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WELCOME TO THE NEW YEAR
This coming year should be an interesting one. Too interesting, one might posit. Whether it turns out to be any more pivotal that any other year since W.I.L.'s founding in 2000 is uncertain. Some signal event, like the suspending of U.S. elections, could happen. Probably not, but it cannot be ruled out -- and that is the deeper point. But humans are not inherently good at predicting or preparing themselves against the occurrence of low probability/high consequence events. They are designed to worry about the lion behind the bush (pun intended) around the corner. That said, just about every trend we have ever identified anywhere on this site continues apace. For starters:
Hang on for the ride. Consider that every warning we have ever given is still valid. We see no reason to retract any of them. We hope you enjoy the new Digest format.
ESCAPEARTIST A VALUABLE RESOURCE FOR THOSE CONSIDERING EXPATRIATING
EscapeArtist.com is an indispensible resource for those considering or merely dreaming about relocating abroad, and for those who have already made the move as well. Their three major free publications for expats or would-be expats are Escape From America Magazine, Offshore Real Estate & Investment Magazine, and Caribbean Property & Lifestyles Magazine.
The major caution we would give is that many of EscapeArtist's articles, and, of course, all the ads, are written by someone trying to sell you something. To our minds, this means that before buying you should thoroughly look into any service, product, or -- especially -- property being promoted, including a taking a good look at competitive offerings. Sinning in haste and repenting at leisure may be standard practice, but wisdom includes the capacity to benefit from someone else's experience. Gather as much knowledge as the magnitude of your decision calls for. There is certainly no lack of experience-sharers out there!
That said, here are some articles from last September's Escape From America (issue #95) we did not cover under the previous (pre-2008) Offshore News Digest structure. Article summaries are essentially verbatim. We will be doing a lot of catching up on EscapeArtist for a while.
Ex-pat Tips -- So you landed that exciting assignment abroad! Most transfers take place between May and September and ... as many as 400,000 employees relocate internationally each year. That means thousands of Americans like you are contemplating or undergoing a move to a city across the globe.
Things to Plan before Moving away from America -- [A]t least once in your life you have dreamed of quitting your job, quietly leaving the country and going somewhere where no one can ever find you again? If you have ever looked into this in any detail you have probably noticed that giving up your life in the United States and moving to another country is more difficult and time consuming than you may have thought. ...
Living in Mexico: Lord of the Flies? -- I have been wracking my small and insignificant brain lately trying to come up with a way of describing the colonies American gringos start in the Mexican towns in which they congregate. Mind you, I am operating under a tremendous bias lately and if I seem a bit hyperbolic, you will have to forgive me. I am thinking that perhaps I have had one too many threats and the fire, my Lord the fire, was what really has set me on edge about the whole thing.
Moving To Panama -- Panama is promoting foreign investment, and residential tourism is one of the major bets of the Government. When moving into Panama one important thing that should be considered is your financial security and your immigrant status. In this article you will find valuable information about immigration, property acquisition and estate planning, issues that should be considered before doing any investment in the country.
A Modern-Day Panamanian Invasion -- A stand out among current offshore tax havens, Panama combines maximum financial privacy, a long history of judicial enforcement of asset protection friendly laws, strong anti-money laundering laws, tax exemptions for foreigners and, due to its unique historic relationship with the United States, a high degree of independence from outside pressures, including those from Washington, D.C.
Arequipa, Peru - A Place to Retire -- We stroll a few blocks to the impressive Plaza de Armas. This is one of the largest and most beautiful central plazas in Peru.
Ecuador's Manana Complex -- First I should point out by way of full disclosure that I love Ecuador. I chose this country after taking a hard look at a dozen others and, after 2 1/2 years, have no regrets. Plenty of things here drive me crazy, but the following are my top six gripes ...
Singapore: An Expatriate Destination -- Singapore was and is still an extremely popular expatriate destination. [Ed: Doug Casey calls Singapore "Disneyland plus oil refineries," or something like that. But it may be fine for some people.] It offers a myriad of possibilities to anyone wishing to make a home here. According to the Singapore Economic Development Board, this island nation is the second most attractive environment for highly skilled foreigners and Asia's number one place to live and work. It is also Asia's least bureaucratic place for doing business.
Moving To Panama -- The country of Panama is promoting foreign investment, and residential tourism is one of the major bets of the Government. When moving into Panama one important thing that should be considered is your financial security and your immigrant status. In this article you will find valuable information about immigration, property acquisition and estate planning, issues that should be considered before doing any investment in the country.
CHINA IS QUIETLY REVALUING THE YUAN
After years of resisting U.S. demands that they revalue the yuan, whether because they feared the economic consequences or because they wanted to prove that they do not take orders from anyone, China may at last be doing exactly that. But not officially, so far. Like other countries who have traditionally pegged their currency to the U.S. dollar, China is getting tired of importing U.S. inflation.
Dramatic changes in recent months and especially the last week in the crawling dollar peg the central bank sets for the renminbi (RMB) are leading to big cumulative shifts in its rate.
The changes this month alone would see a 15%-16% hike on an annualized basis, and markets are starting to estimate that the gain may be as much as 9% over the year. That would bring the total change since the government abandoned the fixed peg in July 2005 to nearly 20%.
The move may have striking repercussions for a global economy in which China's currency policies have often come under fire for creating liquidity imbalances, but which is now also fighting the threat of higher prices. Most analysts say fear of domestic inflation is the prime reason for a policy change.
The consumer prices index rose 6.9% in November, up from 6.5%, despite government hopes that inflation had peaked. It blamed big rises in food prices, but there are also signs that inflation is creeping into the wider economy.
Growth last year hit an estimated 11.5%, while largely because of its huge and fast-rising trade surplus, China's foreign exchange reserves rose to just shy of $1,500 billion.
"Our take was always that the RMB was the last trick in the box in terms of balancing the trade surplus," said Stephen Green, head of research in China for Standard Chartered, which last week raised its predicted rise for the RMB over the year to 9%. ... "There were two triggers -- domestic inflation and (the threat of) U.S. protectionism," Mr. Green said. "In the last three months inflation has moved to the top." ...
Some analysts believe the government will be forced to turn to shock therapy, announcing a major one-off revaluation. It is possible the faster rise is having a perverse effect, attracting hot money leading to greater investment, exports and surpluses. But much will depend on the American and European economies.
Despite revaluation efforts so far, the pace in the fall of the dollar on the international markets has been such that the renminbi has continued to decline against the euro, by 9% last year.
Song Guoqing, professor at the China Centre for Economic Research at Beijing University, said the government regarded a 5pc revaluation against a basket of currencies as "very high" -- in other words, that it would have a destabilising effect on exporters.
"Two to three percent appreciation of renminbi basically has little influence on China's economy," he said. "If it were more than 10%, then the effect would be clearly visible."
MAURITIUS ECONOMY EXPECTED TO GROW 6%
Tax-News reports that the government of the small island nation of Mauritius, located in the southwest Indian Ocean, said that it expects the economy to grow by 6% in 2008, with the financial and tourism sectors likely to lead GDP growth.
Based on information gathered on the key sectors of the economy and the trends of the recent past, the government announced ... that economic growth this year will exceed last year's 5.6%. However, when the sugar industry is factored out of the figures, growth in 2008 is forecast to be a more moderate 5.6%. ...
Construction will grow around 3% this year after the high growth of 15% in 2007, which was mostly due to more construction of hotels and Integrated Resort Scheme projects, according to the government.
Mauritius appears to be benefitting from the worldwide construction boom, as well as the strong market in soft commodities such as sugar. How well this all pans out when the boom turns to bust, for Mauritius and everyone else, remains to be seen.
U.S. ATTACKS COSTA RICAN ONLINE BETTING OPERATION
As reported by Tax-News.com, the U.S. continues to relentlessly attempt to crush all transactions between consenting adults that threaten government-run rackets:
Judicial authorities in New York announced ... that 12 individuals have been charged with gambling and money laundering offences relating to the operation of a Costa Rica-based gambling website and call center that served sports books in the U.S. ...
The indictment ... alleges that from December 2005, Carmen Cicalese operated an internet website and telephone call center, known as a wireroom, in Costa Rica which charged United States-based sports bookies weekly fees of approximately $15 to $30 for each gambler that the bookie registered with the "Cicalese Wireroom". In return, registered gamblers were able to place bets on sporting events at odds set by the Cicalese Wireroom via a toll-free phone number, and through various websites maintained by the Cicalese Wireroom, including datawager.com and betwestsports.com.
The indictment stated that the Cicalese Wireroom did not itself take an interest in the outcome of these wagers; paying winners and collecting from losers was the responsibility of the bookies.
U.S. bookies are said by the authorities to have paid the fees owed to the Cicalese Wireroom to representatives of the Cicalese Wireroom in the U.S. It is then thought that the collectors, or "runners," in turn transferred the money back to the Cicalese Wireroom in various ways, including by using couriers, debit cards, and electronic funds transfers. According to prosecutors, on one occasion, the Cicalese Wireroom used a Pakistan-based "hawala" money transfer organization to move money collected from U.S. bookies. ... All 12 defendants were charged with gambling and with conspiracy to engage in gambling.
Fearing that online gambling operations based offshore could act as a conduit for money launderers and financiers of terrorism, the Bush administration has led a crackdown on foreign operators in the U.S. The Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act, passed by Congress in 2006, effectively shut down the U.S. industry for these companies by prohibiting the use of payment instruments by financial institutions to handle the processing of any form of internet gambling that is illegal under U.S. federal or state law.
The government has also not shied away from pursuing some of the biggest names in the industry, such as BetonSports, the UK-and Costa Rica-based company formerly listed on the London Stock Exchange, which pleaded guilty to racketeering charges in May 2007.
To cut to the chase:
(1) Offshore gambling threatens U.S. onshore operations such as state lotteries (accurately described as a tax on the mathematically disadvantaged), and Las Vegas and other heavily taxed and regulated gaming operations. The people behind these operations have (successfully) pressured the government to crackdown on their less regulated and taxed offshore competitors.
(2) Serving as a financial conduit for terrorists is about #33 on the U.S. government's list of concerns about offshore gambling operations. The USG would like to monitor and control all transactions that involve moving funds offshore -- and steal the funds involved if some convenient pretext can be found. The terrorist angle is just a stalking horse
NATIONAL TAXPAYER ADVOCATE DELIVERS REPORT TO U.S. CONGRESS
No effort should be spared in helping taxpayors better pay their taxes.
National Taxpayer Advocate Nina E. Olson released her annual report to Congress this past week. As reported by Tax-News.com, the report focused "particular attention on the consequences of changes to the tax code enacted late in the year, and on the need for a coordinated IRS approach to combat the cash economy portion of the tax gap."
We are certainly glad to hear that the "taxpayor advocate" is advocating a further IRS crackdown on the cash economy. We would not want to think that any economic activity goes unmonitored and untaxed. We wonder what a "taxpayor adversary" might advocate in similar circumstances. Oh, that's right. We already have the IRS. And the difference between what they and Ms. Olson recommend is ... what?
Olson also urged Congress to enact a Taxpayer Bill of Rights, and to authorize symbolic "apology payments" in egregious cases where taxpayers suffer significant harm as a result of IRS errors.
Interesting idea in principle. We would expect the IRS to hold itself ruthlessly accountable, just like any good government beaurocracy, should such payments be authorized. We can hardly wait.
The report designated the frequency and magnitude of late-year changes to the tax code as the most serious problem facing taxpayers. In each of the last two years, Congress has acted in December to provide tax benefits with retroactive effect for the full year. In 2006, Congress extended several popular tax deductions. In 2007, Congress provided an Alternative Minimum Tax "patch" to protect approximately 20 million additional taxpayers from the AMT. ...
The report recommends that the Treasury Department and the tax-writing committees create a process through which IRS identifies and estimates the filing-season impact of significant tax legislation -- particularly provisions extending existing benefits -- which is then transmitted to the tax-writing committees at several points during the year, perhaps on June 30, September 30, and monthly thereafter.
This year's AMT fiasco was particularly egregious. It was shocking -- shocking! -- the see Congress victimize ordinary people for the sake of political grandstanding. What next? Violating their oaths to defend and protect the Constitution? Nah, even Congress would not stoop that low. Back to the recommended cash economic crackdown and the "apology payments":
The report proposes a comprehensive strategy to address tax noncompliance in the cash economy, which accounts for the largest portion of the tax gap. The report stresses the need to identify new approaches to reduce the tax gap without imposing undue compliance burdens or undermining taxpayer rights. The report concludes that IRS's current efforts are not adequately coordinated. ... The report identifies the lack of progress in addressing cash economy noncompliance as a most serious problem, makes recommendations for legislative change, and includes a research report that proposes a comprehensive set of administrative and legislative steps to address it.
The report urges Congress to enact a comprehensive Taxpayer Bill of Rights and to authorize "apology payments" in cases where the IRS excessively burdens or harms taxpayers. The US tax system is based on a social contract between the government and its taxpayers, Olson wrote. Taxpayers agree to report and pay the taxes they owe and the government agrees to provide the service and oversight necessary to ensure that taxpayers can and will do so. Over the past two decades, Congress has enacted three significant taxpayer rights' bills, but the number of bills and the lack of publicity have muddled the message, Olson said.
This glosses over a small issue, namely that whenever the words "taxpayer rights" pass through Congress's metaphorical lips, the unspoken words "just kidding" follow immediately. You do not fund an empire and a massive welfare state by playing nice with your subjects. You want them good and scared -- which everyone is of the IRS, unless you have the money or political connections to defend yourself from them. All public hearings exposing IRS wrongs, and legislated taxpayor remedies against IRS abuses, are for show only. Congress is on your side against the big bad IRS. Suuure they are.
The report notes that other tax systems, including the United Kingdom's and Australia's, authorize the tax administrator to make symbolic payments to taxpayers in cases where the tax administrator has made errors that imposed significant hardship or inconvenience. Such payments are de minimis -- not designed to compensate the taxpayer for costs incurred but simply to acknowledge error in a tangible way. Olson recommended that Congress authorize up to $1 million a year for the National Taxpayer Advocate to make such payments, which would range from $100 to $1,000.
The thought of all those wronged taxpayors getting "acknowledged" for the harm done to them is touching beyond words. Hopefully that will enable them to obtain "closure" with the abuse they endured and put it all behind them. Oprah or Dr. Phil will be calling soon. ("Defending yourself from the IRS cost you 50k, but they gave you $1,000 in compensation as an apology. How did that work for you?") Of course no IRS employee would have to pay the compensation out of their own pocket. They were just doing their job, you see, even if they got a little overzealous. Admittedly getting any beaurocrat to admit that he or she did something wrong to a
subject payer of their salary is rare, so putting the idea into practice would not be nothing.
The report finds that many taxpayers may be paying taxes they do not owe because IRS instructions do not adequately explain exceptions to "cancellation of indebtedness" income. If a taxpayer borrows money and the debt is canceled, the taxpayer generally must include the amount of debt cancellation in gross income. This rule received significant attention in 2007, as homeowners who could not make their mortgage payments lost their homes to foreclosure and stood to receive tax bills for any amount of debt that exceeded the value of their property. While Congress passed legislation granting temporary relief relating to mortgages, taxpayers received about two million Forms 1099-C reporting canceled debts last year, many relating to defaults on automobiles and credit card bills.
There are several exceptions to the general rule that these amounts are taxable, including an exception that applies to the extent a taxpayer is insolvent (meaning the taxpayer's liabilities exceed the taxpayer's assets). In many if not most cases, the insolvency exception will shield canceled debts from gross income because affected taxpayers, almost by definition, are taxpayers who lack sufficient assets to cover their liabilities. However, IRS instructions do not explain the exceptions clearly. For example, the instructions to Form 1040 list canceled debts under the heading of "Examples of income to report" and make no mention of exceptions. ... The report recommends that the IRS improve its instructions and develop a publication devoted to canceled-debt issues.
IRS instructions "accidentally" result in taxpayors paying more than they actually owe. The shocking revelations just keep accumulating. With mortgage defaults mounting it is fair to say that this area warrants clarification -- at least some would say that.
The report updates prior National Taxpayer Advocate reports on the private debt collection program. The report states that the program is falling far short of revenue projections. In May 2007, the IRS estimated that the program would raise gross revenue of between $1.5 billion and $2.2 billion over the next 10 years ... The IRS now acknowledges that the program will not hit these targets. Gross revenue totaled $31 million in FY 2007, is projected to be slightly less in FY 2008, and is not now projected to rise sharply in future years. To date, the costs of the program have exceeded the revenue the program has generated, and the IRS cannot project when the program will break even. Olson expressed particular concern about the lack of transparency in the program. IRS collection procedures are publicly available and subject to review by taxpayers and Members of Congress. By contrast, the private collection agencies have designated comparable information -- including calling scripts and training materials -- as proprietary, and the IRS to date has declined to insist on a contractual term to make them publicly available. As a consequence, the Advocate is prohibited from describing them in her reports to Congress, and the materials are not subject to public scrutiny. Olson reiterated her prior call for repeal of the program.
It is interesting that the whole idea of subcontracting the collection of routine taxpayor debts to private collection agencies has fallen so flat. A possibility is that it would be too effective, and show how poorly run the IRS is (for which we should be thankful).
FRENCH PRESIDENT SARKOZY PROPOSES NEW TAX ON INTERNET
Tax-News reports that Sarkozy has unveiled new proposals for an internet-based tax, as part of a range of new levies to fund France's state broadcasters:
In his first full press conference at the Elysee Palace since becoming President last year, Sarkozy outlined plans to scrap advertising on France's two public television stations, with the ensuing revenue shortfall to be plugged with a tax on internet connections, mobile phone usage and a levy on the advertising revenues of commercial television stations.
Sarkozy promised that any tax on internet users would be "infinitesimal", but his idea is controversial, and some observers see the plan as taxing the new media to help fund the old. France would also stand out as one of the only countries to raise revenues from taxing internet access, something which other governments have so far shied away from.
Leave it to a "conservative" buddy of Bush's to come up with an excuse to tax the so-far relatively untaxed internet. Anyone care to bet how long the tax will stay "infinitesimal" if and when it gets instituted?
CROSS BORDER TAXATION AN ISSUE FOR THE U.N., SAYS BARBADOS PRIME MINISTER
Tax-News reports that Barbados PM Owen Arthur has called for the establishment of a new agency to deal with issues arising from cross-border taxation within the United Nations:
Arthur expressed his view ... during a courtesy call from UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon. ... Arthur said that cross border taxation issues were becoming more important as countries moved towards a global economy. He acknowledged the existence of a committee at the level of the UN, but advocated that its work should now be at the level of an agency.
He pointed out that Barbados did not want to be used for tax evasion or money laundering, but wanted to participate in legitimate business with international tax corporations. He said the country was therefore keen to work with the UN on matters related to international tax corporations.
During the discussion, the Prime Minister also stressed the importance of middle income countries (apparently this group includes Barbados) being recognized for their successes by the global community. He argued that while lesser developed countries must continue to be given attention, there was an "inefficient distortion" of the flow of resources which needed to be reexamined.
Arthur suggested that middle income countries should not be penalized for their achievements, but rather, they should be seen as 'change champions' ...
He may be referring here to the successes of small countries that have moved up from low income to middle income status due to relatively low tax rates and noninterventionist economic policies. It is not likely the large welfare/warfare states will want to acknowledge such achievements very loudly.
According to the government, the Secretary General concurred that middle income countries should be recognized for their achievements, and admitted that he was "fascinated" by the level of development reached by Barbados, and its ability to overcome challenges such as extreme poverty.
The talks also focused on the technical assistance that could be offered by the UN for the regional integration process.
While we do not have a deep knowledge of Barbados's economic story, a good guess is that their achievements and "facinating" level of development can be explained by good markets for their sugar, oil and refined petroleum products, and the government not frittering everything away or otherwise wasting the island's human and natural resources. This simple explanation is probably beyond a high-level agent of the state such as the U.N. Secretary General.
As for the "technical assistance that could be offered by the UN," if getting advice from Dick Cheney on integrating into a Zen monastery sounds like a good idea, then by all means ask for such assistance.
FBI WIRETAPS DROPPED DUE TO UNPAID BILLS
"Be thankful we're not getting all the government we're paying for." ~~ Will Rogers
This story is almost too good to be true:
WASHINGTON -- Telephone companies have cut off FBI wiretaps used to eavesdrop on suspected criminals because of the bureau's repeated failures to pay phone bills on time.
A Justice Department audit ... blamed the lost connections on the FBI's lax oversight of money used in undercover investigations. In one office alone, unpaid costs for wiretaps from one phone company totaled $66,000.
In at least one case, a wiretap used in a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act investigation "was halted due to untimely payment," the audit found. FISA wiretaps are used in the government's most sensitive and secretive criminal and intelligence investigations, and allow eavesdropping on suspected terrorists or spies.
"We also found that late payments have resulted in telecommunications carriers actually disconnecting phone lines established to deliver surveillance results to the FBI, resulting in lost evidence," according to the audit by Inspector General Glenn A. Fine.
More than half of 990 bills to pay for telecommunication surveillance in five unidentified FBI field offices were not paid on time, the report shows. ...
The report ... was a highly edited version of [Inspector General Glenn A.] Fine's 87-page audit that the FBI deemed too sensitive to be viewed publicly. It focused on what the bureau admitted was an "antiquated" system to track money sent to its 56 field offices nationwide for undercover work. Generally, the money pays for rental cars, leases and surveillance, the audit noted."
More than a few incongruities here, and the ACLU's comment highlights a big one:
The American Civil Liberties Union called on the FBI to release the entire, unedited audit. The group, which has been critical of some of the government's wiretapping programs, also took a swipe at telecommunication companies that allowed the eavesdropping -- as long as they are getting paid.
"It seems the telecoms, who are claiming they were just being 'good patriots' when they allowed the government to spy on us without warrants, are more than willing to pull the plug on national security investigations when the government falls behind on its bills," said former FBI agent Michael German, the ACLU's national security policy counsel. "To put it bluntly, it sounds as though the telecoms believe it when the FBI says the warrant is in the mail but not when they say the check is in the mail.
Jake Edge, writing for LWN.net (formerly Linux Weekly News), notes:
An interesting look at the arguments made by the U.S. Government in a email privacy case serve as yet another reminder that email is not private. For both technical and, now, potentially legal reasons, email that you send is not protected from prying eyes. Even for jurisdictions that have a bit more regard for privacy than the U.S. does, the cleartext nature of email communication should be enough incentive to use encryption, at least on sensitive emails. But, even among highly technical users, email encryption is quite rare. ...
Perhaps the most chilling portion of the government's argument is that it did not even need a subpoena; that the email could be introduced as evidence no matter how it was acquired. Their argument once again rests on the [terms of service] that folks agree to with their email providers (ISPs or on-line services like GMail), which, because it gives the provider the right to look at the email, makes email inherently non-private. So the government can collect it in secret rooms at AT&T and use it as they see fit. That is not quite how they put it in their arguments, but that is the upshot.
With luck, the courts will see things just a tad differently ... This will hopefully leave us with only the technical side of email privacy to deal with. For that, there are plenty of tools available, they just do not seem to see much use.
W.I.L. strongly recommends that all its clients use encryption in their email communications -- Hushmail at the very least. However, Hushmail is not a bullet-proof defense against a sufficiently determined government, as a blog entry in Wired this past November discussed at length. "Just because encryption is involved, that doesn't give you a talisman against a prosecutor. They (governments) can compel a service provider to cooperate," explained Phil Zimmerman, creator of PGP, even as he maintained that Hushmail remains a useful tool against many other attacks.
Most modern mail user agents have some kind of encryption capability, usually in the form of an OpenPGP (RFC 2440) compliant message handler. This open encryption standard has been around for a long time, is well-supported, and not too terribly difficult to use. So why do the vast majority of emails go out unencrypted?
There are a number of reasons, probably. For one thing, the vast majority of email is spam these days; encryption probably lessens their impact, though it may help them avoid spam filters in the future. ... [S]eriously, it is only a small subset of email that needs encryption.
Even that small subset is probably not encrypted, at least in the author's experience. Certainly the Tor eavesdropping exercise indicated that even governments tend not to use encryption for at least some of their diplomatic traffic. It almost certainly comes down to convenience; dealing with keys, key exchanges, and key management is more trouble than it is worth. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet solution to that problem; in order to have good encryption, you must have good keys.
Encrypted email should be fairly private, but it is certainly not bulletproof. Because it is so rarely used today, sending encrypted email might attract unwanted attention from entities monitoring internet traffic. But, as long as both parties maintain the secrecy of their keys, possibly under the threat of imprisonment for contempt of court, there is no known method for decrypting the message in a reasonable timeframe (key-length and cipher-strength dependent, of course). If we really want privacy for our emails, encryption is the right path.
It really comes down to laziness, in our opinion. Installing and using PGP or GnuPG is really not very hard, nor does it take much time to figure out -- maybe an hour of focused effort starting out from zero, and then that is it for the rest of your PC-using days. Time to invest that hour that yields privacy dividends forever.
LINUX AND APPLICATIONS NEWS
The easy way to install programs in Ubuntu Linux.
Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols writes, in DesktopLinux.com, you could install programs on Linux "the manly way":
... and type in the source-code listings with vi-EMACS -- we spit upon EMACS! -- and then hand-compile the program yourself with gcc. Or you could use apt-get, not really a man's man way of doing it, but OK. Then, there is the girly-man way: Synaptic, which many Ubuntu or Debian users use.
But, then there is the little-bitty baby way of doing it practiced now by my buddy Jason Brooks. He uses -- I do not know if I can bear to say this -- Ubuntu's simple Add/Remove Applications tool. Why? Just because he thinks it is the easiest and best way to install programs in Ubuntu.
The shame of it all! This is Linux! This is supposed to be so hard to use that mere mortals cower in fear at the very thought of using it. Don't believe me? Just ask Microsoft, they will tell you! But if people like Jason insist on explaining how easy it is to install programs in Linux, where will our rep for being the hardest of the bad go to? To OpenBSD, that is where!
So, you really should not read Brooks's short piece on installing Linux applications. If word gets out that installing programs in Linux is really mindlessly simple, Linux might even get popular or something. We cannot have that, now can we?
Linux has long been a viable desktop option at this point, as long as you do not have some cannot-do-without Windows-only program. But traumatic "dependency hell" episodes encountered when trying to install programs on Linux remain in the collective conciousness of desktop users. So news of innovations that simplify the installation process further is always welcome. Ubuntu and distributions based on Ubuntu are current desktop user favorites.
Minty 4.0 fresh
Ubuntu 7.10-based Mint 4.0 addresses the needs and wants of Linux users who are happy to mix and match open-source and proprietary software. Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols tried out Mint on an HP Pavilion model with a 2.6GHz Pentium 4 CPU, 512MB of PC2700 DDR RAM, and a low-end Nvidia GeForce4 MX graphics card -- a machine on which Vista would be "nothing except annoying" and "even Windows XP would be cranky."
He found that installing Mint from a CD took about 20 minutes. And everything just worked. "No fuss, no muss."
This is a consumer desktop, not an office desktop. For example, Thunderbird is a fine e-mail client, but if you are in a business, Evolution is what you really want. ... OK, so Mint is not SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) or Red Hat Desktop, but where it shines is as a home user desktop. In particular, like Linspire 6.0 and Freespire 2.0, it includes proprietary multimedia support. ...
What sets Mint apart, though, is that instead of simply being Ubuntu plus multimedia playback, its community and developers have worked to make solid improvements to the already well-regarded Ubuntu distribution.
For example, while MintInstall and the Software Portal have been present in earlier versions of Mint, no one seems to have noticed them. In the Mint 4.0 release notes, the developers say they suspect that is because "their presence had not been made obvious enough." While they are much easier to find, I put the blame on users, myself included, who just immediately headed to the old familiar software package management programs such as Apt-get and Synaptic.
The more fool me. MintInstall and Software Portal make it easier than ever to install new or updated programs on your Linux desktop. I especially appreciated that MintUpdate, which also doubles as the automatic system update tool, also brings you more information about the updates and the risks involved in applying them. ...
Like Linspire and Freespire's CNR (Click'N'Run), Software Portal gives you a virtual shopping mall of software application to choose from. Once you find the application, you click on it and it is installed. Unlike CNR, which is still at the beta stage, Software Portal is already running at full power.
If you would rather just install a program without having to search for it, you can also just enter its name -- Skype, Google Earth, Banshee, whatever -- and Mint will find it, confirm that is the program that you are looking for and install it for you. It does not get much easier than this.
Mint has also made its desktop a trifle easier to manage and make attractive with its MintDesktop desktop configuration tool. The developers have also taken a big step forward in making the desktop more usable by including the Red Hat Liberation Fonts. These are open-source equivalents of some of the more common Microsoft fonts such as Arial, Times New Roman and Courier New. Now that may not seem like a big deal, but trust me, it is. Many users find themselves mildly bothered, for no reason they can put a finger on, when they start reading fonts that they are not used to. With these fonts, the gap between Windows and Linux desktop users inches a small, but significant, bit closer.
All in all, Mint 4.0 is a very attractive and easy-to-use desktop Linux for home users. In fact, I think Mint 4.0 is downright heavenly.
Sounds like a good candidate for those looking to make the leap to desktop Linux.
When Enlightenment met Ubuntu
Geubuntu is another Ubuntu-based distribution, which attempts to add visual appeal and speed to the Linux desktop by using the legendary Enlightenment in place of Ubuntu's default desktop. Geubuntu 7.10 is based on Ubuntu 7.10, and can be installed from a live CD, or on top of an existing Ubuntu distro. Mayank Sharma writes:
Installing from the live CD requires about 1.5GB of disk space. The distro booted smoothly on all the computers I tried it on, including a 1.3GHz Celeron and two dual-core desktops, with a 2.0GHz E4400 and a 1.8GHz E6300. ... To keep its requirements low, Geubuntu bundles AbiWord word processor, Gnumeric spreadsheet, Orage Calendar, and the Thunar file manager instead of more resource-intensive office suites. If you want to install more apps you can use the Synaptic package manager.
The first thing you will notice about Geubuntu is its speed. Despite being based on Ubuntu 7.10, it runs well on older hardware like my Pentium Celeron 1.3GHz laptop. This is because Enlightenment is not as resource-hungry as Ubuntu's default desktop environment GNOME ...
Despite being a young distro with just two releases under its belt, Geubuntu delivers a visually stunning desktop without compromising functionality. As a double benefit, the components it uses to blend functionality with bling have modest hardware requirements. This makes the distro perfectly suitable for older computers.
Built atop Ubuntu, the distro has a solid, well-tested base. Its unique mix of components from desktop environments Xfce and GNOME on top of the under-development Enlightenment environment introduces several bugs, but the developers are working to iron these out, and have already tackled several between the first two releases. I would recommend this distro to desktop users with aging hardware, and to users who have not tried Enlightenment before.
Yet another candidate for desktop users or would-be users.
Five desktop Linux highlights of 2007.
The ever-present (when it comes to desktop Linux punditry) Mr. Vaughan-Nichols offers his view of the most significant advances made by desktop Linux in 2007, "one of the most eventful years in desktop Linux's short history." This is in contrast to Windows Vista, which in the absense of Microsoft's enormous market presence and treasury would probably have been dead on arrival.
As I look back over the year while making up my list, one thing strikes me: This was not a year where I can point at some substantial advancement in the Linux desktop itself. That is not to say there were not significant desktop Linux releases; there were. To name but a few, this year saw the arrival of such significant distributions as Fedora 8, OpenSUSE 10.3, SLED (SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop) 10 Service Pack 1, MEPIS 6.5 and last, but never least, Ubuntu 7.10.
However, while each was incrementally a better desktop than its predecessors, none of them were revolutionary. The Linux desktop has reached a point where its progress is evolutionary.
At the same time, Microsoft has trapped itself into trying and failing to create a revolutionary new system: Windows Vista. Today, no one aside from Microsoft and its fanboys claims that Vista is even really a move forward from XP. Instead, Vista is increasingly seen as, at best, a step to the side. At worst, Vista is seen as potentially the greatest failure Microsoft has ever brought to market. Never before in operating system history have so many thousands of years of programmer hours and so much money been put into such a flop. In the meantime, Linux kept inching along with an almost continual series of small steps forward.
His nomination for the #1 advance in desktop Linux was top-tier PC vendors such as Dell and Lenovo shipping pre-installed Linux desktops to PC buyers. So now, "you can go online and order a Linux-powered PC from a brand-name vendor that will work out of the box. It is this fundamental shift, more than anything else, which marked 2007 as a year for Linux desktop users to remember."
This author of this article reckons that Linux is actually about to "take over" the low end of PCs. The economics are compelling enough. And unlike governments, as much power as Microsoft has, it cannot force you to buy their wares at the point of a gun.
OpenOffice.org 2.3 impresses.
WIL's principals have been using OpenOffice.org for quite some time now. A particularly convenient implementation is available from PortableApps.com, whose Windows installation involves no alterations to the Registry or system folder entries. Version 2.3 is the latest major release. Tiffany Maleshefski finds much to like about it:
The release of OpenOffice.org 2.3 brings several significant improvements to the open-source office productivity suite, including easier upgrade paths for existing Microsoft Office users, improved measures to prevent security breaches, and an array of snazzy new features introduced in the suite's word processing, spreadsheet, presentation and database applications.
Meanwhile, all-around improvements to the suite's presentation application, Impress, continue to give users some of the bells and whistles coveted in PowerPoint, such as the ability to now integrate sound across an entire presentation.
General improvements made to the spreadsheet application, Calc, and word processing application, Writer, make the case for OpenOffice 2.3 as a potentially easier and definitely cheaper upgrade path for existing Microsoft Office users, who may be considering a transition to Microsoft Office 2007.
Though file conversion fidelity continues to improve with each subsequent release of OpenOffice, file fidelity issues still surfaced in my tests, such as page-break issues discovered when trying to convert a Word-formatted document in Writer. That said, there does not seem to be a perfect solution to solving file conversion fidelity issues, so in the interim, realistic IT managers need to sidestep the problem by standardizing on a single office suite option, thereby minimizing the hassle of importing and exporting back and forth, and allowing these niggling formatting issues to creep into files. ...
OpenOffice.org 2.3's most persuasive set of features, however, continues to be that it is an entirely free product and supports seven platforms: Windows, Linux x86 and PowerPC, Solaris x86 and SPARC, Mac OS X and FreeBSD. ... The suite can be downloaded for free at www.openoffice.org, and users can purchase additional phone and e-mail support through the use of StarOffice 8.
From its very first release, OpenOffice.org has taken on Microsoft Office as its biggest rival, and this version is no different. However, with the beta version of IBM Lotus Symphony kicking around, there could be another major contender for OpenOffice to consider. IBM Lotus Symphony is also a free office productivity suite, bereft of proprietary file formats, software licensing agreements and upgrades.
If there is one complaint we have about OO.o is that it is a bit on the bloated side. We expect this to improve in time, but it will be interesting to see whether IBM's offering shows major improvements along this dimension.
The writer of Office shootout: OpenOffice.org Calc vs. Microsoft Excel found that "for most functions that the average user is likely to want, there is no major functional reason for preferring either Calc or Excel over the other." In an ealier reviews he found that OOo 2.3 Writer outperformed Microsoft Word, while Microsoft PowerPoint offers more features than OOo Impress. But with the spreadsheets, "there is no clear winner."
Meanwhile, this article lists several nifty OpenOffice.org extensions you can install to augment its functionality. For instance, the Bookmarks Menu enables one to bookmark documents as well as often-used macros and shell commands.
Scribus: Professional page layout for Linux.
Scribus is an open-source page layout program that runs on Linux, Windows, and Mac OS X. Is it a viable alternative to proprietary products such as Adobe InDesign and QuarkXpress for professional production work? Reviewer Drew Ames finds that Scribus "suffers" when compared to its commercial counterparts. However:
"On the other hand, Scribus is an incredible value when comparing cost versus capability -- especially because it is the best page layout program for Linux users. Furthermore, Scribus users have addressed many of the shortcomings by writing Python scripts that extend Scribus's capabilities and interface and posting them on the Scribus wiki. Overall, the development team has done a fantastic job creating a capable DTP program. With time and further development, I have no doubt that Scribus can be as full-featured as other alternatives."
A comparison of Scribus with lower-level products such as Microsoft Publisher and Serif PagePlus would also be useful. And note that OpenOffice.org's Writer application has page layout capabilities.
KICKING THE CAN DOWN IRAQ’S ROCKY ROAD
Military/policy analyst William Lind, writing on LewRockwell.com, suggests that with the current pause between phases of the Iraqi civil war now is a good time to declare victory and go home. The Bush administration will never do this, but what about the Democrats? Why do they keep funding the war? Lind writes:
The reasons are several, and none of them are pretty. Obviously, Democrats think they will garner more votes in November if the war is still going on with no end in sight. Running against "Bush's war" appears more promising than ending it.
Most of the leading Democratic Presidential candidates are ambiguous, at best, about ending the war in Iraq if they win. Why? In part, because just as the neo-cons now dominate Republican circles, so the Democratic Establishment is in thrall to the neo-liberals. Both cabals of neos favor a world-dominating American empire, run of course by themselves. We are reminded once again that while there may be, at least on paper, two parties, there is one Establishment. It does not look favorably on ending the games off which it feeds.
That pretty much says it all. It also is a good explanation of why none of the U.S.'s great intractable problems ever get solved or resolved. Anyone who expects a political solution to any of them is ignorant of history and naive about human nature.
So the politicians will sit and wait while the time we have so dearly bought in Iraq runs out. ... If we are to make good use of the time kicking the can down the road has bought us, it falls to the senior military to do so. The moral burden of command demands that they go public and say, "If we are going to get out of Iraq, the time to do so is now." Some of them may get fired for it, although General Petraeus is probably (again, for a time) untouchable. The Bush White House still will not be moved, but squirm as they might the Democrats in Congress would almost have to act or risk a revolt of their base, which is not very happy at the moment in any case.
Regrettably, as we saw throughout the war in Vietnam, American generals are more likely to step up to the trough than to the plate.
THE REPULSIVE U.S. PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN
Andrew Fischer's sets the tone for his article in the introduction, and then he gets really nasty:
None of the below applies to Ron Paul, of course, the only presidential candidate who is honest, principled, and consistently says what he believes.
The would-be presidents are all spouting "change" now, but of course none of them states exactly what kind of change. It is simply the buzzword of the moment. Vote for me and we will have change, they assert. Please tell us, then, what kind of change? More freebies for the indolent? More regulation and taxes? Inferior socialist health care for everyone? More government spending, manipulation and money creation? (Perhaps more liberty and a return to the Constitution? Don't make me laugh!)
They are all despicable prevaricators. Certainly there are degrees, and at the top of their parties are Hillary "Schoolmarm Knows Best" Clinton and Rudy "I Was There" Giuliani. The former claims, although her marriage was and is obviously one of convenience, that she was essentially Bill's "prez-partner" when he occupied the White House. ... [W]as Hillary truly a trusted advisor, perhaps representing Bill's female constituency? Or is she just a simple liar? These are questions which will never have answers, since the world's sleaziest couple refuses to make public the pertinent records of the Bill Clinton years. (However, we can infer the obvious.)
For his part, Giuliani campaigns on the mere fact that he was mayor of New York during the terrible 9/11 attack. Many say he did a great job, rallying his people. What everyone seems to have forgotten is that his popularity was at its nadir when the tragedy occurred. The attack clearly revived his moribund career, and was simply the best thing that could have happened for him. Furthermore, ... how hard is it to broadcast soothing platitudes penned by professional writers, to reassure the citizenry that "we'll get through this," to make lots of public appearances, and to stay up late "working"? Only a cretin would fail to see the opportunity for editorial-proof self-promotion, but only a cad (with a police-protected mistress, no less) would seize that opportunity and use it as a springboard to, and his primary qualification for, the highest office in the land. ...
When asked a question, all of them hedge, hem and haw, trying feverishly to concoct a response that will not alienate a single soul, while simultaneously attempting to incorporate the usual something-for-nothing carrots-on-sticks, which amounts to little more than buying votes with empty promises. ...
Getting elected president is now all about money ... It has nothing to do with genuine ideas, what is good, right, Constitutional or fair. It is about the continued aggrandizement of the presidency, and nothing about Congress making the laws, while the president merely enforces them. It is all about having a new "Fearless Leader" with "vision" (which seldom materializes, except in ugly forms). And it is all repulsive.
More dismaying than the candidates as such -- by now we expect no different -- is that a majority of American people (a) continue to buy ... and buy ... and buy ... from all these humbug hawkers, and (b) seem to have lost all ability to think critically. The absurdity of the democracy-peddlers' faith that the aggregation of ignorance can beget wisdom is all too apparent these days. Tune out the campaign as covered by the mainstream media if you wish to retain a vestige of faith in humanity.
Has any candidate articulated an intelligent set of hypotheses about what is behind the critical problems of our time, along with a set of policies that rationally address those causes? Has any one of them even offered anything of real substance, period? Only Ron Paul (other "fringe" candidates show incipient rationality while addressing some issues). Whatever Paul's true support level in the country may be, it is a minority. Why do the rest support who they do? Apparently for vague, emotionally-driven reasons, or because the candidate sounds good regarding a particular issue of interest (however counterproductive his or her approach may actually be). The neglected cerebral cortex has little say in the matter. It may always have been thus, but now the country can no longer afford to indulge whimsical motivations and the outcomes stemming therefrom. Our financial and social reserves have been depleted.
Lenin claimed that the capitalist would sell you the rope with which you hung him. The American people seemingly will give you the rope or, more bizarre yet, subsidize you to take the rope with which you will hang them. As Bill Bonner and Addison Wiggin expressed in Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis, you may as well laugh.
By the way, does anyone expect that their property and due-process rights will be honored and protected amidst a sea of ignorance and anti-wisdom?
The Anti-Capitalist Mentality
Psychologizing is rarely initiated by those on the right ... Conservatives generally hold politics to be an objective, rather than subjective, endeavor so they are reluctant to descend into the muck of personalization as a means to advance their cause. This is highly admirable but ultimately a pity as, without counter-attacks, irrationality seems to thrive and multiply within the confines of our sound-bite culture.
Occasionally though, the empire strikes back, or emperor, in the case of Ludwig von Mises. Over fifty years ago, the famous economist whose career "showed that government intervention is always destructive," penned The Anti-Capitalistic Mentality. This short book marked his official venture into psychology. We should be grateful today for its insight. His deconstruction of those opposed to free markets indicates that he had a far better understanding of humanity than do the majority of psychologists. ...
Psychologizing proved a very elementary feat for Ludwig von Mises. His deconstruction and refutation of the anti-capitalist outlook was a noble undertaking. He flamboyantly paraded its irrationality for all to see over fifty years ago, but it is now up to us to popularize his forgotten, but exquisite, argumentation.
The Lives of Others Reviewed
Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck's The Lives of Others, now available on DVD, is the best feature film debut by a director since Orson Welles's Citizen Kane. Coming it seemed out of nowhere and defying all the conventional wisdom of the motion picture industry, Donnersmarck achieved a remarkable commercial and critical success with his first full-length film, culminating when it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Picture of 2006.
The Lives of Others fully deserves all the awards it garnered. Evidently a perfectionist, Donnersmarck created a film that is near perfect in every respect. It deals seriously and profoundly with an important but sadly neglected subject -- communist tyranny in East Germany -- and the screenplay Donnersmarck carefully crafted over several years does full justice to his central theme of injustice. ... With creative costuming, location scouting, and artistic design, his production team captured the look and feel of the DDR (the German Democratic Republic) in the 1980s, above all in the predominantly grey color scheme of the film that subliminally establishes how drab and bleak life was under communist rule in the East. ...
There is a great deal that is dark about The Lives of Others, both in its background and in the film itself, but lest I give the impression that it is some ponderous German art film, to be suffered through, not enjoyed, I hasten to add that on one level it is a spy thriller, with enough twists and turns to keep audiences on the edge of their seats. And although the film is deeply depressing in what it shows about totalitarianism, it also is uplifting in what it shows about the human capacity to resist and even triumph over the most tyrannical system. After all, the film ultimately chronicles the fall of the DDR and its most hated symbol, the Berlin Wall. Donnersmarck balances the many despicable characters in his story with many likeable ones, and the film even has its comic moments, including the funniest Erich Honecker joke I have ever heard. ... The Lives of Others ultimately teaches a lesson about the humanizing power of art, perhaps even art's power to save a person's humanity in the midst of the most dehumanizing of regimes.
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