Why is there peace?

Why is There Peace? — violence is declining, over history, at least in relative terms, though not, one suspects, absolute ones.

“Believe Me, It’s Torture”

Christopher Hitchens gets waterboarded [via Dawkins].

“The Doctor Will Sue You Now”

If you’re ever looking for a warning sign that you’re on the wrong side of an argument, suing Medecins Sans Frontieres is probably a pretty good clue.

Video of Ian Tomlinson assualted from behind without provocation by a police officer

The Guardian have published video footage of Ian Tomlinson, a bystander caught up in last week’s G20 protests in London, being struck from behind in the leg with a baton and pushed to the ground by a police officer as he walked away peacably with his hands in his pockets. He died of a heart attack a little while later.

It becomes clearer that the purpose of riot police is not only to protect the public at large by controlling riots, but also to protect the status quo by discouraging dissent and protest — if you know that even protesting peacefully (or being in the area of a protest but not participating, as in Tomlinson’s case) you are at risk of unprovoked attack by armed, armoured and aggressive large males, you will tend to be discouraged from doing so. I know I am. :-/

Here we stand, at the cusp

Fantastic Bruce Sterling: 2009 will be a year of panic, but the good news is the true 21st century begins here.

It’s just another (possibly even manic?) Monday

Lovely write-up by Ben Goldacre on why the whole Blue Monday most-depressing-day-of-the-year stuff is utter bullshit. In essence:

  1. It apparently originates with a travel firm’s PR company feeding a formula to a not-very-distinguished scientist, who publishes it.
  2. If you dig into the scientific literature and actually look for evidence of any seasonal variation in, say, suicide or depression, you find nothing conclusive whatsoever — lots of contradictory reports, many of which point to the spring or summer as being worse, in fact.

Classic stuff. Welcome to the Delusional Race.

Social Security vs Ponzi Schemes

Good Math, Bad Math has a nice post today drawing a distinction between Social Security and Ponzi Schemes; some interesting discussion in the comments, too – always good to see Life of Brian brought into the fray. :-)

For example, see Maria Full Of Grace (Marston, 2004)

As I’ve been saying for a few years now, there’s no such thing as Fair-Trade cocaine; this may, of course, be freely construed as an argument for legalisation or for greater sanctions, according to your prevailing political worldview.

Bringing the house down

An extremely readable piece in yesterday’s Guardian magazine on the UK property market: how it got like it is, why it’s so different to its friends overseas, and what’s (in his opinion) likely to happen. I found the background more interesting than the predictioneering, of course. Tasters:

Say you bought your house in 1970, and paid the then-national average price for it: £4,378. At the peak of the current spike in prices, that same average house would have been worth £184,431. Congratulations! You’ve multiplied your money almost 43 times. You’re rich, do you hear me?

Rich! Except you aren’t, really. Strip out the effect of inflation, and that spectacular sounding 4,300% price rise works out as 2.4% a year in real terms. This is close, in other words, to the historic long-term average for investments regarded as being more or less without any risk at all. That’s where the expression “safe as houses” comes from.

British householders are allergic to fixed interest rates; we prefer variable loans. No one quite knows why, since fixed interest rates often make good sense, and have the effect of transferring some of the risk of the loan to the banks. If you have a variable rate mortgage, and the central bank interest rate goes up, you feel it in your pocket; if you have a fixed rate and the same thing happens, the bank feels it. In the US, the two institutions designed to help the banking system to bear the risk of this fixed-rate lending are called Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. That’s the same Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac that on September 7 were taken over by the US government in the biggest nationalisation in the history of the world; and the reason they went under was precisely because they were swamped by the cost of these risks.

Towards the end of 2006, the average investment yield on a buy-to-let property no longer covered the mortgage that had been taken out to buy it. In other words, the average buy-to-let investor was losing money on a monthly basis. The reason for hanging on in there was the hope for capital growth. But house prices in the UK are now in decline. The Nationwide survey for the year to October showed a decline of 14.6%; add the CPI inflation rate of 5.2%, and prices have fallen almost 20% already. So for those buy-to-letters already losing money on the interest payments, capital growth now looks some way off. Depending on what was paid for the property, it may be many years off. If all buy-to-let investors realise this and stampede for the exit at the same time, the UK property market will go off the edge of a cliff.

Now, why does this not surprise me?

“People who wear suits to work in Manhattan are the biggest god-damned dicks you’ll find anywhere.”

Good Math, Bad Math

(Answer: because it plays into my prejudices. :-) )

The subprime primer

The joy of hindsight: the sub-prime catastrophe in a few nutshells [smallcool].

Impending food crisis?

Reading and listening to Long Now stuff has given me an (at its most optimistic) more skeptical and (at its most pessimistic) more long term non-human-centric view of stories like this, but it’s nonetheless food for thought (excuse the pun): Financial Times: impending food crisis? [i-r-squared via jreighley, randomly via twitter].

Hard red wheat is limit up again (i think thats 9 days out of 11) and is at $19.80 a bushel. When it broke $6 a bushel last summer that was an all time high.

A WFP official, for example, recently showed me the red plastic cup that is used to dole out daily rations to starving Africans – and then explained, in graphically moving terms, that this vessel is typically now only being filled by two-thirds each day, because food prices are rising faster than the WFP budget.

But it’s this that really caught my eye:

World grain stock as Days of Consumption, 1960-2006

David Byrne in conversation with Yorke and Eno

David Byrne’s Survival Strategies for Emerging Artists, including audio snippets of him in conversation (somewhere very tasty sounding) with Brian Eno (and others).

Unt:

David Byrne and Thom Yorke on the Real Value of Music. Gosh, don’t “Radiohead’s Oxford offices” look rather tasty, too…?

(Aside: grrrr at having to click a stupid “full page” icon to get the full versions of those stories rather than one page at a time. The web is not paper!)

Muhammad Yunus – Nobel Lecture: Poverty is a Threat to Peace

Awe inspiring.

Ninety four percent of the world income goes to 40 percent of the population while sixty percent of people live on only 6 per cent of world income. Half of the world population lives on two dollars a day. Over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day. This is no formula for peace.

Poverty is the absence of all human rights. The frustrations, hostility and anger generated by abject poverty cannot sustain peace in any society. For building stable peace we must find ways to provide opportunities for people to live decent lives.

Today, Grameen Bank gives loans to nearly 7.0 million poor people, 97 per cent of whom are women, in 73,000 villages in Bangladesh. Grameen Bank gives collateral-free income generating, housing, student and micro-enterprise loans to the poor families and offers a host of attractive savings, pension funds and insurance products for its members. Since it introduced them in 1984, housing loans have been used to construct 640,000 houses. The legal ownership of these houses belongs to the women themselves. We focused on women because we found giving loans to women always brought more benefits to the family.

In a cumulative way the bank has given out loans totaling about US $6.0 billion. The repayment rate is 99%. Grameen Bank routinely makes profit. Financially, it is self-reliant and has not taken donor money since 1995. Deposits and own resources of Grameen Bank today amount to 143 per cent of all outstanding loans. According to Grameen Bank’s internal survey, 58 per cent of our borrowers have crossed the poverty line.