Sunday, July 20, 2014

NASA Photo of the Day

July 16:

The Moon Eclipses Saturn
Image Credit & Copyright: Carlos Di Nallo
Explanation: What happened to half of Saturn? Nothing other than Earth's Moon getting in the way. As pictured above on the far right, Saturn is partly eclipsed by a dark edge of a Moon itself only partly illuminated by the Sun. This year the orbits of the Moon and Saturn have led to an unusually high number of alignments of the ringed giant behind Earth's largest satellite. Technically termed an occultation, the above image captured one such photogenic juxtaposition from Buenos Aires, Argentina that occurred early last week. Visible to the unaided eye but best viewed with binoculars, there are still four more eclipses of Saturn by our Moon left in 2014. The next one will be on August 4 and visible from Australia, while the one after will occur on August 31 and be visible from western Africa at night but simultaneously from much of eastern North America during the day.

Braddock's Road

Russel Shorto traces the remains of the military road constructed by Edward Braddock in 1755:

A collision point was coming into focus amid the rolling green hills of western Pennsylvania. “The Forks of the Ohio” — the spot where the Monongahela and Allegheny Rivers meet to form the Ohio (where Pittsburgh sits today) — was to be a fulcrum in the global struggle between two European empires. Whoever controlled the Forks controlled the Ohio, which, since it flowed west to the Mississippi, connected the east and the interior of the continent. Braddock’s mission was to chase away the French soldiers stationed at Fort Duquesne at the Forks and establish a permanent English presence that would give Britain free rein over the limitless continent.
But first he had to get there. Technically his expedition began in Alexandria, Va., but the first half was a relative cakewalk on existing roads. The roads ended at Fort Cumberland, on the Potomac River in Maryland, near my house. The fort was the staging point from which Braddock would lead his army westward, carving out the very road they would traverse across 120 brutal miles to the Forks... 
Braddock’s expedition would serve as a warm-up for some colonists who went on to greater things. Benjamin Franklin supplied wagons. Daniel Boone drove one of them. Meanwhile, Braddock needed men with experience. He knew that a young officer of the Virginia militia had headed toward the Forks the year before. At 22, George Washington had been sent to warn the French away. His trip turned into a diplomatic nightmare when his troops attacked the French they were supposed to parley with. The incident was one of the sparks that touched off the war. 
On May 30, the first 600 men, equipped with cannons, mortars and 50 wagons, set off at daybreak. They labored up the slope of Haystack Mountain, clearing trees and blasting rocks. Just beyond our backyard, the ascent was “almost a perpendicular rock,” according to an officer’s journal; three wagons, teams and all, plunged over a cliff. By the end of the first day they had gone only two miles. It was a horrendous start.
Following in their footsteps today is in one sense almost embarrassingly simple. When Thomas Jefferson sanctioned construction of a national road westward in 1806, it followed the trail Braddock had blazed. The National Road, which was also called the Cumberland Road and is better known today as Route 40, is for much of the way the modern incarnation of Braddock’s road. 
Then again, the journey is simple only if you are content to buzz along the general course of the route. The actual road — meaning the 12-foot-wide path Braddock’s men hacked and blasted through the wilderness — has the status of myth among some historians because of its ur-American connotations but also, I think, because locating it has proved so difficult. Centuries of development and neglect have obscured things; Route 40 repeatedly crosses it, but doesn’t precisely track it. One could do Braddock’s route in a fine day trip by staying behind the wheel and using the markers placed near each of the army’s encampments. But I wanted more, so I contacted Robert Bantz, a former engineer who has made the tracking of Braddock’s road his retirement project. After 20 years of collating data from firsthand accounts, old maps, metal detectors and a GPS, of tramping through backyards, fording streams and confronting bears and rattlesnakes, he has become the undisputed expert, lauded by the state’s archaeological society and beloved of local schools.
 I am surprised Bantz is an engineer and not a surveyor.  That project definitely sounds like something a surveyor would undertake, possibly in colonial garb.

The Man Who Bought a State Government

Art Pope, the conservative donor who funded campaigns to bring conservatives to power in North Carolina, works as the state's budget director:
There is no one in North Carolina, or likely in all of American politics, quite like Art Pope. He is not just a wealthy donor seeking to influence politics from the outside, nor just a government official shaping it from within. He is doing both at the same time — the culmination of a quarter-
century spent building a sphere of influence that has put him at the epicenter of North Carolina government and moved his state closer to the conservative vision he has long imagined.
“There are not many people as influential, because few people have invested the time and the money that he has on behalf of his state,” said Republican former governor James G. Martin, who tapped Pope, then 28, to be a lawyer in his administration in the 1980s.
From the outside, Pope’s family foundation has put more than $55 million into a robust network of conservative think tanks and advocacy groups, building a state version of what his friends Charles and David Koch have helped create on a national level.
On the inside, the budget director and his GOP allies — who took over the legislature in 2010 and the governor’s mansion two years later with the backing of Pope and other big donors — have passed numerous laws overhauling taxes, social services and voting rights.
McCrory has also eliminated a public financing program for judicial races — opening those contests to greater influence by wealthy donors — and has sought to cut funding for the state’s university system. Both are pet causes of Pope’s.
And shockingly,as seen in Kansas, trickle-down economics works just as poorly at the state level as it does at the federal level:
For all of his pull, the revolution Pope helped set in motion is not going quite as planned. The tax overhaul, styled in part off ideas promoted by Pope-backed groups, has contributed to tight finances in North Carolina at a time when other states are flush with cash. Cuts to education have spawned widespread discontent among parents and teachers.
And what was supposed to be a brief legislative session this spring to approve a new budget broke down into a contentious power struggle between the newly ascendant Republican officials, with powerful Senate leaders squaring off against McCrory and his allies in the House. Relations grew so fraught that at one point Senate leaders threatened to subpoena Pope to answer questions about contradictory budget projections.
Conservative governance is best left to counterfactual arguments.  Real-life hates trickle-down bullshit.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Late July Weekend Links

Here are some interesting stories to check out over the weekend:

From YMCA Flying Fish to France: My English Channel Swim - Bloomberg

Research supports the notion of the 'hot hand'; baseball players always believed in it - Washington Post.  I was always a believer.  Whether it was baseball, golf, cornhole, darts or any other semi-athletic competition which required some motor skills, I was either on or off (generally off).

 Lessons From America's War for the Greater Middle East - Andrew Bacevich

The intellectual cess pool of the inflation truthers - Wonkblog.  Amity Shlaes being an intellectually-bankrupt faux-economist faux-historian hack isn't exactly noteworthy.  The truthers are way wrong about hyperinflation, but considering the steep rise in health care, education and energy costs (and the trickle-down into food costs thanks to ethanol policy) combined with pay growing slower than inflation, this article may be a little too dismissive of the squeeze the former middle class is under.

Inflation is always and everywhere a political phenomenon - Pieria

Evaluating the Benefits and Costs of Patents - Morning Edition.  The fact that this is even being discussed shows how badly the patent system is in need of reforms.  Until the last few years, questioning the patent system was beyond the pale.

Cheap at sea, pricey on the plate: The voodoo of lobster economics - Globe and Mail

How to Ignore a Plague - Medium

Give Us This Day The Bread Wheat Genome - Scientific American

Farming the apocalypse - Aeon

A disturbing glimpse into the shrouded world of the Texas grand jury system - Houston Chronicle.  I don't think abuse of the grand jury system is limited to Texas.  But like in other bad categories, Texas is amongst the leaders nationally.

So Sue Me: Republicans Learn To Love Litigation - The New Yorker.  Republicans desperately try to maintain ruling power and privilege despite being a minority (numerically, not ethnically, yet) party.  Note: you shouldn't attack other minorities when you are one. That will be a lesson which takes Republicans a long time to learn.  They're a bit on the slow side.

 Quiz: Which Of These State Fair Foods Are Faux - The Salt.  Mmmmmm.

Corporate America Is Enriching Shareholders at the Expense of the Economy - FiveThirtyEight.  Somehow, an accounting professor wrote an article that mentioned dividend payments to shareholders increased in the last decade without mentioning that the tax rate on dividends was cut from ordinary income rate to 15%.  He even appears to not even realize that the tax rate was cut. WTF?

America's Move to Soy Hobbles Dairy - Wall Street Journal.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Stupidity of Bottled Water

Michael Hiltzik:
The sale of bottled water to most Americans, who have access to cheap and safe tap water from municipal systems, is a marketing scam, and environmentally devastating besides. As Peter H. Gleick of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute showed in 2007, it took the equivalent of 17 million barrels of oil to produce the plastic bottles for American buyers in 2006. That would be enough to fuel 1 million American cars and light trucks for a year.
"Bottled water requires energy throughout its life cycle," Gleick has written. "Energy is required to capture, treat, and send water to the bottling plant; fill, package, transport, and cool the bottled water; and recycle or dispose of the empty containers."
Consider the unnecessary energy usage in shipping, say, Fiji Water to these shores from a Pacific island dictatorship 5,000 miles away, all to satisfy the marketing thirst of the product's distributors, Lynda and Stewart Resnick of Beverly Hills. And while you're cradling that shiny square bottle in your hands, keep in mind that 30% of Fiji's 800,000 residents don't have access to clean drinking water themselves.
The drought is bound to focus more attention on the extraction of water from California sources for retail sale. The Desert Sun of Palm Springs started that process this week, with an exhaustive look at the deal between the Morongo Band of Mission Indians and Nestle Waters North America, which draws water for its Arrowhead brand from sources on the reservation.
The piece was not as exhaustive as it could have been, because neither Nestle nor the Morongo are forthcoming about how much water is being drawn.
Wait, Fiji water actually is bottled in Fiji and shipped to the United States?  That may be the stupidest thing I have ever heard of.  It should be legal to flog people who are stupid enough to market or buy something this stupid.  I did find this entertaining tidbit:
In 2006, Fiji Water ran an advertisement stating, "The label says Fiji because it's not bottled in Cleveland". This was taken as an insult by the city's water department. The Cleveland Water Department ran tests comparing a bottle of Fiji Water to Cleveland tap water and some other national bottled brands. Fiji Water reportedly contained 6.31 micrograms of arsenic per litre where as the tap water of Cleveland contained none.
Bottled water is for idiots.  Drink it straight from the tap.

Minnesota Reins In Greenhouse Emissions

While other states and critics of the Obama administration have howled about complying with its proposed rule slashing greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, Minnesota has been reining in its utilities’ carbon pollution for decades — not painlessly, but without breaking much of a sweat, either.
Today, Minnesota gets more of its power from wind than all but four other states, and the amount of coal burned at power plants has dropped by more than a third from its 2003 peak. And while electricity consumption per person has been slowly falling nationwide for the last five years, Minnesota’s decline is steeper than the average.
The Obama administration’s proposal would reduce power plants’ carbon pollution 30 percent from 2005 levels by 2030. Minnesota set similar nonbinding goals for its entire economy seven years ago: a 15 percent reduction by 2015, 25 percent by 2025 and 80 percent by 2050. (Minnesota measures carbon differently; by federal standards, its reductions would most likely be greater.)
The state swings some regulatory sticks in its carbon-cutting effort. Minnesota has not only set deadlines for utilities to increase the amount of electricity generated from renewable sources, but it has also required minimum shares for certain renewables like wind and solar energy. Minneapolis, which issued a hefty clean energy blueprint in February, is using its utility franchise negotiations to bargain for further carbon-cutting measures.
But it dangles carrots, too. Voracious power consumers like iron ore mines, for example, can sidestep a regulatory mandate by showing a commitment to reducing electricity use. And the state jump-starts green energy efforts by striking deals with utilities: This year, the state and its private utilities agreed to jolt the slow-growing electric-automobile market by offering discount recharging rates.
Well, thanks to Tea Party goons here, Ohio just scrapped our renewable energy requirements. Nothing like leading from behind.  If Ohio Republicans can't make us more like Mississippi, they will at least make us more like Indiana, the Mississippi of the North.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

What To Expect If China Crashes

China surpassed Japan in 2011 in gross domestic product and it's gaining on the U.S. Some World Bank researchers even think China is already on the verge of becoming No. 1 (I'm skeptical). China's world-trade weighting has doubled in the last decade. But the real explosion has been in the financial sector. Since 2008, Chinese stock valuations surged from $1.8 trillion to $3.8 trillion and bank-balance sheets and the money supply jumped accordingly. China's broad measure of money has surged by an incredible $12.5 trillion since 2008 to roughly match the U.S.'s monetary stock.
This enormous money buildup fed untold amounts of private-sector debt along with public-sector institutions. Its scale, speed and opacity are fueling genuine concerns about a bad-loan meltdown in an economy that's 2 1/2 times bigger than Germany's. If that happens, at a minimum it would torch China's property markets and could take down systemically important parts of Hong Kong's banking system. The reverberations probably wouldn't stop there, however, and would hit resource-dependent Australia, batter trade-driven economies Japan, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan and whack prices of everything from oil and steel to gold and corn.
"China’s importance for the world economy and the rapid growth of its financial system, mean that there are widespread concerns that a financial crisis in China would also turn into a global crisis," says London-based Slater. "A bad asset problem on this scale would dwarf that seen in the major emerging financial crises seen in Russia and Argentina in 1998 and 2001, and also be more severe than the Japanese bad loan problem of the 1990s."
Personally, my finances would probably get hit harder if China implodes than they did in the Great Recession.  My investments are ridiculously over-weighted in basic materials and heavy industry.  For some crazy reason, I decided that some coal and iron ore stocks looked cheap.  Well, if the Chinese economy seizes up, they'll get a ton cheaper (I maybe ought to cut my losses in those).

Then there's the risk on the farm side.  I could see corn in the $2 dollar range for a little while if things really went to hell in China.  That would make a lot of overpriced farm ground lose a shitload of value.  Likewise, if Chinese oil demand slackened, oil prices would get crushed, and there could be a lot of defaults in the oil patch. Scary as it sounds, we may have to hope that the Chinese Communist party is smarter at the Capitalism game than the stooges here in the States who seem to think they invented it.  If they aren't, we all might be, like Private Pyle, in a world of shit.