Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Real Time Footage of Aurora

Bad Astronomy wrote Real time footage of aurora shows them dancing and shimmering "Aurorae video is generally done with time lapse to show the movement, which is usually slow. I’ve often wondered just how fast the movement really is; I always figured fluctuations in the solar particle density, speed, and magnetic fields would produce real-time changes in the lights, but I’d never seen anything like this! "

Movie Openings

Remember this video, What If Microsoft Re-Designed the iPod Packaging?

Sitting through some really long beginning to movies made me think of this. The start of movies is just not created for the audience at all. After sitting through commercials and then trailers, the movie starts 10 or 15 minutes after the theater time said it would. But then it begins with video logos of various production companies. Since movies are now routinely financed and distributed by multiple production houses we get several of them. Then the we see the names of those production companies usually on still frames and then you get to the opening credits where you'll see these companies repeated again with "Presented by" or a "A such-and-such film".

Newsflash, no one picks a movie based on the production company and no one cares what the name of the company is. They care about the film, probably the stars and maybe, just possibly maybe the director or even more rarely the writer. If anyone in the audience does care about anyone else involved in the film, they already know everything about it anyway so there's no need to waste time telling them about it.

Now I know that long ago, under the studio system, people probably did know the company that produced the film, but that's because they also owned the theater so you went to an MGM, Columbia or a Paramount theater. And they had stars under contract so if you wanted to see you're favorite star, you knew which theater would have them. But even then, look at the those old films (a lot of them are great), the opening credits were shorter than the logos at the beginning of films now, and there were no closing credits!

Imagine if movie credits were designed by movie fans...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Movie Reviews

Ok, this post should catch me up with reviews of the big films I saw since mid December. I'll try to keep up writing more individual reviews.

Pina - This was nominated as Best Documentary and I hadn't heard of it. All I knew was that it was about dance and it was directed by Wim Wenders (Wings of Desire). I know nothing about (particularly modern) dance and had no reference for the title. The film is structured around several big modern dance performances and a few small ones by one or two people. These are intercut with the dancers being interviewed about their mentor Pina and by interviewed I mean the camera shows their faces while a voice over (I assume was their own voice) says a few sentences (which I had to read as subtitles). Maybe I've been too influenced by Werner Herzog but I was wondering if Pina was real or fictional. Apparently it was acclaimed and recently German dancer and choreographer Pina Bausch and her management style was similar to Steve Jobs; just a few words of direction and a demand for excellence. The film is less a documentary about than a tribute to, it's really a performance film. Some of the dances are intense and mesmerizing, others I felt like I just didn't have the background to understand. What was evident was the skill of the dancers, many of who were with Pina for 20+ years. Some of the leaps and falls they did were frighteningly fearless. I saw it in 3D and it did a good job of using it to define the spaces for the performances.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy - I have read the book nor have I seen the Alec Guiness BBC version. I knew to expect a more cerebral spy story rather than anything Bond-like and I was looking forward to that. I think the ads are pushing it as a spy thriller and it's really more of a mystery. It's set in the 70s and Gary Oldman plays George Smiley, a recently retired top spy in the British Secret Service. He's brought back in to hunt for a mole in the upper levels of the service. There are a lot of characters (suspects) and rather than action it's mostly people talking in rooms. I was engaged through all of it though I found it simple. Smiley goes from one person to the next getting the info he needs to get to the next person. And then there's a giant leap that seems completely unexplained. Someone I saw it with thought she fell asleep and missed something, though she hadn't. Apparently the book is the same way, given the things that Smiley observes, you're supposed to piece it together as he does. I think that's much easier to do in a book than in a film, particularly in a theater. I liked it, but it's very low key and I don't really understand all the extreme praise I've seen.

Sherlock Homes: A Game of Shadows - Very much like the first one; I liked this one a little better. It's a bit more action and less banter between Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) and Watson (Jude Law) which is the opposite of what I'd want, but I thought the ending made up for it. This one introduces Moriarity as the villain and the inevitable confrontation was more thoughtful than I expected.

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol - I really appreciate how Tom Cruise has run this series, finding a director he likes and giving them free reign. This time it's Pixar's Brad Bird's turn, in his first non-animated film. He definitely brings the excitement from The Incredibles to the IMF. My one complaint with the film series is it seems like every time they get disavowed, something else would be nice. This film like the others is a series of big set pieces. There's a lot of crazy equipment but it's all used in a way to make the scenes more exciting. The middle of the film is the Dubai sequence which is shown in the all the commercials. It's the most giddy fun I've had in the movies since Inception. The last sequence went a little to far on the suspension of disbelief scale for me but overall it's a lot of fun. It's a fine summer action and I have no idea why it came in December.

The Muppets - Jason Segel is a big muppet fan and wrote a screenplay and convinced Disney to revive this brand they bought and let lie fallow. Segel stars as Gary who's brother is a (new) muppet named Walter who is an enormous fan of the muppets. They take a trip to LA with Gary's girlfriend (Amy Adams) and one thing leads to another and their helping the muppets get back together and put on a big show in too little time to save their theatre. What else would the plot be? It works well as a muppet film, with lots of guest stars, and I laughed every time Beaker was on camera and a few times more. It's one of only two films up for Best Song.

The Adventures of Tintin - Spielberg's first animated film and first 3D film is based on classic Belgian comics by Hergé. I've only read one of the comics and it was a while ago so I wasn't a huge fan going into the film. I had a hard time engaging with this and I'm not sure why. I didn't relate to the characters very much. Tintin struck me as very naive, and the villain was rather generic. I know Captain Haddock is supposed to be a drunkard but I found so much of this revolved around getting him sober or drunk to remember things that happened in his past. He seemed far more annoying rather than charming. The Thompson twins were really stupid and Snowy the dog was by far the smartest character around. It's an adventure story involving some treasure and there are some big chase sequences where Spielberg really makes use of animation. The camera flies around doing things that would be impossible in real life and the 3D generally works well for this. I don't know why but rather than being enthralled I found myself waiting for the set pieces to end so that we could get back to the plot. Maybe it was because it was obvious no one would be hurt and how they would end, with whatever artifact being the possession of whichever character was needed to further the story.

Hugo - Scorcese's first family film and first 3D film is based on an illustrated story, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Hugo is an orphan living in a train station in 1920s Paris. He lives with his drunk uncle who cares for the clocks and he longs to repair a mysterious mechanical man his father left him. The first half is the setup with a limping station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) chasing Hugo (Asa Butterfield) through the station and with Hugo making a friend of young Isabelle (Chloë Grace Moretz) who's the daughter of a shop keeper (Sir Ben Kingsley) in the station. The second half weaves in the story of Georges Méliès the real life pioneer of early cinema who created many special effects and is best known for his film A Trip to the Moon. I've seen a few reviews where people like either the first or second half better but there's no consensus. For me the second half is where the film came to life, being something more than just an obvious adventure story. The characters are a bit weak and people either love or hate Cohen's inspector. It's up for 11 Oscars which is a large number considering none of them are for acting awards (basically for everything other than song or makeup). It also seems fair.

A Dangerous Method - David Cronenberg's film about Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and Sigmund Freud (Viggo Mortensen) is based on a play based on a book. It centers around a real life patient Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightly) who was treated by Jung using Freud's methods and eventually became an early psychoanalyst. She became close with Jung and it's not clear if this is historically accurate, but the film argues she had a sexual relationship with him and that contributed to Jung's falling out with Freud. Knightly's performance is filled with over-the-top physicality which contrasts with the constraint of both Fassbender and Mortensen. The film is talky but doesn't reveal too much of either man's theories. Without the credits I would not have known that Cronenberg directed this so perhaps this shallowness was purposeful and I just missed the point. But to me it emphasized the lurid details of Spielrein's story and Jung and Freud's split and assumes knowledge of the parts of consequence.

Young Adult - Diablo Cody and Jason Reitman, the write director pair from Juno, re-team for this feel-bad film. Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is a young adult novelist living in Minneapolis who's recently divorced and completely maladjusted. She drinks to excess and has one night stands and is completely lost. She goes back to her nearby home town to reconnect with her high school sweetheart Buddy (Patrick Wilson) who's a bit simple but happily married and has just had his first child. Mavis views this as a situation she can rescue him from. Yeah, she's sociopathic. This is a dark comedy so the main character is unlikable and it's serious so she doesn't change much. She's still the "psychotic prom queen bitch" she was almost 20 years ago. See that's why she writes young adult novels and the film is called Young Adult, she hasn't outgrown high school. Patton Oswalt plays Matt, the character we can (kind of) relate to. He was a nerd in high school and is still living in the past but that's because he got the name "hate crimes guy" for a reason, so we can feel more (sorry) for him. The performances in this film, particularly Theron and Oswalt, are very good and quite brave in roles that are difficult to pull off, I just didn't care for the experiment. See how bad high school was and how we really shouldn't make that the center of our lives? Yup got it. And if you didn't notice, every TV in this movie is tuned to an E! ! reality show starring a Kardashian or a Girl Next Door. See, those shows are stuck in high school too and we shouldn't be watching them either! Yup, got it.

Movie Review: Celeste and Jesse Forever

Sundance Film Festival U.S.A. is a program where films playing at Sundance are shown in a few select cities around the country, usually with filmmakers there willing to take questions. Thursday night I saw Celeste and Jesse Forever at the Coolidge Corner Theatre.

Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have always been best friends and until recently were husband and wife. It just didn't work out, but they've remained best friends after the separation and their friends find this weird. The film follows both of them, though mostly Celeste, to see if this arrangement works out.

Jones and her friend Will McCormack (who also co-stars) wrote the screenplay and it was made for less than $1 million. Think very indie (though set in LA) with lots of their friends. Maybe I've been listening to the Tobolowsky Files too much but there isn't much of a three act structure, it's mostly middle. Given the setup you already know what the first and third acts would be so they can get away with doing them in just a scene or two.

It's really about pulling realistic moments from relationship stuff, whether funny or sad. This was the film that convinced me to add Dramedy to the genre column of my movie list. The lead performances are both good and the dialog is mostly natural but there isn't much here to remember a few days after seeing it.

Schneiderman’s RMBS Working Group

dday talks about Schneiderman’s RMBS Working Group: Resources, Jurisdiction and Will. "But I want to pull out the sentence I highlighted previously in Schneiderman’s interview which shows that at least he is thinking creatively about this. He said that ‘We have the Internal Revenue Service in because there are huge tax fraud implications to some of the stuff that went on.’ I suppose he could be talking about a few different things (like the tax evasion from the banks using MERS instead of recording mortgage transfers at public records offices and paying a fee), but my guess is he’s talking about REMIC claims.

REMICs are an acronym for Real Estate Mortgage Investment Conduits. When you’re talking about mortgage pools used in securitization, you’re talking about REMICs. And REMICs have special tax treatment; they are exempt from federal taxes provided they only invest in ‘qualified mortgages’ and other permitted investments. Here’s the important part: under the 1986 Tax Reform Act, the REMIC must receive all of its assets in the trust within 90 days and the assets have to be performing (not in default). Any REMIC violations make the vehicle subject to a penalty tax of 100%, with additional penalties as they apply."

What Industries Contributed to Google's $37.9 Billion in 2011 Revenues?

What Industries Contributed to Google's $37.9 Billion in 2011 Revenues? | WordStream "On the heels of Google’s ‘disappointing’ earnings announcement last Thursday – they generated a whopping $37.9 billion in revenues in 2011 – we conducted our own analysis to determine the top 10 industries that spent the most money on Google advertising last year. The results are summarized in our Google revenues infographic, also shown below (click the image to enlarge). We think that the results of our analysis reveal some surprising insights into the current state of the US economy – read on for more commentary."

I found this via Chart Porn which wrote, "Ok, there’s not much charting going on here, but there is a whole lot of fascinating data on Google ad revenue, as compiled by search marketing company WordStream. It is stunning what companies are paying per click for some of these keywords. In revenge for years of mediocre service (and because it was fun), I just went and searched for “high speed internet deals” then clicked on Comcast’s ad – supposedly costing them >$20. That’ll teach ‘em!"


Blue Marble 2012: Amazing High Definition Image of Earth

Blue Marble 2012: Amazing High Definition Image of Earth "A new high-definition version of the ‘Blue Marble’ has been taken from the newest Earth observation satellite. The just-renamed Suomi NPP satellite took numerous images on January 4, 2012 and this composite image was created from several ‘swaths’ of Earth. It is a stunningly beautiful look at our home planet, with the largest versions of the image showing about 1.6 km (1 mile) per pixel."

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Space Station Commander Captures Unprecedented View of Comet

Where in the World? A Google Earth Puzzle

A couple of months ago In Focus posted Where in the World? A Google Earth Puzzle. "Looking at the world through via Google Earth offers striking images of the diversity of our planet and the impact that humans have had on it. Today's entry is a puzzle -- part 2 in a series (part 1 here), this time offering multiple choices. We're challenging you to figure out where in the world each of the images below is taken. North is not always up in these pictures, and, apart from a bit of contrast, they are unaltered images provided by Google and its mapping partners. So I invite you to have a look at the images below, make your guesses, and see your score at the end. Good luck! [25 images]"

Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival 2012

It's in the 40s and there's no snow around here but this week The Big Picture posted about the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival 2012 "The annual Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival has been held since 1963, interrupted for a number of years during the Cultural Revolution until it was resumed in 1985. Harbin is the capital of Heilongjiang province, in northeastern China. It is nicknamed 'Ice City' and aptly so for winter January temperatures that average minus 18 degrees Celsius, under the influence of the cold winter wind from Siberia. The festival officially starts January 5th and lasts one month, although exhibits often stay open longer, weather permitting. Harbin is one of the world's four largest ice and snow festivals, along with Japan's Sapporo Snow Festival, Canada's Quebec City Winter Carnival and Norway's Ski Festival. -- Paula Nelson (28 photos total)"

All-Request Photos from In Focus

In Focus posted All-Request Photos: Aurora Borealis, Blue Frogs, Spacewalks ... "Yesterday I decided to try an experiment: I solicited reader requests for news photos. I asked people on Twitter and Google+, 'Would you like to see a good photo of a particular subject? A high-res version of a photo you've already seen somewhere else? A photo from a particular photographer or event? If I have access and can find it, I'll try to post it' (details). The response was great, the subject matter was varied, and the task of finding the images and composing this entry was great fun. Images ranged from massive solar flares to tiny insects, taken in places from Thailand to outer space. If you enjoy this experiment, let me know in the comments, and I may develop it into a more regular feature. To all those who made requests, thanks so much, I hope you like what I was able to find. [29 photos]"

Thursday, January 26, 2012

After the Battle Against SOPA—What's Next?

Lawrence Lessig has a good article in The Nation, After the Battle Against SOPA—What's Next? "January 18, 2012 could prove to be an incredibly important day, and not just for copyright policy or the Internet. On that day, two critically important things happened: First, with its 6-2 decision in Golan v. Holder, the Supreme Court shut the door, finally and firmly, on any opportunity to meaningfully challenge a copyright statute constitutionally. Second, millions from the Internet opened the door, powerfully if briefly, on the powers that dominatepolicymaking in Washington, and effectively stopped Hollywood’s latest outrage to address ‘piracy’—aka, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), and the Protect IP Act (PIPA)."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Jon Stewart on Taxes

There's been a lot in the news about Mitt Romney's taxes. I think Jon Stewart did as good a job as any I've seen at putting it all in context and why we should care. The point starting at the 4 min mark I didn't see anyone else make.

I'm still waiting for someone to ask him (or anyone in this situation) this question. Ok, you're wealthy, you didn't work but you earned a lot by investing, we gave you a tax break on this money so that you would create jobs and that wealth would trickle down. Just how many jobs did you create with your investments in the last two years? Wouldn't it be great if this was asked at a Republican debate? Would the audience get it?

Elizabeth Warren on The Daily Show

Aside from trash talking the Giants, I thought Elizabeth Warren was great on The Daily Show last night

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Daily Show on Gingrinch Debates

John Stewart was particularly good last night on Gingrinch's debate performance last week.

Oscar Nominations

Oscar nominations were this morning. Here's the full list. Only 18 films got more than one nomination and only 8 got more than 3. Here are the nominees by counts for the main categories which is not including any of the (15) shorts, the (5) animated features, (5) documentary features or (4) of the foreign language films (one of the 5 nominated ones, A Separation also got a writing nom so is included). The 15 marked with an * I still have to see.

11 Hugo
10 The Artist
6 War Horse*
6 Moneyball
5 The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo
5 The Descendants
4 The Help
4 Midnight in Paris
3 Transformers: Dark of the Moon*
3 The Tree of Life
3 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
3 Albert Nobbs*
3 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
2 The Iron Lady*
2 My Week With Marilyn
2 Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close*
2 Bridesmaids*
2 A Separation*
1 A Better Life*
1 Anonymous*
1 Beginners
1 Drive
1 Jane Eyre*
1 Margin Call
1 Real Steel*
1 Rio*
1 Rise of the Planet of the Apes
1 The Adventures of Tintin
1 The Ides of March
1 The Muppets*
1 W.E*
1 Warrior*

The other nominees, of which I've only seen 2 and haven't even heard of most of them, are:

A Separation*
In Darkness*
Monsieur Lazhar*

A Cat in Paris*
Chico & Rita*
Kung Fu Panda 2*
Puss in Boots*

Hell and Back Again*
If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front
Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory*

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement*
God Is the Bigger Elvis*
Incident in New Baghdad*
Saving Face*
The Tsunami and the Cherry Blossom*

The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore*
La Luna*
A Morning Stroll*
Wild Life*

The Shore*
Time Freak*
Tuba Atlantic*

What really surprises me in this list is how many films I haven't even heard of. Everything with multiple nominations I've heard of, although I've only seen 11 of those and missed 7. Of the other main award nominees I've never heard of A Better Life (up for best actor), Anonymous (costumes), W.E (costumes, and Madonna made a movie?!?), and I'm not sure I knew that there was a Jane Eyre adaptation this year (a limited release in March). Of the Animated Features I've never heard of A Cat in Paris or Chico & Rita which are French and Spanish films respectively. And while I've seen a lot of documentaries this year I've never heard of Pina or Undefeated. I've vaguely heard of Hell and Back Again, probably because it won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance last year, but I don't think it got any real distribution. I guess an award at a major festival isn't enough for that.

As to what I think should have been nominated...

I've already seen complaints that Michael Fassbender should have been nominated for Shame and completely agree and I also think Michael Shannon was equally deserving for Take Shelter. I think they should have replaced Clooney and Oldman's positions (and I haven't seen Bichir in A Better Life).

I agree with the Best Actress nominees, though I haven't seen Streep's or Close's films, but how is Bérénice Bejo nominated as Supporting Actress in "The Artist"? She deserves to be nominated as Best Actress. Maybe they needed six in that category as they felt they only needed 9 in Best Picture.

I haven't seen most of the Documentary Features, but the one I did see, If a Tree Falls, was far inferior to Being Elmo and El Bulli.

But I think the biggest snubs are for The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, even though it got five noms (actress, cinematography, editing, sound editing and mixing) it really deserved three more. I think it's crime that Girl With a Dragon Tattoo didn't get best picture, particularly as there are only 9 nominees and I've not heard good thinks about Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close or War Horse. Also David Fincher should have been nominated for directing Girl With a Dragon Tattoo over Woody Allen for Midnight in Paris. There's just no comparison. And it should have been nominated for Best Score as it's just completely disturbing. At times it's in your face, but deservedly so.

Update: The only categories I've seen all the nominated films are: Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Editing. If I see War Horse I get to add three categories to that list.

There were only two nominees for Best Original Song. I guess Hollywood doesn't care about music anymore. Maybe a new hit song isn't enough to get people to go to the theater anymore.

Cars 2 is the first Pixar film to not be nominated for Best Animated Feature since the awards's inception in 2001.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Hackers manipulated railway computers, TSA memo says

Hackers manipulated railway computers, TSA memo says - Nextgov "Hackers, possibly from abroad, executed an attack on a Northwest rail company's computers that disrupted railway signals for two days in December, according to a government memo recapping outreach with the transportation sector during the emergency."

What the Summers memo tells us about the Obama White House

Ezra Klein writes

What the Summers memo tells us about the Obama White House:

The economic policy memo that Larry Summers sent to Barack Obama in December 2008, and that the New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza has posted in full, is the ur-text for the Obama administration. It contains the economic team’s first thoughts on almost everything the White House would go on to do. It is, without doubt, the most authoritative guide we have to the way President Obama’s first, and arguably most crucial, decisions were framed by his key policy staffers. And it has s reopened an old question about the Obama administration: Were the president’s advisers pushing him to do more or less?

(Via www.washingtonpost.com)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Do Republicans Want to Win the Presidential Election?

Mark Thoma wonders Economist's View: Do Republicans Want to Win the Presidential Election?. "It's not at all clear that Republicans would be able to reach more of their goals if they controlled the presidency and faced united opposition from the left rather than the fractured opposition they face under a Democratic president.

And the right certainly has nothing to complain about when it comes to war mongering, domestic spying, and the like. Republicans are getting everything they want, more than they ever could have dreamed of with a Democrat in power, with little outcry from the leftists that usually make such a fuss over these types of activities.

Plus, the president is taking the blame for the lousy economy, and they are able to make headway in their long held goal of discrediting Keynesian economics."

Hollywood regroups after losing battle over anti-piracy bills

Hollywood regroups after losing battle over anti-piracy bills.

"'You've got an opponent who has the capacity to reach millions of people with a click of a mouse and there's no fact-checker. They can say whatever they want,' [MPAA head Chris Dodd] said. 'We need to engage in a far better education process. People need to know … that 98% of people who work in the entertainment industry make $55,000 a year. They're not moguls and they're not walking red carpets.'"

As Cory Doctorow pointed out, "Must be terribly hard to represent the largest media empires in the world, who collectively own all the major newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, billboards, record labels and studios. How will they ever get their side of the story out?"

Up with Chris Hayes this weekend pointed out how the MPAA was playing this inside DC game sending Dodd to DC to talk with everyone and then Google et al realized they could skip the fund raising donations and just go directly to millions of users/voters. Imagine if the Google doodle one day said "Vote for Obama".

Meanwhile Anonymous is taking down sites like CBS and Universal.

What are Newt Gingrich’s big ideas?

Ezra Klein wrote What are Newt Gingrich’s big ideas?. "On Saturday’s edition of ‘Up With Chris Hayes,’ Gary Johnson brought up an old Newt Gingrich idea I hadn’t heard before: Putting individuals who brought more than two ounces of marijuana into the United States to death. That sounded extreme, even for Gingrich. So I looked it up. And sure enough, there it is: ‘The Drug Importer Death Penalty Act of 1996.’ What makes the bill even more amazing is that Gingrich himself is a confessed pot smoker. When he was young, he said, experimenting with drugs ‘was a sign we were alive and in graduate school in that era.’"

"His ideas on the big issues are standard-issue conservatism, and they’re mixed in with occasional flights of fancy..., pure plays to resentment and fear..., and a lot of small, specific ideas."

Ginrich is a just a self-promoting ass. He just ran to promote his books and now he's the frontrunner.

Fracking Would Emit Large Quantities of Greenhouse Gases

Scientific American reports on another reason to be dubious of fracking, Fracking Would Emit Large Quantities of Greenhouse Gases. "Opposition to the hydraulic fracturing of deep shales to release natural gas rose sharply last year over worries that the large volumes of chemical-laden water used in the operations could contaminate drinking water. Then, in early January, earthquakes in Ohio were blamed on the disposal of that water in deep underground structures. Yesterday, two Cornell University professors said at a press conference that fracking releases large amounts of natural gas, which consists mostly of methane, directly into the atmosphere—much more than previously thought."

Did Gingrich's Win Break the Paradigm?

Nate Silver asks Did Gingrich's Win Break the Paradigm? and concludes, "My view is that Mr. Gingrich’s win in South Carolina alone is not enough to be paradigm-breaking. But if he follows it with a win in Florida, all bets are off. Not only would that represent further evidence of Mr. Gingrich’s strength, it would suggest that we had been weighing the evidence incorrectly all along."

Personally I think Romney is just a bad candidate (as Coakley was in MA) and the anti-incumbent tea party environment kept a lot of better candidates out the race early. Newt is what's left.

Steve Benen's explanation of How Gingrich Won SC is more interesting.

Apple Manufacturing

The New York Times has a good article, Apple, America and a Squeezed Middle Class. "The president’s question touched upon a central conviction at Apple. It isn’t just that workers are cheaper abroad. Rather, Apple’s executives believe the vast scale of overseas factories as well as the flexibility, diligence and industrial skills of foreign workers have so outpaced their American counterparts that “Made in the U.S.A.” is no longer a viable option for most Apple products."

“The speed and flexibility is breathtaking,” the executive said. “There’s no American plant that can match that.”

"When an Apple team visited, the Chinese plant’s owners were already constructing a new wing. “This is in case you give us the contract,” the manager said, according to a former Apple executive. The Chinese government had agreed to underwrite costs for numerous industries, and those subsidies had trickled down to the glass-cutting factory. It had a warehouse filled with glass samples available to Apple, free of charge. The owners made engineers available at almost no cost. They had built on-site dormitories so employees would be available 24 hours a day. The Chinese plant got the job. “The entire supply chain is in China now,” said another former high-ranking Apple executive. “You need a thousand rubber gaskets? That’s the factory next door. You need a million screws? That factory is a block away. You need that screw made a little bit different? It will take three hours.”"

There was also this This American Life episode, Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory. "Mike Daisey was a self-described "worshipper in the cult of Mac." Then he saw some photos from a new iPhone, taken by workers at the factory where it was made. Mike wondered: Who makes all my crap? He traveled to China to find out."

Jamie Young added comments to the TAL episode, One Man Visits Foxconn, A Place Even Siri Fears To Tread.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

State of Healthcare Reform

Sarah Kliff wrote Health reform still stands. But parts of it have fallen. "Both Congress and the administration have repealed, stalled or backed off on a handful of health provisions, including one major new insurance program. Here’s a look at the programs that have been overturned, shutdown or stalled so far."

Kevin Drum tries to answer, Can Mitt Romney Really Repeal Obamacare?. "But how much can they repeal? That's a good question, so here's the best case scenario for liberals. Republicans can use the reconciliation process to repeal any part of Obamacare that's budget related, and that means they can repeal a big chunk of Obamacare with only 51 votes. But they can't use reconciliation to repeal pieces of the law that are strictly regulatory in nature. For that they need to use regular order, and that means they'll need 60 votes to overcome a Democratic filibuster, which they probably won't be able to get.

So which parts are purely regulatory? There are several, but the two most important are guaranteed issue and community rating. The first means that insurance companies are required to sell insurance to anyone who wants it, and the second means that they have to charge everyone the same price. (With a few specific exceptions, like designated higher rates based on age.) So what happens if they repeal most of Obamacare but not those two parts? That's a little tricky to answer." and he goes on to try.

And for those of us in Massachusetts, John McDonough runs through what we'd lose: "Many of these are already in effect today, and others are moving quickly toward implementation. Listed here are 36 provisions of the ACA which will provide positive benefits for Massachusetts residents and which will be lost if the ACA is repealed."

Newt's Debates

This past week Newt Gingrich had two notable debate exchanges. Well exchanges isn't right, he was asked a question by the moderator and then railed about the question. The first one was Juan Williams asking about his food stamps and child janitor comments, "Can't you see that this is seen at a minimum as insulting to all Americans but particularly to black Americans?" Newt went to his standard playbook and doubled down.

The Economist (that liberal bastion) wrote Newt Gingrich: Newt and the "food-stamp president" "When Mr Gingrich replied to Mr Williams that he cannot see why some might take umbrage at his comments that black Americans 'should demand jobs, not food stamps' and that poor kids tend to lack a strong work ethic, I don't think it's quite right to say he was 'playing dumb'. On the contrary, Mr Gingrich acts as though he is so morally evolved, so essentially oriented toward truth—as though he surveys the world from such an Olympian height, through such crystalline air—that he is unable even to imagine how his use of venerable racist tropes could be sensibly seen to serve a purpose other than transmission of the plain truth. This haughty pose flatters the bigots, who Mr Gingrich knows full well are roused by talk of food stamps and an underdeveloped taste for honest labour, reframing their hoary prejudice as gallant unflinching fidelity to facts."

"Of course, Barack Obama has put no one on food stamps. Population growth together with the most severe recession since the advent of the modern American welfare state, which was in full swing when Mr Obama came into office, conspired to make a record number eligible for government food assistance."

"A thought experiment: On Twin Earth, does anyone call President John McCain the "food-stamp president"? Is it "politically incorrect" there to call him that? Or is it just so tactically weird to pin that label on a white Republican who inherited a huge recession that the idea simply never occurred to anyone? If, back in our world, it's not "politically correct" and not tactically weird to pin that label on a black Democrat who inherited a huge recession, then why not?"

digby first described the exchange as "Here's some video of an arrogant white man lecturing a black man about what black people have a right to be offend by --- on Martin Luther King day" and then showed that Gingrinch's original comments are Straight up racism, no dogwhistle necessary because he was explicitly talking about African-Americans.

Think Progress adds some facts, "Not only is his perception of food stamp beneficiaries prejudicial, it’s false. The majority of people who participate in the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are white. Most of the participants are also either children (who can’t earn a paycheck unless Gingrich gets his way) or seniors who are of retirement age. In 2010, working-women represented only 28 percent of SNAP beneficiaries, and working-age men represented only 17 percent."

Steve Benen answers Why Gingrich was cheered. "Even if we put aside the racial subtext, Gingrich is playing a dumb game and hoping voters won’t know the difference...If Gingrich believes food-stamp beneficiaries — nearly half of whom are children — should have less food, he should simply make the case. Instead, he relied on cheap rhetoric, which the audience apparently loved."

To make it all worse, Wonkette points out, Arizona Schools Ban Mex-Am Studies, Angry Kids Put On Janitorial Duty "In a page right out of Newt Gingrich’s alternate-history science-fiction wingnut-polygamy utopian epic Candyland Space Land, the school district in Tucson has completely banned Mexican-American studies, seized all the textbooks and even wall posters from the classrooms, and punished the students who protested by sentencing them to janitorial duty." Read the details at The Guardian and The Tucson Citizen.

But that wasn't Newt's biggest moment this week. That came Thursday night when was the first question was about his ex-wife's statements to ABC. Newt doubled down on that too, blaming the media. Stee Kornacki explains The power of conservative victimhood:

"It’s no mystery why the audience of Republicans so instinctively and passionately rallied to Gingrich’s defense. His final line was the key: That the liberal media is out to get Republicans and will stop at nothing to destroy them is an absolute article of faith on the right. It’s why so many conservative leaders claimed that Herman Cain was the victim of a liberal smear when he was confronted with sexual harassment charges in November. Never mind that the conspiracy theory made no sense (why would liberals take down a candidate they’d love to face in the general election?); logic has little to do with this. Likewise, the left would be thrilled to face Gingrich next fall, but that didn’t stop Rush Limbaugh from arguing on Thursday afternoon that the Marianne Gingrich interview was part of a media plot to take out the former speaker.

What Gingrich did brilliantly on Thursday night is to articulate this paranoid victimhood in a clear and compelling (for his audience, at least) way. It’s the same basic trick he pulled in this week’s other debate, when he connected with another strain of the persecution complex: that honest, taxpaying Republicans are the victims of a dependency class of poor people and minorities that Democrats intentionally enable. Thus did Monday’s crowd rejoice when Gingrich insisted to Fox News’ Juan Williams that there was nothing remotely insulting about his statement that the NAACP should be asking for paychecks instead of food stamps, or his suggestion that children in poor neighborhoods don’t understand the value of work."

Steve Benen expanded on this in How Gingrich connects: "Conservative voters hate the media, so Gingrich exploits that hatred. Conservative voters don’t like feeling defensive about race and policy, so Gingrich tells them why they shouldn’t. His debate performances are like dopamine for the right-wing soul.

And because Gingrich understands this so well, the nature of the story shifts — it’s not about Gingrich’s scandalous personal life and his habitual adultery; it’s about those media scoundrels trying to keep Republicans down. GOP voters should feel sorry for Gingrich, the argument goes, because they feel sorry for themselves.

The fact that this article of faith is a fantasy is irrelevant. Indeed, it just takes a moment of independent thought to tear the house of cards down: was Gingrich condemning the “despicable” media when news organizations obsessed over Anthony Weiner’s personal life? How about Eliot Spitzer? Or John Edwards?

More to the point, when Gingrich was helping lead an impeachment crusade against President Bill Clinton, and the media’s obsession with a sex scandal was boundless, did Gingrich whine, “I think the destructive, vicious, negative nature of much of the news media makes it harder to govern this country”? If he did, I missed it."

Chart of the Day: Republicans Don't Trust Anyone (Except Fox News)

Kevin Drum picks a Chart of the Day: Republicans Don't Trust Anyone (Except Fox News). "Public Policy Polling is out with their 3rd annual TV news trust poll. Among Republicans, as the chart on the right shows, the shape of the river is simple: they don't trust anyone except Fox News, who they adore. These numbers are spreads, with NBC, for example, garnering 17% trust vs. 69% distrust. Fox News, conversely, garners 73% trust vs. 17% distrust."


Paul Waldman explains:

But when this conservative talk show host mentioned the Politico, he found it necessary to refer to it as "the left-wing rag the Politico." Here in Washington, almost no one in either party is crazy enough to think that the Politico is actually a left-wing rag, an ideologically-motivated news outlet whose purpose is to advance the liberal cause. And whether this talk show host's listeners know or care much about it in particular isn't my point. My point is this: If you are a consumer of conservative media, you get constant reminders — every day, multiple times a day — that you absolutely must not believe anything you hear or read in any news outlet that is not explicitly conservative.

"As Paul says, "Conservatives and liberals are not equally prone to huddle within their self-reinforcing cocoons." Liberals don't immediately dismiss as a conspiracy everything they hear from the news media that doesn't fit their preconceived notions. They might downplay unwelcome news or even ignore it, but they're still willing to listen to it. Increasingly, conservatives simply aren't. They want to believe the world is a certain way, and they're just flatly not willing to countenance anything that might challenge those beliefs."

Star Trek/Settlers of Catan sets phasers to "SHEEP!"

Star Trek/Settlers of Catan sets phasers to "SHEEP!" "That said, I'm looking forward to alienating my loved ones with and/or playing Star Trek Catan, a Federationized take of the resource trading board game.

This version replaces the resource cards of sheep, wheat, ore, brick, and wood with Dilithium, Tritanium, food, oxygen and water; towns with space stations; the robber with the Klingon Bird-of-Prey; and roads with caravans of spaceships. In addition, this version adds new character cards which influence play in unique ways."

I learned about Catan only a couple of years ago and have enjoyed it a lot. If this was offered as an in-app purchase in the iPad version I'd be all over it.

What Mitt Romney Learned From His Dad

Rick Perlstein in Rolling Stone asks What Mitt Romney Learned From His Dad and concludes "Mitt learned at an impressionable age that in politics, authenticity kills"

It's not too long and worth reading. It made me want to vote for George Romney.

Inside the Wreck of the Costa Concordia

In Focus goes Inside the Wreck of the Costa Concordia "One week ago the cruise ship Costa Concordia ran aground off Isola del Giglio, Italy. Of the more than 4,200 aboard, 11 have been confirmed dead, 21 remain missing, and hopes of finding any more survivors are fading quickly. Rescue operations were called off earlier today amid fears the ship could quickly slip and sink deeper during worsening weather conditions. Captain Francesco Schettino remains under house arrest as investigators work to determine exactly what happened, and who was at fault. Rescue workers have spent the past seven days rappelling from helicopters, scaling the hull, scrambling inside and diving beneath the wreckage, racing against the clock to find anyone alive inside the massive wreck. [34 photos]"

A rule of thumb for oil prices and growth

Brad Plumer wrote A rule of thumb for oil prices and growth "As my colleague Steven Mufson reports today, tensions with Iran are putting upward pressure on crude prices — and oil was already at a record high in 2011. Analysts are now fretting that oil could kneecap the fragile recovery. So is there a good way of estimating the effects of pricier oil?"

"Here’s another way of looking at it: In 2011, the United States paid about $125 billion more for oil imports than it did in 2010 (thanks, in part, to the disruptions caused by civil war in Libya). That “oil tax” was essentially enough to wipe out the entire stimulative effects of Barack Obama’s middle-class tax cut. A similar oil spike this year would cancel out a hefty chunk of the benefits of extending the $200 billion payroll tax cut bill that Congress is fighting over."

The rise and fall of personal computing

The rise and fall of personal computing is cute as a graph and as a video:

Screen Shot 2012 01 15 at 1 15 5 54 54 PM copy

On policy, Romney is far to Bush’s right

Ezra Klein looked at Bush's platform and concludes On policy, Romney is far to Bush’s right. "But the Republican Party has moved far to the right since 2000, and Romney has moved with it. Bush wanted to pay down a surplus with spending cuts and expand Medicare. Romney wants to finance larger tax cuts by slashing domestic spending. It’s a more regressive policy that will be paid for in a more regressive way. In today’s GOP, even the most moderate presidential candidate is far to George W. Bush’s right."

Honeybee Problem Nearing A ‘Critical Point’

Honeybee problem nearing a ‘critical point’. "Although news about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) has died down, commercial beekeepers have seen average population losses of about 30 percent each year since 2006, said Paul Towers, of the Pesticide Action Network. Towers was one of the organizers of a conference that brought together beekeepers and environmental groups this week to tackle the challenges facing the beekeeping industry and the agricultural economy by proxy."

"In addition to continued reports of CCD — a still somewhat mysterious phenomenon in which entire bee colonies literally disappear, alien-abduction style, leaving not even their dead bodies behind — bee populations are suffering poor health in general, and experiencing shorter life spans and diminished vitality. And while parasites, pathogens, and habitat loss can deal blows to bee health, research increasingly points to pesticides as the primary culprit."

"The Purdue University study, published in the journal PLoS ONE, found high levels of clothianidin in planter exhaust spewed during the spring sowing of treated maize seed. It also found neonics in the soil of unplanted fields nearby those planted with Bt corn, on dandelions growing near those fields, in dead bees found near hive entrances, and in pollen stored in the hives."

"The irony, of course, is that farmers use these chemicals to protect their crops from destructive insects, but in so doing, they harm other insects essential to their crops’ production — a catch-22 that Hackenberg said speaks to the fact that “we have become a nation driven by the chemical industry.” In addition to beekeeping, he owns two farms, and even when crop analysts recommend spraying pesticides on his crops to kill an aphid population, for example, he knows that “if I spray, I’m going to kill all the beneficial insects.” But most farmers, lacking Hackenberg’s awareness of bee populations, follow the advice of the crop adviser — who, these days, is likely to be paid by the chemical industry, rather than by a state university or another independent entity."

"Unfortunately, it was the EPA itself [I think in 2003] that green-lit clothianidin and other neonics for commercial use, despite its own scientists’ clear warnings about the chemicals’ effects on bees and other pollinators. That doesn’t bode well for the chances of getting neonics off the market now, even in light of the Purdue study’s findings."

"Since this is an election year — a time when no one wants to make Big Ag (and its money) mad — beekeepers may have to suffer another season of losses before there’s any hope of action on the EPA’s part. But when one out of every three bites of food on Americans’ plates results directly from honey bee pollination, there’s no question that the fate of these insects will determine our own as eaters."

How an Ink Cartridge Trashed in Seattle Ended Up in Mexico

How an Ink Cartridge Trashed in Seattle Ended Up in Mexico. "In August 2009, a team of researchers from the SENSEable City Lab in the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning embarked on a major project to track the journey of 3,000 items of waste as they moved through Seattle’s disposal system. The goal of the project, called Trash Track, was to monitor the patterns and costs of urban disposal and to help create awareness of the impact of trash on the environment."

25 clever ideas to make life easier

25 clever ideas to make life easier. Some of these are quite clever.

Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante?

It boggles my mind that the New York Times public editor Arthur Brisbane wrote on Jan 12th, Should The Times Be a Truth Vigilante? "I’m looking for reader input on whether and when New York Times news reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about."

After quoting a received letter he wrote "This message was typical of mail from some readers who, fed up with the distortions and evasions that are common in public life, look to The Times to set the record straight. They worry less about reporters imposing their judgment on what is false and what is true."

Now I know there are times where details are murky, but there have been so many times in this campaign where candidates have said things that are demonstratively false. It really shouldn't be difficult to print the quote and then cite a fact from a neutral source. E.g., Obama has raised taxes, no he hasn't, the tax rates have changed as follows...


David Atkins has more, The New York Times wonders aloud if it should care about the truth. "That the question is being asked after all these years is, I suppose, a good sign. That it had to be asked demonstrates everything that has gone wrong with modern journalism."

Kevin Drum said Let's Provide the New York Times With a List of Our Top 10 Lies. "And yet, if you insist on real-time fact-checking being done in news stories, then you have to do exactly what John suggests. Every news organization needs some kind of "fact manual" that provides the agreed-on facts for every conceivable assertion. The copy desk then has to ensure that these stylized facts are included in any story in which a public figure says something different. Question: Do you really want this? Does anyone want this? A few weeks ago PolitiFact declared that "Republicans want to end Medicare" was their Lie of the Year. If the Times adopted this position, it means that every time a Democrat said this the Times would explain that it's not really true. Are we all up for that? Are we really as willing to allow the Times to be the supreme arbiter of truth as we think?" I'm game.

What we miss when we talk about tax cuts

Ezra Klein wrote a really good post, What we miss when we talk about tax cuts. "Every estimate you’ve heard of who is being helped and who is being hurt by the tax cuts proposed by the various Republican presidential campaign is telling you, at best, only half the story. And that’s because these estimates only look at one side of the ledger: who gets the tax cuts. But there’s another side to the ledger: Who pays for them, and how? That side is at least as important as who gets the tax cuts, but it’s almost always ignored."

"William Gale, the TPC’s other director, agrees. ‘One doesn’t know the full distribution of the net benefits or burdens of a tax cut until you know how it is financed.’ The problem is that there’s no way to model the pay-fors. No Republican campaign has explained how they will fund their tax cuts. So there’s no plan to speak of, and thus no plan to analyze."

"Take Romney. His tax cuts add $2-$3 trillion to the cost of the Bush tax cuts. So he needs to find somewhere in the neighborhood of $6-$7 trillion in spending cuts. You can’t get there without slicing deep into the bone of Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid and dozens of other popular programs. It won’t come from spending programs that substantially benefit top earners. That’s because there really aren’t spending programs that substantially benefit top earners. You could means test Social Security and Medicare, but that’s only going to get you so far — and it’s going to be pretty unpopular. "

And here's something I missed: "When Bush proposed most of his tax cuts, the financing came from the surplus. That money could have also gone toward shoring up Social Security, or expanding programs to help low-income Americans, but using it for tax cuts didn’t require, at least in theory, taking benefits away from anybody. Extending the Bush tax cuts, in a time of deficits, does require sharp cuts in benefits."

Mitt Romney, Vulture Capitalism, and GS Technologies

Mitt Romney, Vulture Capitalism, and GS Technologies

"Did Bain Capital under Mitt Romney earn its money fairly, or did they play some of the predatory private equity games that Dean Baker outlined yesterday, loading up on debt, shifting assets around, and defaulting on pension benefits? Probably some of both. Reuters reports that in the case of Kansas City's Worldwide Grinding Systems steel mill, there were a lot of the financial games going on."

"Some investments don't work out. That's the free market for you. But does it seem right that Bain and its millionaire investors made a pot of money even though GS went bust and its workers lost a big chunk of their pensions? Maybe it does to Mitt Romney, but I imagine the rest of the country may feel a bit differently about it."

The Dangerous Gym Membership

Sarah Kliff wrote about The dangerous gym membership. "It sounds like a great idea: Private insurance plans in the Medicare Advantage program offering gym memberships, a small investment that could curb health care costs among seniors. But what some see as innovation, others view as a stealth campaign to lure the healthiest seniors into the private plans while leaving Medicare with the worst risks."

It's never easy is it?

Jon Huntsman, the Moderate Radical

I completely agree with Kevin Drum about Jon Huntsman, the Moderate Radical. "Ezra goes on to explain that on a policy level, Huntsman is actually one of the most conservative guys in the race. And he's right. It's endlessly annoying to hear pundits refer to him as a moderate kind of guy without, seemingly, knowing anything about his actual political views. And yet, it's not entirely baseless. Policy isn't the only thing that matters, after all, and I'd argue that Huntsman quite likely is moderate in two important ways."

The Truth About New Hampshire: It's the Government Spending, Stupid

Before the primary Michael Mandel wrote in The Atlantic The Truth About New Hampshire: It's the Government Spending, Stupid "New Hampshire, scene of the upcoming GOP presidential primary, seems like the perfect illustration of the Republican low-tax philosophy. With no state income tax and one of the lightest tax burdens in the U.S., New Hampshire enjoys an 8.3% poverty rate, the lowest in the country, and an unemployment rate of only 5.2% as of November, far below the national rate.

But here's a surprise: The 'Live Free or Die' State, having lost much of its manufacturing base, seems to be thriving mostly on a steady diet of government spending and public jobs. For one, government employment in New Hampshire is up 14% since 2000, compared to 6% for the country as a whole.

What's more, real personal income growth in New Hampshire over the past decade has been driven almost entirely by government spending."

What a one-cent soda tax buys

The Washington Post wrote What a one-cent soda tax buys. "Previous research has indicated that a one-cent tax on every ounce of sugary drinks — a 12-cent tax on a can of Coke, say — decreases consumption by somewhere between 10 and 25 percent. This team, led by Columbia University’s Claire Wang, estimates a 15 percent reduction in consumption and focuses on the impact on adults age 25 to 64. And she finds a pretty significant public health impact:

We estimate that such a tax could reduce new cases of type 2 diabetes by 2.6 percent and the prevalence of obesity by 1.5 percent. Although small, these percentage reductions would, over the course of ten years, result in 95,000 fewer instances of coronary heart disease, 8,000 fewer strokes, 26,000 fewer premature deaths (Exhibit 1), and more than $17 billion in savings from medical expenditures averted across the US population.

Such a tax would have also raised an estimated $13 billion in revenue if enacted in 2010 and, over five years, generate $79 billion."

Mass refinancing: The ‘biggest thing’ Obama can do without Congress

Mass refinancing: The ‘biggest thing’ Obama can do without Congress:

Hubbard is an advocate for using Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to set off a nationwide wave of mortgage refinancing. In a paper co-authored with Columbia economist Christopher Mayer, Hubbard estimates that more than 75 percent of the homeowners with 30-year mortgages backed by Fannie or Freddie are paying interest rates higher than 5 percent. But for the past two years, interest rates have been closer to 4 percent. That means tens of millions of Americans are paying more than they need to every single month.

Some of these homeowners have good reason to resist refinancing. They plan to move soon, or they lied on their initial mortgage application, or they can’t afford the up-front costs. Some have been scared off of new financial products by the events of the past few years. But many simply don’t follow the month-to-month gyrations of interest rates. Others are deterred by conditions set down by Fannie and Freddie — although those have been substantially eased over the past few months, albeit with little fanfare.

Those homeowners represent one of the president’s few remaining opportunities to help a substantial number of Americans. That’s because a major push on refinancing is one of the few policies the Obama administration could accomplish without the help of Congress.

(Via Ezra Klein)

Tinker Tailor, Moneyball: Between the lines

I wish it went further but Tinker Tailor, Moneyball: Between the lines (Part 1) made some interesting points looking at the scripts of these two films.

Goldman, Citigroup CDOs Were Tip of Iceberg

Bloomberg wrote a couple of weeks ago, Goldman, Citigroup CDOs Were Tip of Iceberg "The complex mortgage instruments at the center of the 2008 financial crisis went so spectacularly wrong that many observers have said they were designed to fail. A new paper by Oliver Faltin-Traeger of the investment firm Blackrock and Christopher Mayer of Columbia Business School lends a lot of credence to that assertion."

"Using a unique database published by the investment firm Pershing Square Capital Management, Faltin-Traeger and Mayer identified the underlying bonds in some 528 ABS CDOs issued between 2005 and 2007, and compared their performance to similar bonds that weren't included in CDOs. They found that the bonds in the CDOs performed a lot worse. Even if one holds observable characteristics such as initial ratings and yields constant, the bonds in the CDOs suffered ratings downgrades that were 50 percent to 90 percent more severe. As of June 2010, for example, bonds with initial triple-A ratings had been downgraded by an average 11.84 notches, compared to 5.99 for those not in CDOs. The bonds in the CDOs were also more likely to have been rated by all three major credit-rating firms. The research provides strong support for the idea that banks -- with the help of pliant ratings agencies -- put together the CDOs and sold them to investors in a premeditated effort to get rid of some of their most toxic assets, or to provide vehicles for clients who wanted to bet against the worst possible assets. As the authors put it: "It would have been very hard to randomly choose securities with such poor ex-post performance.""

Competition Hasn’t Worked in Health Care

Back in December, Ezra Klein had a really good post, Competition hasn’t worked in health care.

"Republicans and Democrats have the same problem with the Congressional Budget Office: it refuses to score competition between health-care plans as a surefire way to lower the cost of health care.

This annoyed Democrats during the health-care reform debate, as it meant the Affordable Care Act didn’t get any credit for the competition it would foster on its exchanges. It’s annoying Republicans now, as it means their Medicare-reform plans need to impose blunt spending caps if the CBO to certify them as deficit reducing.

But the CBO is in the right here: No matter how much sense competition makes in theory, no matter how obvious it is that it will drive down the price of health care, the fact is that it keeps failing when we put it into practice."

Kevin Drum added, Healthcare and the Free Market. "This actually seems unlikely to me. Companies like Aetna and Blue Cross are plenty big enough to negotiate favorable prices from healthcare providers. And they do. I suspect the dynamic driving higher costs in the private sector actually lies mostly with private employers, who compete with each other to keep their workers satisfied. This means that they help drive costs up, not down, and healthcare insurers respond to this. What's more, employers can always make up for higher premiums with smaller wage increases, which gives them less incentive to pay a lot of attention to healthcare costs in the first place. As long as their total compensation costs stay within reason, they don't much care whether it's going out in wages or in benefits. (In fact, since healthcare benefits aren't subject to income tax, they actually have a small incentive1 to increase benefits at the expense of wages.)

So I guess I wouldn't give Medicare quite such huge props for controlling costs. There's probably less there than meets the eye. Still, even if the numbers aren't as impressive as Tyson suggests, there's not much question that private healthcare providers have never done better at controlling costs than Medicare, and have almost certainly done at least a little worse. This doesn't bode well for the notion that unleashing the forces of free market competition will do much good for Medicare."

Where the Trees Are

Chart Porn posted Where the Trees Are. In going through the backlog of articles to read I would have skipped this one if not for this quote: "I guess I knew the midwest was sparse – but I didn’t think it was THAT sparse."


The Top 1 Percent: What Jobs Do They Have?

The New York Times had an infographic The Top 1 Percent: What Jobs Do They Have? Some seemed odd at first, like Elementary and Secondary School Teacher, but if you mouse over it, you'll see that 59,362 people with this job live in a household in the top 1%.

What Percent Are You?

The New York Times had a feature, What Percent Are You? "Enter your household income and see how you rank in 344 zones across the country."

In Honor of MLK

Nancy Duarte wrote In Honor of MLK "To honor one of one of the greatest communicators of all time, we’d like to re-post a popular blog from last year: The analysis of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech from the March on Washington."

What is Wrong with Minnesota and Texas?

The Republican primaries are down to basically four candidates. In the polling various people like Donald Trump, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrinch have peaked and declined. Two in particular, Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry, peaked and declined and I'd say the cause was mostly the result of poor debate performance and other comments I'd characterize as incoherent.

So, basically the primary process worked. Potential candidates took a shot and the American people found them lacking. And even though it seems like this process has been going on forever, it's only been a few months and their peak and decline were much quicker than that. I think, for Bachmann and Perry we looked and quickly found them not qualified for president. They didn't decline because of scandals or other things, they lost because they didn't make sense. Perry couldn't even remember the names of all the cabinet departments he want to close, let alone what they do.

On this basis, I'd go further and say they showed they weren't qualified for political leadership, and yet, Bachmann has been a Congresswoman for 3 terms and Perry has won three terms as Governor of Texas (and served for a bit more, taking over after Bush left that office). Their platforms weren't that different from what they want to do in their current offices (well closer for Bachmann in Washington than Perry in Texas). So the American people interviewed them for only a few months and found them to be unqualified. Why can't Minnesota and Texas see the same after hiring them both three times?

An Abundance of Exoplanets Changes our Universe

Scientific American wrote An Abundance of Exoplanets Changes our Universe "About 17% of stars (give or take several percent) harbor Jupiter mass planets, cool Neptunes exist around about 52% of stars and Super-Earths (5 to 10 times the mass of Earth) exist around roughly 62% of stars. Even with sizable errors in these estimates (as much as 20-30%) the numbers are astonishing – there are at least 1.6 planets orbiting from 0.5 to 10 AU for every star in the galaxy. Combine this with the Doppler survey numbers (25% of stars with ‘Earth-sized’ planets within 0.25 AU), the Kepler numbers (17% of stars with ‘Neptunes’ orbiting within 0.5AU), and the microlensing estimates of 2 rogue giant planets per star in the galaxy and you have, well you have an awful lot of planets."

Sun Shoots a Fastball at Earth

The Washington Post writes Sun shoots a fastball at Earth, but minimal impact expected on satellites, power grid. "A huge sunspot unleashed a blob of charged plasma Thursday that space weather watchers predict will blast past the Earth on Sunday. Satellite operators and power companies are keeping a close eye on the incoming cloud, which could distort the Earth’s magnetic field and disrupt radio communications, especially at higher latitudes."

It's a glancing blow that won't do much damage, but there is potential for aurora activity to be seen in places that normally don't get any. If it's clear and dark out and you're in northern US latitudes you might get a view. I also learned this:

"Besides sparking pretty auroras, heightened solar activity has a more tangible benefit: It cleans up space junk. As the sun acts up, the Earth’s atmosphere expands, increasing friction on dead satellites, rocket parts and other trash in low Earth orbit, pulling them down."

Friday, January 20, 2012

How Copyright Industries Con Congress

I'm not normally a fan of CATO but Julian Sanchez used to work for ars and recently took apart the figures that SOPA supporters cite. How Copyright Industries Con Congress.

"The $200–250 billion number had originated in a 1991 sidebar in Forbes, but it was not a measurement of the cost of “piracy” to the U.S. economy. It was an unsourced estimate of the total size of the global market in counterfeit goods. Beyond the obvious fact that these numbers are decades old, counterfeiting of physical goods imported in bulk and sold by domestic retail distributors is, rather obviously, a totally different phenomenon with different policy implications from the problem of illicit individual consumer downloads of movies, music, and software. The 750,000 jobs number had originated in a 1986 speech (yes, 1986) by the secretary of commerce estimating that counterfeiting could cost the United States “anywhere from 130,000 to 750,000″ jobs. Nobody in the Commerce Department was able to identify where those figures had come from. These are the numbers that were driving U.S. copyright policy as recently as 2008—and I’m still seeing them repeated in “fact sheets” circulated by SOPA boosters"

Later on...

"Again, we don’t have the full LEK study, but one of Siwek’s early papers does conveniently reproduce some of LEK’s PowerPoint slides, which attempt to break the data down a bit. Of the total $6.1 billion in annual losses LEK estimated to MPAA studios, the amount attributable to online piracy by users in the United States was $446 million—which, by coincidence, is roughly the amount grossed globally by Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel."

And it gets reduced further. Pretty fun.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

How Obama's Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics

Andrew Sullivan has a good (long) piece, How Obama's Long Game Will Outsmart His Critics. A lot of it is quotable and it's worth a whole reading, but here's a bit:

"They miss, it seems to me, two vital things. The first is the simple scale of what has been accomplished on issues liberals say they care about. A depression was averted. The bail-out of the auto industry was—amazingly—successful. Even the bank bailouts have been repaid to a great extent by a recovering banking sector. The Iraq War—the issue that made Obama the nominee—has been ended on time and, vitally, with no troops left behind. Defense is being cut steadily, even as Obama has moved his own party away from a Pelosi-style reflexive defense of all federal entitlements. Under Obama, support for marriage equality and marijuana legalization has crested to record levels. Under Obama, a crucial state, New York, made marriage equality for gays an irreversible fact of American life. Gays now openly serve in the military, and the Defense of Marriage Act is dying in the courts, undefended by the Obama Justice Department. Vast government money has been poured into noncarbon energy investments, via the stimulus. Fuel-emission standards have been drastically increased. Torture was ended. Two moderately liberal women replaced men on the Supreme Court. Oh, yes, and the liberal holy grail that eluded Johnson and Carter and Clinton, nearly universal health care, has been set into law. Politifact recently noted that of 508 specific promises, a third had been fulfilled and only two have not had some action taken on them. To have done all this while simultaneously battling an economic hurricane makes Obama about as honest a follow-through artist as anyone can expect from a politician.

What liberals have never understood about Obama is that he practices a show-don’t-tell, long-game form of domestic politics. What matters to him is what he can get done, not what he can immediately take credit for. And so I railed against him for the better part of two years for dragging his feet on gay issues. But what he was doing was getting his Republican defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to move before he did. The man who made the case for repeal of ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ was, in the end, Adm. Mike Mullen. This took time—as did his painstaking change in the rule barring HIV-positive immigrants and tourists—but the slow and deliberate and unprovocative manner in which it was accomplished made the changes more durable. Not for the first time, I realized that to understand Obama, you have to take the long view. Because he does."

I criticize Obama for compromising too much. I think his accomplishments are genuine, I just think his tactics meant some of the things could have been better. I would have liked a public option and I think, if he explained it better (which is what he was supposed to have been really good at) it might have made it. I think that of the stimulus too, that more of it could have been stimulative rather than just tax cuts. I also fault him on civil liberties with not closing Gitmo, indefinite detention, and warrantless searches, etc. I think those are fair critiques and not "deluded".

Update: Lawrence Lessig has commented: "Any liberal (or sane moderate for that matter) would be crazy to say that we’re not better off today than we would have been had Obama not been elected. Of course we are. But that fact doesn’t negate the (still ignored by Sullivan et al.) criticism of the President: That he baited us with the reform rhetoric, and then switched to the administration promised by H. Clinton. "

Update: Kevin Drum has a very good follow up, Barack Obama Is Not That Hard to Understand. "But these are the exceptions, not the rule. For the most part, Obama's actions can be explained without resort to mysterious and ulterior motives. He's done what he's done sometimes out of native temperament, sometimes out of straightforward political calculation, sometimes out of plain misjudgment, and sometimes because he genuinely has more centrist views than his critics want to believe. More than with most presidents, I think that with Obama, what you see is what you get. He's just not that hard a guy to explain." And he posts a reader's comments.

Update: Ezra Klein takes a more speculative approach to it, Has Obama done a good job? Well, compared to what?

The Bark Side: 2012 Volkswagen Game Day Commercial Teaser

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

PIPA-SOPA Flowchart

Today Wikipedia and some other sites is blacked out to protest SOPA and PIPA. These are bills pending in Congress intended to stop online piracy but which are poorly written and will harm the internet. The Super PIPA-SOPA Action/Info Flowchart Reference Guide is kinda cute and has links in it too.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Jon Stewart and Jim DeMInt

Jim DeMint has a book to hawk so he went on The Daily Show last night. John Stewart had a long interview with him and it's perhaps the best interview I've seen him do.


I'm visiting some friends so this blog will be quiet until the middle of next week. There will probably still be tweets of articles in the feed to the right. Two parting thoughts:

I'm watching John McCain now on the CBS morning show explaining why the Republicans dislike the attacks Romney regarding Bain Capital. The argument is that these attacks are against what Republicans fundamentally believe in. While that's true he also fundamentally distorted the argument saying that Bain are the job creators and they try to rescue failing companies and sometimes it doesn't work and when it always works it's called communism (funny they didn't make this argument for Solyndra). I'm hoping that the Republican middle class sees through that garbage and starts to recognize that they're on the wrong side.

I realized, I grew up in New York, went to college in Pennsylvania and live in Massachusetts. I'm tired of people from places like Texas and Arizona telling me "what the founders intended".

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Who Fires Whom?

Aaron Carroll takes apart Romney's "firing" quote, Lots of people can’t fire their insurance companies. "Then, let’s say you develop cancer. You suddenly find out that your insurance company stinks. So you fire them, right? Of course not. You’re screwed. Now you have a pre-existing condition. There’s not an insurance company out there that wants to cover you. So you don’t fire them. You scream, and curse, and cry, but you’re stuck. Only healthy people have the luxury of picking and choosing."

Paul Krugman comments, Who Fires Whom?. "Why, it’s as if Romney doesn’t understand his own health reform, which was in large part about ensuring not that you can fire your insurance company, but rather about ensuring that your insurance company can’t fire YOU. And this is a bit subjective, but isn’t it awesome how Romney’s lack of empathy shines through? He evidently has no sense of what it’s like NOT to be the very wealthy son of an already wealthy father; no idea how the fear of unemployment or medical bills afflicts ordinary Americans."

Monday, January 09, 2012

All Tapped Out

The Daily Climate writes All tapped out. It has lots of details of where maple syrup comes from and a big warning.

"According to research from Barry Rock, professor of natural resources at the University of New Hampshire, the New England region, including upstate New York, has already warmed an average of 0.7˚ F over the last century, with the bulk of that warming in the winter — an average gain of 1.8˚ F. That warming has already had an impact: This year some sugarmakers in New Hampshire were unable to make any Grade A syrup."

"It is the 3˚ to 10˚ F warming predicted over the next century by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that may doom the sugar maple in the northeastern U.S. Even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency concedes that the sugar maple will not survive the century in New England. Its Climate Action Report from 2002 notes "climate change is likely to cause long-term shifts in forest species, such as sugar maples moving north out of the country." In other words, it is not a question of if the sugar maple will disappear, it is a question of when."

Sunday, January 08, 2012

National Geographic Photography Contest Winners: 2011

The Big Picture shows us the National Geographic Photography Contest Winners: 2011 "More than 20,000 photographs, from over 130 countries were submitted to the National Geographic Photography contest, with both professional photographers and amateur photo enthusiasts participating. The grand prize winner was chosen from the three category winners: Nature - Shikhei Goh, People - Izabelle Nordfjell, Places - George Tapan. Shikhei Goh, of Indonesia, took the grand prize honors with his amazing photograph of a dragonfly in the rain and will be published in the magazine. The competition was judged on creativity and photographic quality by a panel of experts composed of field biologist and wildlife photojournalist Tim Laman, National Geographic photographer Amy Toensing and National Geographic nature photographer Peter Essick. The winning submissions can be viewed at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/photo-contest/ - Paula Nelson (14 photos total)"

Winter Arrives

Yesterday it was 60 degrees here but In Focus on Wednesday announced Winter Arrives. "Although much of the U.S. and Europe has had a largely snowless winter to date, the temperature has finally started to feel seasonal and snowfall will certainly follow. Other parts of the northern hemisphere have been experiencing more wintry weather, such as Harbin, China, which opens its famous Ice Festival tomorrow, January 5. From the Far East to the Mississippi River, from Moscow to Stonehenge, here are some recent chilly scenes from around the world."

Most of the photos are as astounding as this:

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Friday, January 06, 2012

Movie Reviews

So the last movie I reviewed here I saw in October, have to rectify that a bit.

Take Shelter - a small indie drama about a man (Michael Shannon) who starts having apocalyptic visions and thinks he's going crazy. I was very absorbed in it and surprised a few times. Shannon's performance is amazing and he really deserves an oscar nomination though he isn't appearing on too many lists so far. Jessica Chastain played his wife and this was one of several good roles for her in her breakout year (which is almost comparable to Edward Norton's three films in 1996). The cinematography is quite good. The ending is debatable, but after some debate the group I saw it with liked it better.

Let Me In - is the US remake of the wonderful swedish film Let The RIght One In. Yes it's good and yes the small changes made are reasonable, but the original is still a bit better.

The Debt - is a slightly odd spy thriller. It begins in 1997 and most of the middle is a flashback to 1965 when three mossad agents were tracking down a Nazi war criminal in East Berlin. The younger versions are played by Jessica Chastain, Sam Worthington and Marton Csokas. The older versions are played by Helen Mirren, Ciaran Hinds and Tom Wilkinson. That's quite some cast and yes that's Jessica Chastain pulling off a young Helen Mirren. A few people I spoke to agree that Ciaran Hinds was miscast as he looks more like Csokas than Worthington. I liked the flashback story and the modern story was ok though it seemed a little foolish (in an almost comedic sense) at the end. I think also the moral debate about killing a nazi war criminal versus bringing him back for trial isn't as powerful as it used to be, and yes, that's a bit sad.

Margin Call - is a dramatization of the beginning of the current financial crisis. It follows 24 hours at a firm which is probably JP Morgan though loosely. An analyst is laid off, a young former rocket scientist looks at his work and realizes that the firm has substantially more risk than they thought. The issue is raised to higher levels of management throughout the night until a decision is made to sell off the risk, saving the firm but probably destroying the entire market. The cast is excellent: Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Stanley Tucci are the kind of actors you want in these rolls and Paul Bettany, Zachary Quinto, Simon Baker and Demi Moore all hold their own nicely. I think if you didn't understand the crisis this would give you a bit of a sense of what happened, but you're probably better off seeing the documentary Inside Job. I liked the smart dialog and performances, but maybe it's too soon to dramatize this.

From the Sky Down - is a documentary of the making of U2's album Achtung Baby! I didn't love the album and didn't like the documentary though it made me appreciate the album a bit more. It went on too long and didn't say enough.

Made in Dagenham - is a historical drama about a 1968 strike of female workers at a Ford automotive plant in Dagenham England. I hadn't heard of the strike, but women were listed as unskilled labor and were paid less than the men. They wanted to be listed as semi-skilled and paid a fair wage. They ultimately succeeded and this was the beginning of the equal rights movement. Sally Hawkins played the women's leader who had to work against management and against the male union leaders. It's a little slight, but still well done. Hawkins is always great.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas - was much better than the second installment and not quite as good as the first. I thought the setup took a little long but the second half was very good. Neil Patrick Harris was hilarious and I think everyone will want a Wafflebot after seeing this film. Good dumb humor.

Melancholia - is proof that adding a plot to Tree of Life doesn't make it a better film. I liked Tree of Life and really didn't like this Lars von Trier film. Kirsten Dunst suffers from depression and that happens even on her wedding day and even when the world is ending. Her sister doesn't suffer from depression and the second half of the film is centered more on her. I guess we're supposed to compare and contrast but I just didn't care.

The Descendants - was okay but I don't understand all the rave reviews. George Clooney is a native of Hawaii and a father. As the film opens his wife is in the hospital, after an accident, dying. Clooney has to take care of his young daughter and deal with his teenage daughter who's away at a boarding school (for a reason). As the film progresses we learn that the mother wasn't a saint and track how a big family real estate deal is going through. Clooney is getting serious Oscar consideration for this role and I don't get it. Since we didn't ever see the mother being good, I had a hard time relating to her or the family's loss. Clooney at times played the role in his Coen brothers comedic style, particularly when running or hiding behind hedges, which seemed completely out of place. Otherwise he seemed fine in his everyday slub kind of mood but I didn't see anything great about it. I found most of the characters to be underwritten with one surprising moment of depth given to each of them that just ended up seeming out of place. It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great.

My Week With Marilyn - is based on an autobiography of Colin Clark. One of his first jobs was as the third assistant director on the film The Prince and the Showgirl. Basically he was a gofer, but as a result he spent a week with Marilyn Monroe. There's no way to know how much of the story is true but it doesn't matter. This film is all about Michelle Williams amazing portrayal of Monroe which is sure to get an Oscar nomination and quite possibly a win. She nails the star persona and is as riveting to watch as Monroe was. The standard complaint about the film is that the main story isn't that believable and the main character isn't interesting. I don't think either were as bad as critics made out, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie-making aspects and it's all about Williams anyway.

Outrage is a Japanese crime thriller by Takeshi Kitano that got a fair amount of indie buzz. It was pretty good, but had a lot of characters, mostly in the same suit, all getting angry and killing each other. I found it a little too confusing at times as a third party (well organization) was manipulating two other organizations against each other with the police thrown in for good measure. The ending seemed obvious and the violence a bit harsh at times, but otherwise ok.

The Secret of the Kells - came out of no where to get a Best Animated Film Oscar nomination last year. It's fine fantasy adventure story for kids with some very unusual, interesting and beautiful visuals. If you have young kids or love animation, see it.

Due Date - is trying to be an updated Planes Trains and Automobiles with Robert Downey Jr and Zach Galifinakis. It doesn't succeed, goes on too long, and as you might expect, gets the tone wrong a few too many times.

Jackass 3 - Friends saw it and said they really liked it so I caught it on cable. I had had never watched the series but for me it was similar to the first two films. I found myself laughing uncontrollably at about a third of it. I mean really uncontrollably. I was thinking why am I laughing at this, or I shouldn't be laughing at this but I was, out loud, a lot. About another third I just didn't find funny and about another third I found too disgusting and had crossed the line. I get that when pushing boundaries like this it's easy to go too far. I wish they would have edited it down more removing the stuff that was too far. I also get that everyone's line is different and they probably did remove some stuff. I don't want to know about that. If you can handle it, great. A friend said the great third was completely worth it to him and I (almost) agree.

There, that gets me to the middle of December, I'll do another post soon with a lot of the end of the year releases. I'm surprised, but so far this year I've stayed on course and have seen one movie a day. We'll see how long that continues.