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Collected editorials

The eyes have it

Smoke, smoke, that cigarette

From time to time I check out the Red Tape Chronicles to renew my faith in the government and American business. If you check it out, you will see what sort of faith I have. The November 21, 2008 article is entitled TEN YEARS LATER, TOBACCO DEAL GOING UP IN SMOKE. You may recall the deal; ten years ago a bunch of states got together, sued the tobacco industry, and made a deal wherein the tobacco industry would pay so many millions of dollars a year to said states, who in turn would use the money for anti-smoking campaigns and health care for tobacco users.

At the time I said to myself, Revered Eminent Self, this surely cannot be a good idea. These states will now have a vested interest in the profitability of the tobacco companies. Little did I know what the toxic (love that word) combination of Big Tobacco, States thirsty for money, and Wall Street would produce.

Originally the theory was that the blood, er, tobacco money would be used for anti-smoking campaigns, and health care for tobacco related illnesses. However there was nothing to stop the states to use that nice little income stream for something else. States are always looking for new ways to spend money without raising taxes.

Don Benton, a Republican state senator in Washington, told USA Today that spending on smoking cessation programs was “a complete waste of money. You’d be hard-pressed to find any citizen who does not know smoking is hazardous to your health.” He wanted the money to go instead to infrastructure projects like new roads. “Sitting in traffic for two hours would make you want to smoke,” he told the newspaper.
It didn’t take long for the states to get a little greedier. Why wait for each year for another check when you could get the whole thing up front? Well, not exactly up front – but you could get 30-40% of it. It’s sort of like a lottery payoff. To get the whole thing you have to get a check every year for twenty years; however you can a one time payment that is quite a bit less.

Suppose you are an individual with some kind of structured settlement or annuity, and that you “need cash now”. There are firms, J.G. Wentworth and Peachtree come to mind, that give you a lump sum in exchange for that income stream. They advertise their services on TV so I don’t suppose they are cheap. I particularly like a J.G. Wentworth ad that features opera singers in viking outfits singing about needing cash now. One line from their ads described the thinking of the states perfectly, “It’s your cash; use it when you need it.”

There was a problem. Firms like J.G. Wentworth don’t operate on the scale that the states need. Besides, they are not, ah, respectable enough. What to do, what to do? Fortunately (!) there was a solution; they could talk to Wall Street.

Wall Street has a handy financial gadget ready and waiting for this kind of thing; it’s called securitization. Basically the idea is that you create a piece of paper, i.e., a security that is collateralized by some kind of income stream. The original recipient of the income stream sells the security for cash up front, and the buyer gets the income stream. At the time Wall Street was securitizing mortgages big time. You know how that turned out.

In the case of tobacco money the process was a little different from the mortgage fiasco. They created a special kind of bond called a tobacco bond. The idea is that the bond holders would get the tobacco settlement stream and the states would get upfront cash. Since these were a new kind of bond their return rate was a little higher. It was a win-win situation. The investors, mostly bond funds tweaking their performance, got bonds with a better return. Wall street was happy – the underwriters got all of those nice commissions. And the states were happy, too. They got that nice chunk of cash to take care of things like roads, and state employee salaries.

Or was it a win-win situation? There is a little gotcha in the fine print. There always is, you know. It turns out that those bond interest payments are guaranteed by the state. As long as the tobacco settlement money keeps coming in all is hunky-dory; the money comes in one door and goes out another. But what happens if Big Tobacco should go under? What if everybody quit smoking? What then? Well things would get sticky real fast, that’s what would happen.

It’s ironic. The tobacco settlement came about as part of a general campaign to eliminate smoking. It’s turned around; now the states are committed to the ongoing profitability of big tobacco.

“Fears that new tobacco litigation could undermine the settlement run so high that 36 states filed briefs in 2003 in support of the tobacco industry after it was hit with a $10 billion judgment from a lawsuit for alleged false advertising.”
So if you live in one of the many states that securitized tobacco money, smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette. Smoke until you smoke yourself to death. The financial future of your state depends upon you.

Incidentally, South Dakota is one of those states, and Massachusetts isn’t. Regardless of what SD needs, my lungs are in MA on this one.

About those Mexican diamonds

“(PhysOrg.com) — Whoever thought that science was a dry subject might change their mind after learning about a new discovery in which tequila is turned into diamonds. A team of Mexican scientists found that the heated vapor from 80-proof (40% alcohol) tequila blanco, when deposited on a silicon or stainless steel substrate, can form diamond films.”

You can get more details at http://www.physorg.com/news145255770.html.

All I can say is that we have a lot budding scientists here in Hyde County.

Under Estimating George Bush

People always under estimate George Bush. Remember when gas was four dollars a gallon and people said that we’d never see two dollars a barrel again? Remember when illegal aliens were streaming across the border to snap up jobs in America? Remember how people said nothing could be done about it?

People just didn’t have faith. They under estimated George Bush. George fixed it. Gas is under two dollars a gallon and illegal immigration is way down. True, he had to wreck the world economy to do it, but people got what they asked for.

The moral of the story are “be very careful about what you ask for and never, ever under estimate George W. Bush”.

The Pee Girls, part II

My faithful readers may recall the saga of the pee girls. They’ve have been administered justice in the courts of the land. Last month I reprinted details of their sentences from an article in the Miller Press. This month, not to be outdone, the Highmore Herald gave the official details in the Court News. It seems that their was one small clause that the Miller Press article omitted. I quote:

5) submit to testing of her blood or other bodily fluids to determine there is no danger to HIV/AIDS or Hepatitis C. Defendant shall present the results of the test to the state within 3 months. Sign a sworn statement stating the defendant is not a carrier of sexually transmitted disease;
How embarrassing.

The Miller Press article included a detail not present in the Highmore Herald account. According to the Miller Press condition (3) read as follows:

participate in the 24/7 Sobriety program for a period of three months beginning on September 29, 2008 which includes submitting to a breath test twice a day to be administered by the sheriff in their counties.
The underlined clause does not appear in the presumably official version as reported by the Highmore Herald. It seems likely that the Miller Press felt it desirable to include some explanatory material. I speculate that the certification of bodily purity is necessary for the protection of those administering the breath test.

Or something like that.

The compleat world traveler

I want to hang a map of the world on a wall in my house…

When it’s hung I will put push pins into all the locations that I’ve travelled to, But first I’m gonna have to travel to the top two corners of the map, so that the map will not fall off the wall…

Is your brain more radioactive than mine?

Most but not all of your brain cells were formed within the first three years of your life. As it happens, there was a spike in atmospheric C-14 during the atomic bomb testing years. Since the test ban treaty the spike has been slowly decaying, albeit not too fast since the half life of C-14 is several thousand years. (The spike is being diluted by all of the new C-12 we’ve been pumping into the atmosphere. Who said there were no upsides to global warming.) The upshot is that if you are a baby boomer or later you have a radioactive brain.

This may explain a lot about what has been going on in the world in the last fifty years.

Big sister is watching you

I’m not sure that I am prepared to deal with everything that’s happening in our brave new world of the twenty first century. That’s not a good sign – I’ve been a science fiction fan for decades, follow the science and technology news, and have a stack of books about futurology. If I can’t take the future, who can. (Teenagers, that’s who. It’s easier to swallow the future if you have no past.)

The latest is Tanya Vlach, a rather good looking 35 year old San Francisco artist, who only has one good eye. (Tanya lost an eye in a 2005 car accident.) Tanya has a realistic artificial eye. She wants more. She wants a webcam in her artificial eye. Her desire is the topic of the day all over the techie blogosphere. Apparently it is all quite feasible. According to the experts you seal a small webcam inside the artificial eye. It has a wireless connection to a smart phone which in turn is connected to the web.

One wag remarked that it would be great for finding lost keys; you just replay your vision webcam (eyecam?) until you see the keys. But you don’t have to watch the replay! Nowadays they have algorithms for searching for images. You just tell the computer “Show me the last place where I saw my keys” and up pops a picture.

I wonder about the legal implications of all of this, though. Suppose Tanya is implicated in some crime. Can they issue a search warrant for her eyecam recordings or are they covered under the fifth amendment? What about conversations? If she is looking at someone while they are speaking can the police look at the recording and use a lip reader to figure out what the person was saying? Oh well, the supreme court can decide these questions in the fullness of time.

I don’t even want to speculate about what the porn industry would do with such devices. There are places that, well, one just shouldn’t go.

Corporate Amerika against the people

One of the things that I follow is a website called slashdot whose logo is News for nerds that matters. One the topics that shows up regularly is the RIAA, aka the Recording Industry Association of America. It’s mission is to defend the artists and recording studios against black hearted pirates who share music across the internet without paying royalties — at least that is the version of the story.

The truth seems to be less savory. Currently there are two class actions suits against the RIAA alleging among other things that it is a corrupt organization violating the RICO statutes. We can’t have that. The RICO statute exists for prosecuting criminal organizations, not good American business men. We’ll get back to you on that when we figure out the difference.

The process works something like this: The RIAA works with a investigation company that snoops around the web to catch people sharing copyrighted music on the internet. Apparently this company isn’t licensed to do this in many of the states where they snoop, but that doesn’t seem to matter. There methods don’t seem to be all that reliable, either. Mostly they catch college students, although they have managed to catch a handicapped woman who didn’t own a computer. That doesn’t matter. When the RIAA identifies a victim, er, culprit, they make a demand for several thousand dollars as compensation for purloined music. They will take this to court, if needful, preferably in front of a gullible judge. (There was a notorious case recently where the RIAA sued some hapless woman and won a judgement of several hundred thousand dollars. The judge later threw out the award when it dawned on him that the RIAA had made several statements about facts and damages that were less than accurate.) The upshot is that almost everyone who gets jobbed by the RIAA has no practical recourse other than to pay up, because they are little and the RIAA is big.

Some people, however, don’t cave in and fight back. They have help. There are lawyers and groups that really don’t think much of business using the legal system this way. It turns out many judges are realizing that the courts are being abused and that the RIAA’s legal documents are less than they ought to be.

“The concern of this Court is that in these lawsuits, potentially meritorious legal and factual defenses are not being litigated, and instead, the federal judiciary is being used as a hammer by a small group of plaintiffs to pound settlements out of unrepresented defendants.”

-Hon. S. James Otero, District Judge, Central District of California, March 2, 2007, Elektra v. O’Brien, 2007 ILRWeb (P&F;) 1555

Remember what I said about eating our young …

Lighter again

In my later years in Boston my weight crept slowly up over the years. During my first few days back in South Dakota it crept up rather more rapidly, until it reached nearly 230 pounds. This for a man who once thought that 175 pounds was quite enough, thank you. In 2002 I went on an enthusiastic weight loss regime. By early 2003 I had brought it down to about 185, a weight that I maintained for about a year and a half. In late 2004 it climbed back up to about 191 and then in 2007 and through most of 2008 it was about 192. These are median weights – my daily morning weight generally is within a five pound range over the course of a month.

How do I know this? I know it because I religiously weigh myself twice a day, once in the morning and once at night. I record the weights in a file on my computer. Each month I record the range of morning weights on a chart on a web page. Our Lady of the Large Black Dog mutters things like anal-retentive and obsessive compulsive about such activities; I look at her blankly and say, yes, so?

In my defense, studies of people who have lost significant amounts of weight have shown that people who weigh themselves regularly are much less likely to gain most of the weight back. Apparently the scale is a harsh taskmaster. If I have not been as good about keeping the pounds off and exercising regularly as I should be, still the scale has a weigh of saying, watch it buddy.

In the last couple of months my morning weight has dropped back to the 185 range, something it has not been for upwards of four years. Does this represent a new determined spasm of dieting. Well, not exactly. As it happens, at the end of September I had two teeth taken out, one on each side of my mouth. The upshot was that I couldn’t chew on either side of my side of my mouth while the holes healed; instead I had to chew with my front teeth. This is a slow process; one takes small bites and chews very thoroughly. Not eating very much is a good way to lose weight.

Mind you, I’m rather happy with the result and hope to stay at about this weight. Most of the weight has come off of my middle, a persistent pad of belly that shrinks very slowly. Our Lady of the Large Black Dog worries that I will lose too much weight and be much too skinny. I will grant that I am slender by local standards. (Local standards seem to be that anyone who doesn’t have his belly hanging over his belt is dangerously underweight.) I don’t think she has much to worry about though. I’m far too fond of good food and good wine to return to what I weighed in my younger years.

This page was last updated December 1, 2008.

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Collected editorials