Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Securities Commission to get more teeth

One thing that has become apparent is that many of our older direct customers (the bulk of our direct customers) have been hit hard by the string of dodgy finance company failures over the last three years, a process that had begun well before the American meltdown. Collectively about $2 billion was lost and another $4 billion frozen in bail-out schemes.

In many instances the quality of advice that these people was given by "advisers" was poor, based more often than not on the size of the commissions that the "advisers" were getting, and not on any knowledge of exactly what these companies were doing. We can speak from our own experience when one large broker was pushing AIG to us (yes, that shameful US outfit). When we asked if they had received a detailed financial analysis from AIG in NZ, the reluctant admission was "no". When we asked if AIG were paying them commission, the reluctant admission was "yes".

In other cases these finance companies used feel good advertising -- the worst example being Hanover, co-owned by playboy Ponzi-schemer Eric Watson, who up to the day before it went bust was screening TV commercials featuring former TV One News frontman Richard Long to reassure people how long term and reliable they were.

To rub salt into the wounds, a few months later Eric Watson enjoyed a lavish two-day 50th birthday bash worth an estimated 500,000 Euros ($1.16 million) in Istanbul, accompanied (naturally) by a bevy of beautiful women. Among his 300 guests were hotel heiress Ozlem Onal, American political royalty Kerry Kennedy and her cousin Caroline, Greek shipping empire heiress Tina Livanos and former Miss Italy Arianna Novacco. The two-day celebration started with a Friday night cocktail party at the Ciragan Palace, followed by an exorbitant 1930s-themed dinner party at the Sirkeci train station, the original home of the Orient Express, the following night. Most of the guests jetted in from London by private planes and stayed in the ultra-fashionable Four Seasons hotel.

To put a stop to people like Watson, the Government needs to give the Securities Commission more teeth to ensure that the public are not misled, know exactly what their investment money is being used for, how it is actually being spent, and can hold the instigators to account. To give the current Minister credit, it seems that this is what will happen. Securities Commission website.

The photo shows Mr Watson (second from left) living it up at his Istanbul party, unconcerned that many of his victims can't do the same any more.

Monday, September 28, 2009

'Iranian nuclear program purely for peaceful power purposes'

A statement that obviously qualifies for a Tui billboard (with 'yeah right' at the end). The Iranian government has tested two short-range missiles with a long-range missile test due today, hot on the heels of Iran's disclosure of plans to build a second uranium enrichment plant, despite mounting tensions between Iran and the West over Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fired two short-range missiles on Sunday and Tehran is expected to test a long-range missile today. Iran's state television showed the tests, part of military exercises dubbed the "Great Prophet 4" taking place on barren desert terrain. Iranian Air Force Brigadier General Hossein Salami said the war games will be conducted in three phases.

Last week, Iran disclosed it is building a second uranium enrichment plant. Analysts say the admission apparently was prompted by Tehran's learning that Western intelligence agencies were aware of its existence.

Tehran insists that its nuclear program is only for energy production, a statement that is rather like Hitler's statement after he had invaded Czechia in 1939 that he had no further territorial ambitions. Er, Mr President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, sir, did you not so long ago state that Isreal should be obliterated? Is what we are seeing now just a continuation of that intention?

Understandably Isreal is keen to take military action now, and just as understandably Western leaders are concerned that this would inflame Muslim sentiment everywhere, regardless of what they may feel about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his cronies. Clearly this has completely overshadowed western desire to see the Palestinian issue settled, for which Palestinans have the Iranian régime to thank.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Google digital books into instant paperbacks

More than two million books in the public domain can be turned into instant paperbacks under a deal announced on Thursday between Google and the company behind a high-speed book-printing machine.

Mega-search-engine Google, which is currently scanning millions of out-of-copyright books as part of its controversial book project, signed an agreement with On Demand Books that will give the maker of the Espresso Book Machine (pictured above) access to public domain titles.

Like its name implies, the Espresso Book Machine can print and bind a library-quality paperback book with a full-color cover in about the time it takes to brew a cup of coffee. The machine ain't cheap - $US 100,000, so don't expect your local Paper + or Whitcoulls store to bother with one, although downtown big city stores may take the punt.

"In a matter of minutes you can get a paperback book identical to one you can get in a store," On Demand Books chief executive and co-founder Dane Neller said. "A 300-page book can be done in about four, four-and-a-half minutes."

Neller said Google's digital catalog of public domain books--works published for the most part before the 1920s--is "rich in all sorts of subjects."

"Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Rousseau, Hugo, Balzac... you name it," he said. "The beauty of this is that it goes from the classics to the obscure and in between.

"Yesterday we printed a book on leaves," he said. "We printed a book on how to make candy from the early 20th century."

Jason Epstein, On Demand Books chairman and fellow co-founder, described the machine, which was named one of Time Magazine's "Best Inventions of 2007" as "an ATM for books."

"With the Google inventory the Espresso Book Machine will make it possible for readers everywhere to have access to millions of digital titles in multiple languages, including rare and out of print public domain titles," he said.

Espresso Book Machines are currently located in bookstores and libraries in more than a dozen locations in five countries--the United States, Australia, Britain, Canada and Egypt. Current locations include the Angus and Robertson in Melbourne, the McGill University Library in Montreal, the Blackwell Bookshop in London, Egypt's Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the Internet Archive in San Francisco and the University of Michigan.

Neller said the New York-based On Demand Books hoped to have between 35 to 40 Espresso machines in place around the world by early 2010 and was planning on coming out with a full-color model in about six months.

Currently only the cover of a book is reproduced in color.

Public domain books in Google's digital library can currently be read online for free and printed out as a PDF document. They are also available on devices such as Sony's electronic reader.

"Reading digital books can be an enjoyable experience, but we realize that there are times when readers want a physical copy of a book," said Brandon Badger, a Google product manager.

Neller said On Demand Books will not set the retail price for the public domain books from Google's digital library but was recommending $US 8 ($NZ 11.20) as the suggested listed price.

He said the cost to produce a book--the paper, the ink, the glue--comes out to under a US cent a page, or slightly less than $3 ($NZ 4.20) for a 300-page book.

"A dollar goes to us, a dollar goes to Google for providing the digital copy," Neller said, adding that the Internet search and advertising giant intends to give the money earned to public charities.

Neller also said the legal settlement between Google and US authors and publishers "doesn't affect us at all" because the agreement with On Demand Books only concerns out-of-copyright works.

A US District Court in New York is to hold a hearing on the settlement on October 7 and the project is also being examined by anti-trust lawyers at the US Justice Department, which has until Friday to voice its opinion. The governments of France and Germany, privacy groups, consumer advocates and rival technology companies such as Amazon, maker of the Kindle electronic reader, and Microsoft have filed objections to the settlement agreement.

So, will this extend into being able to print-your-own paperback from all digitised books from all publishers that make them available? Almost certainly, in the medium term. The big problem for book publishers -- ignorant bookseller apathy about stocking their titles -- will be solved; although only in respect of paperback books where illustrations are unimportant or secondary. It will not be appropriate for upmarket books like those transpress nz publishers where the quality of the paper, the binding, the format, and the high resolution reproduction of illustrations is the reason why the book has been published. You will still have to order these online or find a bookshop that maintains a good range of books and has knowledgable, interested and helpful staff (yes, there are a few although not many).

Friday, September 18, 2009

The orthographical h bomb

The Geographic Board has created a furore by recommending that the city of Wanganui be re-spelled Whanganui. There have been many places with Maori names that have been re-spelled over the years (an editor's nightmare!) but all have been small; this is the first city or sizeable town that has come up for re-spelling. The issue has already been put to local citizens by referendum and resulted in an 80% rejection, but that carries no weight with the Geographic Board.

Maori has only existed as a written language since European settlement and for some obscure reason the orthographers of the time decided to render the "f" sound as "wh" even though in other Polynesian languages "f" is used in spelling. In English, of course, an "h" after a "w" makes no difference to pronunciation. The issue is complicated by the fact that Wanganui is correctly pronounced in the local dialect like it is written now, and not with a "f" sound.

For most people who don't live in Wanganui the issue may be a storm in a teacup - but, what will be next? Using both Maori and European names has been the compromise often used, e.g. Somes Island and Matiu, Mt Cook and Aoraki, but the issue is certainly divided along racial lines and is not going to go away.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Russian Re-revisionism

In the west most people today condemn Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin as two equally murderous variants of totalitarianism. The Russian government, however, calls that comparison a "distortion" of history, the latest in a series of Russian government statements that critics say appear to defend Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and justify actions he took shortly before and during World War II.

In early May, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu introduced legislation in parliament that would make it a crime to deny the Soviet victory in World War II.

Later in May, President Dmitri Medvedev issued a decree setting up a presidential commission to counter what he called attempts to "falsify history."

At a meeting in early July, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe passed a resolution designating 23 August -- the anniversary of the signing of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact - as a day of remembrance for the victims of both Stalinism and Nazism.

Russian delegates to the European security body walked out of the meeting, in protest. Russia's Foreign Ministry denounced the OSCE resolution as "an attempt to distort history with political goals," while Russia's parliament called it a "direct insult to the memory of millions" of Soviet soldiers who, in the words of the parliament, "gave their lives for the freedom of Europe from the fascist yoke."

Former independent Russian parliament Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov says what he calls the "official" Russian position on the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is "extremely strange."

Ryzhkov asks why today's Russia, which has a democratic constitution and new democratic legitimacy, should justify the division of Europe between Hitler and Stalin. He says that this view is now included in Russian history text books and has caused "enormous moral damage" to Russia's reputation, particularly in the countries of Eastern Europe that were the main victims of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Ryzhkov says the only explanation for the Russian leadership's position on the issue is what he calls "sympathy for Stalin." Public opinion surveys suggest many ordinary Russians share at least some of their government's views. A poll conducted by the state-run VTsIOM agency, following the OSCE resolution condemning Stalinism and Nazism, found that 53 percent of the respondents across Russia viewed it negatively, while 11 percent viewed it positively and 21 percent viewed it neutrally. In addition, 59 percent of those polled said the resolution was aimed at undermining Russia's authority in the world and diminishing its contribution to the defeat of Nazi Germany.

Dmitry Furman of the Russian Academy of Science's Institute of Europe calls the presidential commission to counter what it deems historical falsification an "idiotic undertaking" and a "very bad idea." He also says Stalin's government killed as many, or even more people than Hitler's. But, given the suffering Russians endured after Hitler turned on Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union, Furman says it is natural that many resist equating Stalinism and Nazism. Furman says it is "very difficult psychologically" for Russians to put what they see as their "victors" in the Great Patriotic War, as they call World War II, on the same level with the vanquished Nazis.

The question of who was worse -- Hitler or Stalin -- is often discussed. There were similarities, but also some differences. Hitler believed that his regime had to earn the respect of the people, and unless you were a Jew or a Communist, life for most Germans did improve significantly in the peacetime years. Stalin on the other hand was only concerned with his own grandeur, was quite unconcerned about letting his people starve, and was paranoid about anyone who may not like him and his regime -- anyone suspected of being an opponent was either shot or sent to perish in a gulag. His methods and techniques were later adopted by Saddam Hussein. Hitler was loyal to his henchmen (only reluctantly moving against Ernst Rohm and his cronies) and for the most part, concerned about his soldiers. Stalin treated his henchmen the way he treated all real or imagined opponents, and treated his troops as cannon fodder.

This major book on Europe's three major tyrants of the 20th century is a concise but comprehensive analysis. It is available from the transpress shop.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

New book on Jaguar racing

The Jaguar was one of the most stylish marques to come out of England even if, like all British cars, its engineering standards left a lot to be desired.
This new book written by a retired motor mechanic, whose career included 20 years working for NZ motor-sport legend Sybill Lupp, contains a feast of information about Jaguars used on racetracks around NZ, illustrated with a heap of photos within its 312 pages. It is available from the transpress shop.

Friday, September 11, 2009

bnz bank robbers

bnz has announced it is installing spray units at its doors to douse fleeing robbers in a "synthetic DNA solution" that glows blue under ultraviolet light. The press release continues: "SelectaDNA spray, designed in Britain, stays on clothes for up to six months and on skin for one to two weeks and is invisible under natural light. Police have been given UV torches to shine on robbery suspects. A pinhead-sized spot of solution is enough to implicate a person. bnz branches in Counties-Manukau and Quay Park, central Auckland, are using the solution, and the bank plans to introduce it nationwide within months. Each branch of the bank will be given a "DNA strand" unique to it."

Golly gee. A few years ago the National Bank, then owned by Lloyds plc in the UK, installed security doors at its branches which have to be opened manually to admit everyone who wants to enter, and then close behind when the person is inside. The Australian owned banks, including bnz, however, decided that the cost of doing this was well above what they lose in robberies and didn't bother. The biggest bank robbers are in any event the banks themselves. It seems that every month a committee of their executives meets to think of new ways to fleece more fees out of customers. Even if, like us, you maintain bank accounts in credit you will still find yourself slugged for such things as "clearance fee", "manual transaction fee" "automated transaction fee" "monthly account fee", etc. If you dare overdraw your account for even one day, watch out - you'll get whacked for an overdrawn account fee, and a debit interest rate that even the "cash in a flash" type sharks would be proud of. Then, of course, they think of Fay Richwhite type strategies to rob the people through not paying hundred of millions of dollars of tax.

So what's behind this binz idea, which even Luddite types must find harking of the Keystone Cops? Most likely binz wants customers foolish enough to use them to think that they are safe inside a branch (which most of the time, as long as they don't obstruct the robbers, they are anyway). A very cheap and futile attempt.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Award for rubbish

If you've ever had doubts about the quality of what Government-appointed art and literature judges make awards to, this should confirm those doubts once and for all.

This "artwork" - literally rubbish - was the winner of Waikato Museum's national contemporary art award, worth $15,000. In essence it was the binned wrappings of other entries tipped on the floor...and not even by the so-called artist.

Needless to say, people are appalled. We've gone through similar emotions seeing what has won Montana Book Awards in past years. The TV video.

Monday, September 7, 2009

digital versus film cameras

A question we are often asked is whether digital cameras are better than film from a printing viewpoint. The short answer is yes. The output does not need to go through a second process to convert it into digital form which is how most printing is now done. Until about 3 years ago a digital camera which produced as good a result as a film camera was significantly more expensive, but that is no longer the case. From a professional point of view the absence of archival standards is an issue - you don't want a file becoming corrupted - but the answer is to store back-up copies of important images in more than one place and in more than one file form. When it comes to quality of result the basic principle is the higher the megapixels the better, beyond that consumer test guides produced by organisations worldwide are recommended as to which make and model to get. New film cameras are rapidly becoming history, although film and processing facilities for the millions which are still being used will continue to be available for a long time to come.