Tuesday, January 30, 2007
If you know anyone who is facing a wave of college expenses in the future, pass the word along.
[Edited to add link to Dr. North's website]
Lennar seeks cuts from subcontractors
1. How likely is it that there was a "positive response" from the subcontractors when asked to cut prices?
Oh it was positive, I’m sure. As in, this request did certainly generate responses. In writing ad copy, you want responses – that’s positive. Now, the fact that most of those responses were probably something along the lines of “Lennar, please take that piece of paper on which your request is written, fold it until it is all corners and firmly implant it somewhere near your prostate” is irrelevant.
2. Will the subcontractors cut prices anyway?
They’ll have to. Welcome to the wild and wacky world of deflation.
3. Find at least three more "special relationships" involving Lennar and report on them.
Relationship One – with their web designer Terry Productions. I hear they offered him a condo in Miami in exchange for the cute little flash animation of the girl who is “Tickled, Delighted and Happy” that Mommy and Daddy went into debt up to their eyeballs to buy a depreciating asset in a falling market. Be sure to check out the “Kid’s Community” at the Lennar site while you’re there. Good job, Terry Pro. The rumor mill has it that Terry Pro decided they wanted the cash, up front, instead.
Relationship Two – Builder incentives. Squeeze the contractors on one side, while you are getting squeezed and squeezed hard by this “buyer’s market.” Lennar best get used to this relationship – the relationship chum has with sharks.
Relationship Three – Lennar Execs with local security companies. When home “owners” move from denial to panic, these boys and girls are going to need a big wall between them and these former savvy real estate investors.
Homework Assignment 5
Existing Home Sales Plunge in 2006
1. Is Lereah believable?
Ha ha ha ha haaaaahhhhh! Tell you what – watch this video clip and decide for yourself.
2. Is the NAR believable?
Absolutely. Have you ever known a real estate agent to lie, much less exaggerate the truth?
3. Who do you believe?
David Lereah would never lie to me. He even wrote a book encouraging me to personally get out there and reap the benefits of being a savvy real estate investor.
4. If you cross your fingers and toes, does it help?
Only if you squint your eyes really tight. Because if you can’t see the monster under the bed, it can’t eat you.
5. What about wishing on a star?
It sure beats the heck out of doubling up on your losses.
6. 36,000 more people formed a new relationship with their local unemployment office.
Estimate the percentage of those above who were prepared for this new relationship.
Heaven help us all.
Homework Assignment 4
Foreclosures Put Added Burden on Association-Run Communities
1. If a condo tower is only 50% sold, who is going to pay those dues for the empty units?
Eventually – the existing condo “owners” – after a long and costly legal battle of course.
2. Should one believe that initial assessment the builder/developer stipulated?
Of course. The builder/developer has no incentive to lie about costs, do they?
3. What happens if your neighbor defaults on his mortgage and the bank owns the property before the condo association failed to get a lien for assessments?
Have fun entering into a legal battle with a bank.
4. How will increasing insurance rates affect your neighbor's ability to pay?
At the end of the day, this will be the final nail in the coffin. It’s the final piece of the perfect storm of high property taxes, escalating assessments for condo owners and now insurance.
But don’t worry, just take Robert Kaye’s advice: “If they don't actively pursue through collection procedures and unit owners see no incentive to pay, everything comes tumbling down like a house of cards," he said. "People find a way to come up with the money to save their homes."
Interesting that he mentions the house of cards scenario. It’s called a deflationary credit collapse and it is coming to a neighborhood near you, soon.
5. What about the guy 18 stories up whom you’ve never met?
I’m sure that he will leave his condo in immaculate condition before being evicted. I’m sure the bank will invest a lot of money to make sure that they get top dollar for this property. It’ll all work out fine.
6. When the tuckpointing fails, how many new relationships will be formed?
Well, if my locale manages to keep it together, I can go down to the vacant lot a few blocks away and hire some cheap manual labor to do the job and bill the condo association. If things get truly awful, I can go talk to a local gang chieftan and work out a protection scam with them where they include the building as part of their turf and we work out who will do the work on the building. Or maybe I just mail the keys to the bank, get in my car and head down the road.
Low Bids Take Glow Off Property Auction
1. Is the auctioneer to blame for low bids?
Of course. Haven’t you heard the ancient maxim “kill the messenger?”
2. Will any bids come in if there are minimums?
How minimal do you want to get?
3. Who has no sense here, the bidders or the sellers?
The bidders. The sellers, no matter how deluded they may still be about the “value” of “their” home, are at least trying to get out. These bidders are buying into the very beginning of a soft market. The shake-out is still gathering steam as defaults on the margin by subprime borrowers continue to accelerate. Local appraisals, used for property tax purposes, have not reset lower and insurance is still ridiculously high, especially in places like Florida. The bidders are insane, unless they are getting something ten cents on the dollar.
4. Exactly who failed to do their homework?
Everyone. They are all still operating under the old paradigm where credit was always easy and expanding and prices were always going to rise. To them, this is a one-off event, a bump in the royal road to riches.
The bidders think they are getting in at the trough.
The sellers are still convinced that if they hold on just a little longer, things will turn around.
The auctioneers think that this will be business as usual. These guys need to be talking to auctioneers in the farm implement business who remember how heated emotions got all through the Midwest and the South when agriculture went into a mini-depression back in the 1980’s. Note to auctioneers – do NOT take jobs in the community or even the county in which you live.
5. Assign the blame in percentages to the bidders, the sellers, and the auctioneer.
Homework Assignment 2
Centex Sees More Layoffs To Get To 'Fighting Weight'
You think you have a job in an industry going gangbusters
You are a loyal employee in for the long haul
1. Does it matter?
To a corporation with no ties to your community? Not in the least. Welcome to the real world. Happy to have you join us.
2. Who are golden parachutes for, anyway?
These incentive packages ensure a stable environment for our brilliant CEO and act as a talent-magnet, attracting the best and brightest to our corporate family. These “golden parachutes” are at the end of the day, good for shareowners, good for productivity and thus, good for our customers and in the end, good for American families. We do it for The Children.
3. Do you have a plan in case you are fired?
Why would I get fired? This is the greatest economy ever in the history of the United States. The 43rd President says so.
4. Should you?
All sarcasm aside – one should ALWAYS plan for the worst, but hope for the best.
"Greg’s Note: Mish called me today wanting to try something different. “What is it?” I asked. “A class,” said Mish.
It seems Mish has a professor lined up to teach a class in relationship management. There are five “lessons” complete with homework, and an extra credit assignment, too. The class is fun and you don’t have to take the exams or do the homework if you don’t want to. Of course, tuition is zero. "
I of course, anxious to get my grades up, have submitted the homework in six parts - five questions and even some extra credit! Go easy on me, Professor...
Homework Assignment 1
Residents Balk At New Developer Fees
1. Discuss the need to get it in writing and read the fine print.
As a buyer, getting it in writing is always rule number one. Especially in real estate. And when you do get it in writing, as those savvy real estate investors down in Stoneybrook at Venice did, understand that the lawyers mean what they say. Plus, these investors were dealing with a huge corporation with no ties to the community other than to shill these stucco-and-vinyl McMansions. No Lennar exec is going to see some homeowner that they screwed down at the grocery store or at church. Lennar cares about ONE THING – their bottom line – and if they have to change the rules by going to the county and having the area redesignated so they can dump the costs on the few suckers, I mean, investors, who bought in early, well, tough.
2. Is "by the book" the best way to treat customers?
It depends. If you agree with most mainstream analysts, that there is no bubble anywhere in real estate, ever, well then, you can treat customers by the book. If a few get angry at this treatment, so what? There will always be a big pool of savvy real estate investors with access to cheap and super-easy credit to invest in those homes. Right?
If you are somehow convinced that real estate might occasionally be a poor investment choice and that personal relationships can lead to a solid, profitable long-term relationship, you aren’t working for a major homebuilder anyway, and so who cares what you think.
3. Does Lennar care about its relationships once the closing is finished?
No. Why should they? They’ve used your good (or not-so-good) credit to get their money from the bank. You are now a statistic. The smoking hot young lady who worked at the real estate office, you know, the one who “really cared” about your situation and always wore a sweater two sizes too small, she doesn’t care now either – she’s got another savvy real estate investor to “assist.” You’ve actually closed on the house, so Lennar’s numbers look better, their stock price is helped out and the executives get to cash in a huge payday on their (backdated?) options package.
4. If you have to enter a lottery to start a relationship, what can you expect out of the relationship down the road?
The same thing that patrons of the old Plato’s Retreat could expect from the same situation – an immediate thrill followed by a long, painful burning sensation – in the wallet in this case…
5. Is the proposed relationship the homeowners have with a lawyer likely to be beneficial to anyone but the lawyer?
Well of course. Here’s some candy. Let’s sit inside my big Lincoln Town Car and talk about it.
6. Does the commission just want the work done regardless of who pays?
At the moment, that’s almost certainly a factor. They are probably thinking that the market will stay soft for a few years and then pick right back up. This couldn’t be the biggest property bubble in Florida since the 1920’s, could it?
7. Is the commission just acting to avoid a lawsuit by Lennar?
I’ll have my attorney get back to you on that.
8. Do you even know who your commissioners are?
Now why would anyone take the time to educate themselves on a small group of individuals who control what you (and big corporations) can do with your property? What kind of personal responsibility crap is that? What are you – a liberal or something?
Monday, January 29, 2007
Taxman grounds US space tripper
"A US man who won a free trip to outer space in an online competition has had to cancel it, after realising he would have to pay tax on his prize.
Californian Brian Emmett, 31, who describes himself as a space buff, won the trip after correctly answering questions on Java computer code. But he worked out would have to report the $138,000 ride as income and pay $25,000 tax,AP news agency reports.
Not wanting to go into debt, Mr Emmett decided to give up his seat."
I'll not waste your time or mine with a rant on how stupid the IRS can be. They are a blind pit bull, but Congress created them and they should be the ones who are ashamed.
This article in Scientific American leads off with the best advice for any of you folks out there who have undergone some sort of treatment and will be traveling or attending a mass event like a football game:
"When 75,000 football fans pack into Dolphin Stadium in Miami for the Super Bowl on February 4, at least a few may want to carry notes from their doctors explaining why they're radioactive enough to set off "dirty bomb" alarms."
Stephen Roach over at Morgan Stanley provides a snapshot of this principle in action in his article, "Protectionist Threats: Then and Now". Worth the read.
Friday, January 26, 2007
Baghdad Diary: Pressure Cooker About To Explode
With New Plan To Secure Baghdad, Insurgents Gear Up Too
Andrew North, the BBC correspondent in Baghdad, sends a dispatch on the new security plan for Iraq: Excerpts: What's Baghdad like now, someone I was talking to in London asked me last week."Like a pressure cooker about to explode," I said.That's how it feels. With the announcement of the new plan to secure Baghdad, it is not just the Americans and Iraqi government gearing up for a last big push. The insurgents and militias are too. Many seem to be starting their offensive early.
The violence becomes more vicious, random and constant. Gunfire in our part of Baghdad carries on long into the night now. The distinctive sound of mortars being fired or car bombs wake us up most mornings.
A gangland-style shooting at an evening groceries market in east Baghdad..Then there was the devastating double-bombing at Mustansiriya university in east Baghdad last week, in which 70 people were killed...Rescue workers arriving to retrieve the dead and wounded were greeted by the sound of dozens of mobile phones ringing amongst the wreckage, as friends and relatives tried again and again to check on the fate of loved ones...
Yet as soon as the wreckage is cleared, so too are the memories.
Thursday, January 25, 2007
Georgian Sting Seizes Bomb-Grade Uranium
"WASHINGTON (AP) - It was one of the most serious cases of smuggling of nuclear material in recent years: A Russian man, authorities allege, tried to sell a small amount of nuclear-bomb grade uranium in a plastic bag in his jacket pocket.
The buy that took place last summer, it turned out, was a setup by Republic of Georgia authorities, with the help of the CIA. Their quiet sting operation - neither U.S. nor Georgian officials have publicized it - is an unsettling reminder about the possibility of terrorists acquiring nuclear bomb-making material on the black market."
So far, I agree. While it is not as simple to make a nuclear bomb as the mainstream media sometimes portrays it, we definitely don't want to make things any easier than we need to.
Then we get to the stupid part.
"Given the serious consequences of the detonation of an improvised nuclear explosive device, even small numbers of incidents involving HEU (highly enriched uranium) or plutonium are of very high concern," said Melissa Fleming of the U.N.'s International Atomic Energy Agency.
Ten bucks says Ms. Fleming is a Poli Sci major.
Uranium, HEU, LEU or natural (unenriched), is freaking worthless as dirty bomb material unless you can make an incredibly fine dispersion and guarantee it is inhaled in large quantities. Outside of some battlefield conditions, this is tough to do.
A dirty bomb is a weapon of mass disruption. That means you want something that plays well on TV. You need an uneducated bunch of media types screaming their heads off. The destruction part happens with the conventional explosion, so you get a backdrop of destruction and rubble. Then you need your freshly scrubbed TV reporter dressed up in a yellow anti-C suit running a detector over that rubble and getting back a bunch of clicks, beeps and hisses. That way you can have the ominous voice-over about the dangers of contamination, yada, yada, yada, everyone panic.
You don't get that with Uranium. Uranium is radioactive, sure, but with a very long half-life. It kicks out a few gamma rays and alpha particles, but frankly, you can get more activity from a medium-sized banana (from the naturally radioactive potassium) than a chunk of uranium. If you blow up uranium as part of a "dirty bomb" all you get is a bunch of metal spread everywhere.
Sure, you have to clean it up, but that's just another fat contract for a beltway bandit outfit like... Well, I'll not name names. I might need a job from one of them someday. Frankly, you could just slap on a painter's face mask, put on some gloves and put the shards in a sack and be done. But then, where's the fun in that? No media converage, no panic, no schools closing, no massive government contract to pay 23 people to do the work of one. Just a rational response to a problem. Can't have that in the modern United States these days...
Ford falls to record full-year loss of $12.7bn
"Ford Motor on Thursday reported a net loss of $12.7bn or $6.79 a share for 2006, the largest in its 103-year history and one of the largest ever for a carmaker.
The figure exceeds the $10.6bn net loss reported by General Motors in 2005, previously the largest reported in recent years by any of Detroit's troubled Big Three automakers."
Hell, their share price will probably rise on this news.
Wednesday, January 24, 2007
Part philosopher, part whack-job, part Revolutionary, his writings made a big difference in the way I look at this world. I can't say I always agreed with him, but I can say I always came away impressed.
Hail Eris, old man.
Follow along with the fun at Mortgage Lender Implode-O-Meter. I've also added a link under the Bear Market sites.
Tuesday, January 23, 2007
Berlin Warned on Nuclear Phase-Out
Germany will miss its CO2 emission targets, face rising electricity prices and become “dramatically” more reliant on Russian gas if it keeps to its policy of phasing out nuclear energy, a new study warns.
“Shutting down nuclear is inconceivable as a serious policy,” said Mark Lewis, energy analyst and author of the report. “It will mean missing your carbon emission targets and lead to gas-powered plants replacing today’s nuclear plants.”
It's not inconceivable at all to the Greens. Driving Western Industrial Society into a ditch is their stated policy. That the destruction of productive capacity and cheap, reliable electricity would hurt the poor and middle classes worst doesn't bother them one iota. That Germany would become a pimple on the rear of the Russian Bear also doesn't bother them either. Amazing.
Inconceivable? Inigo, of Princess Bride fame says it best: "You keep using that word -- I do not think it means what you think it means."
Welcome to the Brave New World.
Monday, January 22, 2007
What This Year’s Sundance Film Festival Might Signal for the Markets
As Robert Redford’s Sundance Film Festival opens this weekend, there are already headlines calling it “The Most Shocking Film Festival Ever,” serving up “an even greater than usual quota of tabloid-worthy shocking sex and human misery” (Jan. 18, 2007, New York Post).
Accompanying these shocking scenes will undoubtedly be debates about why storyline, cinematography or character development is the most important aspect of a successful film.
Few film followers in Park City, Utah, and beyond will consider an even deeper reasoning around what makes a film successful or wonder why horror films come out in droves one decade and animated “feel good” films rule the roost the next.
However, new research shows that social mood trends are likely the leading factor in both box office busts and cinematic success.
In this three-minute video, you’ll discover what Disney’s Snow White has in common with Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and how the success of both was tied to the financial markets.
This video is just a small portion of the entire documentary History's Hidden Engine by the Socionomics Institute.
Learn more with additional resources on the new science of socionomics:
- Watch History’s Hidden Engine FREE
- Read about and buy books and videos on socionomics
Friday, January 19, 2007
Andy is quite possibly one of the brightest guys I've ever met, so maybe he isn't as crazy as he seems. Good luck, Andy and Melissa!
Thursday, January 18, 2007
Crude oil prices have crashed down from their summer 2006 highs, fueling suspicions of manipulation by major market players and governments. These suspicions have a logical foundation. Crude oil resources are depleting at an alarming rate. The supergiant Cantarell field in Mexico is collapsing so quickly that the Mexican government is moving to implement taxes on carbonated drinks as a way to recoup lost tax revenue. The Burgan Field in Kuwait has entered the depletion phase and worries continue over the state of Ghawar in Saudi Arabia.
The facts in the ground have not changed – Peak Oil is here. What has changed is how humans view that fact and how they express it through prices.
This short article will offer an alternative view to the current dip in crude oil prices. The mainstream media version of events – that oil is so plentiful that there is nothing to worry about for another couple of decades – is so absurd and so easily proven false that it will be ignored. The manipulation argument, while not so easily dismissed, will be set aside as well. In their place we will consider a “socionomic” analysis.
First, let’s get something clear. This article is not meant to promote the Socionomics Institute or sell you anything. None of the links are structured to give the author credit for linking over. This information is being presented because the author has found this model to have an excellent track record of explaining how herds of people act when stressed or excited. We call these herds “countries” or “markets” or “movements” and they drive the things we call “news” every day. For a short, to-the-point example of using socionomics to explain the disconnect between “news” and what was really driving markets, I refer you to this study done on the tie between terrorist actions and stock market behavior. Read the study and, if you agree that this analytical tool might have value, then continue on with this article.
The Socionomics Institute defines socionomics as:
“Socionomics is the science of history and social prediction. It is field of study encompassing the origins and effects of an endogenous human social dynamic called the Wave Principle, a specific sequence of progress and regress that regulates the complex system of collective mood and social interaction. It examines and forecasts market and social trends on this basis: that the character of social, political, cultural, financial and economic trends are the product of collective human psychology, which is based upon an unconscious herding impulse deriving from pre-rational portions of the brain.”
So what does a “herding impulse” have to do with crude oil prices?
In a word: everything.
Prices and Behavior
First, let’s look at oil prices over the last 20 years:
Figure 1 Crude Oil Prices 1986-2006, Source: Energy Information Administration, US DOE
Most people familiar with Peak Oil are also familiar with the price trends shown above. If humans and markets behaved “rationally” then one would expect that chart to have trended steadily upwards, with “news” driving a few fluctuations here and there, such as the Gulf War (which does show a spike and drop), the occasional hurricane shutting down rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, etc. Instead, it shows a basically flat line until March of 1999, when a series of price spikes began that took crude from around $11 per barrel on the spot market to over $76 per barrel in August of 2006 and then down towards $50 in early 2007.
This ten-fifteen year run of prices in a stable band (actually declining, as the above chart is not adjusted for inflation) occurred during a period of enormous optimism and economic growth. This positive mood allowed most market watchers to ignore ominous alarm bells such as:
- The obvious fraud committed in 1998 by Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Iraq and Iran, who all doubled or even tripled their declared reserves. No new supergiant fields were discovered, no new frontiers opened up for exploration. These countries just miracled new numbers into existence and, as the big party was just getting started, these new numbers were eventually taken at face value. The Saudis followed a similar route in 1990.
- Domestic consumption in export countries such as Mexico, Iran and Saudi Arabia continued to increased along with population. The fact that these countries would need more and more oil for their domestic markets was also ignored.
- China and India slowly emerged as growing consumers of petroleum products, another major source of demand in a world where new oil finds were growing fewer and fewer.
No major oil frontiers were opened. The Caspian Basin, opened up to Western development after the collapse of the USSR, turned out to hold far less oil than originally hoped.
In the face of lies, increasing demand and no new major discoveries, the general positive mood roared on, blinding the general population and most “experts” from the facts. The socionomic perspective allows you to at least understand how this phenomenon could occur.
A Projected Path for Oil Prices and Events
What good is this analytical tool if it only can describe the past? Not much, I’d agree. You can use socionomics to project how the future could unfold, in general terms. Below is such a projection. It flies in the face of what one would expect in a linear, rational world, but please at least consider it as an option.
The following is based on a few assumptions that you can follow along with at home:
- A deep recession occurs during mid-2007. This is based on observations of the inverted yield curve, high debt levels and technical analysis of the DOW 30 price pattern.
- Housing and construction will suffer intensely during this recession
- Banks will tighten their lending standards, making it difficult for people to borrow money
With those few assumptions, the following graph is one possible route for oil prices and major events surrounding it.
(click here to enlarge)
Food For Thought
We are entering a chaotic new world. We need new ways of analyzing data. Socionomics is nothing more than another tool in your toolkit. It is not perfect, but it will help you see relationships that both the mainstream and alternative press will miss when looking at the same set of facts. And, imperfect though it may be, it is good to remember that in the Kingdom of the Blind, the one-eyed man is king.
Wednesday, January 17, 2007
A mortgage industry insider has the money quote:
"I am truly worried about the aftermath once it is resolved. It truly becomes a vicious cycle. Each time guidelines are pulled back, fewer buyers can buy homes. Thus, lower property values, and more people underwater. The debt piles up on homeowners' balance sheets, and people consume less.
"This will, and should, take years to play out. (Federal Reserve Chairman Ben) Bernanke will yield to the Lobby and the Street, trying once again to lower rates and allow people to bail themselves out, while in turn allowing the buyout firms of the world to overpay for the companies they buy with easy money. The game is so rigged against honesty, it boggles the mind. I worry about our children having a chance to have a future, at this point."
This could get real ugly, real quick - and ugly in a most unexpected way, via a massive and swift credit contraction (yes, I said it - deflation). They'll eventually reflate, of course, but the damage will be done...
Tuesday, January 16, 2007
The ever-resourceful George Ure over at UrbanSurvival steered me to this one.
Hat tip to Eric McErlain over at NEI Nuclear Notes.
Saturday, January 13, 2007
Worth keeping up with, as small wars will be coming to a neighborhood near you, sooner than any of us might think, especially once the Iraq War begins to wind down and angry young men return to the U.S. with no good job prospects and an economy shattered by a housing bust.
I'll be using Elliott Wave analysis to help gauge this "social mood" thing I consider so important in trying to get a handle on the future.
For those who are not familiar with the powerful toolkit provided by technical analysis, you can check out the free online course offered by Elliott Wave International.
Elliott Wave International's tutorial is the most comprehensive introduction to the Elliott Wave Principle available in cyberspace. All ten lessons have been adapted from Prechter and Frost’s Wall Street bestseller, Elliott Wave Principle - Key to Market Behavior.
To start your Elliott wave education now, click here.
Friday, January 12, 2007
A fantastic case study, Challenging the Conventional Assumption About the Presumed Sociological Effect of Terrorist News, has been prepared by the Big Brains over at the Socionomics Institute as a case in point. I especially recommend you check out the chart.
At the very least, the case study will help you become more critical of mainstream (and non-mainstream) “news,” especially in times of stress.
But what makes mood? The why and how of these emotional swings is obviously a big question. I have my own suppositions, a favorite involves the fact that the planet, solar system and galaxy are bathed in huge rivers of electromagnetic energy. Humans are definitely affected by changes in that energy level and perhaps that route could lead us to eventually measuring emotional phenomena or even experimenting with it to provide a scientific baseline. But that is for another post to ponder and probably future generations to solve.
Normally we would associate this with returning to tribal, gang or clan loyalties. In this current age, technology is allowing for something rarely seen in the history of the world - the ability of people to self-select groups for their primary loyalties. As a illustration, think of something along the lines of Al Qaeda - a small group consisting of individuals from multiple nation-states who chose to band together for a cause. How will such groups do constructive work together in the future instead of destructive? Encrypted networks? Digital cash and circles of trust for commerce that avoids taxation or even regulation as well as protection?
A computer programmer in Singapore probably has much more in common with a tech worker in Denver than with the guy selling noodles outside his building. How to leverage that commonality will be a challenge, but not an insurmountable one, in my opinion. Which means... Even more tribes and cross-networks of loyalties as the old nationstates break down.
Which leads me to an early manifestation of what I think will become a trend towards micronations: Buy Sealand!
Sealand is a self-declared principality built up on an old "fort" constructed during WWII as part of a series of installations to protect Essex.
This campaign, set up by torrent site The Pirate Bay, is just one more attempt at new ways to leverage a precious commodity in the current international system - sovereignty. Other "new country" projects such as The Principality of New Utopia could benefit from a successful buyout. If Pirate Bay pulls it off, it could be one heck of a precedent for the future.
Hat tip to John Robb for the story.
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Here's a recent post by Mike Shedlock, Q&A on the Psychology of Deflation, which along with EWI's consistent work on the subject, gives a great intro to the scenario most economists dismiss out of hand.
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
RISMEDIA, Jan. 8, 2007-How does "No Mortgage Payment for One Year" sound? Mortgage Payment Deferral, Inc., in Roseville, California has just released a patent pending mortgage program that allows homeowners to defer anywhere from 3 to 36 months of their mortgage payments. The new program is called 12 Month Deferral or 12MoDef. What's more, this new product can be applied to ANY type of refinancing loan.
How does, "only a crackhead who can't do basic math would expose themselves to property taxes, high insurance, no interest deduction, and enjoys paying high fees to mortgage pimps" sound? Matt Savinar is correct, the pandemic of dumbassery has spread far and wide.
Elliott Wave International, has recently shown a marked hostility towards the Peak Oil Hypothesis and is calling for lower oil prices in near to medium term.
I have vast respect for Mr. Prechter's work, but at the same time have done the math on oil reserves and believe that Peak Oil is a very real phenomenon and that the Peak is either upon us or extremely close.
How to reconcile the two?
Over the spring and summer of 2006 we saw a huge run-up in the spot price of petroleum and an even larger run-up in the "stock" of Peak Oil. Hard-core analyses from credible individuals such as Matthew Simmons and Professor Ken Deffeyes was supplemented by a number of breathless commentaries on how we would all soon be living in caves. Emotion took over from reason and facts. While still in school at the University of Missouri - Rolla in the spring of 2006, I even got to witness the emotional spike firsthand as gas shot above $3 and the last gas station in town to have gas for $2.89 - the On The Run off of Bishop Avenue - was flooded by panicked drivers, resulting in two fender benders and much yelling, just while I was there (getting coffee, not gas). All this to save maybe fifteen cents per gallon.
Then, as the year wore on, prices topped and then began to collapse. As of this morning, Reuters has a headline "Oil Plunges, Crashes Through Key $55 Level". No one is talking about Peak Oil, except to ridicule it. Today I passed a gas station on my way to work that has the precious juice for under $2 per gallon. Life is good and the crack cocaine of Western civilization - cheap petroleum - is reasonably cheap again and all is well.
What gives? Am I wrong about Peak Oil? I certainly hope so, but the trends in place scream that a Day of Reckoning is approaching within the next several years. That said, I am also convinced of the validity of socionomics and of the Elliott Wave count that EWI currently has in place for oil (down).
I'll be fleshing this out over a couple of posts, but here is my thought -
- Peak Oil became a hot topic as Supercycle Wave A was cresting
- The "logic" behind Peak Oil, as I have done the numbers is valid
- Peak Oil is the perfect emotional trigger. Socionomics couldn't have asked for a better concept than Peak Oil, especially for a Supercycle decline (and I am beginning to wonder, with this agonizingly drawn-out topping process for Wave A, if we maybe haven't finished a Supercycle V up, but that is another topic for another time). Peak Oil has "end of the world" connotations, big villains, hurts the average person right in the pocketbook and in their "freedom" to drive all over hell and gone.
- Peak Oil, if my thinking is correct will be forgotten over the next year or so as prices collapse along with the economy.
- When the Wave B bottom is reached and the turnaround begins, Peak Oil will be ignored completely as this False Hope Rally uses the old infrastructure to make one last push up. Wave B will top, full of manic optimism and rising commodity prices - and will smash into the wall of Peak Oil as the lifeblood of the Industrial Age is shown to be in decline as fields like Ghawar, Burgan and Cantarell show their age or collapse altogether.
- Wave C down collapse, blaming Peak Oil as the bogeyman. The wipeout is near-total.
- The frantic search for new ideas and new energies yields fruit and the long climb back to prosperity begins on a new foundation.
Or something like that. Charts help in thought experiments like this, so I'll try to get one together that might illustrate my vaporings a little better.
Monday, January 8, 2007
I will preface the follow by saying that the scenario outlined in the article is one of several plausible ways the Litvinenko death might have played out. "A Curious Death" was published back in mid-December and as of today, nothing I've read contradicts the data below.
Read it, think about it and make up your own damn mind.
A Curious Death
On November 1, 2006, a former Russian secret agent named Alexander Litvinenko has a busy day of meetings in London. In the years since fleeing Russia, he has made a living writing books and articles blasting Russian President Vladimir Putin. His current project is investigating the recent shooting death of an anti-Kremlim Russian journalist. The first meeting is with two men he later claims are former Russian KGB agents. The second meeting is held over lunch in a sushi restaurant with Mario Scaramella, an Italian who had served on a commission investigating Russian influence and intelligence penetration in Italian political life.[i]
Litvinenko begins to feel ill a few hours after his meetings.[ii] He later begins to vomit and on November 4, he checks into a London hospital.
Confusion sets in. It becomes obvious that Litvinenko has been poisoned. All of his hair falls out and his body is wracked by something that is attacking his vital organs. The hair loss feeds suspicions that someone has poisoned him with thallium. Thallium is a heavy metal and has been used in the past as rat poison. Thallium is so toxic that it has been called “The Poisoner’s Poison.”[iii] Things remain curious, especially when one doctor says it might have been “radioactive thallium”. On the surface this would appear to be absurd, since most of the relatively “easy” to make isotopes of thallium have half-lives measured in minutes or seconds[iv] (a half life is the time it takes for a radioactive substance to lose half of its mass by decaying into a different element).
Then on November 22, doctors determine he hasn’t been poisoned by Thallium. By the next day he is dead.
The cause of death is later determined to be radiation poisoning. Doctors say that Litvinenko ingested a highly toxic and radioactive material called Polonium 210 (Po-210).
As Litvinenko was a constant critic of Putin, most were quick to assume that the Russian government was involved in some fashion in the killing. Among other things, Litvinenko had accused Putin of everything from being a pedophile[v], to masterminding the bombing of some Russian apartment buildings – a bombing that was blamed on Chechen terrorists and used as an excuse for Putin to ramp up a war in Chechnya[vi].
Oh yes, and on his deathbed, Litvinenko publicly converted to Islam. And his next door neighbor was the Foreign Minister (in exile) of the Chechen Republic Akhmed Zakayev, who came to visit him two days before his death[vii].
His death seems to be a tale taken from a spy novel, and a lurid, cheap spy novel at that. Former spy who has defected later meets with other shady characters, investigating the assassination of an anti-Kremlin journalist and later winds up dead, victim of a horrible and complex poisoning plot. And apparently he was sympathetic enough to at least the Muslim cause in Chechnya that he converted to Islam two days before his death. And the poison used to take him down is an exotic material with a strange history of its own.
What is Po-210?
Doctors would soon confirm their suspicions that Litvinenko had been killed by exposure to Po-210. This raised eyebrows and set off alarm bells across the globe.
The basics don’t sound too ominous. Po-210 was isolated and named by Marie Curie back in 1898. It is found in extremely tiny amounts in soil and in more concentrated (but still extremely small) amounts in uranium ore. It is what is known as an “alpha emitter”. Radioactive materials (called isotopes) are unstable and want to find a stable state. To do this, they give off energy. Sometimes this energy is in the form of gamma rays (a very, very intense type of light). Other times the isotope will kick out what is called a “beta particle” – a small, negatively charged particle ejected from the nucleus. Some isotopes are so unstable that they eject the equivalent of a helium atom out of the nucleus. This is called an alpha particle.
On the atomic scale alpha particles are very large and are often traveling at very high energies. The good thing is that these particles can be stopped by something as thin as a piece of paper, or the upper layer of your skin. To cause a person harm, an alpha emitter such as Po-210 must be swallowed or inhaled. Once the Po-210 is in your body, it continues to throw out alpha particles which tear into the vulnerable cells of your body. In large enough quantities (a fraction of a gram) this material can eventually kill enough of the cells in your vital organs to kill you.
At this point, it doesn’t sound too scary. Just don’t eat the polonium and you’ll be fine.
However, the alarm bells going off are based on a piece of military history. Po-210 kicks out alpha particles at high energies. When alpha particles strike a beryllium atom, a neutron is ejected. In the early days of research into nuclear physics, small polonium-beryllium sources were constructed to make a “neutron source”.
And the Manhattan Project used that setup to build a trigger for the first atomic bombs[viii].
You needed this neutron source to guarantee that you would get plenty of neutrons to start your chain reaction when attempting to detonate a nuclear bomb. These triggers were assembled in small golf-ball-shaped spheres (or other configurations) and placed in the heart of nuclear warheads.
To get the Po-210 in large enough amounts to make plenty of triggers, scientists developed a way to take the metal bismuth, put it in a nuclear reactor and transmute it into Po-210 and then go through a chemical processing step to pull out the Po-210.
Due to its intensity, Po-210 decays fairly rapidly. It has a half-life of 138 days. Start off with 1 gram and in a little over four months, you have 0.5 grams. Four months after that, 0.25 grams, and so on. If you want to use this material to trigger a bomb, you have to have a constant supply. The difficulty in making it means you need a nuclear reactor and chemical processing factory. This is not garage chemistry, at least to get significant amounts. Remember this.
Something else to tuck away in the back of your mind. The old Soviet Union at one time fielded a fleet of “suitcase nukes” – nuclear weapons made from the lowest amount of fissile material possible (roughly 25 pounds of plutonium 239) and constructed to fit in a carrying case small enough to be transported by a single operative. Such small devices needed a very reliable and efficient neutron trigger to make sure the weapon would not fizzle. The triggers were constructed using Po-210. After the fall of the Soviet Union, a number of these devices went missing and remain unaccounted for[ix]. Without the trigger, they are just lumps of warm metal. And since the triggers would have decayed away long ago, there would seem to be nothing much to worry about.
One final point - and this has been made clear by the many news stories of contamination being found in planes, bars, Litvinenko’s home, an apartment in Germany, etc. – Po-210 is very difficult to work with. It spreads very easily and can contaminate anything it gets near. For those in the radiochemical processing industry, this is a well-known fact.
“…for reasons never satisfactorily explained by experiment, the metal [Po-210] migrates from place to place and can quickly contaminate large areas. ‘This isotope has been observed to migrate upstream against a current of air,’ notes a postwar [World War II] British report on polonium, ‘and to translocate under conditions where it would appear to be doing so of its own accord.’ Chemists at Los Alamos learned to look for it embedded in the walls of shipping containers when [the Po-210] foils came up short.”
- Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, pp. 579-580
So this material is toxic – but only if ingested. It is highly radioactive, but decays relatively quickly. Its main historical use has been as a trigger for nuclear weapons. It is messy beyond belief.
And Alexander Litvinenko died from having been exposed to a large amount of it.
The Mainstream Media and Litvinenko’s Death
Polonium is an exotic, toxic material with a few specific uses and odd history. Alexander Litvinenko was a former spy who spent years insulting and baiting the authoritarian president of Russia. Litvinenko died an agonizing death from Po-210 poisoning and to his dying breath accused Putin and the Russian government of being behind the murder[x].
It makes a certain amount of sense. The Russians have a history of poisoning defectors on foreign soil[xi] and Putin has certainly not endeared himself to the West with his stances on energy supplies to Europe and his tacit support for Iran’s nuclear program.
The mainstream media are especially happy to pick up this story line as Litvinenko was supposedly investigating the assassination of “one of their own” – dead Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya[xii]. It makes great news – scrappy muckrakers fighting the Powers that Be and being murdered for their efforts. It plays well and it allows journalists to trot out the tired old horse of “radiation poisoning” and “potential dirty bomb” – themes that strike immediate fear, make strong headlines and sell newspapers.
The problem comes when you take a deeper look.
The number one question to ask about any crime is reflected in the ancient Roman maxim ‘cui bono’ – who benefits? The easy answer that plays well is that Putin benefits, of course. He doesn’t like people who reveal the dirty secrets of the Chechen war, or black ops by “rogue” FSB elements or his (real or imagined) taste for young boys. So he obviously killed Litvinenko.
Again comes the question, why? There is zero mileage to be gained from killing a has-been ex-agent who was part of a losing faction (Litvinenko was a protégé of Boris Berezovsky[xiii], a Russian oligarch who was forced to flee Russia after Putin came to power) in a Kremlin power struggle. Litvinenko’s writings were not influential in Russia. And after Putin lifted up the shirt of a young boy and kissed his belly in full public view, Litvinenko was not exactly the only person calling Putin a child molester. Why would Putin care about him? Putin is playing a bigger game, positioning Russia as a major player in the petroleum and natural gas markets in an era of high prices and trying to rebuild Russian power and influence abroad.
Maybe Litvinenko was killed to send a message? Don’t talk mean about Putin or else we’ll spend a tremendous effort in radiochemical processing, gather up a fraction of a gram of substance that easily contaminates its surroundings, then find a way to make sure this tiny amount of material is put in just the right place where you will eat or drink it and then you’ll linger over the course of many weeks, allowing you time to scream to the world that “Putin did it!”
Is it possible that this complicated process was used as a tool of assassination? Sure. Plausible or likely? No. If the Russians want you dead, you will be dead. A bullet or car bomb is far cheaper than Po-210 and, frankly, far more reliable.
Another Kind of Message
There are, of course, other kinds of messages such a death could send. One theory that surfaced, albeit quietly, soon after Litvinenko’s death was that he had accidentally poisoned himself while “playing around with dirty bomb material” [xiv].
Litvinenko’s association with Chechen separatists has been noted above. When still part of the Soviet Union, Chechnya housed a nuclear processing and waste facility near Grozny[xv] and there have been reports of the theft and attempted theft of nuclear materials by Chechen rebels surfacing and resurfacing over the years[xvi].
The fact of his “death bed conversion” to Islam is also a very interesting point to note. Had a KGB and later FSB agent converted to Islam years ago, publicly, one would be forgiven for assuming it was an act, a way for an agent to penetrate a large movement opposing the Soviet, and later Russian State. Instead, we have a man who waited until his time was almost out to acknowledge this part of his life. Whether it was merely to express “solidarity with the Chechen people”[xvii] or whether it was a final public expression of a long-held private belief, this data point should be alarming when paired with the fact that he died from intense poisoning from Po-210.
Bomb, Dirty Bomb, or Other?
To recap, the Chechens have a known history of searching out and attempting to, or succeeding in, stealing nuclear materials for use against Russia. If the Chechens have somehow succeeded in stealing, say, a suitcase nuke, it would be useless to them, as by now the Po-210 used to make the original trigger would have decayed into an inert and useless lump of Lead 206. However, if the Chechens have succeeded in not only obtaining a nuclear warhead, but in stealing enough nuclear waste or material to run through a chemical separation process (something high in Radium content would do, as it can eventually decay down into polonium[xviii], skipping the need to put bismuth in a nuclear reactor), then we have moved things to a whole new level[xix].
The “dirty bomb” argument will be trotted out by the media, but this is a red herring, at least where Po-210 is concerned. Po-210 is practically worthless as dirty bomb material. It barely gives off any gamma rays and can be shielded easily. For a weapon of mass disruption, which is what a dirty bomb is, you need a substance that will set off Geiger counters at a significant rate, allowing the media to record the hisses and clicks as the detection devices are run over the rubble and use that audio and video to spread terror with misinformed newscasts. You want something like Radium, Cobalt 60, or some isotopes of Cesium. Those materials are easier to obtain and play much better on TV. This is almost certainly NOT some dirty bomb story.
Running a chemical separation process on nuclear material is fairly complex and definitely dangerous when working on stolen waste or fuel rods. That said, if the chemical separation step is the only one you need to make, then your problems have been narrowed down considerably. To illustrate this point, please note that the first Po-210 mass-produced for the Manhattan Project was purified in an indoor tennis court on a private estate outside of Dayton, Ohio[xx]. It can be done with limited means if you have people willing to risk intense exposure to the many other very radioactive isotopes that are in the stew of materials from which you are trying to pull your polonium.
What if Litvinenko, in support of his Chechen associates, was involved in the production of a trigger to make a currently-useless nuclear warhead once again operational? He wouldn’t have had to been involved in the actual processing – if done in crude facilities those men or women are already dead. He could have been part of a planning team for the next phase in the Muslim Chechen offensive against Russia. In that capacity, he could have been shown either a device or the trigger itself as proof that their work was yielding results. As we have seen, Po-210 contaminates everything it gets near. A speck smaller than the width of a human hair could have been picked up on his clothing or hands and later ingested. This is not unheard of. Early in the British nuclear program, two workers were found to have been exposed to Po-210. One was through lax manufacturing techniques and the other by ingesting material that was dropped on accident[xxi]. It can happen. It has happened.
Litvinenko falls ill. As it gets worse and worse, he either realizes that he’s accidentally been poisoned or else at the time truly believes the Russians have caught him playing a dangerous game and have poisoned him. Either way, he uses his remaining days to focus suspicion not on his Islamic and Chechen ties, but on a regime most in the West dislike and distrust.
The real message, the one found by reading between the lines, not the headlines, is much more frightening. This message states quite clearly that individuals with known ties to Chechen insurgents (beneficiaries of intense support from radical Islamic terrorists from around the world[xxii]) have succeeded in processing enough nuclear material to produce an exotic substance with one real use – as part of the trigger for a basic nuclear warhead. If these same insurgents have also acquired a nuclear warhead, especially a small nuclear device that could be easily transported, then we have entered into a new nightmare world where terrorists do have a functioning nuclear warhead.
It also means that their supply of Po-210 is almost certainly limited and that every day that passes means their trigger becomes weaker and weaker. Within a year, two at the most, the material obtained with such painstaking effort (if this scenario is true) will become worthless specks of lead. They have no reason to delay in using such a device, if that is their intent.
That’s some message.
[i] Timeline: Former Russian Spy Case. BBC News (updated 10 December 2006). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[ii] Litvinenko Was Told He Was Marked for Death. Michael Evans, et al, Times Online (22 November 2006). Retrieved on 9 December 2006.
[iii] Thallium. Wikipedia article (9 December 2006). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[iv] Thallium Isotopes. GE Nuclear Energy and Lockheed Martin, Chart of the Nuclides, 15th edition.
[v] The Kremlin Pedophile. Alexander Litvinenko (5 July 2006). Retrieved on 8 December 2006.
[vi] Russian Apartment Bombings. Wikipedia article (8 December 2006). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[vii] Did He Let His Guard Down? Ginanne Brownell, Newsweek (30 November 2006). Retrieved on 9 December 2006.
[viii] Polonium article. Weapons of Mass Destruction at GlobalSecurity.org. Retrieved on 10 December 2006
[ix] Suitcase Bomb. Wikipedia article (10 December 2006). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[x] In Full: Litvinenko Statement. BBC News (24 November 2006). Retrieved on 11 December 2006.
[xi] Georgi Markov. Wikipedia article (8 December 2006). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[xii] Her Own Death, Foretold. Anna Politkovskaya. Washington Post (15 October 2006). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[xiii] Boris Berezovsky. Wikipedia article (10 December 2006). Retrieved on 11 December 2006.
[xiv] Litvinenko and His Muslim Connections. The Islamic Threat (8 December 2006). Retrieved on 11 December 2006.
[xv] Russian Nuclear Material Stolen During War in Chechnya. World Information Service on Energy (10 November 1996). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[xvi] Chechen Militants Have Tried To Steal Nuclear Weapons Twice. The London Independent (24 June 2005). Retrieved on 11 December 2006.
[xvii] Alexander Litvinenko. Wikipedia article (10 December 2006). Retrieved on 10 December 2006.
[xviii] Radium Isotopes. GE Nuclear Energy and Lockheed Martin, Chart of the Nuclides, 15th edition.
[xix] Spy Death By Nuclear Poisoning Tied to American Hiroshima. Paul L. Williams and Lee Boyland, Canada Free Press (6 December 2006). Retrieved on 11 December 2006.
[xx] The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Richard Rhodes (1986), pg. 579.
[xxi] Secret File Shows Risk ‘Vastly Overstated’. Ben Fenton, The London Telegraph (5 December 2006). Retrieved on 11 December 2006.
[xxii] Moscow’s North Caucasus Quagmire. International Relations and Security Network (1 June 2006). Retrieved on 11 December 2006.
Sunday, January 7, 2007
Here's the first of hopefully many posts covering science, history, socionomics, finance, fiction, current events and the million other threads that weave together this fascinating world of ours.