Saturday, January 14, 2012

WTF?

Rick Perry's latest ad:



There are a couple of things I find entertaining. One is the football player kneeling, Tebow-style, in pouring rain, backlit, with nothing else around. I just don't get that. Second, WTF is up with the Gadsden flag flying above the South Carolina flag in this ad? Is this some crazy South Carolina thing (Gadsden being from South Carolina)? Or is this what I thought it was, a ludicrous appeal to Tea Party loons, who love to self-identify by flying the Gadsden flag (which I appreciate, so that I know never to take anything someone flying the flag says seriously)?

My main takeaway from this ad is how absolutely moronic does a politician have to be to become irrelevant in the current GOP field when he is the governor of a state which has created at least 1/3 of all the jobs created in the entire country during the recession? The only logical Republican attack of the president was on jobs and the economy, and the candidate with the best record on that is too stupid for an anti-intellectual crowd of flat Earth loons is quite a statement.

The Establishment of American Motors

January 14, 1954:
The Hudson Motor Car Company merges with Nash-Kelvinator Corporation forming the American Motors Corporation.
I'm not exactly sure why I find this interesting/amusing.  Part of it is that I find the history of early U.S. corporations, and the old conglomerates, like Nash-Kelvinator interesting.  Part of it is that I am amused by the ugly '70s AMC vehicles such as the Gremlin, the Pacer and the four-wheel drive Eagle.  Part of it is that I am friends with a huge Jeep and International Harvester Scout fan who labelled AMC and IH as "ahead of their time" for their development of four-wheel drive vehicles.  Part of it is that I classify AMC, and then Chrysler, with their purchase of AMC, as the AGCO of automobile companies, collecting all of the failed companies in an attempt to piece together the brand loyalties of customers of each to maybe reach a survivable customer base.  Another reason for the interest is how Hudson, Nash, Studebaker, Willys and later AMC factories played such a significant part in the history of midwestern towns such as Kenosha, South Bend and Toledo.  Finally, part of it has to be that Mitt Romney's childhood and early life opportunities are directly connected to his dad's position as president of American Motors.

Why War Is A Bad Idea

Robert Wright:
If you had asked me a few days ago, before news broke that American soldiers have urinated on Taliban corpses, whether American soldiers have ever urinated on Taliban corpses, I would have said: Probably.
You send hordes of young people into combat, people whose job is to kill the enemy and who watch as their friends are killed and maimed by the enemy, and the chances are that signs of disrespect for the enemy will surface--and that every once in a while those signs will assume grotesque form.
War, presumably, has always been like that. But something has changed over the past couple of decades--two things, actually--and they amount to a powerful new argument against starting wars in the first place.
First, there's the new transparency of war. Infinitely more battlefield details get recorded, and everyone has the tools to broadcast these details. So it's just a matter of time before some outrageous image goes viral--pictures from Abu Ghraib, video from Afghanistan, whatever. These images will make you and your soldiers more hated by the enemy than ever--and hated by civilians who may identify with the enemy, whether because of national, ethnic, or religious kinship.
The second big change is that hatred is now a more dangerous thing. America faces no serious threat from any nation-state, but the more amorphous threat from radical Islam, if mishandled, could mushroom and, years from now, reach massively lethal proportions. And the lifeblood of radical Islam (like the lifeblood of many radical things) is hatred. The more Muslims there are who hate Americans, the easier life is for recruiters from al Qaeda or some other such terrorist group.
I have to admit, I wasn't surprised or, really, horrified at the news that there was a video of U.S. soldiers urinating on the body of a dead Afghani.  I hadn't really given the story much thought until last night.  After an exciting hour or so out on the town, I fell asleep at about 8:30 last night.  I woke up at about 12:30, and turned the channel on the TV to see what was on.  I came across the early part of Full Metal Jacket.  What struck me as odd was that while much of this movie is well represented in our culture (the only things from Texas are steers and queers, etc.), apparently, the basic perspective of the movie (link to scene with helicoptor gunner) as I see it, that war dehumanizes people, is lost to the culture.

I think some of this is that most of us don't want to be personally involved in war, so we overcompensate by glorifying those who do participate in the wars.  Part of that is to ignore the fact that some of these people will do horrible things in the course of the war, and the realization of the dehumanizing effect of war undermines our ability to self-justify support of war while not participating ourselves.  We don't have the courage to stand up against our nation participating in wars, either because we are afraid of our so-called enemies, or we don't want to be portrayed as unpatriotic or as cowards.  I guess in my case, while I didn't see the benefits of going to Afghanistan, and I was explicitly opposed to Iraq, I didn't want to stand out by being more public in my opposition to the war. 

It has always seemed obvious to me that war is dehumanizing.  A person is put in the situation of kill or be killed, he or she is a part of one team, and is fighting another team.  Friends will be killed by the enemy, and a soldier will obviously want to retaliate against the enemy.  War crimes will happen. 

Back in 2007, I got into a big disagreement with a coworker of my sister over this subject, much to her consternation.  He was a graduate of West Point, and had served as a junior officer in Iraq.  I made the mistake of assuming that he would agree with me that war brought to the fore horrible actions in some (not all) participants.  I argued that this fact was a reason why we should generally avoid warfare.  I pointed to the recent disclosure of killings of civilians at Haditha.  Instead, he argued that no U.S. soldier ever committed a war atrocity in Iraq, and that he, unlike I, knew that because he was there. He alluded to the idea that such atrocities were the result of conscription, and that the all-voluteer force led to better soldiers who were immune to commiting war crimes.  I suggested that in spite of my lack of personal experience, history showed that some soldiers in every war, regardless of the rightness or justness of their cause, committed terrible crimes.  I made the mistake of arguing this for too long, but I believe that while the number of incidents which occur in war may be relatively small, they do occur, and the fact that they occur is a legitimate argument against war.  I think this is the case Wright is making here.

Update:  I guess the case Wright is making is not that we shouldn't fight wars because wars bring out the worst actions in people, it is that in our linked world, such atrocities will be seen by people who will be persuaded to become our enemies, locking us in a cycle of atrocities and retaliations for those atrocities.  I'll stick to my position that the atrocities themselves are reason enough to avoid war.

A Couple More Infrastructure Stories

Also from naked capitalism's links come two infrastructure stories.  One involves the dangers of privately-owned infrastructure.  I didn't realize that the Ambassador Bridge between Windsor and Detroit was privately owned:
The elderly billionaire owner of Detroit's Ambassador Bridge has been jailed today for failing to meet court-ordered deadlines on a multimillion dollar construction project.
Manuel 'Matty' Moroun, along with company president Dan Stamper, has been sent to jail until his company complies with a 2010 court order to get the work on the $230m Gateway project done.
It is not yet clear how long the men will stay behind bars, but the work could take up to a year.
Detroit International Bridge Co. was declared in contempt of court in November for failing to finish work on the state ordered project linking the U.S.-Canada span with two Detroit interstates.
The bridge, which handles 8,000 trucks a day and $100 billion in trade every year, accounts for the bulk of Mr Moroun's £1.5billion fortune.
Also:
The state of Michigan sued the company after it failed to meet a 2008 deadline to finish its part of a $230-million project to improve traffic at the bridge connecting Detroit to Windsor, Canada.
The privately-owned Ambassador Bridge is the busiest crossing between the United States and Canada, providing a continuous flow of auto parts and completed vehicles each way from Detroit to Windsor, Canada.
The project was intended to link the bridge with Interstate 75 and Interstate 96 in the United States directly, pulling the almost continuous flow of semitrailer trucks off surface streets.
Instead, the company has failed to correct variations from the plan and the other parts have not been completed.
Gregory Johnson, MDOT chief of operations, said it could take a year to get the work done. 
The project was intended to link the bridge with Interstate 75 and Interstate 96 in the United States directly, pulling the almost continuous flow of semitrailer trucks off surface streets.
Instead, the company has failed to correct variations from the plan and the other parts have not been completed.
Gregory Johnson, MDOT chief of operations, said it could take a year to get the work done.
The conflicts between private interests and the public interests when it comes to infrastructure make privately-financed infrastructure a bad deal in general.

There is also this story on the potential of water access to negatively impact corporations:
Jonas Kron is worried about water. The investment adviser at Trillium Asset Management, a $900 million fund manager that focuses on environmentally sustainable investment, fears the world’s dwindling supply of fresh water is hurting the companies he has invested in. For most of the year, Kron has led a shareholder challenge to J. M. Smucker, the strawberry jam maker that also owns Folgers coffee. Kron says the company hasn't demonstrated it's prepared for the market changes that are sure to come as climate change reduces the size of the world’s coffee growing area. The conversation has been difficult in part because corporate leaders still seem unaware they need to factor water risk into their financial projections, says Kron. "We're not talking about charity here," says Kron. "These are investors seeking to have the company address the risks in its supply chain."
Smucker’s says it’s hedging against potential increases in raw material prices, but Mother Nature, Kron points out, can defeat any hedge. “At a certain point, you need to deal with the fundamental, underlying fact that these are crops grown with soil, sunlight, and water, and you can’t escape the laws of nature.”
Most companies act as if the water they have today will be there tomorrow, says Brooke Barton, who runs water programs at Ceres, an environmental group in Boston that worked with Trillium and others to create an online checklist aimed at helping investors and companies assess efforts to manage water risk. With the world’s population expected to grow to 10 billion by the end of the century from 7 billion today, and the need for fresh water increasing twice as fast as a larger middle class emerges in the developing world, the competition for scarce water resources is unprecedented. "Water is something that should be keeping CEOs up at night," says Barton.
If anything, this should be good news for folks in the Great Lakes region, and more locally for Dayton, which sits on a giant, easily recharged buried valley aquifer.

Relearning What We Knew

BillyBlog on the costs of unemployment and the benefits of government work programs (via nc links):
One of the strong empirical results that emerge from the Great Depression is that the job relief programs that the various governments implemented to try to attenuate the massive rise in unemployment were very beneficial. At that time, it was realised that having workers locked out of the production process because there were not enough private jobs being generated was not only irrational in terms of lost income but also caused society additional problems, such as rising crime rates.
Direct job creation was a very effective way of attenuating these costs while the private sector regained its optimism. In fact, it took about 50 years or so for governments to abandon this way of thinking. Now we tolerate high levels of unemployment without a clear understanding of the magnitude of costs that that policy position imposes on specific individuals and society in general.
The single most rational thing a government could do was to ensure that there were enough jobs to match the available labour force.
In the growth period before the current crisis few countries had returned to the full employment states that they achieved in the Post World War 2 period up until the mid-1970s when the OPEC oil shocks led to a paradigm change in macroeconomic policy setting. The neo-liberal approach emphasised fiscal austerity to support an increasing reliance on monetary policy for counter-stabilisation.
He goes on to explain the reasons we have ignored what we've learned:
Neo-liberalism has also changed the way we think about unemployment. In the past we understood clearly that it arose as a result of a shortage of jobs.
However, in recent decades, we have been conditioned by a relentless (lying) press and government statements to perceive unemployment as an individual problem. So the unemployed are type-cast as being lazy; having poor work attitudes; refusing to invest in appropriate skills; and subject to disincentives arising from misguided government welfare support, and all the rest of the arguments that mainstream uses to obfuscate the social problem.
The focus in the public debate is to “blame the victim” and suggest that most are unemployable and prefer to live on welfare, where that support is available.
The overwhelming evidence from the informed research literature is that almost all the unemployed (when surveyed) prefer to work and are willing to take work if offered.
The overwhelming evidence from studies in most countries suggests that the unemployed are highly motivated to find work and are victims of a shortage of jobs rather than personal/individual deficiencies.
The dominance of the neo-liberal ideology led governments in most countries to have eschew the adoption of policies of direct job creation to reduce the rate of unemployment and to minimise these massive costs. Fiscal policy has became geared to the achievement of budget surpluses as some sort of token of prudent financial management.
After the release of the OECD Jobs Study, employment policy shifted from a demand-side emphasis (ensuring there were enough jobs) to a supply-side focus (active labour market policy) which targetted individuals with futile training programs divorced from a paid-work context and pernicious welfare-to-work rules.
While the governments were pursuing labour market deregulation and attempting to retrench the Welfare State in the face of persistent unemployment they were also deregulating financial markets. The lack of oversight of the latter is the fundamental reason we are now enduring the worst crisis in more than 80 years.
I'm not even going to go to the trouble of reviewing his assessment of the costs of unemployment because I think those are obvious.  To me, it is patently obvious that this is the perfect time for government investment in infrastructure.  The housing bubble burst destroyed the demand for construction jobs, putting large numbers of construction workers out of work, these workers could be reemployed, along with a large number of other jobless workers, and the work would be productive.  Our infrastructure is crumbling, so any investment will be net beneficial.  The ironic part is that we still have some infrastructure projects from the WPA in use, and these need repair and replacement.  How can we be ignoring this when so many people are out of work?  The idea that people who were previously employed don't want to work is cruel and insulting.  They have been out applying for jobs, and haven't been getting them.  Let's not let them sit, let's find them something to do.

Hume, Causation, Science and the Big Lie

Ritholtz has an interesting post.  Here's the beginning:
Interesting article in Wired this month, ostensibly about the tribulations of the modern scientific method, big pharma drug development, etc. But within the article is an excellent digression about the complexities of causation:
“Causes are a strange kind of knowledge. This was first pointed out by David Hume, the 18th-century Scottish philosopher. Hume realized that, although people talk about causes as if they are real facts—tangible things that can be discovered—they’re actually not at all factual. Instead, Hume said, every cause is just a slippery story, a catchy conjecture, a “lively conception produced by habit.” When an apple falls from a tree, the cause is obvious: gravity. Hume’s skeptical insight was that we don’t see gravity—we see only an object tugged toward the earth. We look at X and then at Y, and invent a story about what happened in between. We can measure facts, but a cause is not a fact—it’s a fiction that helps us make sense of facts.”
Thus, we humans love a grossly over-simplified narrative. This is simply a function of using effective shortcuts to make snap decisions in the wild:
“The truth is, our stories about causation are shadowed by all sorts of mental shortcuts. Most of the time, these shortcuts work well enough. They allow us to hit fastballs, discover the law of gravity, and design wondrous technologies. However, when it comes to reasoning about complex systems—say, the human body—these shortcuts go from being slickly efficient to outright misleading.
The whole post is worth reading.  He goes on to deal with modern effects of the phenomenon, showing how our simplified narrative can be straight-up misleading, especially when it comes to complicated systems.  Here's where I have a problem:
This has come up repeatedly over the years — especially with regard to the financial crisis and the Big Lie. Its not that these folks are evil, they merely carry the vestiges of evolution — a flawed analytical engine of which they seem wholly unaware of.
For the rest of us, if we develop some awareness of these analytical errors, we can at least stand a fighting chance to go beyond erroneous perceptions towards true understanding:
“The good news is that, in the centuries since Hume, scientists have mostly managed to work around this mismatch as they’ve continued to discover new cause-and-effect relationships at a blistering pace. This success is largely a tribute to the power of statistical correlation, which has allowed researchers to pirouette around the problem of causation. Though scientists constantly remind themselves that mere correlation is not causation, if a correlation is clear and consistent, then they typically assume a cause has been found—that there really is some invisible association between the measurements.”
In other words, we can figure out actual causation. But to do so, we need to avoid the over simplifications, the correlation errors, and recognize the complexity of causation in the world of finance.
 Ritholtz is allowing here (normally this isn't the case for him) that perpetrators of The Big Lie are doing so under a mistaken simplification of a complex system.  I call shenanigans on that.  That may be somewhat true of the mass followers of the reactionary movement which sees government as the root of all problems, but I don't even think that holds there.  For the followers, this is another case of ignoring uncomfortable facts which conflict with their belief system.  They do the same with science and evolution, and their belief system now encompasses capitalism and politics.  They believe that all the things they hold dear are right, just and infallible.  Any fact to the contrary is ignored.

As for the perpetrators of The Big Lie, they know better, and their incantation of The Big Lie is evil.  They are directly manipulating their followers for their own personal gain and undermining the only other system which has the power to stop their looting, the government.  They know exactly what happened in the financial system, and they want to allow such abuses to continue.  There is no earthly way that Peter Wallison is so ignorant as to not know that mortgage brokers, large commercial banks and investment banks were at the heart of the financial crisis.  He is manipulating the rubes to continue the grift.  That is evil.

On a side not note, Hume has been on my To Read list for far too long.  His is a case of a man way too far ahead of his time.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Fewer Posts

I've had fewer posts this week, as I've moved toward full-time work.  Another factor has been some exhaustion at recent news.  One can only point out the follies of the so-called conservative base so often.  Anyway, I hope to get on top of things and focus on a few new things to write about.

Was Ryan Madsen A Steal?

Jonah Keri thinks so:
But that doesn't mean Jocketty didn't get a steal by waiting on Madson, then grabbing him for one year at $8.5 million — without surrendering a first-round compensation pick, the way the Phillies did with Papelbon. The 31-year-old Madson enjoyed a huge 2011 season, posting a sparkling 2.25 FIP via a near-4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate and his usual worm-burning ways. Heath Bell got three years and $27 million. Diminished, post-surgery Joe Nathan signed for two years, $15 million. Matt Freaking Capps got nearly $5 million to pitch in 2012. None of these or any other non-Papelbon closers pulled off the market project to be better this season than Madson.
Adding Madson and Sean Marshall, the very good, very underrated lefty setup man acquired from the Cubs for Travis Wood, suddenly gives the Reds multiple solid options out of the pen, with righty Nick Masset, lefty Bill Bray, and Aroldis Chapman. If Chapman gets a clean shot at starting, that could lengthen a rotation that's already very strong at the top, headed by Latos and Johnny Cueto (2.31 ERA, 3.45 FIP in 2011). The Reds' improved pitching staff makes them a strong contender in a weakened NL Central, without the salary pyrotechnics deployed by the Angels and Marlins.
Again, time will tell.  It is encouraging that the Reds are trying to win next year.

Chart of the Day

From Jared Bernstein:
When Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney asserted that federal low-income programs are administered so inefficiently that “very little of the money that’s actually needed by those that really need help, those that can’t care for themselves, actually reaches them,” my colleagues at the CBPP got to work on this graph.
If the goal is to hand out money, you don't need much in the way of administrative costs.

Copying Nature

Scientists look to sunflowers to design more efficient concentrated solar power plants:
Mitsos and colleague Corey Noone used numerical optimization to fiddle with the placement of the heliostats. They brought the fanned-out layout closer together, building a spiral-like pattern that reduces land by ten percent without affecting efficiency.
Next they looked to nature to improve the design further. The florets of a sunflower — small flowers at the center of the petals, which mature into seeds — are arranged in a stunning spiral fashion that’s impressed mathematicians for years.
The arrangement — a form of Fermat spiral — has each floret turned at a “golden angle” – about 137 degrees – with respect to its neighbor.
The researchers twisted each mirror to be 137 degrees relative to its neighbor and it made a huge difference. The optimized layout takes up 20 percent less space than the current layout of the PS10 in Spain, and even increased total efficiency.
There's a lot of valuable information in nature.  We probably ought to pay more attention than we do.

The Soybean Car

January 13, 1942:
 Henry Ford patents a plastic automobile, which is 30% lighter than a regular car.
More on the plastic car:
The frame, made of tubular steel, had 14 plastic panels attached to it. The car weighed 2000 lbs., 1000 lbs. lighter than a steel car. The exact ingredients of the plastic panels are unknown because no record of the formula exists today. One article claims that they were made from a chemical formula that, among many other ingredients, included soybeans, wheat, hemp, flax and ramie; while the man who was instrumental in creating the car, Lowell E. Overly, claims it was "…soybean fiber in a phenolic resin with formaldehyde used in the impregnation" Why was it built?
There were several reasons why Henry Ford wanted to build this car: 1.) He was looking for a project that would combine the fruits of industry with agriculture. 2.) He also claimed that the plastic panels made the car safer than traditional steel cars; and that the car could even roll over without being crushed. 3.) Another reason was due to a shortage of metal at the time. Henry hoped his new plastic material might replace the traditional metals used in cars.

Quick-cooled Beer

Matthew Yglesias:
I have seen the refrigerator of the future. It's made by LG and it has a "blast chiller" compartment that can cool a room temperature can of soda or beer down in just five minutes. Awesome stuff.
That's why it's great that you can buy cold beer, you don't need a very expensive fridge.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Farmers Sue Jon Corzine

A class-action suit for victims of the MF Global collapse targets Jon Corzine (h/t nc links):
Montana farmers have filed a class action suit against former New Jersey governor Jon Corzine, charging that the failed financial firm run by Corzine stole millions from their accounts to pay off its spiraling debts, and that Corzine's "single-minded obsession" with making MF Global a big player on Wall Street led to the firm's collapse.
MF Global's clients included 38,000 wheat farmers, cattle ranchers and others who "hedged" their crop prices by placing millions in MF Global accounts. Those accounts were supposed to be "segregated and secure," according to the federal suit, meaning MF Global could not draw on those funds.
The lawsuit, filed on behalf of all 38,000 customers, alleges that when MF Global made a series of bad investments -- notably in European debt -- it began "siphoning funds withdrawn from segregated client accounts" to cover its debts.
I would guess this doesn't stand much of a chance, but you never know. 

Poor Charlie's Wisdom

Interloper uses a Charlie Munger story to discuss investment banks and their clients:
Charlie Munger’s reticence to speak publicly is a grave disappointment because he’s proven adept with wonderfully entertaining and enlightening anecdotes like this:
I think the reason why we got into such idiocy in investment management is best illustrated by a story that I tell about the guy who sold fishing tackle. I asked him, “My God, they’re purple and green. Do fish really take these lures?” And he said, “Mister, I don’t sell to fish.”
The metaphor of investing opportunities as fishing lures works better than its more popular “market as casino” counterpart on a number of levels, most notably with respect to the initial confusion regarding who the fish really are.  The fishing lure salesman is only concerned with whether his product works to the extent that it affects repeat business and investment banks are no different. For the salesman, he would rather his product perform well, but would be perfectly happy with a world where everyone bought tackle, went fishing and nobody caught anything. The corollary for investment banks is that a world in which everyone keeps trading even though they all lose money would be perfectly fine and massively profitable.
In the real world, selling lures that don’t attract fish and selling trade ideas that always lose money would be, at best, a short-term operation. Both cases, however, imply the same subtle manipulation of its clients. The fishing lures are purple to attract fisherman, not fish and “actionable ideas” are designed to attract investors, not necessarily investment returns.
The whole thing is worth reading.  The point may be a little overdone, but when it comes to dealing with Wall Street, a little caution is a good thing, as long as it doesn't lead one to invest in Wall Street-provided "protection".

Cincinnati Landlord Is Racist Moron

Well, maybe just a clueless moron, but I'd wager also racist.  CNN (h/t ABL):
A landlord wants the Ohio Civil Rights Commission on Thursday to reconsider its finding that she violated the law by posting a "white only" sign at her swimming pool.
Jamie Hein has asked the commission to reverse its initial ruling that found she violated the Ohio Civil Rights Act by putting up a sign that read "Public Swimming Pool, White Only" at her Cincinnati duplex.
The commission, meeting this week in Columbus, concluded last year that the sign "restricts the social contact between Caucasians and African Americans as well as reinforcing discrimination actions that are aimed at oppressing all 'people of color.'"
The case was brought by Michael Gunn, a white man who said had unrestricted access to the pool area for himself and his guests during the nearly two years he lived in the duplex, he said in a December interview.
Gunn, a software engineer, said he and his girlfriend, who is also white, lived upstairs; their 31-year-old landlord lived downstairs. However, he said their relationship soured in May 2011 when he invited his 10-year-old biracial daughter to visit and swim in the pool.
What an idiot.  You just can't make this stuff up.

The U.S. Can Learn From Europe

Clive Crook is making some sense here:
On the other hand, Europe can teach the U.S. a thing or two about social insurance -- and not just in health care, the most egregious failure of the American economic model. Help for the unemployed has traditionally been ungenerous in the U.S. In the past it didn’t matter because the country’s flexible labor market sped people back into jobs. Now, a severe recession and a slow recovery have caused long-term unemployment to surge, and negative housing equity has made moving to find work harder. Income support and help for retraining and relocation need to be rethought. Don’t be embarrassed. Look to Europe to see what might work.
Republicans might also ask whether America is living up to the merit-society ideal. Success in the U.S. is richly rewarded and a meritocracy doesn’t concern itself too much with equality of outcomes. Fine, but a merit society ought to provide ladders out of poverty -- starting with good schools -- for those willing to make the effort. The American social contract says, work hard and do well. In one way, the country is failing to keep its promise. In America, land of opportunity, if you are born poor, your chances of staying poor are higher than in Europe.
The trade-off between economic vitality and economic security cannot be eliminated. But its terms can be improved in the U.S. and Europe, if each pays closer attention to the other. My watchword in this is a maxim of the late Rudiger Dornbusch, a professor at MIT and one of the most brilliant economists of his generation. “Protect the worker, not the job.”
In the past, Europe tried too hard to protect jobs; the U.S. hasn’t tried hard enough to protect workers. Something for Republicans and Democrats to think about.
The idea that the U.S. is better than everybody else is one of the Republicans' dumbest ideas.  Just because some voters think the U.S. is God's gift to the world doesn't mean an entire political party needs to pander to that stupidity.  I've been amazed how many times I've read about some construction technology being used for the first time ever in the United States, only to find out that it's been used for 20 years in Europe.  What gives?  Being more like Europe isn't always an evil thing, especially when the alternative is making the country more like Mississippi or Alabama.  I'll take my chances with the foreigners.

Judge Landis

January 12, 1921:
 Acting to restore confidence in baseball after the Black Sox Scandal, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis is elected as Major League Baseball's first commissioner.
It was probably good that Landis came off of the judicial bench.  A lifetime appointment was probably too long for him:
Landis hoped that the Kaiser, Wilhelm II would be captured and tried in his court; he wanted to indict the Kaiser for the murder of a Chicagoan who lost his life on the RMS Lusitania in 1915. The State Department notified Landis that extradition treaties did not permit the rendition of the Kaiser, who fled into exile in the Netherlands as the war concluded. Nevertheless, in a speech, Landis demanded that Kaiser Wilhelm, his six sons, and 5,000 German military leaders "be lined up against a wall and shot down in justice to the world and to Germany".
Even with the armistice in November 1918, the war-related trials continued. The Socialist Party of America, like the IWW, had opposed the war, and had also been raided by federal authorities. Seven Socialist Party leaders, including Victor Berger, who was elected to Congress in November 1918, were indicted for alleged anti-war activities.] The defendants were charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, which made it illegal "to utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language" about the armed forces, the flag, the Constitution, or democracy.] The defendants, who were mostly of German birth or descent, moved for a change of venue away from Landis's courtroom, alleging that Landis had stated on November 1, 1918 that "[i]f anybody has said anything about the Germans that is worse than I have said, I would like to hear it so I could use it myself." Landis, however, examined the transcript of the trial in which the statement was supposedly made, failed to find it, declared the affidavit in support of the motion "perjurious", and denied the motion.] While the jury was being selected, Berger was indicted on additional espionage charges for supposedly violating the law during an earlier, unsuccessful political campaign. At the conclusion of the case, Landis took an hour to dramatically charge the jury, emphasizing the secretive nature of conspiracies and pointing at the jury box as he noted, "the country was then at war".] At one point, Landis leapt out of his seat, twirled his chair around, then sat on its arm. Later in his charge, he lay prone upon the bench.  The jury took less than a day to convict Congressman-elect Berger and his four remaining codefendants.  Landis sentenced each defendant to twenty years in federal prison. Landis denied the defendants bail pending appeal; but they quickly obtained it from an appellate court judge. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals declined to rule on the case itself, sending it on to the Supreme Court, which on January 31, 1921 overturned the convictions and sentences by a 6–3 vote, holding that Landis should have stepped aside once he was satisfied that the affidavit was legally sufficient, leaving it for another judge to decide whether it was actually true. Landis refused to comment on the Supreme Court's decision, which ordered a new trial. In 1922, charges against the defendants were dropped by the government.
The man was a piece of work.

The King of Cons

Fortune features Barry Minkow:
Frenetic energy was the signature feature of the ZZZZ Best (pronounced Zee Best) crimes. To launch the business, Minkow borrowed money from a loan shark. To expand it he stole jewelry from his grandmother; stole and forged checks and money orders; kited checks; altered customers' credit card receipts and forged their names on new charges; staged burglaries at his own offices and filed bogus insurance claims; fabricated invoices, financial statements, and tax returns; led lenders on a tour of a phony work project; defrauded banks; and, finally, hoodwinked a Big Eight accounting firm and a Wall Street law firm into helping him pull off a public stock offering. While doing all this he starred in the company's funny TV commercials, which played off the notion that most carpet cleaners were scam artists.
After the company collapsed, but before his arrest, his mother suggested he see her Christian spiritual counselor. (She had converted earlier.) Calculating that a quicky conversion might help him with his looming legal problems, Minkow agreed.
"But God took my wrong motives and accepted me despite my manipulative personality," he later explained in the second of his four autobiographical books. (Minkow disavows the first, Making It in America, which was published during his ZZZZ Best crime spree.)
At first, Minkow's conversion did not crimp his penchant for rococo lying. In a 60 Minutes segment that aired in early 1988 he told Diane Sawyer that all the ZZZZ Best crimes were committed without his knowledge by his top lieutenants. Later, he switched defenses, testifying at trial that, yes, he had committed the crimes, but had done so under duress from mobsters. "Thus," writes Minkow in his second autobiography, "I put my relationship with Jesus (now well over a year old) on the back burner and lied under oath to avoid prison and impress the public."
That was just when he was young.  After prison, he ended up running a big evangelical church, and managed to get back to the con.  The whole article is worth reading, as the guy is crazy crooked.  He ended up stealing from trusting churchgoers as he tried to maintain his scam.  Pretty amazing.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Reds Make Another Move

A St. Louis site is questioning the Reds moves:
The Cincinnati Reds continue amassing veterans at Walt Jocketty's accustomed rate—they've signed Ryan Madson for a year and $10 million after December saw them trade Travis Wood for the Cubs' Sean Marshall and an enormous box of prospects for Mat Latos. Unlike those moves, the Reds' new closer doesn't reduce their depth in 2013, but it is emblematic of the team Jocketty's built—a paper-thin contender that will require a high amount of GM intervention to remain competitive on a month-to-month and year-to-year basis.
Which is great if you're Walt Jocketty, and love intervening constantly to rebuild the team in your own image. But it's interesting to see how drastically different the post-Jocketty Cardinals and the New-Jock Reds have become. The Cardinals, a year out of the World Series gate, have protected their prospects and made signings that increased depth and front-line talent at the same time. They resisted signing the most important Cardinal in a generation and have plowed that money into a team that can suddenly afford to lose most of its important pieces for at least a little while.
It's clear Jocketty is going all-in this year.  How that plays out for the Reds will be interesting.  As Cubs dad says, they're either the Cincinnati Marlins making their one-year run to the World Series, or they're going to be having a hell of a fire sale in July.  There just isn't any middle ground.

The Death of the Company Man

Fast Company, via the Dish:
 According to recent statistics, the median number of years a U.S. worker has been in his or her current job is just 4.4, down sharply since the 1970s. This decline in average job tenure is bigger than any economic cycle, bigger than any particular industry, bigger than differences in education levels, and bigger than differences in gender. (Since women are more likely to interrupt their careers for child rearing and caregiving, their average time in a job is even shorter than a man's.) Statistically, the shortening of the job cycle has been driven by two factors. The first is a marked decline in the "long job"--that is, the traditional 20-year capstone to a career. Simultaneously, there's been an increase in "churning"-- workers well into their thirties who have been at their current job for less than a year. "For some reason I don't understand, employers seem to value having long-term employees less than they used to," says Henry Farber, an economist at Princeton. Farber has been documenting the decline in job tenure in papers with titles such as "Is the Company Man an Anachronism?" (Answer: yes.) Shorter job tenure is associated with a new era of insecurity, volatility, and risk. It's part of the same employment picture as the increase in part-time, freelance, and contract work; mass layoffs and buyouts; and "creative destruction" within industries.
A lot of different things figure into this trend.  One is the rapid pace of technological change.  It is often harder for the long-time employee to adjust to major changes in their work.  With computers and software changing much more frequently, that really grinds down the productivity advantage a long-time employee has over a new hire.  On the other hand, getting rid of long-time employees is much more socially acceptable than it used to be.  Companies in the past would have been considered jerks for getting rid of the employee with twenty years in, but not so much today.  This becomes a big issue when talking about teachers and government workers.  These folks are probably beyond the point where they could switch careers, but some of them would probably be let go in the private sector.  I haven't decided whether keeping them until retirement is the right decision or the wrong decision.

Hyperinflation

Ritholtz gives us this chart:


10000% nominal price increase in 50 years?  That is amazing.  Think somebody's salary seriously outpaced inflation?  I would guess that around these parts we might have seen 1000% to 1200% increase nominally.

Scottish Independence?

The Atlantic:
Scotland made measurable progress in setting a date for a historical confrontation: a referendum that would enable the Scots to declare independence from the United Kingdom. Following a statement from and debate with Scottish Secretary Michael Moore about the situtation, the pro-independence Scottish National Party "announced its preferred timetable for a referendum: Autumn 2012," according to the BBC. The process is over 300 years in the making, so there's no huge rush. But it's also very very complicated. Moore didn't mince his words in expressing his Edinburgh-based government's ambitions to be free of British rule. "It is essential that the referendum is legal, fair and decisive," Moore told Parliament. "As a government, we have been clear ... that we will not stand in the way of a referendum on independence. But neither will we stand on the sidelines and let uncertainty continue." Leaders in London aren't quite as eager to resolve the issues. "British Prime Minister David Cameron, who wants to keep the United Kingdom intact, says that delay creates uncertainty that is damaging investment in the Scottish economy and wants a referendum 'sooner rather than later,'" Reuters' Adrian Croft explained on Tuesday.
Would we end up with an independent Scotland and Northern Ireland, the home of the Scots-Irish Presbyterians, still a part of the UK?  That wouldn't seem to make any sense to me, but then again, ancient hatreds are pretty strong.  Seriously, though, two partitioned islands side by side?  Overall, it would seem to be more sensible to have a united Ireland and a united Britain, but none of the scenarios affects me.

USDA Announces Cuts

Des Moines Register:
The U.S. Agriculture Department announced Monday it will close nearly 260 offices nationwide, a move that won praise for cutting costs but raised concerns about the possible effect on food safety. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said the goal was to save $150 million a year in the agency’s $145 billion budget. About $90 million had already been saved by reducing travel and supplies, and the closures were expected to save another $60 million, he said.
The plan calls for 259 offices, labs and other facilities to be closed, affecting the USDA headquarters in Washington and operations in 46 states. Seven foreign offices also will be shut.
They close 260 offices to trim 0.1% of the entire Ag Department budget?  Considering $99 billion of the budget is food assistance programs, and $10 is commodity support programs it seems like an odd way to trim the budget.

Extreme Weather And Crop Yields

Michael Roberts reports on his research into heat, humidity and crop yields:
There are two interesting things about the VPD (ed. note: vapor pressure deficit) measure we construct. First, average VPD for July and August is closely associated with our best-fitting extreme heat measure, at least in Illinois.  Second, adding VPD for the season and VPD for July and August to our standard regression greatly improves prediction.  Using just five variables, these two plus growing degree days (degree days between 10C and 29C), extreme heat degree days (degree days above 29C) and precipitation, we can explain over 70 percent of the variance of Illinois yields, excluding the upward trend.  That's better than USDA's August and September forecasts, which are based on field-level samples and farmer interviews.  The model can explain almost half the difference between the August forecast and the final yield for Illinois.
When we simulate these variables for future climates the outlook isn't much different from our earlier predictions: really bad.  But there is somewhat greater uncertainty around projected impacts, drawing mainly from interaction effects with precipitation after we account for VPD.  And since VPD, like extreme heat, is sensitive to the distribution of temperatures, things may not turn out as bad if warming occurs mostly in cooler months, or if lows increase more than maximums do.  Of course, if maximums increase more than minimums do, things could be a lot worse.   My sense from the climate scientists is that there is a lot more uncertainty about these more subtle features of climate change.
Also, these statistical models cannot realistically account CO2 effects, because CO2 has increased slowly over time and so cannot be separated from technological change.  At this point, CO2 effects for corn (a so-called C4 crop) are expected to be modest, but may aid heat tolerance.
I think that's a fancy way of saying that he's not sure what global warming will bring specifically, but if things are hotter and more humid in the corn belt, it will seriously impact yields.  It's only been the last two years that I've noticed it, but it sure seems like it hasn't cooled down at night like it used to.  I don't think that's good for the corn.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Lake Powell On Speed

Fade from Joshua VP on Vimeo.

Galaxies Collide

Wired:
Galaxy clusters are the largest known objects in the universe, occurring when hundreds or even thousands of galaxies come together.
El Gordo is located more than 7 billion light years from Earth. At this distance, the universe was only half its current age, presenting a puzzle for researchers. Could such a massive cluster have formed so early in the universe?
“Although El Gordo is a very rare object, it’s not inconsistent with current formation theories,” said astronomer Jack Hughes of Rutgers University, who presented the giant object Jan. 10 at the American Astronomical Society meeting.

Part of the reason for the cluster’s enormous size is that it is was once two separate clusters that are now undergoing a collision. El Gordo has two density peaks, corresponding to the centers of the fuzzy purple blobs in the image above, indicating the locations of the two clusters.
The bluish feature in the center of the picture is a large gas and dust pocket caught at the point of the crash. The wake of this violent impact appears as a hazy tail streaming toward the upper right in the image.

Louisiana Politics-The Edwin Edwards Edition

Wright Thompson on former Louisiana governor and convicted felon Edwin Edwards:
People heard the stories: about gambling, about the women, and about how his demeanor suggested he didn't consider himself governor so much as king. The heir to the Kingfish himself. He seemed roguish in a wonderfully Louisiana way. During his famous campaign against former Klansman David Duke (who also later went to prison), he hopped around the state in a private plane, surrounded by his advisors. Everywhere they went, said a magazine reporter who spent time on the plane, a briefcase followed. Finally, the writer told me, she got a glimpse inside: guns, a bulky cell phone, breath mints, dental floss, and a bunch of college football point spread sheets. The crew made a ton of bets and later, riding in a campaign parade, the advisors updated the governor on scores, so that the narration went something like this:
(To waving supporters): How's your mama and dem?
(Under his breath to the crouched advisors reporting bad news in the game): Goddamn! Son of a bitch!
He might have been shady, but he was fun. Famously, when he beat Duke, one of his bumper stickers said, "Vote for the Crook: It's Important." He also authored the two greatest quotes in the history of American politics:
1. (On an opponent) "The only way I'm losing is if I get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy."
2. (On David Duke) "We're both wizards in the sheets."
Even when he walked out of the courtroom after being found guilty, he smiled and offered a one-liner to reporters. "The Chinese have a saying that if you sit by the river long enough, the dead body of your enemy will come floating down the river," he said. "I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough, and here comes my body."
Then he crossed Main Street in Baton Rouge. Traffic came to a halt. Horns blared. And one woman leaned out the window and yelled in support, "You go, Governor!"
The guy may have been crooked as hell, but he's entertaining.  When he's not running my state, I'm not going to complain about that.

Explaining Primary Elections

Via the Dish:

Tebow Beats The Steelers

Soonergrunt parses the Tebow phenomenon:
The only thing I have to say about that was that if Tim Tebow were as a good a Quarterback as his press makes him out to be, Denver wouldn’t have needed to come from behind so many times recently.  Or to break a tie in overtime this game.  I’m with Tbogg on this issue.  I don’t hate Tebow for his situation.  He’s doing the best he can, and living his dream, and praising God for what he honestly believes is God’s work in his life.  Good for him.  But everybody else who constantly fluffs the guy and makes some huge religious issue out of it can please just DIAF.  My only issue with Tim is the idea that with all of the bad shit going on in the world, quite a lot of which happens to the faithful, is he really that conceited to think that God rewards him with victories on the football field while His believers die of disease, famine, and war by the millions each year?
Again.
I've got to agree that a God who works miracles on the football field seems like an odd deity, but maybe He's been checking out ESPN, People and Entertainment Weekly, and figures this mass media-entertainment segment is the way to go.  I'll chalk the Tebow phenomenon up to a good mixture of luck and skill.  Also, I think the Steelers decided to stop the run and rely on Tebow to beat himself, and he didn't.

What Happened to the Republican Party?

It was taken over at the grassroots by the haters and the part of the base without college educations:
Over the years, though, the party got captured by the people Reagan’s speeches were aimed at. Long people at the margins of American politics, they took over the grass roots of the Republican Party. Typically,  Republicans had turned to candidates who had successful careers in some other business and then entered elective politics running for major offices: Congress, state governorships, or the US Senate. Indeed, one reason Democrats had dominated the House for decades was that they had a much stronger grass roots of candidates who had come up the hard way, through the school boards, county commissions, state legislatures, and so forth.  That started to change, especially in the South and rural areas, with evangelicals taking over local school boards and running candidates for those low level offices Republicans had previously eschewed.
Over time, then, the Republican candidate base began to shift from the Chamber of Commerce types who had dominated the elite level of the party for decades to this new crop of ideological true believers. Beginning with the so-called Republican Revolution of 1994, they emerged in force in national politics and became the feeder system for not only the House but also the Senate and governorships. And, eventually, the presidency.
Thus far, they haven’t quite taken over the very top of the party. At the presidential level, they’ve still nominated the likes of Bob Dole, George W. Bush (who seems extreme in hindsight to some, but is considered a RINO by most Tea Party types), and John McCain. Currently, Mitt Romney is the frontrunner for 2012 but it’s not inconceivable that social conservatives could rally against Rick Santorum and put him over the top. At the congressional level, John Boehner and Mitch McConnell are traditional Republicans ideologically–albeit pushed to scorched earth tactics politically by a caucus that they can barely control. But Eric Cantor and Jon Kyl are knocking at the door.
It’s pretty obvious to dispassionate observers that the trend of the last twenty years or so is unsustainable if the GOP is to remain a nationally competitive party.
The Republicans have a strong grassroots base, but the candidates who thrive are the worst available.  The more reasonable folks have been primaried out.  The party needs to change soon, or become irrelevant.  As long as the Republicans look at their primary candidates and choose the dumber one, I'll be voting against the Republican party.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Spindletop Gusher

January 10, 1901:
The first great Texas oil gusher is discovered at Spindletop in Beaumont, Texas. Spindletop is a salt dome oil field located in the southern portion of Beaumont, Texas in the United States. The Spindletop dome was derived from the Louann Salt evaporite layer of the Jurassic geologic period. On January 10, 1901, a well at Spindletop struck oil ("came in"). What is known as the Lucas Gusher or the Lucas Geyser blew oil over 150 feet (50 m) in the air at a rate of 100,000 barrels per day (16,000 m3/d)(4,200,000 gallons). It took nine days before the well was brought under control.  The new oil field soon produced more than 100,000 barrels (16,000 m3) of oil per day.  Gulf Oil and Texaco, now part of Chevron Corporation, were formed to develop production at Spindletop.
The strike at Spindletop represented a turning point for Texas and the nation. No previously discovered oil field in the world had ever been so productive. The frenzy of oil exploration and the economic development it generated in the state became known as the Texas Oil Boom. The United States soon became the leading oil producer in the world.
Production at Spindletop began to decline rapidly after 1902, and the wells produced only 10,000 barrels per day (1,600 m3/d) by 1904. On November 14, 1925, the Yount-Lee Oil Company brought in its McFaddin No. 2 at a depth of about 2,500 feet (800 m), sparking a second boom, which culminated in the field's peak production year of 1927, during which 21,000,000 barrels (3.3 GL) were produced.  Over the ten years following the McFaddin discovery, over 72,000,000 barrels (11.4 GL) of oil were produced, mostly from the newer areas of the field.  Spindletop continued as a productive source of oil until about 1936. It was then mined for sulfur from the 1950s to about 1975.
Oil production in Texas and the U.S. peaked in 1971. 

Jack Daniels' Advertising Genius


The Atlantic:
What is especially interesting about Jack Daniel's beginning to advertise regularly is that demand then exceeded supply. "From the mid-1950s to the mid-1970s, it was on allocation," Eddy said. "The sales representatives would literally go into an establishment and let them know how many bottles or cases they could have. When other companies would pull back from advertising, Jack Daniel's spent money on ads to tell people they couldn't get it."
The approach followed a 1955 one-page marketing plan drafted at the behest of Art Hancock, the brand's first marketing director, and Winton Smith, its first national sales director, who envisioned a future based on the heritage that Jack Daniel defined. The one-page plan, Nelson says, "codified Jack Daniel's as authentic, made by real people in an out-of-the-way place." Their ads are distinctive not only for what they say but also for what they show: "black-and-white photography of these people in Lynchburg, Tennessee, who aren't in smoking jackets, [but] work clothes they wear every day to make the whiskey."
Ever since that one-page marketing plan, there's been a singular focus on telling the lore and legend around Jack Daniel's. The stories use Lynchburg and its people but the takeaway isn't Lynchburg. It's those universal messages about pride in being independent, making your own way in the world, and standing for something authentic. The special role of Lynchburg in the Jack Daniel's brand experience led to opening the Jack Daniel Distillery to public tours. More than 200,000 people now visit the distillery every year.
Those black and white Lynchburg ads have always been pretty sweet, even though I can't understand how Jack Daniel's can be called  smooth sippin' whiskey. I'd hate to run into rough whiskey, then. If you happen to be near Lynchburg, the tour is worth taking, even without samples.

When Cowards Are In Charge

A New York Times editorial from one of the wrongly imprisoned detainees at Gitmo (h/t nc links):
Some American politicians say that people at Guant√°namo are terrorists, but I have never been a terrorist. Had I been brought before a court when I was seized, my children’s lives would not have been torn apart, and my family would not have been thrown into poverty. It was only after the United States Supreme Court ordered the government to defend its actions before a federal judge that I was finally able to clear my name and be with them again.
I left Algeria in 1990 to work abroad. In 1997 my family and I moved to Bosnia and Herzegovina at the request of my employer, the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates. I served in the Sarajevo office as director of humanitarian aid for children who had lost relatives to violence during the Balkan conflicts. In 1998, I became a Bosnian citizen. We had a good life, but all of that changed after 9/11.
When I arrived at work on the morning of Oct. 19, 2001, an intelligence officer was waiting for me. He asked me to accompany him to answer questions. I did so, voluntarily — but afterward I was told that I could not go home. The United States had demanded that local authorities arrest me and five other men. News reports at the time said the United States believed that I was plotting to blow up its embassy in Sarajevo. I had never — for a second — considered this.
The fact that the United States had made a mistake was clear from the beginning. Bosnia’s highest court investigated the American claim, found that there was no evidence against me and ordered my release. But instead, the moment I was released American agents seized me and the five others. We were tied up like animals and flown to Guant√°namo, the American naval base in Cuba. I arrived on Jan. 20, 2002.
Bush administration officials should be in prison for their actions after September 11.  The fact that we still hold detainees who we haven't prosecuted ten years later is pathetic.  All the members of Congress opposed to closing Gitmo and holding civilian trials for the detainees are cowards.  What are these people afraid of?  The whole story is worth reading, and if a person can't put themselves in the writer's shoes, they shouldn't be able to stand for election in this country.

Ahead of the Game

The Daily features former Enron exec, Lou Pai (h/t Big Picture):
When the wheels came off at Enron 10 years ago, the smartest guy was nowhere near the room. Lou Pai, known as the company’s “invisible CEO,” famously cashed out millions of dollars in stock, married a stripper and decamped to a massive ranch in Colorado.

But, it seems, the lure of the arcane energy derivatives market can be hard to resist.

A decade after his former employer collapsed in a spectacular $63 billion bankruptcy, Pai is back in Houston, at a company based in a glass office tower near the River Oaks Country Club, trading in corners of the power industry with little regulation.

“You could draw a straight line from Enron to the market that they are in now,” one industry source told The Daily.

Pai, who declined an interview request, has bankrolled a green energy company called Element Markets, led by two ex-Enron employees, Angela Schwartz and Jeffrey Parker. The company trades in emission credits, biomethane and waste renewal. Clients include cities, developers, power plants and refineries.
Bail out of Enron before the crash and marry a stripper?  Lucky, smart or both?  Probably both.  He doesn't sound like the best neighbor to have.

A Guide To Superstitions

Libby Alexander reviews a number of old superstitions from The Cassell Dictionary of Superstitions, by David Pickering.  My favorite:
Drunkenness – Superstition proposes numerous cures for this condition, many of which depend upon slipping something unappetising into the drink of the person concerned. These extra ingredients vary from owl eggs and a few drops of the drunkard’s own blood to the powder of a dead man’s bones and live eels. To sober someone up quickly the best remedy is to roll him in manure and make him drink olive oil, then force him to smell is own urine and bind his genitals with a vinegar soaked cloth. According to the Welsh, conversely, eating the roasted lungs of a pig enables people to go on drinking all day long without getting drunk. (See also, Heather.)
As far as these go, I'll remain drunk, thank you very much.

Congratulations, Barry Larkin

It's official, Barry Larkin will be going to Cooperstown in July:
Former Cincinnati Reds shortstop and current ESPN analyst Barry Larkin was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame on Monday, getting 86.4 percent of the vote by the Baseball Writers' Association of America.
A player needs at least 75 percent to gain election. A 12-time All-Star and the 1995 NL MVP, Larkin got 62.1 percent of the vote last year, falling 75 votes short as Roberto Alomar and Bert Blyleven were elected.
Larkin spent his entire major league career with the Reds from 1986-2004, hitting .295 with 198 home runs, 960 RBIs, 2,340 hits and 379 stolen bases. He won three Gold Gloves and the 1990 World Series.
He had hoped to return for a 20th season in 2005 at age 40, but retired after the Reds told him they didn't want him back.
Larkin will be inducted on July 22 at Cooperstown, N.Y., along with the late Ron Santo, elected last month by the Golden Era Committee.
This is richly deserved.  I have to express my puzzlement at the voters actions.  Last year, 62% of the voters thought he deserved in, but this year 86% thought so.  What's the difference in a year?  Is it just about who else is on the ballot each year?  Of all the players who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame, Barry Larkin is the one whose career I followed most closely. 

Will Barry Larkin Get Elected To The Hall Of Fame Today?

Jayson Stark says he's a lock:



I think this is his year. He deserves enshrinement.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

NASA Photo of the Day

January 3:


A Full Sky Aurora Over Norway
Image Credit & Copyright: Sebastian Voltmer
Explanation: Higher than the highest building, higher than the highest mountain, higher than the highest airplane, lies the realm of the aurora. Auroras rarely reach below 60 kilometers, and can range up to 1000 kilometers. Aurora light results from energetic electrons and protons striking molecules in the Earth's atmosphere. Frequently, when viewed from space, a complete aurora will appear as a circle around one of the Earth's magnetic poles. The above wide angle image, horizontally compressed, captured an unexpected auroral display that stretched across the sky one month ago over eastern Norway.

The Personification of the Irish Economy

The NYT features a story on the rise and fall of Paul Quinn, recently Ireland's richest man:
HOW Sean Quinn fell so hard, so fast is a story for Ireland’s anguished economic times. Born John Ignatius Quinn, he got his start in business in 1975, when he borrowed 100 Irish pounds to dig a gravel quarry on his family’s farm.
But by 2007, having built a globe-spanning empire, he was borrowing billions to gamble on the shares of Anglo Irish. As the bank teetered, it lent huge sums of money to Mr. Quinn.
Hoping to turn a quick profit, he gambled on derivatives, financial instruments that, on the western side of the Atlantic, proved disastrous for the likes of the American International Group. Specifically, he wagered on what are known as contacts for difference, which are used to speculate on the price of a particular asset — in this case, the shares of Anglo Irish itself.
During the boom, these contracts were wildly popular in Ireland, in part because they enable investors to put down as little as 10 percent of the value of the underlying investment. They can be enormously profitable if the price of the underlying shares move in the investor’s favor — and disastrous if prices go the other way.
For Mr. Quinn, the contracts turned out to be cataclysmic. He lost so big that, combined with Ireland’s deep recession and other missteps, his empire was brought to its knees.
The whole thing is worth a read.  The byzantine nature of the Quinn empire makes the case extremely puzzling.  I think the multinational complexity of the ownership structures reflects the tax avoidance strategies which made Ireland such a popular destination for corporations. Even if they weren't manufacturing much product there, they funnelled international sales through Ireland at take advantage of the corporate tax rate.  Anyway, the Quinn saga is bizarre.

Battle of New Orleans

January 8, 1815:
 War of 1812: Battle of New OrleansAndrew Jackson leads American forces in victory over the British.
Posted so I could play this:

Faith and Culture

Steve Chapman blasts Rick Santorums moral decline arguments for ignoring evidence:
America is a good place to judge the value of faith in promoting virtue. There is a great deal of variation among the 50 states in religious observance — and a great deal of variation in social ills. It turns out that religiosity does not translate into good behavior, and disregard for religion does not go hand-in-hand with vice. Quite the contrary.
Consider homicide, which is not only socially harmful but a violation of one of the Ten Commandments. Mississippi has the highest rate of church attendance in America, according to a Gallup survey, with 63 percent of people saying they go to church "weekly or almost weekly." But Mississippians are far more likely to be murdered than other Americans.
On the other hand, we have Vermont, where people are the most likely to skip church. Its murder rate is only about one-fourth as high as the rest of the country. New Hampshire, the second-least religious state, has the lowest murder rate.
These are no flukes. Of the 10 states with the most worshippers, all but one have higher than average homicide rates. Of the 11 states with the lowest church attendance, by contrast, 10 have low homicide rates.
Teen pregnancy also tends to follow a course precisely the opposite of what Santorum preaches. Almost every one of the most religious states suffers from more teen pregnancy than the norm — while the least religious ones enjoy less.
What impact does gay marriage have on how kids handle sex? Massachusetts, the first state to legalize it, has less teen pregnancy than the country as a whole. Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont, which have also sanctioned same-sex unions, are also far better than average.
Does gay marriage undermine the health and stability of heterosexual marriage? Not so you can tell. Massachusetts has the nation's lowest divorce rate. Iowa and Connecticut are also better than most. Vermont and New Hampshire are about average. In the Bible Belt, by contrast, marriages are generally more prone to break up.
Santorum is an ass who should, and will be ignored.  How so much of a party which claims government can do nothing right when it comes to economic action, and has no right to play a part in the economy, also believes that government can and should try to change culture, I just don't understand.  If the government is ineffectual in regulating financial companies, how will it be effectual in regulating sexual activity in peoples' homes?

Using Supercomputers For Cellulosic Ethanol Research

LiveScience:
In a series of linked projects, researchers used the National Science Foundation-supported "Ranger" supercomputer at the Texas Advanced Computing Center and Energy Laboratory's Red Mesa system to simulate the world of enzymes. They explored enzymes from the prodigiously plant-digesting fungus, Trichoderma reesei, and the cellulose-eating bacteria, Clostridium thermocellum. Both of these organisms are effective at converting biomass to energy, though they use different strategies.
"Nature cleverly designed machinery for single-cell organisms to locate cellulose, then secrete large enzyme complexes that hold the cells near biomass while the enzymes degrade it," Beckham said.
The bacteria forms scaffolds for its enzymes, which work together to break apart the plant. The fungal enzymes, on the other hand, are not tethered to a large complex, but act independently.
It isn't clear how the enzyme scaffolds form, so the researchers created a computational model of the active molecules and set them into motion in a virtual environment. Contrary to expectations, the larger, slower-moving enzymes lingered near the scaffold longer, allowing them to bind to the frame more frequently; the smaller ones moved faster and more freely through the solution, but bound less often.
The results of the study, led by National Renewable Energy Laboratory researchers Yannick Bomble and Mike Crowley, were reported in the Journal of Biological Chemistry in February 2011. The insights are being used in the creation of designer enzymes to make biomass conversion faster, more efficient and less expensive.
It would seem like cow stomachs would provide some answers to questions of converting cellulose to sugar.

Economic Headwinds In Europe

The Guardian (via nc links):
Spain's jobless rate jumped to almost 23% in November, when the rate for the European Union rose to 10.3%. Italian bond yields, which act as a proxy for interest rates, reached 7.19% on further worries about the state of the economy and the government's ability to pay its bills.
The grim economic news, which included a fall in retail sales across the eurozone and a surprise drop in German industrial production, sent leaders scurrying to agree further measures to shore up the euro.
Italy's prime minister, Mario Monti, met the French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, in Paris to discuss a pact between eurozone countries due to be signed in March, giving Brussels oversight on debt levels and allowing it to punish countries that breach the rules.
France said it was prepared to press ahead with a financial transaction tax, despite resistance from the UK and other EU members. Presidential adviser Henri Guaino said France would take a decision on the "Tobin tax" by the end of January to set an example for the rest of Europe.
That's a lot of crappy news all at once.  If recession falls on Europe, I would anticipate some slowdown here as well.