $729 billion, or 11 percent of the total amount outstanding.
The stock market has gone down a lot in the past year or so, but what about the U.S. Economy? The U.S. GDP increased 1.1 percent in 2008, compared to 2.0 percent in 2007. But in the last quarter of 2008, the GDP dropped 1.6 percent (6.3 percent annual rate). Even so, that doesn’t seem so bad. Why did the stock market go down by 50%? I can’t answer that. I guess it’s a combination of downward trend, lower projections, higher budget deficit, higher unemployment, and a little hysteria.
The U.S. GPD is around $14 trillion, about three times larger than any other country, followed by Japan, China, Germany, the U.K., and France. China’s GDP was about $4.2 trillion in 2008.
Unemployment is up, but the constant news about it seems disproportional to the problem. Three states are at their highest unemployment since before 1976 (Georgia, North Carolina, and Rhode Island), but all the other states had higher unemployment in the late 1970’s and 1980’s. Michigan, the state we hear about most, hit 16.9% unemployment in 1982, compared to 12.0% in February. Oklahoma is at 5.5% unemployment, up from 2.1% in 2001 but down from 9.4% in 1986.
If I were going to bet on it, I’d say the current recession is not the end of civilization as we know it. In fact, it’s not even the end of Google, Microsoft, or Intel (which some equate to civilization as we know it). People are still living their lives. I still have to wait in line at the Arby’s drive-thru. There may be a lower demand for houses, cars, airplanes, and boats, but I’m pretty sure there will still be plenty of houses, cars, airplanes, and boats around in the future.
It is rewarding and effective to use novel phrases in the English language. I believe this is also true of the Georgian language, but I’m not certain so I’ll stick with English for the moment.
Take, for example, "worm brained gooberhead." You will not find this term anywhere else on the entire internet (as of today). It works quite well as a replacement for the ubiquitous profane term of maternal incest, and clearly outshines any reference to a canine of the female gender.
Furthermore, "worm brained gooberhead," merely combining the characteristics of a worm, a peanut, and a brain with its container, is not considered foul language. It is equally useful in communicating with people, animals, and inanimate objects, and can be used in the presence children without fear of being labeled a sex offender for life. I find this term particularly useful when referring to my children or conversing with telephone solicitors.
If everybody would come up with eloquent terms of endearment such as this, the world would be a much more interesting and entertaining place.
Merrill Lynch former boss John paid $1.2 million to decorate his office last year. I may be a bit uncultured, but I can not imagine a time when I would ever consider spending $1.2 million dollars to decorate an office. Even if the money is not my own.
John, the brilliant executive, was fired when his failing company was bought by Bank of America. Maybe he should have spent less time decorating.
Banks are conservative institutions, with enough experience, knowledge, and business savvy to avoid wasting money on things like $1.2 office redecorations. Well, sort of. Citibank is now planning to spend $10 million on new offices for their boss Vikram and his assistants.
When asked about the lavish offices, Citibank said, "No problem! The government just gave us 4,500 times that much. $10 million is nothing." (I might have paraphrased that quote.)
An airliner from Mexico City took off last January for Seattle. When they neared Seattle, the airport was foggy. They couldn’t land or even attempt an approach because of low visibility. So they landed at an alternate airport, Portland, Oregon. It was the closest international airport they could land at.
In Portland, the plane waited on the ground for four hours. The police threatened to arrest anybody trying to get off. U.S. Customs would not process the passengers, because they "didn’t have enough customs agents." Finally, the plane returned to Mexico City with all the passengers.
In fact, there were not enough customs agents at the airport at that time. But why didn’t they call some? U.S. Customs and Border Protection has 56,000 employees and a budget over $10,000,000,000 per year. I’m surprised they couldn’t find anybody to clear that airplane into the U.S. Maybe they were redecorating.
Where are these places? There are some new countries since I took fourth grade Geography.
What is a Conficker and where can you find one? Conficker is a relatively new computer virus / worm. Hopefully you’ll have to look somewhere other than your own computer to find one. An easy way to check is to visit http://microsoft.com. If you can get there (or to most virus protection sites), then Conficker is not on your computer.
The reason Conficker has been in the news is that the date April 1, 2009 is hard-coded in the program, spawning a lot of news articles telling people to "be afraid!"
In addition to being afraid of your computer dying, you should be afraid that the duct tape holding the plastic sheets over your windows and doors will leak when terrorists release poison gas. You should be afraid that you’ll run out of tuna and powdered milk under your bed. And you should worry about the baggage retrieval system at Heathrow. But I digress.
April Fool’s day came, and my computer did not spontaneously combust at 4:03 a.m. Even if your computer was nice enough to host a copy of Conficker, it probably didn’t melt down into a lump of molten silicon. This is good because silicon melts at around 1414°C.
If we’d think just a little bit, we’d figure out that the most likely reason for April 1 to be coded in a worm / virus / trojan / malware is indicated by the date — it’s a joke! If the Conficker people really wanted to do some damage, they would do it when the rest of us were not expecting it so it would be more effective.
For example, in January Conficker version B installed itself on over a million computers in less than 10 days. They didn’t announce the date because it would not have been possible to spread in such unprecedented numbers if they had. Today, there are about 10 million copies of Conficker residing on generous hard drives around the world.
Conficker initially spreads using a bug in the Windows Remote Procedure Call function — the bug that should have been resolved when you installed the Windows Security Patch from last October. You did update Windows since then, didn’t you?
Conficker scans the internet looking for computers without that fix. When it finds one, it installs itself and uses a fake Windows patch to make it look like the computer is secure. Then it puts itself on all shared drives it has access to, and all removable writeable drives. Then, it tries to login to all the computers on the local network using a bunch of common usernames and passwords.
This site has a list of the passwords it checks, under the Analysis tab. It also has an interesting writeup of how Conficker works:
After Conficker is on a computer, it can do essentially anything it is told buy the people behind Conficker. Who are they? I’m not sure, but Microsoft has offered a $250,000 reward for information leading to their arrest and conviction.
Every day or so, each copy of Conficker (the latest version, anyway) generates about 50,000 pseudo-random domain names and tries to download a file from 500 of them. The people in charge of Conficker can register one of these domains and put a payload file there that will then be downloaded to some of the 10,000,000 copies of Conficker that currently reside on unsuspecting computers. The payload file will then be passed to other Conficker computers on the local network.
The payload file is a program to run on these computers. It can do anything a program can do — send spam, conduct a DoS attack, collect passwords, record keystrokes and forward them to the former CEO of General Motors, or format the hard drive.
Microsoft and some other companies have taken unprecedented steps to combat Conficker. I think this is because it’s so successful in infiltrating corporate networks it could make Windows look bad. Or it already has.
Maybe those companies could stop Spam while they’re at it.
How do you keep from acquiring Conficker and similar programs? Update Windows regularly. A firewall and/or antivirus software can help. AVG is a good free antivirus program. And don’t click on executable email attachments!!!!
I use Zone Alarm firewall. I like it because, in addition to limiting incoming internet traffic, it tells me when a program on my computer tries to access the internet. Then I can prevent it if I want to.
A lot of applications try to check for updates whenever the computer boots or the application runs, and some access the internet periodically for no apparent reason. This can really slow things down if I’m on a slow connection such as a dialup, satphone, or semiphore.
Who sends out all this spam, anyway? Millions of people who host computer viruses. Some viruses install remote-control spamming software. Some people at Berkeley (Chris, Christian, Kirill, Brandon, Geoffrey, Vern, and Stefen) managed to get control of about 1.5 percent of the Storm Botnet. They intercepted a few hundred million spam emails and inserted some fake web sites and other information for analysis.
The paper they wrote is really interesting. It explains just how the botnet operates, including the command and control, redundant redundancy, and getting a new "worker" bot up and running. In the three examples they tested, they recorded results that are not overly surprising, except that there are still a few idiots around who will give up their credit card info to someone spamming pharmaceuticals. At least nobody falls for the Nigerian 409 scams any more. Or do they?
Well, at least a bank could never be suckered into a Nigerian scam. Or could it? Surely not Citibank?
The economics of the results imply that the spammers operate most of the sites advertised in the spam. You probably won’t get rich spamming people unless you control the botnet, and even then the profit margins might be a little thin by U.S. standards.
Here’s the paper on spam:
It seems to me that it should be easy to shut down most spam — just shut down the people advertising in the spam email. It’s already against the law, but the federal government does not enforce the Can-Spam legislation that was so highly publicized when it was enacted in 2003.
Actually, the government does enforce Can-Spam, but very selectively. Last November they fined a Facebook user named Adam $873,277,200 for advertising on Facebook. I don’t think Adam has that much money.
Last year McColo, a major ISP hosting spammers, was shut down. Spam levels dropped significantly. For about a week.
A lot of people think it would be a good idea to use public source code for voting machine software. Premier Election Solutions, formerly Diebold, apparently thought this was a good idea. They used some open-source software in their systems. However, the GPL license requires users to only use the open source software in other open source software.
They’re making Antimatter in California. At Lawrence Livermore Labs, they’re shooting really short (picosecond) really intense (1020 watts per cm2) laser pulses into a sheet of gold. This produces a bunch of positrons, antimatter electrons. So far we don’t have a matter-antimatter reactor for space travel or power generation. I guess that will have to wait for their new laser.
Apparently Encyclopaedia Britannica is having problems in the encyclopedia business and they’re getting into the legal business. They’ve sued GPS manufacturers for supposedly violating a 1993 patent concerning multimedia on a CD-ROM.
I’m sure you remember the infamous patent 5,241,671, right? It has been thrown out two or three times, but still keeps coming back. The patent is obvious, competes with prior art, and has nothing to do with GPS systems.
This time, finally, it looks like they drove a wooden stake through its abstract.
Here’s one way to cut down on people patenting existing ideas: Post them online and offer bounties for prior art.
Bill Gates, Microsoft CEO, 1991: "If people had understood how patents would be granted when most of today’s ideas were invented and had taken out patents, the industry would be at a complete standstill today… A future start-up with no patents of its own will be forced to pay whatever price the giants choose to impose."
Brad Smith, Microsoft general counsel, 2007: "Protection for software patents and other intellectual property is essential to maintaining the incentives that encourage and underwrite technological breakthroughs. In every industry, patents provide the legal foundation for innovation. The ensuing legal disputes may be messy, but protection is no less necessary, even so."
This is a copyright controversy, not a patent, but it’s just as stupid. The University of the South is threatening to sue the guy behind a one-man play, "Blanche Survives Katrina in a FEMA Trailer Named Desire."
Stupid patents are even threatening international cooperation and exploration in Antarctica.
A good article on software patents and their history:
A team of 21 people led by a guy named Stephan have reconstructed 2/3 of the genome of the Wooly Mammoth. They’re using some hair from a Siberian mammoth. I’m waiting for them to finish the other 1/3 and complete the genome synthesizer so I can have a pet mammoth.
Windmills are sprouting everywhere!
There is now more wind power generated in the U.S. than in any other country. The U.S. took the lead from Germany in 2008 with a 50% increase in wind power. I knew I was seeing more and more windmills, but I didn’t realize there were more in the U.S. than anywhere else. China more than doubled its wind power capacity last year. Denmark generates 19% of its electricity using wind power; Spain and Portugal 11%; and the U.S. 1.3%. In the U.S. in 2008, 42% of new electrical generation was wind power.
Annual Wind Power Generation(thousand mwh)
I’ve been trying to figure out how many of these giant windmills it takes to equal a power plant, and I think I finally have a good estimate. One popular windmill model is the Suzlon S88-2.1. It’s rated at 2.1 megawatts, but I think you can expect more like .5 megawatts generation in actual practice. The S88 has a diameter of 88 meters or 288 feet. That is tall. Duke Energy is using the S88 in one of its new wind farms in Wyoming.
In the U.S., windmills generate 24% of their rated capacity on average. This is because the wind doesn’t blow hard all the time, except in Washington DC where blowhards abound. The Suzlon S88 generates 2.1 megawatts in wind between 31 mph and 56 mph. (Above 56 mph it turns itself off.) At 15 mph, it generates a little over .5 megawatts. In a year, at 24% capacity, it will generate around 4,418 mwh.
The GRDA coal power plant at Chouteau generates 5,000-5,500 gwh per year. It would take 1,100 Suzlon S88’s to match that, and a little over 3,000 of the windmills to generate as much electricity as the Russellville, Arkansas nuclear plant.
Some people think there is a future in nuclear power. I’m one of them. France uses nuclear power plants to generate 87.5% of their electricity, and they haven’t melted yet.
In 2002, the guy named Elon who founded PayPal started a new company called SpaceX. Last September, SpaceX launched a rocket into orbit. It was their fourth test launch, and first success.
The liquid-fueled rocket was 70 feet tall and 5.5 feet in diameter. The first commercial launch is scheduled for April 21, a satellite for Malaysia.
SpaceX’s Falcon I is supposed to be the cheapest way to get your satellite into orbit, but their 2009 price list has not been posted yet. You can check out the Falcon I user’s guide here:
The SpaceX Falcon 9 is a larger rocket, 180 feet tall and 12 feet in diameter. Its first test launch was scheduled for last year, but it was apparently delayed. Maybe they had to make some changes for NASA, who awarded SpaceX a $1.6 billion contract to resupply the Space Station when the Shuttles are shut down in 2011. Orbital Sciences also got a contract for Space Station missions, for $1.9 billion.
In case you’re interested in launching a heavier satellite, here’s the user guide for the Falcon 9:
If you’re building your own rocket, you will be relieved to know you can now use ammonium perchlorate for fuel without treating it as an explosive.
Cessna has developed and is testing its Skycatcher 162, a 2-seat light sport aircraft. Both prototypes have gotten into unrecoverable spins, but the test pilots were not hurt.
Last September the pilot was doing a power on, cross-controlled stall (rudder one way and ailerons the other), and the plane entered an unrecoverable spin. He tried to deploy the plane’s parachute, but it wouldn’t. So he used his own parachute and let the plane make its own way to the ground.
Last month a second Skycatcher prototype crashed, also in an unrecoverable spin. Cessna had made the tail bigger, but apparently that didn’t help, or maybe the additional weight in the rear offset the benefits of the increased tail size.
This time, the pilot launched the plane’s parachute and was floating down. Then he tried to release the parachute, which would allow him to fly away under control, but the parachute wouldn’t release like it’s supposed to. So he and the plane ended up in a field. The plane didn’t have much damage until the parachute caught the wind and dragged the plane more than a half mile into a barbed wire fence.
The Skycatcher is being built for Cessna in China by the Shenyang Aircraft Corporation. Cessna has caught some flack for this because they’ve laid off a few thousand people lately. But the layoffs are due to customers canceling and delaying orders for new planes. There would be more cancellations and likely more layoffs if they raised the price of the Skycatcher enough to manufacture it in the U.S. Sometimes people forget that if a company doesn’t make money, they don’t have anything to pay their employees with.
Once upon a time, it was a major faux pas to put your decimal point in the wrong place. If I owed someone $0.50, they would not be happy if I paid only $0.05. Except Mike, and he’d never know the difference.
Today I have noticed that there is not much oversight when it comes to comma placement, and a comma is worth three decimal points. There seems to be very little difference in a million, a billion, and a trillion. They’re all numbers too big to comprehend unless you’re talking about computers or light years.
Take, for example, our illustrious Speaker of the House, Nancy. She promised that 500 million people in the U.S. will lose their jobs each month unless a stimulus package is in place. While it’s not unusual for a politician to be slightly out of touch with reality, there aren’t 500 million people in the entire country. Maybe she meant 500 people will lose their jobs, or 50. Or maybe she thinks 39.3 percent of us will get a new job and get fired twice each month.
I went to the FAA web site not long ago to get Notices to Airmen, or Notams, before I took off to fly somewhere. Maybe those are called Notices to Airhumans now, since "men" can’t be used any more.
When I arrived at the proper web site, I was greeted with a message saying "pilotweb.nas.faa.gov uses an invalid security certificate. The certificate is not trusted because the issuer certificate is unknown."
Those imposters! Wait until the TSA hears about this! I guess they figured out something was wrong, because it’s fixed now.
This ACTA is the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, being secretly negotiated between the recording industry and various countries around the world.
Some people are pushing to make information on these negotiations public, claiming secret deals, encroachment of personal privacy and civil rights, and hair loss.
All this is pretty normal and pretty boring, except the part about the U.S. The U.S. trade representative is refusing to release documents requested under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming it would threaten the national security. That is funny!
Elsewhere in the federal government, the FAA is sealing records on bird strikes. This is understandable, as birds are known to gather in flocks and fly out in front of speeding airplanes, clearly a threat to national security. I flew into a goose once myself. The goose died.
Intel got a lot of press when they closed down 5 older plants and laid off 5,000 people. They didn’t make nearly the headlines in February when they announced they’ll spend $7 billion on new 32-nanometer manufacturing in Oregon, Arizona and New Mexico. They laid off 5,000 people earlier, but it will take around 4,000 people to build the new manufacturing facilities.
An Iridium satellite crashed into an old Russian military satellite in February. The Russian satellite was effectively dead and couldn’t maneuver, but that didn’t stop some U.S. politicians from accusing them of bad driving.
Pan Am Flight 943 in 1956.
A French submarine and a British submarine collided in the Atlantic last February. I guess they were each quieter than the other expected.
The state of Utah lost $700,000 to some scammers who forged documents to hijack a state bank account, and then sent fake invoices to collect $2.5 million. The bank seized about $1.8 million, but the crooks got away with the rest. So far.
Iceland has had some real economic problems lately. Now they may shut down the Iceland Defense Agency. But this might not be such a big deal. The agency has only been operating since June.
This is a good site where you can learn what not to do in the backcountry — a variety of hiking and climbing accidents and incidents.
I like this lady:
The European Space Agency launched a satellite from the Plesetsk cosmodrome…in northern Russia. It will map the earth’s gravity in some amazing detail. This will give information on land and sea elevation changes, gain information on ocean heat and mass transfer, and help model underground structures. This is a great simplification of its mission.
"A few minutes later, the missile will transport a satellite into space:"
Transporting the Soyuz to the launch pad:
A couple of weeks ago there was a major eruption of an undersea volcano near Tonga. Here are some great photos.
Some people ran across a botnet the other day, which is not too unusual. However, this botnet (called Ghostnet) compromised 1295 computers in 103 countries. About 30% of them were "high value" computers, e.g., government, banks, news organizations, etc. The remote control came from China, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Chinese government is behind it.
Gears of War game’s copy protection (DRM) protected it from being used at all.
The fall of Silicon Graphics.
Submersibles are moving a lot of cocaine into the U.S. — maybe 1/3 of it.
You mean the wheels go down BEFORE you land?
Here’s an interesting sailing article. It gets better after the shipwreck.
Russia knows how to throw a proper election.
You can try out a test version of Photo Mud, if you don’t mind being added to the GhostNet. Let me know how to crash it, or what it needs, or what you can’t figure out. Did I mention it’s a test version? I don’t think it will format your hard drive, but there are no guarantees.
This is the only program I’m aware of that can print a calendar, using your own photos, with the birthdays of Turing Award recipients.
I went to Ecuador a few weeks ago and, among other things, hiked up Mount Cotopoxi.
You can see more Ecuador photos here, if you’re interested: