Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Onion Is Awesome

via James Fallows.

Fancy Dance Moves

A Foie Gras Parable

I heard about this TED talk today on This American Life

The story on the radio involved more detail about Barber's farm in New York, but Barber's speech raises an interesting question: Is industrial agriculture necessary, or can we raise better food in more natural arrangements?  I would guess that in order to feed 7 billion people, we actually need to do a good bit of industrial agriculture.  Maybe if we cut way back on meat and dairy consumption, we would be able to get away from factory-style meat production, but I don't know if we could possibly raise enough food if we got away from monoculture of grains.  He makes the point that we could raise better, more humanely produced food if we got away from industrial agriculture, but I don't think we could raise enough.

More On Huntsman

James Fallows hosts a conversation about whether Huntsman is the only "sane" Republican candidate, or whether he is only sane in comparison with the rest of the field.  I tend to agree with Andrew Sprung, he's only sane in comparison with the rest of the field:
In addition to the little matters of endorsing the ruinous Ryan budget and tax-free deficit reduction, there's also this from Huntsman (last debate):
'We missed the Persian spring. The president failed on that front. We go into Libya, where, to my mind, we don't have any definable American interests. We've got Syria now on the horizon, where we do have American interests. It's called Israel. We're a friend and ally. They're a friend and ally. And we need to remind the world what it means to be a friend and ally of the United States.

And we have nuclearization in Iran. Centrifuges spinning. At some point, they're going to have enough in the way of fissile material out of which to make a weapon. That's a certainty.

We had a discussion earlier tonight about sanctions. Everybody commented on sanctions. Sanctions aren't going to work, I hate to break it to you. They're not going to work because the Chinese aren't going to play ball and the Russians aren't going to play ball.

And I believe Iran has already -- the mullahs have already decided they want to go nuclear.
While I respect Huntsman's service in the Obama administration, his belief in anthropogenic climate change and evolution, along with his calls for defense cuts, a pullback from Afghanistan and decreasing the size of the TBTF banks, I draw the line with his economic plans.  His calls for eliminating taxes on investment income and endorsement of the Paul Ryan budget plan are deal breakers.  Also, I doubt that we'll have any President who will decrease the security-industrial complex and move away from our unfortunate post-September 11 police state.  It is a damn shame, but right now the Republican party is completely lost in the wilderness, and they want to take the rest of the country with them.

Rootworms Show Resistance To Bt Corn

From Bloomberg, via nc links:
Monsanto Co. (MON) corn that’s genetically engineered to kill insects may be losing its effectiveness against rootworms in four states, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said.
Rootworms in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota and Nebraska are suspected of developing tolerance to the plants’ insecticide, based on documented cases of severe crop damage and reports from entomologists, the EPA said in a memo dated Nov. 22 and posted Nov. 30 on a government website. Monsanto’s program for monitoring suspected cases of resistance is “inadequate,” the EPA said.
“Resistance is suspected in at least some portions of four states in which ‘unexpected damage’ reports originated,” the EPA said in the memo, which reviewed damage reports.
The insects, which begin life as root-chewing grubs before developing into adult beetles, are among the most destructive corn pests, costing U.S. farmers about $1 billion a year in damages and chemical pesticides, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
And this:
The agency said in the memo that SmartStax could lose its effectiveness if it’s planted in fields where bugs have developed a tolerance to Monsanto’s Bt gene, known as CRY3bB1. That’s because SmartStax’s effectiveness is predicated on both types of Bt working as designed. SmartStax corn produces the second type of Bt, called Cry34/35, with a gene licensed from Dow Chemical Co. (DOW)
To deter resistance to all types of Bt corn, the EPA requires farmers who use the modified crop to also plant corn that doesn’t produce the pesticide. The agency reasons that bugs in the so-called refuge that are not exposed to the toxin will mate with any resistant rootworms, creating a new generation of insects that are once again susceptible to the insecticide.
Some corn farmers don’t appear to be planting the required refuges in Minnesota, where moderate to severe rootworm damage is spreading and occurred for a third straight year in 2011, according to the EPA.
This is bad news for everyone involved.  Here in western Ohio, where corn-soybean rotations are almost always employed, I haven't heard of much rootworm damage.  But that may soon change, and would bring some very nasty insecticides back into wide use.

Shorter George Will: Vote For Obama

Not really, but he trashes Romney and Gingrich, while trying to pump up Perry (yes, really) and Huntsman.  His praise for Perry includes making the case that being able to debate (or, apparently, think) is not really important for a President.  His case for Huntsman, whom I personally find to be the most reasonable Republican in many ways, trumpets many of Huntsman's positions I hate while criticizing the things I like about him.  I really found Will's column opening interesting:
Republicans are more conservative than at any time since their 1980 dismay about another floundering president. They are more ideologically homogenous than ever in 156 years of competing for the presidency. They anticipated choosing between Mitt Romney, a conservative of convenience, and a conviction politician to his right. The choice, however, could be between Romney and the least conservative candidate, Newt Gingrich.
Romney’s main objection to contemporary Washington seems to be that he is not administering it. God has 10 commandments, Woodrow Wilson had 14 points, Heinz had 57 varieties, but Romney’s economic platform has 59 planks — 56 more than necessary if you have low taxes, free trade and fewer regulatory burdens. Still, his conservatism-as-managerialism would be a marked improvement upon today’s bewildered liberalism.
Does Will actually believe that conservatives were equally conservative back in 1980?  I don't think that is possible.  Conservatives were attacking a tax system in 1980 which had a top marginal rate of 70%.  Today they are attacking a system that has a top marginal rate of 35%.  In 1980, the idea that a major political party would run on the concept of dismantling Social Security and Medicare was laughable.  Today, it is actually occurring.

Likewise, I chuckled at the part where he claims that Romney's economic platform should be low taxes, free trade and fewer regulatory burdens.  What the hell does he think we have right now, in the worst economy since the Great Depression?  Taxes as a percentage of GDP at 60-year lows? Check.  Hands-off regulators? Check.  Free trade?  Well, judging by imports, check (especially since the only way to force other countries to accept and buy our exports are by using trade restrictions).  So Will thinks the solutions to the economic problems we find ourselves in are the exact things that got us in this mess.  Superb.  And he's the "intellectual" public conservative?

The U.S. As Europe

Krugman makes very scary sense of Europe, and by extension, us:
And it’s probably no coincidence that April was also when the euro crisis entered its new, dire phase. Never mind Greece, whose economy is to Europe roughly as greater Miami is to the United States. At this point, markets have lost faith in the euro as a whole, driving up interest rates even for countries like Austria and Finland, hardly known for profligacy. And it’s not hard to see why. The combination of austerity-for-all and a central bank morbidly obsessed with inflation makes it essentially impossible for indebted countries to escape from their debt trap and is, therefore, a recipe for widespread debt defaults, bank runs and general financial collapse.
I hope, for our sake as well as theirs, that the Europeans will change course before it’s too late. But, to be honest, I don’t believe they will. In fact, what’s much more likely is that we will follow them down the path to ruin.
For in America, as in Europe, the economy is being dragged down by troubled debtors — in our case, mainly homeowners. And here, too, we desperately need expansionary fiscal and monetary policies to support the economy as these debtors struggle back to financial health. Yet, as in Europe, public discourse is dominated by deficit scolds and inflation obsessives.
So the next time you hear someone claiming that if we don’t slash spending we’ll turn into Greece, your answer should be that if we do slash spending while the economy is still in a depression, we’ll turn into Europe. In fact, we’re well on our way.
Hopefully, somebody will grab the wheel in Europe and prevent the crash, but even if they do, we're not out of the woods yet.

Bizarro America

Elias Isquith says Newt Gingrich's rise is based on his ability to tap into the Republican base's resentments-resentments which he was one of the main molders of:
His challenging the President to multiple hours-long, Lincoln-Douglas-styled debates is a brilliant stroke, playing on the resentment and insecurity many hard-right partisans feel over a national media and political mainstream that, in their eyes, considers them ignorant and stupid. What better way to prove Them wrong than by eviscerating the President — a man who, in the GOP base’s universe, is an empty-suit tongue-tied hack, completely adrift without a teleprompter — and thus vindicating not only Newt and conservatism, but conservatives. It would be like the moments during the GOP debates when Gingrich has bickered with debate moderators and earned the audience’s approval in response; but bigger, on a far greater scale and with far greater psychological potential.
Ditto his plan to established WWII draft board-styled community councils that will look at every undocumented immigrant in their midst and determine whether or not they’d be allowed to stay (though, of course, still not as citizens). Besides referencing WWII — the time of the Greatest Generation, when America was pure and righteous, the savior and redeemer of the world — Gingrich’s plan also taps into the belief among many on the right that they are the victims of unfair accusations of being racist.
Andrew Sullivan follows with this analysis of Gingrich:
In the campaign for the president of talk radio, he's miles ahead. But his genius flattery of his audience and cooptation of their total contempt for Obama is where he soars.
From talking to neighbors, I get the impression that they hate a Barack Obama who doesn't really exist.  The man they hate is dumb, is Muslim, was raised in luxury, only got ahead by affirmative action and hates them and America.  I've never seen this Barack Obama.  Likewise, these folks believe that people poorer than them have better lives because they don't have jobs and get government assistance.  They believe that black folks are better off than whites because of affirmative action and government assistance.  They don't believe whites get any favortism by "the system" and they believe that government is the cause of all their problems. 

I have a hard time arguing with them, because I find all of these claims to be ludicrous.  I had a discussion with one of my smarter friends a few weeks back, right as Herman Cain was imploding and before his poll numbers started to drop.  I asked him who he would vote for if the election was that day, and he hedged away from Cain and leaned toward Gingrich.  I asked him about Cain's harrassment charges, and he indicated that he didn't really believe them.  I asked what the Republican base's reaction would be if Obama faced the same charges. He didn't really answer that, but what he did indicate was that Obama rose mainly because of the system's favoritism for blacks.  I asked if he thought that Cain's rise in life could be attributed possibly even more to his skin color than Obama's.  He didn't think that was the case.  Finally, I asked him if he thought blacks had it easier in America than whites, and he indicated that they did.  At that point I was gobsmacked.  I asked him if he thought he would be better off if he was black.  Probably luckily, we were interrupted by another friend who had walked over to say hi before we could continue the conversation. 

Thanks to right-wing media, people have been led to believe that the world they want to think exists actually exists.  Sullivan is right that flattery and cooption of the base's contempt for Obama is what moves the needle on the right.  These folks are told over and over that they are hard-working, patriotic, God-fearing and they are what makes America great.  They, and by extension, Republicans have done nothing wrong and have no hand whatsoever in our economic problems.  Likewise, they are told that Democrats, unions, the government and minorities are stealing from them and keeping them down, and happen to embody ALL of the problems with the country and the world.  To me, the message is insultingly patronizing, and obviously false, but for some people it works like a charm.  I'm at a loss to figure out how to convince people that this isn't the world as it really exists, but is instead an alternate reality.

Update: Andrew expounds on Newt, and, as usual, says more impressively what I was getting at:

Friday, December 2, 2011

College Football Rivalry Trophies

This week, Wyoming and Colorado State play for the Bronze Boot:

Also, Wisconsin and Michigan State play for the Stagg Championship Trophy, formerly the Paterno-Stagg Championship Trophy:

Start With The Ending

This song always makes me laugh:

I think it's funny how much harder I work at learning and broadening my horizons than I did in college. College was pretty well wasted on the younger me.

An Explanation of The N.D. Oil Rush

I had been wondering what caused the rapid rush to drill as quickly as possible, even while labor prices spike and resources are strained.  Here's part of the explanation:
On a plateau overlooking Williston, lifelong local resident John Schmitz shows me a couple of towering drill rigs. Schmitz is a land man — a person who procures leases for the oil companies — and not surprisingly, he's a boom booster. He explains that the current drilling frenzy is all about money. Leases bought cheap several years ago are about to run out.
"Leases that were taken in 2006 to 2008, and those would be the five-year and three-years that are expiring in '11, were bought for $100, maybe $200, and right now you could get somewhere between $1,500 and $2,000 per acre," Schmitz says.
That's a tenfold price increase. But those leases don't run out if an oil company starts drilling — ergo, the current frenzy to punch hundreds of holes in the ground as fast as possible. I asked Williams County Commissioner Dan Kalil if there isn't a way to slow things down.
"That's the question I struggle with every night when I'm trying to sleep," Kalil says. "What can we do?"
He says only the state can slow it down, but the state has a strong incentive to keep things cracking.
So they waited until the last minute to start drilling on many of the leases.  I just couldn't understand the economics of the boom-bust cycle.  I don't understand how companies can buy leases in southeastern Ohio for $5000 an acre when they could have bought the land for $1500 an acre just a couple years ago.  I just have a hard time believing there is that much gas available out there.  We'll see.

The Highest Highs and the Lowest Lows

Eric Raskin looks at his love of boxing, good versus evil, and what makes boxing both an exciting sport, and one which walks a fine line between sport and cruelty:
Newsflash: The human head is not intended to be punched. Very rare is the man who enjoys a lengthy career in boxing and comes away with no damage to his mental capacity. Sometimes it's just a barely noticeable slurring of speech; sometimes it's full-on pugilistic dementia. And it isn't always predictable based on the number of punches a man has taken. If it were, Jake LaMotta wouldn't have made it through his 80s with reasonable lucidity, and Wilfred Benitez wouldn't have lost most of his short-term memory function before his 50th birthday. At its worst, boxing is the most unwatchable sport in the world. (At least among sports that are, without debate, actually "sports" and not just activities that you can do sitting down or while smoking a cigarette.) But at its best, there's no other sport that quite compares.
OK, that's an opinion, but it starts to feel like a fact when you sit down and watch the Gatti-Micky Ward trilogy. Or the Israel Vazquez-Rafael Marquez battles. Or Diego Corrales-Jose Luis Castillo I. Or Julio Cesar Chavez-Meldrick Taylor I. Or Marvin Hagler-Tommy Hearns. Or Ray Leonard-Hearns. Or George Foreman-Ron Lyle. Or the Thrilla in Manila. I could fill another thousand words just listing the amazing fights that are more rewatchable from start to finish than any Super Bowl, any March Madness game, any Masters Sunday.
He's looking at his love for the sport prior to the Cotto-Margarito rematch. After Margarito pummelled Cotto in their first fight, in 2008, he was discovered at a later fight to have tried to get his hands wrapped with weighted inserts.  He's been plagued ever since by the question of whether his fists were loaded in the Cotto fight.  Raskin discussess the underlying feeling amongst boxing fans that Margarito deserved the brutal beating he received by Shane Mosley when he entered the ring sans loaded hands. 

I have to agree with Raskin about boxing.  It is an awe-inspiring sport, at least at its best points, but it is hard to ignore the damage inflicted on the fighters.  There is a real difficulty in embracing all parts of the fight game.  All of the amazing individual performances are tempered by the knowledge of the tremendous bad parts, the injuries and deaths.  And yet I want to tune in.

How Do Animals Predict Earthquakes?

Scientists speculate that changes in groundwater chemistry may be detectable by animals (h/t nc links):
Nasa geophysicist Friedemann Freund showed that, when rocks were under very high levels of stress - for example by the "gargantuan tectonic forces" just before an earthquake, they release charged particles.
These charged particles can flow out into the surrounding rocks, explained Dr Freund. And when they arrive at the Earth's surface they react with the air - converting air molecules into charged particles known as ions.
"Positive airborne ions are known in the medical community to cause headaches and nausea in humans and to increase the level of serotonin, a stress hormone, in the blood of animals," said Dr Freund. They can also react with water, turning it into hydrogen peroxide.
This chemical chain of events could affect the organic material dissolved in the pond water - turning harmless organic material into substances that are toxic to aquatic animals.
It's a complicated mechanism and the scientists stress that it needs to be tested thoroughly.
But, Dr Grant says this is the first convincing possible mechanism for a "pre-earthquake cue" that aquatic, semi-aquatic and burrowing animals might be able to sense and respond to.
It sounds extremely preliminary, but is interesting nonetheless.

Here Comes The Coverup

Minneapolis Star-Tribune:
Dennis Magnuson is a farmer, not a gambler. He trades in the commodity futures markets hoping to stabilize the cost of feed for the pigs he sells. The Austin, Minn., resident said he would never put his money into bonds issued by European countries flirting with economic collapse.
But the now-collapsed MF Global Holdings Ltd. may have done that for him.
Magnuson is among more than 100 Minnesota farmers estimated to have assets frozen as a result of MF Global's bankruptcy filing and an estimated $1.2 billion in missing customer funds. Most of the farmers didn't choose to do business with the huge brokerage house that has become one of the biggest financial failures in U.S. history. They invested through brokers or financial advisers who eventually used MF Global to clear trades.
On Thursday, members of the Senate agriculture committee, including Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, grilled the heads of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) over apparent loopholes in rules that allowed farmers' commodity trades to end up in risky European bonds.
"[Regulators] are still investigating if what [MF Global] did was illegal," Klobuchar said in an interview after the hearing. "And it may well have been illegal. We don't know that yet. But what we know is that the law is inadequate when it comes to disclosing transactions like they made ... it is possible that they were able under existing law to hide those risky transactions."
Also, the Financial Times says, "MF Global accessed client funds for weeks."

So, again, it may be legal to pilfer from custodial accounts?  If Jon Corzine doesn't go to jail, we are completely screwed.  But you can say one thing, deregulation in the CFTC has so skewed things that the rules may make theft ok.  Nobody seems to know for sure.  This will be a real test for the Obama Justice Department.  If charges aren't forthcoming by spring, something is terribly wrong.  It will be pretty clear that friends are being allowed to walk away from crimes they should be prosecuted for.

Da Vinci In The News Again

Via Mark Thoma, Physics Buzz looks at Da Vinci's rule of trees:
Da Vinci wrote in his notebook that "all the branches of a tree at every stage of its height when put together are equal in thickness to the trunk." In other words, if a tree’s branches were folded upward and squeezed together, the tree would look like one big trunk with the same thickness from top to bottom.

To investigate why this rule may exist, physicist Christophe Eloy, from the University of Provence in France, designed trees with intricate branching patterns on a computer.

"I designed the lightest tree structure to resist wind while still maintaining the strength of the trunk," said Eloy.

Trees are fractal in nature, meaning that patterns created by the large structures, such as the main branches, repeat themselves in smaller structures, such as smaller branches.
Eloy started with a fractal tree skeleton, in which smaller copies of the main branches are repeatedly added together to create the virtual tree. Each new branch takes after its "mother" branch, mimicking the fractal nature of real trees. At this stage, the model tree served merely as a framework for later determining the most effective branch thickness.

Once the skeleton was completed, Eloy put it to the test in a virtual wind tunnel. After applying various wind forces needed to break the branches, Eloy determined the diameters for each branch that limited the chance of snapping. Accounting for every part from the smallest twig to the trunk, the simulation seemed to produce Leonardo's rule.
Again, it amazes me how insightful one man could be at a time when science hadn't developed very far.

Are The Rich Job Creators?

Tech entrepreneur Nick Hanauer says no:
That’s why our current policies are so upside down. When the American middle class defends a tax system in which the lion’s share of benefits accrues to the richest, all in the name of job creation, all that happens is that the rich get richer.
And that’s what has been happening in the U.S. for the last 30 years.
Since 1980, the share of the nation’s income for fat cats like me in the top 0.1 percent has increased a shocking 400 percent, while the share for the bottom 50 percent of Americans has declined 33 percent. At the same time, effective tax rates on the superwealthy fell to 16.6 percent in 2007, from 42 percent at the peak of U.S. productivity in the early 1960s, and about 30 percent during the expansion of the 1990s. In my case, that means that this year, I paid an 11 percent rate on an eight-figure income.
One reason this policy is so wrong-headed is that there can never be enough superrich Americans to power a great economy. The annual earnings of people like me are hundreds, if not thousands, of times greater than those of the average American, but we don’t buy hundreds or thousands of times more stuff. My family owns three cars, not 3,000. I buy a few pairs of pants and a few shirts a year, just like most American men. Like everyone else, I go out to eat with friends and family only occasionally.
It’s true that we do spend a lot more than the average family. Yet the one truly expensive line item in our budget is our airplane (which, by the way, was manufactured in France by Dassault Aviation SA), and those annual costs are mostly for fuel (from the Middle East). It’s just crazy to believe that any of this is more beneficial to our economy than hiring more teachers or police officers or investing in our infrastructure.
His solution, more progressivity in the tax code.  To me that is common sense, but to the Republican party, it's heresy.

The Execution of John Brown

December 2, 1859:
Militant abolitionist leader John Brown is hanged for his October 16th raid on Harper's Ferry.

John Brown's life (and death) is a cautionary tale about the terrible things men can do in a the name of a righteous cause.

Robot Takeover- Manufacturing Edition

It's 5:30 pm and I'm standing in a dimly lit machine shop called Hard Milling Solutions, north of Detroit. The staff has gone home for the night and I'm the only human here. But all around me machines are working -- carving intricate metal molds. This is manufacturing's new night shift: No workers required. Now, let's rewind a couple hours so you can meet Corey Greenwald -- he started this company in 2004. And he's kind of a lights-out evangelist.
Corey Greenwald: The great thing about these machines: They don't take holiday, they don't take breaks and they don't write grievances.
The molds and dies machined here make plastic parts for cars and for people -- parts like artificial hips and knees. The process is much cheaper. In the old days, running five milling machines over three shifts employed 15 workers. Now Greenwald's shop only needs four. He says people told him for decades that automation would cost jobs.
Greenwald: You know what? They were right, they were absolutely right. What they didn't know is, it wasn't going to be their biggest enemy -- their enemy was gonna be developing countries around the world that had really cheap labor.
This is pretty common.  Where I work, they program the laser cutter to operate most of the night, preparing for the next day's production.  The trend will grow.  Where that leaves us, I don't know.

The Origin of Money and Debt

Dan Little reviews David Graeber's Debt: The First 5,000 Years (h/t Mark Thoma):
One of Graeber's recurring themes is that money and debt are reciprocals of each other.  He tells many stories about IOU's being passed around within a community: John promises to give X to Alice; Alice passes on the IOU to Robbie in exchange for a beer; Robbie takes the IOU to the nail shop and exchanges it for a pound of nails from Bert; and Bert eventually comes back to John to redeem the IOU. In this circuit, the statement of debt serves as a basis for folk currency within a local society.  But Graeber argues that the establishment of Bank of England resulted in bank notes that were no more or less than IOU's from the state (49).

Another theme that comes into the book is the close connection that Graeber draws between money and currency, and violence and war.  He argues that trust and extended credit arrangements work very well during periods of peace; whereas a period of extended warfare puts a premium on the portability and anonymity of precious metals.  So warfare pushes societies (and monarchs) towards the use of currency made out of precious metals.  He goes further: monarchs needed to pay their armies, in Europe, central Asia, and East Asia; and precious metals (coins) work best for the heavily armed and footloose soldiers who made up those armies.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What a Jackass!

The current Republican base's latest crush sticks his very fat foot in his very big mouth (h/t John Cole):
GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich defended his stance against certain child labor laws during a campaign stop in Iowa Thursday, saying that children born into poverty aren’t accustomed to working unless it involves crime.
“Really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods have no habits of working and have nobody around them who works so they have no habit of showing up on Monday,” Gingrich claimed.
“They have no habit of staying all day, they have no habit of I do this and you give me cash unless it is illegal,” he added.
That was today, folks! A lot can be said about the plight of families unlucky enough not to make $60,000 for a half-hour of bloviation or about their equally unlucky children who are deprived delightful cruises through the Greek isles. But Gingrich’s blanket condemnation of “really poor children, in really poor neighborhoods” is unbelievably disgusting. And it’s disrespectful of the overwhelming majority of those children and their families who live their lives with far more integrity and far less cash than Gingrich ever will.
I'm sure Gingrich didn't mean poor white folks in Appalachia, because they will probably vote for a Republican instead of Obama.  He must mean dark-skinned people who leech off of us working folks.  What a piece of shit.  Just because it is perfectly legal for this asshole to get paid $1.6 million to be a "historian" for Freddie Mac doesn't mean this dickhead knows anything about showing up on Monday.  If you don't believe me, ask his ex-wives.

Barack Obama is regularly losing in polls to generic Republican candidates.  He often beats real Republican candidates in the same polls (although Gingrich was supposedly ahead by a couple of points).  It isn't hard to see why.

Hubble Space Telescope Advent Calendar

From The AtlanticHere is the first installment:

A "Rose" of a Galaxy. In celebration of the 21st anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope's deployment into space, astronomers at the Space Telescope Science Institute pointed Hubble's eye to an especially photogenic group of interacting galaxies called Arp 273. Pictured here is the larger of the two galaxies, known as UGC 1810. It has a disk that is tidally distorted into a rose-like shape by the gravitational tidal pull of the companion galaxy below it, known as UGC 1813. A swath of blue jewels across the top is the combined light from clusters of intensely bright and hot young blue stars. These massive stars glow fiercely in ultraviolet light. A possible mini-spiral may be visible in the spiral arms of UGC 1810 to the upper right. It is noticeable how the outermost spiral arm changes character as it passes this third galaxy, from smooth with lots of old stars (reddish in color) on one side to clumpy and extremely blue on the other. UGC 1810 lies in the constellation Andromeda and is roughly 300 million light-years away from Earth. More info here. (NASA, ESA, STScI/AURA)

Dr. Pepper's Birthday

December 1, 1885:
 First serving of the soft drink Dr Pepper at a drug store in Waco, Texas.

I hate Dr. Pepper, and I drink pop.

Borat Plays Hockey?

My apologies to Cal Clutterbuck and Wild fans, but I just couldn't resist.  There is a good link to a Clutterbuck Greatest Hits and Goals news feature here if anyone is interested.

Robot Takeover- Singularity Watch

Via nc links, co.exist reports:
Mathematics and computing legend Stephen Wolfram (of Wolfram Alpha) is betting on the singularity. This week, the Lifeboat Foundation—a thinktank devoted to helping humanity survive existential risks as it “moves towards the Singularity”—announced that Wolfram was joining the organization’s advisory board. Wolfram will help the organization as they work toward solutions to future dangers like protecting the world from evil robots or self-replicating miniature weapons
The Singularity is a concept, popularized by Ray Kurzweil, that posits human nature will be fundamentally transformed by technology sometime in the not-too-distant future. In books such as The Singularity is Near, and The Age of Spiritual Machines, Kurzweil argues that man and machine will ultimately become one. While many experts lampoon the idea of Singularity ever happening, the concept has been massively influential in both science and popular culture.
While I find the concept of the singularity fanciful, I've got to say, that Rubic's cube solving robot is somewhat intimidating.  Also from the links, this satire about horse meat gaining popularity included the compulsive gambling Kramer "His mother was a mudder" scene along with this chart:

Mmmm, get me a plow steak.

The German Predicament

Matthew Yglesias:
Exporting is great, but we can't all be net exporters unless we find some Martians to export to. Interestingly, it's actually the case that due to statistical discrepencies the planet earth currently does register as a substantial net exporter. Still in the real world this doesn't work mathematically, politically, or economically. I don't think it makes sense to argue that China or Germany or Sweden or what have you is somehow morally obligated to lower its savings rate, but countries deliberately pursuing a policy regime of low consumption and high net exports are obligated to recognize that they are exercising agency. If you want other countries to buy your products you need to either (a) loan them money, (b) give them money, or (c) buy their stuff. Merkel is currently rejecting all three options, which won't work, and in the process is inflicting collateral damage on people all around the world including plenty of thrifty high-productivity savers. That (a) has about run its course seems clear and the political problems with (b) are obvious, but I genuinely don't understand what the objection to (c) is and why she can't say that a little (a) and (b) as a bridge strategy to (c) will ultimately make everyone happier than another ten rounds of recriminations and finger pointing.
The other thing to note is that when you don't do (a), (b) and/or (c), the debt you hold from previously loaning to the people you exported to is at risk of losing value or becoming worthless.  In other words, if you feel like other people should quit spending because they haven't worked and saved like you have, you might want to consider that you better start spending, because what you've saved may begin losing value.  In other words, use it or lose it.

The Case For LED Light Bulbs

From the WSJ, via Ritholtz:

A Short History of the Gentrification of Brooklyn

City Journal:

To understand the emergence of the new Brooklyn, it’s best to start by recalling its original heyday. From the mid-nineteenth century to 1898, when it became part of New York City, Brooklyn was one of the nation’s preeminent industrial cities, and its dominance continued until about 1960. Facing New York’s deepwater harbor and the well-traveled East River, Brooklyn’s waterfront was lined with factories. Workers in those factories lived in the borough’s numerous tenements, row houses, and subdivided townhouses. Some worked the assembly line in the Ansonia Clock Factory in Park Slope. (It later became the neighborhood’s first condo-loft space.) Others worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, in an area now known as Vinegar Hill. Still others worked on the docks in Red Hook, the inspiration for the Marlon Brando movie On the Waterfront; in the Arbuckle coffee-roasting factory under the Manhattan Bridge; in the paint factories and metal shops in Gowanus; in the breweries in the once-German enclaves of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick; and in the pharmaceutical factory founded in East Williamsburg by Charles Pfizer. They worked in the Domino sugar refinery, at one time the largest in the world, whose big red DOMINO sign (still illuminating the East River at night) was all that some Manhattanites knew firsthand of Brooklyn.
Ah, the good old days when Americans made stuff.  Here is my favorite part of the new, resurgent Brooklyn:
Steve Hindy and Tom Potter, founders of Brooklyn Brewery, epitomize the peculiar combination of hipster localism and business savvy characteristic of the young Brooklyn firms. Both had been company men—Hindy an Associated Press correspondent and Potter a Chemical Bank lending officer—before opening their Brooklyn plant in 1996. They were clever enough to see the marketing possibilities in Brooklyn’s changing identity and to ignore advice from establishment grown-ups to find a different name for their beer. Instead, they hired legendary designer Milton Glaser to create a seventies-style, retro-cool Brooklyn Brewery logo. Today, the brewery sells its products all over the world and is among the top 30 beer producers in the nation.
Brooklyn beer is great stuff.  Anyway, it is good that such a historic urban area has been revitalized.  Maybe there is some hope for Detroit and Cleveland.

Betting On Rare-Earth Metals

Fortune reports on Molycorp:
Smith also says he is banking on new, environmentally sound mining technology that promises to lower prices. When Molycorp is finished replacing its milling and refining facilities at Mountain Pass, it claims it will not only be the cleanest producer of rare earths in the world (the original mine was dogged by environmental violations stemming mostly from its wastewater, which was radioactive because of small amounts of thorium and uranium found in the ore), but also the world's lowest-cost producer. Since adding environmental safeguards usually adds to the cost of any extraction process, that would be a remarkable feat.
John Burba, Molycorp's chief technologist, explains it this way: Rather than using expensive, trucked-in chemicals to separate the rare earths from the ore, the company will use recycled saltwater, a byproduct of mining. And instead of buying expensive electricity off the grid, Molycorp is going to produce its own energy: Vanderweil Engineers is building on the mining site a 49-megawatt power plant, fired with cheap natural gas from a nearby pipeline. The old Molycorp used to dump its tailings in a slurry behind a dam. Now it will use a high-pressure system to squeeze out most of the water, leaving behind a "paste" that will be reburied in what's essentially a 90-acre landfill just west of the pit mine. All told, the company claims it will produce rare earths for $1.25 a pound. China's cost is $2.53 a pound, while some experts believe that production from Australian mines, owned by Molycorp rival Lynas, will cost a whopping $4.59. "We've been through the situation before where we weren't the low-cost producer in the world," says Smith, referring to the 1990s, when Mountain Pass was undercut by Chinese rivals. "We didn't like it."
Hopefully their bet pays off.  I bought this stock last year when it rallied to $54.  I figured I'd get ahead of the bubble suckers on this one, but I was the sucker.  It peaked at $77 and now is trading at $33.  Oh well, sometimes you're the windshield, sometimes you're the bug.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What is the Deal?

First there's this:
A quarter of middle-class Americans are now so pessimistic about their savings that they are planning to delay retirement until they are at least 80 years old — two years longer than the average person is even expected to live.
Then there is this reaction to it by Walter Russell Mead:
It isn’t as bad as it looks.  Work is a natural part of life; for thousands of years the only people who didn’t work were either under five, extremely ill, or dead.  My grandmother used to tell a family legend about a ninety year old matriarch who could no longer get out of bed; she insisted her family put hen eggs around her so she could incubate them with her body heat.  That, I suspect, was apocryphal, but one of my great-aunts was still mowing her lawn with a push mower in her nineties.  She only quit, I’m told, because her children begged her.  They were getting too much criticism from people in the neighborhood who couldn’t believe that her children were too cheap and selfish to hire someone to mow her lawn.
I don’t favor physical labor for nonagenarians, but having more people work longer in life is not a bad thing — for the country or for the people themselves.  Many of our nation’s economic problems could be solved by getting more people to work later in life. This is no terrible injustice; many people now remain in school well into their twenties — two generations ago many entered the workforce at sixteen. Paying for ten extra years of school when young with ten extra years of work at the end of life seems like a fair bargain. Changes in the American economy and the shift away from manual labor have made this bargain more attractive still. While it would be wrong to expect workers to continue to perform backbreaking labor in their late seventies, America’s economy is becoming increasingly service-based and much of our work can be done part time and from home.
Economic arguments aside, this is also good from a social standpoint. Work is not a horrible chore one endures just to pay the bills, it is one of the core things that constitute a healthy, active, and fulfilling human life. The fact that older people can continue to work into their seventies and eighties should be celebrated — greater engagement with the world in your old age is a positive thing. Modern medicine has made tremendous leaps in lengthening our lifespans; that precious of gift of life and health should inspire us to service and work for the common good.
The failure of so many Boomers to save may not just reflect fecklessness and folly.  People have been making a calculation that in fact they can work much longer than their parents and grandparents did.  They haven’t saved for a thirty year retirement because at some level they didn’t think they would have to. 
WTF? I don't know if Mr. Mead has noticed, but the job market is in a shambles right now.  Unless one wants to learn how to program machine tools, or learn other skilled labor, there aren't many damn jobs right now.  This is a freaking disaster, not something to chuckle about.  Social Security came about during the Great Depression, to get the old people out of the damn labor pool.  As I am trying to justify letting teachers work 30 years until retirement, even though productivity almost inevitably goes down over the years, as opposed to getting rid of tenure and canning "bad" teachers in the middle of their career, this guy is saying let boomers work until they are 80, because they didn't save for retirement, so they deserve the punishment/suffering.  Look, I worked 12.5 years at one job.  I had high points, I had low points.  When the Great Recession came, I got laid off.  I couldn't blame them, because business was business, and I could be unproductive at times.  But now I work with folks who may have 40 years on the job, and they're still only 58.  I can't see much productive coming out of them working another 22 years, especially at the same job.  We all have a productive cycle, and some are different than others.  But I have spent a lot of years around people who are over 65 years old.  Their faculties go down really quickly. They don't adapt well to technology, which happens to be a major part of a job today.   It would be nice to get contributions from older folks, and we will.  But most times, it won't be in paying positions, it will be in relating the history of what they've lived through, and donating time back to the community.  Don't get me wrong, older people can work well, and hard.  I unloaded straw with an 82 year-old in a hay mow in July, but he will be the basis of a post which I've been intending to write for months, and doesn't qualify as the normal elderly person.  Right now, the economy is so bad that young people have a very hard time finding jobs.  The idea that it won't be tough having 75 year-olds in the labor force because they can't retire is crazy.  This is a disaster, not some time to get holier-than-thou and preach that people are getting what they deserve for not saving right.  Even the idea that it is good for them to work doesn't hold any water.  We have a shortage of jobs, and we can't afford to have people who have already worked for 40 years trying to keep a paying job for longer.  We need to get young people working, so they can buy homes and start families.  Having people much past their prime competing with the future of the country for a wage to live on isn't a good thing.

Record Month

Thanks to everyone who's shown up this month.  Another record, 3372 page views for the 30 days.  Please come back.

A Perfect Summary Of Ayn Rand's Work

Nathan Rabin
You can always tell a bad guy in an Ayn Rand work because they're always trying to help the underprivileged.

Closing Time

Steven Hyden on the 1998 Semisonic song:
There’s another type of song that endures but in a completely different way. These songs do make us think about our own lives. We carry them in our subconscious like our hands harbor germs; we don’t always see them but they infect us all the same, and there’s seemingly millions of them. (Actually, it’s more like 200.) It has nothing to do with liking these songs; they become characters in our memories, which makes them as personal as family photographs. They’re so deeply embedded in our pasts that we don’t notice they’re there — and then somebody points one of them out, and this makes us laugh.
Semisonic’s “Closing Time” is that kind of song.

If you were between the ages of 13 and 24 in 1998 and at all engaged with pop culture, there’s a very good chance you can sing at least the chorus to Semisonic's “Closing Time.” (Here’s a hint: Just say “closing time” in a sing-songy manner.) And if you know the chorus, there might be another stray lyric or two lodged somewhere in your brain as well. (“Gather up your jackets, move it to the exits”; “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here”; “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.”) “Closing Time” wasn't an exceptional song in terms of its chart performance (it peaked at no. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100) or impact on culture; there were way bigger hits that year. It was just a catchy, moderately rocking track by a journeyman Midwestern indie band that peaked in popularity as the alternative rock boom was hacking out its final, phlegm-y death rattle. And yet for several months in the spring and summer of ’98, “Closing Time” was everywhere in a way that songs would soon never be again. Just one year later, Napster revolutionized popular music delivery systems, and moderately rocking nice-guy indie bands stopped having hit singles. Today, most people wouldn’t know Semisonic if they personally escorted them out of their favorite bar after last call. But “Closing Time” instantly conjures its era with startling intensity. As a result, “Closing Time” is maybe the most late-’90s thing there is.
This is one of the songs that puts me in a particular place and timeframe when it's played.  Actually, what I remember most about it is that dad liked it because he thought it was pretty funny. 

I've read before that music and memory are often linked together, so when studying to music, you may recall the song when you recall the answer for the exam or whatever.  I can believe that, because music and memories of certain events go together for me.  Anytime I hear Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want To Have Fun" I think of my old college roommate's wedding, when another roommate went out as the only person on the dance floor and danced like an idiot to that song.  "Glory Days" is another song like that.  Anyway, the article made me reminisce a bit.  Hopefully it did the same for you.

I've Got A Better Chance of...

November 30, 1954:
 In Sylacauga, Alabama, United States, the Hodges Meteorite crashes through a roof and hits a woman taking an afternoon nap in the only documented case of a human being hit by a rock from space. The Sylacauga meteorite is the first documented extraterrestrial object to have injured a human being. The grapefruit-sized fragment crashed through the roof of a frame house in Oak Grove, Alabama, bounced off a large wooden console radio, and hit Hodges while she napped on a couch. The 31-year-old woman was badly bruised on one side of her body but able to walk. The event received worldwide publicity.
The Sylacauga meteorite is not the only extraterrestrial object to have struck a human. In 1992 a very small fragment (3 g) of Mbale meteorite hit a young Ugandan boy, but it had been slowed down by a tree and did not cause any injury.

Chart of the Day

From the Dish:

To me, that is reason enough to refute the anti-mandate crowd.  Anyone who claims they wouldn't buy health insurance if it wasn't provided by their employers, even if they could afford it, is an idiot.  You've got a one in ten chance of running into medical bills approximately equal to median annual personal income.  While that is slightly better than Russian Roulette, it isn't a game I'd want to play (but then I have a decent amount to lose, compared to really cheap insurance).  The health care law provides subsidies to people who don't get health insurance through work, and can't afford premiums themselves.  The costs are minimized by requiring everyone to have insurance (the horrors of actually being personally responsible).  Is that the most efficient system?  No, single-payer would be much more efficient.  Is it better than the system we have today?  Hell yes it is.  The people highlighted in the chart aren't choosing to be so expensive generally, they just have some bad luck or bad genes.  You never know whether you might be one of those people until it's too late.

How The Banks Were Bailed Out

Steve Waldman on the workings of the bank bailout (h/t nc links):
After assuming the banking system’s downside risk, the US government engineered a wide variety of favorable circumstances that helped banks “earn” their way back to quasi-health. The government provided famous and obvious transfers like paying unwinding AIG swaps at 100¢ on the dollar. It forced short-term yields to zero and created an environment in which medium-term interest rates would be capped for several years, granting banks a near-risk-free arbitrage for a while. It emitted trillions in excess reserves on which it continues to pay interest. It forewent investigations and prosecutions that by law it should actively pursue, and settled what enforcement it could not avoid for token fees. Then there are the things conspiracy theorists and cranks like me suspect but cannot prove: that the government and the Fed have been less than aggressive in minimizing their costs when they or entities they controls (AIG, Fannie, Freddie) transact with large banks, that they have left money on the table where doing so could be hidden in arcane accounts or justified as ordinary transaction expenses and trading losses. Large banks have enjoyed some rather extraordinary results for allegedly efficient markets, quarters with large trading profits and no or very few losing days. Government housing policy is pretty overtly subject to a constraint that interventions must not provoke loss realizations for banks carrying bad loans at inflated values, or interfere with servicing revenues. (If you think I am overconspiratorial, I’m still waiting for an innocent explanation of this, from 1991.)
Pulling back from a shell game whose details are, by design, labyrinthine, check out the big picture. Since the beginning of the 3rd quarter of 2008 (Lehman quarter), US debt held by the public increased by 84%, from $5.28T to $9.75T (as of the end of Q2 2011). Depending on where you start, the growth rate of publicly held US debt prior to Q3 2008 had been ~8% per year (starting in 1970 or 1980) or ~4.5% (starting in 1990 or 2000). The growth rate since Q3-2008 has been 22.6% per year. The United States has issued between $3T and $4T more debt than would have been predicted by any reasonable estimate prior to the financial crisis. So far.
We cannot let the bankers forget this.  They seem to believe that they just got a little nervous, but things weren't as bad as they seemed, and they eventually pulled through.  Well, that or they know they were screwed without the government, but to justify outrageous pay they lie and say they were fine all along, and the government just made things worse.  I won't say for sure, but I lean toward number two.  Even bankers aren't dumb enough to think they would have been fine in October 2008 without the government.

How Healthy Are Company Balance Sheets?

Not as healthy as advertised, according to Hussman Funds (h/t Ritholtz):
As the following chart shows (based on Federal Reserve Flow of Funds data), the debt burden of U.S. corporations is near all-time highs, having retreated only modestly since 2009. Debt burdens are elevated regardless of whether they are measured against total assets or net worth. Certainly, corporations are presently benefiting from very low interest rates on corporate debt, which substantially reduces the servicing burden of these obligations. But the combination of high debt levels and low servicing burdens does create a potential risk to corporate health in the event that yields rise in future years. Overall, the picture is fairly stable at present thanks to low yields and high levels of cash-equivalents, but it is important for investors to keep in mind that cash can burn fairly quickly during economic downturns, and debt is not spread evenly across corporations.
The bottom line is that at an aggregate level, corporate balance sheets look reasonable, but are certainly not "stronger than they have ever been in history." Cash levels are elevated, but this is at best a second-order factor (with excess cash representing only a few percent of total assets), while debt remains near record levels relative to total assets and net worth. In any event, balance sheet risks should be evaluated on a business-by-business level, rather than accepting the blanket notion that cash levels are so high that nobody needs to worry about corporate credit risk.
So the main things making companies look stronger are piles of cash (because they've borrowed, but haven't invested, protecting themselves from a credit market seizure) and record low interest rates.  They also are benefiting from record high margins, which only some analysts think can continue.  They better hope things start working out better for us common folks, or they won't be in such a good spot.

What Will The Germans Do?

Jean Pisani-Ferry at Project Syndicate (h/t Mark Thoma):
In this context, Germany again finds itself in a situation akin to that of the late 1980’s, when the Bundesbank was setting monetary policy for the rest of the continent. At that time, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl wisely concluded that German economic dominance of Europe was not conducive to a stable equilibrium, and that a better plan for the future was to build on Germany’s weight and influence to create a permanent common monetary order. Kohl’s insight gave birth to the euro.
Today, once again, it is in Germany’s best interest to ensure lasting stability in Europe. With foreign assets worth €6 trillion ($7.9 trillion), most of which consist of claims on its eurozone partners, Germany would lose out massively if the eurozone fragments. Claims on entities within partner countries would be redenominated in weaker currencies – or the borrowers would default on them. Obviously, German exporters would be hurt by substantial currency appreciation.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has sensibly decided to take the lead on reforming the eurozone. But many Germans feel deceived by some irresponsible eurozone partners, giving rise to the temptation to use Germany’s current strength to toughen sanctions and coerce weaker countries into adopting constitutional changes, especially concerning fiscal policy.
This is a risky attitude. To be sure, Germany has far more leverage today than it has had at any point in the last 20 years. But attempting to extract unilateral concessions from partners is a recipe for disappointment. It is one thing is to be sanctioned for breaching the rules, as with the Stability and Growth Pact; it is quite another thing to permit elected national governments and parliaments to be overruled, and national budgets censored, by an unelected higher authority.
It's time for Germany to decide what will happen.  I think the breakup of the Euro will hurt them the most.  Will their desire to punish the spendthrifts in the periphery cause them to inflict more pain on themselves than necessary?  Whatever happens, it's going to happen soon.

In the meantime, the U.S. finds itself with a little decent economic news.  I didn't anticipate that, but I wonder how much of that is related to the payroll tax cut.  With discussion about extending that tax cut going on right now, I wonder what happens when we have to give up said cut?  I don't figure on much future economic growth, because whenever we start to get ahead, we'll have to start paying back some of what we borrowed.  I anticipate a long future of slow growth followed by slowdown, followed by slow growth, etc.  That is assuming that Europe doesn't drag down global growth.

Robot Takeover- Rubic's Cube Edition

The old boss tipped me off to this:

Seriously, how long would it take for a robot to add and adjust the valves and lifters to a cylinder head? I don't know, but Honda will probably know fairly soon.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

More Reasons To Cut Direct Payments

Des Moines Register:
 There’s new evidence from the government about just how good a year this has been for farmers and agribusiness. Agriculture Department economists estimated today that net farm income will be up 28 percent this year and reach $100.9 billion, which would mark the first time that measure of agricultural profitability has ever exceeded $100 billion. The rise in farm income is being fueled by higher commodity prices across a broad array of crops and livestock. Cash receipts for corn are estimated at $60 billion, a 34 percent increase from last year. Oil crops, including soybeans, are estimated to reach $38 billion, up more than 8 percent. Wheat returns will be up nearly 30 percent to 13.1 billion.
Cash receipts on cotton will be  nearly 31 percent higher, according to USDA.
As Congress faces the expiration of the Farm Bill and record federal deficits, I don't see how they keep direct payments.  Keep crop insurance subsidies (as opposed to direct payments), keep countercyclical support, but let the direct payments go.  Here in Western Ohio we're only looking at about $20 an acre anyway, nowhere near the $500 or so it costs to put out an acre of corn.  But, 2012 is an election year, and lots of farmers vote (especially in the low-population states with nearly as many Senators as Representatives), so I wouldn't be surprised to see the direct payments continue, in spite of the nation's budget problems.  Government is bad, unless it benefits your constituents.

A New Conservatism?

Noah Smith hopes that Peter Thiel is in the vanguard of a new conservatism (h/t Mark Thoma):
And then, at the end of his rant, Thiel slips in the paragraph that has the potential to change American conservatism:
Let us end with the related question of what can now be done. Most narrowly, can our government restart the stalled innovation engine? 
The state can successfully push science; there is no sense denying it. The Manhattan Project and the Apollo program remind us of this possibility. Free markets may not fund as much basic research as needed. On the day after Hiroshima, the New York Times could with some reason pontificate about the superiority of centralized planning in matters scientific: “End result: An invention [the nuclear bomb] was given to the world in three years which it would have taken perhaps half a century to develop if we had to rely on prima donna research scientists who work alone.”... 
Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years. (emphasis mine)
HALLELUJAH. Public goods FTW!!!

Peter Thiel recognizes and admits what doctrinaire conservatives have been loath to admit: government is not always and everywhere the problem. Sometimes, when externalities and public goods exist, government is the solution.

Conservatives, wedded to the drown-government-in-a-bathtub approach that worked so well for them in the 80s, have since been forced into taking the untenable, indefensible, goonball-"libertarian" position that public goods don't actually exist - that the unfettered market will provide plenty of basic research, infrastructure, etc. But regulation has been slashed, non-entitlement spending has been slashed, tax rates have been slashed, and essential government functions have been privatized...and, if Thiel and Cowen are right, innovation and progress have still slowed down. The Grover Norquist dog is no longer hunting.

I guess I'm a little pessimistic on the likelihood of conservatives embracing government funding of scientific research.  I guess it is too many attacks on the National Science Foundation, cuts to which I considered to be about the worst way to save a few billion dollars a year.  Considering that Republicans are calling for even more tax cuts for "job creators," even though the Bush tax cuts have been in place for approximately a decade with almost no new jobs at all, I think we're not going to see a conservatism of reason anytime soon.  The content of the answers at the multitude of recent Republican debates also leads me to despair.  Republicans will have to wander in the wilderness awhile before they give up on the '80s taglines.

A Guide To North Dakota

Abe Sauer gives a glipse of his new book, How to Be: North Dakota-A Guide to the Plains. Here's a bit of his explanation of square dancing:
Like polio and Flag Day, square dancing was largely eradicated in America by the late 20th century. Yet, a healthy number of square dancing groups still operate in the state, where it is the official dance.
American square dancing is derived from the folk dances of numerous immigrant cultures, including those of the British, Caledonians, and Skuares, a forgotten culture known for its inability to make anything but a right turn.
From the beginning, the dance was controversial.
In 1923, the popularization of the square dance move "Allemande Left," led to harsh punishment by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
Many religious leaders have forbidden square dancing for its similarity to sex. Sexually transmitted dances are common.
As with many things North Dakotan, the name, "square- dance," wastes nothing. It at once describes the motion through which the dance is performed while at the same time describing the social position of those performing it.
As a person who unfailingly sucks at square dancing during wedding receptions (although I did cause a guy to get kicked in the groin while dancing to the Farmer's Daughter), that made me laugh.

Has Some MF Global Client Money Been Found?

Maybe (h/t nc links):
Some investigators suspect that the transfer to JPMorgan was the first major misuse of customer money at MF Global, the commodity brokerage powerhouse once run by Jon S. Corzine, the former Democratic governor of New Jersey. Authorities are also looking into whether JPMorgan initially questioned the source of the cash and sought proof from MF Global that it was complying with regulations, one of the people said.
The authorities believe MF Global failed to give JPMorgan full documentation for the cash, the people briefed on the matter said. But the bank’s concerns hardly mattered because the money had already been transferred to the account in Britain. It is unclear whether investigators can recover the $200 million.
Well Mr. Corzine, I don't think any political connections will save you from a vacation in the federal penitentiary, but the Justice Department hasn't tried too hard to put other crooks away.  This case has pretty clearly crossed some formerly uncrossed boundaries, which will put the fear of God in some federal prosecutors.  Purloining from custodial accounts is bad, bad news.  Even if this is $200 million of the missing customer money, where's the other $1 billion?

The Swiss Civil War (Sonderbund War)

November 29, 1847:
 The Sonderbund is defeated by the joint forces of other Swiss cantons under General Guillaume-Henri Dufour. The Sonderbund War (German: Sonderbundskrieg) of November 1847 was a civil war in Switzerland. It ensued after seven Catholic cantons formed the Sonderbund ("separate alliance", in German) in 1845 in order to protect their interests against a centralization of power. The end of the war was the end of what is now known as the period of Restoration and Regeneration; it led to the rise of Switzerland as a federal state.
The Sonderbund consisted of the cantons of Lucerne, Fribourg, Valais, Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden and Zug, all predominantly Catholic but then ruled by Conservative administrations. The cantons of Ticino and Solothurn, predominantly Catholic but then ruled by liberal administrations, did not join the alliance.
General Guillaume-Henri Dufour led the federal army of 100,000 and defeated the Sonderbund under Johann-Ulrich von Salis-Soglio in a campaign that lasted only from November 3 to November 29, and claimed fewer than a hundred victims. He ordered his troops to care for the injured, anticipating the formation of the Red Cross in which he participated a few years later. Major actions were fought at Fribourg, Geltwil, Lunnern, Lucerne, and finally at Gisikon, Meierskappel, and Schüpfheim, after which Lucerne capitulated on 24 November.

In 1848, a new Swiss Federal Constitution ended the almost-complete independence of the cantons and transformed Switzerland into a federal state. The Jesuits were banished from Switzerland. This ban was lifted on 20 May 1973, when 54.9% of the population and 16.5 cantons out of 22 accepted a referendum modifying the Constitution.
Switzerland is my favorite answer to the right-wing email claim that no nation has ever survived as a bilingual or multilingual nation:
Switzerland comprises three main linguistic and cultural regions: German, French, and Italian, to which the Romansh-speaking valleys are added. The Swiss therefore do not form a nation in the sense of a common ethnic or linguistic identity. The strong sense of belonging to the country is founded on the common historical background, shared values (federalism, direct democracy, neutrality) and Alpine symbolism. The establishment of the Swiss Confederation is traditionally dated to 1 August 1291; Swiss National Day is celebrated on the anniversary.
Not only are there 3 main languages and one minor language, but the nation was at the heart of the Reformation, and the population is split by religion.  In spite of that, the nation persists.  I guess we have a chance with our little experiment here in the New World.

I also find it funny that the Jesuits got kicked out of Switzerland from 1848 to 1973.  They have a pretty lengthy history of not being able to play well with others, and being asked to leave by various potentates, although they were sometimes used as scapegoats.  Heck, even the Pope (under secular pressure) shut them down in most of Europe in 1773.

More On The Infrastructure Bill Coming Due

The Atlantic on the nation's aging drinking water infrastructure:
In 2005, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave water infrastructure across the country a D-minus. Four years later it handed out the same grade. In 2007, an increase in giant sinkholes in cities and towns all over the country coincided with the EPA's launch of its Aging Water Infrastructure Research Program.

Now it's nearly 2012, yet water systems in Washington, Alaska and North Dakota still use wooden pipes. This past summer, pipelines burst across the country due to record heat. Oklahoma City's utilities department recorded 685 main breaks from July to early September.

The ASCE says leaks cost us seven billion gallons of water each day—nearly 2 trillion of gallons of water, worth nearly $3 billion, every year. The EPA estimates 700 water mains break every day, or nearly one every two minutes. And a study by UCLA and Stanford found that more than 1.5 million people in Southern California get sick every year because of bacteria from polluted water released by broken pipes.

Jeffrey K. Griffiths, professor of public health at Tufts University and chair of the drinking water committee on the EPA's Science Advisory Board, says that aging pipes should be replaced at a rate of 2 percent each year. But the current rate across the U.S. is less than half that. “We're going to have increasing numbers of breaking pipes; the infrastructure is not going to last much longer,” says Griffiths. “The longer we delay replacing the pipes, the cost will be higher. Plus there's the public health problem that contaminants in the ground get in the water and people get sick.”

I still remember how surprised I was when I was told that some cities still had wooden water mains in service.  Joining the American Cast Iron Pipe Association Century Club, for cities with water mains (cast iron) in service for over 100 years, may be good publicity for pipe manufacturers, but it doesn't say much about how well we have kept up on infrastructure investment.  Now, when we can least afford it, we're going to have to spend trillions just to keep from losing ground.  We've got an extremely daunting future, mainly because we didn't want to invest the money when we should have.  We've got crumbling roads and bridges, leaky sewers, ancient water lines, an undersized electric transmission system and old power plants and oil refineries.  It's hard to pay for all that when we can't make our mortgage payments.