Monthly Archives: March 2012

News That’s Fit To Punt 28/Mar/2012

Please Explain, Rupert

It’s been an ugly few months for the Murdoch media empire, but this might be the moment when they finally take one on the chin without being able to duck. Of course, earlier in the day it was revealed that News Corporation had basically paid hackers to crack their opponents security and then made the hack available to people on pirate sites in order to cripple their competitors. I think Stephen Conroy is right. It’s time to call the police. This isn’t some regular bit of dastardly act that passes for corporate cunning to get ahead. This is a publicly listed company instigating and promoting piracy in order to destroy their competition so as to establish a monopoly.

The main news item can be surveyed here from the AFR who have made it available to the wider public. A really interesting tidbit is in this article:

The Panorama program aired emails that apparently showed that the codes of ONdigital were first cracked by a hacker named Oliver Koermmerling. He told the program he had been hired by NDS’s head of UK security, Ray Adams.

Panorama alleged the codes were publicised by the world’s biggest pirate website, the House of Ill Compute (THOIC).

Lee Gibling, who ran THOIC, said Mr Adams sent him the ONdigital codes so other pirates could use them to make thousands of counterfeit smartcards.
He said he was being paid £60,000 a year by Mr Adams and was given thousands more to buy computer equipment. The site had sent people update codes: ”We wanted them to stay and keep on with ONdigital, flogging it until it broke.”

ONdigital, later renamed ITV Digital, lost more than a £1 billion, and 1500 staff lost their jobs when it collapsed in 2002.

Mr Gibling said he and another employee later destroyed much of the computer evidence by smashing hard drives with a sledgehammer.

News Corp’s lawyers, Allen & Overy, denied the claims even before the program was aired. They told media organisations that the claims NDS ”has been involved in illegal activities designed to cause the collapse of a business rival” would be false and libellous and demanded they not be repeated.

NDS also issued emphatic denials: ”It is simply not true that NDS used the THOIC website to sabotage the commercial interests of ONdigital/ITV digital or, indeed, any rival.”

The company admitted Mr Gibling was in its pay but says it was using THOIC as a legitimate undercover device: ”NDS paid Lee Gibling for his expertise so information from THOIC could be used to trap and catch hackers and pirates.”

Uh, yeah, right. isn’t it schoolyard logic that “He who denied it supplied it”? These denials are looking pretty daft. Let’s say for the moment we let it stand that NDS paid Gibling for his expertise and information. Just what expertise and information would Lee Gibling be offering NDS but hacking information? And what were NDS going to do with this hacking information they paid Lee Gibling for?

The funniest thing today might have been News.com.au which didn’t have a single article on this explosive scandal now embroiling the Murdoch media empire.

This leads me to this item sent to me from Pleiades, penned by Stephen Mayne.

 While there have always been plenty of competitors and journalists who take pot-shots at News Corp, the key to its power has been an ability to keep compliant regulators and politicians on side. That all changed in the UK when everyone turned on News Corp over phone hacking. News of the World was closed, scores of employees have been arrested, the BSkyB mop-up takeover was abandoned and there are now serious prospects the company will be kicked out of Britain in disgrace.

Amazingly, News Corp’s share price has soared ever higher in recent months and jumped another 10c to $19.48 this morning, valuing the company at $US51 billion. The Murdoch family has a debt-free $6.5 billion stake in News Corp and appear to be financially unscathed from the British scandal.

But the family’s biggest single earner over the years has been US programming pumped out through the world’s most lucrative global pay-TV distribution channels. Thanks to Chenoweth’s revelations, there are now serious questions being asked as to whether these have been ill-gotten gains.

As for what happens now, I reckon Chenoweth’s package — there’s more to come — will pick up the Gold Walkley in 2012. The Murdochs will be kicked out of Britain, Foxtel won’t be allowed to buy Austar and Sir Rod Eddington, lead independent director of News Corp, will finally develop some spine and intervene to reduce this notorious family’s control over its unethical media empire.

This stuff makes the hacking scandal look like child’s play. Charges should be laid. They need to arrest these people.

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Drive

I’ll Never Understand Critics

I ended up watching ‘Drive’ because I’d seen all these reviews saying how great it was. Having watched it, I’m largely unmoved by it. In recent days I have found it frustrating that ‘John Carter’ gets dismissive reviews while a tedious bit of crime fiction gets such rave reviews. What is going on out there in critic land? Don’t they see enough movies like this? Or is their appetite for petty crime movies so great it is an insatiable hunger?

Or maybe it’s all the gritty realism and the understated naturalism that borders on autism? At least the film isn’t filled with fetish objects, but it is emotionally stilted as they come.

What’s Good About It

There’s always something good in any film. I’m having trouble saying what it is in this film, off the top of my head.

That’s it, …speaking of head. The scene where Ryan Gosling kicks a gangster to death, in the lift – and he’s so angry he keeps stomping on the head until the skull caves in with a nice squelchy sound effect. That was good. I felt his fury in that scene. That bit of sadism felt good.

It’s also good to see a film just show LA in the most ordinary light for a change. No glamour, just streets and streets and streets.

What’s Bad About It

The idea. That’s right. This is yet another film that has an angle on the idea that the perfect crim would be to steal money that is already stolen. This seems to be a meme that is doing the rounds in Hollywood because it’s the core idea of ‘Deception’ starring Ewen McGregor and Hugh Jackman for instance, and the central plank of the Ocean’s 11-13 movies with Brad Pitt and George Clooney.

The idea has the only two benefits of making the victims of the heist deserving, and the cops don’t get involved. But in most instances, it always gets ugly and this film spends a good deal of time exploring that ugliness.

The other bad thing is the directing. It’s way too self conscious in looking for a style and yet lacks tempo and all the odd angles don’t really contribute to the narrative. The performances are strange. It’s hard to tell what these people are thinking or whether it’s just one of those odd moments engineered by odd camera angles to cover a two-hander.  I’m sure the director and the cinematographer thought they were doing ground-breaking work. I kind of wish they’d just gone with the basics. It would’ve made the movie go by quicker.

I don’t usually think in a way that gives films stars but I’ll make an exception for this one – 1/5.

What’s Interesting About It

That it garners such good reviews.

Oh I don’t know. It’s not the worst film I’ve seen, but it’s pretty ordinary and tedious for me. That so many people find it compelling surprises me. But then, I can imagine people said the same thing about ‘Star Wars’ or ‘The Maltese Falcon’  so I’m totally aware that I’m in the minority with this film.

What may be the most interesting thing about this film is just how uninteresting these characters are. The film sets out to show us what a hero-driver he is in the first act and then promptly abandons the importance of this plot point in pursuit of the petty criminal misadventure. The girl next door is literally the girl next door with seemingly little interests. She seems to be a nice person, but that’s about it. Her husband is a convicted criminal who comes out of jail just in time to be a plot complication and before we know it, he’s dead. The bad guy boss played by Ron Perlman seems to be just another movie bad guy. The kid is just this kid; nothing special or endearing or charming.

It’s as if the writers of the screenplay sort of squeezed these characters out from the last end of a toothpaste tube from where these kinds of characters are produced. The story is like 10 pot devices looking to hook up together. If that sort of thing interests you, then this might be your movie too.

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 23/Mar/2012

Shrinking Birthrates, Aging Populations

One of the big issues in Japan is the collapse in fertility rates against the background of an aging population. Obviously, in the absence of immigration, a population will remain flat if the  fertility rate is 2. Anything less than that, and the population curve will head toward an aging population.

Here’s a quick link to the Word Bank’s figures.

In Japan, the fertility rate is 1.4 – and there is substantial debate about how to shore this up because of the looming problems in the pension plans of the near future. Hong Kong is at 1.0; South Korea is at 1.1; Singapore is at 1.2; Chine is at 1.6; and Australia is at 1.9.

The Japanese experience of the post-Bubble has been pretty dire, but it has to be said the bad economic climate contributed greatly to the decline in fertility rates in Japan. A sensible family won’t go into having children in a modernised economy if they can’t afford it, and it’s hard to afford things in a long term recession that kicked off with a property market bubble popping, leaving behind much negative equity in its wake.

I thought it was pertinent to bring all this up right now because the drop in fertility rates can and will affect future growth. As we speak, there’s an increasing amount of properties with negative equity in them according to this link sent in from Skarp.

“Since late 2010, the Australian housing market has been quite weak with home values falling by 5.5 per cent across the combined capital cities since the market peaked,” the report said. “Buyers who purchased a home since this time have in many instances seen the value of their home move below their contract price.”

The Reserve Bank warned last month that falling home prices tend to increase the rate of late payments on mortgages, especially in a recession with rising unemployment. The RBA also urged lenders to maintain high lending criteria to avoid a US-style housing bust.

Home prices in Australia tracked lower through 2011 as interest rate uncertainty, economic jitters and the unwillingness by many households to take on more debt sapped demand.

RP Data showed that Far North Queensland had the highest proportion of mortgages in negative equity, at 22 per cent, followed by Gold Coast, with 19.4 per cent in the quarter.

That’s pretty bad. If this trend continues, it will contribute to fertility rates dropping in Australia, even with the baby bonus.  The more property prices fall, the more it eats into the Federal Government’s tax revenue on Capital Gains Tax. If the Gillard government sticks to its guns on getting back into surplus, then there will have to be some cuts made to the budget in the coming years, and that’s going to have an even more negative impact on asset prices and therefore government revenues.

The point of all this is to say, 1) how can the government be turning away anybody who wants to come live and work in Australia? and 2) What is the point of sticking to this arbitrary return-to-surplus plan when it is actually not helping the economy? Is that really good government?

The RBA is also sticking to its guns – but what worries me about the RBA is that maybe they don’t have a wider picture of the economy in context to the GFC which is still playing out.It is worth asking if Australia really is on the right course.

 

 

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Tron Legacy

Tron Truancy

I keep meaning to put this post up but I keep getting overtaken by other things. it’s a bit like how I avoided this film for a long time. There’s something not quite compelling about this movie at first glance.

I know we do computer graphics much better now than in 1982, but did we really need to revisit the grid after ‘The Matrix’ movies sort of ate and spat out the whole of cyberpunk?

I don’t think I even liked the old ‘Tron’ all that much back in the day either. It was one of those movies that looked a lot better than it played. It had a look all of its own that somehow managed not to tell its story well. Looking back on the DVD of the earlier film, it seems getting the look right was just too much and the action sequences seem disjointed. Perhaps it was overdue for the contemporary cutting edge computer graphics treatment, but I resisted the allure of flashy graphics. After all, how much story could there be? And so it took me a long while to get to it, but I got there in the end and I’m glad I did.

The updated sequel is a surprising film in many aspects.

What’s Good About It

It’s hard to get nostalgic about a movie you didn’t enjoy way back when, but the design in this film extends upon the designs in such a way as to evoke nostalgia for the old film. Now, that’s pretty good. This iteration of the world of the Grid is a lot more sultry, dripping with post-Blade Runner style and infused with a dash of Matrix hi-jinx. It’s the Grid as it should have been back in 1984, but wasn’t.

The graphics are splendid and the image is gorgeous.

What’s Bad About It

In the 21st Century, retconn-ing story-lines is all the rage, so there is elaborate exposition going on at various points in the film, and they are all boring. Getting Jeff Bridges and Bruce Boxleitner back to reprise their roles reinforces the link back to the original film, which is a good thing, but then it works against itself by having to explain how this film connects to the earlier film. This leads to the Hollywood standard absent Daddy narrative which is boring as dried out day-old white toast.

Also, Jeff Bridge’s original character Kevin Flynn rabbits on about Zen as if he’s still playing The Dude from ‘The Big Lebowski’ and Bill Django from ‘Men Who Stare At Goats’. I know it’s the current Jeff Bridges persona that bleeds from one film to another – sometimes successfully as it was for ‘Men Who Stare At Goats’ – but it doesn’t really fit too well in this one; and that’s even if they did write it in pretty hard.

What’s Interesting About It

Cyberpunk and the Matrix movies owe a great deal to the original ‘Tron’ and its abstracted computer graphic spaces. Of course aspects of ‘Tron’ owed a great deal to the second last sequence in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ with the rushing landscape as Dave Bowen enters into the world of the Black Monolith. This film, therefore quotes the room from the final sequence of ‘2001’ as if to make a point. The living quarters where Kevin Flynn has been living for 20 odd years turns out to be a lift of the room Dave Bowen finds himself in, at the end of ‘2001’. It’s a weird kind of circular connection back to the source and is also a weird kind of quoting of Stanley Kubrick but remarkably, it makes an odd kind of sense.

The Grid And The Internet

The Grid is of course the abstract space of computers, as transposed by a laser. For years we’ve had the internet and we’ve assumed that what the original film meant to indicate was the internet, but clearly this is incorrect. The Grid seems to be a definite space that happens inside of computers as a function of computer programs and gaming becoming anthropomorphised.

The grid greatly informs the descriptions of the net in William Gibson’s early work, which at least got the bit about the net becoming a jumble of advertising. Visualising the network to come back in the 1980s was the main business of science fiction; there were some interesting visions of this abstract cybernetic space but it all sort of got packaged up with virtual reality and you had the Matrix movies rounding up a rather banal vision of a Grid that is at once virtual reality, networked, abstract, computerised and brimming with game-like action.

Still, the Internet we’ve ended up with is nothing like the Grid, and we may never approach the grandeur of the Grid unless we hit Ray Kurzweil’s Singularity or something like it. In revisiting the Grid as being separate and totally unlike the internet frees up the possibility for the narrative of an abstracted space. The internet is always a present tense sort of development. Science Fiction demands the future (or an outrageous, hidden past). Seeing the updated vision of the Grid therefore opened the door again to a more genuine cyberpunk vision than with what ‘The Matrix’ left us.

Computer Consciousness

In a lot of Science Fiction stories, we find computers that go Frankenstein. It’s like one of those set pieces in early Star Trek for instance, where Captain Kirk and crew arrive to find a planet that’s under the control of a computer and they have to free the people by making the computer calculate ‘pi’. The computer is out of control in so many of these narrartives, from HAL in ‘2001’ to Wintermute in ‘Neuromancer’ through to whatever the hell it is that goes on in the world of The Matrix. In the original Tron, it was ‘Master Controller’ that tried to usurp the Users (humans).

The most interesting development in this film might be notion that there are already native sentients in the Grid, awaiting contact with humanity. The film could have played out this idea more, but it didn’t probably because the theme is too big. We live in a kind of fear of  the computer taking control but we never seem to ask what the computer wants and whether it really would want to take over from us. All these questions bear asking and pondering.

Still, it’s also quite banal in this film: The ‘other’ lurks in the abstract space of The Grid, but the only way Hollywood can put handles on the idea is to turn into a pretty girl in a tight black suit.

The Abstracted Space

One thing the film and its earlier film really do point at is an abstracted space dominated by thoughts, senses, intuition and emotions. It’s not entirely without merit, although the mechanics of telling an action story detract from the importance of this space. For instance what kind of mind space are we in when we play computer games? I know the traditional description is that we zone out like zombies to play games, but the subjective experience of computer games is a lot more far-reaching and searching.

Clearly the players are in an abstract space of thoughts and intuition and senses; but you would be surprised to know how difficult it is to put the abstract on the screen. A good example of this might be that you can put lots of bad guys in a movie, but you can’t really put an abstraction of evil in a movie; you can only point at it through ciphers of actions and characterisations. The apparent banality of film development often revolve around these very kinds of problems.

The Tron movies might be the only films that offer up the abstract space as a visible space. Certainly it has had far-reaching influence over how we have pictured what the world of sentient computers might look like. On the one hand the internet has turned out to be quite unlike the Grid, but it is possible Technological Singularity might turn out to be quite like the Grid, if only we could experience it.

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Aftermath Of Abu Ghraib Awfulness

Still Can’t Get A Date She Says

If there was one aspect of the Iraq War that stood out as awful, it had to be those photos of Lynndie England holding the leash of Iraqi prisoners who were being humiliated and tortured. The subsequent outcry and trial basically worked out as pinning all the blame on Lynndie England, and in a totally predictable way the US Army tried to make out Lynndie England was the lone-nut/bad-apple of that unit.

It’s hard to believe 8years have passed since then, so it took me by surprise that somebody went and found her and interviewed her. Just as predictably with the Army, her responses are mind-numbingly ornery.

“I think about it all the time—indirect deaths that were my fault,” England told the Daily’s M.L. Nestel in an interview Monday from her hometown of Fort Ashby, West Virginia. “Losing people on our side because of me coming out on a picture.”
England makes no apologies, however, to the Iraqis she and ten other U.S. soldiers were accused of abusing at the prison.

Photographs of England smiling with a “thumbs up” gesture in front of a pyramid of naked Iraqi detainees and pulling an Iraqi man by a leash caused international outrage and came to symbolize the ill-fated 2003 U.S. invasion as Iraq plunged into bloody insurgency in 2004. “They weren’t innocent,” England told Nestel of the Iraqi prisoners. “They’re trying to kill us, and you want me to apologize to them? It’s like saying sorry to the enemy.”
“They got the better end of the deal,” she said.

She also, unsurprisingly, is finding it hard to date, telling Nestel: “It’s gone on eight years now since I left Iraq, since I’ve really been out with a guy.”

Not that we expect a great deal from this woman who was once described as being borderline retarded by her former teachers; and yet she sort of shows she’s stayed the same simple, village idiot of the US reserves. Somehow it seems to make the issue worse by pinning it all on to this silly woman; but with 8years gone and a prison sentence served and a dishonorable discharge later, who’s really asking? None of this was edifying when it was going on, but the more time goes on, the more it seems like the real culprits got away and are laughing at us all from wherever they are.

As stupid as she is, we’re the bigger idiots for accepting the verdict that says this woman was responsible for all of it.

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Politics Of Weird

When The Going Gets Weird, The Weird Turn Pro

That’s of course according to the late Hunter S. Thompson. Today, billionaire coal magnate Clive Palmer accused the Greens and Greenpeace of being funded by the CIA via the Rockefeller Foundation.

While brandishing a copy of the report this afternoon, Mr Palmer said it was the result of a CIA conspiracy involving the US-based Rockefeller Foundation.
“This is funded by the CIA,” he said.
“You only have to go back and read … the report to the US Congress that sets up the Rockefeller Foundation as a conduit of CIA funding.
“You only have to look at the secret budget which was passed by Congress last year – bigger than our whole national economy – with the CIA to ensure that.
“You only have to read the reports to US Congress where the CIA reported to the president that their role was to ensure the US competitive advantage – that’s how you know it’s funded by the CIA.”

The Greens and Greenpeace both denied these outlandish allegations vigorously. Let’s face it, you wouldn’t credit it all given that it’s coming from Clive Palmer’s paranoid little mind, but they had to defend it because well, Clive’s sort of in politics advising Campbell Newman. One imagines that is a bit like being advised by your paranoid conspiracy theorist super-wealthy uncle. And Queensland is looking like it’s going to elect this Newman-led LNP, so all I can say is good luck with that boys & girls of Queensland!

Yowza.

Just for kicks I googled the document Mr. Palmer was brandishing and got this one.  I guess if one were a coal mining magnate, one would feel fear and loathing with a good dose of fury at reading it, but I just can’t find the bit where it says Rockefeller Foundation. And I sure as heck don’t know how he got the CIA out of the un-mentioned Rockefeller Foundation so colour me sceptical.As far as theories go, there are too many plausible deniability stops along the way.
Still, I found it interesting that Clive Palmer came across as so paranoid and nutty. The more he speaks in public, the more he comes across as sort of unhinged.

 

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News That’s Fit To Punt – 19/Mar/2012

The Capital Gains Revenue And The Property Bubble

I wrote about the problems of vested interests leading to the disasters in Japan, several times. In Australia we’re at this smug point of history where our government debt ratio to GDP is low and the current ALP government is aiming for a surplus by 2013. That being said, there seem to be some serious miscalculations that are going to make it very hard according to this article in the SMH.

Parkinson said that since the global financial crisis, federal tax revenue had fallen by the equivalent of 4 percentage points of gross domestic product [about $60 billion a year] and was ”not expected to recover to its pre-crisis level for many years to come”.

This had made the task of maintaining medium-term budgetary sustainability harder for both the Commonwealth and the states. ”For both levels of government, surpluses are likely to remain razor-thin without deliberate efforts to significantly increase revenue or reduce expenditure,” he warned.

The most obvious (and least consequential) implication of this news is its threat to Julia Gillard’s resolve to return the budget to surplus next financial year without fail.

But Gillard’s problems pale in comparison to Tony Abbott’s, with his oddly ideological and populist commitment to rescind both Labor’s carbon tax and its mining tax without rescinding all the tax cuts and spending increases the taxes will pay for.
There seems little doubt Abbott’s term in office would either be marked by an orgy of broken promises or be consumed by agonising over what spending to cut, with eternal lobbying both before and after the fact. Probably a fair bit of both.

Parkinson is telling us there’s now a disconnect in the established relationship between the rate of growth in the economy and the rate of growth in tax collections. The economy can be growing at a reasonable rate without that meaning tax collections are growing strongly.
It will be a lot harder in future for politicians of either side to keep the budget in surplus. What was a doddle in the noughties will now require unremitting discipline and political courage.

That’s interesting news. Basically, under the Howard government, government coffers were filled by the GST as well as the Capital Gains Tax. So, in feeding and growing the property bubble, the Federal Government under John Howard and then the ALP Rudd government up until the GFC, benefited mightily from the capital gains on the properties that changed hands. Now that the GFC has put a dent in that bubble (and the bubble has not blown – yet…), the government revenue has been hit.

Now that growth in government income has stopped, and has started to slide back, the government is going to have to either cut spending drastically (austerity anybody?)  raise taxes to fill the shortfalls somehow (“God forbid” say the right wing ideologues).

The thing about this particular problem is that as Ross Gittins points out:

Keeping the budget in ”razor-thin surplus” will be hard enough; eliminating net debt will be very much harder – especially since the potential-privatisations cupboard is now almost bare.
It would be the easiest thing in the world for our pollies on both sides to catch a dose of the North Atlantic disease and let deficits and debts roll on.
Should this happen, it will be because they possess neither the bloody-mindedness to live up to their professed smaller government ideal nor the courage to make and defend explicit tax increases. As in the North Atlantic economies, it will be the path of least resistance.

If I sound like a broken record, bear with me but this is exactly where Japan went off the rails in the 1990s and into the 2000s, inclusive of the Koizumi government that was so popular and so lacking in intellectual rigor. They just kept racking up debt to fund white elephants to buy votes in obscure rural electorates, and putting off the big problems into the future. The thing is, applied to Australia and politics being the way it is with the electorate mood being what it is, it’s hard to imagine either of the major parties having a lot of gumption in making the tough calls, so you can easily see the same thing being played out over here.

And there’s the problem. If the government won’t bear down and make the tough calls, that is going to be the very recipe by which our government deficit will grow. If and when the property bubble pops, then the Federal and State governments are both going to be in big trouble because revenue from both capital gains tax and stamp duty will take a giant hit. Inevitably, the governments of either persuasion are going to have to look at raising income tax and company tax.

I just thought it was pertinent that we point out why the Federal government might want the bubble to keep going a bit longer and might be willing to spend its savings to do so. It explains why Kevin Rudd spent the money on the First Home Owner’s Grant instead of trying to reform the markets. The last thing the government wanted was for asset prices to fall. Doubtless, we’ll be in for a hell of a time when it eventually does fall.

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