Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Cosmo and Me, Part 1

Back in 2005, when investing in real estate still seemed like a good idea, we put down a deposit on a condominium at the new Cosmopolitan Resort and Casino. At the time, the Cosmo was a vacant lot sandwiched between the Bellagio and the new CityCenter development on the Las Vegas Strip.

The project has had numerous difficulties, not least of which were a foreclosure by its main creditor, Deutshche Bank, and a class-action lawsuit which was settled out of court last year. The upshot of the settlement was that most of the buyers of the 2000 or so condo units were released from their contracts and had their deposits partially refunded. We decided to opt out of the settlement because it seemed like a bad deal. With so many buyers released from their contract, we figured one of three things had to happen.

The first possibility was that the units would be allowed to sit empty until the real estate market improved. That seemed pretty unlikely.

The second possibility was that the units would be put back on the market, in which case we figured we might be able to renegotiate our purchase price. If they were trying to sell condos in the current climate, a happy customer would be worth a lot more to them than the difference between our contract price and current fair market values, especially a happy customer who wrote a blog.

The third possibility was that the units would not be put back on the market, but would instead be turned into hotel rooms. This is what ultimately happened. Instead of 2000 condos and 1000 hotel rooms, the Cosmo now has 200 condos (under contract to the people who opted out of the class action settlement) and 2800 hotel rooms.

There was a clause in the purchase contract that allowed us to unilaterally pull out of the deal if there were "material and adverse" changes to the building's floor plan. The change from 2000 condos to 200 certainly seemed "material and adverse" to us, so we sent a letter to the Cosmo notifying them that we were electing to terminate.

We were hoping that the Cosmo's response would be an offer to renegotiate the purchase price. We actually wanted the condo, we just didn't want to pay a height-of-the-bubble price for it if we could avoid it. But instead of negotiating, they decided instead to sic their lawyers on us. We received a letter not from the Cosmo, but from the law offices of Snell and Wilmer, saying:

This law firm represents Nevada Property 1 LLC, the owner and seller under your contract to purchase a condominium hotel unit in The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas. We received your ... letter terminating your contract. However, we disagree with the premise of your termination, as there have been no material or adverse changes to the subdivision map. To the contrary, the final subdivision map reflects a project very much the same as reflected in the provisional subdivision map. Accordingly, your termination is without basis and is a default under section ... of your contract. You have 20 days from receipt of this letter to cure your default. If you fail to do so, we will proceed in accordance with your contract [and confiscate your security deposit].

That seemed a little harsh considering that our unit was not even scheduled to be completed until the middle of next year.

The notice of default backed us into a corner. We had to respond to it, so we had to consult with a lawyer. Happily, we were referred to a lawyer who was already representing a bunch of the remaining condo buyers in a new lawsuit against the Cosmo. The case was strong enough that he was prosecuting the case on contingency. Among the long list of documents that he had amassed in the case was a letter from a fellow named Matthew L. Lalli, one of the Cosmo's lawyers at Snell and Wilmer, and one of the people cc'd on the notice of default they had sent us. This letter read:

... [the contract] does not impose any contractual obligation on [the Cosmo] to record a final map with any particular details or requirements... It merely gives the buyer the option to terminate the contract if he/she believes the final map differs materially and adversely from the provisional map. [Emphasis added.]

I think Mr. Lalli's gonna have some 'splainin' to do. :-)

Frankly, I don't see how any reasonable person could argue that changing a project from 2/3 condo and 1/3 hotel to 7% condo and 93% hotel is not a material and adverse change. But it is becoming apparent that the Cosmo is not dealing in good faith. I can't help but wonder, though, what they think the end game is going to be here.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Swing and a miss

Kenji Yoshino at Slate is still mixing it up with Princeton's Robert George over the issue of gay marriage. George, you may recall, is the Princeton professor who published an article in a scholarly journal arguing against gay marriage on the grounds that reproduction is necessarily part-and-parcel of any "real" (his word, not mine) marriage.

Yoshino's response is valiant and mostly well argued by scholarly standards, but I can't help but wonder why he chooses to dance around the slam-dunk refutation of George:

... it might surprise many couples who cannot have children (or choose not to do so) that the validity of their marriage rests on its "orientation" toward procreation.

Why the parenthetical? Why not go straight for the jugular? It is precisely the heterosexual couples who choose not to have children that are the inarguable refutation of George's position. No need to quibble over whether homosexual orientation is a choice or not: people who undergo surgical sterilization are indisputably choosing a "lifestyle" that is incompatible with reproduction. Not only that, but there can be no dispute that they are making this choice deliberately and with the express purpose of thwarting reproduction, as opposed to homosexuals, for whom the obstacles to reproduction are arguably in some cases merely a side-effect of the actual objective.

There is no possible way to argue for the invalidity of gay marriage on the grounds that marriage is inextricably bound to reproduction without taking the position that people who have voluntarily sterilized themselves are not entitled to marry. That's it, the whole megillah, period, end of story. The fact that not a single sane person would be willing to take that position reveals George's argument as just another instance of thinly disguised bigotry against gays.

What is harder to understand is why left-leaning scholars like Yoshino relegate this argument to parentheticals instead of putting it front-and-center where it belongs. Instead, Yoshino takes his eye off the ball and allows himself to get drawn into a quagmire of quibbling over sports analogies. I really don't get it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Placebos work even when patients know it's a placebo

A while back I blogged about my personal mystification at what appeared to be an instance of the placebo effect at work even though I knew that it was a placebo. In my case, I had some medicine prescribed and I filled the prescription, but my condition improved before I actually took any of the medicine. Now a new study indicates that this might not have been a fluke. The LA Times reports that Placebos work, even when patients are in the know, study finds.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

It all makes sense now!

I've been reading a fascinating distilled timeline of the Great Depression and came across this:

Alarmed by Roosevelt's plan to redistribute wealth from the rich to the poor, a group of millionaire businessmen, led by the Du Pont and J.P. Morgan empires, plans to overthrow Roosevelt with a military coup and install a fascist government. The businessmen try to recruit General Smedley Butler, promising him an army of 500,000, unlimited financial backing and generous media spin control. The plot is foiled when Butler reports it to Congress.

More details here and here.

Suddenly, the existence of Fox News makes a lot more sense. Rupert Murdoch and his cronies have apparently been studying their history.

UPDATE: This seemed relevant to contemporary life as well:

1945: Although the war is the largest tragedy in human history, the United States emerges as the world's only economic superpower. Deficit spending has resulted in a national debt 123 percent the size of the GDP. By contrast, in 1994, the $4.7 trillion national debt will be only 70 percent of the GDP!

The top tax rate is 91 percent. It will stay at least 88 percent until 1963, when it is lowered to 70 percent. During this time, America will experience the greatest economic boom it has ever known.

Who knew?

"A new survey of American voters shows that Fox News viewers are significantly more misinformed than consumers of news from other sources."

Imagine that.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The government goes rogue again

The U.S. government, specifically the Department of Homeland Security, is shutting down music blogs, ostensibly because of piracy, by seizing their domain names. No warnings, and more importantly, no warrants. Not even any charges!

David Snead, a lawyer specializing in Internet cases who is representing the owner of torrent-finder.com, speculated that it might be 30 to 60 days before he would be able to see a seizure order. “The government is providing zero information to help us determine what he is being charged with,” he said. “It’s a black hole.”

I would like to be able to say that a more blatant disregard for the fundamental principles that this country is supposed to stand for is hard to imagine, but alas, that would be untrue.

Gee, I wonder why

NPR says that "The United States doesn't attract nearly as many foreign travelers as it used to.".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The woman I breed with

It's articles like this that help me to understand why conservatives often have problems with academia.

In the article, we argue that as a moral reality, marriage is the union of a man and a woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together, and renewed by acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction.

In other words, gays should not be allowed to marry because to have a "real marriage" (those aren't scare quotes -- the authors actually use that term in the paper) you have to make kids, or at least go through the motions.

To form a real marriage, a couple needs to establish and live out the kind of union that would be completed by, and be apt for, procreation and child‐rearing.53 Since any true and honor‐ able harmony between two people has value in itself (not merely as a means), each such comprehensive union of two people—each permanent, exclusive commitment sealed by organic bodily union—certainly does as well.

Any act of organic bodily union can seal a marriage, whether or not it causes conception.

How fortunate for infertile heterosexual couples. But what about people who choose not to have children and implement that choice with artificial birth control? Should they too be barred from getting married?

Funnily enough, the paper doesn't address that question. It also doesn't address the question of whether, say, a couple that puts their child up for adoption should have their marriage annulled.

This paper appears in the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy an apparently respectable academic journal. I am not impressed by their standards of scholarship. (I am, however, impressed by their euphemisms. "Organic bodily union" has got to be the most highfalutin' way I've ever heard of saying "fuck.")

Monday, December 13, 2010

Backscatter x-rays are useless

Researchers at U.C. San Francisco say that backscatter X-rays are basically useless for detecting explosives:

...although images can be made at the exposure levels claimed (under 100 nanoGrey per view), detection of contraband can be foiled in these systems. Because front and back views are obtained, low Z materials can only be reliable detected if they are packed outside the sides of the body or with hard edges, while high Z materials are well seen when placed in front or back of the body, but not to the sides. Even if exposure were to be increased significantly, normal anatomy would make a dangerous amount of plastic explosive with tapered edges difficult if not impossible to detect.

Of course, this is not terribly surprising when you consider that someone apparently was able to smuggle an entire dead body aboard an airplane last month.

Ron 1, Obamacare 0

As I predicted back in March, a federal judge in Virginia has ruled a key provision of Obama's health care reform unconstitutional. Of course, this will surely be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but there is no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different there.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

The government has gone rogue

Police in Aurora, Illinois seized $190,000 from two men during a routine traffic stop. No ticket was issued. The men have no criminal record. There is no evidence of them having done anything wrong. A judge, naturally, ordered the city to return the money. The city refused.

"Their [the city's] lawyers basically said the city was going to file for forfeiture," Kinnally [the men's lawyer] said. "The judge asked on what basis. The lawyer said, 'We don't know,' and the judge said: 'This is America. Give it back.'"

The judge ordered the city to return the $190,040, along with a month's interest and costs. But Kinnally said that when he brought the order to Aurora, the city refused to turn over the cash, saying it planned to appeal the judge's order.

And if that's not enough to get your hackles up, it now appears that the federal government has decided to help themselves to the loot:

Aurora's legal department has not responded to requests for information. And it now appears that the city no longer has the cash.

Jesus Martinez received a certified letter last weekend from U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Dated Dec. 2, the letter states the Department of Homeland Security/Immigrations and Customs Enforcement seized the money from Aurora, and that the cash is subject to forfeiture under U.S. codes dealing with drug transactions.

Seriously, the difference between the government and an organized crime organization has become quite difficult for my admittedly unschooled eye to discern.

It's not about left and right, it's about national bankruptcy

Someone who calls themselves Electablog argues over on Daily Kos that liberals ought to be happier about the tax deal that Obama struck with Republicans because liberals got more of what they wanted than Republicans did. Electablog adds up the score and declares victory for the left, $500 billion to $75 billion.

I consider myself (mostly) a liberal, but I don't feel like a winner here. The left may have won, but the country has definitely lost. What both sides seem to have lost sight of is that the U.S. is rapidly careening towards national bankruptcy, and while $75B worth of extra revenue from rich people will not make much of a dent in a trillion-dollar deficit or a multi-trillion-dollar debt, it is worrisome that despite lofty rhetoric, neither the left nor the right seems to be taking the problem seriously. We are in a deep, deep hole, and this compromise just digs us in deeper.

What has just happened is rather like a married couple in deep debt arguing over whether they should cut their vacation or buying a new car. They compromise by deciding to go on vacation and buy a new car and charge it all to their already overloaded credit card. Maybe both sides feel like they've won, but as one of the people who is ultimately on the hook for paying the credit card bill, it doesn't make me feel any better. And you shouldn't either, because even if you don't live here I guarantee you will feel the pain if the U.S. goes under.

Everything you think you know about the Quran is wrong

Lesley Hazleton gives an amazing and apparently well informed talk about the Quran from the point of view of a non-Muslim (she is a self-described "secular Jewess"). If you are at all interested in learning more about Islam, watching this video will be ten minutes well spent.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

A lovely little mythlet

Just happened to stumble across this little gem, apparently by Larry Wohlgemuth:


“Where shall we hide the Spirit of God from people?” the gods all cried when they were made.
“How can we guard our secret now?” they asked each other so afraid.

“Hide our Spirit in the earth and they will mine it.
Hide it on a mountain and they will climb it.
Even in the sea they will find it.
Where, oh where, shall we hide the Spirit of God from people?”

“Hide our Spirit in the wind and they will pursue it.
Hide it in an atom and they will view it.
Even in an act they will do it.
Where, of where, shall we hide the Spirit of God from people?”

They thought of stars in outer space or in the nature of a tree,
but they knew that people could solve each and every mystery.

“Hide our Spirit in matter and they will analyze it.
Hide it in water and they will crystallize it.
Even in hell they will surmise it.
Where, oh where, shall we hide the Spirit of God from people?”

And then they solved the puzzle of how the frightened gods should win.
The wisest said, “Let us take the Spirit of God and hide it deep inside of them.”

“Hide our Spirit in their heart and they will doubt it.
Hide our Spirit in their very soul and they will live without it.
Even if we reveal it and shout it,
they will never, never believe that the Spirit of God is deep inside of them.”

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Oh yeah, that will solve the problem

Our elected representatives seem to have this all figured out. Instead of cutting spending and raising taxes to close the budget deficit and avoid bankruptcy, they are going to keep the Bush tax cuts and extend unemployment benefits, in other words, cut taxes and raise spending. Yeah, that'll work.

I don't like to predict doom and gloom. A lot of people have lost a lot of money short-selling the United States. But if there's a trajectory that is going to avoid national bankruptcy at this point, I don't see it. If raising taxes even on the very wealthiest is politically untenable then what's going to give instead? Defense? Social security? Medicaid? Good luck with those. Everything else (except interest on the debt of course) is lost in the noise. Grow our way out of this? How? I keep hearing pundits pinning their hopes on somehow "getting the banks to ease credit so the American consumer can start buying again." That makes no sense to me at all. We're not going to "grow" our way out of this mess by increasing the rate at which we buy Chinese televisions, or the rate at which we allow Wall Street bankers to rip off homebuyers and investors, or the rate at which we invest in copycat internet startups at inflated valuations.

Maybe we can make money selling predator drones to the rest of the world, but I'm not sure that's such a good idea in the long run.

Gotta love this quote:

"Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) said President Obama was 'not caving'' by considering an extension of the tax cuts for all income levels."

If that's "not caving" I really have to wonder what caving would look like.

Bad news for xenobiology fans

Bad news for Science (the journal) and science (the enterprise) and NASA too. What appears to me to be a very well informed review of the recent NASA claims of having grown bacteria that substitute arsenic for phosphorus in their biomolecules concludes: "Bottom line: Lots of flim-flam, but very little reliable information."

To my unschooled eye it certainly looks like shoddy work at best.

Islamic extremists? No. FBI informants.

The FBI installed an informant in a mosque posing as a jahadist. The members of the mosque were so alarmed by this person that they reported him to the FBI.

I had always considered that we might have more to fear form our own government than from Islamic extremists as an abstract possibility, but I never really took it seriously before reading this. Makes me really wonder about the case against Mohamed Osman Mohamud too. This incident lends credence to the theory that Mohamud was entrapped. It would, apparently, not be the first time.

An atheist discovers part of God

Don Geddis sent me the previoius post in an email and I asked him to post it here because I think he's on the right track, but not quite there. In particular:

God doesn't care about humans, and God is not benevolent.

and I hope he'll forgive me for lifting this from his original email:

Doesn't make much of a comforting myth,

Darwinian evolution indeed is not much of a comforting myth. I think that's one of the reasons it doesn't get more traction. Happily, Darwinian evolution is not all there is. Evolution is just one layer in a hierarchy of phenomena, some of which do care about humans, and some of which are benevolent. It just so happens that the phenomena that are benevolent and care about us are not the same ones that created us. They are us (and in some cases, our pets).

It is noted among Biblical scholars from time to time that an ambiguity in Hebrew grammar allows Genesis 1:1 ("Bereshith barah Elohim et ha shmayim ve et haaretz.") to be properly translated not as "IN the beginning..." but rather "The Beginning created God, the heavens and the Earth." A properly poetic but still scientifically tenable creation myth might then go something like this: The Beginning created Physics, which created evolution (which is nothing like physics), which created DNA (which is nothing like evolution), which created humans (which are nothing like DNA), which recently created computers, which are (so far) nothing like humans. It is truly a grand and glorious scheme of things, of which intelligence is only a small (but disproportionately interesting) part. If we use the shorthand "God" to mean the totality of creation at all levels of abstraction (c.f. Raymond Smullyan), then to call God intelligent is an insult to God.

We can even co-opt a passage from Isaiah: "I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the multiverse, do all these things." (I've taken another small liberty with the translation here.)

That kind of God I think can properly compete in the theological marketplace with one who forces people to cannibalize their children.

An Atheist discovers God

[NOTE: This was posted by Don. But I think he's on the right track track -- ed.]

For thousands of years, people have observed the world, and concluded that God must have created humans. One of the strongest arguments -- quite rightly -- is that you can't get the complexity of a human being just by random chance. As Hoyle said,
The chance that higher life forms might have emerged in this way is comparable to the chance that a tornado sweeping through a junkyard might assemble a Boeing 747 from the materials therein.
That intuition is exactly right. And you don't solve it just by saying "it takes a lot of time". Yes, millions or billions of years is a far longer time than most people can comfortably think about ... but just having lots and lots of tornadoes still doesn't get you a 747 from the junkyard.

You need something, besides just random chance, to get the complexity of modern life. And it's traditional to call that something, "God". As Yudkowsky has noted, many of the characteristics traditionally ascribed to God are in fact true:

The Shaper of Life is not itself a creature. [It] is bodiless [...]. Omnipresent in Nature, immanent in the fall of every leaf. Vast as a planet's surface. Billions of years old. Itself unmade, arising naturally from the structure of physics.

Of course, some guesses (or wishes and hopes and dreams) about the nature of God turned out not to be true. Man was not made in God's image. The universe was not made "for" humans. Humans are not the purpose of God's creation. In fact, God doesn't really have a "purpose", as such. Most important, God doesn't care about humans, and God is not benevolent.

But make no mistake: God is there. A powerful force, designing all life that we see around us. After thousands of years of searching, God was found. Darwin found it. Alas, most religious folks were unable to -- or refused to -- recognize God when it was found.