Friday, October 10, 2008

Good Time to Buy Property?

James Call: Expert. Smart! Sassy! Government employed!

Reader "Mandy" asks: Should poor people like myself start investing in property now that prices are down? Or is now the worst time to apply for a loan?

In a word, nope. Don't invest yet. Home prices have not hit bottom. They should be hitting total rock bottom most likely in 6 months. The question is, will you have a job in 6 months? Maybe if these central banks get their shit together this weekend and the TED spread narrows, businesses will stay afloat. But don't count on having a job 6 months from now if you're working in a non-essential business sector.

However, yeah, soon... 3-9 months from now... good time to invest in home prices if you got that sort of money. ESPECIALLY in places like the suburbs of LA or the Bay Area, parts of Boston, etc. Those property values eventually will rise again. Don't bother with Podunk nowhere exurbs in Missouri. We're not likely to see a return to full value for those properties until inflation causes literally every commodity and property to rise in value.

As for applying for a loan... I'm not sure you're going to get a loan. Banks are loathe to lend to each OTHER, let alone you. If your credit is top notch and your income is considerable, go for it, but like I said, wait a few months.

This is a fantastic time to invest in oil, though! That will go straight back up as soon as this credit crisis begins to resolve. Far quicker than real estate.

RECOMMENDED READING: I would stay away from most conventional investment magazines and websites for the time being. They helped get us into this mess. Stick with the economist, the NY Times, the WSJ, more clinical sources. Check out the "Naked Capitalism" blog and follow the links around.

Turkic is a language group

Reader "Alex" comments:

Turkic is basically a language group, not an ehthicity - thouhg mnay groups are ethnically close as well, of course.. an unreltaed but culturally intersting note: took Aidan to the nearby park to play baseball.. local Kurds ( large population in nashville, since we're so close to Kirkuk) were having their post-ramadan Eid feast/party/pinic.. a group of 30-40 year-oldish men set out a nice rug on the grass and sat, crossed-legged and played some sort of vicious gambling game , with much earnest and loud discussion... all we needed were a winged Bulls and some water-wheels, et voila! Kurdistan!

True true. That's because the "Turks" who come out of the Caucasus quickly interbreed with the assorted groups they subjugate. I'm sorry if I didn't make that point more clearly in my earlier post... and it's true! Those Kurds don't fall far from the Assyrian tree. Same region, after all. Very ancient bloodlines course through these conquered peoples. Unfortunately, they're all YHWH/God/Allah worshippers now and have turned away from the ancient Gods. Oh well, a boy can dream.

What those Kurds are doing in Nashville, I really don't know, however. And why are there so many Armenians in LA? Someone explain that to me.

RECOMMENDED READING: I know I already mentioned The Great Game series by Peter Hopkirk, but let me just endorse it again, along with The Cartoon History of the Universe vols. 1 and 3 specifically.

Fouding of Germany

James Call: Expert! He isn't getting laid, because he's writing this blog! But he is still smarter and better than you. And all his opinions and facts are 100% accurate.

Reader "Damian" asks: When and how did Germany become a country?

Oh man, what a great question! Germany's unification is one of the most ass-kicking unifications of all time, and features one of my favorite practitioners of realpolitik, ladies and gentlemen, let's get a big round of applause for... OTTO. VON. BISMAAAAAAAARK!

Ok, so, back in the day, Northern Germany was the big nastay Kingdom of Prussia. Berlin was the Prussian capital, I'm pretty sure, and Prussia also stretched all the way out to Bonn (future Western German capital). In the Seven Years War, in which Frederick the Great invaded neighboring Saxony, Prussia kicked the asses of Russia, France, Austria, and Sweden, all at the same time. This marked Prussia as the military badasses of Europe for the next century and a half. Oh, except when they totally got their clocks cleaned by Napoleon Bonaparte, but that's a story for another time.

Point is, post-Napoleon, the old Holy Roman Empire (don't even BOTHER trying to understand that nonsense) was dissolved and a "German Confederation" was in its place. Problem is, these assorted Krauts really didn't have too much in common. The Prussians and the Frissians and the Bavarians were like Californians, Nevadans and Coloradoans. I.e., similar, but they'd hardly say that about each other. The Bavarians in particular were known for their foul manners and low breeding. These people didn't like each other so much.

But what these little states all had in common was that they were tired of being pushed around by France, Austria, etc. They were also the "workshops of Europe," really the birthplace of modern industrial development (along with England the U. S. of A.). During the tumult of the mid-19th century, communism was born here! Karl Marx was a German through and through, the good kind, the intellectual who called for states to be abolished and the workers to run the world. Sigh. A girl can dream, can't she?

But little dinky worker's revolts don't build big countries like Germany. Nope, modern warfare builds countries! So when Wilhelm I of Prussia named Bismark Chancellor in 1862, what did Bismark do, other than rapidly modernize the military and start laying down rail (later VERY important)? He started invading his neighbors.

In three successive wars, Prussia kicked the ass of the Austrians, the Southern German states, and France. Definitely the coolest war was the Franco-Prussian war of 1871. This was the first war to really rely heavily on rail (discounting the US Civil War, of course). While the French relied on traditional infantry and cavalry, the Prussians used railways to quickly reach the front - and managed to conquer all of Northern France, including Paris.

Of course, Bismark wasn't a barbarian, and that's what makes him so great. He let Paris go free and most of France return to the French. In exchange, he got recognition of a whole new country: Germany.

And that's how Germany was born! Iron and blood! That, and Bismark's top-notch ability to build alliances and take down ONE enemy at a time: Austria, then France, etc.

Germany was KEPT ALIVE by Bismark's crazy mad diplomacy skillz. He was able to make the peace with both Russia and Austria, to keep Germany's traditional enemy, France, isolated (Bismark was only on good terms with newly-unified Italy, as well as Britain).

Of course, when Kaiser Wilhelm II got the helms of the state, he totally disregarded Bismark's advice and was all "We can take on France and Russia at the same time! Get out of here, Otto!" Which any Risk player can tell you is a totally asinine strategy to pursue, but that's what he did, and then we got WWI, and then we got the Nazis, and then we got WWII, and then we got Kraftwerk, and I guess it's all good, but Wilhelm II should have listened to Bismark... maybe France would be owened by Germany today.

p.s.: Don't get me wrong though, Bismark was virulently anti-worker and wanted to completely crush the socialists, something he was not able to do, as vigorous socialist and communist parties and movements continued in Germany well up into the 1930s, when they were finally snubbed out by the Nazis.

RECOMMENDED READING: Play some Castle Risk! Try basing yourself in Germany and keeping yourself alive against both Russia and France. It can't be done. Or read any military history of the 19th and/or 20th century. They're all say the same thing.

Nukes and the Prisoner's Dilemna

James Call: Expert! Smarter than you! Also handsome!

Reader "Amy" requests: "explain the prisoner's dilemma and comment on whether you think the USA is increasing the risk of nuclear war by having WMD. "

Oh, the prisoner's dilemma. A great dilemma, one of my faves.

Ok, the premise of the dilemma is this: two people are arrested, and throw in jail. They alleged committed or were planning a crime together. The police separate them, and offer each a deal: if you testify against the other prisoner, you go free and he/she stays in jail. If NEITHER of you testify, you both stay in jail for a little bit, but eventually go free. But if you BOTH testify, the jail term is longer.

Classic game theory shit, nice thing to teach schoolchildren. Sets you to to understand "nuclear deterrence" and "mutually assured destruction" (MAD). MAD basically states that if you're facing down a person with nukes, and vice versa, one of you is going to have to be batshit insane to launch a nuclear attack, because that will end all life on Earth forever, and no one wants that. The point of war is to win, not for everyone to lose.

Thankfully so far nukes haven't gotten into the hands of people who literally want to blow up the Earth. But they will, one day, if we don't get rid of them.

Look at Hitler. During his "downfall," he wanted Germany itself to burn. Kill 'em all, and let God sort 'em out. Imagine if he had had nukes! That would have been it for the Earth, potentially. He was genuinely crazy enough to use them. Most world leaders are NOT, but that's why I keep saying you should read Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It CAN happen here, ladies and gentlemen.

But assuming no madmen are around, MAD works very well. Imagine if there had been no nuclear deterrence during the Cold War!!! Holy fuck, that would have been awesome!!! It would have been the bloodiest, and largest, land/sea/air war of all time. World War III! That would have ruled so hard.

But the pinko commie rats didn't want to blow up the Earth, nor did the yankee imperialist swine. That's why the Cold War wasn't really a "war" at all, it was a gentleman's agreement to divide up the Earth between two "opposing ideologies" (questionable at times).

However, since nukes are so freaking powerful, you really don't need too many to achieve MAD conditions. Let's look at today's nuclear powers. For good measure, let's include those who are unofficial or former nuclear powers. So that gives us: the US of A, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, France, England, Israel, Nouth Korea, and South Africa. Soon to include Iran (yay, go Persia!). Now, let's say each of those powers has 10 hydrogen bombs. That's a total of 110 hydrogen bombs, discounting Iran. That's MORE than enough to create pollution so severe that mankind is almost totally eliminated. Let's crank it up to, say, 30 bombs per world power, and you have enough destructive force + radiation to end life on Earth. Period.

So where the WMD issue becomes a problem is when you exceed the MAD threshold. I'm not sure how many thousands of nukes we have left in this country, but we do have thousands: more than enough to destroy the Earth many times over. Now let's say we get sloppy and let a few nukes slip - you can sell those fuckers for a pretty penny.

Now one of those nukes ends up in the hands of a suicide bomber.


And that's the problem with the prisoner's dilemma/MAD... that you can go too far with it. Most of our nukes, I maintain, were built with profit, rather than strategic, motives in mind. There's money to be made in selling missiles to the government. But eventually, when central governments melt down - like the USSR's, like Pakistan's often does - nukes get loose. And then you REALLY have to track them down. It's one thing for North Korea's petty dictators to have a bomb. But what about the Taliban? Can you imagine that shit?

But keep deterrence levels manageable, and they're excellent: look, so far, no WWIII. If we ever figure out how to "defeat" nuclear weapons, you can expect another serious land/sea/air war. Hopefully, this won't happen in our lifetimes. Nor will the madmen getting the bomb. But that's a more likely scenario: it's all just a matter of time.

RECOMMENDED READING: I would just watch Dr. Strangelove over and over. Also, anything on Henry Kissinger, a master of nuclear deterrence theory.

Is global warming manmade?

Welcome to James Call: Expert. I am smarter than you and I'm going to tell you how it is. Shut up and listen.

Reader "Amy" asks: "is global warming man made?"


Does the Earth have natural heating and cooling cycles? Yes, of course. However, they occur over HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF YEARS.

Meanwhile, the increasing pace of icecap melting directly correlates to the amount of man-made carbon in the air. Carbon traps heat and melts shit and fucks us up. It's well documented.

The "scientists" who dispute this are crackpots and/or paid off by special interests. It's that simple.

EDIT: Ha ha, reader "Liz" informs me that I shouldn't refer to the scientists who dismiss the manmade nature of global climate change (not warming ... I just prefer to use "warming" 'cause I was raised with it) as "crackpots," or even paid off. And it's true, I'm being a little harsh. After all, the Earth does seem to heat up significantly and cool down about every 100,000 years, and the last time it was really hot was about 100,000 years ago. Nonetheless, the significance of the change within ONE CENTURY, which is a blip in terms of the Earth's timeline, would seem to indicate that the large amount of carbon in the air, belched out by indsutry, has heated our world significantly.

But that's not to say that everywhere is just going to get HOT, which is the problem with the term "global warming". Global Climate Change is the correct term, because what's really going to happen is the weather is going to get more intense.

RECOMMENDED READING: Any basic science textbook. Plus, watch "Nova".

On Energy

Reader "Adam" writes:

While your right that transportation, communications and basic utilities infrastructure in this country, much of which has been steadily decaying since the depression, are desperately in need of updates and repair, I don't see how you can endorse the use of atomic power. Even if you ignore the possibility of nuclear catastrophe (which is certainly plausible given the complete lack of government oversight, rampant corruption and incompetence in America) atomic power plants have never been efficient. They generally end up losing money and require government bailouts. Obtaining and refining uranium takes a lot of energy. So does transporting and storing the resulting toxic waste. Atomic power plants cost hella money to build and can only be used for a limited amount of time before they need to be replaced. Unlike power from solar, wind, tidal (etc) sources which are essentially limitless and cause little to no environmental destruction. These would not require the centralized corporate monopolies that currently control our public utilities. Of course these technologies aren't efficient enough yet to support our decadent American lifestyles, but if we spent a fraction of what we spend securing the last of the world's fossil fuels on "alternative" power sources, we'd be way closer to weaning ourselves off these power sources which are fast becoming completely obsolete. Yeah, Obama says he's all for atomic power, but he also supports offshore drilling, ethanol and the mythological "clean coal" all of which will be environmentally disastrous and wont do dick in the long run for our "fuel crisis".

Well, you're quite right. Nuclear waste disposal is a serious issue. I still stand by nuclear as a quality alternative to clean coal, which would indeed be a disaster, and especially ethanol, which is already a disaster in some ways.

And that's the real problem with Obama, in my view: he's already in the pocket of Midwestern agricultural interests who want us to rely on 2:1 (output to input) corn ethanol, when 6:1 Brazilian sugar ethanol is readily available... and besides, ethanol PERIOD shouldn't be used, it's a pollutant just like oil, and solar and wind are coming of age.

I disagree about the monopoly issue, though: it's never too late to start cornering the market on solar and wind. After all, both solar and wind will require a vast new upgrade of the national energy grid to be efficient. Such a massive undertaking will require the power and coordination of the federal government. And the federal government can be very easily swayed by a few wealthy individuals. After all, that's by and large how the oil industry came to power: wildcatting, followed by local monopolies, followed by larger monopolies with government influence.

I think this the most likely future of the solar and wind industries. However, I'd rather have clear energy monopolies than dirty energy monopolies. And monopolies -can- be regulated in a way that decentralized energy perhaps cannot.

What I'm trying to say is, in the course of setting up the energy grid, solar/wide/tidal monopolies will probably come to be, simply due to how the access to gov't game is played.

RECOMMENDED READING: The whole sleiugh of oil industry books I've mentioned, but especially The Prize by Daniel Yergin. The Economist is a great place to read about the new energy industry, but bear in mind they take a very free-market-booster approach, so read between the lines. And there's so much reading on how monopolies are born and come to influence gov't that I really don't know where to begin. Revisit your American Pageant or whatever and read the bit about the breakup of Standard Oil back in, what, 1911? I think it's 1911.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Summing it Up: Late September

Ok! As we move into a whole new month for James Call: Expert, I'm going to quickly sum up what's come so far. Some of you have noted that my posts are a bit long and maybe difficult to follow. So just read THIS post... I'm about to break it all down into soundbytes for y'all.

What caused our financial meltdown?

Years of no oversight of finance, the growth of finance as a portion of our entire economy, all of us counting on our homes and credit cards instead of, say, earning a healthy wage, and this fucking sleight-of-hand chop-chop BS called "CDOs" in which really bad loans were bundled with good ones to look fantastic. And the heavy reliance on finance heavy hitters, even old, respectable ones, on said BS.

Is John McCain's little "suspending his campaign" gambit gonna work?

I (sort of) called it - it did not. It just made McCain look stupid. Like everything else these days.

Who won the debate?

I was more or less right about this too. After all, I am very, very smart, and better than you. The debate was not a game changer. Obama is now said to be the winner of the debate, based on the visuals. Only racism can stop Barack now... or maybe an attack on Iran?!? That would fucking ROCK.

What is the best starting class in 2nd Ed. Dungeons & Dragons?

The cleric. Good balance of fighting abilities and the "cure light wounds" spell. Also, a great angle around which to base a character.

Is the "Invisible Hand" a borderline theological concept?

Yeah. It's a handy thing to toss around at cocktail parties, but the mofos who take this shit without any grains of salt sound like Communist Party functionaries. Or, hardcore Catholics, I guess.

How has insta-polling affected our politics?

By making the candidates less "stern leader"-like and more "pandering buffoon"-like. But good pols still understand the importance of "staying the course". Notice the hit Obama took when caving on FISA, for instance.

Assorted ridiculous questions

The Dove is just a glorified Pigeon. It's an Angel Rat with Wings.

Are we headed towards super fun Nazi time?

Probably not. But who knows, we could get Obama '08 and if he turns out to be Jimmy Carter II, Palin in '12, and lord knows that would be terrifying, would it not? But we didn't go (all out) Nazi under Dubya, so I still sort of believe in America.

Do we really need this bailout?

Yep, to keep business running. But it sucks. At this point, it truly is a "crap sandwich". It's a terrible fucking bailout. Can we please just nationalize this shit like they do in civilized countries?

Jews in Georgia? And ... UZBEKS?!?

Jews are everywhere! Especially the former Soviet Union. And, yeah, Uzbeks. Weird. Gotta a wicked sweet name for their ethnicity: "Uzbek". It just rolls off the tongue.

...And with that all said on done, please, BRING ON THE QUESTIONS!

Still angry at having to work as a file clerk,
James Call

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Central Asian Trivia Time

James Call: Expert here! Back with some very fun questions from reader "Erin". Standard Disclosure: Please bear in mind that there are way more "expert" folks out there than I! But they're not as good drinking buddies.

Georgian Jews?!?

That's right baby, Georgian Jews. Now I don't know the exact history of Georgia's Jews, although I'm pretty fucking certain that a healthy dose of them were frontline Bolsheviks back in the days, because Stalian and a lot of the other first-gen Bolshies were straight outta Georgia, and the Jews, with a long history of often radical intellectualism, tended to go for things like "the overthrow of a feudal autocracy by the vanguard party of Communist revolution" all the time. In fact, it's fascinating to look at the early Zionists and see how thematically close it was to various strains of communist thought.

But, while I don't know the internal migratory history of the USSR very well - and there was a fuckload of it, while Stalin and others were all "Hey, Siberia needs more starving Azeris," etc., I'm willing to bet a lot of those Georgia Jews go all the way back to the good old days of the Khazars.

(p.s.: Turns out I was totally wrong about my first guess. I thought it was the nearby Uighurs, who converted to Manichaeism back in the day. Let's not even go THERE, girlfriend.)

The Khazars were your basic horseback riding fun loving subertribe/kingdom back in the day, back around, oh, 900 AD, I want to say? Back when Russia was around but way before Peter the Great made it into that familiar shape we've all come to know and love - The Russians used to be centered around the Principality of Moscow and a few other towns, and didn't really become a force to be reckoned with until they starting fucking the Ottomans (today's "Turks") around the 14th and 15th centuries.

Anyways the Khazar down there were doing their Turkic thing, just trying to stay alive, and of course you always had your Christians, Jews, and Muslims trading with these assorted Turkic groups, located as they were between China (rich), Persia (pretty rich), Byzantium (also pretty rich), and Europe (piss poor but featuring some handy crap such as woolens, etc). And apparently some notable Khazar military figure named Bulan starting banging this Jewish broad, and next thing you know he's all, "Fellow Khazars! Let us embrace this fantastic faith centered around a Holy Land that is way the fuck far away from us and has nothing to do with our lifestyle up here!"

And the other Khazars were all, "Hold on, cowboy," so Bulan convened a sort of grand argument between Jewish, Christian, and Islamic notables. And they all made their points about how great their YHWH-centered religions were, but in the end of the day the conversion probably came down to money and geopolitics, such as they were: The Christians could offer trade with the shitty Christian world (well, Byanztium would have been handy), the Muslims could do Arabia and Persia (muuuuuuch better), and the Jews could do ... drum roll please ... BOTH!

Because ever since the Christians came to power in Rome, the Jews have occupied a weird position of being the Chosen People let also flawed, and all throughout Rome up through the period of Islamic ascension and the rise of the Middle Ages, Muslims and Christians have alternately persecuted Jews and used them as go-betweens. Besides, Jews have tended throughout their history to be great world travelers and traders... there were plenty of Jews in the T'ang Dynasty of China, for instance...

So the Khazars went Jewish, and presumably did alright for themselves, although, where the hell is Khazarstan today? They are still out there, somewhere, you can bet your tuckus.

So I don't know if those Jewish Khazars, close as they were to where Georgia is today, are related to Georgia's Jews, but I wouldn't be surprised.

Next question!

now, i am also curious about the uzbeks, since the very best meal i had all summer was at the uzbeki restaurant....

Uzbeks Uzbeks Uzbeks... I got Uzbeks on my mind. I don't know much of the history of Uzbeks specifically, except it's important to note all these types are basically Turks. Not Turks from Turkey... it's a weird distinction... the most famous Turkic groups of all time have to be 1. The Mongols, 2. The Ottomans, and probably 3. The Seljuks, although there's so many other bitchin' Turkic groups. Fuck, the Afghans used to be Turks; they're just Turks who settled down.

You may note that a Mongol looks nothing like an Ottoman. That's because the Turkic groups were small, horseback riding types. They were always great conquerers, and to a lesser extent, traders, but once they actually conquered something, they had to intermarry to really dominate a place. And that almost never worked out for 'em. You can't hold down China, Persia, or Asia Minor very long. Their ancient and far-out cultures will always reassert themselves above barbarism.

Anyways, Uzbeks, I assume they're pretty old at this point. I DO know a bit about modern Uzbek politics, though, and it's great fun.

First off: ever hear of the "Northern Alliance"? They were our proxy in the invasion of Afghanistan (our invasion, not one of the other invasions). They consistented to a large extent of Uzbeks and Tajiks, from Uzbekistan and Tajikstan, natch. They were not Pastun like the rest of the country and therefore couldn't really do squat without the help of NATO. They also do not rule the country today. Although they got the opium supply flowing again, after years of Taliban repression of the drug trade. PHEW! Those illegal opium dollars are very convenient for helping our intelligence agencies purchase small arms for paramilitary groups.

Also, Uzbekistan is totally filled with natural gas, and part of the Project for a New American Century clique's New American Century totally included this ridiculous 1,000+ mile pipline to go from Uzbekistan through Afghanistan and then through PAKISTAN to the Indian Ocean. Ha ha ha! That's like say, "Hey, I live next to three crackhouses, I wonder if I can run my laundry line through all three of 'em" and expecting nothing to go wrong. Here, check out this map:

Gotta admit I'm not too up on the last few years of coup-related activity in Uzbekistan. I know they have the standard "radical Islamic student" problem that pretty much all those countries have. Remember: the age of the horseback conquerer is over, so Central Asia's a pretty sad place now. It's where Russia meets Islam meets China, with some Americans (who are on course to get kicked the fuck back to the Western hemisphere where we belong) mixed in.

I also know that Islam Karimov was the dictator of Uzbekistan for many years, and now it's some other guy. It's your basic post-Soviet totalitarian dictatorship.

I finally, I know that "Trans-Caspian Pipeline," to bring natural gas to the Indian Ocean for Exxon or whatever, is toast. It's a "pipe dream" you might say. HA HA HA! Since we've so royally boffo'd everything in Afghani- and Paki-stan these last few years, the Uzbeks have thrown down with their old overlords the Russians, and will be supplying their natural gas to our pals in the Kremlin from here on out.

And that's all I know about the Uzbeks. I should go get some Uzbek food too, I bet there's hella good lamb involved.

RECOMMENDED READING: For easy and VERY entertaining reading, start with Larry Gonick's Cartoon History of the Universe vol. 3. All of you should read all three volumes of this anyways. It's your defacto primer for the history of man. I am dead serious. And it's funny as hell. Also strongly recommended: The New Great Game by Kleveman Lutz. Sooooooo wickedly good. A few years old at this point, but really explains the hell out of the struggle for power in Central Asia, which is a large part of the impetus for our invasion of Afghanistan in the first place. It's all about the pipelines, baby! Also, check out ever so often. They're great for this sort of coverage (it's short for "Asia Times Online"). Oh, and here's some online book which looks really good and from which I fact-checked my Khazar/Judaism info (glad I did that! I would have had Manichaen egg on my face! Would have been ashamed to show myself at Columbia U. parties, etc.),M1 ... Mom, Dad, I want this book for Christmas.