As gas prices remain unstable, it's nice to have an option besides a big truck. So, I decided to take Major Leggett's longstanding advice and buy a motorcycle. This one was for sale locally, at a very reasonable price.

It even has a security system.

Thanks to Mr. Wolf of BLACKFIVE, who was very helpful as always.

$1 Billion Doesn't Buy As Much House As It Used To

Maybe I have unrealistic expectations, but for a billion bucks I'd want more than 27 stories, three helipads with air-traffic control office, a six-floor parking garage, a ballroom, a 50-seat cinema, rooftop gardens, three floors of hanging gardens, a health spa, a dance studio, swimming pools, lounges, a vehicle maintenance area, and guest rooms. I think that budget would also entitle me at least to a state-of-the-art operating theater complete with MRI, a 20,000-sq.-ft. Roman bath with mosaic murals done in gold and lapis lazuli, a monorail, and a small nuclear reactor.

It turns out the house didn't cost a billion dollars to build, only about $77 million (real estate inflation in Mombai, where land goes for $10,000/sq. meter, accounts for the rest), which I guess explains why they had to do without some amenities.

The home's tycoon builder is just my age. Hey, when did I fall off the fast track?

Calico Jack

Calico Jack:

Probably many of you have not heard of "Calico Jack" Rackham, a pirate famous mostly because of his crew. Specifically, he is famous for having the two most famous female pirates in history aboard his ship when it was captured: Anne Bonny and Mary Read. (Both women were excluded from the general death sentence for piracy on account of being pregnant. Calico Jack himself was not so excused.)

That's his flag on the truck at 0:07 and 3:05.

They don't know it. In a way, though, I have to think that his spirit would be pleased.


What Do You Know About Ants?

It's probably wrong.

The interesting question, though, is why it's wrong.



I've long been sanguine about China's rise; but it's a matter that needs watching and some management from us, as there is a potential for disruption. The two chief dangers are internal pride leading to unnecessary conflicts; and, on the other side, a demographic collapse resulting from the One Child policy that may lead to internal instability.

This story is about the second problem.

In a speech to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) politburo on the eve of the October 1 National Day, Hu urged party cadres to "boost [society's] harmonious factors to the maximum degree" through implementing policies that "match the wishes of the people, that take care of the people's worries, and that can win over the hearts of the people".
That doesn't sound so bad, right? Except...
To fully understand the import of Hu's message, it is instructive to compare the background of Mao Zedong's 1957 landmark address - "On the correct handling of contradictions among the people" - and the situation unraveling today.

The late chairman's speech on fomenting unity among the nation's disparate sectors was made in the wake of the Hungarian Incident of 1956, an early climax of Eastern Europe's rebellion against the communist yoke.

In China too, intellectuals were beginning to have misgivings about the dictatorial rule of Mao and his comrades. By and large, Mao proposed reconciliatory measures to iron out differences among social groupings. He indicated that while there were signs of disaffection with the authorities, these were "contradictions among the people" because even oppositionists shared "the fundamental identity of [all] the people's interests". He recommended that the CCP "use the democratic method of persuasion and education" to woo the disgruntled elements.

Hu is invoking Mao's authority at a special juncture in his career - and in the country's development.
There's a little bit of the mailed fist in the velvet glove. 'Just like Mao, I'd like to propose that we put aside our differences and get along. Just. Like. Mao.'


And There Shall Be Wailing and Gnashing of Teeth:

Here's a story that is going to produce some upset in the hearts and stomachs of many a liberal blogger. How can it be?

As to which, let me assure you that the Republicans really aren't very much captured by us extremists. Yet.

When they are, you'll know it: they'll be carefully following the Constitution.

Swords and Idiots in Prague:

It is a well known fact that more people are killed by their mouths than anything other single object.

Bogus Bank, Member F.D.I.C.

Did you think it was bad enough that mountains of money was loaned to homeowners who couldn't even remotely be expected to keep up their mortgage payments, on the strength of blatantly fraudulent mortgage applications? That's only half the problem. Some of the mortgages, at least, should have been worth real money, if not necessarily 100% of the face amount. But it now seems that a scary number of banks did the equivalent of throwing their mortgage assets on the campfire and dancing around the flames.

Back in the Stone Age of home finance, a buyer borrowed cash to buy a house. The cash went to the seller, who used part of it to pay off his mortgage and pocketed any excess. The buyer got title to the home: a nice, official, signed original document that was duly filed in the local county real estate records. The buyer's bank got a signed promissory note (i.e., an IOU) along with a signed deed of trust that basically said, "I, the owner of this home, agree that if I don't pay the IOU, the bank can foreclose on my home." The bank then put the original IOU and deed of trust (together, a "mortgage") in its vault and filed a formal, signed, notarized notice of the deed of trust in the same county real estate records where the title was filed. Some years later, either the process repeated itself upon sale of the home, or the owner finished paying off the IOU and obtained a signed, original "release" document from the bank, which was also filed in the county real estate records.

Way back when, it wasn't terribly common for the bank to sell its mortgage. When it did happen, the buyer traded money for the original mortgage documents and filed a notice of the transfer in the county records. A couple of decades ago, this process really got into gear as a lot of lenders started selling truckloads of their mortgages wholesale, either to Fannie and Freddie or just to corporate entities set up to sell "mortgage-back securities." Suddenly all that fusty old procedure got very inconvenient, especially since the same mortgage might be sold and resold repeatedly -- each transfer requiring a physical trip to the county office and the payment of a fee. And then someone has to take custody of the mortgages themselves and remember where they are, at least for a few weeks or months, until they're sold again.

This part of the story is commonplace. We've been hearing dark reports for years that a lot of the closings in this churning frenzy might not have been scrupulously carried out, with the result that buyers on the tail-end might not actually be able to put their hands on the purpose of the whole exercise: the original mortgages. When news began to come out in recent weeks of every single state's attorney general joining in actions to address fraud in the foreclosure process, I assumed that the main problem was that the documents were stacked at the back of some warehouse, like the Ark of the Covenant, and nobody could remember which aisle they were on. I thought that banks had been skating through foreclosures without being challenged to produce the originals, and were now looking blank as more and more homeowners and courts were forcing them to dot their i's and cross their t's.

But it's worse than that. Banks found it so inconvenient to file evidence of mortgage sales in the real estate records that many of them began to use a substitute, called the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), which may or may not have any legal validity in the absence of a physical transfer of the underlying documents. MERSCORP, the operator of the system, is not what you would call a solid institution. It has no employees. It licenses employees of its customers to use the title "VP of MERSCORP" in foreclosure proceedings. Customers can buy the right to use its corporate seal on foreclosure paperwork for twenty-five bucks. It's a pretty shady operation, and its computer techs are perhaps not strictly from the top drawer. Banks liked MERS so much, however, that they took to shredding the original foreclosure documents as soon as they were electronically registered in MERS.

Then came the housing crisis, with its flood of defaulted mortgages that necessitated foreclosure proceedings on an unprecedented scale. In the 23 states that require all foreclosures to proceed by lawsuit, a lender must represent formally to the court, generally under penalty of perjury, that it holds a valid mortgage, something that in most states probably requires possession of an original document. In the 27 states that allow "non-judicial foreclosure," like Texas, a bank does not file a lawsuit to initiate a foreclosure. It simply sends a series of form letters to the borrower and, if no timely cure payment is received, the home is auctioned off after a specified number of days (in Texas, 21). It's up to the borrower to contest the foreclosure with a lawsuit seeking a temporary restraining order and injunction (or bankruptcy) if he believes the bank is foreclosing in error. At some point in that lawsuit, the bank would be called upon to prove it holds a valid mortgage, perhaps by coughing up an original document. In practice, however, most borrowers lack the knowledge or the resources to file a lawsuit contesting a foreclosure, and they would be unlikely to suspect the lender's faulty title, anyway.

It's surprising, however, how seldom lenders actually do produce their original documents in court proceedings. Documents filed in court, and particularly documents produced in response to opposing counsel's discovery requests, generally are copies. Of course, it's fraud for a bank to assert that a copy is a true copy of an existing original if the original does not, in fact, exist. Up to this point, however, you can imagine that most foreclosing lenders actually believe they have the originals and are simply too rushed or disorganized to have checked in 100% of cases.

Not so for the banks who shredded their documents, or who never managed to get originals of whole batches of mortgages in sloppy closings of mortgage-backed securities transactions. These banks quickly began to realize there was a little something missing in their paper trail. No problem! An enterprising company called "DOCX" sprang onto the market. They specialized in filling gaps in the documentation, ostensibly by creating certificates to reflect the true state of the electronic mortgage title record. Only, these documents didn't look like certificates of an electronic status; they looked a lot like what purported to be original mortgages or mortgage assignments. It's just that they were made up out of whole cloth, with faked details like notarizations. What's more, sometimes the electronic record was distressingly buggy and full of holes. Increasingly, DOCX began to fix that problem by engaging in pure fiction. Nor was DOCX the only contributor to a fantasy edifice of legal documents. A rash of lawsuits is working its way through the system now alleging that banks made up foreclosure authorization documents, including notices to borrowers of a summons to court, and presented them to local law enforcement officials to induce them to evict the home's occupants -- some of whom didn't even have a mortgage and never received a summons to anything (the paper-pushers were not always scrupulous in getting the address right). The DC Caller article linked above has some examples that will curl your hair, like the widespread use of bogus social security numbers of military personnel. Between the mortgage-assignment mills and the foreclosure mills, it's unbelievable what blatant fraud low-level employees are now beginning to testify to.

Lest you think I'm enlisting your sympathy in favor of homeowners who simply want to skip their mortgage obligations, bear in mind that it's very important to ensure that a foreclosing lender is the right foreclosing lender, because otherwise there's still a lender out there that holds the true right to foreclose and that didn't collect the proceeds of the foreclosure sale. If a borrower truly has defaulted and should be foreclosed on, we want the buyer at the foreclosure sale to get good title so the home can go back into the market. But title insurance companies around the country are starting to throw up their hands and say, "If you think we're issuing a policy to insure title in these circumstances, you're dreaming." The whole process is about to grind to a halt.

The state of the law in most if not all parts of this country is that shredding an original mortgage has much the same effect as tearing up a check written on a bank account, subject to some technical exceptions and cure processes that are extremely unsuitable for high-volume portfolios. I'd like to think that some banks kept things kosher and can produce the unshredded documents that prove they own a real mortgage. Those banks can take over the business of the banks that shredded their assets and/or engaged in outright fraud. What worries me is the question of how many banks, if any, were doing it right. Bank of America recently was advised to set aside $10 to $20 billion to buy back properties sold in botched foreclosures. This could be a really big crash -- and taxpayers, via Fannie and Freddie, are on the hook for a very large piece of it.


Grim's... er, Grimm's Fairy Tales:

Details, details:

The most profound contrast between the Grimms’ Snow White and Disney’s is the ending. In both versions, the stepmother dies. Her death is necessary for the “happy ending” to take place — namely, the marriage of Snow White and the prince. It is necessary for our hope not to be disappointed, and we cheer it however it comes. In the Disney version, the stepmother is chased to a mountain precipice by the dwarfs and the animals of the forest. While trying to roll a boulder onto the dwarfs, lightening strikes the precipice, she falls, and dies. In the Grimm tale, the stepmother attends the wedding of Snow White, where she is made to put on a pair of red-hot iron shoes and dance to her death.

My New Sign

The Sign on my Office Door:

Sovay, whom some of you will remember from the early days of the blog, sent me this today. I liked it so much it went up on the door to my office.

Better get started.


Pathetic, Arrogant, Alarming:

This is a Congresswoman?

The questioner asks: So, ma'am, what is the Constitutional basis for the individual mandate?

'I don't see where in the Constitution it lets us build an interstate highway system.'

The questioner rightly points out that Congress is specifically authorized to build post roads in Article I, Section 8.

'I don't see where in the Constitution we're empowered to do civil rights legislation.'

Really? You've never seen the 14th Amendment? If you're in a hurry: read the first and last sections.

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

Section 5. The Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
I'm astonished and alarmed by this line of argument. The political class apparently believes the Constitution is irrelevant; and in spite of having taken an oath to uphold it, time and again we find that they are deeply ignorant of what it says.

You would have thought that someone elected to Congress would have been curious to know just what powers the Constitution gave them. Apparently, at some point, they stopped asking the question.

What's even worse is that a Federal judge just issued a ruling that purports to provide an answer to the question. All you'd have to say is, "As you know, the question is before the courts, but the initial ruling held that the interstate commerce clause is broad enough to embrace that power."

Insofar as that's true, we need a Constitutional amendment to restrict the interstate commerce clause. The more crucial issue here, though, is the attitude that it simply doesn't matter: that any citizen asking for you to account for the Constitutionality of your actions is to be treated dismissively, and indeed angrily.

Free Association

Free Association:

Gallup asks: what word or words come to mind when we say, "Federal Government"?

The word cloud looks about right to me.

I Am Not a Witch

I Am Not a Witch

Christine O'Donnell is reported to think this SNL parody is very funny. I do, too.

Music That's in My Head Tonight

Music That's in My Head Tonight

Tonight was my church's annual amateur stage show. I sang a version of "Barbara Allen" that I can't find an example of on YouTube, though there must be a dozen other tunes represented. My version is one I learned from a Ewan MacColl recording. Since I couldn't find that, this is the incomparable Mr. MacColl doing "Press Gang":

I chose Barbara Allen because I could sing it alone and a cappella, since my neighbor who sometimes plays with me is out of town. If I'd been able, I'd have gotten together a group of two or three to sing something suitable for parts. I'm crazy about Voice Squad, with their three-part a cappella arrangements; here they are doing Robbie Burns's "Ae Fond Kiss." Oddly enough, they finish the song a little sharp rather than a little flat, the usual tendency.

And finally, here is the delightful closing duet from "Master and Commander" (La Musica Notturna delle Strade di Madrid No. 6 by Boccherini). A perfect way to end the film:


Here You Go, Lars:

A "Pompeii" in Norway.

By the way, I don't know if you've noticed, but our boy Lars has been in the news a bit lately.

Dum Vivimus, Vivamus

Dum Vivimus, Vivamus

I've just begun a new biography of Robert Heinlein, which has this epigraph from Robert Louis Stevenson's essay "Aes Triplex":

To be overwise is to ossify; and the scruple-monger ends by standing stockstill. Now the man who has his heart on his sleeve, and a good whirling weathercock of a brain, who reckons his life as a thing to be dashingly used and cheerfully hazarded, . . . keeps all his pulses going true and fast, and gathers impetus as he runs, until, if he be running towards anything better than wildfire, he may shoot up and become a constellation in the end. . . . .

Every heart that has beat strong and cheerfully has left a hopeful impulse behind it in the world, and bettered the tradition of mankind. . . . The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing with him clouds of glory, this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land.

It's not an essay I'd read before. Here's more:
For surely the love of living is stronger in an Alpine climber roping over a peril, or a hunter riding merrily at a stiff fence, than in a creature who lives upon a diet and walks a measured distance in the interest of his constitution. . . .

As courage and intelligence are the two qualities best worth a good man's cultivation, so it is the first part of intelligence to recognise our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage to be not at all abashed before the fact. A frank and somewhat headlong carriage, not looking too anxiously before, not dallying in maudlin regret over the past, stamps the man who is well armoured for this world.

And not only well armoured for himself, but a good friend and a good citizen to boot. We do not go to cowards for tender dealing; there is nothing so cruel as panic; the man who has least fear for his own carcass, has most time to consider others. That eminent chemist who took his walks abroad in tin shoes, and subsisted wholly upon tepid milk, had all his work cut out for him in considerate dealings with
his own digestion.

Fun with Quizzes

Fun with Quizzes

A friend sent this link to a civics quiz, with the information that 96% of high school seniors and 50% of Americans over 50 couldn't get 24 out of the 30 questions right. I found it a little tougher than most civics quizzes of its type -- but at least I could beat a score of 24!