Saturday, January 25, 2014

Legends of the Isles

Legends of the Isles from Tony Franklin on Vimeo.

Argentina's Ag Drag

As Argentina devalues its currency and it and other emerging markets put in place currency controls, Michael Shedlock looks at how plunging commodity prices impact Argentina:
Argentina gets what little foreign reserves it has, being the number 3 soybean and corn supplier, as well as its top provider of soymeal animal feed and soyoil, used in biofuels.

Soybean Monthly Chart

Corn Monthly Chart

Soybean prices are still well above the 2009 lows, but are also far below the highs of a year ago. The price of corn is far below the highs of a year ago, and nearing the 2009 lows.

These trends are heightening the already huge problems of emerging market exporters.
Considering that the corn belt is a massive exporter of grain and livestock, should it be looked at as an emerging market?  Much like Argentina and other emerging markets, the recent crop price-induced boom supercharged the rural economy as hot money came in looking for returns on land investment.  One of the few advantages the corn belt has compared to Argentina is the ethanol mandate, which artificially boosts demand for corn.  However, the mandate is a monopolistic tool to break into another monopolistic market, the oil industry. 

The problem for ag is that cars are only set up to run on ethanol blends, generally low percentage ones, and they have to depend on the oil industry for the petroleum to blend with the ethanol, the facilities to blend them, and the distribution network to deliver it to the customers who have no other options than to purchase the blended fuel.  What makes that risky is the shale oil boom, and the pressure these new supplies put on oil prices.  That shale oil isn't cheap to produce, and lower oil prices squeeze margins.  Meanwhile, in another market restriction, crude oil is barred from being exported, and U.S. oil demand is decreasing.  This leads to export of refined petroleum products, which isn't as efficient as exporting crude, due to refinery gains.  It also leads to pressure to scrap the mandate and the crude export ban.  Of these two measures, the export ban is much more popular than the ethanol mandate. 

If the mandate goes away, I would expect some economic pain in rural areas which reflect some of the problems in places like Argentina.  The flows of hot money will stop.  Price deflation will make incomes much lower, and land values which backstop loans will fall, increasing debt to assets.  Values of all the new iron in tool sheds will fall as the white hot equipment market cools when there isn't any need for depreciation to reduce tax liabilities.  The reverse wealth effect will cascade through the corn belt economy.  Actually, that may happen even with the mandate, but taking the mandate away will make it that much worse.  In other words, if you look at the charts above, grain farmers have had seven years of plenty.  I'm not a bible scholar, but I seem to remember something about that in there somewhere.  I think it was toward the front.  If I remember correctly, it was important to live within your means and save during the good years, because you'll need it to make it through the bad ones.  Hopefully, most everybody in the corn belt has followed that advice.

What About the Clover Club, or Timothy Club?

Washington Post:
On Saturday night, a Supreme Court justice, two senators and the chief executives of McDonald’s and Lockheed Martin will officially join a secretive private club that meets just once a year, has no official purpose, and is named after a plant that will do almost anything for a drink. ¶ And despite that — or perhaps because of it — the Alfalfa Club is one of the most prestigious organizations in Washington. ¶ The 101-year-old club boasts a unique mix of politicians, administration officials, rainmakers, top military brass and corporate leaders from all over the country: Billionaires Warren Buffett, David Rubenstein, Michael Bloomberg, Bill Marriott and Steve Case; Chief Justice John Roberts, White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Sandra Day O’Connor, Colin Powell, Madeleine Albright and Vernon Jordan, to name just a few.
It’s a cross-section of power brokers so influential that almost every president has made a pilgrimage to the annual gathering. President Obama has addressed the group twice: a week after his inauguration in 2009, and again in 2012 when he joked about escaping the White House bubble: “One of my big goals this year was to get out and be among everyday, ordinary Americans — like the men and women of the Alfalfa Club.” Big laugh.
Why, you ask, would men and women with all the money and fame they could ever use care about Alfalfa? Because they’re never too rich or too successful to pass up an evening that really is like none other, where so many big shots from different spheres bond together over cocktails, jokes, lobster and filet of beef.
Well, I'm sure the club grew out of some noble cause:
 The club started in 1913, when — as the story goes — four friends gathered to celebrate the Jan. 19 birthday of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. They took their name from the alfalfa plant, known for roots that travel deep to find refreshment. The annual dinner, which quickly grew in numbers and prestige, is always held on the last Saturday in January.
Oh.  The Lost Cause.  Goddamn fucking Confederates. At least it has now just transformed into a gathering of the overclass to hang out together and pat each other on the back.

Friday, January 24, 2014



Apostle Islands Ice Caves Return

Via Smithsonian:

Apostle Islands ice caves near Meyers Beach - Cornucopia, Wis. #lakesuperior #wisconsin #apostleislands kruegerpix's photo on Instagram
 For the first time in five years, visitors to Lake Superior's Wisconsin shore can experience the winter beauty of the Apostle Sea Caves—completely frozen and safe to visit, thanks in large part to this winter's exceedingly low temperatures. National Park Service officials, who monitor conditions along the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, say that the last time Lake Superior's ice was thick enough to safely hold visitors to the caves was back in 2009; but with weeks of frigid temperatures caused by the polar vortex, Lake Superior has iced over enough to support adventurers on their one-mile trek from mainland Wisconsin out to the caves.
Bob Krumanaker, Apostle Islands National Lakeshore superintendent, told Wisconsin Public Radio that the caves are one of the most unique sites in the park, which includes 21 islands formed from sandstone over a billion years ago.
Visitors to the caves who make the mile-long trek over an icy lake are greeted by an amazing winter view, with icicles hanging like stalactites from the cave ceilings and a clear ice floor that reveals the lake floor below. During the summer, visitors can kayak through the caves, but a solid lake offers adventurers the only way to experience the caves on foot.
All the photographs they've compiled are pretty cool.

A New Theory of Life?

Jeremy England,a physicist at MIT, has a new concept of the origin of life:
Why does life exist?
Popular hypotheses credit a primordial soup, a bolt of lightning and a colossal stroke of luck. But if a provocative new theory is correct, luck may have little to do with it. Instead, according to the physicist proposing the idea, the origin and subsequent evolution of life follow from the fundamental laws of nature and “should be as unsurprising as rocks rolling downhill.”
From the standpoint of physics, there is one essential difference between living things and inanimate clumps of carbon atoms: The former tend to be much better at capturing energy from their environment and dissipating that energy as heat. Jeremy England, a 31-year-old assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has derived a mathematical formula that he believes explains this capacity. The formula, based on established physics, indicates that when a group of atoms is driven by an external source of energy (like the sun or chemical fuel) and surrounded by a heat bath (like the ocean or atmosphere), it will often gradually restructure itself in order to dissipate increasingly more energy. This could mean that under certain conditions, matter inexorably acquires the key physical attribute associated with life.....

At the heart of England’s idea is the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of increasing entropy or the “arrow of time.” Hot things cool down, gas diffuses through air, eggs scramble but never spontaneously unscramble; in short, energy tends to disperse or spread out as time progresses. Entropy is a measure of this tendency, quantifying how dispersed the energy is among the particles in a system, and how diffuse those particles are throughout space. It increases as a simple matter of probability: There are more ways for energy to be spread out than for it to be concentrated. Thus, as particles in a system move around and interact, they will, through sheer chance, tend to adopt configurations in which the energy is spread out. Eventually, the system arrives at a state of maximum entropy called “thermodynamic equilibrium,” in which energy is uniformly distributed. A cup of coffee and the room it sits in become the same temperature, for example. As long as the cup and the room are left alone, this process is irreversible. The coffee never spontaneously heats up again because the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against so much of the room’s energy randomly concentrating in its atoms.
Although entropy must increase over time in an isolated or “closed” system, an “open” system can keep its entropy low — that is, divide energy unevenly among its atoms — by greatly increasing the entropy of its surroundings. In his influential 1944 monograph “What Is Life?” the eminent quantum physicist Erwin Schrödinger argued that this is what living things must do. A plant, for example, absorbs extremely energetic sunlight, uses it to build sugars, and ejects infrared light, a much less concentrated form of energy. The overall entropy of the universe increases during photosynthesis as the sunlight dissipates, even as the plant prevents itself from decaying by maintaining an orderly internal structure.
This is way beyond me, but it is rather intriguing.  I don't really have anything to add on the subject, but the reference to the second law of thermodynamics brings back a college memory.  I remember that when I was in college, there was a campus-wide discussion about how Catholic a Catholic university ought to be.  As part of that conversation, our thermodynamics professor required us to compose an essay on the subject of whether the second law of thermodynamics was compatible with the belief in the existence of God.  I have no idea what I wrote at the time, but I'm sure I made the case that they could co-exist rationally.  I'm sure it was a tremendously weak argument.

Actually, even though I don't remember almost any details of the classwork, I do have a couple of other fairly strong memories of the class.  In order to stand out as an individual in a sea of strangers, I wore free seed and chemical company hats throughout my college years.  One day in class, I was sporting my Pioneer seed corn hat, and walked down to the front of the lecture hall to turn in my homework.  The teacher asked me if I was a farmer, and I told him I was.  He asked where I was from, and what kind of a farm I was from.  I told him, and he told me that he grew up on a farm in central Illinois prior to attending U of I.  To put into perspective how much I put into my education, and socialization with my professors, this was one of the most in-depth conversations I ever had with one of my teachers (another was when I ran into my geotech professor in the liquor section at Osco about an hour after my final exam, and when he asked what I was doing, I told him the truth, I was buying my grandparents' Christmas presents.  He laughed heartily, and then I said, no, really). 

The other memory was near the end of the semester.  We were working on thermodynamic power cycles, and were given three homework problems worth 20 points a piece.  In each one, I would draw the proper diagram (see below), and fill in the known state at each point.  I'd then scratch around for a little bit, and realize I didn't really know how to solve the problem.

To make matters more challenging, I had Spring Fever, it was Must See TV Thursday, and I'm sure there was some Schlitz being kept icy cold in the fridge, so I could observe the practical application of the Carnot cycle.  To wrap up my assignment and detail why I didn't solve the problems, I wrote out an explanation that went something like this:
The motion of these cycles has given me a headache and made me sick to my stomach.  Due to these maladies, I need to lie down and rest, and am unable to complete the assignment.  I really hope that the condition will pass before the date of the exam. 
When I got the assignment back after grading, I found that I was rewarded 1 point for drawing out the cycle diagrams and labeling the conditions at each point.  I was awarded 2 points for my explanation of why I couldn't complete the assignment, for a total score of 3 out of 60.  That was the 5% assignment grade I was most proud of in college.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Some Wikipedia Oddities

I stumbled across this strange little factoid on Wikipedia today when looking at the entry for Delaware County, Indiana:
The first discovery of natural gas in Indiana occurred in 1876 in the town of Eaton. A company was drilling in search of coal, and when they had reaching a depth of six-hundred feet, there was a loud noise and foul smelling fumes began coming from the well. After a brief investigation, it was decided they had breached the ceiling of Hell, and the hole was quickly filled in. In 1884, when natural gas was discovered in nearby Ohio, people recalled the incident. They returned to the spot and opened Indiana's first natural gas well. The gas was so abundant and strong that when the well was lit, the flames could be see from Muncie.
Hoosiers have always been a little off.  Likewise, this entry for Kirksville, Missouri reminds me that surveyors have always been easily bought:
 According to tradition, Jesse Kirk, Kirksville's first postmaster, shared a dinner of turkey and whiskey with surveyors working in the area on the condition that they would name the town after him. Not only the first postmaster, Kirk was also the first to own a hotel and a tavern in Kirksville (contrary to popular belief, the name of the city has no connection to John Kirk, onetime president of Truman State University). However, the grandson of Jesse Kirk reported that the town was named for Kirk’s son John, a figure of local legend credited with killing two deer with a single bullet. "Hopkinsville" was explained as a joking reference to the peculiar gait of John Kirk’s lame father-in-law, David Sloan; the jocular name was discarded when the village was selected for the seat of justice in Adair County.
As I look things up on Wikipedia, I'm going to try to remember some of the stranger things I come across.

The New Formula 1 Engine is Badass


At 760 horsepower, this turbocharged, hybrid-electric power uni… er, engine isn’t just the most technologically advanced mill in the world, it’s also one of the most efficient.
In recent years Formula 1 has made a big push toward efficiency, and to make the technology propelling guys like Sebastian Vettel and Fernando Alonso around the track at least somewhat relevant to the cars the rest of us drive. They’ve experimented with kinetic energy recovery systems and even toyed with the idea of making the cars run only on electricity in the pits. Beginning this year, teams are are downsizing from a 2.4-liter V8s to 1.6-liter V6s that feature direct injection, turbocharging and a pair of energy recovery systems that pull in juice from exhaust pressure and braking. They also sound like pissed-off vacuum cleaners. This isn’t the first time F1 has embraced turbos, and the new hybrid systems are a step up from the push-to-pass KERS systems we’ve seen in recent years. It’s a whole new breed of racing technology that balances output with efficiency.
It’s where power meets programming.
“In essence, engine manufacturers used to compete on reaching record levels of power,” says Naoki Tokunaga, Renault F1′s technical director for Power Units. “But now will compete in the intelligence of energy management.”
That last bit — “energy management” — is the key to F1 in 2014, and poses a host of new challenges for both the engineers and the drivers.
“In the relationship between fuel used versus lap time, there is a borderline between what is physically possible and the impossible — we name it ‘minimum lap-time frontier,” says Tokunaga. “We always want to operate on that frontier and be as close to the impossible as we can.”
760 horsepower out of a 1.6L engine?  At that ratio, my 2.0L Focus would totally kick ass.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A Sight of Summer

On a cold winter night, an image that brings to mind summer:

For nearly a decade, amateur photographer Tsuneaki Hiramatsu spent his summer evenings in the forests outside Niimi, in Japan’s Okayama prefecture. He was intent on capturing the spectacle of firefly mating season, when the males and females vie for attention through blinking codes. As night fell, Hiramatsu began shooting a series of eight-second exposures. He then digitally merged the images, creating connect-the-dot photos of the fireflies’ golden flight paths. The images became a sensation on the Web and were included in a traveling museum exhibit called “Creatures of Light: Nature’s Bioluminescence.” But for Hiramatsu, recognition for his artistry is secondary to engendering appreciation for the natural world. “Fireflies are little seen in areas developed by human beings,” he says. “When I feel the splendor and mystery of nature, I am glad to have everyone share that feeling.”
More photos at the above link. 

An Undertaking

An Undertaking from Dark Rye on Vimeo.

This reminds me of when Hank Hill built coffins for himself and Peggy.

Worst Deal Ever

Mike Brown puts the screws to Hamilton County taxpayers once again:
The Cincinnati Bengals have asked Hamilton County taxpayers for sole ownership of the naming rights to Paul Brown Stadium.
The request – which The Enquirer obtained through a public records request – comes as the team and county haggle over how tall apartments at The Banks can be. At stake there: an 8-foot to 10-foot decorative roof ledge on a 10-story building.
So why does the team want the naming rights back? The team already would get most of the money from any naming rights deal. And just proposing the idea has caused Hamilton County commissioners to bristle.
The naming rights have long been said to be worth little to the county because the team’s lease outlines a complicated profit-sharing formula that gives the county less money from a naming rights deal as time goes on......
The Dec. 20 letter to Hamilton County Administrator Christian Sigman stemmed from Bengals concerns over the county violating agreements about the height of buildings at The Banks.
A 1996 Memorandum of Understanding sets building guidelines at the The Banks; the Bengals fear the county wants to let developers build taller structures than allowed.
While this “relates to a 10-story building that exceeds the guidelines by 8 or 10 feet, the county’s materials and the presentation to the commissioners reveal discussions of what could be a 20-story building on the same block – exceeding the guidelines by more than 100 feet and designs on blocks immediately adjacent to the stadium with building heights far exceeding the guidelines for those blocks,” Dornette wrote.
The Bengals saw the naming rights as a bargaining chip.
The letter asks that a deal – which requires an amendment to the team’s lease – be done by Dec. 31. But the county is talking with the team to explore other alternatives besides giving up naming rights, Sigman said.
That guy really has a set of stones.  And absolutely no conscience whatsoever.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Even More California Drought News

From Weather Underground:

 A map of the current status of the water levels in the major state reservoirs. As can be seen the situation is worse in the northern two-thirds of the state than in the southern section. California Department of Water Resources.
A major drought in California would have nation-wide implications. California is the number one state in cash farm receipts with 11.3 percent of the U.S. total. The state accounts for 15 percent of national receipts for crops and 7.1 percent of the U.S. revenue for livestock and livestock products. California’s agricultural abundance includes more than 400 commodities. The state produces nearly half of U.S.-grown fruits, nuts and vegetables. Across the nation, U.S. consumers regularly purchase several crops produced solely in California. The state is also the nation's largest agricultural exporter. –REF: California Department of Food and Agriculture

Needless to say, all agricultural crops and livestock are dependent on a reliable and continuous water supply.

Since the rainy season in this part of the country can be extremely variable, many are assuming that the drought is bound to break soon. The area is only at the halfway point in the water season, so not to worry too much yet. However, the forecast models are so dire (for lack of any precipitation until at least February) that one might think they must be erroneous. We shall see what verifies in the weeks ahead.
Expect higher fruit and vegetable (and almond) prices.

Tunneling Under London

The Atlantic features photos of the Crossrail megaproject in London.  This is one of my favorites:

Workers renovate the Crossrail Connaught tunnel between the Royal Albert and Royal Victoria docks in east London, on May 29, 2013. (Reuters/Luke MacGregor) #

More about the project:
When one digs beneath London, England, one digs through history. Crossrail, the largest construction project in Europe, is tunneling under the British capital to provide a new underground rail link across the city, and has encountered not only a maze of existing modern infrastructure, but historic finds including mammoth bone fragments, Roman roads (with ancient horseshoes embedded in the ruts), Black Plague burial grounds, and 16th century jewelry. The $25 billion (15 billion pound) project is due to open in 2018, connecting London's Heathrow airport to the county of Essex -- five tunnel boring machines are creating a kilometer of new tunnel under London every two weeks. The millions of tons of soil from the Crossrail construction are being shipped to Wallasea Island in the Thames Estuary, allowing the island to be transformed from levee-protected farmland into a thriving wetland.

Money Addiction?

That's what Sam Polk says afflicts people on Wall Street.  He's speaking as a recovering money addict:
IN my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million — and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough. I was 30 years old, had no children to raise, no debts to pay, no philanthropic goal in mind. I wanted more money for exactly the same reason an alcoholic needs another drink: I was addicted......
But in the end, it was actually my absurdly wealthy bosses who helped me see the limitations of unlimited wealth. I was in a meeting with one of them, and a few other traders, and they were talking about the new hedge-fund regulations. Most everyone on Wall Street thought they were a bad idea. “But isn’t it better for the system as a whole?” I asked. The room went quiet, and my boss shot me a withering look. I remember his saying, “I don’t have the brain capacity to think about the system as a whole. All I’m concerned with is how this affects our company.”
I felt as if I’d been punched in the gut. He was afraid of losing money, despite all that he had.
From that moment on, I started to see Wall Street with new eyes. I noticed the vitriol that traders directed at the government for limiting bonuses after the crash. I heard the fury in their voices at the mention of higher taxes. These traders despised anything or anyone that threatened their bonuses. Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in “The Wire” when the heroin runs out.
I’d always looked enviously at the people who earned more than I did; now, for the first time, I was embarrassed for them, and for me. I made in a single year more than my mom made her whole life. I knew that wasn’t fair; that wasn’t right. Yes, I was sharp, good with numbers. I had marketable talents. But in the end I didn’t really do anything. I was a derivatives trader, and it occurred to me the world would hardly change at all if credit derivatives ceased to exist. Not so nurse practitioners. What had seemed normal now seemed deeply distorted.
The whole thing is a great read.  I can appreciate his point.  I've got more money than I need, but I just can't bring myself to spend it.  Saving and investing (at least in stocks and bonds) is just another form of hoarding.  The worst thing is, like he says, the more folks have, the more they want.  It is an insatiable appetite, not really different than a crack addict's craving.  As he points out in the article, the resulting inequality is very damaging to society. 

Republican Opponents of Medicaid Expansion Hurt Rural Hospitals

All Things Considered:
CAPELOUTO: In America, no one gets refused services at an emergency room. And to help rural hospitals cope with taking care of the uninsured, they get what's called Disproportional Share, or DISH payments, from the federal government.
The Affordable Care Act was supposed to reduce that payment under the idea that everyone would have insurance or be on Medicaid. But Georgia is one of 20 or so states that decided to opt out of Medicaid expansion once the Supreme court gave them permission to do so. It's a major worry for the Rural Health Association, which lobbies for the 20 percent of Americans who live in rural areas.
Maggie Elehwany is one of their lobbyists.
MAGGIE ELEHWANY: The poorest areas in this country in the Deep South, in Appalachia, in certain pockets in the west, boy, a lot of those - really a tremendous amount of those - are the states that are opting not to expand Medicaid.
CAPELOUTO: Georgia decided against Medicaid expansion, even though the federal government pays 100 percent of the cost for three years and 90 percent thereafter. Governor Nathan Deal argues that it's foolish to believe the feds will keep paying that 90 percent and worries that states will be left to carry the burden in the long run.
Republican State Senator Dean Burke agrees.
STATE SENATOR DEAN BURKE: Increasing Medicaid doesn't necessarily make things better. You know, we need to increase jobs so that we get more people with regular insurance. And that will be where we can make a difference.
CAPELOUTO: But Burke is also a doctor in rural south Georgia, where he works at a hospital. He's not in the appeal Obamacare camp of the Republican Party. Rather he says the genie is out of the bottle, and he'd like to find a way to make it work for Georgia without stressing future budgets.
Looming large for rural Republicans like him is the potential closure of hospitals, once those federal DISH payments stop coming and the poor are still uninsured. Last month, he and his colleagues got some good news: Congress decided to keep the DISH payments in place for two more years.
It sure is nice of Republicans in taker states to reject a program that would bring even more money from taxpayers in New York and Connecticut into their crappy states.  However, it really hurts their residents in rural areas, especially considering that Obamacare was going to be paid for by reducing the DISH payments since the health insurance subsidies and Medicaid expansion would reduce the number of uninsured.  Hey stupidity and ideology go ahead of basic mathematics.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Steve Jobs was an Asshole. Who's Dead. Because He Didn't Listen to his Doctor

So I guess that's why we're supposed to click on this story:

Steve Jobs’ Doctor Wants to Teach You the Formula for Long Life


If it involves exercise or eating healthy food, I'm not interested.  My guess is that the more I think life sucks, the longer I'll live.

There's no real reason for this post, other than that I wanted to point out that Steve Jobs was an asshole.  And he's dead.

So Your Polar Vortex is the Alberta Clipper of My Youth?

Yes.  Maybe the meteorologists got tired of smart asses pointing out that some of the cold air was coming out of Saskatchewan or Manitoba and they renamed the damn thing.

Hmm, Polar Vortex and Siberian Express (plus, Alberta Clipper sounds like it could be the name of an early 20th century express passenger train [or Canadian baseball player]) bring this to mind:

At Least Two Dead in Omaha Plant Explosion

Omaha World-Herald:
 Two people have been confirmed dead after an industrial accident at International Nutrition, according to the office of Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine, who oversees the county coroner.
The names of the two victims have not been released.
During a press conference Monday afternoon, Interim Fire Chief Bernard Kanger confirmed that there are fatalities. He declined to release information about how many people died until a full search of the building can be completed.
Kanger said 10 people had been transported to area hospitals – four were in critical condition and six had injuries that were not considered life-threatening. Seven more people declined medical attention for their injuries, he said. Thirty-eight people were working at the plant.
Authorities had not yet cleared the south-central Omaha building at 7706 I Plaza, Kanger said around 3:10 p.m. Teams must secure the building to prevent further collapse before finishing their search, he said.
There's no chance that anyone lost in the rubble is still alive, he said. By midafternoon, the search shifted from a rescue to a recovery effort. Officials planned to spend the evening for the bodies, Kanger said......It is not yet known if there was an explosion at the plant, Kanger said.
I'll be curious to see what caused the explosion or collapse.  I know some accidents are going to happen, and that our instant access to news makes these type of events seem more plentiful than they used to be, even though that most likely isn't actually true, but it sure seems like there have been a lot of industrial accidents in the news recently.  I can't shake the idea that poorly funded regulatory agencies and abject lack of capital spending in plant infrastructure might be to blame for this situation.

If I had to guess, I would say that more people have been killed since 2002 in the United States in industrial accidents than have been killed by foreign terrorists.  Yet, the NSA is keeping records (for some unknown reason) of every text I send to the girl I have a crush on, even though a giant chemical tank sitting a mile upstream of the water supply for 300,000 people hasn't been inspected by government officials since I was in fucking high school.  A fertilizer plant in BFE, Texas doesn't have to follow the model fire code (actually the state of Texas forbids most counties from establishing fire codes) when storing enough high explosive to wipe out a good portion of the surrounding town, but we've got to take off our shoes and get our junk scanned before getting on an airplane to make sure nobody is going to explode their Chuck Taylors or set their balls on fire to take down the plane.  Maybe it's just me, but why are we so concerned about poor-ass brown people living in tents and herding goats halfway around the world, and so unconcerned about the damn rich fuckers with four homes in Aspen jetting around the world and paying $142 million for a single work of art with money they skimmed from consumers, pocketed instead of investing in safety measures or capital spending on basic industrial infrastructure, or garnered from straight up fraud?  We 've got a shitball, majorly under-invested railroad leaving a freight train loaded with very explosive crude oil unattended on a hill above a town, which ends up rolling down said hill, derailing and blowing up the central business district of the town and killing 47 people (after one of the unattended locomotive engines, which were still running to keep the air brakes operational, caught fire and was extinguished by the local fire department) while cops at Ohio State and in Murfreesboro, Tennessee are getting mine-resistant vehicles to do God knows what (oh yeah, Murfreesboro is where some Muslims were trying to build a mosque to use their first amendment right to exercise religious freedom, but have been prevented from doing so by bigots and morons).  I just don't understand what the hell is going on, but I think I know who is getting rich and who is getting blown to kingdom come.  It may be time for common folks to invest in pitchforks and torches, but I'm not sure what good they'll do when confronted with MRAPs and drones.  Of course, considering what happened in our foreign adventures over in goatherd land, the folks with the most to lose might want to look into better security at the fertilizer plants that have piles of ammonium nitrate sitting around in the middle of fucking nowhere (or more logically, ban the manufacturing of it, since a business model based on selling tons of the stuff to every hick with a piece of land makes tighter security at the plant seem like a bit of a waste of time, like taking a full body scan of grandma at the airport) .  You can fuck over the rubes for a while, but eventually they are going to figure things out. 

A Reminder of the Bad Old Days

From the Wall Street Journal, a chart showing various payments to farmers under Farm Bills since the 1996 "Freedom to Farm" bill:

It would be nice if the chart broke out direct payments versus LDP payments.  LDP had a sizable impact on grain farmers' income from 1998-2006, and it has only been since the ethanol mandate and the Chinese commodity boom that we got away from LDP.  It would also be interesting to depict where Crop Revenue Coverage was introduced, and any changes in subsidies for the crop insurance program.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Where the Road Ends

NASA Photo of the Day

January 14:

The Gegenschein Over Chile
Image Credit & Copyright: Yuri Beletsky (Las Campanas Observatory, Carnegie Institution)
Explanation: Is the night sky darkest in the direction opposite the Sun? No. In fact, a rarely discernable faint glow known as the gegenschein (German for "counter glow") can be seen 180 degrees around from the Sun in an extremely dark sky. The gegenschein is sunlight back-scattered off small interplanetary dust particles. These dust particles are millimeter sized splinters from asteroids and orbit in the ecliptic plane of the planets. Pictured above from last year is one of the more spectacular pictures of the gegenschein yet taken. Here a deep exposure of an extremely dark sky over Las Campanas Observatory in Chile shows the gegenschein so clearly that even a surrounding glow is visible. Notable background objects include the Andromeda galaxy, the Pleiades star cluster, the California Nebula, the belt of Orion just below the Orion Nebula and inside Barnard's Loop, and bright stars Rigel and Betelgeuse. The gegenschein is distinguished from zodiacal light near the Sun by the high angle of reflection. During the day, a phenomenon similar to the gegenschein called the glory can be seen in reflecting air or clouds opposite the Sun from an airplane.

The Second Coming of William Randolph Hearst?

Jill Lepore compares Roger Ailes to a previous sensationalistic, demagogue and media mogul, William Randolph Hearst.  I found this indictment of the impact of Fox News and the rest of the conservative media machine on Republican electoral outcomes to be interesting:
“You don’t get me,” Ailes told Sherman (Ailes' unauthorized biographer), when they met at a party. “You don’t get me” is what Fox News viewers across the country have been saying to the Washington press corps since the channel started, and fair enough. Still, in the end, the overturning of American journalism hasn’t served their interests, or anyone’s. Well-reported news is a public good; bad news is bad for everyone.
Sherman sees Ailes as a kingmaker, which isn’t entirely convincing. Ailes is an entertainer. He’s also a bogeyman. Raymond Gram Swing noticed that Hearst was largely a projection of his readers: “If he ever indulges in introspection his tragedy must be in seeing that for all his power, for all his being the biggest publisher in the world, he is not a leader, never has been a leader and never could be a leader.” Hearst died in 1951. Between 1952 and 1988, an era marked by the Fairness Doctrine (and, according to conservatives, a liberal media), Republicans won seven out of ten Presidential elections. Between 1988 and 2012, during the ascendancy of conservative media, Republicans won only three out of seven Presidential elections. When Mitt Romney lost, Ailes blamed the Party. “The G.O.P. couldn’t organize a one-car funeral,” he said. Another explanation is that the conservative media drove the Party into a graveyard.
I think the neverending purity tests and purges of moderates from the G.O.P. orchestrated by a conservative media more concerned with raking in revenue and fleecing the rubes than in promoting any sort of competent governance or actual public service have soured the majority of Americans on the Republican party.  By playing to the biases of a disaffected segment of the citizenry, Ailes and his media ilk have managed to make conservative politicians anathema to fast growing segments of the population.  If they don't change direction soon, the party will be severely damaged.

On a side note, I didn't know that Ailes grew up in Warren, Ohio and is an OU alum.  I learn something new every day.

Republicans' Daunting Math in 2016

Dan Balz:
Republicans won 16 states in each of the six elections during that period (1980-2000) and won an additional four states in five of the six. That added up to 179 electoral votes, based on census apportionments in 2000. Today, those 20 states account for 193 electoral votes as a result of the population shift from north to south. Democrats won just one state — Minnesota — plus the District of Columbia in all six elections. They counted only two more states where they won five of six. Together, those four accounted for just 21 electoral votes.
From 1980-2000, 10 states were up for grabs, with each party winning them three times over six elections. They accounted for 155 electoral votes in 2000, and 147 today. What has happened to those once-contested states highlights the dramatic change that has taken place since, namely a shift of some major states toward the Democrats.
From 1992-2012, Democrats built a base that rivals or exceeds that of the Republicans in the earlier period. Eighteen states and the District have voted Democratic in each of the six presidential elections. They represent a total 242 electoral votes, according to the current allocation. Three other states, with a total of 15 electoral votes, have backed the Democrats five times.
Meanwhile, Republicans won 13 states in those six elections, but because most of them were smaller states, their electoral votes totaled just 102. The biggest consistent GOP state in this period has been Texas, with 38 electoral votes. Five other states backed the GOP nominee in five of the six elections, for an additional 56 electoral votes.
Adding together the states that voted Republican or Democratic in at least four of the six elections gave Democrats 281 electoral votes and Republicans 219. Only two states — Colorado and Florida, with a total of 38 electoral votes — were won three times for each party in those six elections.
Republicans' focus on rural, white, elderly and wealthy folks at the expense of everybody else just doesn't seem like good planning in a representative government in which the electorate is becoming more urban, browner, and generally less well-off financially (the population is aging, but Republican policies targeting Social Security and Medicare puts that interest group at risk, also).  The radical "conservative" Tea Party agenda, and an absolutely terrible looking bunch of candidates will probably doom the Republicans to another beatdown in 2016, barring financial collapse, an Obamacare-induced health care meltdown or some tremendous political scandal (not Benghazi or the IRS bullshit).  Luckily for the Republicans, gerrymandering, vote suppression, unlimited political contributions and low voter turnouts in  off-year elections will allow them to remain somewhat relevant long enough for them to try to reform the party to become more competitive amongst younger demographics.  Now, will they actually take the opportunity?  I don't know.

A Few Things

There are a couple of items that have been in the news that I haven't really messed with, but that I'd like to comment on. 

First off, Chris Christie.  I personally don't believe that Christie had no idea that his staff was ordering lane closures to get back at politicians who failed to back Christie.  I think he's lying through his teeth.  But to give him the benefit of the doubt, it is pretty disturbing that his staff would make such moves without the Governor's go-ahead. 

Anyway, Christie has been one of the most adept Republican politicians out there, starting out as a full blown Tea Partier back in 2010 and 2011.  One of his first moves upon getting elected was to cancel the commuter rail tunnel under the Hudson River, which made no logical sense regarding the good of the state of New Jersey or regional transportation, but fit right in to the Tea Party's war on trains (see John Kasich, Scott Walker and Rick Scott for other anti-train idiocy in that time period).  Likewise, he became a Fox News video star by denigrating a public school teacher at a public meeting because she had the nerve to take him to task for bad mouthing public employees.  That was when all the newly elected Republican governors were using public workers as a punching bag. 

However, like John Kasich, Christie was able to sense that the Tea Party was its own worst enemy, and each made efforts to appear bipartisan in order to avoid following the Tea Party to extreme unpopularity.  So far, in the bridge scandal, Christie has managed to not be dragged down yet, but with the new charges from the mayor of Hoboken, I think he's got his work cut out for him going forward.  As I said before, I think he knew all about the bridge deal, and his alleged actions fit with prior examples of personal assholery.  Will that hurt him with the Republican electorate?  Assholery won't, but appearing to be bipartisan will.  Republicans love them some assholes.

Secondly, I haven't touched on Iran, Israel and the United States in a while.  The diplomatic breakthroughs between Iran and the United States have been one of the few accomplishments of the Obama administration in the foreign policy sphere.  It is disturbing to me that a coalition of large state Democrats and crazy Republicans in the Senate has pushed a bill for new sanctions on Iran in an attempt to derail the nuclear talks amongst the United States, Europe, Russia and Iran.  The influence of Israel over Middle East policy is terrifying.  One political party, and numerous powerful members of another are under the sway of another nation, going as far as placing the interests of that nation over the interests of our own.  Diplomacy is the only realistic way to deal with the Iran nuclear program, and anyone who tries to position the United States to go to war with Iran is not acting in the interests of the United States. 

Finally, the President's NSA speech this week was another bunch of weak sauce defending an unsupportable series of surveillance programs.  There should be a bipartisan move to disassemble the NSA programs as a ridiculous waste of taxpayer money, a drag on the effectiveness of counter-terrorism efforts and a gross violation of civil liberties.  Will that happen?  I doubt it.  But trying to find the world's smallest needle in the world's largest haystack probably shouldn't involve continuously increasing the size of the haystack.  The threat of terrorism to our way-of-life has been ridiculously exaggerated, and in trying to counter this grossly over-imagined threat, we have allowed a much greater threat to that way-of-life to be created.  Please, let's dismantle the ridiculous security state.

That's the Way That the World Goes Round