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February 27, 2006

ACN Scam Update - Crushing of Dissent

I've made a small alteration to the article I published about the ACN pyramid scam last April. The two websites I linked to at the end of the article have met unfortunate fates.

One was a blog that existed for the express purpose of denouncing ACN. I was not surprised that it ceased to exist shortly after I discovered it. I don't know why it disappeared; only that it did.

The other site still exists, but its material about ACN has been removed. I'd like to thank a reader, Susanne, for bringing this to my attention. The material was removed as the result of legal action by ACN.

ACN did not win a legal victory; the case was dismissed by consent. In plain English, the defendant (Peter Bowditch) did not think it was worthwhile to spend more time and money on the matter.

The case was file number NSD 1689/2005 in the Federal Court of Australia. The court documents in this case do not appear to be available from the court's webpage, but they can be found online with a little searching, and I have read them. (I've decided not to post them myself unless there's considerable interest from my readers. Let me know.)

I'm disgusted. A company has the resources to target an individual, but the individual has fewer resources and little recourse. Under the circumstances, I think Peter put up an excellent fight and I enjoyed reading his correspondence with the ACN lawyers.

My ACN pyramid scam article has generated a lot of e-mail, both from ACN supporters and from people thanking me for helping them avoid losing money. I've even gotten a couple e-mails worthy of ridicule. The toughest e-mails are the ones looking for advice on steering their friends away from ACN. It's difficult, and I didn't succeed with the friend I was trying to steer away.

I've come to believe that the single most important thing to do when evaluating ACN is to create a simple business plan. Project your customer base a few months out, then do the math to see how much your commission would be. (How long will it take merely to earn back your start-up fees, and will it even cover your annual renewal fee?) If more people did that, fewer would remain interested in ACN.

Although my ACN article is consistently among the most-read items on my blog, I have never been contacted by ACN's lawyers. Which is almost a shame; I'd probably enjoy the publicity.

Non-Subpoena Subpoena

Shocking! Outrageous!

When is a subpoena not a subpoena, and therefore doesn't need to pass Fourth Amendment protections? When it's for the children, as Skip explains:

There is no "probable cause" for the FTC to forcibly search any company under the pretext of preparing a report for Congress. Indeed, the legislative language authorizing the report only maintains that Congress "is concerned about the growing rate of childhood and adolescent obesity and the food industry's marketing practices for these populations." Congressional "concern" about a subject beyond the federal government's enumerated powers–the framers gave Congress the power to fix the "standard of weights and measures," not the weights of children–is not probable cause.

Bonus points awarded for the enumerated powers funny. I get the giggles thinking about Congress defining the weight of children as a unit of measure. And then I realize how unfunny it is at a comic level, not just as social commentary. Sigh.

February 26, 2006

e-gold OutExchange Comparison

The number of business accepting e-gold is relatively small. I believe that the most important barrier to wider use is the fact that it "behaves like" a foreign currency — you can't pay your bills with it directly; you have to exchange it for your local currency first. This wouldn't be a problem if the digital gold economy was large, but it can't become large without overcoming this barrier first.

From a merchant's point of view, advantages like finality of payment and low transaction fees are secondary to the need to convert e-gold into regular currency.

So I've done some research. There are a ridiculous number of e-gold exchange services (the Global Digital Currency Association has a list) so I've slogged through a huge number of them to get a snapshot of their fees for someone in the United States to convert e-gold to US dollars. I haven't listed all of them; some have non-English homepages, or appeared defunct, or didn't have competitive rates (2% or less), etc.

I'm not endorsing any of them, nor have I sold e-gold through any of them. This information is based solely on what they claim on their websites. Some might be fraudulent and run away with your money; I don't know.

Different exchangers offer different options; for example, rush processing for a fee, or discounts for special customers. I'm ignoring all that and giving the figure for their basic services. The links are to each exchanger's fee page. In some cases I had to hunt around to find all the fees because they weren't on a single page. Empty cells mean "not available"; if there's no fee, I'll write "0".

Fees to convert from e-gold to US$
ExchangerRate (%)Minimum ($)Check ($)Wire ($)
AnyGoldNow 15530
AsianaGold 1.5016¹
The Bullion Exchange 11230
Cambist 20225
e-ForexGold 10520
Euro Gold Sales .7535.6935.69
e-Xchange 21020
FastGold 23225
FlashGold 20235
GoldAge 20225
GoldEx 25145
Gold Pouch Express 001550
GoldNow 00020²
The Gold Shop 0525¹
GoldThrift 12.50525
Gold Trader 20130
IceGold 205.31
Incremental Gold 101020
London Gold Exchange 115??
Me-gold .99.509
OmniPay 20?20
Pay By Gold 25120
RayServers 2030
SpaceGold 29.95012
Speedy Exchange 1.53.7532
Tampa Exchange 1.52.500
WebMoney 15†15
  • ¹ Fee varies with order size; smallest shown.
  • ² Minimum order $1000, $20 wire fee up to $5000 order, no fee for $5000+.
  • ³ Fee is 2% for a check, 1% for a wire.
  • † Fee is actually $5+1%, not 1% with a minimum of $5.

Notice that several exchange providers are more competitive than OmniPay, e-gold's "mint" (the only ones who bail gold bars into e-gold). If this is a long-term condition (and I believe it is), it is the result of e-gold's growth: more funds are flowing in than are flowing out, so exchange services would prefer to buy e-gold from customers at spot rather than from OmniPay at 2%.

Growth also explains why OmniPay is the most competitive exchanger to buy e-gold from — everyone else is ultimately going through them, anyway, so they have to pass along the cost. (The others compete on the basis of offering other forms of payment, and lower minimum order sizes.)

I was surprised to discover that one exchange provider, GoldNow, is offering apparently completely free e-gold OutExchanges. They maintain a news log on their site and it appears that they've had recurring delays delivering e-gold to buyers. They may be offering such a good deal on OutExchange because they're desperate to get more e-gold.

Overall, the existence of several exchange providers offering 0% or 1% OutExchanges, plus low fees for checks (and reasonable fees for wires) means it's less costly than I had previously believed to sell e-gold for local currency. It might even be free.

Why, then, do so few business accept e-gold as a payment option? It's possible that there's widespread ignorance that it exists or that they can get funds out cheaply. Or there may be other reasons that continue to elude me.

February 22, 2006

Measure 37 Upheld!

A few months ago, an Oregon ballot measure 37 was declared unconstitutional by a circuit court. Today the Oregon Supreme Court weighed in and upheld Measure 37!

I got this good news by e-mail from the Cascade Policy Institute; it appears they don't have anything up on their website just yet. But they sure are fast with the e-mail. :) (Prediction: it will eventually appear at this URL.)

Here are a few quotes from the Supreme Court's opinion:

Not only have plaintiffs failed to ground their argument in the Oregon Constitution, but the premise of their argument is also mistaken. Contrary to the assumption underlying their argument, Oregon's legislative bodies have not divested themselves of the right to enact new land use regulations in the future. Nothing in Measure 37 forbids the Legislative Assembly or the people from enacting new land use statutes, from repealing all land use statutes, or from amending or repealing Measure 37 itself. Simply stated, Measure 37 is an exercise of the plenary power, not a limitation on it. (8) The measure does not impair the plenary power of the Legislative Assembly or the people's exercise of their initiative power. The trial court's contrary conclusion was error.

… this court consistently has held that the protection that Article I, section 20, affords is available to only those individuals or groups whom the law classifies according to characteristics that exist apart from the enactment that they challenge. See, e.g., Sealey, 309 Or at 397 (classes that the challenged law itself creates are not considered "classes" for purposes of Article I, section 20). That is so because, "every law itself can be said to 'classify' what it covers [as distinct] from what is excludes." Clark, 291 Or at 240.

Although it is true that neither the state nor the federal constitution requires compensation to individuals who suffer any loss in property value as a consequence of land use regulation, Pennsylvania Coal Co. v. Mahon, 260 US 393, 413, 43 S Ct 158, 67 L Ed 322 (1922); Kroner v. City of Portland, 116 Or 141, 152, 240 P 536 (1925), it is equally true that neither constitution forbids requiring such compensation in the manner provided for in Measure 37. The people, in exercising their initiative power, were free to enact Measure 37 in furtherance of policy objectives such as compensating landowners for a diminution in property value resulting from certain land use regulations or otherwise relieving landowners from some of the financial burden of certain land use regulations. Neither policy is irrational; no one seriously can assert that Measure 37 is not reasonably related to those policy objectives.

And, that determination is the only one that this court is empowered to make. Whether Measure 37 as a policy choice is wise or foolish, farsighted or blind, is beyond this court's purview. Our only function in any case involving a constitutional challenge to an initiative measure is to ensure that the measure does not contravene any pertinent, applicable constitutional provisions. Here, we conclude that no such provisions have been contravened.

In sum, we conclude that (1) plaintiffs' claims are justiciable; (2) Measure 37 does not impede the legislative plenary power; (3) Measure 37 does not violate the equal privileges and immunities guarantee of Article I, section 20, of the Oregon Constitution; (4) Measure 37 does not violate the suspension of laws provision contained in Article I, section 22, of the Oregon Constitution; (5) Measure 37 does not violate separation of powers constraints; (6) Measure 37 does not waive impermissibly sovereign immunity; and (7) Measure 37 does not violate the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The trial court's contrary conclusions under the state and federal constitutions were erroneous and must be reversed.

The judgment of the circuit court is reversed, and the case is remanded for entry of judgment in favor of defendants and intervenors.


February 21, 2006

Movie Review: The Pink Panther

I saw The Pink Panther this weekend. Yes, I think I was highly contagious at the time, but I didn't sit near anyone else. :)

No spoilers!

I don't think I've seen any of the other Pink Panther movies, so I can't comment on how this movie compares to the others. Considered in isolation, however … it was about what you'd expect. Slapstick comedy, hugely overwrought accents, and a plot that's more or less simply along for the ride. Happily, funny accents figure into the plot. (That's too vague to be a spoiler, right?)

Please don't misinterpret any of this as heavy criticism; this isn't supposed to be a serious film. And it isn't. It's supposed to be a lot of fun. And it is. But I was a little upset by the adult humor in this film. While I realize that children would be unlikely to understand it, I'd prefer it wasn't there at all. It didn't need to be there — most of it isn't very funny, anyway.

I wish more of the gags were related to the plot instead of being random. Yes yes, random silliness is essential the movie. But I think the random silliness could've been better integrated, making for a stronger film.

There was only one improbable explosion in the movie and I think it was added just so I'd roll my eyes — well done. There was a bit of incorrect biology in the movie and it didn't seem deliberate, so that disappointed me. But in a movie with so many laughs, I didn't mind for long.

The main characters Jacques Clouseau and Inspector Dreyfus were well done. The characterization of all the others was weak. I expected that; this is a short film.

Overall, it's a very funny movie. I laughed a lot despite being sick. And I still crack up thinking about hamburgers. Take the kids.

Book Review: Give Me a Break

I picked up an autographed copy of John Stossel's book Give Me a Break when I went to his lecture.

I don't intend this to be a thorough book review; I just wanted to share a few thoughts about it.

The early portion of the book has biographical information about his early career, and how the things he reported on gradually led him to libertarianism. I very much liked this part of the book; it's gratifying to read about people learning libertarian principles by induction.

Most of the rest of the book is a written exposition of his many TV specials. I've only seen a few of his specials, so much of this material was fresh to me. However, chapters based on the specials I had seen were less interesting because the material wasn't new. The similarity between those chapters and the corresponding TV specials was very strong.

The book is written in a very accessible and engaging style. It's an easy read for adults or teenagers, and at less than 300 pages it doesn't take forever to read. I think the strongest chapter was "Government" and the weakest was "The Trouble with Lawyers".

Sophisticated libertarians won't learn much from this book; they aren't its audience. But it's a great book for everyone else. I recommend it.

February 20, 2006

Sick Again :(

I guess I never fully recovered from what I had last weekend, because it came back this weekend. Stronger.

I don't know what I have. The symptoms are fatigue, fever, aches, sinus congestion, and a very minor sore throat. No cough, no stomach problems, no lung problems.

After about 15 hours in bed I'm beginning to feel better. My fever broke this morning and I have a little bit of energy back. But it's an awful way to spend a 3-day weekend.

February 17, 2006

Person-to-Person Loans

I recently heard about a relatively new company called Prosper. They're in the loan business. And what they're doing is very interesting, because they're not a bank.

They earn their revenue by facilitating loans. They attract would-be creditors and would-be debtors to their website where people who want to borrow submit information about the loan they want, and people who want to lend will bid, auction-style, to be the ones to fund the loan. And they encourage lenders to diversify, being fractional lenders over many loans.

Once more, they're not a bank. They don't make money like a bank does, on the spread between interest paid to depositors and interest paid by borrowers. Prosper makes money through fees for closing and servicing the loan. Also unlike a bank — well, an FDIC member bank anyway — lenders bear default risk.

I want to stress that I'm stopping well short of endorsing this company or its services. I simply haven't done much research on it yet. I'm writing about it because I think it's a really neat idea and because I think it's cool that they're competing with banks without being regulated like one. (It should be obvious who I think is more nimble.)

The most obvious questions about this service center around the credit reports of the borrowers. Would-be lenders through Prosper have much less information about would-be borrowers than a bank's loan officer would have. Less information means greater risk, but I don't have any intuition about how much of a practical problem this would be for lenders.

I think I'll keep an eye on this. It's too intriguing to ignore.

UPDATE 2006-02-19 16:40:01 UTC: Savvy Saver is going to try Prosper despite some misgivings. I think I'll monitor how it goes for her for a while before getting involved myself.

February 15, 2006

Aiding Hamas

I've been searching in vain for a an unequivocal statement from Secretary Rice that that the United States will cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority at the time when Hamas (who won the recent elections) forms its government.

I haven't found what I'm looking for — diplomatic speak being what it is — but I have managed to find two things that, when put together, strongly imply that we're going to do the right thing:

SECRETARY RICE: We are going to review all of our programs and we are doing that. Obviously, this is a changing and evolving situation. The very best outcome would be if any new Palestinian government, whatever its composition, accepts the requirements that the international community is putting forward. There simply has to be a recognition of the state of Israel's right to exist. It simply has to be. Israel is a member of the United Nations. It cannot be that you have a government that does not accept even its right to exist that then says that it wants the international community's support for its programs. [source]

Plus this, a few days later:

MR. SCHIEFFER: Let me ask you this, Madame Secretary, and it has to do with Mr. Putin of Russia. When you moved this to the United Nations, it's my understanding that you slowed down the UN taking any action on it for a month or so at the request of the Russians. More and more, we see Putin taking positions that are different than those of the United States. On Hamas, when they took over and won the parliamentary elections, in Israel. Mr. Putin says he's going to invite them to come to Moscow. Israel says that's a stab in the back because everybody and the others in the West are saying, you know, we're not going to give them any aid until they announce that Israel has a right to exist and so on and so on.

SECRETARY RICE: Let me be very clear. Hamas is a terrorist organization for us and for the European Union. But Russia is signed on to a Quartet statement, the Quartet being the UN, the United States, the EU and Russia, that is the sort of guardian of the roadmap process in the Middle East; that the Quartet has signed on to the statement that says a Palestinian government must recognize Israel's right to exist, must give up violence, must accept the two-state solution and so on. [source]

I want to trust Condi. I really, really do. But I fear there will be some sort of political outcry that lengthens the review and causes us to extend foreign aid by default. Please, please, Condi, don't let that happen.

The United States must not send even one dollar to Hamas. It would be the highest hypocrisy for the State Department to fund an officially designated terrorist organization.

Besides, wouldn't it be illegal?

Hmm… I'll let the lawyers speculate over whether that could be a useful way induce turnover at the State Department.

February 14, 2006

A Pirate's Lament

Valentine's Day, the day of affection. Time to remind your significant other that you're still into them … and perhaps to guiltily hope that they don't remind you affection should be continuous instead of saved for one day out of the year.

I don't celebrate Valentine's Day. Like most holidays, I don't celebrate it because I think it's arbitrary. But even if I celebrated it in principle, I wouldn't do anything this year.

A pirate's life keeps him at sea for extended periods of time, and a famous pirate has few (if any) safe ports to spend time at. It's a lifestyle that makes love difficult. And this will be one of my rare "personal" articles, discussing my somewhat less-traditionally-piratey (read: dry land) life.

I'm single, and I've been that way for a long time. I'm content with my life. Very content — approaching resignation. I'm simply not enthusiastic about searching for a mate. This does stand in the way of my desire to have children someday (despite the arguments of some that children aren't worth it), but since I believe that radical life extension technologies will bear fruit within my lifetime, I don't feel any sense of urgency.

I understand what my difficulties are, and their origins.

Apropos knowing those details, one of my problems is my personality. I'm the deeply-introspective, highly analytical, self-critical, aloof, pensive, absent-minded-professor type. It's uncommon and off-putting. I'm easy to get along with, but I'm difficult to get to know.

Another difficulty is my relative lack of experience. I got a late start on relationships (for which I do blame my parents, but that's another story) and consequently I tend to be perceived as ignorant and/or immature, which is unattractive. This disadvantage is likely to be permanent because it is self-reinforcing.

I'm unusually thin. Muscle, bulk, and overall size are attractive in a man, and unattractive in a woman (in my culture, anyway). Curse my Y chromosome; I would've been a highly sought-after woman. This problem is twofold: I'm unattractive because I don't look masculine, and I make women feel fat by comparison which makes them feel unattractive. And they don't want to be with a person who makes them feel unattractive.

On the matter of how I make women feel, there's another problem. I'm very smart. I'll decline to say precisely, but I'll vaguely say that it's more than three standard deviations above average. I'm scary-smart to many people; I make them feel dumb, and that doesn't lead to attraction.

My ideological beliefs are very far from the mainstream. Most people are shocked by what I believe, and most of the remainder are shocked by my justifications. And some people are shocked by the very idea of rational justifications for beliefs.

Those are the most significant things I've identified that make me unattractive to women. Perhaps an even larger problem is that those things have discouraged me, so that I seldom go to environments where I could meet women. This is a trend that's easy to perpetuate! It's a shame … imagine all the poetry I haven't written and all the surprises I haven't sprung.

My own selection criteria are a hurdle, too, but I don't want to get into all that. At least my criteria are under my control, so I could change them if necessary. Sometimes I wonder — less idly and more seriously, these days — whether my most realistic opportunity is to simply search for a young woman who aspires to be a conscientious mother and housewife. That sounds so very old-fashioned; do such women exist anymore? (And would they admit it, if asked their goal?)

That's as much as this pirate can say without telling a fisherman's tale of the one that got away.

February 12, 2006

Hi ... Still Here

I've done almost no blogging for a couple weeks because I've been busy and tired. Last week at work I was involved in a four-day debug tools summit, and I've also been feeling slightly sick for several days. Not sick enough to see a doctor, but enough to sap my energy for doing anything productive at home.

I'll get back into things when I feel better.

February 07, 2006

Cartoon Follies

I'm late to the fray chiming in on the subject of Muslim overreaction to political cartoons. I don't have a lot of words to contribute here, just a small number of words that I'd like to say very loudly:

Grow Up.

Okay, your religion forbids images of Mohammed. Fine. But there have been lots of images of Mohammed through the years (h/t Instapundit), and some of them are highly disrespectful. But you're not complaining about those. They're not newsworthy. You're all worked up about the recent stuff because that'll get you on TV.

Burn down some embassies. Kill a few people. It's all good — it's all in the name of the Prophet, right? You're outraged and a little beheading action is just what the doctor ordered!

It's strange to see behavior that's simultaneously infantile and barbaric. Being offended is an absolutely normal part of life in a free society. We cherish the right to offend people!

The world has been bending over backward trying to be culturally sensitive and not to inflame the passions of Muslim fundamentalists. This is appeasement and it absolutely has to stop. We should forthrightly defend freedom of expression. No apologies, no hushed tones, no diplomatic phrases. We have nothing to apologize for. The proper response is "grow up."

In fact, I think some deliberate provocation is in order. The best medicine for the "Muslim street" is to be exposed to controversy and offensive material, not sheltered from it. Being offended is normal for people in free societies and it needs to become normal for angry Muslims, too.

February 02, 2006

State of the Union Figures

I've decided not to write a lengthy analysis of President Bush's State of the Union Address. It wasn't a particularly gripping or important-seeming speech. But there were a few things that I can't let pass without comment.

Keeping America competitive requires us to be good stewards of tax dollars. Every year of my presidency, we've reduced the growth of non-security discretionary spending, and last year you passed bills that cut this spending. This year my budget will cut it again, and reduce or eliminate more than 140 programs that are performing poorly or not fulfilling essential priorities. By passing these reforms, we will save the American taxpayer another $14 billion next year, and stay on track to cut the deficit in half by 2009. (Applause.)

The man who signed into law the largest entitlement expansion in decades — the Medicare prescription drug benefit — does not deserve any credit for restrained spending. Period. The language here is very misleading. Bush is taking credit for "reduc[ing] the growth of" (not "cutting") "non-security discretionary" spending. That pile of adjectives means he's talking about a very small piece of the pie. If you look at Table S-10 from the Fiscal Year 2006 budget you'll find these interesting figures:

Budget Summary by Category (2006)
CategoryUS$ (billions)
Total Outlays$2,568
Proposed Supplemental$25
MandatorySocial Security$540
Net Interest$211

Non-defense discretionary spending is only 19.35% of the budget! President Bush has cut slowed the growth of spending on only a fifth of the budget. What's the other 80% doing?

I watched the speech with a group of friends. After we laughed about the "non-security discretionary" bit for a little while, one said "that really sounded good at first!" Yes it did. Perhaps the White House was hoping that people wouldn't be paying close attention to what was said.

The retirement of the baby boom generation will put unprecedented strains on the federal government. By 2030, spending for Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid alone will be almost 60 percent of the entire federal budget. And that will present future Congresses with impossible choices — staggering tax increases, immense deficits, or deep cuts in every category of spending.

They're 42% of the budget already, George. The future is sooner than you think. Incidentally, what fraction of that predicted 60% is due to your beloved Medicare prescription drug benefit?

Breakthroughs on this and other new technologies will help us reach another great goal: to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025. (Applause.)

In 2004, the United States produced almost 2 billion barrels of crude oil and imported roughly 4.8 billion barrels of crude oil. Only about 900 million barrels were imported from the Persian Gulf region — 13.5% of our total crude oil usage. For scale, domestic production covered 29.2% of our total crude oil usage.

President Bush's goal of replacing 75% of our mideast imports means sourcing only 3.36% of our crude oil from the mideast, down from 13.5%. That's right, this goal only affects about 10% of our oil sourcing. Now it sounds rather small, doesn't it?

But all this is beside the point. Oil trades on a global market and oil sources are more-or-less easily substitutable. Our oil sourcing has more to do with transportation costs than geopolitics. And it will remain that way unless the government starts to forbid purchases from certain suppliers. Which would go over very badly with the industry.

Tiny Island