Archive for September, 2008

How it worked

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Consider the Bear Stearns Alt-A Trust 2006-7, a $1.3 billion drop in the sea of risky loans. Here’s how it worked:

As the credit bubble grew in 2006, Bear Stearns, then one of the leading mortgage traders on Wall Street, bought 2,871 mortgages from lenders like the Countrywide Financial Corporation.

The mortgages, with an average size of about $450,000, were Alt-A loans — the kind often referred to as liar loans, because lenders made them without the usual documentation to verify borrowers’ incomes or savings. Nearly 60 percent of the loans were made in California, Florida and Arizona, where home prices rose — and subsequently fell — faster than almost anywhere else in the country.

Bear Stearns bundled the loans into 37 different kinds of bonds, ranked by varying levels of risk, for sale to investment banks, hedge funds and insurance companies.

If any of the mortgages went bad — and, it turned out, many did — the bonds at the bottom of the pecking order would suffer losses first, followed by the next lowest, and so on up the chain. By one measure, the Bear Stearns Alt-A Trust 2006-7 has performed well: It has suffered losses of about 1.6 percent. Of those loans, 778 have been paid off or moved through the foreclosure process.

But by many other measures, it’s a toxic portfolio. Of the 2,093 loans that remain, 23 percent are delinquent or in foreclosure, according to Bloomberg News data. Initially rated triple-A, the most senior of the securities were downgraded to near junk bond status last week. Valuing mortgage bonds, even the safest variety, requires guesstimates: How many homeowners will fall behind on their mortgages? If the bank forecloses, what will the homes sell for? Investments like the Bear Stearns securities are almost certain to lose value as long as home prices keep falling.

from the NYTimes

Ants are from Mars

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Photo of ancient ant speciesMartialis heureka is a living relic of the earliest stages of ant evolution. Scientists have unearthed an ancient ancestor of ants from the soil of the Amazon rain forest that is probably the species from which all other ants evolved.

University of Texas at Austin evolutionary biologist Christian Rabeling, who discovered the blind, subterranean and predatory ant, dubbed it Martialis heureka, or “ant from Mars,” because of its alien characteristics.

Genetic analysis revealed that it is of a new species, genus and subfamily — the first such ant discovery since 1923.

It also appears to be from the very base of the family tree for all the world’s ants.

Martialis heureka has survived relatively unchanged by remaining hidden underground in a stable tropical environment, free of competition from other ants, Rabeling wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

from EarthWeek

New Features on WordPress

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Appearantly, the version of WordPress running on the blogs.law.harvard.edu server has gotten a major upgrade. Unfortunately a busy RL schedule and a broken hand have limited out ability to fully explore this brave new world, but tonight, at the Thrusday Blogger’s Groupo, I am giving one of the most exciting new fapacities – embedding video – a trial run. Without further ado, lets see how it works…

First Female POTUS?

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Only four days into her reign as John McCain’s “soul mate,” or “Trophy Vice,” as some bloggers are calling her, on the ticket known as “Maverick Squared,” Palin, the governor of Alaska, has already accrued two gates (Troopergate and Broken-watergate), a lawyer (for Troopergate), a future son-in-law named Levi (a high school ice hockey player, described by New York magazine as “sex on skates”), and a National Enquirer headline about the “Teen Prego Crisis” with 17-year-old daughter Bristol.

from Todays NYTimes Maureen Dowd OpEd

And the French think they are so chic having a sex symbol as the WIFE of the President. With Sexy Sarah a chicken bone away from the Red Phone, we might all be in for a rootin’ tootin’ straight shootin’ surprise…..

Still Fighting the Last Century’s Wars

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Google seems intent on following the same path to world domination as the previous heavyweight champ – Microsoft – by releasing a “better browser” of their own. Known as Google Chrome, its chief innovation seems to be putting the tabs on top of the address bar. Quite frankly, it will take more than that to wean the Dowbrigade from Firefox 3.1 (OK, it isn’t quite installed yet).

We have been using this browser, in one form or another, since installing Netscape 1.0 over Christmas vacation in 1994. Before that we used Mosaic, and since then we have tried, among others, Opera, iCab, Thunderbird, Camino, Safari, and about a million versions of Internet Explorer. But we keep coming back to Netscape/Firefox.

Our current version is tuned up and tricked out, and does everything but tell us tomorrow’s lottery number. Of course, Chrome doesn’t have to be better than Firefox to be a success, just better than IE7, a ridiculously low benchmark. Undoubtedly it will engage seamlessly with the rest of the Google universe, but we see problems with endowing any human-directed entity with that kind of omnipotence. We already use Google’s search, tabbed homepage, map service, calendar, photo service, email, reminder service and image search. They have most of our email and photos and some of our documents and medical records.  Are they satisfied?  Noooo, they want more.  They want it all.

Power corrupts, etc. and it’s only a matter of time until Google morphs into the latest incarnation of the evil empire. We know that the corporate climate at Google is “different”. The road to hell is paved in good intentions.

Meanwhile, they have published a 38 page comic book touting their Better Browser. Here are a few highlights from Blogoscoped

:

* Google Chrome is Google’s open source browser project. As rumored before under the name of “Google Browser”, this will be based on the existing rendering engine Webkit. Furthermore, it will include Google’s Gears project.

* The browser will include a JavaScript Virtual Machine called V8, built from scratch by a team in Denmark, and open-sourced as well so other browsers could include it. One aim of V8 was to speed up JavaScript performance in the browser, as it’s such an important component on the web today. Google also say they’re using a “multi-process design” which they say means “a bit more memory up front” but over time also “less memory bloat.” When web pages or plug-ins do use a lot of memory, you can spot them in Chrome’s task manager, “placing blame where blame belongs.”

* Google Chrome will use special tabs. Instead of traditional tabs like those seen in Firefox, Chrome puts the tab buttons on the upper side of the window, not below the address bar.

* The browser has an address bar with auto-completion features. Called ‘omnibox’, Google says it offers search suggestions, top pages you’ve visited, pages you didn’t visit but which are popular amd more. The omnibox (“omni” is a prefix meaning “all”, as in “omniscient” – “all-knowing”) also lets you enter e.g. “digital camera” if the title of the page you visited was “Canon Digital Camera”. Additionally, the omnibox lets you search a website of which it captured the search box; you need to type the site’s name into the address bar, like “amazon”, and then hit the tab key and enter your search keywords.

* As a default homepage Chrome presents you with a kind of “speed dial” feature, similar to the one of Opera. On that page you will see your most visited webpages as 9 screenshot thumbnails. To the side, you will also see a couple of your recent searches and your recently bookmarked pages, as well as recently closed tabs.

* Chrome has a privacy mode; Google says you can create an “incognito” window “and nothing that occurs in that window is ever logged on your computer.” The latest version of Internet Explorer calls this InPrivate. Google’s use-case for when you might want to use the “incognito” feature is e.g. to keep a surprise gift a secret. As far as Microsoft’s InPrivate mode is concerned, people also speculated it was a “porn mode.”

* Web apps can be launched in their own browser window without address bar and toolbar. Mozilla has a project called Prism that aims to do similar (though doing so may train users into accepting non-URL windows as safe or into ignoring the URL, which could increase the effectiveness of phishing attacks).

* To fight malware and phishing attempts, Chrome is constantly downloading lists of harmful sites. Google also promises that whatever runs in a tab is sandboxed so that it won’t affect your machine and can be safely closed. Plugins the user installed may escape this security model, Google admits.