Saturday, December 31, 2011

Better Than A Crystal Ball

The Atlantic lists various item drops across the coutnry for New Year's Eve, including Port Clinton's walleye.  My favorite:

Hartley's potato chips, a local favorite, are dropped from a fire truck in Lewistown, Pennsylvania.
I'm assuming that bag includes the warning that "Contents May Settle During Shippiing." 

Large Cod Fishing Restrictions May Go In Place

Morning Edition:
In New England, fishermen are bracing for what may be unprecedented restrictions or even a shutdown of cod fishing in the Gulf of Maine. Federal regulators say new data show cod as dangerously overfished, but fishermen say they don't believe that, and say drastic restrictions would be catastrophic. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.
TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: Three years ago, scientists found plenty of cod around. After years of overfishing, they said the stock had rebounded. But new data this season shows just the opposite.
RICK CUNNINGHAM: It's highly frustrating, because those fish may never actually have existed.
SMITH: Rick Cunningham is chair of the New England Fishery Management Council that'll recommend in the next few weeks how much to limit future cod fishing.
CUNNINGHAM: There is going to be no way to avoid pain to the industry. We almost get to a point of having to close the Gulf of Maine.
VITO GIACALONE: Shut the Gulf of Maine cod down, really? It's almost not thinkable. It will be the biggest socio-economic disaster in the fishery in the Northeast ever.
SMITH: Vito Giacalone, a fisherman with the Northeast Seafood Coalition, says there's no more important fish than cod in these waters that stretch from Cape Cod up to Canada. It's been the mainstay here for centuries. And because groundfish are all caught together in the same nets, any restriction on cod would also limit the catch of pollock or haddock, for example.
GIACALONE: Without cod, it's over. I would say 120 vessels in this port would end up being insolvent. And that's only the tip of iceberg, because then you have the state of New Hampshire. Every one of those vessels will be in trouble.
This seems like a lose-lose situation.  If the report is wrong, the fishermen get pummelled now, but fish stocks benefit down the road.  If the report is right, the fish will likely be gone without the restrictions.  I'm glad I'm not in charge of making that call.

New Year's Eve Entertainment

If anybody is looking for a little college hockey to while away the time before ringing in the new year, Versus is covering Notre Dame vs. Boston University at 7:00.

An Unlikely Prediction

Granland features fearless predictions for 2012.  My favorite:

Urban Meyer Will End Up Coaching the Denver Broncos

In his first season at Ohio State, Urban Meyer will go 11-1, win the Big Ten championship, and defeat Michigan. Meanwhile, after Tim Tebow breaks his femur diving for a first down, the Denver Broncos will lose their final five games of the 2012 season, leading to the firing of John Fox. Meyer will insist repeatedly that he is not interested in the job, and then after the Buckeyes' Rose Bowl victory over Oregon, he will take the job. In his second season in Denver, he will coach Tebow to a Super Bowl victory over the Chicago Bears, and then retire from coaching the following year after suffering a massive anxiety attack on the sideline of a preseason game.
Six months later, he will replace Mack Brown as the head coach at the University of Texas.
Michael Weinreb
I'll wager against that one.  I'll predict the Broncos will do poorly with Tebow as quarterback next year, and the Broncos will be looking for a new one.  There's a difference between a miracle worker and luck, and I think Tebow's been on the lucky side.  Anyway, the SNL Tebow skit is awesome:


Todd Perdum analyzes good and bad flip-flopping (h/t the Dish):
But we’d all do well to remember the first political statement Abraham Lincoln ever made, on March 9, 1832, in his failed campaign for the Illinois legislature. Al Simpson keeps a copy on file in his BlackBerry, and he read it out over the phone: “Holding it a sound maxim that it is better to be only sometimes right than at all times wrong, so soon as I discover my opinions to be erroneous, I shall be ready to renounce them.”
Makes sense to me.  I've never understood why people value consistency over learning from mistakes.  Being consistently wrong isn't impressive to me.

A Wise Business Move

December 31, 1759:
Arthur Guinness signs a 9,000 year lease at £45 per annum and starts brewing Guinness.
Who in the world is short-sighted enough to lease their property out for 9,000 years?  Anyway, tonight I'm going to hoist a pint and toast Mr. Guinness for his business saavy.  Better drink up now, there are only 8748 years left on the lease.


Friday, December 30, 2011

A Continent Just Isn't Big Enough

Via Ritholtz, the National Post maps the U.S. military's bases around the world:

Church Picks Fight With Neighborhood, And Parishioners

A Chicago Catholic Church complains because the Gay Pride parade will go by during mass:
A Roman Catholic church on Chicago's North Side has reached out to its parishioners hoping they will help pressure the city into rescheduling or rerouting the Gay Pride Parade, which is slated to follow a new path directly past its doors next summer.
Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, one of the city's oldest Roman Catholic churches, reached out to its parishioners concerning the matter Thursday on its Facebook page. The church claims that the parade's new route and scheduled start time (10 a.m.) will force it to cancel morning masses due to the enormous crowds the parade typically attracts. Last year, an estimated 700,000 people attended the parade, according to an AP report.
The church, located between Halsted and Broadway on Belmont, is urging its parishioners to contact Ald. Tom Tunney (44th) to "let your voice be heard."
"Your help is needed," the church's Facebook status reads. "As many of you know, the Annual Pride Parade which is held on the last Sunday of June has had a route and time change. Unfortunately, the parade will now pass in front of church."
The alderman happens to be the first openly gay alderman in city history, and a member of the parish.  I haven't been to very many churches in Chicago, but I have been to Our Lady of Mount Carmel, and it happened to be on gay pride weekend.  The parade wasn't going on when I went to mass at 9 AM, but I could see a giant rainbow flag on a building along the parade route about 200? feet from the church doors.  Of all the parishes in Chicago, this one seems like the least likely one to pick a fight with the gay community.  It is right in Boys Town, and just from my observation at that one mass, a sizable percentage of the folks attending were gay.  Maybe the parish is extremely financially sound (it is in a very nice neighborhood and had a very nice looking school beside the church), but I wouldn't think is would be extremely wise to alienate a sizable portion of the membership by pitching a fit and comparing the organizers of the parade to the KKK.  I can see trying to negotiate some arrangements, but a comparison to the Klan?  Maybe all of the parishioners are put off by the parade, who knows?  What I do know is that the last 20 years have definitely shown that the Catholic Church is not run by folks with excellent public relations skills, or even somewhat poor public relations skills.

Winter Classic 2012

Workers prepare for Monday's Winter Classic in Philadelphia, matching the Flyers vs. the Rangers:

This is a cool concept. Too bad it has been hard to get the weather to cooperate.

Diversity In Northwest Iowa

PRI's The World:
Immigration reform has come up in the Republican presidential debates, but it hasn’t been nearly as big of a topic as in years past. The issue still evokes strong passions, however, in many small Iowa towns that rely on immigrant labor at their meat packing plants. It’s an open secret: Many of the workers are undocumented.
Storm Lake is a city of some 10,000 tucked in the corn fields of northwestern Iowa. The main employers are a turkey and hog processing plant.
Storm Lake’s demographics run counter to the state. Iowa’s population is 91 percent white. In Storm Lake, the school district is 22 percent white. The students are a mix of mostly Latinos, along with Southeast Asians and Africans. Many here, like Sara Huddleston, proudly say this mix is working.
“We call ourselves the conquistadores of this little town in the middle of nowhere,” said Huddleston, who was among the very first Latinos to come here from Mexico back in 1989.
Surprise, surprise, it takes a packing plant to bring diversity to a midwestern town.  Most people in town seem comfortable with it, even though the town is represented by idiot bigot Steve King:
Tyson Foods is one of the two major employers in Storm Lake. The company says it uses all the available tools provided by the government, and more, to verify documents of the people it hires.
A Tyson spokesman said starting pay at the hog processing plant in Storm Lake is $11 an hour. That’s $4 above minimum wage. Tyson employees also get benefits like medical and dental insurance, paid vacations and a retirement savings plan.
That’s not enough to entice native Iowans to gut hogs though, says Police chief, Mark Prosser.
“It’s difficult work, hard work, repetitive work, monotonous work,” said Prosser. “Sometimes there’s the perception, and even criticism of shifting demographics that people categorized as ‘those people’ are taking jobs from the people who are native to this area, born and raised here, and that’s just not the case. That’s a myth. We don’t have lines at our packing plants trying to get jobs.”
Congressman Steve King disputes this. “When they say there are jobs that Americans won’t do, that’s not true, that’s a lie that’s been perpetrated against the American people.”
“Every job in this country is being done by Americans, there’s no job they won’t do,” said King. “But you need to pay them what it’s worth. And I would like to see a tighter labor supply in this country, so that a person could get out of bed, go to work, and make enough money to pay for a modest house, educate their children, and plan for retirement. It’s used to be that way."
King is partially right here.  Americans might do the job-for $30 an hour.  When he's talking about the good old days, it seems odd he doesn't mention unions.  Much of the meatpacking work was unionized, until the companies started breaking the unions and closing plants in larger cities.  The reason Storm Lake and other towns in the middle of nowhere have plants is because the companies wanted to open non-union facilities.  With the lower wages, Americans won't do the work.  Back in the '90s, 60 Minutes reported on how IBP, which is now part of Tyson, was recruiting homeless people on the east coast, giving them some cash, and putting them on buses to Iowa.  They'd be put to work in the packing plants, and when they quit or were injured, they ended up living on the street in Iowa.  Eventually, the immigrants ended up taking the jobs.  The unfortunate thing about Steve King, other than his stupidity, is that the only reason he favors higher paying jobs in the meatpacking industry is because he is a bigot who can't stand Hispanics, and wants to pretend that they are the problem.  That man is an embarrassment for the state of Iowa.

Why Are Mosquitos More Attracted To Some People?

Scientists think it depends on the types of microbes on the skin:
The logic behind the effect is simple: Odors from human skin are essential cues that guide mosquitoes to our skin, and the microbes living on our skin play an important role in producing these odors. In fact, without skin bacteria, human sweat would be odorless to the human nose, according to the researchers, led by Niels Verhulst of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. [Bugs Love the Way You Sweat]
Verhulst and colleagues collected volatiles — the easily evaporated chemicals responsible for odor — from the left feet of 48 men. They then gave the mosquitoes a choice between each sample and a standard ammonia concentration. (The odor of ammonia is known to attract mosquitos.) They also sequenced DNA from the skin of the left foot; this gave them information on what, and how much of it, was living on the men's feet.
Of the 48 men who volunteered for the study, the researchers classifed nine as "highly attractive", while seven were considered "poorly attractive."
In addition to finding that a greater diversity of skin microbes seems to deter mosquitoes, the researchers came to associate certain types of bacteria with how delicious the mosquitoes found the person to be.
The more tasty men had microbes that were less diverse and were likely to include Leptotrichia, Delftia, Actinobacteria Gp3, and Staphylococcus microbes, the researchers found. 
Kinda gross, but interesting.  I guess that disproves my sister's assertion that she gets bit more because she's sweet (Well, that and she isn't.  Just kidding).



Kind of cool, but the dude ought to lay off the stimulants.

The Great One

December 30, 1981:
In the 39th game of his 3rd NHL season Wayne Gretzky scores 5 goals giving him 50 on the year setting a new NHL record previously held by Maurice Richard and Mike Bossy who earlier had each scored 50 goals in 50 games.
That is utterly unbelievable.

Also, today is Tiger Woods' and Lebron James' birthday.  Neither had a tremendous 2011, but things are looking up for 2012.

Graphical Overload

Via Ritholtz, an awesome history of the U.S. Presidency:

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Bad News In The Rust Belt

Yglesias mentions the 10 highest cities for murder rate, and the Rust Belt is amply represented:
 For example, the top ten large American cities in terms of murder rate are New Orleans, St Louis, Baltimore, Detroit, Newark, Oakland, Washington, Kansas City, Buffalo, and Cincinnati of which Washington is the most expensive by far (to say nothing of comparing it to Berlin!) and the schools are sub-par compared to other expensive major cities.
Not something we want to brag about.

Cold War Satellite Reconnaissance

From The Atlantic:

In this case, though, the reality is more interesting than the legend. Our satellite programs were ridiculous collaborations between optical specialists like the Perkin-Elmer researchers, Lockheed Martin's satellite makers, Kodak's film creators, and the Air Force's pilots. Check out the AP's description of the program and note the many points of virtuosity.
From 1971 to 1986 a total of 20 satellites were launched, each containing 60 miles (100 kilometers) of film and sophisticated cameras that orbited the earth snapping vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes. The film was shot back through the earth's atmosphere in buckets that parachuted over the Pacific Ocean, where C-130 Air Force planes snagged them with grappling hooks.
All of this is now detailed in the National Reconnaissance Office's declassification reports about Hexagon, which include a 72-page overview produced in 1978 and marked TOP SECRET. I've pulled out some of the most fascinating diagrams from the Hexagon overview.
That is just too cool.  I can't imagine doing the calculations for that with a sliderule.

Here Come The Irish

Time for the Champs Sports Bowl.  I started the season with this rendition of the Notre Dame Victory March, I guess I'll close the season with it:

Texas Agriculture Withers Under Drought

Eve Troeh: If you take the 500-mile drive from Austin to Amarillo, every other tree is dead, and every farmer's lake is bone-dry.
Jack Plunkett runs a market research firm in Houston.
Jack Plunkett: I think you really can't appreciate how bad this has been until you get out there and see it.
Ranchers have lost at least 600,000 cows so far. They slaughtered older cows when the drought hit. Now they've cut into breeding stock.
And Texas is so big, it's not like other states can just pick up the slack.
Plunkett: This business isn't going to move to Nebraska just because it's dry in Texas. It's just not going to work that way.
Plunkett says it'll take years for Texas grass to grow back enough to feed cattle. He expects steak prices to beef up by the end of 2012. And as for the other pillar of Texas agriculture:
Mike Stevens: The largest contiguous cotton patch in the entire world.
Cotton analyst Mike Stevens says half the farmers abandoned their crops last summer. Most got paid, thanks to crop insurance. And, frankly, the world hasn't missed Texas cotton.
What a disaster.  And to make matters worse, it looks like the La Nina has settled in for another winter.  I wouldn't expect much rain in Texas, much like I'm expecting another wet spring here.

Bad News In Ireland-Home Mortgage Edition

Irish Times:
ALMOST 155,000 mortgage holders are now struggling to repay their homeloan each month.
New figures show that one-in-five homeowners across the country are in trouble with their mortgage repayments. First-time buyers tend to be the worst affected by home-loan difficulties, especially those who bought between 2005 and 2008.
Almost 63,000 homeowners are in arrears for three months or more. On top of this, close to 70,000 people have been forced to do deals with their lenders to lower monthly repayments.
When other homeowners who are in arrears for less than three months are added in, it means that one-in-five mortgage holders are struggling to pay their mortgage, Central Bank figures quoted in the latest International Monetary Fund report on Ireland reveal.
Ouch.  Looks like there's going to be another leg down in the Irish real estate market.  We've got a long way to go before we work our way out of the economic mess, despite the rosier economic numbers in the U.S.

Now Santorum?

The Republican electorate is embarrassing themselves:

Romney now leads the pack with support from 25% of likely Iowa caucus-goers, while Paul boasts 22%, both posting a five-point gain since early December. While Romney’s lead in Iowa is tenuous, his continued strength across the board raises the possibility that the establishment front-runner could win his party’s nomination in a clean sweep.

Bolstering that possibility is the collapse of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who led in Iowa with 33% less than a month ago, but has seen his front-runner status disintegrate under a torrent of negative advertising and now claims just 14% support. Some of his voters have scattered, providing small bumps to Romney and Paul as well as Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Texas Governor Rick Perry. But the biggest beneficiary of Gingrich’s collapse appears to be former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who’s rocketed into third place with 16%, a dramatic 11-point climb in three short weeks. Santorum now leads among born-again Christians, and is tied with Paul and Romney among self-described conservatives and Tea Party supporters. The surge by Santorum, who’s quietly made stops in each of Iowa’s 99 counties and won the endorsement of some of the state’s top evangelical leaders, only adds suspense to next week’s caucuses, the outcome of which remains incredibly unpredictable.
How on earth do these people jump from one clown to another every time they turn around?  Are regular people supposed to take seriously folks who are more fickle than junior high schoolers?

Corn Ethanol Subsidy To Lapse

Detroit News (via Ritholtz):
The United States has ended a 30-year tax subsidy for corn-based ethanol that cost taxpayers $6 billion annually, and ended a tariff on imported Brazilian ethanol.
Congress adjourned for the year on Friday, failing to extend the tax break that's drawn a wide variety of critics on Capitol Hill, including Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. Critics also have included environmentalists, frozen food producers, ranchers and others.
The policies have helped shift millions of tons of corn from feedlots, dinner tables and other products into gas tanks.
Environmental group Friends of the Earth praised the move.
"The end of this giant subsidy for dirty corn ethanol is a win for taxpayers, the environment and people struggling to put food on their tables," biofuels policy campaigner Michal Rosenoer said Friday.
The subsidy has provided the oil and agribusiness industries with 45 cents per gallon of ethanol blended into gasoline. By some estimates, Congress has awarded $45 billion in subsidies to the ethanol industry since 1980.
We'll see whether it is dead or not come January.

National Geographic Photos of the Year

At The Atlantic:

"Sulfuric Fire Festival", honorable mention in Places category. Once a year, Formosa fishermen's unique sulfuric fire fishing ritual is handed down from generation to generation. Location: Taipei (© Hung-Hsiu Shih) #

The Surveillance State

Washington Post (h/t John Cole):
In the space of three years, the administration has built an extensive apparatus for using drones to carry out targeted killings of suspected terrorists and stealth surveillance of other adversaries. The apparatus involves dozens of secret facilities, including two operational hubs on the East Coast, virtual Air Force­ ­cockpits in the Southwest and clandestine bases in at least six countries on two continents.
Other commanders in chief have presided over wars with far higher casualty counts. But no president has ever relied so extensively on the secret killing of individuals to advance the nation’s security goals.
The rapid expansion of the drone program has blurred long-standing boundaries between the CIA and the military. Lethal operations are increasingly assembled a la carte, piecing together personnel and equipment in ways that allow the White House to toggle between separate legal authorities that govern the use of lethal force.
In Yemen, for instance, the CIA and the military’s Joint Special Operations Command pursue the same adversary with nearly identical aircraft. But they alternate taking the lead on strikes to exploit their separate authorities, and they maintain separate kill lists that overlap but don’t match. CIA and military strikes this fall killed three U.S. citizens, two of whom were suspected al-Qaeda operatives.
While it is easy to say that these were bad people who got what's coming, there are significant bad things about this assassination strategy.  First off, it is too easy to wage war when real Americans aren't fighting and dying.  Secondly, we don't see the innocent civilians killed by mistake.  Finally, when U.S. citizens are being assassinated around the world without a trial, where are the boundaries preventing assassinations here?  Obama has way too willingly trampled civil liberties.  Unfortunatelty, outside of gold bug Ron Paul, you can hear crickets as opposition on the Republican side.

Good Luck With That

Steve Buttry makes the case for taking away Iowa's first in the nation status in the Presidential race.  A sample:
The caucus system exaggerates the influence of small pockets of highly motivated extremists, such as the Iowa Republicans who gave Pat Robertson legitimacy in 1992, when he edged the elder Bush for second behind Bob Dole. Our nation is not well-served by a process that encourages extremists.
Iowans weave an illusion of democracy around the caucuses. But caucuses really are an undemocratic process. Far fewer people turn out for caucuses than for primaries. Iowans serving out of state in the military can't caucus. Homebound elderly and disabled people who could vote by absentee ballot in primaries can't participate in caucuses. Primary polls are open long enough for any working Iowans to vote, but if you have to work the evening of the caucuses, your vote doesn't count. Arcane rules, ad-hoc alliances and outright deal-making exaggerate candidates' advantages and weaknesses in a process that doesn't use the secret ballot. Iowa-caucus advocates claim some kind of virtue to the commitment required to go out on a cold January night to spend a couple hours arguing politics. But the fact is that participation is low and bizarre.
If you're not an Iowan, you can probably add a few more reasons: ethanol subsidies, farm subsidies in general, too much attention to the Iowa State Fair and the butter cow.
Ah, the Iowa State Fair and the butter cow.  Heck, the pictures of Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry eating corn dogs are enough to decide to drop the caucuses.  Anyway, the man is right, there is no real reason for the Iowa caucuses to be the first step in the nomination for the President.  But I'll make a sizable wager that we'll be looking to the Iowa caucuses as the first step to the nomination in 2016, whether they are ridiculous or not.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster

December must have been the time for bridge collapses in the 1870's

December 29, 1876:
The Ashtabula River Railroad Disaster (also called the Ashtabula Horror or the Ashtabula Bridge Disaster) was a train disaster caused by bridge failure. It was, at the time, the worst rail accident in American history (succeeded by the Great Train Wreck of 1918) when it occurred in far northeastern Ohio on December 29, 1876, at 7:28 p.m.
One or perhaps two of the bridge designers later committed suicide. The disaster helped focus efforts to draw up standards for bridges including adequate testing and inspection.
The bridge, designed jointly by Charles Collins and Amasa Stone, was the first Howe-type wrought iron truss bridge built. Collins was reluctant to go through with building the bridge calling it "too experimental."
The Lake Shore and Michigan Southern Railway Train No. 5, The Pacific Express, left a snowy Erie, Pennsylvania, on the afternoon of December 29, 1876. As The Pacific Express plowed through the snow and crossed a bridge over the Ashtabula River, about 100 yards (90 m) from the railroad station at Ashtabula, Ohio, the passengers heard a terrible cracking sound. In just seconds, the bridge fractured and the train plunged 70 feet (21 m) into the water.
The lead locomotive "Socrates" made it across the bridge, while the second locomotive, "Columbia" and 11 railcars including two express cars, two baggage cars, one smoking car, two passenger cars and three sleeping cars and a caboose fell into the ravine below, then igniting a raging fire. The wooden cars were set aflame by kerosene-heating stoves and kerosene burning lamps. Some cars landed in an upright position and within a few minutes small localized fires became an inferno.
The rescue attempt was feeble at best because of the ill-preparedness of the nearby station to respond to emergencies. Of 159 passengers and crew on board that night, 64 people were injured and 92 were killed or died later from injuries sustained in the crash (48 of the fatalities were unrecognizable or consumed in the flames). It is unclear how many died of the fall, separate from the blaze. Matters were made worse by the heavy snow the area had just received.
Some recent authors have attributed the accident to fatigue of the cast iron lug pieces which were used to anchor the wrought iron bars of the truss together. Many were poorly made, and needed shims of metal inserted to hold the bars in place.
One good thing about engineers is that they generally investigate why things fail so that they can avoid the mistakes in the future.  I wonder if the cold weather played a part in the Tay Bridge disaster and this one?

True Leadership

The American Scholar prints a speech by William Deresiewicz to plebes at West Point in 2009 (h/t Ritholtz):
That’s really the great mystery about bureaucracies. Why is it so often that the best people are stuck in the middle and the people who are running things—the leaders—are the mediocrities? Because excellence isn’t usually what gets you up the greasy pole. What gets you up is a talent for maneuvering. Kissing up to the people above you, kicking down to the people below you. Pleasing your teachers, pleasing your superiors, picking a powerful mentor and riding his coattails until it’s time to stab him in the back. Jumping through hoops. Getting along by going along. Being whatever other people want you to be, so that it finally comes to seem that, like the manager of the Central Station, you have nothing inside you at all. Not taking stupid risks like trying to change how things are done or question why they’re done. Just keeping the routine going.
I tell you this to forewarn you, because I promise you that you will meet these people and you will find yourself in environments where what is rewarded above all is conformity. I tell you so you can decide to be a different kind of leader. And I tell you for one other reason. As I thought about these things and put all these pieces together—the kind of students I had, the kind of leadership they were being trained for, the kind of leaders I saw in my own institution—I realized that this is a national problem. We have a crisis of leadership in this country, in every institution. Not just in government. Look at what happened to American corporations in recent decades, as all the old dinosaurs like General Motors or TWA or U.S. Steel fell apart. Look at what happened to Wall Street in just the last couple of years.

The Transcontinental Railroads

James Kwak reviews Railroaded:The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, by Richard White:
For some people, most notably Rick Perry but also much of the conservative base, the late nineteenth century was the golden age: of the gold standard, no income tax, senators elected by state legislatures, and, most importantly, little to no government “regulation” of business. White shows what that world was really like.
The book focuses on the “transcontinentals”—railroads that began West of the Mississippi and ran to the Pacific. These railroads have often ben heralded as great achievements of entrepreneurial capitalism and the first modern corporations. Not so much, White argues.
First of all, the transcontinental railroads were a poor use of capital. There simply wasn’t enough transcontinental traffic to warrant any transcontinental railroads, let alone so many. Even in the late nineteenth century, it was cheaper to send goods by steamship (with an overland journey in Panama). The railroads only survive because the Pacific Mail was a “lazy and corrupt” company. The railroads bribed the steamship company by overpaying for capacity, and in return the Pacific Mail kept prices high enough so the railroads could “compete.”
So how did unnecessary, inefficient railroads get built? Because of government subsidies. In short, the federal government paid to build the railroads through massive financing subsidies and also gave them ample land grants. The trick to building a railroad was not knowing anything about railroads or even about business; it was having friends in Washington who could give you the right financing and land subsidies.
Even then, the railroads lost money. Not only was there insufficient demand for their services, but they were run by people who were generally incompetent. (For one thing, they didn’t even know their own costs of doing business.) Yet the people who owned the railroads made fabulous amounts of money (of which Stanford University is one symbol). The main way to do this was simple. The people who controlled a railroad (generally by putting up very little of their own money, thanks to the government subsidies) would also wholly own a construction company. They would cause the railroad to overpay the construction company to build the railroad—in effect transferring wealth from railroad stockholders and creditors into their own pockets. Another scheme was to buy up land along future railroad routes that only they knew to make an easy profit. Only slightly riskier were schemes to make money by using insider information to trade in securities of their own companies.
I'm sure conservatives like Rick Perry would say that government shouldn't have subsidized railroad construction in the first place.  Mind you, I disagree, believing that government needs to develop transportation, but I can guess that is what they'd say.  The fact of the matter about the "golden age" was that there were tons and tons of stock frauds and manipulations and bribes and corners and other abuses of the system.  Just read about Jay Gould and Jim Fisk and the Erie Railroad for example.  Or their attempt to corner the gold market.  When it comes to regulation of interstate commerce, which is an enumerated power of Congress in the Constitution (and a quite broad one), what we need is a professional civil service, not spoils system partisan administrators.  But really, the golden days weren't golden.

Occupy Congress?

This is leading the polling for chart of the year at the Dish:

My nomination for chart of the year at this blog after the jump.

Columbus Discovered America, and Syphillis?

Well actually, he didn't discover either, but he may have introduced Europe to each:
New skeletal evidence suggests Columbus and his crew not only introduced the Old World to the New World, but brought back syphilis as well, researchers say.
Syphilis is caused by Treponema pallidum bacteria, and is usually curable nowadays with antibiotics. Untreated, it can damage the heart, brain, eyes and bones; it can also be fatal.
The first known epidemic of syphilis occurred during the Renaissance in 1495. Initially its plague broke out among the army of Charles the VIII after the French king invaded Naples. It then proceeded to devastate Europe, said researcher George Armelagos, a skeletal biologist at Emory University in Atlanta.
I would imagine the crew was pretty frisky after being on ship for so long.  They, and the rest of Europe, may have paid for it.

A Notable Date In Civil Engineering

December 28, 1795:
Construction of Yonge Street, formerly recognized as the longest street in the world, begins in York, Upper Canada (present-day Toronto, Ontario).  Yonge Street was formerly a part of Highway 11, which led to claims that Yonge Street was the longest street in the world. Running from the shores of Lake Ontario, through central and northern Ontario to the Ontario-Minnesota border at Rainy River, together they were over 1,896 kilometres (1,178 mi) long. But Yonge Street could only be called the longest street in the world if "Highway 11" and "Yonge Street" were synonymous, which is not the case...The Guinness Book of World Records no longer lists Yonge Street as the longest street in the world, citing instead the Pan-American Highway as the world's longest "motorable road".
December 28, 1879:
 The Tay Bridge Disaster: The central part of the Tay Rail Bridge in Dundee, Scotland collapses as a train passes over it, killing 75. Investigators quickly determined many faults in design, materials, and processes that had contributed to the failure. Bouch claimed to have received faulty information regarding wind loading, but his later statements indicated that he may have made no allowance for wind load at all. Bouch had been advised that calculating wind loads was unnecessary for girders shorter than 200 feet (61 m), and had not followed this up for his new design with longer girders.
The section in the middle of the bridge, where the rail ran inside high girders (through trusses), rather than on top of lower ones (deck trusses), to allow a sea lane below high enough for the masts of ships, was potentially top heavy and very vulnerable to high winds. Neither Bouch nor the contractor appeared to have regularly visited the on-site foundry where iron from the previous half-built bridge was recycled. The cylindrical cast iron columns supporting the 13 longest spans of the bridge, each 245 ft (75 m) long, were of poor quality. Many had been cast horizontally, with the result that the walls were not of even thickness, and there was some evidence that imperfect castings were disguised from the (very inadequate) quality control inspections.
In particular, some of the lugs used as attachment points for the wrought iron bracing bars had been "burnt on" rather than cast with the columns. However, no evidence of the burnt-on lugs has survived, and the normal lugs were very weak. They were tested for the Inquiry by David Kirkaldy and proved to break at only about 20 long tons (20 t) rather than the expected load of 60 long tons (61 t). These lugs failed and destabilised the entire centre of the bridge during the storm.

Idiot Politicians-Local Government Edition

The Atlantic features the dumbest local politics scandals.  The worst, in my opinion:

  • Troy, Mich., Mayor Janice Daniels: We already knew that Troy's Tea Party Mayor, Janice Daniels, is refusing to accept $8.5 million in federal grant money for a multi-modal transit hub for her town because, as she's been quoted, "The City of Troy cannot afford this $8.5 million of free money." But Daniels got her young administration off to rocky start late this year when an anti-gay post she had written on her own Facebook wall over the summer finally went viral: "I think I am going to throw away my I Love New York carrying bag now that queers can get married there," read the missive. Daniels has since apologized for her use of the word "queer," but not everyone in Troy is buying her sincerity. A petition to demand her resignation has been making the rounds. Daniels says she'll do no such thing.

  • Why is Tea Party seemingly never attached to somebody who seems moderately sensible?

    Tuesday, December 27, 2011

    Horrible Video of the Day

    Via the Dish:

    That is hysterically bad. Newt Hampshire, God help us.

    Midwest Is Getting Wetter

    Stuart Staniford on the Palmer Drought Severity Index:

    You can see that the US is getting wetter - with the exception of parts of the Pacific coast - but most of the rest of the globe is drying out.  The absolute values of the change are large - those pink-red regions are changes of 3-4 PDSI units in 50 years - implying that what was a severe drought fifty years ago is the new normal.  The drying is most pronounced in Canada, the Mediterranean, Northern China, and in the world's tropical forests.  If you look - the Amazon, Central Africa, India, and Indo-China are all drying out.  This obviously raises concerns: the tropical forests are where most of the global carbon capture by the biosphere occurs.
    My main agricultural concerns about climate change involve how they will impact growing conditions locally.  Heavy clay soils in Ohio won't do extremely well if the region in gradually becoming wetter.  This year's La Nina gave us an extremely wet spring and fall, and a very dry July and August.  It was definitely subpar, although some of the heavier soils actually benefited because the soil stored water for plant use during that dry spell.  I've been curious whether climate change will impact the El Nino/La Nina pattern over time, but I haven't heard anyone mention it yet.  Climate change could seriously impact the value of the land farmers have been paying so much for.

    Runaway Race Horse Dodges Traffic

    A harness racing horse broke loose at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds in Dayton yesterday:
    The panicked horse — with its empty sulky bouncing behind it — kept charging forward.
    It seemed as if the horse might return to its stall in Barn 16, but he bolted past the barn door and roared right passed the parked Dodge Caravan of Chuck Williams, who has six horses at the track.
    The sulky bounced across the van’s front hood, leaving scrapes and waking up Chuck’s miniature dachshund Stitch, who was dozing inside. From there Galaxy headed down the fairground’s big, grassy hill, zigzagging between trees and charging out the front gate onto Main Street.
    Shaggy was yelling, “Whoa!, Whoa!” Sarah was in pursuit, fueled by adrenaline and the thought, “Oh &#@!, Tom is gonna kill me!”
    As for Hunter, he said: “I haven’t run that fast since I was in the Army. I wanted to get there before he got hit by a car, but I dreaded what I’d find when I got there.”
    Tom Horner Sr., the most seasoned member of the fairgrounds backside, couldn’t believe what he was witnessing: “I’ve seen a lot of stuff happen, but that’s the first horse I’ve seen go out onto Main Street in 60 years here.”
    Galaxy bolted through the front gate, past the sign that wishes everyone “Merry Christmas,” then cut across Main toward Frank Street.

    Brees Sets Season Passing Yardage Record

    Brees set the NFL record for yards passing in a season, breaking a mark that Dan Marino had held for nearly three decades, and New Orleans clinched the NFC South title with a 45-16 victory over the Falcons.
    Brees threw for 307 yards and four touchdowns, the last a 9-yard strike to Darren Sproles that set the record with 2:51 to go.
    "Honestly, I was really trying not to think about the record or anything," Brees said. "I knew we were close. A couple guys mentioned stuff to me on the sideline. I didn't want to hear it. It's like a pitcher with a no-hitter, I guess."
    It was Brees' final pass of the game and it gave him 5,087 yards passing -- with one game still to play. Marino finished with 5,084 yards for the Miami Dolphins in 1984.
    I'm surprised it took 27 years to break the record, but then again, the single game passing record has lasted over 60 years.

    Grain Markets Rally

    Des Moines Register:
    Corn acts like it wants to end 2012 on a high note, with a 14 cents per bushel gain to $6.33 for the March contract. Soybeans rallied as well, gaining 33 cents per bushel to $12.06.
    The story was the same, concern about drought and hot weather as Brazilian and Argentinian corn reaches pollination.
    “March corn gapped higher this morning and traded to its highest level since November 17th as traders grew concerned over the crop conditions in South America,” The board said in post trading commentary.
    “Rainfall in Brazil and Argentina came in below forecasts over the weekend, and it is expected to stay hot and dry over the next 10 days. This has caused some forecasters to reduce their crop estimates. There were also reports that some of the early-planted crop is approaching pollination.”
    We'll see what happens down the road. 

    The Gaussian Gun

    From Wired:

    That's pretty cool. The physics are discussed here.

    Local Government Borrowing Drives Chinese Development

    Washington Post (h/t Ritholtz):
    A building boom by thousands of local governments that became the backbone of the country’s stimulus program started in November 2008 — on borrowed money. The financing companies were created starting in the 1990s and enabled provinces, cities, counties and townships to bypass rules barring most from selling bonds.
    Projects include a stadium, which resembles Beijing’s iconic Bird’s Nest Olympic venue, in Jinan, the capital of eastern China’s Shandong province; and a superhighway in the country’s second-poorest province of Yunnan that stretches into the foothills of the Himalayas, with no cities of more than 1 million people.
    In Tianjin, southeast of Beijing, a sea of hundreds of construction cranes stretches along both sides of the river at an oxbow that gives the Yujiapu financial district its Manhattan-like shape, testimony to the scale of China’s ambitions. Downriver are the ruins of centuries-old forts stormed by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860.
    To build Yujiapu, Tianjin officials are piling onto borrowing that is already at least almost half a trillion yuan — equivalent to half the annual per capita income of the city’s 13 million people. More than 5,000 people were moved out of the area starting in 2008 to make way for the project, among the millions nationwide evicted from homes to make way for China’s urbanization projects.
    The planned 164 million square feet of office space by 2020 in Yujiapu and across the Hai River in Xiangluo Wan, or Conch Bay, is more than one-third of the 450 million square feet in Manhattan.
    One of the companies building Yujiapu — Tianjin Binhai New Area Construction & Investment Group — sold 10 billion yuan in bonds in November. It earmarked 1 billion yuan from the sale to fund the construction of the district’s transport hub, which includes a high-speed rail line that will cut the time to Beijing to 45 minutes. In the first half of the year its debt, mostly from banks, rose 11.9 percent from the end of 2010 to 71 billion yuan, according to the prospectus.
    More borrowing is needed, Tianjin Vice Mayor Cui Jindu said Sept. 16. New loans to the city’s financing vehicles may slump by as much as 140 billion yuan in 2011 from last year’s level as lenders curb risks and boost support to small and medium-size businesses, he said.
    “If the banks don’t give us any new loans, there will be problems,” Cui said, saying some projects in the city may not get completed. Tianjin had “no problem” repaying loans, having to that date paid off 33 billion yuan of the 39.5 billion yuan in principal due this year, he said.
    I'm getting the feeling that China may be more of a problem than Europe by late 2012 or 2013.  I have little or no faith in the capitalist skills of the Chinese Communist Party.  The massive construction boom since 2008 seems like major bubble blowing to me.  What's worse for farmers, an economic collapse in China could cause commodity markets to crash.  It won't be easy to get good information out of China, but I'm going to keep an eye on economic updates from the Middle Kingdom anyway (data from Australia should help).

    Voyager I and II

    Morning Edition:
    Once they've reached interstellar space, the Voyager spacecraft will also have a chance to deliver their golden cargo — the data records that include 116 pictures, along with sounds from Earth. The discs includes songs from Louis Armstrong, Beethoven, and a Navajo tribe.
    And in Amoy, a language from eastern China, the records carry this message: "Friends of space, how are you all? Have you eaten yet? Come visit us if you have time."
    It may seem risky to send an open invitation to the universe that tells alien races to stop by for a bite. But it's not as if Earth can send many invitations. That's because of the unique way our solar system's planets were aligned in 1977, when the Voyager craft were launched.
    "That was an opportunity that happens every 176 years," Stone says, "to send a spacecraft past all four of the giant outer planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune."
    The story on the radio mentioned that the computers on the spacecraft have enough memory for 8000 words.

    Monday, December 26, 2011

    The Chemical History of a Candle

    Jennifer Ouellette:
    In particular, Faraday gave a series of famous Christmas lectures each year at the Royal Institution — a tradition that continues today. One of the earliest, on the chemistry and physics of flames, became a popular book: The Chemical History of a Candle. These lectures were a gift that Faraday gave year after year to those who showed up to receive it: the gift of wonder at the natural world that continues to surprise us, even today, with its mysterious workings.
    Faraday opened with a discussion of how candles were made, from naturally occurring candles like the paraffin and bits of candlewood found in Irish bogs — “a hard, strong, excellent wood” –to manmade dipped tallow candles, beeswax candles, and something called a  sperm candle, “which comes from the purified oil of the spermaceti whale.” He even displayed a candle salvaged from the wreck of the Royal George, which sunk at Spithead on the 29th of August, 1782; yet the candle still burned brightly when lit.
    As Faraday described the process:
    “The fat or tallow is first boiled with quick-lime, and made into a soap, and then the soap is decomposed by sulphuric acid, which takes away the lime, and leaves the fat rearranged as stearic acid, while a quantity of glycerin is produced at the same time. Glycerin—absolutely a sugar, or a substance similar to sugar—comes out of the tallow in this chemical change. The oil is then pressed out of it; and you see here this series of pressed cakes, showing how beautifully the impurities are carried out by the oily part as the pressure goes on increasing, and at last you have left that substance, which is melted, and cast into candles as here represented.”
    The whole post is interesting.

    On Love And Autism

    NYT (via the Big Picture):
    Kirsten was first introduced to Jack in the fall of 2008 by her boyfriend at the time, who jumped up from their table at Rao’s Coffee in Amherst, Mass., to greet his friend, who was dressed uncharacteristically in a suit that hung from his lean frame.
    Jack, it turned out, was on his way to court. A chemistry whiz, he had spent much of his adolescence teaching himself to make explosives and setting them off in the woods in experiments that he hoped would earn him a patent but that instead led the state police and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives to charge him with several counts of malicious explosion.
    By the following spring, he would be cleared of all the charges and recruited by the director of the undergraduate chemistry program at the University of Massachusetts, who was impressed by a newspaper account of Jack’s home-built laboratory. Kirsten’s boyfriend, a popular Amherst High senior, had offered to serve as a character witness for his former classmate, and the three spent much time together that year.
    The boyfriend told Kirsten that Jack had Asperger syndrome: his condition may have blinded him to the possibility that the explosions, which he recorded and posted on YouTube, could well be viewed by law enforcement authorities as anything other than the ambitious chemistry experiments he saw them.
    Wow.  Going to court for homemade bombs, that would be interesting.  The whole article is very interesting.  I'm not the most socially adept person, but I think I generally understand other peoples' feelings.

    NASA Photo of the Day

    December 22:

    Through a Sun Tunnel
    Image Credit & Copyright: Arne Erisoty
    Today the Sun stands still at 05:30 UT. Halting its steady march toward southern declinations and begining its annual journey north, the event is known as a solstice. In the northern hemisphere December's solstice marks the astronomical start of winter. And if you're in the Great Basin Desert outside of Lucin, Utah, USA, near solstice dates you can watch the Sun rise and set through Sun Tunnels. A monumental earthwork by artist Nancy Holt, the Sun Tunnels are constructed of four 9 foot diameter cast concrete pipes each 18 feet long. The tunnels are arranged in a wide X to achieve the solstitial sunset and sunrise alignments. In this dramatic snapshot through a Sun Tunnel the Sun is just on the horizon. The cold, cloudy sunset was near the 2010 winter solstice. During daylight hours, holes in the sides of the pipes project spots of sunlight on their interior walls, forming a map of the principal stars in the constellations Draco, Perseus, Columba, and Capricorn. Fans of planet earthworks and celestial landart should note that the Sun Tunnels are about 150 miles by car from Robert Smithson's (Holt's late husband) Spiral Jetty.

    The Battle of Trenton

    Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), by Emanuel Leutze. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City.

    December 26, 1776:
    The Battle of Trenton took place on December 26, 1776, during the American Revolutionary War, after General George Washington's crossing of the Delaware River north of Trenton, New Jersey. The hazardous crossing in adverse weather made it possible for Washington to lead the main body of the Continental Army against Hessian soldiers garrisoned at Trenton. After a brief battle, nearly the entire Hessian force was captured, with negligible losses to the Americans. The battle significantly boosted the Continental Army's flagging morale, and inspired re-enlistments.
    The Continental Army had previously suffered several defeats in New York and had been forced to retreat through New Jersey to Pennsylvania. Morale in the army was low; to end the year on a positive note, George Washington—Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army—devised a plan to cross the Delaware River on Christmas night and surround the Hessian garrison.
    Because the river was icy and the weather severe, the crossing proved dangerous. Two detachments were unable to cross the river, leaving Washington and the 2,400 men under his command alone in the assault. The army marched 9 miles (14 km) south to Trenton. The Hessians had lowered their guard, thinking they were safe from the American army, and did not post a dawn sentry. After having a Christmas feast, they fell asleep. Washington's forces caught them off guard and, before the Hessians could resist, they were taken prisoner. Almost two thirds of the 1,500-man garrison was captured, and only a few troops escaped across Assunpink Creek.
    Despite the battle's small numbers, the American victory inspired rebels in the colonies. With the success of the revolution in doubt a week earlier, the army had seemed on the verge of collapse. The dramatic victory inspired soldiers to serve longer and attracted new recruits to the ranks.
    According to historian David Hackett Fischer, it is only a myth that the Hessians were hung over from a late Christmas night party.

    Sunday, December 25, 2011

    Happy Boxing Day

    May all the folks north of the border enjoy their holiday.  I was disappointed to learn that it didn't actually involve the sport of boxing.

    Chart of the Day

    Via the Big Picture:
    Market share among U.S. banks
    Top 3 Banks = 44%
    Top 20 Banks = 92%
    All Banks = 100%

    I'm now a member of the 8%.

    Dear Baby Jesus

    In honor of the Nativity of Christ, Ricky Bobby offers up a prayer to Baby Jesus:

    Not quite reverent, but funny.

    Eggnog Riot

    December 24-25, 1826:
    The Eggnog Riot, sometimes known as the Grog Mutiny, was a riot that took place at the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, on 24–25 December 1826. It was caused by the smuggling of whiskey, two days prior to the incident, to make eggnog for a Christmas Day party in the North Barracks of the Academy. The riot eventually involved more than one-third of the cadets by the time it ceased on Christmas morning. A subsequent investigation by Academy officials resulted in the implication of seventy cadets and the court-martialing of twenty of them and one enlisted soldier. Among the participants in the riot—though he was not court-martialed—was Jefferson Davis.

    The Christmas Story

    In works of art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (h/t The New Yorker):

    If you’re not in town to visit these paintings in person, you can view them via the museum’s interactive feature “The Christmas Story,” illustrated with works in its collection and narrated in plummy tones by its former director Philippe de Montebello. Much of the the text and narration are borrowed from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. The music, like the objects in the hall where the museum’s twenty-foot spruce tree currently stands, is medieval.

    Distrust of Government

    Katherine Barrett and Richard Greene (h/t naked capitalism):
    Nearly a decade ago, Alabama’s Gov. Bob Riley was supporting a measure that would have cut taxes for the less fortunate of the state’s population, and raised taxes for the more fortunate. The increased revenues that would have accrued as a result were intended for education.
    The state Legislature passed the measure, which then had to be approved in a referendum vote by the citizens of Alabama. The state’s business community was in favor of the proposal, believing that better education was a key to Alabama’s future. A variety of groups -- some from outside the state -- were against it. After a contentious, three-month campaign on the so-called “tax and accountability” package, the measure was defeated resoundingly by a 2-to-1 vote.
    This may be the saddest story of all those we’ve heard about state government over the last couple of decades. And here’s why: The people who would have most benefited -- the folks who would have paid less taxes for a better education -- came out against it. When we spoke with Riley a few months after the vote, he told us that the problem was that the citizens of Alabama simply didn’t trust the state, and so if state leaders were for it, they mistrusted it.
    We bring this up now, because this tale powerfully demonstrates the importance of trust in government. That’s a commodity that appears to be increasingly in short supply. As academics Xiao Wang and Montgomery Van Wart wrote in a paper a few years ago, “The decline of trust in government since World War II is frequently considered one of the most important political problems of our time.”
    This is definitely a serious problem, and one which seems to be exsperated by the right-wing's attempt to further undermine people's trust of government.  If government isn't working, I believe in trying to fix what's broken, not throw the whole thing out.  If we tried to eliminate things in the private sector which weren't working, we wouldn't have a financial system.  Unfortunately, in that example, we haven't tried to fix the problems either, we've just shoveled money in and let the management steal what we put in.  Building trust in government is a difficult undertaking, but it needs to be undertaken in a good faith, bipartisan manner.  Right now, I don't think Republicans will allow that.

    Peace On Earth

    May we have peace on Earth and goodwill towards man (h/t Ritholtz):

    Saturday, December 24, 2011

    Merry Christmas


    All Things Considered:
    If you happen to spend Christmas Eve in Canada — especially Quebec — you might be lucky enough to be invited to a festive dinner after midnight Mass. The feast is an old tradition from France called reveillon, and it's something to look forward to after a long day of fasting.
    "They'll have a huge feast, with sweets and lobster and oysters, everything," says Thomas Naylor, executive chef to the Canadian ambassador to the U.S. "But in Quebec, at least, you'll always have tourtiere. It will be the center of the reveillon."
    NPR's All Things Considered visited Naylor this week in the kitchen of the ambassador's residence in Washington, D.C., to learn how to make tourtiere.
    Naylor knows about this Christmas Eve custom because many years ago, it traveled with French emigres across the Atlantic to Canada (and to New Orleans). The tourtiere is a savory, spiced meat pie, which both French- and English-speaking Canadians love to serve around the holidays.
    I hadn't heard of this.  It doesn't sound too bad, but so far, my favorite food from Quebec is poutine.  I hope folks in Canada enjoy their Toutiere after Mass.

    Chart of the Day

    From the Big Picture:

    George's Revenge

    SNL's alternate ending for "It's a Wonderful Life" is one of my all-time favorite SNL Christmas sketches:

    'Tis the season for mob violence (Not really).

    15 Years

    TNT TBS is playing "A Christmas Story" in their 24-hour marathon for the 15th straight year.  Also, NBC will play "It's A Wonderful Life" at 9 o'clock tonight.  I'm sure I'll catch the entire Relphie Christmas classic in a number of bits and pieces.  My favorite line, "Wow, whoopee, a zeppelin!"

    A Bank Like The Bailey Bros. Building and Loan

    NYT (h/t naked capitalism):
    With obvious exceptions, business at the Bank of Cattaraugus hasn’t changed much since 1882, when 20 prominent residents — among them a Civil War surgeon and a cousin of Davy Crockett — established the bank to safeguard townsfolk’s money and to finance local commerce.
    In its 130-year history, the bank has rarely booked a profit for itself in excess of $50,000. Last year, Mr. Cullen said, it made $5,000. He and his officers are industry anomalies: bankers who avoid high-risk and high-growth tactics in order to reinvest in their community’s economy.
    “My examiners always ask me, ‘When are you going to grow?’ ” said Mr. Cullen, a Cattaraugus native who is 64 and has the prosperous stoutness of a storybook banker. “But where is it written I have to grow? We take care of our customers. The truth is we probably couldn’t grow too much in a town like this.”
    While it faces many of the same regulations that govern larger banks, it operates according to an antiquated theory of the business: that a bank should be a utility, like the power company, and serve as a broker between savers and borrowers in its community.
    Cattaraugus, nestled in the woods of the misleadingly named Rich Valley, is a town of limited prospects. (“We’re not on the way to anywhere,” Mr. Cullen said.) Manufacturing, which once thrived here, has more or less died — except for the Setterstix factory on South Main Street, which produces paper lollipop handles. The largest employer in the village is the school district, and many village residents survive, like Ms. Bonner, on pensions or government subsidies, in homes that have an average mortgage of $30,000.
    It's nice to hear that some of those institutions still exist.

    Pigeons Can Learn Math Skills

    Smart birds creep me out.  The NYT reports on pigeon math skills:
    By now, the intelligence of birds is well known. Alex the African gray parrot had great verbal skills. Scrub jays, which hide caches of seeds and other food, have remarkable memories. And New Caledonian crows make and use tools in ways that would put the average home plumber to shame.
    Pigeons, it turns out, are no slouches either. It was known that they could count. But all sorts of animals, including bees, can count. Pigeons have now shown that they can learn abstract rules about numbers, an ability that until now had been demonstrated only in primates. In the 1990s scientists trained rhesus monkeys to look at groups of items on a screen and to rank them from the lowest number of items to the highest.
    They learned to rank groups of one, two and three items in various sizes and shapes. When tested, they were able to do the task even when unfamiliar numbers of things were introduced. In other words, having learned that two was more than one and three more than two, they could also figure out that five was more than two, or eight more than six.
    Damian Scarf, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, tried the same experiment with pigeons, and he and two colleagues report in the current issue of the journal Science that the pigeons did just as well as the monkeys.
    I'm not too keen on flying animals being able to learn skills we thought only primates learned.  Damn those smart birds.  Hopefully they'll never figure out how to keep from flying into windows.

    It's A Wonderful Life, For The Superrich

    Last night I was watching George Bailey consistently stand up for the working class and immigrants and interfere with Old Man Potter's attempts to take over Bedford Falls, and it made me wonder, can anybody imagine such a movie being made today?

     Consider, in 1946, the top marginal tax rate was 86.45%, and Old Man Potter was a rich, greedy miser who wants to keep the poor in slums so he can charge them rapacious rents.  Dividends were taxed as regular income.  Today, the top marginal rate is 35%, and that equally hits people who make $300,000 a year and those who make $30,000,000 a year, while dividends are taxed at 15%.  Today, rich people are whining that they aren't getting enough respect for how much harder the supposedly work than all the little people, and they aren't appreciated enough as job-creating geniuses.  How did we get from 1946 to today?  I would suppose that after the Great Depression, people didn't feel like rich people were so impressive, and also that near universal service in World War II taught rich and poor alike that money didn't make people better, character counted for more. 

    If a movie like "It's a Wonderful Life " came out today, how many hours of Fox News coverage would be poured into coverage of "the divisive class warfare and socialism promoted by Godless liberals in Hollywood?"  I would guess several hundred.  Rush Limbaugh would get in a huff about how jealous liberals hated good conservatives who worked hard, and wanted to steal from hard-working heartland conservatives.   It would be laughable.  Luckily, "It's a Wonderful Life" was made at a time when rich people didn't use the media to propagandize people about how they deserve all their "hard-earned" wealth.  I'm not one to claim that things were better back in "the good ol' days," but in this case, I think things were better for the working class back in the good 'ol days.  As for the rich, you have to go back to the 1890s to find good ol' days as good as today.

    Have A Holly Jolly Chrsitmas

    Along with "Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree," this is my favorite secular Christmas tune:

    Good Beer Rises

    Slate (h/t the Dish):
    The drink he led me to was a perfect choice in that it was not only delicious, but also previously unknown to me. In one recommendation, he delivered the basic services I want from a sommelier: excellent advice and teaching without pedantry. And in my glass? Not wine, but rather an Arcobraeu Zwicklbier, an unfiltered lager from southern Germany.
    Engert knows wine, but he specializes in beer. He’s a leading light of a new generation of beer professionals that are working to raise the art and science of selecting and serving beer to the level of wine service. Engert and his peers are rapidly gaining notice from the fine dining establishment. Last year, he was the first ever beer professional to make Food & Wine’s list of top sommeliers. For craft beer to continue growing and improving, there will need to be many more like him.
    I don't think beer needs to be as snobby as wine, thank you very much.  But I do appreciate the large number of styles of beer available.  If it tastes good, I'll drink it.  I don't really need the sommelier.

    Regulators Are Cowed

    With no notice other than a holiday-eve posting in the Federal Register, the US Food and Drug Administration has reneged on its long-stated intention to compel large-scale agriculture to curb over-use of agricultural antibiotics, which it had planned to do by reversing its approval for putting penicillin and tetracyclines in feed.
    How long-stated? The FDA first announced its intention to withdraw those approvals in 1977.
    From the official posting:
    The Food and Drug Administration (FDA or the Agency) is withdrawing two 1977 notices of opportunity for a hearing (NOOH), which proposed to withdraw certain approved uses of penicillin and tetracyclines intended for use in feeds for food-producing animals based in part on microbial food safety concerns.1 … (1FDA’s approval to withdraw the approved uses of the drugs was based on three statutory grounds: (1) The drugs are not shown to be safe (21 U.S.C. 360b(e)(1)(B)); (2) lack of substantial evidence of effectiveness (21 U.S.C. 360b(e)(1)(C)); and (3) failure to submit required reports (21 U.S.C. 360b(e)(2)(A)).)
    There is a lot of background to this, but here is the takeaway: For 34 years, the FDA has been contending that administering small doses of antibiotics to healthy animals is an inappropriate use of increasingly scarce drugs — a position in which it is supported by organizations as mainstream as the American Medical Association. With this withdrawal, it backs away from the actions it took to support that assertion — which may indicate there will be no further government action on the issue until after the 2012 election.

    In the Federal Register, the FDA says that it plans instead to “focus its efforts for now on the potential for voluntary reform and the promotion of the judicious use of antimicrobials in the interest of public health.” That’s a reference to a draft guidance that the FDA put forward in the summer of 2010, which proposes that large-scale agriculture voluntarily stop using those “subtherapeutic” small doses, and also stop giving any antibiotic doses to animals unless veterinarians prescribe them.
    I'm not sure how folks can cry about the regulatory burden, regulators are routinely cowed from acting in the public interest.  Voluntary reform means no change.  I am surprised that EPA finally issued rules on mercury control, those have only been in the works since the '90s at a minimum.  Human health is taking a backseat to the creature comforts of business, and in the end, it won't work out well.