Quotulatiousness

October 24, 2017

The many false faces of Aleister Crowley

Filed under: Books, Britain, History — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

In the latest Libertarian Enterprise, Sean Gabb reviews a new collection of essays about Aleister Crowley:

Turning to practitioners of the occult, I see no evidence of special success. They do not live longer than the rest of us. However they begin, they do not stay better looking. Any success they have with money, or in bed, is better explained by the gullibility of their followers than by their own magical powers.

So it was with Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) — the “Great Beast 666,” or “the wickedest man alive.” He quickly ran through the fortune his parents had left him. He spent his last years in poverty. Long before he died, he had begun to resemble the mug shot of a child murderer. Whether his claims were simply a fraud on others, or a fraud on himself as well, I see no essential difference between him and the beggar woman who cursed me in the street. He had advantages over her of birth and education. But he was still a parasite on the credulity of others.

Nor can I see him as a thinker or writer of any real value. The book that I am reviewing does its best to claim otherwise. Its varied essays are all interesting and well-written. Anything by Keith Preston, who wrote the fourth essay, is worth reading. Mr Southgate has done a fine job on the editing and formatting. But I found myself looking up from every essay to think what a terrible waste of ability had gone into producing the book. Was Crowley a sort of national socialist, or a sort of libertarian? Was he a sex-obsessed libertine, or did he preach absolute self-control? I suspect all these questions have the same answer. The overall theme of the book is that he was a penetrating critic of “modernity,” and each of its writers — all, in my view, men of greater ability than Crowley — has done his best to reduce a corpus of self-serving nonsense to a coherent system of thought.

The truth, I think, is that, beyond a desire to impose on everyone about him, Crowley had no fixed ideas, but he was too bad a writer for this to be apparent. Take these examples of his prose:

    We are not for the poor and sad: the lords of the earth are our kinsfolk. Beauty and strength, leaping laughter, and delicious languor, force and fire are of us…” [quoted, p.68]

    The sexual act… is the agent which dissipates the fog of self for one ecstatic moment. It is the instinctive feeling that the physical spasm is symbolic of that miracle of the Mass, by which the material wafer… is transmuted into the substance of the body. [quoted, p.151]

In the second of these, he seems to show an influence of D.H. Lawrence — or of the sources that made Lawrence into another bad writer. In the first, he has certainly been reading too much Swinburne. I confess that I have not read anything by Crowley beyond the quotations in this book. Having seen these, though, I am not curious to look further. He was a nasty piece of work in his private life, and a victim of early twentieth century fashion in everything else.

QotD: Tax complexity

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

What’s interesting about this [IRS] scam is that it’s a departure from classic confidence schemes. Think about something like the Nigerian e-mail scams, and how they draw their victims in: greed for a lucrative finder’s fee in exchange for doing something that sounds maybe a little bit shady, but maybe sort of noble too. The victim is then strung along by playing to the greed, and kept from talking to others who might point out the scam by because they think they are complicit in something legally questionable.

The IRS scam, on the other hand, works entirely by fear. It takes people who haven’t done anything wrong, and makes them afraid that they have. That’s a pretty hefty achievement. Imagine trying to extort money from someone by, say, claiming that they had murdered someone. You might elicit laughter, or bewilderment, but you’d rarely elicit much cash.

Which raises the obvious question: How did we get into a situation where it’s so easy for people to believe that the IRS is about to arrest them for a crime they weren’t even aware of having committed?

You guessed it: The IRS is incredibly powerful, and the tax code is incredibly opaque.

Like many journalists, my husband and I pay someone to do our taxes. We have to. The year we married, I realized that with two journalists who both had salary and non-salary income, home offices, various business expenses, and a new home purchase, our taxes had finally passed the point at which I was even marginally competent to do them. Before then, I had always done my taxes myself, and filed them with a sort of wistful hope that I had done them correctly. At this point it seems worth pausing to note that:

  1. I have an MBA.
  2. I write about tax policy for a living.

These things are surprisingly little help. Filling out your taxes is not a matter of being good at math, or accounting, or even knowing how various provisions of the tax code interact in revenue projections. It is entirely a matter of knowing what can be deducted, and how. And because our tax code is so complex, that doesn’t mean “read the statute”; it means “read the statute, and the case law, and develop a sense over long experience of how agents are likely to interpret this or that during an audit.” The only people who can do that are tax professionals; the rest of us are too busy earning a living in our own professions.

There’s no perfect measure of tax complexity, but consider one quick-and-dirty metric: the number of lines on a typical tax form, and the length of the accompanying tax booklet. Quartz did just that a while back, and found that the complexity had been steadily increasing.

Legal complexity does not accumulate linearly; it accumulates exponentially. When you have one law on the books, and you add a second, the new law may (or may not) have some unexpected interaction with the old law. This would be one complexity point for regulators to manage. But with each new law, the number of potential interactions grows quickly, until it passes the ability of any layman to grasp it (and eventually, surpasses the professionals as well, which is why they’re increasingly specialized in narrow areas). We are long past that point with the tax code.

Megan McArdle, “Why We Fear the IRS”, Bloomberg View, 2016-01-04.

September 19, 2017

The Merchant of Death – Basil Zaharoff I WHO DID WHAT IN WW1?

Filed under: Britain, Business, Europe, History, Military — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

The Great War
Published on 18 Sep 2017

For arms dealers like Basil Zaharoff, the late 19th and early 20th century was a time of never ending business opportunities, the great European powers modernised their armies drastically and conflicts like the Russo-Japanese War or the Balkan Wars meant that weapons of all kinds were always in demand. But no other man knew how to influence and profit from the warring nations like “The Merchant of Death” – Basil Zaharoff.

August 4, 2017

QotD: Shakespeare’s sonnets

Filed under: Books, Britain, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

The Sonnets were published late in Shakespeare’s career (1609) — by a clever and unscrupulous man. His name was Thomas Thorpe. He ran what was for the times a unique publishing business, playing games with “copyright” that were often unconscionable but, usually, this side of the law. He owned neither a printing press, nor a bookstall — two things that defined contemporary booksellers — subcontracting everything in his slippery way. Indeed, I would go beyond other observers, and describe him as a blackguard; and I think Will Shakespeare would agree with me. Though Shakespeare would add, “A witty and diverting blackguard.”

He collected these sonnets, quite certainly by Shakespeare, but written at much different times and for quite various occasions, from whatever well-oiled sources. Thorpe had a fine poetic ear, and knew what he was doing. He arranged the collection he’d amassed in the sequence we have inherited — 154 sonnets that seem to read consecutively, with “A Lover’s Complaint” tacked on as their envoi — then sold them as if this had been the author’s intention.

We have sonnets not later than 1591, interspersed with others 1607 or later. In one case (Sonnet 145), we have what I think is a love poem Shakespeare wrote about age eighteen, to a girl he was wooing: one Anne Hathaway. (She was twenty-seven.) It is crawling with puns, for instance on her name, and stylistically naïve, but has been placed within the “Dark Lady” sonnets (127 to 152) in a mildly plausible way. It hardly belongs there.

Indeed, once one sees this it becomes apparent, surveying the whole course, that there is rather more than one “Dark Lady” in the Sonnets, and that like most red-blooded men, our Will noticed quite a number of interesting women over his years. But Thorpe has folded them all into one for dramatic effect.

David Warren, “Dark gentleman of the Sonnets”, Essays in Idleness, 2015-05-11.

August 17, 2016

QotD: The Lifestyle Charity Fraud

Filed under: Law, Quotations, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

For decades I have observed an abuse of charities that I am not sure has a name. I call it the “lifestyle” charity or non-profit. These are charities more known for the glittering fundraisers than their actual charitable works, and are often typified by having only a tiny percentage of their total budget flowing to projects that actually help anyone except their administrators. These charities seem to be run primarily for the financial maintenance and public image enhancement of their leaders and administrators. Most of their funds flow to the salaries, first-class travel, and lifestyle maintenance of their principals.

I know people first hand who live quite nicely as leaders of such charities — having gone to two different Ivy League schools, it is almost impossible not to encounter such folks among our alumni. They live quite well, and appear from time to time in media puff pieces that help polish their egos and reinforce their self-righteous virtue-signaling. I have frequently attended my university alumni events where these folks are held out as exemplars for folks working on a higher plane than grubby business people like myself. They drive me crazy. They are an insult to the millions of Americans who do volunteer work every day, and wealthy donors who work hard to make sure their money is really making a difference.

Warren Meyer, “The Lifestyle Charity Fraud”, Coyote Blog, 2016-08-04.

November 14, 2015

The scandal of NCAA “graduation” rates

Filed under: Football, Sports — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Gregg Easterbrook on the statistical sleight-of-hand that allows US universities to claim unrealistic graduation rates for their student athletes:

N.C.A.A. Graduation Rate Hocus-Pocus. [Hawaii coach Norm] Chow and [Maryland coach Randy] Edsall both made bona fide improvements to the educational quality of their college football programs, and both were fired as thanks. Edsall raised Maryland’s football graduation rate from 56 percent five years ago to 70 percent. Chow raised Hawaii’s football graduation rate from 29 percent five years ago to 50 percent.

At least that’s what the Department of Education says. According to the N.C.A.A., Hawaii graduates not 50 percent of its players but 70 percent, while Maryland graduates not 70 percent but 75 percent.

At work is the distinction between the Federal Graduation Rate, calculated by the Department of Education, and the Graduation Success Rate, calculated by the N.C.A.A. No other aspect of higher education has a graduation “success rate” — just a graduation rate. The N.C.A.A. cooks up this number to make the situation seem better than it is.

The world of the Graduation Success Rate is wine and roses: According to figures the N.C.A.A. released last week, 86 percent of N.C.A.A. athletes achieved “graduation success” in the 2014-2015 academic year. But “graduation success” is different from graduating; the Department of Education finds that 67 percent of scholarship athletes graduated in 2014-2015. (These dueling figures are for all scholarship athletes: Football and men’s basketball players generally are below the average, those in other sports generally above.)

Both the federal and N.C.A.A. calculations have defects. The federal figure scores only those who graduate from the college of their initial enrollment. The athlete who transfers and graduates elsewhere does not count in the federal metric.

The G.S.R., by contrast, scores as a “graduate” anyone who leaves a college in good standing, via transfer or simply giving up on school: There’s no attempt to follow-up to determine whether athletes who leave graduate somewhere else. Not only is the N.C.A.A.’s graduation metric anchored in the absurd assumption that leaving a college is the same as graduating, but it can also reflect a double-counting fallacy. Suppose a football player starts at College A, transfers to College B and earns his diploma there. Both schools count him as a graduate under the G.S.R.

[…]

Football players ought to graduate at a higher rate than students as a whole. Football scholarships generally pay for five years on campus plus summer school, and football scholarship holders never run out of tuition money, which is the most common reason students fail to complete college. Instead at Ohio State and other money-focused collegiate programs, players graduate at a lower rate than students as a whole. To divert attention from this, the N.C.A.A. publishes its annual hocus-pocus numbers.

September 23, 2015

In debt to the bank? Underwater on your mortgage? You might want to check the document carefully…

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At The Intercept, David Dayen says that there are a lot of sketchy documents that banks are hoping will stand up in court, but they might well be wrong:

A Seattle housing activist on Wednesday uploaded an explosive land-record audit that the local City Council had been sitting on, revealing its far-reaching conclusion: that all assignments of mortgages the auditors studied are void.

That makes any foreclosures in the city based on these documents illegal and unenforceable, and makes the King County recording offices where the documents are located a massive crime scene.

The problems stem from the Mortgage Electronic Registration Systems (MERS), an entity banks created so they could transfer mortgages privately, saving them billions of dollars in transfer fees to public recording offices. In Washington state, MERS’ practices were found illegal by the State Supreme Court in 2012. But MERS continued those practices with only cosmetic changes, the audit found.

That finding has national implications. Every state has its own mortgage laws, and some of the audit’s conclusions may not necessarily apply elsewhere. But it shows how MERS reacted to being caught defrauding the public by trying to sneak through foreclosures anyway. Combined with evidence in other parts of the country, like the failure to register out-of-state business trusts in Montana, it suggests that the mortgage industry has been inattentive to and dismissive of state foreclosure laws.

September 22, 2015

Volkswagen’s software DRM enabled the scam to fake emission data

Filed under: Business, Technology, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Boing Boing, Cory Doctorow points the finger of blame at VW’s DRM in their automobile software suite:

The EPA has accused Volkswagen of rigging its software to cheat the agency’s diesel emissions standards so that its cars could be on the road while spewing 40 times the legal limit for diesel emissions.

Volkswagen, like most auto manufacturers, uses digital rights management in its informatic systems. Under section 1201 of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, it is a felony to tamper with that DRM, punishable by five years in prison and a $500,000 fine for a first offense. The company uses this legal regime to limit which mechanics can service its cars, ensuring that only “official” mechanics, who are bound by nondisclosure agreements — and covenants to only buy their parts from VW and not an aftermarket competitor — can effectively service their cars.

This year, the US Copyright Office held its triennial hearings into possible exceptions to this rule, and one petition asked it to grant an exemption for jailbreaking cars. The car manufacturers intervened to oppose this, but so did the EPA, fearing that drivers would modify their firmware in ways that increased emissions.

But by banning independent scrutiny of cars, the EPA and the Copyright Office have made possible for terrible, criminal frauds like this one to go undetected for long periods, turning cars into long-lived reservoirs of dirty secrets that can’t be reported without risking criminal sanction.

Jazz Shaw has more:

This isn’t a case of any sort of trick carburetor or jury rigged catalytic converter. The vehicle’s onboard computer could sense when it was hooked up to a diagnostics machine for an emissions test and would conveniently turn on all of its emission control features. (It’s being referred to as a “defeat device.”) Then, when the test was completed and it was unhooked from the computer it would simply shut them off again, boosting performance but also increasing emissions. You almost have to admire the sheer audacity assuming this is true. And given the initial responses from the company they don’t seem to be claiming that they didn’t do it.

[…]

So far Volkswagen seems to be taking the line of assuring everyone that they will work to recall the cars and “fix” them to eliminate this problem. It likely won’t bankrupt a company that size, but it’s one heck of an expensive piece of humble pie to eat. If they contest the fines and go to court, however, I’m wondering if they will actually lose. This was some mischief designed to short sheet the system no doubt, but would they have an out if the case goes before a judge? I was looking over some of the state level requirements for the testing of vehicles and the boundaries to be followed are rather bare bones at best. Each vehicle in the qualifying categories which was manufactured after 1996 has to be equipped with an On-Board Diagnostics Generation II (OBDII) system. The emissions portion of this is heavily tied into your annoying “check engine” light.

The way most of the regulations are written seems to indicate that the vehicle must have a functional system of this type which is accurately monitoring system performance and meets the maximum emissions requirements at the time of testing. Obviously the VW vehicles in question were doing just that. But cars today have all sorts of bells and whistles which drivers can use to customize their driving experience. They can switch from “performance” mode to “economy” mode with the push of a button. Things like that obviously affect the vehicle’s emissions. Other such options are available. And when you think about it, the “disable device” was really just putting the car into a different mode of operation which includes heavy emissions control. When it was disconnected and ready to head back out on the road it was switching back to a different mode with a bit more performance. None of that changes the fact that the emissions were within the required limits at the time of testing.

August 15, 2015

Science in the media – from “statistical irregularities” to outright fraud

Filed under: Media, Science — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

In The Atlantic, Bourree Lam looks at the state of published science and how scientists can begin to address the problems of bad data, statistical sleight-of-hand, and actual fraud:

In May, the journal Science retracted a much-talked-about study suggesting that gay canvassers might cause same-sex marriage opponents to change their opinion, after an independent statistical analysis revealed irregularities in its data. The retraction joined a string of science scandals, ranging from Andrew Wakefield’s infamous study linking a childhood vaccine and autism to the allegations that Marc Hauser, once a star psychology professor at Harvard, fabricated data for research on animal cognition. By one estimate, from 2001 to 2010, the annual rate of retractions by academic journals increased by a factor of 11 (adjusting for increases in published literature, and excluding articles by repeat offenders). This surge raises an obvious question: Are retractions increasing because errors and other misdeeds are becoming more common, or because research is now scrutinized more closely? Helpfully, some scientists have taken to conducting studies of retracted studies, and their work sheds new light on the situation.

“Retractions are born of many mothers,” write Ivan Oransky and Adam Marcus, the co-founders of the blog Retraction Watch, which has logged thousands of retractions in the past five years. A study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reviewed 2,047 retractions of biomedical and life-sciences articles and found that just 21.3 percent stemmed from straightforward error, while 67.4 percent resulted from misconduct, including fraud or suspected fraud (43.4 percent) and plagiarism (9.8 percent).

Surveys of scientists have tried to gauge the extent of undiscovered misconduct. According to a 2009 meta-analysis of these surveys, about 2 percent of scientists admitted to having fabricated, falsified, or modified data or results at least once, and as many as a third confessed “a variety of other questionable research practices including ‘dropping data points based on a gut feeling,’ and ‘changing the design, methodology or results of a study in response to pressures from a funding source’”.

As for why these practices are so prevalent, many scientists blame increased competition for academic jobs and research funding, combined with a “publish or perish” culture. Because journals are more likely to accept studies reporting “positive” results (those that support, rather than refute, a hypothesis), researchers may have an incentive to “cook” or “mine” their data to generate a positive finding. Such publication bias is not in itself news — back in 1987, a study found that, compared with research trials that went unpublished, those that were published were three times as likely to have positive results. But the bias does seem to be getting stronger: a more recent study of 4,600 research papers found that from 1990 to 2007, the proportion of positive results grew by 22 percent.

August 13, 2015

Grand Theft, banking style

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

At Salon, David Dayen tells the astounding tale of American banks going feral and mass-forging legal documents to foreclose mortgages on houses they had zero claim on:

If you know about foreclosure fraud, the mass fabrication of mortgage documents in state courts by banks attempting to foreclose on homeowners, you may have one nagging question: Why did banks have to resort to this illegal scheme? Was it just cheaper to mock up the documents than to provide the real ones? Did banks figure they simply had enough power over regulators, politicians and the courts to get away with it? (They were probably right about that one.)

A newly unsealed lawsuit, which banks settled in 2012 for $95 million, actually offers a different reason, providing a key answer to one of the persistent riddles of the financial crisis and its aftermath. The lawsuit states that banks resorted to fake documents because they could not legally establish true ownership of the loans when trying to foreclose.

This reality, which banks did not contest but instead settled out of court, means that tens of millions of mortgages in America still lack a legitimate chain of ownership, with implications far into the future. And if Congress, supported by the Obama administration, goes back to the same housing finance system, with the same corrupt private entities who broke the nation’s private property system back in business packaging mortgages, then shame on all of us.

July 16, 2015

The hidden scale of East Germany’s economic disasters

Filed under: Economics, Europe, History — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Earlier this month, David Pryce-Jones wrote about one of the 20th century’s greatest con-men and his unbelievable role in the East German economy:

Alexander Schalck-Golodkowski was a most ingenious conman. The world at large never knew about him because he stayed in a little circle of corrupt political and financial insiders with whom he was doing his dirty businesses. In a mind-blowing interview that I had with Günter Mittag, the East German minister of finance, I first heard something about Golodkowski. The collapse of Communism allowed Mittag to speak more freely. Communist East Germany, he said, had always been an economic disaster, so much so that he had never dared tell Erich Honnecker, the Party first secretary, the truth that the state had no money. Mittag made up the numbers. For cash to keep up the pretenses, he turned to Golodkowski, giving him permission to do whatever he thought might be profitable. The measure of Golodkowski’s success was the CIA’s preposterous judgement that East Germany had the tenth-largest economy in the world.

Golodkowski operated through KoKo, a company set up for him freed from the laws and restrictions of both Communism and capitalism. A colonel in the Stasi secret police, he had protection the Mafia would have envied. Through bankers in West Germany and Switzerland he set up false accounts and shell companies. He was an arms trader, a speculator in commodities, and a specialist in bogus insurance claims. One of his scams was to “liberate” 600 old master pictures from the Dresden Museum and sell them. In 22 years of illegal operations, Golodkowski himself estimated (with understatement no doubt) that KoKo had amassed 27.8 billion East German marks.

July 15, 2015

Modern photography … can you believe your lyin’ eyes?

Filed under: Media, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Michelle Orange on the ways that photography can mislead and even change reality:

It may be that some of the great philosophical work of our time is taking place, hidden and unheralded, in the field of image forensics. Where but under the scrutiny of digital experts who draw a line separating false representations of the world from truthful ones are contemporary questions of perception and reality brought so keenly to bear? Who but these detectives of the real pursue as explicitly — as intricately — our crime wave of the fake, the contrived, the uncanny, the exponential image? With exquisite, singular focus, photo forensics engages the conundrum that photographic technology has tilted toward, steadily but ever more frankly, since its inception over 150 years ago: Does reality have a tipping point?

Dangling from the cliff edge of that question is the World Press Photo competition. In recent years the annual competition, which recognizes images submitted by photojournalists working across the globe, has dissolved into chaos, recrimination and a round of post-mortem soul-searching. Earlier this year, the WPP was forced to disqualify 22 percent of the competition’s finalists after forensics experts determined that certain images had been altered or manipulated beyond the currently accepted industry standard. This almost triples the number of disqualifications from a year earlier, suggesting a certain forward momentum, a trend larger and more fearsome than any set of standards.

Swedish photographer Paul Hansen won the 2013 World Press Photo competition with an image of a Gaza City funeral procession, led through an alley by men bearing the shrouded bodies of two children killed in an Israeli airstrike. Separate from the horror it depicts, with its fish-eye depth of field, stark figuration and stony matte light, the photo meets the eye as unreal. Complaints in this vein led to an investigation of the image, specifically its manipulation of tone — a quality central to photography’s evolving grammar of realism. Somehow both a beautifying tool and, in the right hands, possessed of the very texture of reality (as every Instagram filter maven knows), tone is transformative. For that reason, “excessive toning” is against WPP rules; Hansen said he adjusted tone only to balance uneven light, “in effect to recreate what the eye sees.” Ultimately, Hansen retained his prize: the judges stood behind what they saw, though it would appear their eyes prefer altered images a good portion of the time.

June 22, 2015

An insurance scam that targets the most vulnerable

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Law, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

At The Intercept, Juan Thompson talks about a burgeoning insurance scam that not only rips off the victims for their insurance premiums but then makes it worse through police action:

Martin was taken in by a widening scam in which crooks, posing as auto insurance agents, prey on working people struggling to find affordable policies. Under the scam, the perpetrator offers auto insurance for a low price — low because the scammer, posing as a broker, will buy an authentic policy using fraudulent means of payment, keeping the policy just long enough to collect a proof of insurance card.

The racket is a growing problem in New York City and South Florida, according to an insurance industry group, but seems most prevalent in Michigan, where premiums are inflated by a state mandate that drivers purchase insurance plans that have unlimited lifetime medical benefits, among other features. Victims in Michigan are thrown even deeper into crisis when police, as is common there, accuse victims of being in on the scam and seize their vehicles and other assets under civil forfeiture laws.

The scam and seizures show how crooks and cops can end up working in concert to further imperil those already on the economic brink. Indeed, in this case, low-income residents are pinched at every turn. They start off with especially high insurance premiums, consumer advocates argue, because insurance companies sometimes charge people in low-income communities more for auto insurance in a practice some have labeled modern redlining.

Bogus agents exploit the need for cheaper policies by selling insurance that’s too good to be true, leaving victims financially exposed, for example, in the case of an accident. As if all that weren’t enough, the police then turn on the victims of the fraud, who are far easier to track down than the original perpetrators.

“You have a blend of crooked agents selling innocent, squeezed drivers bogus policies and insurance cards, and high insurance premiums,” said James Quiggle of the Coalition Against Insurance Fraud, a group that receives funding from insurance companies.

November 26, 2014

It’s funny, but it’s no joke – the Pentagon’s Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure

Filed under: Government, Humour, Military, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 00:02

No shit, this really exists:

Ethically, it’s been a rough couple of years for the military.

In July 2013, an Air Force major general went on an epic five-day bender while on a diplomatic mission in Russia. That November, Navy officials launched an investigation into misconduct involving top officers and a Malaysian contractor named Fat Leonard.

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction has released report after report detailing corruption and waste by contractors and military officials.

Individually, the cases are all bad news. The good news is that authorities often catch and punish government cheats, thieves and frauds. Penalties for ripping off the American taxpayer range from huge fines to hard time in prison.

And when the trial ends and punishment begins, many military ethics cases wind up in the Pentagon’s Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure.

That’s right, the military maintains a database of the federal government’s worst ethics violators. Unlike many government documents, the encyclopedia is clear, easy to read … and actually quite funny. Many of the stories are as amusing as they are aggravating.

It might be the most light-hearted official report anyone’s ever written about criminals.

H/T to John Turner for the link.

August 9, 2014

Faking fine old wines for fun and profit

Filed under: Wine — Tags: , — Nicholas @ 00:02

A couple of years ago, I posted an item about a wine collector who got into the business of “creating” expensive old wines. BBC News talks about how this worked and how he was caught:

Rudy Kurniawan was sentenced to 10 years in jail for committing wine fraud. But just how easy is it to fake a fancy bottle of Burgundy?

Wine fraud was a problem in classical Rome and it continues to be one now. Some estimate that over 5% of wine consigned and sold at auction is fake.

But even though it is a very big problem, it is a very difficult thing to do.

“There is a distinctive taste in aged wine,” says wine chemist Andrew Waterhouse, of the University of California, Davis.

That taste?

“Canned asparagus,” he says.

Old wines — mostly those from the Burgundy and Bordeaux regions of France — have lost the majority of their tannins, giving them a softer taste reminiscent of the spring vegetable.

Bu taste is only one part of the equation. “It is the experience of drinking something that’s quite rare that’s appealing,” explains Prof Waterhouse.

A few key ingredients to the fraud: corks, capsules, and soaked-off labels from the authentic wines, plus good but not expensive wine to use either to rejuvenate the older wine or to pass off as the real thing to a less-discriminating buyer.

And that’s exactly what Mr Kurniawan was doing in his kitchen in Arcadia, California — essentially creating a “better” vintage by mixing old, good-but-not-great wines with some newer, vibrant pinot noirs.

Give it a shake, put it in an old bottle, smack on a vintage label — say, one from 1985 instead of 1982 — and voila.

“He could take a $200 bottle and turn it into over a $1,000 bottle,” says Mr Troy.

Unless you are used regularly drinking fine vintages — which at thousands of dollars a bottle, is not that many people — the taste would not raise alarm bells.

“By blending the fruitiness of a new wine with the aged character of the old wine he would approximate in some manner a very, very good aged Burgundy,” explains Prof Waterhouse.

Older Posts »

Powered by WordPress