Thursday, February 28, 2013

Labs for Testing Fiscal Policy Positions

One economist says one thing, another economist says the opposite, if only we could test their theories and figure out which is right. Oh yeah, we can…

Labs for Testing Fiscal Policy Positions "But as it happens, economists have increasingly been using regions within the United States as labs of democracy, measuring contrasting approaches in various states to determine both why the recovery is sluggish and what to do about it."

Guess what they came up with?

"they found almost no relationship between job growth and the share of small businesses that cite regulation and taxes as their top concern. (Rather, they found a strong correlation between weak job growth and complaints of a lack of demand.)"

"The findings showed that focused fiscal relief during hard times can effectively stimulate employment. An important and timely implication of this finding is that the contrary policy of cutting spending during hard times can reduce employment."

"I find that modestly sized tax increases on upper-income taxpayers have a negligible to small impact on job creation. These magnitudes are much smaller than those of cutting government spending in hard times."

Shocking! Oh right, it's not.

The Insourcing Boom

I'm catching up on The Atlantic and really liked this article, The Insourcing Boom

"Yet this year, something curious and hopeful has begun to happen, something that cannot be explained merely by the ebbing of the Great Recession, and with it the cyclical return of recently laid-off workers. On February 10, Appliance Park opened an all-new assembly line in Building 2—largely dormant for 14 years—to make cutting-edge, low-energy water heaters. It was the first new assembly line at Appliance Park in 55 years—and the water heaters it began making had previously been made for GE in a Chinese contract factory.

On March 20, just 39 days later, Appliance Park opened a second new assembly line, this one in Building 5, to make new high-tech French-door refrigerators. The top-end model can sense the size of the container you place beneath its purified-water spigot, and shuts the spigot off automatically when the container is full. These refrigerators are the latest versions of a style that for years has been made in Mexico.

Another assembly line is under construction in Building 3, to make a new stainless-steel dishwasher starting in early 2013. Building 1 is getting an assembly line to make the trendy front-loading washers and matching dryers Americans are enamored of; GE has never before made those in the United States. And Appliance Park already has new plastics-manufacturing facilities to make parts for these appliances, including simple items like the plastic-coated wire racks that go in the dishwashers.

In the midst of this revival, Immelt made a startling assertion. Writing in Harvard Business Review in March, he declared that outsourcing is ‘quickly becoming mostly outdated as a business model for GE Appliances.’ Just four years after he tried to sell Appliance Park, believing it to be a relic of an era GE had transcended, he’s spending some $800 million to bring the place back to life. ‘I don’t do that because I run a charity,’ he said at a public event in September. ‘I do that because I think we can do it here and make more money.’"

  • Oil prices are three times what they were in 2000, making cargo-ship fuel much more expensive now than it was then.
  • The natural-gas boom in the U.S. has dramatically lowered the cost for running something as energy-intensive as a factory here at home. (Natural gas now costs four times as much in Asia as it does in the U.S.)
  • In dollars, wages in China are some five times what they were in 2000—and they are expected to keep rising 18 percent a year.
  • American unions are changing their priorities. Appliance Park’s union was so fractious in the ’70s and ’80s that the place was known as “Strike City.” That same union agreed to a two-tier wage scale in 2005—and today, 70 percent of the jobs there are on the lower tier, which starts at just over $13.50 an hour, almost $8 less than what the starting wage used to be.
  • U.S. labor productivity has continued its long march upward, meaning that labor costs have become a smaller and smaller proportion of the total cost of finished goods. You simply can’t save much money chasing wages anymore.

Printable Gun 2.0

If we ever manage to regulate assault weapons, it will probably be too late. Watch the New and Improved Printable Gun Spew Hundreds of Bullets.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

It Was Eric Cantor Who Killed the Debt Ceiling Deal

Kevin Drum points out It Was Eric Cantor Who Killed the Debt Ceiling Deal

"Here's why this timeline is important. It's been an article of faith among conservatives that the grand bargain collapsed because Obama got greedy and asked for more revenue. And there's certainly a kernel of truth to that: a $1.2 trillion revenue increase was obviously a tougher lift for Boehner than an $800 billion increase.

But based on Cantor's own testimony to Lizza, that wasn't really what killed the deal. Regardless of the size of the revenue increase, Cantor just flatly didn't want to reach an agreement. He didn't want to give Obama a political win, and figured that a failed deal would hurt Obama enough that Republicans could win the presidency and then write their own bill. He persuaded Boehner to go along, and the deal was dead.

Bottom line: It wasn't Obama's $400 billion that killed the deal. It was Eric Cantor who killed the deal. We now have that straight from the horse's mouth."

Sequestration Strategies

Brian Beutler speculates on the Democrat's thinking. Yes, Dems Have A Structural Advantage In Sequestration Fight. "The most important factor in this fight is probably the reality that Obama doesn’t have to face voters again and thus is willing to veto sequestration replacement bills if they’re composed of spending cuts alone. Congressional Democrats are fully aware of this, too, and that creates a powerful incentive for them to hold the line.

So sequestration will begin. Obama won’t cave. And then the tension sequestration was intended to create — and in fact has created — between defense hawks and the rest of the GOP will intensify and actually splinter the party. If that doesn’t happen quickly enough, then the sequestration fight will become tangled up in the need to renew funding for the federal government at the end of March. If Republicans don’t cave before then, they’ll precipitate a 1995-style government shutdown, public opinion will actually begin to control the outcome, and it’ll be game over."

Digby agrees though thinks the Democrats retain their ability to cave. "I'm not quite as sure as Beutler that the White House won't fold in some way, but I certainly agree that the whole point is to divide the Republicans between the defense hawks and the debt fetishists. You can see the tension in the Senate already with Graham and McCain calling for revenue to avoid defense cuts. That's where the action's going to be. But I would also point out that the Democratic party has a share of defense hawks who can be counted upon to exert pressure for some kind of a deal as well. If it gets too uncomfortable I can see the White House throwing in the towel on their one demand for revenue and giving the GOP even more cuts to discretionary programs. (They could even throw in the Chained-CPI as a luscious slice of foie gras to the elite Villagers.)"

Ezra Klein is trying to figure out How Republicans see the sequester.

"The only tax increase on the table in the sequestration discussion is a cut to tax expenditures — to “distortions [that] are similar to government spending” in which “the government directs resources to politically favored uses, creating a drag on growth.” No one is even discussing an increase in marginal tax rates. And if Republicans agree to cut tax expenditures, they can get, in return, entitlement cuts, and they can protect defense spending, and they can get more deficit reduction. Pushed on this point, various Republicans I spoke with made different arguments. One argument was that Republicans are saving cuts to tax expenditure because they want to use them to pay for rate-lowering tax reform later." The other arguments were that they don't trust the White House, feel they've already lost the PR battle and while they don't like the ways the sequestration cuts are setup, they like cuttings things so "the basic quantity and distribution of the cuts is, if not optimal, far better than nothing."

"Insofar as there’s a long-term strategy here, it comes down to 2014. Republicans feel that this is a defensive year for them, and if they can resist further tax increases while locking in some spending cuts, that will be more than they could reasonably have expected in the days after the election. But in 2014, they expect the implementation of Obamacare to be a debacle that will give them an opportunity to mount a policy offensive against the White House. If they can just get through this year and get to 2014, their position will strengthen considerably."

This is the real flaw in the idea of the sequestration. The idea that after the 2012 election it would be easier because the vote would give one side more leverage. But the thing about elections, there's always another one in a couple of years.

The Penny Drops

The Economist says The coinage: The penny drops. Yes it probably makes sense to get rid of the penny, the cost more (now twice more) than they're worth. I didn't realize this thought...

"Other countries have eliminated low-value coins with less-than-dire results, and indeed, so has America. In 1857 it ditched the half-cent, which was then worth nearly as much in real terms as today’s dime. This has led some to suggest killing the nickel, which costs about ten cents to make, as well as the penny."

New Stuxnet Details

Ars Technica writes Revealed: Stuxnet “beta’s” devious alternate attack on Iran nuke program. "Researchers have uncovered a never-before-seen version of Stuxnet. The discovery sheds new light on the evolution of the powerful cyberweapon that made history when it successfully sabotaged an Iranian uranium-enrichment facility in 2009."

Interesting stuff, though by "no later than" I think they meant "at least as early as".

Opinion recap: Global wiretap challenge thwarted

SCOTUSblog, Opinion recap: Global wiretap challenge thwarted.

"Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., who wrote the majority opinion, concluded that the challengers’ lawsuit was based upon a ‘chain of contingencies’ that would have to fall into place before their communications might be at risk of eavesdropping.  They had not shown, the opinion concluded, that harms to them were ‘certainly impending’ –  a rigorous standard for testing the right to sue.

The decision fit into two ongoing patterns established by the modern Court: a narrowing of the scope of the right to sue in federal court as a general proposition, and a stream of decisions insulating highly secret government war programs from judicial review in the regular federal court system.

The Alito opinion expressed a high degree of confidence that a special court, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, will guard against abuses of the new surveillance program that was freed of a number of restraints that existed under a law first passed in 1978.  That surveillance court operates in total secrecy, within the Justice Department building in downtown Washington, and almost never has turned down completely government requests for ‘foreign intelligence’ surveillance.   It has sometimes modified those requests, however.

The Court majority said that the secret court is bound to enforce the Fourth Amendment’s guarantees of privacy, and indicated that the Supreme Court was relying upon it to do so."

Sure, that will work out just fine...

"The dissenting opinion contended that their research turned up not a single case in which the standard used by the majority — that is, that an injury must be “certainly impending” — was ever used to deny a right to sue in federal court."

Argument recap: Voting law in peril — maybe

As usual, if you want to understand what happened at the Supreme Court today, read SCOTUSblog, Argument recap: Voting law in peril — maybe.

F-22s and F-35s Not Looking So Good

Danger Room had a couple of articles on the current state of our most advanced fighter planes...

Air Force to Stealth Fighter Pilots: Get Used to Coughing Fits "Those admissions, buried in newly released Congressional records, represent the latest twist in the years-long saga of the F-22′s faulty oxygen system, which since at least 2008 has been choking pilots, leading to confusion, memory loss and blackouts — combined known as hypoxia — that may have contributed to at least one fatal crash. Ground crews have also reported growing sick while working around F-22s whose engines are running."

Engine Crack Grounds Pentagon's Entire Fleet of F-35 Stealth Fighters "The U.S. military’s entire fleet of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters has been grounded, owing to a crack in the engine of one jet. This is at least the fourth full or partial stand-down of the F-35, the Pentagon’s main future fighter, in just the last two and a half years."

The most terrifying graph you'll see all year

Hullabaloo writes nThe most terrifying graph you'll see all year. It's apparently this…

UNEP 20102 copy

"See that 5 degrees Celsius we're projected to hit by 2050? That's 9 degrees Fahrenheit. That means the end of human civilization, and possibly of the human race itself. Within our lifetimes."

Sadly I didn't follow the links and explore it more. I already know that climate change is bad, as in very bad. But this chart did make me wonder…

What if someone, maybe a scientist or a journalist, made a chart in Fahrenheit instead of Celsius so that the average US resident or, say, politician would understand it just slightly better. Would it make a difference? Is it worth trying?

Evidently I've Wasted My Retirement

Monday, February 25, 2013

Why This Oscar-Winning Disney Short Looks Like Nothing Made Before

Paperman deservedly won the best animated short oscar last night. Here's an article and video about the new technology used in bringing hand drawing to computer generated animation. There's the movie too.

Why This Oscar-Winning Disney Short Looks Like Nothing Made Before. "A Pixar film is a beautiful thing. Long after Toy Story’s 3-D novelty wore off, artists refined their techniques, so Up could make us cry. But in these computer-generated worlds full of perfect shapes and gradients, we inevitably lost some of that old Disney magic--the nuance of incredible, hand-drawn lines. ‘Isn’t there a way we can bring that hand of an artist back?’ John Kahrs thought."

I Will Never Get Tired of Stanley Kubrick Stories

A Summer with Stanley Kubrick. "Another mystery quickly developed when the studio received a call from the manager of the Loews Capitol Theatre, MGM’s 5,500-seat showcase theater on Broadway (second largest in New York after Radio City Music Hall’s 5,700 seats). The projectionist was threatening to go on strike and close the theater, which meant no more showings of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Someone saying they were from MGM had gone into the projection booth and was using a chisel to file the aperture frame to remove the built up dust from the carbon arc projectors so that there would be sharp, not fuzzy, edges on the theater screen.

The arclight, or carbon-arc lighting, was the illumination source in movie projectors at the time. As the carbon rods burned down, they smoked and threw off dust that would adhere to the edges of the aperture frame with the result of projecting fuzzy edges on the screen. Kubrick did not like the distraction of fuzzy edges, so he brought his chisel into the projection booth to clean the edges so 2001 would be seen with crisp, clean edges on the screen. The mystery of where Kubrick had been was solved, and all future projectionists of 2001: A Space Odyssey would receive written instructions from the director stating how he expected his movie to be projected."

The Tunnels of NYC's East Side Access Project

In Focus on The Tunnels of NYC's East Side Access Project "A huge public works project is currently under construction in New York City, connecting Long Island to Manhattan's East Side. Deep underground, rail tunnels are extending from Sunnyside, Queens, to a new Long Island Rail Road terminal being excavated beneath Grand Central Terminal. Construction began in 2007, with an estimated cost of $6.3 billion and completion date of 2013. Since then, the cost estimate has been raised to $8.4 billion, and the completion date moved back to 2019. When finished, the line will accommodate 24 trains per hour at peak traffic, cutting down on commute times from Long Island, and opening up access to John F. Kennedy International Airport from Manhattan's East Side. Collected here are images of the progress to date, deep beneath Queens and Manhattan. [33 photos]"

Rapatronic Nuclear Photographs

Damn Interesting writes Rapatronic Nuclear Photographs "Before long a professor of electrical engineering from MIT named Harold Eugene 'Doc' Edgerton invented the rapatronic camera, a device capable of capturing images from the fleeting instant directly following a nuclear explosion. These single-use cameras were able to snap a photo one ten-millionth of a second after detonation from about seven miles away, with an exposure time of as little as ten nanoseconds. At that instant, a typical fireball had already reached about 100 feet in diameter, with temperatures three times hotter than the surface of the sun."

The Oscars

I of course watched the Oscars last night and unfortunately my overall impression was meh.

I was looking forward to the awards. I thought this was one of the most difficult years to predict the winners. A lot of categories had two very strong contenders and some of the acting categories had five. I also thought Seth MacFarlane was a clever pick for host. I really liked Family Guy at first but haven't kept up watching it or any of his other shows. I knew he could sing and he writes a lot of comedy and he makes references to ridiculous amounts of pop culture and has a reverence for old Hollywood. It could work.

I thought he opened the show pretty well. His first line about trying to get Tommy Lee Jones to laugh was good (and worked). Argo's story being so top secret that the director was unknown to the academy was also good. I thought it was exactly the right tone. I liked the bit about Roman Coppola being in a tough house because he has six relatives with nominations. He was good up to the Chris Brown joke but he recovered ok. Then he went too far with the Mel Gibson joke, recovered and then went too far again with it. That became a trend. Then the Captain Kirk thing started.

The framework for the bit was ok but it was too much about MacFarlane. Billy Crystal saluted movies, not himself. The boob song probably wasn't appropriate, particularly for the beginning of the night, but it was funny, and fun, and was even a bit clever in who he cited and I saw a lot female friends comment on Facebook that they liked it a lot. If you're good, you can get away with irreverence. I also liked Charlize Theron and Channing Tatum dancing and Joseph Gordon Levitt and Daniel Radcliffe too. The sock puppets were pretty good, but he lost me with the flying nun bit. It wasn't funny, ended oddly and the jokes in the final song were weak. Still he got a good number of laughs with the audience. A 17 minute opening isn't too long, Billy Crystal sometimes went over a half an hour.

The rest was meh. Not particularly memorable and a few jokes going over the line. Linda Holmes of NPR thought it was one of the worst hosting jobs of all time but I wouldn't go that far. I did agree with these points:

"He kept apologizing for and reframing jokes so that he'd be less responsible for them: If the audience didn't like the joke, he'd comment on how much worse it would get, or how unfair that was, or how he'd thought they weren't doing that joke. He showed none of the willingness to say what you're going to say and not walk it back 10 seconds later that characterizes every legitimately daring comedian.

His sexist jokes were in poor taste, sure, but if they'd been funny, nobody would have cared. People are forgiving when your women-are-crazy material is funny; they're not so forgiving when it's dull. It didn't help that the patter written for presenters was almost as bad. It takes a lot to make the charismatic guys from The Avengers come off like charmless dolts, but they managed."

I completely agree about the presenters. The presenters mostly did two awards and only bantered before the first. This cut down on the time it takes to present the presenters. For the awards, most were ok. Christopher Plummer was the best (I liked his acceptance speech last year too). I liked Sandra Bullock, Charlize Theron and Dustin Hoffman, and Jean Dujardin and Meryl Streep. I hated Paul Rudd and Melissa McCarthy, the Avengers cast, Ted and Mark Wahlberg. Kerry Washington was good but Jamie Foxx not so much. Somehow Octavia Spencer managed to do a bad line reading while presenting an award. "Being on stage last year" was supposed to be self deprecating not boasting.

Most of the other presenters just came out and introduced a singer, a montage of best pictures nominees or previously given awards. They did it straight up and without jokes. That's fine. I think the biggest mistake was by Daniel Radcliffe. He came out with Kristen Stewart who while she was on crutches that night limped out on stage without them. Radcliffe didn't help her once. When Jennifer Lawrence tripped getting to the stage Hugh Jackman leap from his seat to help her. That's how you do it.

There were things that annoyed me about the show. The sound mix seemed off for a few numbers. I had a hard time hearing Adele sing over the music. Maybe it had something to do with the orchestra being in another building which struck me as odd. Even as MacFarlane was thanking them, they were playing over him. Life of Pi won for visual effects and after 43 seconds they drown out the speech with the theme from Jaws? Ok, Jaws is a cute way to cut people off, but after just 45 seconds? They let the shorts guy go 53 seconds without cutting him off.

I was also confused by the theme. It was movie musicals, which is fair enough but it was all about music not movies. And after announcing the theme, the first such thing they do is a tribute to James Bond. Ok. Having Halle Berry introduce it is a great start. But how do you show a montage of Bond clips and not show the union jack ski jump from The Spy Who Loved Me? Then it ends with Shirley Bassey singing Goldfinger. Ok, that is the best Bond song but why not go into Adele singing Skyfall, the song actually nominated this year?

Later we get more musicals. In a 12 minute segment we see clips of three films and then a musical performance. First Chicago, then Dreamgirls and finally Les Miserables. I now understand why, the producers of this years Oscars broadcast also produced Chicago and TV's Smash (now with Jennifer Hudson). Hudson did great and the Les Mis number was my favorite thing of the night (I think I liked it better than the movie, certainly I liked Russell Crowe better here). But why not just do that and then sing the other nominated songs? As it stood we got two full performances and then three shorter ones of the song nominees.

The In Memoriam segment has become a staple. Apparently this year only 7 actors died so they had to fill in with others like writers and directors (fine) and executives and publicists (a little questionable). Will they start including grips and caterers in the future? Still it ended with Barbra Streisand singing in tribute to Marvin Hamlish and it's hard to beat that.

Not to complain too much, but the clips they showed bothered me too. In three segments they introduced the 9 nominated best pictures. They did this by showing their commercials. I kind of expected more. The scene they choose to show of Denzel Washington from Flight, is the only spoiler in the movie. For the other awards they mostly showed a frame or two with horrible graphics over it. Here's an example from a best makeup nominee:

IMG 1055

This is a room full of people being honored for their ability to effectively use film as a medium to convey something. How well does the above convey why this film was nominated for best makeup? The swirling lines reminded me of JJ Abrams' len flares and the blurry little text is just mind boggling stupid on a number of levels. It's a reference to text at the bottom of movie posters that no one reads, in part because it's formatted so badly. So let's blur it out to make it actually illegible and use it to mark up every shot of great movies that we show because otherwise people might not realize it's a movie scene. Next year they'll probably put in the corner an FBI warning about pirating films.

On the other hand a few speeches during the night were really good. I particularly liked Christoph Waltz, Jennifer Lawrence and Ben Affleck. Quentin Tarantino tried to make a good point about how important casting is for a writer to have his creation remembered, though I thought his swagger and style drowned it out a bit.

Meryl Streep giving Daniel Day-Lewis his third best actor award was pretty epic. They might be the two best movie actors of all time. His speech was by far the best of the night. It was funny, entertaining, reverent, humble, gracious and heartfelt. I saw this tweet, "Daniel Day-Lewis on Oscar speeches: "If you can’t find your own words in situations like this, it would be a little sad."

Having the First Lady present the Best Picture award from the White House was cute but the execution was odd. Jack Nicholson comes out on stage and makes some comment about chiffon, rouge and ringlets I still don't understand. Then he introduces FLOTUS who was standing in front of what I assume were soldiers, though they seemed to be dressed like waiters. Then back to Jack then back to FLOTUS.

Kristen Chenoweth and MacFarlane sang during the closing credits. I'm surprised that hasn't been done before. "Here's to the Losers" might have annoyed some people but I thought it was pretty good, though they flubbed some lines. I've seen people complain it was the longest Oscars in a long time. At 3:34 it was a little under average for the last 15 years. 2010's was 3 minutes longer. Looking back on past awards I forgot that Alec Baldwin & Steve Martin co-hosted or that Jon Stewart hosted twice and Ellen DeGeneres hosted at all.

I guess it is a thankless job and it's a hard show to produce but there seem like some obvious things they have to keep in mind. The show is about movies, keep the focus on that. In particular, this year's movies. Let the winners speak and help them not just recite a long list of names. Remember it's a show that people of all ages watch, some of them might be inspired to get into the film business, or at least to pay money to see films.

I have a new favorite Oscar website, Thank the Academy. "A visualization of how Oscar winners express gratitude."

Jason Reitman’s All-Female Live Read of Glengarry Glen Ross

This sounds like it was awesome, Jason Reitman’s All-Female Live Read of ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ Transcends Gender With Brilliant Performances.

"Maybe it was David Mamet‘s script. Maybe it was Jason Reitman‘s casting. Most likely it was a combination of both, but the latest live read at Los Angeles County Museum of Art was the stuff of legend. Six women – Mae Whitman, Carla Gugino, Robin Wright, Catherine O’Hara, Melanie Lynskey and Maria Bello – reading the screenplay for Glengarry Glen Ross was the perfect mix of material, personality, chemistry, and energy. Add a certain je ne sais quoi, and the great script and event concept became something truly special."

Sunday, February 24, 2013

How Scientists Stalked a Lethal Superbug

Wired last month had a good read, How Scientists Stalked a Lethal Superbug—With the Killer's Own DNA. "A lethal bacterium was running rampant at an NIH hospital. Antibiotics were useless. Then two scientists began a frantic race to track down the killer—with the superbug’s own DNA."

Oscar Poster Showcases 85 Years of Winners

This is pretty clever, Gorgeous 2013 Oscar Poster Showcases 85 Years of Winners "Talk about an impressive undertaking: Artist Olly Moss, along with the Academy and Gallery 1988, created an Oscars poster that showcases every Best Picture winner—from Wings in 1927 to The Artist last year—as variations of that classic Academy Award statue." Click the image to make it big:

634 oscarposter cm 21213 copy copy

Friday, February 22, 2013

Predicting a U.S. Debt Crisis, Repeatedly

Exconmix writes Predicting a U.S. Debt Crisis, Repeatedly "This is bad news for the United States because, as it happens, the national debt is 80 percent of annual economic output, the nation has a persistent current-account deficit, and it is planning to significantly increase the scale of borrowing, relative to output, in coming decades.

A host of other studies have reached similar conclusions. The estimated thresholds range from about 60 percent to 120 percent, but the bottom line is always the same: the federal debt cannot continue to grow relative to the size of the economy, or else investors will start demanding much higher interest rates and the United States will fall into crisis.

‘We should be scared,’ said Professor Mishkin, a former Federal Reserve governor. ‘Something needs to be done,’ he added, although he acknowledged there was no sign of crisis just yet.

This is undoubtedly true in an absolute sense. But there are reasons to doubt the basic premise that the history of other nations can tell us how close we are to the cliff.

The problem with every attempt to look for debt limit thresholds has a name, and that name is Japan, a country that is able to borrow at one of the lowest average interest rates of any developed country despite a debt burden that is the largest, relative to its economic output, of any developed country. Nor is this an ephemeral anomaly. It has been true for years.

Japan’s debts total about 230 percent of its annual output, and so far, investors don’t mind."

Andrew DeGraff

Andrew DeGraff has created maps of the Indiana Jones films and the original Star Wars trilogy. Nice stuff.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks

CollegeHumor describes 8 New and Necessary Punctuation Marks. I'm not sure about all of them, but the last one absolutely works.

A Tour of Plasma Physics in Downtown Cambridge

About 20 years ago I took a tour of the fusion reactor at MIT. It's probably the most fascinating and amazing tour I've ever taken. Physics Buzz describes, A Tour of Plasma Physics in Downtown Cambridge.

Mississippi Ratifies 13th Amendment Banning Slavery, Two Weeks Ago!

CBS reported this on Monday, After 148 years, Mississippi finally ratifies 13th Amendment, which banned slavery "The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery, was ratified in 1865. Lawmakers in Mississippi, however, only got around to officially ratifying the amendment last month -- 148 years later -- thanks to the movie 'Lincoln.'"

I guess I was right in thinking of Mississippi as backwards. Jon Stewart covered this last night:

Gangster Bankers: Too Big to Jail

Gangster Bankers: Too Big to Jail might be Matt Taibbi's most damning article and that's saying something.

"For at least half a decade, the storied British colonial banking power helped to wash hundreds of millions of dollars for drug mobs, including Mexico's Sinaloa drug cartel, suspected in tens of thousands of murders just in the past 10 years – people so totally evil, jokes former New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, that "they make the guys on Wall Street look good." The bank also moved money for organizations linked to Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, and for Russian gangsters; helped countries like Iran, the Sudan and North Korea evade sanctions; and, in between helping murderers and terrorists and rogue states, aided countless common tax cheats in hiding their cash."

Taibbi's piece just gets more and more outrageous as it goes.

"In April 2003, with 9/11 still fresh in the minds of American regulators, the Federal Reserve sent HSBC's American subsidiary a cease-and-desist­ letter, ordering it to clean up its act and make a better effort to keep criminals and terrorists from opening accounts at its bank. One of the bank's bigger customers, for instance, was Saudi Arabia's Al Rajhi bank, which had been linked by the CIA and other government agencies to terrorism. According to a document cited in a Senate report, one of the bank's founders, Sulaiman bin Abdul Aziz Al Rajhi, was among 20 early financiers of Al Qaeda, a member of what Osama bin Laden himself apparently called the "Golden Chain." In 2003, the CIA wrote a confidential report about the bank, describing Al Rajhi as a "conduit for extremist finance." In the report, details of which leaked to the public by 2007, the agency noted that Sulaiman Al Rajhi consciously worked to help Islamic "charities" hide their true nature, ordering the bank's board to "explore financial instruments that would allow the bank's charitable contributions to avoid official Saudi scrutiny." (The bank has denied any role in financing extremists.)"

"The Treasury Department keeps a list compiled by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, and American banks are not supposed to do business with anyone on the OFAC list. But the bank knowingly helped banned individuals elude the sanctions process. One such individual was the powerful Syrian businessman Rami Makhlouf, a close confidant of the Assad family. When Makhlouf appeared on the OFAC list in 2008, HSBC responded not by severing ties with him but by trying to figure out what to do about the accounts the Syrian power broker had in its Geneva and Cayman Islands branches. "We have determined that accounts held in the Caymans are not in the jurisdiction of, and are not housed on any systems in, the United States," wrote one compliance officer. "Therefore, we will not be reporting this match to OFAC.""

"For more than half a decade, a whopping $19 billion in transactions involving Iran went through the American financial system, with the Iranian connection kept hidden in 75 to 90 percent of those transactions. HSBC has been headquartered in England for more than two decades – it's Europe's largest bank, in fact – but it has major subsidiary operations in every corner of the world. What's come out in this investigation is that the chiefs in the parent company often knew about shady transactions when the regional subsidiary did not. In the case of banned Iranian transactions, for instance, there are multiple e-mails from HSBC's compliance head, David Bagley, in which he admits that HSBC's American subsidiary probably has no clue that HSBC Europe has been sending it buttloads of banned Iranian money."

Russians identifying themselves as used-car salesmen were at one point depositing $500,000 a day into HSBC, mainly through a bent traveler's-checks operation in Japan. The company's special banking program for foreign embassies was so completely fucked that it had suspicious-activity­ alerts backed up by the thousands. There is also strong evidence that the bank was allowing clients in Sudan, Cuba, Burma and North Korea to evade sanctions. When one of the company's compliance chiefs, Carolyn Wind, raised concerns that she didn't have enough staff to monitor suspicious activities at a board meeting in 2007, she was fired."

And seriously, it keeps getting worse after that. I thought we were trying to disrupt the money supply of terrorists. But what are Senators doing? They're filibustering Chuck Hagel and right wing media is playing up rumors that he took money from "Friends of Hamas". Now if that sounds too outrageous to be true it's because IT'S ENTIRELY MADE UP. But this HSBC story isn't, it's real and they're getting away with it.

I Agree With Rand Paul on Something

Turns out I agree with Rand Paul on something, Sen. Paul Issues Final Letter to Brennan Questioning Government Drone Authority Rand Paul.

"Sen. Rand Paul today issued a third letter to John Brennan, President Obama's nominee for director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Sen. Paul's previous inquiries dispatched to Mr. Brennan (found HERE and HERE) have gone unanswered by Mr. Brennan and the Administration, and Sen. Paul has declared he will filibuster the nomination of Mr. Brennan until his concerns over the legality of using drone strikes inside the United States are answered.

 In the letter, Sen. Paul states: 'The question that I and many others have asked is not whether the Administration has or intends to carry out drone strikes inside the United States, but whether it believes it has the authority to do so. This is an important distinction that should not be ignored.'"

Unlike some Benghazi cover-up bullshit, this is a real issue, relevant to the office and it deserves at least an answer.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans

Chris Mooney wrote in Mother Jones, The Surprising Brain Differences Between Democrats and Republicans "The past two weeks have seen not one but two studies published in scientific journals on the biological underpinnings of political ideology. And these studies go straight at the role of genes and the brain in shaping our views, and even our votes."

Obama's Right Wing Stances

Digby wrote What do they really believe? Who knows?.

She points out three things:

"Despite the amped-up claims that President Obama is just waiting to crack down on gun owners, a new report reveals that his administration has been pursuing significantly fewer gun crimes than the predeceeding one."

"The Obama administration deported some 1.4 million people during his first term, not far off from the number George W. Bush deported over eight years."

"The Obama administration came into office saying they weren't going to specifically target medical marijuana…Almost immediately, federal prosecutors went on the attack."

"There has been intense speculation as to why the administration has taken these steps, from prosaic political motivations going into the election to genuine belief on the part of the administration that fewer gun prosecutions, more deportations and a marijuana crackdown are the right policies. (Some people have suggested this is is because of fear of the federal police bureaucracy which pretty much does its own thing regardless of the president, which may be the scariest possibility of all.) It's hard to know exactly what has made the administration take these positions because they are rarely asked about it. The campaign ignored it because the Republican approach to all this is so much worse."

"So, if it was a political decision it was wrong on every level. And if the administration believes these policies are good ones, they are misleading the American people about who they are. If the police agencies are out of control, they should do something to bring them under control. I don't know the answer. But however you look at it, it isn't good. "

Minimum Wage

Obama surprised people in the State of the Union speech talking about an increase in the minimum wage. It's one of those economic questions I'm never quite sure about. It makes sense that it would raise the standard of living of many employees but it also makes sense that it would increase business costs and would lower employment. To me the most compelling part of the argument is that since the minimum wage isn't tied to inflation, it fell behind and raising it now wouldn't be too much of a burden on businesses.

Up With Chris Hayes did a great segment on this last Saturday, and I'd link it to it if I could find anything on their website. It turns out there's plenty of research to suggest that raising it doesn't lower employment. States have raised their own minimum wages and studies have been done on border towns. Also apparently many small business owners (and Obama supporters) met with Obama and all told him to raise the minimum wage. They site large companies like Walmart, paying minimum wage and letting their employees get benefits from the government instead of paying them, giving them an unfair playing field.

Ross Eisenbrey, vice president, Economic Policy Institute wrote in The Hill Economic research supports raising the minimum wage.

"[Michael] Saltsman’s economics are no better than his legislative research. The old Economics 101 textbook theory he recites – that a higher minimum wage will necessarily reduce employment – was not supported by empirical research. As a 1995 paper in the Journal of Economics Literature put it, “There is a long history of empirical studies attempting to pin down the effects of minimum wages, with limited success.” No one found significant employment losses when President Truman raised the minimum wage by 87% in 1950. When Congress raised the minimum wage by 28% in two steps in 1967, businesses predicted large employment losses and price increases. As the Wall Street Journal reported six months later, “Employment and prices show little effect from $1.40-an-hour guarantee.” Empirical studies even before Card and Krueger’s landmark New Jersey study found no increase in the unemployment rate for teens and young adults from a 10% rise in the minimum wage, while it was clear that higher wages were bringing housewives into the workforce.

Saltsman wants readers to believe that economists have discredited Card and Krueger’s finding that a 19% increase in New Jersey’s minimum wage did not cause job loss. He’s just wrong. Nobel laureate Paul Krugman says the study “has stood up very well to repeated challenges, and new cases confirming its results keep coming in.” And even the most ardent conservative critics could not claim that the New Jersey increase caused statistically significant job loss. Furthermore, a groundbreaking peer-reviewed 2008 paper (that Saltsman chooses to ignore),“Minimum wage effects across state borders: Estimates using contiguous counties,” generalizes the landmark Card and Krueger study to all contiguous county-pairs in the US that straddle a border, finding no adverse employment effects of increases in the minimum wage. "

Here's a comment from The Financial Times, Higher US minimum wage makes sense. " Republican leaders dismissed the idea on the grounds that it would increase unemployment. But there is little evidence this would happen. By contrast, there is plenty to show that a modestly higher minimum wage would reduce poverty and provide a much-needed stimulus to the US economy."

Obama’s Drone Attack on Your Due Process

Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman wrote Obama’s Drone Attack on Your Due Process "The biggest problem with the recently disclosed Obama administration white paper defending the drone killing of radical clerk Anwar al-Awlaki isn’t its secrecy or its creative redefinition of the words ‘imminent threat.’ It is the revolutionary and shocking transformation of the meaning of due process."

The details of the Anwar al-Awlaki case are definitely challenging.

Designing the Packaging-Free Future

Wired writes Designing the Packaging-Free Future "Designer Aaron Mickelson wants to solve the problem of excess packaging, by creating products that have no packaging at all." Some pretty neat ideas.

How a junk bond bubble is driving a buyout and merger boom

Heinz, U.S. Airways, Dell: How a junk bond bubble is driving a buyout and merger boom

"After a long fallow period in which companies were too focused on dealing with their own internal challenges to consider major acquisitions—and credit was too scarce to finance them—the floodgates seem to be opening. Some of these deals make sound strategic sense (American and US Airways are such a logical merger pairing that the deal should have happened years ago). Others are a little harder to parse (if investor Michael Dell has ideas for how the computer company could be run better, you’d think he could just go down the hallway and tell CEO Michael Dell about them).

But what many of the deals have in common is that they are being unleashed by a surge in corporate credit. The markets for bonds in even risky companies are becoming unfrozen to a degree they haven’t been in half a decade, and there seems to be some pent-up eagerness to do big deals. It’s a lot easier to make a buyout or merger work when bankers and bond investors are so eager to lend you the money to make them happen."

"But now that’s reversed! The stock market’s earnings yield is 6.6 percent, which is actually higher than the 6.1 percent that junk bonds are yielding. Buyers of junk bonds are tolerating lots of risk and not even being compensated. That suggests a market that is somehow out of whack. And there’s a quite plausible case that the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing policies are part of the story. With the Fed buying billions of Treasury bonds and mortgage backed securities, those who would normally buy those assets have to buy something else. But it’s easy to imagine that this doesn’t affect all assets equally. Investors normally inclined to buy bonds may not be willing to move that money into stocks, but will buy junk bonds, even if the prices seem unfavorable."

How much does hip surgery cost? Somewhere between $10,000 and $125,000.

How much does hip surgery cost?

"[Jamie] Rosenthal, now a senior at Washington University in St. Louis, was working on a research project at the University of Iowa about health-cost transparency. How easy, they wanted to know, would it be to find out the price for one of the most common surgical procedures?

Not very: Only 10 percent of the 102 hospitals contacted (two in every state and the District of Columbia) were able to give Rosenthal a complete price for the procedure, as she and her co-authors write in this week’s JAMA Internal Medicine. Even more, once they did track down the prices, they were all over the map, ranging from $11,000 to $125,000."

Now this is clearly broken. But realize, if you think the free market is the way to lower healthcare costs, you have to realize that you have to fix this first, and it's going to take a while.

WATCH: Sen. Elizabeth Warren Grills Regulators On Taking Banks To Trial

NPR writes, "In her debut appearance today at a Senate Banking Committee hearing, Sen. Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts made federal regulators uncomfortable when she asked a simple question: When was the last time you took a big Wall Street bank all the way to trial?"

I wonder if she was setting them up to say they don't have the resources of those they regulate and taking them to trial isn't practical, in order to get Congress to give them more funding.

The Myth of the Scientist: Crystal Dilworth

If you have a child interested in science (or one that thinks scientists are all geeks) you'll want to watch this four minute talk:

The Shooter

The Center for Investigative Reporting has a must read piece (printed in Esquire), The Shooter. "The man who shot and killed Osama bin Laden sat in a wicker chair in my backyard, wondering how he was going to feed his wife and kids or pay for their medical care." It's long, throw it in Instapaper and enjoy.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Fucking Microsoft

I was working on my spreadsheet for my Oscar pool using Microsoft Office for Mac 2011. I clicked on an URL in the cell and it said I need to upgrade Office to use this feature. That's odd. I bought Office 2011 for Mac in November of 2010 and have used it (occasionally) since. I've used this spreadsheet the last two Oscars. I found the license key in a note I keep and entered it, nope, said it was invalid.

I checked for updates and installed a couple, I'm now on the latest 14.3.1. Even that was an annoying experience. I had to install an update to the updater then it had to grow three updates and for each, download them, show me the first few lines of an endless license agreement, make me click continue and then accept. For one of the updates it took 30 seconds to scan other drives, of which none are attached. I made me choose the drive to install the updates and told me each would take over 300MB (apparently they can't subtract what's already installed). In contrast, Apple manages to update you to current levels all at once and with much less clicking.

So I'm all caught up. I had Googled and saw something about 14.3.1 updated six days ago that fixed a licensing issue in 14.3. Ok, that must be it. So I open my spreadsheet, click the URL and get a new Activation window:

Screen Shot 2013 02 18 at 3 55 53 PM

I have no idea what Office 365 is and never bought such a thing. I enter my license code and it says it's invalid. I dig up the box Office came in and check that it's right. It is.

The activation window had a link to a local ReadMe file. It had three links. I followed the support link and followed link after link but nothing help. A few told me to activate by phone but provide no phone number. I looked for 5 minutes finding page after page that said the same thing and didn't actually help, as well as a few dead links.

Searching twitter led me to this article, Microsoft updates Office for Mac 2011 to include Office 365 activation. "Microsoft made available this week an update to its Office for Mac 2011 product which includes some fixes, plus activation support so that it can be installed as part of Microsoft's newest Office 365 subscription offerings."

At this point I'm done. Either an update of Office decided that after two years I have to pay more to be able to click on links, or it's a bug that will be fixed in some update. I like Pages and Keynote much better than Word or PowerPoint. I'm using Numbers a bit and it's good (I like its model of sheets, charts and graphs much better) but Excel is still much more full-featured and I'm more likely to have to share spreadsheets with people, so there are a couple of uses. But honestly, there aren't new features that I can conceive of that they could add to Excel that would make want to upgrade. The only reason is compatibility.

But if it turns out this isn't a bug, and Microsoft has decided that clicking on an URL in a local spreadsheet to have it open in a browser now requires a monthly subscription (in a product I bought TWO YEARS AGO), I'm never giving them another cent.

Update: Even better, it's not all URLs, just some. That does suggest it's a bug to be fixed.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Bring Back Postal Banking

This is an interesting idea, Bring Back Postal Banking.

"The venerable agency has been saddled with significant financial problems since a 2006 law forced it to pre-fund 75 years of employee retirement benefits, something no other public agency or private company has to do. This cash crunch (the Postal Service gets no money from the federal government and must survive on the revenues it generates) has led to austerity measures for the nation’s second-largest employer (right behind Wal-Mart). Mass layoffs last year were followed, earlier this month, by the announcement that Saturday deliveries of first-class mail will cease come August. As many have noted, this is a largely manufactured crisis. Simply relaxing the pre-funding requirement—as the postmaster general beseeched Congress to do this week—would wipe out virtually all of the Postal Service’s deficit. (Absent this heavy payment, the agency would have made $100 million in the last quarter.)"

"These roughly 68 million unbanked or underbanked Americans represent a huge market for non-bank financial predators…In other countries, this market is served at the post office. Almost every developed nation in Europe and East Asia operates a postal banking system...What’s more, we used to have a postal banking system of our own. Starting in 1911, the United States Postal Savings system allowed Americans to deposit cash with certain branch offices of the Postal Service, at 2% interest. The system held $3.4 billion in deposits for four million people by 1947; though it lost its advantage of depository insurance in the 1930s with the advent of the FDIC, it survived until 1967."

Chelyabinsk Russia Hit By Meteor

Phil Plait wrote and updated BREAKING: Huge Meteor Explodes Over Russia..

"Apparently, at about 09:30 local time, a very big meteor burned up over Chelyabinsk, a city in Russia just east of the Ural mountains, and about 1500 kilometers east of Moscow. The fireball was incredibly bright, rivaling the Sun! There was a pretty big sonic boom from the fireball, which set off car alarms and shattered windows. I’m seeing some reports of many people injured (by shattered glass blown out by the shock wave). I’m also seeing reports that some pieces have fallen to the ground, but again as I write this those are unconfirmed."

He embeds several YouTube clips that are pretty amazing. The Verge's Russia rocked by meteor explosion has a few more.

Nature says Russian meteor largest in a century. "A meteor that exploded over Russia this morning was the largest recorded object to strike the Earth in more than a century, scientists say. Infrasound data collected by a network designed to watch for nuclear weapons testing suggests that today's blast released hundreds of kilotonnes of energy. That would make it far more powerful than the nuclear weapon tested by North Korea just days ago and the largest rock crashing onto the planet since a meteor broke up over Siberia's Tunguska river in 1908."

Breaking News has various reports.

Here's what I think is a report from the Russian Ministry of Internal Affairs and the English Google Translation. There are photos of large holes made in ice from apparently from meteorite impacts.

Spencer Ackerman, who normally covers the defense industry for Wired, wrote There Is No Way to Stop Space Rocks from Hurtling to Earth and Killing You. "All the advanced air defenses that humanity has invested in? The interceptor missile that are (sometimes) able to stop an adversary missile from impacting? The early-warning monitoring systems that are supposed to give humanity enough time to plan a response? They are useless, useless against a meteorite onslaught."

But I think my favorite thing I've seen about this is his tweet: "Now Putin has baby Kal-El. You didn't think about that but Mark Millar called this." He's referring to Superman: Red Son which was a great idea and pretty good read.

DC think tank tells Americans that their broadband is really great

Ars Technica explains DC think tank tells Americans that their broadband is really great.

"Despite the fact that Americans are paying more per megabit than their counterparts in many European and Asian cities—a new report published by a Washington DC-based think tank says that broadband policy in America is totally acceptable."

"“The ITIF report turns our national broadband policy into a self-esteem exercise, on par with one of those contests where everyone wins an award,” Harold Feld, of Public Knowledge, said in an e-mail to Ars. “'Hooray! We tried real hard and we're not so bad after all.' But this isn't summer camp. This is our digital future. If we want a world-class broadband infrastructure, we need to stop coming up with explanations for why things aren't really so bad after all and start dealing with the real problems right in front of our eyes.”"

"In its report, the ITIF outlines 10 major points as to why US broadband is awesome. We’ll take a few minutes to assess each point."

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Electoral college reform (fifty states with equal population)

Electoral college reform (fifty states with equal population) – fake is the new real "The fundamental problem of the electoral college is that the states of the United States are too disparate in size and influence. The largest state is 66 times as populous as the smallest and has 18 times as many electoral votes. This allows for Electoral College results that don't match the popular vote. To remedy this issue, the Electoral Reform Map redivides the fifty United States into 50 states of equal population. The 2010 Census records a population of 308,745,538 for the United States, which this map divides into 50 states, each with a population of about 6,175,000."

How utterly strange.

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After seven years, will Medicare finally have a leader?

After seven years, will Medicare finally have a leader? .

"The Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services is the federal government’s largest agency. It runs on a budget of nearly 1 trillion taxpayer dollars and oversees the two programs largely considered to pose the greatest long-term threat to the federal budget.

But for nearly a decade now, this hulking agency has been without a confirmed director.

Some nominees failed to survive confirmation; others didn’t even get a hearing as senators assumed the process would prove futile. The nomination process has become so politically fraught that Tom Scully, who ran Medicare under President George W. Bush, argues that ‘Mother Theresa or Gandhi couldn’t even get confirmed’ as of late.

Last week, Scully decided it was time to break a seven-year streak with no confirmed Medicare head. He joined up with six other former Medicare heads – three Republicans, three Democrats – to plead with top senators to confirm the White House’s newest nominee, Marilyn Tavenner."

Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address in graphs

Wonkblog does a great job with Obama’s 2013 State of the Union address in graphs.

The Ignorance Caucus

I really liked Krugman's The Ignorance Caucus. "The truth is that America’s partisan divide runs much deeper than even pessimists are usually willing to admit; the parties aren’t just divided on values and policy views, they’re divided over epistemology. One side believes, at least in principle, in letting its policy views be shaped by facts; the other believes in suppressing the facts if they contradict its fixed beliefs."

He cites lots of examples:

"Last year the Texas G.O.P. explicitly condemned efforts to teach “critical thinking skills,” because, it said, such efforts “have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority.”"

"Mr. Cantor felt obliged to give that caucus a shout-out, calling for a complete end to federal funding of social science research. "

"Mr. Cantor tried not to sound anti-intellectual; he lavished praise on medical research just before attacking federal support for social science."

"But Mr. Cantor’s support for medical research is curiously limited. He’s all for developing new treatments, but he and his colleagues have adamantly opposed “comparative effectiveness research,” which seeks to determine how well such treatments work."

"Still, the desire to perpetuate ignorance on matters medical is nothing compared with the desire to kill climate research"

"House Republicans tried to suppress a Congressional Research Service report casting doubt on claims about the magical growth effects of tax cuts for the wealthy."

"Back in the 1990s conservative politicians, acting on behalf of the National Rifle Association, bullied federal agencies into ceasing just about all research into [gun control policies]."

iphone and Nexus 4 Comparison

Killian Bell How I Fell Out Of Love With My iPhone And Fell In Love With The Nexus 4 and it seems like a fair comparison. Given his pros and cons, I'd still very much go with the iPhone.

Snowstorm dumps on Northeast

The Big Picture shows Snowstorm dumps on Northeast. "Much of the US Northeast from New York to Maine spent the last few days digging out after blizzard conditions and record-setting snowfalls left hundreds of thousands temporarily without power in winter temperatures. The storm surge during high tides at the height of the storm caused beach erosion and flooded coastal towns with ice-filled waters and rocks washed in from the sea. -- Lloyd Young ( 47 photos total)"

Stanley Kubrick's Favorite Films

Joshua Warren lists Stanley Kubrick's favorite films "I've compiled most of the information on this list from interviews with Kubrick's family, friends and colleagues and an interview he did in 1963". He lists 15 that are in the Criterion Collection and several others.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Inside the Battle of Hoth: The Empire Strikes Out

Spencer Ackerman goes Inside the Battle of Hoth: The Empire Strikes Out. "When Vader enters the Hoth System with the Imperial Fleet, he’s holding a winning hand. What follows next is a reminder of two military truths that apply in our own time and in our own galaxy: Don’t place unaccountable religious fanatics in wartime command, and never underestimate a hegemonic power’s ability to miscalculate against an insurgency."

Update: Lots of followup, Defense Nerds Strike Back: A Symposium on the Battle of Hoth

Going Postal On The Mofo

In 2010 I pointed at Should Businesses Be Run Like The Post Office? and a little over a year ago at Death of U.S. Postal Service: Many Jobs, Locations at Risk. And now Balloon Juice is Going Postal On The Mofo "Let’s recall why the USPS is struggling:  because Republicans in Congress forced the agency to pay their retiree health care costs decades down the road up front in 2006, then refused to give them the money to do that.  As a result, the USPS made massive workforce cuts and forced thousands into early retirement, which of course means the USPS has to pay those health care benefits up front, putting them into a death spiral."

The Importance of Excel

James Kwak on The Importance of Excel.

"As a consequence, Excel is everywhere you look in the business world—especially in areas where people are adding up numbers a lot, like marketing, business development, sales, and, yes, finance. For all the talk about end-to-end financial suites like SAP, Oracle, and Peoplesoft, at the end of the day people do financial analysis by extracting data from those back-end systems and shoving it around in Excel spreadsheets. I have seen internal accountants calculate revenue from deals in Excel. I have a probably untestable hypothesis that, were you to come up with some measure of units of software output, Excel would be the most-used program in the business world.

But while Excel the program is reasonably robust, the spreadsheets that people create with Excel are incredibly fragile. There is no way to trace where your data come from, there’s no audit trail (so you can overtype numbers and not know it), and there’s no easy way to test spreadsheets, for starters. The biggest problem is that anyone can create Excel spreadsheets—badly. Because it’s so easy to use, the creation of even important spreadsheets is not restricted to people who understand programming and do it in a methodical, well-documented way.***

This is why the JPMorgan VaR model is the rule, not the exception: manual data entry, manual copy-and-paste, and formula errors. This is another important reason why you should pause whenever you hear that banks’ quantitative experts are smarter than Einstein, or that sophisticated risk management technology can protect banks from blowing up. At the end of the day, it’s all software. While all software breaks occasionally, Excel spreadsheets break all the time. But they don’t tell you when they break: they just give you the wrong number."


So yeah, we got a blizzard over the weekend. I got about 26" of snow here and basically just hibernated. One thing that struck me was how well prepared we were. We had a couple of days of notice and the weather reports were accurate. I did think that so many things closing on Friday was a bit unnecessary, but as a result I think the cleanup went smoother (and from what I've seen smoother than in CT where they didn't shut things down). So, yay. Now I just wish people would do better at shoveling their sidewalks. I've found that corner houses are particularly bad at it.

I didn't make this video (maybe next time) but I think it's from Boston. It's the drifts that were really bad.

Nemo Timelapse from jere7my tho?rpe on Vimeo.

Also, This machine helped predict the weekend's giant blizzard "The NPP satellite, which you see under construction above, is a polar orbiting satellite, which means it flies over each pole every day, circling through the planet's latitudes to get a complete picture of Earth's surface. It was indispensable in predicting the pathway that hurricane Katrina would take. NOAA recently retired the GOES-7 weather satellite after 25 years of work, so NPP will be one of our only satellites for predicting and monitoring Earth weather until 2017, when NASA/NOAA will launch their next-generation JPSS-1 satellite. Unfortunately, NPP is just a stop gap measure, and it won't last for more than three years. If anything happens to NPP, or if the JPSS-1 launch is delayed, we might lose our ability to predict extreme weather and warn people."

Carnival 2013 in Brazil

In Focus shows Carnival 2013 in Brazil. "In Rio de Janeiro, more than 72,000 spectators jammed into the Sambodrome to watch the spectacle of samba school floats, dancers, and extravagant costumes during Carnival. Even more people -- millions of locals and visitors -- took part in the many 'blocos,' or street parties, dancing and drinking into the wee hours of the night. Collected here are images from Rio and Sao Paulo, Brazil, as Carnival 2013 comes to a close. [39 photos]"

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Wednesday, February 06, 2013

The 2013 Sony World Photography Awards

In Focus posts from The 2013 Sony World Photography Awards "The Sony World Photography Awards, an annual competition hosted by the World Photography Organisation, has recently announced its shortlist of winners. This year's contest attracted more than 122,000 entries from 170 countries. The photographs are being judged in six different competition categories, including Professional, Open, and Student Focus. The organizers have been kind enough to share some of their shortlisted images with In Focus, gathered below. Winners are scheduled to be announced in March and April. [40 photos]"

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Billionaires secretly fund attacks on climate science

The Independent has an Exclusive: Billionaires secretly fund attacks on climate science. As if this couldn't have been guessed.

"A secretive funding organisation in the United States that guarantees anonymity for its billionaire donors has emerged as a major operator in the climate 'counter movement' to undermine the science of global warming, The Independent has learnt.

The Donors Trust, along with its sister group Donors Capital Fund, based in Alexandria, Virginia, is funnelling millions of dollars into the effort to cast doubt on climate change without revealing the identities of its wealthy backers or that they have links to the fossil fuel industry.

However, an audit trail reveals that Donors is being indirectly supported by the American billionaire Charles Koch who, with his brother David, jointly owns a majority stake in Koch Industries, a large oil, gas and chemicals conglomerate based in Kansas.

Millions of dollars has been paid to Donors through a third-party organisation, called the Knowledge and Progress Fund, with is operated by the Koch family but does not advertise its Koch connections."

Is Scientology Self-Destructing?

Is Scientology Self-Destructing? "Scientology leader David Miscavige has been trumpeting his church's ‘milestone year,’ but the mysterious religion is alienating scores of its most faithful followers with what they call a real estate scam. With anger mounting and defectors fleeing, this may be more than a fleeting crisis; it may be a symptom of an institution in decline."

The Birth of Grand Central Terminal

The New York Time's The Birth of Grand Central Terminal is pretty fascinating.

"The technological advantages were clear-cut. Electricity required less maintenance. Unlike steam or, later, diesel locomotives, electric trains did not need the fuel or machinery to generate power on board. Electricity let trains accelerate more quickly, a decided amenity for short-haul commuter service. Another advantage, an obvious one in retrospect, provided the rationale that made Wilgus’s suggestion so revolutionary and, in the end, so inevitable. Electric motors produced fewer noxious fumes and no obfuscating smoke or steam. Moreover, as Wilgus explained, electricity ‘dispenses with the need of old-style train sheds,’ because it made subterranean tracks feasible.

Absent the smothering smoke, soot and cinders, the depot could be expanded on the same footprint by delivering trains to platforms on two levels, the lower for suburban commuters and the upper for long-distance trains. For the first time, the entire rail yard all the way to 56th Street, to where the maze of rails that delivered passengers to the platforms coalesced into four main-line tracks, could be decked over. The ‘veritable ‘Chinese Wall’ ’ that bisected the city for 14 blocks could be eliminated. The air above the yards could be magically transformed into valuable real estate in the heart of Manhattan."

Creationist Louisiana: Legislators show contempt and cluelessness about science.

Creationist Louisiana: Legislators show contempt and cluelessness about science.. Sigh.

Memory to myth: tracing Aaron Swartz through the 21st century

I've read a lot of articles about Aaron Swartz but this was the best, Memory to myth: tracing Aaron Swartz through the 21st century.

Not in my house: how Vegas casinos wage a war on cheating

The Verge wrote Not in my house: how Vegas casinos wage a war on cheating. It's long and I liked some parts better than others, but none better than...

"At the time, the word 'computer' still conjured up images of men in white lab coats standing in front of reel-to-reel machines, clipboard in hand. Intel’s first RAM chip appeared in 1970, followed soon after by the 4004 and 8008 microprocessors. The first personal computer, the little-known Kenbak-1, debuted in 1971, retailing for $750. (Forty were sold.) The hardware that would power Taft’s wearable blackjack computer had just begun arriving in the marketplace. He’d also moved into R&D at Fairchild, which gave him the computing power to develop his software algorithms.

Two years later, he had his blackjack computer, a system he called 'George' — 15 pounds of circuitry and batteries strapped around his midsection, with wires running down his leg and into his shoe, where he input card values with a pair of switches strapped to his toes. During George’s first test run, a casino employee happened to place a hand on Taft’s back, vindicating the decision to not strap the computer there. Oh, and there was the battery acid that leaked through his shirt and scarred his chest."

Barack Obama is Not Pleased

This interview with Obama from the new The New Republic was pretty good Barack Obama is Not Pleased.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Most Facebook Users Have Taken a Break From the Site

The New York Times writes Most Facebook Users Have Taken a Break From the Site, Study Finds

"A new study released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center‘s Internet and American Life Project found that 61 percent of current Facebook users admitted that they had voluntarily taken breaks from the site, for as many as several weeks at a time. The main reason for their social media sabbaticals?

Not having enough time to dedicate to pruning their profiles, an overall decrease in their interest in the site as well as the general sentiment that Facebook was a major waste of time. About 4 percent cited privacy and security concerns as contributing to their departure. Although those users eventually resumed their regular activity, another 20 percent of Facebook users admitted to deleting their accounts."

For me, I really hate the UI and all the noise. There are friends that are over sharers and then there's the constant barrage of things trying to get you to over share. For all the promise of apps I haven't seen much that interested me. It's good for sharing photos and updates with friends. I'm in one group that uses it to plan and schedule meetings in the real world and am surprised more groups don't use it for that. But everything else in the site just annoys me.

Dollars per Gallon

What Do Water, Beer, Milk, Gasoline, and Sriracha Cost, in Dollars per Gallon?. "How does the price of beer stack up against that of water in the United States? And what about other essential liquids, like milk, gasoline, and Sriracha? So, uh, we looked them up and put together this handy-dandy chart, perfectly designed for winning barroom bets and dinner-table arguments."

I have to wonder about the methodology but I still kinda enjoy the chart. For a long time I wondered how it could be that soda cost more than gasoline but that stopped about a decade ago.

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The Sky

The Big Picture shows us The sky "In 'Love and a Question' by Robert Frost, the poet writes 'Let us look at the sky, And question what of the night to be, Stranger, you and I.' There may or may not be answers there for us or for Frost's bridegroom, but the simple pleasure of gazing skyward is a profitable pursuit. Photographers have chosen the sky as a subject for as long as the camera has existed. Atmospheric and celestial phenomenon create an endless canvas for hungry eyes. -- Lane Turner (23 photos total)"

NFL Salaries by Team and Position

The Guardian had a pretty cool info graphic NFL salaries by team and position. "The National Football League has a salary cap, an upper limit on what teams can spend on their players, of $120.6m. But where the teams choose to spend that money is entirely up to them. Some, like Tampa Bay, overload their offense, while others invest heavily in defense. These figures are based on individual 'cap hit' numbers which include base salary and bonuses for the 2012-13 season."

Watch a Volcano Exploding

The Daily Mail lets you Watch a volcano exploding. "Spectacular 360-degree interactive images give bird's eye view of erupting Russian volcano". Flash required.

Stop squinting: Make text bigger in OS X

MacWorld has some good hints, Stop squinting: Make text bigger in OS X. "When you’re on the other side of 50, as I am, you become less concerned about how fast your Mac is, and more interested in how well you can see the text it displays. Whether your eyes are aging, your young eyes need glasses, or someone that you provide computer support for could use a boost in seeing the screen, no one should have to squint when surfing the Web, reading email, or writing documents. A few key techniques can increase the font size in applications where easy-to-see text makes the biggest difference."

Spiral galaxy M106: A galaxy zapped by its own black hole

Spiral galaxy M106: A galaxy zapped by its own black hole "At first, you might be overcome by the beauty of this photo. I wouldn’t blame you. It’s primarily made of images taken of M106 by the Hubble Space Telescope, but combined with images and data taken by the amazing astrophotographers Robert Gendler and Jay GaBany using ground-based telescopes.

You can see the yellowish glow of older stars in the center of the galaxy, making up its central bulge, or ‘hub’. Cascading out are two lovely spiral arms, glowing blue due to the fierce combined light of millions upon millions of hot, young, massive stars. Festooned across the arms are long strings of opaque dust clouds, blocking the blue light and appearing dark. So far, though spectacular, this is pretty mainstream spiral galaxy stuff.

Then you see those red frills, streamers of gas at odd angles to the rest of the galaxy, one each on opposite sides of the galaxy’s core. These are called its anomalous arms, because they don’t line up well at all with M106’s more obvious spiral arms. The red color is a giveaway that we’re seeing gas being warmed by an outside source; hydrogen glows at that color when excited. So what’s the engine behind that?

It turns out, that gas is being zapped by twin blasts of energy coming from material being voraciously consumed by the galaxy’s supermassive central black hole."

NewImageGet images here.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Sen. Murkowski unveils her big new energy plan

Sen. Murkowski unveils her big new energy plan. Here’s a breakdown. Many of the proposals in here are long-standing items on the Republican wish list — Murkowski is calling for more oil and gas drilling on federal lands, and she opposes strict environmental regulations on coal mining. But she also touches on smaller issues that don’t get as much attention, from energy efficiency to small modular reactors to new financing models for wind and solar power."

Joe Scarborough, Paul Krugman and the economist-pundit divide on debt and deficits

A few days ago WonkBlog explained Joe Scarborough, Paul Krugman and the economist-pundit divide on debt and deficits

"There is, in the Washington conversation, a generalized aversion to deficits. It’s an aversion with an almost moral dimension. In fact, sometimes the moral dimension is explicit: Mitt Romney often called deficits a ‘moral crisis.’

But to economists, deficits are simply the difference between revenues and outlays.  A large deficit could be a good thing if it’s going toward a productive investment. A small deficit can be a bad thing if the economy needs more support. So if you’re worried about deficits, you need to say why.

So here’s a guide to why the economics crowd isn’t as nervous about deficits and debt as the Washington punditocracy–and some of the reasons they could turn out to be wrong."

Kevin Drum followed up a little bit (Almost) Nobody Is Serious About the Deficit.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Grand Central Terminal Turns 100

In Focus on Grand Central Terminal Turns 100. "A century ago, rail travel was at its peak in the U.S., and New York City built the massive Grand Central Terminal to accommodate the growth. Built over 10 years, gradually replacing its predecessor named Grand Central Station, the Grand Central Terminal building officially opened on February 2, 1913. The terminal and the surrounding neighborhood thrived -- by 1947, 65 million people a year were traveling through the building. However, in the latter half of the 20th century, rail travel declined sharply, and Grand Central Terminal fell into disrepair, threatened several times with demolition. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority was able to undertake a huge restoration in the 1990s, and Grand Central remains a New York City icon today, 100 years after it first opened. [38 photos]"

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Saturday, February 02, 2013

Starry, Starry, Starry Night

I December I posted Darkened Cities about Thierry Cohen's new book showing pictures of cities if they didn't have lights, including the night sky we'd see. Today the New York Times Magazine (and I assume the sunday print edition) is showing them.