Saturday, June 23, 2012

Typical Private Equity

I saw this ad over at Balloon Juice:




While I think some of the evil Bain Capital stuff is overdone on the left, I was curious about the details of this ad. When I did the google search, I got this from the Mitt Romney website

OBAMA MYTH: Shutting down a successful paper plant in Marion, IN.

REALITY: The paper plant in Marion, IN was losing money when Ampad bought it to try to turn it around.
In 1992, Bain Capital invested in American Paper & Pad, or Ampad.  Two years later – while Governor Romney was on a leave of absence to run for U.S. Senate against the late Ted Kennedy – Ampad purchased the assets of an unprofitable plant in Marion, Indiana from Smith Corona.
This was not a healthy plant: In the year preceding Ampad’s purchase, the Marion plant lost more than $1.6 million dollars.
Though the Marion plant would later close, Ampad added nearly 2,500 jobs at other plants between Bain Capital’s initial investment and the sale of its majority interest.  During this same period, revenues grew dramatically from $8.8 million to more than $580 million.
There were two things I thought were odd about this.  First, a plant losing more than $1.6 million dollars, while not good, doesn't mean very much.  The plant I work at may lose almost $1 million this year, according to the accountants.  Second, revenues grew from $8.8 million to $580 million?  That couldn't be organic growth.  Next stop on google gives me this:

  
 
In 1992, Bain Capital acquired American Pad & Paper, or Ampad, from Mead Corp., embarking on a ''roll-up strategy'' in which a firm buys up similar companies in the same industry in order to expand revenues and cut costs.
Through Ampad, Bain bought several other office supply makers, borrowing heavily each time. By 1999, Ampad's debt reached nearly $400 million, up from $11 million in 1993, according to government filings.
Sales grew, too - for a while. But by the late 1990s, foreign competition and increased buying power by superstores like Bain-funded Staples sliced Ampad's revenues.
The result: Ampad couldn't pay its debts and plunged into bankruptcy. Workers lost jobs and stockholders were left with worthless shares.
Bain Capital, however, made money - and lots of it. The firm put just $5 million into the deal, but realized big returns in short order. In 1995, several months after shuttering a plant in Indiana and firing roughly 200 workers, Bain Capital borrowed more money to have Ampad buy yet another company, and pay Bain and its investors more than $60 million - in addition to fees for arranging the deal.
Bain Capital took millions more out of Ampad by charging it $2 million a year in management fees, plus additional fees for each Ampad acquisition. In 1995 alone, Ampad paid Bain at least $7 million. The next year, when Ampad began selling shares on public stock exchanges, Bain Capital grabbed another $2 million fee for arranging the initial public offering - on top of the $45 million to $50 million Bain reaped by selling some of its shares.
Bain Capital didn't escape Ampad's eventual bankruptcy unscathed. It held about one-third of Ampad's shares, which became worthless. But while as many as 185 workers near Buffalo lost jobs in a 1999 plant closing, Bain Capital and its investors ultimately made more than $100 million on the deal.
The whole deal with private equity is to buy struggling companies, load the company up with debt, make some acquisitions to give opportunities for cost reduction and to pad top line numbers, charge big management fees, have the company pay back whatever investment you made in the company, then take the company public and find the bigger suckers.  Lather. Rinse. Repeat.  That part is very appropriate, because after all that, one should feel pretty dirty.  This is a pure extraction play.  Strip everything you can out of a company, then dump it on some unsuspecting fool.  Absolute Robber Baron stuff.

Making Voting Harder

Jonathan Alter (via nc links)
Then came Crawford v. Marion County, the 2008 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that mandatory photo-identification laws were constitutional on the basis of ballot protection. The evidence presented included not a single case of in-person impersonation fraud -- the only fraud that photo ID laws can prevent. And the millions of Americans -- mostly less-affluent seniors -- without driver’s licenses? Good luck.
The big Republican victory in the 2010 election was essential to the Voter Suppression Project. With the help of ALEC -- a conservative lobbying outfit that spreads cookie- cutter bills to state legislatures -- Republicans moved with lightning speed to implement their scheme. Since 2011, 18 states have enacted voter-suppression bills, with similar ones pending in 12 more.
In the presidential race, it’s hand-to-hand legal combat, with almost every battleground state embroiled in a struggle over voter eligibility.
Michigan’s bills attack the League of Women Voters by requiring some volunteers to attend state-approved training sessions before they can register voters. The catch is that the bill makes no provisions for such sessions. Ha! It does threaten them with penalties for registration offenses that aren’t specified.
The bill is modeled on Florida’s, parts of which a federal judge invalidated May 31 because he said they had “no purpose other than to discourage” constitutionally protected activity.
This shit pisses me off to no end.  Republicans make it harder to vote in person, but easier to vote absentee.  What's up with that?  Oh right, old white people often vote absentee.  The real deal is that Republicans know they can't win if an election has good turnout, so they try to keep people from voting.  Stay classy, assholes.  One thing about ALEC, it is very successful at rapidly implementing shitty legislation in state after Republican-dominated state.  Just think how much good they could do if they actually wrote decent law.  But why do that when you can line your pockets with money.

Chart of the Day

At The Big Picture:

We're not in too bad of shape debt-wise, considering we have the lowest tax rates since 1950.  The problem is that the economy is sucking ass, private sector debt is still near record levels, and things are going to get worse before they get better.  Even worse, Republicans may take control of all three branches of the federal government.

Trickle Down, My Ass

David Cay Johnson:

And what of taxes? The 2001 and 2003 tax cuts were promoted as keys to prosperity. Now Mitt Romney, virtually all Republicans and a fair number of Democrats say more tax cuts will make us prosper. President Barack Obama wants to cut corporate tax rates by a third.
Again, measured per capita, the IRS data show a pattern of shrinking numbers, with modest upticks in 2010.
Individual income taxes in 2010 averaged $2,995, down $1,654 or almost 36 percent from 2000. Use 2001 as the base year — because it was both a recession year and the first year of the temporary George W. Bush tax cuts — and in 2010 per capita income tax revenues were down one third.
In 2011, as the economy improved slightly, income tax revenues rose, but were still 26 percent smaller than in 2000.
The bottom line: less income, hardly any more jobs, sharply increased mortgage debt and Washington ledgers awash in red ink as voters are asked to endorse even more tax cuts.
How many years of evidence does it take to establish that a policy worked or failed?
Will continuing our current tax, credit and trade policies produce favorable results in the future? Will they produce higher incomes?
Let me answer those last three questions.  How many years of evidence does it take to establish that tax cuts don't grow the economy?  For Republicans, evidence doesn't matter if it bumps up against belief.  Will continuing the current policies produce favorable results?  Fuck no, unless you consider huge deficits and a terrible economy favorable.  Will they produce higher incomes?  Yes, for the richest of the rich.  No for everybody else.  Right now, the people who won't spend the money are the ones getting more and more of it.  It just isn't going to work out well without making major changes.  And I don't mean more tax cuts.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Beauty In Whiskeymaking

Wired:

 David Pickerell inspects a still for one of his clients, Hillrock Estate Distillery in Ancram, New York.
Photo: Andrew Hetherington


“Almost all innovation in the spirits world is coming from the craft players,” David Pickerell says. He’s not talking about ghosts; he’s talking about hard liquor. It used to be that the nouveau riche wanted to produce their own pinot noir. Nowadays they’re making their own bourbon. Since 2003 the number of licensed craft distillers has quintupled to 400, according to the American Distilling Institute. And Pickerell is eager to help upstarts—for a fee.
Pickerell is at the forefront of the boutique booze biz. The 55-year-old was a master distiller at Maker’s Mark for more than 13 years and now produces WhistlePig rye whiskey, which earned a 96 from Wine Enthusiast. But since 2008 he’s made a business out of helping newbies set up micro-distilleries, advising on everything from the right grains to the style of bottle.
In the past, high setup costs (several million dollars) and long maturation time (at least four years) made it hard to break into whiskey distilling. A revolution in aging techniques has addressed half of that problem, allowing decent whiskey to be made in just 16 months.
Cool stuff.  I'm not a whiskey drinker, but I do love the process.

Lego Turing Machine


LEGO Turing Machine from ecalpemos on Vimeo.


More on Turing here and here.  The 10th anniversary of his birth is tomorrow.

Are Republicans Targeting Higher Education For Takeover?

Freddie DeBoer:
Purdue University’s Board of Trustees has just voted unanimously to install Governor Mitch Daniels as the new president. As a doctoral student at the university, there’s a lot to say about this, and I intend to, but for now it’s enough to point out that while in office Governor Daniels pushed to cut funding to Indiana’s public universities again and again. I simply cannot fathom extending an invitation to lead an organization to a man who had worked tirelessly to defund that organization; it simply would not be countenanced in other contexts. In addition, Governor Daniels’s administration has repeatedly attacked public education and public teachers,  pushing for privatization schemes like private school vouchers and ascribing broad educational failures to Indiana’s schoolteachers, without providing responsible evidence. The man is an enemy of public education in Indiana who has now been selected to run one of our public universities. Internal opposition to that selection is the purest, more rational self-interest regardless of the political views of the individuals so opposed. Our media, of course, will regard any protest as a sign of liberal bias, no matter what kinds of complaints are voiced against Daniels.
This is to say nothing of the extreme regression Daniels represents in terms of credentials. The woman he is replacing, Dr. France A. Cordova, holds a PhD in physics from CalTech, was an administrator at Los Alamos National Laboratory, chaired the department of physics at a major research university, was the youngest person ever to hold the office of Chief Scientist at NASA, sits on the National Science Board, was given the Distinguished Service Medal by NASA, and chairs the Smithsonian Board of Regents. Mitch Daniels is a career politician with essentially no educational administrative experience to speak of. Clearly, the Board of Trustees has failed to select a candidate with the kind of qualifications our previous president holds.
Combine this with the University of Virginia fiasco and billionaires funding craptastic research institutes at universities, and you have to wonder if there is an explicit strategy to convert research universities into Fox News-style ideological experiments.  Just like in government (and the Catholic Church?), the Republican strategy to undermine peoples' faith in the institution seems to rely on having Republicans run it.  I'm guessing universities may be next.

Canadian History Versus U.S. History

All Things Considered looks at the difference between how the War of 1812 is taught in the U.S. as compared to Canada:
BRYCE HONSINGER: My name is Bryce Honsinger. I'm a grade five-six teacher at Applewood Public School in St. Catharines, Ontario.
SIEGEL: And, for Bryce Honsinger's fifth and sixth graders, the War of 1812 is no two day quickie.
HONSINGER: I would say that the units usually stretch between three to four weeks. In Ontario, it's certainly a major component of one of our curriculum strands and it's certainly something that our children relate to because of the heroes that come from the war and people that we look to as role models.
SIEGEL: In his class, the War of 1812 is taught as a crucial event in the development of a Canadian national identity. Honsinger says he uses the stories and records of his own forbearers. They were loyalists who had been on the losing side of the American Revolution, lost their lands and sought refuge and new lives north of the border.
When the U.S. tried to annex their new homeland, they stood their ground alongside British troops and loyal Indians.
HONSINGER: Many Canadians would consider that we won that war because we are not American. We maintain those boundaries. We were fighting one of the great powers to be in the world and we were able to beat them back.
SIEGEL: And those role models for young Canadians today? Well, while American politicians made huge careers in the 19th century as Indian fighters, the great Indian warrior, Tecumseh, is a hero up there.
HONSINGER: He was actually remembered in a lot of local newspapers at the time and 50 year celebrations of battles and things. He's remembered very, very favorably.
I would guess that most Americans don't squat about the War of 1812, and they almost certainly don't know that the United States invaded Canada.  But we Americans aren't generally credited with being well-versed in history...or geography.... or science.

The First Dairy Farmers

Scientific American:
One research team studying human use of dairy had experience dating artifacts from Europe and Asia. They thus used their skills to analyze a site in the Libyan Sahara.
The scientists studied 81 pottery shards. All the pieces had some residue of animal fat. The researchers analyzed the chemical compounds and were able to determine that Africans were engaged in dairy farming by about 7,000 years ago. The study is in the journal Nature. [Julie Dunne et al., "First dairying in green Saharan Africa in the fifth millennium B.C."]
Evidence of milk processing shows how dairying could have been quickly adopted, even though the ability to digest lactose may still have been rare. The work should thus provide additional data for evolutionary biologists studying lactose tolerance, a key genetic development in human history.
I guess people have been squeezing teats for a long time.  They probably weren't making any ice cream, though.

Cuyahoga Burning




June 22, 1969:
The Cuyahoga River at one time was one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. The reach from Akron to Cleveland was devoid of fish. A Kent State University symposium, convened one year before the infamous 1969 fire, described one section of the river:
From 1,000 feet below Lower Harvard Bridge to Newburgh and South Shore Railroad Bridge, the channel becomes wider and deeper and the level is controlled by Lake Erie. Downstream of the railroad bridge to the harbor, the depth is held constant by dredging, and the width is maintained by piling along both banks. The surface is covered with the brown oily film observed upstream as far as the Southerly Plant effluent. In addition, large quantities of black heavy oil floating in slicks, sometimes several inches thick, are observed frequently. Debris and trash are commonly caught up in these slicks forming an unsightly floating mess. Anaerobic action is common as the dissolved oxygen is seldom above a fraction of a part per million. The discharge of cooling water increases the temperature by 10 °F (5.56 °C) to 15 °F (8.33 °C). The velocity is negligible, and sludge accumulates on the bottom. Animal life does not exist. Only the algae Oscillatoria grows along the piers above the water line.
The color changes from gray-brown to rusty brown as the river proceeds downstream. Transparency is less than 0.5 feet in this reach. This entire reach is grossly polluted.
There have reportedly been at least thirteen fires on the Cuyahoga River, the first occurring in 1868. The largest river fire in 1952 caused over $1 million in damage to boats and a riverfront office building. Fires erupted on the river several more times before June 22, 1969, when a river fire captured the attention of Time magazine, which described the Cuyahoga as the river that "oozes rather than flows" and in which a person "does not drown but decays." 
The 1969 Cuyahoga River fire helped spur an avalanche of water pollution control activities resulting in the Clean Water Act, Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, and the creation of the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (OEPA). As a result, large point sources of pollution on the Cuyahoga have received significant attention from the OEPA in recent decades. These events are referred to in Randy Newman's 1972 song "Burn On", R.E.M.'s 1986 song "Cuyahoga", and Adam Again's 1992 song "River on Fire". Great Lakes Brewing Company of Cleveland, Ohio have named their Burning River Pale Ale after the event. During the Gulf Oil Spill of May 2010, New York Times economist and Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman referred to the Cuyahoga fire as the start of “environmentalism”.

That Didn't Last Long

Progressive Farmer:
 Severe damage caused by Western corn rootworm in Bt corn with Cry3Bb1 trait was reported in a corn field in Cass County, Ill., according to Mike Gray, University of Illinois extension entomologist.
Gray emphasized "this does not confirm resistance to this protein in Illinois" during a telephone interview with DTN. He and other entomologists, however, are strongly suggesting farmers begin to check corn fields for insect damage regardless of the Bt traits in the corn they planted.
The Cry3Bb1 protein protects roots from feeding by corn rootworm species. The plants from the Cass County field on June 7 all tested positive for the Cry3Bb1 protein at the University of Illinois laboratory.
Hybrids with the trait that expresses that protein include those from Monsanto and related companies with YieldGard VT Rootworm, YieldGard VT Triple and YieldGard VT Triple Pro brands. The Monsanto Genuity SmartStax and Dow Agrosciences SmartStax hybrids also contain that Cry protein in concert with other traits for rootworm and other insects.
The Cass County plants were under intense moisture stress, and the leaves were tightly rolled, Gray said. A high level of feeding was observed on the roots, which is common in drought-stressed corn because the roots are not able to develop properly.
Well, it was good while it lasted.  Looks like the Western Corn Belt is going to be dumping a lot of pesticide onto fields in upcoming years.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Watchmaker

Not Hating The Heat

Mark Titus discusses basketball UK and Miami-style:
Now, before I go any further, let me make it clear that thanks to my Indiana and Ohio roots, I’m a Wildcat and Heat hater just as much as the next guy. So don’t interpret this as me saying it's wrong to dislike them. Any team that completely abuses the loose butthole monocle and is coached by a guy who has had two Final Four appearances vacated deserves all the hate that comes its way, as does any team that is responsible for this. That said, I respect both teams for going against the grain to win their championships (assuming the Heat do win tonight) and I’m excited about other teams potentially following the precedents they each set, because the truth is, this year Kentucky and Miami provided some of the most entertaining basketball I’ve ever seen.
And that’s what this all comes down to — entertainment (individual talent) vs. “winning the right way” (playing as a team). Traditionalists are worried that if college basketball’s blue bloods become revolving doors where blue-chip recruits make pit stops before going to the NBA, it will be impossible to establish the concept of team and the overall product will suffer. (Not to mention the fact that there will be a disconnect between the players and fans since the players leave before the fans really get to know them.) Similarly, NBA purists fear that once teams try to load up on elite players, the game stops being about who has the best team and instead becomes a contest to see who has the best two or three players. Plus, there are the issues of thinking that elite players are supposed to win championships on their own (“Jordan would never have teamed up with Magic or Bird!”) and there are only so many elite players to go around, so if teams start stockpiling them, parity will no longer exist in the league.
These are legitimate concerns, but my rebuttal is simple: Hating Kentucky or Miami for the way they assembled their rosters is entirely hypocritical, because if your favorite team had the chance to follow in their footsteps, you’d be thrilled, and you’re lying to yourself if you think otherwise.
Now, I'm generally critical of "Will this chamionship count?" Calipari, and I think Lebron really effed up with "The Decision," but I agree with Titus about the fact that most fans would be fine with their favorite team doing the same thing those teams do.  As for the passionate hatred of Lebron, other than the decision, I don't get it.  He isn't perfect, but considering how amazing his talent is, he's handled it pretty well overall.  And the dude can flat play ball.  The Heat might not be able to seize the championship, but I have to ask Dan Gilbert how long it will be before the Cavs are a game away from the championship.

Time For A Rain Dance

I got the hay in the barn, and am about halfway done sowing double crop beans.  Man, is it dry out there.  It is mid-September dry.  The corn is curling really bad.  The forecast gives us a 40% chance of rain for tonight, and then jackshit for a week. 

Well, it has nothing to do with precipitation, but here's a song:


Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Chart of the Day

FT Alphaville, via nc links:


There is some good news out there.

Selling Out Cities

New York Times, via Ritholtz:
The state has named a budget commission to grapple with Woonsocket’s money woes. Ultimately, though, a receiver may have to be appointed — which is to say, a person not beholden to the voters, who would nonetheless have the power to abrogate union contracts and do whatever else he or she deems necessary to erase the deficit. Incredibly, the two Woonsocket legislators have pushed for a receiver, despite the pain that it would likely bring their city.
Or maybe it’s not so incredible. It turns out that one of them, Jon Brien, is also on the national board of the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC. Although ALEC is probably best known for its support of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, the conservative group has a very clear agenda for dealing with state budgets. It wants to shrink them. Although Brien has denied that he is applying the ALEC philosophy to his small city, it looks, in fact, as if that’s exactly what he is doing. It’s not pretty.
Woonsocket’s problems stem from the decision of Rhode Island’s previous governor, a Republican named Don Carcieri, to balance the state’s budget by cutting state aid to the cities. All of Rhode Island’s poorer cities had become dependent on that aid, so when the economy soured, they essentially ran out of money. Providence had to renegotiate the retirement benefits of its municipal workers. Central Falls actually sought bankruptcy court protection — and a receiver was put in charge of its finances. As for Woonsocket, its current difficulties came to light last fall when the school district revealed a huge, unanticipated budget shortfall.
ALEC is becoming a Koch Brothers type boogeyman for the left, but while the hype might be a little extreme, the underlying point is pretty close.  These folks are out to put much more money in their pockets, and everybody else  be damned.  Hopefully it bites them in the ass.  It will definitely bite rural folks who support their agenda right in the ass.  One thing about Republicans, they'll cut taxes whenever they can, but if the economy goes in the crapper, taxes are never allowed to return to where they used to be.  Then, they say, hey look, budget deficit, we have to cut spending.  Assholes.

Getting Some Work Done

We got the wheat run and I've baled about half of my second cutting hay.  Still have the rest of the hay and the double crop beans to do.  Maybe soon I'll be able to sit down and write a few real posts.  I've heard some interesting stories, like the one from the neighbor who's flat bed truck was used for Mitt Romney's visit to K's Hamburger Shop.  I haven't gotten a chance to talk to him since the event, but I did see his truck online:

Photographer/Credit Chris Stewart

Also, I used to entertain my co-workers on Mondays at my old job with stories about going out to eat with my Grandpa and getting kicked out of his will or something like that.  I've been avoiding arguments with him, but we had a pretty good one on Fathers' Day.  I'll tell a little more later.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Dickey Does It Again

ESPN:
R.A. Dickey became the first major league pitcher in 24 years to throw consecutive one-hitters and Ike Davis hit a grand slam to lead the New York Mets past the Baltimore Orioles 5-0 on Monday night.
Coming off a one-hit gem at Tampa Bay last Wednesday, the knuckleballer struck out a career-high 13 and allowed only Wilson Betemit's clean single in the fifth inning. 
The previous pitcher to throw consecutive one-hitters was Dave Stieb for Toronto in September 1988, according to STATS LLC. The Mets said the last to do it in the National League was Jim Tobin with the Boston Braves in 1944, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau.The 37-year-old Dickey (11-1) walked two and became the first 11-game winner in the majors, baffling Baltimore with knucklers that ranged from 66-81 mph in a game that took just 2 hours, 7 minutes. He fanned his final two hitters, topping his previous career best of 12 strikeouts set Wednesday against the Rays.Dickey has won nine straight decisions and six consecutive starts. It was his fourth game this season with double-digit strikeouts and the fifth of his career. The right-hander has an incredible 71 strikeouts and six walks in his last seven starts, lowering his ERA to 2.00.
11-1 with a 2.00 ERA?  Pretty damn amazing for a knuckleballer.  And the first guy to throw back-to-back one-hitters since Dave Stieb in 1988?  Didn't know that.

Soil Pollution Threatens Chinese Agriculture

The Guardian (h/t Big Picture Ag):
Zhou Jianmin, director of the China Soil Association, estimated that one-tenth of China's farmland was affected. "The country, the government and the public should realise how serious the soil pollution is," he said. "More areas are being affected, the degree of contamination is intensifying and the range of toxins is increasing."
Other estimates of soil pollution range as high as 40%, but an official risk assessment is unlikely to be made public for several years.
The government has spent six years on a soil survey involving 30,000 people, but the academics leading the project said they have been forbidden from releasing preliminary findings.
Chen Tongbin of the Chinese Academy of Sciences said the worst contamination was in Yunnan, Sichuan, Hunan, Anhui and Guizhou, but there were also parts of Beijing where the soil is tainted.
Unlike in Europe where persistent organic pollutants are the main concern, Chen said China's worst soil contamination is from arsenic, which is released during the mining of copper, gold and other minerals. Roughly 70% of the world's arsenic is found in China – and it is increasingly coming to the surface with horrendous consequences.
"When pollution spills cause massive die-offs of fish, the media usually blames cadmium, but that's wrong. Arsenic is responsible. This is the most dangerous chemical," he said. The country's 280,000 mines are most responsible, according to Chen.
I just asked about this last week.  I guess that answers some of my question.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Navy's Laser Weapon Problem

Spencer Ackerman:
Laser weaponry has progressed to the point where it’s only a matter of time before they’re disabling ships and burning missiles out of the sky. “Over the next few years,” estimates a new Congressional Research Service report acquired by Danger Room, lasers “capable of countering certain surface and air targets at ranges of about a mile could be made ready for installation on Navy surface ships.” Laser weapons with a 10-mile range aren’t much farther away. If only the ships can handle them.
If the Navy hasn’t come to grips with the imminence of its laser cannons, Congress needs to step in, the report suggests. One major issue: “the potential implications of shipboard lasers for the design and acquisition of Navy ships, including the Flight III DDG-51 destroyer that the Navy wants to begin procuring in [fiscal year] 2016.” In plain English: Unless the Navy starts designing ships to carry laser weapons right from the shipyard, it may never get the futuristic weapons it wants.

The principle at work is pretty simple, from an engineering perspective, although it’s largely been an obscure concern limited to Navy geeks. Unlike weapons that fire traditional ammunition, the Navy’s coming inventory of laser weapons just need electrical power to fire. To get it, they’ve got to tap the on-board power generation systems of ships they’d be mounted on.
But the ships weren’t designed with the expectation that they’d pack laser weapons. Their generators aren’t built to create the kind of juice necessary to power laser guns without siphoning it away from their propulsion systems. It’s a problem that gets worse when considering a laser gun’s “magazine” is as full or as empty as the fuel source it draws from. All that creates exactly the kind of choice the Navy never wants to confront: a choice between effective weapons and maneuverability. A wheezing, slow ship is a tempting target.
Sometimes, the military is it's own worst enemy.  Pretty interesting stuff, though.  I personally think the laser guns aren't very feasible, but the military-industrial complex needs infeasible projects to burn money.

Having Too Much Data

Nassim Taleb, in his new book (via Ritholtz):

The more frequently you look at data, the more noise you are disproportionally likely to get (rather than the valuable part called the signal); hence the higher the noise to signal ratio. And there is a confusion, that is not psychological at all, but inherent in the data itself. Say you look at information on a yearly basis, for stock prices or the fertilizer sales of your father-in-law’s factory, or inflation numbers in Vladivostock. Assume further that for what you are observing, at the yearly frequency the ratio of signal to noise is about one to one (say half noise, half signal) —it means that about half of changes are real improvements or degradations, the other half comes from randomness. This ratio is what you get from yearly observations. But if you look at the very same data on a daily basis, the composition would change to 95% noise, 5% signal. And if you observe data on an hourly basis, as people immersed in the news and markets price variations do, the split becomes 99.5% noise to .5% signal. That is two hundred times more noise than signal —which is why anyone who listens to news (except when very, very significant events take place) is one step below sucker.
There is a biological story with information. I have been repeating that in a natural environment, a stressor is information. So too much information would be too much stress, exceeding the threshold of antifragility.
This is how I would think the NSA spying deal would be.  Think of all the useless emails, phone calls and text messages you send a day.  Now think about that multiplied by 300 million (or several billion).  Now think about trying to find the needle in the haystack which is an actual real threat.  I wonder how many brown people have become the target of surveillance for sending an email in which they say they'd like to blow something up, maybe figuratively? 

I also see the potential of this in our lean events and metric boards at work.  Especially the metric boards.  They are targeted to make people accountable, but many of the stats that are tracked are pretty opaque and poorly formed up.  We also have an issues list, and you sure as hell don't want to end up on that.  Whatever the issue is, it better be something that can be solved in a day, or you will be questioned about where you stand each day until it is solved, or you can make a credible case that it has been solved.

Boron Joins Triple Bond Club

Scientific American:

An elite chemical club has a new member, after a team in Germany found a way to link two boron atoms together with a stable triple bond. Boron joins carbon and nitrogen as one of the few elements in the periodic table known to form stable compounds featuring triple bonds.

Theory had predicted that such boron structures should be possible, says Holger Braunschweig, a chemist at the University of W├╝rzburg who led the research. After all, nitrogen–nitrogen and carbon–carbon triple bonds are stable: the nitrogen molecules that make up the majority of our air are held together by a triple bond, for example. And boron is next to carbon and nitrogen in the periodic table, so should have comparable properties. “One would expect something similar for boron,” says Braunschweig. “The major problem has been the synthesis.”
Until now, the closest that anyone had come was a molecule made by using a laser to vaporize boron in the presence of carbon monoxide (CO) at very low temperatures. This compound seemed to incorporate a boron–boron triple bond, surrounded by CO groups, but fell apart at temperatures above about -263 °C.
Braunschweig’s compound, by contrast, is stable up to 234 °C, if kept isolated from the air. “Under inert conditions, this is a very stable molecule,” says Braunschweig.
It's interesting to me that it has taken so long for somebody to manage the feat, considering that theory had predicted the possibility.  It sounds like it is pretty tough to do thus far.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

NASA Photo of the Day

June 15:

M65 and M66
Image Credit & Copyright: Bill Snyder (Heavens Mirror Observatory)
Explanation: Nearby and bright, spiral galaxies M65 (top) and M66 stand out in this engaging cosmic snapshot. The pair are just 35 million light-years distant and around 100,000 light-years across, about the size of our own spiral Milky Way. While both exhibit prominent dust lanes sweeping along their broad spiral arms, M66 in particular is a striking contrast in red and blue hues; the telltale pinkish glow of hydrogen gas in star forming regions and young blue star clusters. M65 and M66 make up two thirds of the well-known Leo Triplet of galaxies with warps and tidal tails that offer evidence of the group's past close encounters. The larger M66 has been host to four supernovae discovered since 1973.

Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act

Or FDR's Hoot-Smalley.

June 17, 1930:
U.S. President Herbert Hoover signs the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act into law.
The Tariff Act of 1930 (codified at 19 U.S.C. ch.4 ), otherwise known as the Smoot–Hawley Tariff or Hawley–Smoot Tariff, was an act, sponsored by Senator Reed Smoot and Representative Willis C. Hawley, and signed into law on June 17, 1930, that raised U.S. tariffs on over 20,000 imported goods to record levels.
The overall level tariffs under the Tariff were the second-highest in U.S. history, exceeded by a small margin only by the Tariff of 1828. The act, and the ensuing retaliatory tariffs by U.S. trading partners, reduced American exports and imports by more than half.
At first, the tariff seemed to be a success. According to historian Robert Sobel, "Factory payrolls, construction contracts, and industrial production all increased sharply." However, larger economic problems loomed in the guise of weak banks. When the Creditanstalt of Austria failed in 1931, the global deficiencies of the Smoot–Hawley Tariff became apparent.
U.S. imports decreased 66% from US$4.4 billion (1929) to US$1.5 billion (1933), and exports decreased 61% from US$5.4 billion to US$2.1 billion, both decreases much more than the 50% decrease of the GDP. Thus exports minus imports which is the GDP formula declined from 1 billion to 600 million while GDP was 58.9 billion, a trivial effect on GDP of about 2/3 of 1%.
According to government statistics, U.S. imports from Europe decreased from a 1929 high of $1,334 million to just $390 million during 1932, while U.S. exports to Europe decreased from $2,341 million in 1929 to $784 million in 1932. Overall, world trade decreased by some 66% between 1929 and 1934.
A global trade war didn't help end the Great Depression.  So far as I know, this is one of the mistakes we have avoided making in the Great Recession.  Unfortunately, we've been making a number of others.

The Crazy Side of Welfare Reform

Ohio is kicking 25% of the people who receive cash assistance out of thewelfare program to avoid federal fines for not achieving welfare-to-work goals:
Frech says Ohio’s caseload reduction has resulted in the state’s distributing $10 million less per month in cash assistance. Additionally, when a person is thrown off cash assistance due to a sanction—like a missed work assignment—he or she can be removed from the food stamp program as well. The state also has the option to throw the individual off of Medicaid. So a single mother with two kids, for example, suddenly finds herself with no cash assistance, one-third less food stamps and no Medicaid.
“The punishment is just brutal,” says Frech. “And essentially what we are doing is sanctioning the poorest, most vulnerable families in the state by [more than] $120 million a year to avoid the $130 million penalty.”
Schott says that Ohio likely could reach its work-participation rate target largely through its new Ohio Works Now (OWN) program, which pays employed low-income families that receive SNAP a $10 per month TANF benefit, and in that way raising the percentage of TANF recipients who are working. Oregon is in a similar position to Ohio, and has relied heavily on its version of an OWN-like program in order to raise the state’s work participation rate. This approach has allowed Oregon to avoid aggressive sanctioning and also the burdensome application process that keeps many Ohioans from even getting through the “front door” of the cash assistance program in the first place.
It would seem like the Oregon strategy would be a good one for Ohio, but that's not the way it appears they are going to go.  While I understand the concerns of many people that folks shouldn't get something for nothing, in some cases the people don't have much opportunity for work:
“Ohio’s response has been to reduce the rolls as quickly as possible, by any means possible,” says Frech, adding that the people who are now getting kicked off of the program are the very people who have the greatest barriers to work. A recent report from the Urban Institute identifies many of those barriers, including: mental and physical health challenges; lack of a high school diploma; caring for a child with special needs or another family member with a disability; and living with domestic violence. The authors conclude that the “one-size-fits all work approach” doesn’t work for parents who face significant barriers to employment.
Kicking around the poorest folks in the country while making things easier on rich folks doesn't seem like the thing to do in my book.

Chart of the Day

From the Des Moines Register:

With ethanol now consuming 60 percent of Iowa’s corn crop, elimination of the Renewable Fuel Standard would remove a prime driver of record corn prices Iowa’s farmers have enjoyed in the last half-decade.
Through subsidies of ethanol, biodiesel and wind energy, the nation’s taxpayers bet big on renewable energy to lessen dependence on foreign oil and potential environmental damage from fossil fuels.
Iowa taxpayers made an even bigger bet: subsidizing construction of ethanol plants and wind manufacturers, providing a tax break for ethanol sales and funding university research.
But in 2007, when Congress required use of biofuels and then-Iowa Gov. Chet Culver made renewable energy the centerpiece of his new administration, no one foresaw the dramatic market shifts that have upended the nation’s energy landscape or the growing tide of resentment against renewable subsidies.
It is well past time to assess whether using 60 percent of Iowa's corn crop for ethanol is good policy.  I'd say it isn't.  While the past five years have been great for making money farming, the commodity price increases aren't good for the overall economy.  Also, the good times in ag make it more likely that people will get hurt really badly if things return to the long term trend of the 1983-2004 time frame.   Way too many people are saying it's different this time.  Unfortunately, it's almost never different.

The Magic Of Breasts

The Guardian:

Scientists used to think breast milk was sterile, like urine. But it's more like cultured yoghurt, with lots of live bacteria doing who knows what. These organisms evolved for a reason, and somehow they're helping us out. One leading theory is they act as a vaccine, inoculating the infant gut. A milk sample has anywhere from one to 600 species of bacteria. Most are new to science.
Then there are the sugars. There's a class of them called oligosaccharides, which are long chains of complex sugars. Scientists have identified 140 of them so far, and estimate there are about 200. The human body is full of oligosaccharides, which ride on our cells attached to proteins and lipids. But a mother's mammary gland cooks up a unique batch of "free" or unattached ones and deposits them in milk. These are found nowhere else in nature, and not every mother produces the same ones, since they vary by blood type. Even though they're sugars, the oligosaccharides are, weirdly, not digestible by infants. Yet they are a main ingredient, present in milk in the same percentage as the proteins, and in higher amounts than the fats. So what are they doing there?
They don't feed us, but they do feed many types of beneficial bacteria that make a home in our guts and help us fight infections. In addition to recruiting the good bugs, these sugars prevent the bad bugs from hanging around. "The benefits of human milk are still underestimated," said Lars Bode, an immunobiologist at the University of California, San Diego. "We're still discovering functional components of breast milk."
There's also a whole lot about how the environment affects what ends up in the milk.  Prior to scrapping the EPA, Republicans may want to read the article.