Saturday, December 29, 2012

A New Deal Community

NPR reports on the restoration of Johnny Cash's boyhood home:
Dyess, Ark., was a planned community, created during the Great Depression as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal. Dr. Ruth Hawkins is the director of the Arkansas Heritage Sites program at Arkansas State University; she's overseeing efforts to restore the Cash home, along with the town's administration building and an old movie theater.
"This was an agricultural resettlement colony," Hawkins says. "The Cash family was among the 500 colonists that were recruited to come here to get a new start in life."
The Sims family moved to Dyess in the 1960s, and Larry Sims grew up just down the street from the Cash house. Now the mayor of Dyess, he wants visitors to get the town's full history.
" 'Course we know Johnny Cash is gonna bring them here, but we want to tell them about the people that struggled, and how the government gave them a hand to get them back on their feet and give them some pride," Sims says. "A lot of these people had never owned any land before — they always sharecropped and just scraped by working for the other guy. This was a new start. ... They could come in and start fresh with everything they needed."
The Cash family sold the house in 1954. It passed from family to family for more than half a century, until the university bought it and began the restoration last February. The biggest problem was the foundation: It was built on sticky, heavy gumbo soil, which would constantly shift, causing the house to become unlevel. After lifting the entire structure up and building a new foundation, restorers peeled back layers of wall coverings and linoleum. Ruth Hawkins says they found the original wooden walls and tongue-and-groove flooring still intact.
There are so many aspects of the New Deal I just didn't realize existed.  Not all of the programs Roosevelt tried worked out, but he was tremendously bold in trying just about anything.  The other interesting part of the program was its nearly unstinting focus on helping the average man.  We don't see much of that today.

Not Just The Bakken

You can also see the Eagle Ford play from space:

This image is originally from NASA’s Earth at Night series that I’ve been following. The Eagle Ford Shale shows up as bands of lights below San Antonio, stretching from where the “Tex meets the Mex” to Interstate 10. What we’re seeing on the shale is not city or town lights that have sprung up because of the fracking activity. More than likely, we’re seeing well flares that are picked up by the imaging sensors aboard the Soumi NPP satellite, which detects both city lights and gas flares using a “day-night band”. You can also see flaring from offshore oil and gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, spreading out like silt from the Mississippi River, and some more flaring out in West Texas.
For perspective, here is a map (PDF) of the Eagle Ford Shale from the Energy Information Administration. The banding and well sites seem to match what we see from space.
What a tremendous waste of resources.  That doesn't even include fugitive emissions of natural gas from frack wells, which are estimated to leak much more than conventional wells.

Our Country's GOP Problem

Amy Davidson:
Here is what passes for logic and optimism in Washington: the current theory is that Republicans will be more willing to strike a deal after we go off the cliff, because one of the big elements of the plummet is an increase in taxes for everyone. At that point, the thinking goes, they wouldn’t technically be agreeing to a tax increase on the top two per cent of earners—Obama’s offer—but rather lowering them for the rest. Never mind that all sorts of other things happen at midnight on December 31st—tax-related things, like reductions in the earned-income tax credit, as well as the automatic spending cuts that come with sequestration and miscellaneous items like an end to many unemployment benefits, disorder in the financial markets, and maybe, as a special bonus, a credit downgrade. We’re all expected to go over the cliff so that the Republicans can play a mind game. But that is the Republican Party that we are dealing with—one more taken up by its internal divisions than by the business of the country. Nate Silver, in the Times, has a depressing look at the disappearance of the swing district, and the rise of ones that are steadily Republican or Democratic. What is crucial, as Silver points out, is that this doesn’t translate into safe seats for incumbents; it just turns the primaries into death matches. On the Republican side, in particular, these are increasingly governed by ideological tests.
Rural and, to the extent they are necessary to comprise enough people to make a difference, suburban folks are driving the idiotic ideological agenda of this terrible excuse for a governing alternative to the Democrats. When will enough sane people leave the nuts behind and actually work to improve our society?

The Secret To A New Green Revolution?

Big Picture Agriculture:
Is the fungus Micorrhiza a panacea?
It seems to make possible what might seem impossible, like growing vegetables in the inhospitable saline soils of Qatar. Calling it cheap with huge potential, scientists in Qatar used this naturally occurring soil fungus by mass producing it in labs and then adding it to soil to grow healthy, nutrient rich vegetables like corn, radishes, tomatoes, and also wheat. The crops grown were nutrient rich, like those grown on much better arable land. These plants were grown where salinity was greater than the sea one meter beneath the soil surface.
Micorrhiza, or root-fungus, increases the fruit and flowering of plants while improving soil quality and reducing the need for water and fertilizer. It is organic, natural, and chemical free.
When the right type of Micorrhiza is added to soils, it is capable of reducing water needs by 25 percent. It reduces the need for fertilizer, enables plants to be grown in salty or contaminated soils, and increases the temperature stress tolerance of plants. It does so by working symbiotically with plants. It attaches to the roots and forms root exudates or arbuscules, with finely branched hyphae which allow for an amplified exchange of nutrients between the soil and the plant. It greatly enhances the uptake of phosphorus and it protects the plant roots from disease pathogens. It is possible for a plant with the fungus present on its roots to uptake 100 times as many nutrients as a plant without the fungus. Certain types of Mycorrhiza are also key to storing carbon in the soil.
That is fascinating.  The skeptic in me says this is too good to be true, because it makes the same kind of claims as the witch doctor soil additives that guys pitch at all the farm show, but maybe there is some real potential there.  I'll withhold judgement for now.

Tip To Republicans: Don't Be Overtly Racist

Blacks appear to have turned out to vote at a higher rate than whites in the 2012 election.  I like this nugget:
No wonder Republicans were waging a “war on voting,” though they seem to have lost at least the latest battle.
Some hearing this news may attribute the numbers strictly to Barack Obama’s presence on the ballot, and suggest they won’t repeat themselves in future elections without an African-American contestant. But I dunno about that. Elections where African-Americans voted at higher rates than whites may be a brand new possibility at the presidential level, but not so much at the state and local level. I distinctly recall this happening in my home state of Georgia in 1998, producing a big pro-Democratic upset in a governor’s race with no African-American candidate present (significant increases in black turnout also helped Democrats win gubernatorial upsets in Alabama and South Carolina the same year—an entirely unexpected “Dixie Trifecta.”). What did happen in Georgia, however, was a late series of heavy-handed racially-tinged ads by a Republican candidate for Lieutenant Governor, run by his consultant, a guy named Ralph Reed, that helped mobilize African-American voters. You know, sorta like the poorly disguised 2012 ads attacking “welfare” and “voter fraud.”
So Republicans hoping for a lower or less lop-sided African-American voter turnout in the future might want to eschew race-baiting, overt or covert
Ralph Reed, what a Christian exemplar.  As for the covert racism, I don't think we'll ever squeeze that out of the Republican party, or the nation in general.

Awesome Map

The Atlantic Cities features the Census Dot Map, which maps a dot for every person in the United States:
Brandon Martin-Anderson, a graduate student at MIT's Changing Places lab, was tired of seeing maps of U.S. population density cluttered by roads, bridges, county borders and other impediments.
Fortunately for us, he has the technological expertise to transform block data from the 2010 Census into points on a map. One point per person, and nothing else. (Martin-Anderson explains the process in more depth here.)
At times, the result is clean and beautiful to the point of abstraction, but when you know what you're looking at, it's a remarkably legible map. And while it resembles, broadly, Chris Howard's political map of density that appeared after the presidential election, Martin-Anderon's map can be magnified at any point. Users can watch each of the country's metro areas dissolve from black to white. Even stripped of the features (roads, rivers) that shape human settlement, density has its own logic.
The area that has struck me on photos of the earth at night, besides the Bakken gas flares, is the corridor from Atlanta to Charlotte to Winston-Salem to Research Triangle.  I hadn't realized hos much that area has grown. It looks to have the potential to grow into a southern extension of the northeast corridor.  And yes, there is a reason for the coasts to ignore flyover country.  Past the 98th meridian, there ain't much out there until you hit the Central Valley.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

We Will Forget

A video following one of the true believers in the May 21, 2011 apocalypse, who spent $100,000 on subway ads warning people:

We Will Forget from Garret Harkawik on Vimeo.

I kind of feel sorry for the guy, but the video would have been a lot cooler if he disappeared at the appointed time.

The History of the Times Square Ball Drop

 The Atlantic Cities:
 Until that time, the area where 7th Avenue, Broadway and 42 Street met was called Longacre Square. The Detroit Publishing Company sells a print showing what it looked like back in those days:

That narrow building rising all by itself, then the second tallest in New York City, is the just-finished headquarters of The New York Times newspaper. Its publisher, Alfred Ochs, had successfully lobbied city leaders to change Longacre Square's name to Times Square earlier that year. He then resolved to throw a New Year's Eve celebration that would be the talk of the town. "An all-day street festival culminated in a fireworks display set off from the base of the tower," according to an official history published by the Times Square District Management Association, "and at midnight the joyful sound of cheering, rattles and noisemakers from the over 200,000 attendees could be heard, it was said, from as far away as Croton-on-Hudson, thirty miles north."
An annual event was born -- but two years later, the city prohibited the fireworks display. "Ochs was undaunted," the official history continues. "He arranged to have a large, illuminated seven-hundred-pound iron and wood ball lowered from the tower flagpole precisely at midnight to signal the end of 1907 and the beginning of 1908." Thus the origin of today's celebration.

One Times Square has been home to a ball drop ever since, save in 1942 and 1943, when wartime light restrictions caused it to be canceled. The ball itself has changed with technology. The original ball of iron and wood was replaced in 1920 with a 400 pound orb of all iron. In 1955, an aluminum replacement weighed in at a considerably lighter 150 pounds, and was adorned with 180 light bulbs. The New York Times ran a photograph of that ball in 1978, (six years after Dick Clark starting broadcasting in Times Square).
I didn't know all that.  It will be different not having Dick Clark around this year, but the last few have been pretty depressing seeing him after his stroke.

The Giant Comet of 2013?

The Independent, via Ritholtz:
Ison's surface is very dark – darker than asphalt – pockmarked and dusty with ice beneath the surface. It's a small body, a few tens of miles across, with a tiny pull of gravity. If you stood upon it you could leap 20 miles into space taking over a week to come down again, watching as the comet rotated beneath you. You could walk to the equator, kneel down and gather up handfuls of comet material to make snowballs, throw them in a direction against the comet's spin and watch them hang motionless in front of you. But it will not remain quiet on Comet Ison for the Sun's heat will bring it to life.
By the end of summer it will become visible in small telescopes and binoculars. By October it will pass close to Mars and things will begin to stir. The surface will shift as the ice responds to the thermal shock, cracks will appear in the crust, tiny puffs of gas will rise from it as it is warmed. The comet's tail is forming.
Slowly at first but with increasing vigour, as it passes the orbit of Earth, the gas and dust geysers will gather force. The space around the comet becomes brilliant as the ice below the surface turns into gas and erupts, reflecting the light of the Sun. Now Ison is surrounded by a cloud of gas called the coma, hundreds of thousands of miles from side to side. The comet's rotation curves these jets into space as they trail into spirals behind it. As they move out the gas trails are stopped and blown backwards by the Solar Wind.
By late November it will be visible to the unaided eye just after dark in the same direction as the setting Sun. Its tail could stretch like a searchlight into the sky above the horizon. Then it will swing rapidly around the Sun, passing within two million miles of it, far closer than any planet ever does, to emerge visible in the evening sky heading northward towards the pole star. It could be an "unaided eye" object for months. When it is close in its approach to the Sun it could become intensely brilliant but at that stage it would be difficult and dangerous to see without special instrumentation as it would be only a degree from the sun.
Remarkably Ison might not be the only spectacular comet visible next year. Another comet, called 2014 L4 (PanSTARRS), was discovered last year and in March and April it could also be a magnificent object in the evening sky. 2013 could be the year of the great comets.
Hopefully, no cults commit suicide when these comets get close.  That mass suicide (with castrations) was pretty weird.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

John Boehner's Christmas Letter

The Borowitz Report releases John Boehner's Christmas Letter to the American People:
Dear American People: It’s Speaker Boehner here, writing my first and last ever holiday letter to you. Why am I doing this after all of these years, you might ask? Well, I won’t mince words. I’ve started drinking a little early this Christmas. Yes, I’m sitting here in my man-cave, panelled in mahogany the color of me, doing a rack of Canadian Club shooters and smoking my way through a carton of Lucky Strikes as if they were the last Twinkies in creation. If my chief of staff knew that I was writing to you while I was this polluted, he’d shit a phone book. But guess what? I don’t fucking care anymore. You see, this will be my last Christmas as Speaker of the House, all because a cabal of Tea Party miscreants in the House of Representatives doesn’t think I’m a ginormous enough asshole for their taste. Who’s more to their liking? Virginia’s own Eric Cantor. As a waiter might say at an all-you-can-eat shit buffet, “Excellent choice.” How odious is Eric Cantor? Let me put it this way: when we have to speak to the press, I actually prefer to stand next to Mitch McConnell.
That is pure gold.  Eric Cantor is an absolute weasel.  I don't understand how that man manages to not get punched in the face on a daily basis.

The Rye Whiskey Comeback

Morning Edition:
It used to be said that only old men drink rye, sitting alone down at the end of the bar, but that's no longer the case as bartenders and patrons set aside the gins and the vodkas and rediscover the pleasures of one of America's old-fashioned favorites.
Whiskey from rye grain was what most distilleries made before Prohibition. Then, after repeal in 1933, bourbon, made from corn, became more popular. Corn was easier to grow, and the taste was sweeter.
To be sure, rye whiskey production is only a drop compared with the rivers of bourbon produced now, although rye whiskey sales have tripled in the past five years.
You can even find rye in the tiny farm town of Templeton, Iowa. It's said to be the same taste as the bootleg brew that Templeton was known for during Prohibition. They called it "The Good Stuff." It was popular in Chicago, a favorite of Al Capone. Templeton Rye, legal these days, and sold in Iowa and 11 other states, is made from a grandfather's secret recipe. The actual production, though, takes place at a distillery in Shelbyville, Ind., with the aged whiskey shipped to Templeton for bottling.
I've never developed a taste for rye, but I like seeing it making a comeback.  I've bought a couple of bottles for my home supply, but I think that will last me for a couple of decades.  More on Templeton Rye here.

Costly To Get Rid Of

Talk about paying somebody to go away:
Richard K. Armey, the group’s chairman and a former House majority leader, walked into the group’s Capitol Hill offices with his wife, Susan, and an aide holstering a handgun at his waist. The aim was to seize control of the group and expel Armey’s enemies: The gun-wielding assistant escorted FreedomWorks’ top two employees off the premises, while Armey suspended several others who broke down in sobs at the news.
The coup lasted all of six days. By Sept. 10, Armey was gone — with a promise of $8 million — and the five ousted employees were back. The force behind their return was Richard J. Stephenson, a reclusive Illinois millionaire who has exerted increasing control over one of Washington’s most influential conservative grass-roots organizations.
Stephenson, the founder of the for-profit Cancer Treatment Centers of America and a director on the FreedomWorks board, agreed to commit $400,000 per year over 20 years in exchange for Armey’s agreement to leave the group.
$400,000 a year for 20 years to just go away?  I need to get involved with the wingnut welfare circuit.  That is pretty damn good pay for doing nothing.  It even beats Jim Jordan's Congressional salary.   And even better, this is funded by some fool super rich guy, instead of taxpayers.  The whole story about FreedomWorks is interesting.  It just sounds like that Stephenson fool's plaything.

Happy Boxing Day

For my former boss and all the Britainers, Canucks and Aussies out there, enjoy your Boxing Day and have fun watching all the rugby, soccer or cricket matches or whatever it is you do on your day off.  I'm headed to work in what was predicted to be a blizzard.  At least I can expect this 3 day week to be pretty damn slow, and we get to wear jeans all week.  Woo hoo, it's the little things in life that get us through.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Family Fun On Christmas

I hung out most of the day at the folks' house.  We turned on the A Christmas Story marathon just before 10 o'clock this morning.  It was just in time to see the Bumpuses hounds burst through the house and eat the Christmas turkey, setting up the dinner at the Chinese restaurant:

Two hours later, when the dogs burst into the house in the next showing of the movie, Mom looked up and said something along the lines of, "The dogs got a second turkey?" After we explained that it was the same scene being replayed, we had a good laugh.

However, it wasn't as much fun when Grandpa decided it was a good time to talk about the ineffectiveness of gun control laws. First, he said that after Australia put in gun control, it didn't stop shootings. Apparently, that doesn't seem to hold up:
 Australia Gun Homicide Rate
Then he followed up by claiming that when he was visiting Honduras, every man and woman carried a gun, and there were very few shootings.  My sister told him she didn't want to live anywhere where everybody carried a gun, while I said I thought they had a large number of shootings.  He told me I didn't know anything because he'd been there and I hadn't.  I googled crime in Honduras and got this:
According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras has the highest rate of intentional homicide in the world, with 6,239 intentional homicides, or 82.1 per 100,000 of population in 2010. This is significantly higher than the rate in El Salvador, which at 66.0 per 100,000 in 2010, has the second highest rate of intentional homicide in the world.
After I told him that, he wanted to know how that compared with Detroit.  Honduras was pretty much twice as high. That also occurs when Honduras has many fewer guns than the United States.  When it comes to arguing with Grandpa, facts seem to be liberal things.

Still In A Bubble

Joe Hagan reports from the downcast post-election National Review cruise: 
That night, Cal Thomas, a USA Today columnist and Fox News contributor, was the host of my table of eight. At an earlier panel, he’d suggested that his audience “starve the beast” of government by refusing to pay income taxes; but now his stage fire had waned, and he looked bored, peering around our table with half-lids, his hound-dog face propped in his hand. I sat next to a retired surgeon from California named Duane, who heralded the Dinesh D’Souza film 2016: Obama’s America as the definitive truth regarding Obama’s anti-Colonialist background, which now portended America’s inevitable slide into socialism. Thomas liked the movie but dismissed its impact on the election, saying it had preached to the converted and had “sourcing problems” besides. But Duane, who has thick glasses and a closely shorn flat-top, was undeterred, insisting it was relevant. “I disagree!” he spat.
This was a phenomenon that was common on the cruise—the conservative pundits and columnists from the National Review attempting to gently disinter their followers from unhelpful conservative propaganda. For people who believe in the truth of works like Dreams From My Real Father, a conspiracy-­theory documentary that argues that Obama’s real father was a communist propagandist who turned Obama into a socialist Manchurian Candidate, this could be difficult work.
As Thomas downed the rest of his drink, Duane said the only way out of the current quagmire is a “revolution,” citing the famous Thomas Jefferson line about watering the tree of liberty with blood from “time to time.”
What kind of revolution did he have in mind?
Duane’s eyes crinkled into a big smile. “You ever heard of guns?”
His wife sat up: “How do you like the veal?”
“It’s awful,” Duane growled, poking at it. “I can’t hardly chew it.”
The whole story is full of anecdotes of out-of-touch old folks grousing about the direction of the country.  Sounds like supper with Grandpa, although I think these people make Grandpa seem pretty fair-minded.  I think it is notable that even the conservative pundits seem to realize that they need to reengage with the rest of society, and quit pretending that Fox News represents reality.

Worst Christmas Song Ever?

Via the Dish, Patton Oswalt nominates "Christmas Shoes" (warning, not safe for people with souls, but hilarious nonetheless):

Sullivan also highlights Jonathan Coulton trashing Jingle Bell Rock. I don't care how tacky that song is, I like it.

Army Corps Blowing Up Mississippi River Bottom

 Dec. 19 (Bloomberg) -- The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is blasting rock pinnacles in the drought-depleted Mississippi River in an effort to keep the waterway open for barge traffic. Bloomberg's Megan Hughes reports on the drought and its impact on shipping. She speaks with Mark Crumpton on Bloomberg Television's "Bottom Line."
The Army Corps gets to do some cool stuff. I know Bloomberg News might not be familiar with flyover country, but I've never seen a city in Illinois on the (north)west side of the Mississippi River. They appear to have rotated their map 90 degrees.

A Class Act Says Goodbye to Mets

RA Dickey wrote a letter in the New York Daily News thanking the Mets and their fans for giving him a shot and cheering him on:
There were so many special relationships I formed that made my time with the Mets so much richer. Not just in the clubhouse, either. I enjoyed talking with Bill Deacon, the head groundskeeper, about his craft, and all that went into it. The security people who helped my wife and kids get in and out of the family lounge, the policemen who helped me get out of the parking lot, the folks at the Hodges Gate — so many people went out of their way to be kind to me, and they should know how much it was, and is, appreciated.

I was going to take out an advertisement to express these thank yous, but decided in the end that there was too much I wanted to say. So I am writing this instead.

As I move beyond the sadness over leaving here, I know I have a tremendous amount to look forward to. The Blue Jays may need name tags on the first day of spring training, but once we get acquainted, well, this team could be something. I appreciate the welcome I’ve already gotten from them, and what they’re trying to build. We’ll see how it all unfolds.

God has blessed me in so many ways. His grace and mercy are at the center of my life. I may not pitch for the home team anymore (a friend told me I now have to start calling myself a Canuckleball pitcher ) but wherever I go from here — wherever I might wind up in the future — I hope you know that I will never forget my three years in New York, and never be able to adequately thank you for everything you’ve given me.
If only more athletes showed that kind of class.  I do like the Canuckleball joke, as well.  I received the RA Dickey autobiography from my Goddaughter for Christmas, and the Knuckleball! movie from my sister, so I had a very knuckleball Christmas.

Merry Christmas

Monday, December 24, 2012

Jim Jordan in the News

John Cassidy highlights Jim Jordan doing what he does best, making the Republican party look like a bunch of morons who want to destroy our economy:
The bigger issue is what the Republican obstructionism means for the next four years and beyond. There is no reason to suppose that the newly-elected House of Representatives will be any more moderate than the current one. President Obama pointed out in his press conference the other day that most G.O.P. congressman now hail from districts where he lost heavily. Such Republicans have little incentive to coƶperate with the White House. The only potential challenge they face is from the Tea Party right—in the form of a potential primary battle in 2014. To say that this doesn’t augur well for the prospects of bipartisan agreements on issues such as gun control, immigration, and tax reform is to lapse into understatement. Many of the congressmen involved in the effort to embarrass Boehner—such as Jim Jordan, the current head of the Republican Study Group, which represents over half of the G.O.P., and Steve Scalise, his successor in the new Congress—see themselves as on a mission. To heck with President Obama’s victory in November. In their minds, their reĆ«lection to Congress gave them a mandate to uphold ultra-conservative positions, especially on those issues that bind together the conservative movement: guns, God, and taxes. Refusing to vote for a tax-raising bill, even one that would have come with many, many goodies attached for the rich, was the first step in carrying out this mission.
Guns, God and taxes.  What a platform for national greatness.  Who the fuck needs infrastructure?  One thing you can count on will be that Jordan will vote against any bill that is possibly workable. What a useless lump of a public servant. Keep building that pension, Jim. Compared to you, I am an extremely productive member of society.

If It Sounds Too Good To Be True...

It probably is.  Fortune features an affinity ponzi scheme which hit Mormons in Utah (not NuSkin):
Koerber held expensive seminars to teach his system, which he called the "equity mill." The seminars disseminated Koerber's free-market philosophy, and also provided a way to troll for new participants in the program. After spending what could amount to thousands of dollars on the training, seminar attendees could be solicited for investments, used to help identify more undervalued properties, and become finders to bring in yet more capital, Moore says.
To avoid regulatory problems, the investments were structured as open-ended loans with promissory notes, rather than securities or partnership interests. Since they weren't securities, the Franklin Squires partners believed they didn't have to be registered with regulators, with all the disclosure that required -- a view regulators have since rejected. There were no registration statements, no audited financial records, no disclosures of risks. Some investors put up tens of thousands of dollars based on little more than brief conversations with Franklin Squires participants.
Few seemed to mind at the time. As noted, the promissory notes typically generated 5% in interest per month for initial investors (and 3% to 4% for those who bought in later). If investors attracted capital from new participants, they received a fee or a monthly commission, as would those newer investors if they in turn brought in their own recruits.
For Moore the program was a revelation. He was working with guys he trusted as good Mormons who shared his views on self-reliance and limited government. He took the $150,000 he had made selling his condominium in Virginia and invested it in a Franklin Squires fund. He wheedled his reluctant wife into putting up part of her own nest egg, which she had inherited when her first husband, a state trooper, had died in the line of duty.
Later on, Moore says this:
Moore says he still believes that the Franklin Squires partners were good men and that they would have managed to pull through had the government not shut the operation down. "The way a government regulator thinks," he says, "is if something is out of the ordinary, then there must be something wrong with it."
When pressed about the evidence that prosecutors have presented that Franklin Squires was a con, Moore wavers. "I didn't think it was a Ponzi scheme, and I still don't," he says. "But I have to say I guess it could be. They put so much stress on getting those high appraisals for the homes, but I never really talked to anyone about it. Everyone knew there were risks."
He was working on some other get-rich-quick schemes prior to being sentenced for theft.  I don't understand how people get sucked into these things.  A few lessons I've picked up from reading these type stories in the past:

1. If somebody is promising you a better interest return than a life insurance company is, run away fast.

2.  If you have to shell out a couple thousand dollars to learn about this "investment system," it is a con.

3.  If people are playing up the religious or political beliefs you each share, or are claiming to donate a percentage of their profits to some church or charity you support, they are most likely scheming. 

4.  If you get a percentage of the return of investors you bring in (multi-level marketing, aka pyramid scheme [or Mormons Losing Money]), there is a good chance a number of people in the upper portions of the pyramid are going to be interviewed by the FBI, and not in a good way (if there is such a thing).

Really, 5% in interest a month?  Back in 2006, I think I was getting something like 1% a year from the bank.  How would somebody consistently pay 60 times what a bank pays?  What do life insurance companies pay?  7 percent a year, maybe?  The affinity angle is what really pisses me off.  People who wrap themselves in faith and rip off their supposed co-religionists are the lowest of the low.  But it is interesting how they found two friends who had opposite reactions to the same pitch.  I don''t know what it is that makes some folks vulnerable to such enterprises when others aren't, but it is interesting.  The fact that Moore went into a couple of other ripoff ventures tells me that he probably thinks everybody who gets ahead does it at the expense of the people around him.  Friends as marks, is how it seems.

Are We Living In Pottersville?

Robert Reich places Mr. Potter from It's A Wonderful Life in today's world:
But we are still in danger of the “Pottersville” Capra saw as the consequence of what happens when Americans fail to join together and forget the meaning of the public good.
If Lionel Barrymore’s “Mr. Potter” were alive today he’d call himself a “job creator” and condemn George Bailey as a socialist. He’d be financing a fleet of lobbyists to get lower taxes on multi-millionaires like himself, overturn environmental laws, trample on workers’ rights, and shred social safety nets. He’d fight any form of gun control. He’d want the citizens of Pottersville to be economically insecure – living paycheck to paycheck and worried about losing their jobs – so they’d be dependent on his good graces.
The Mr. Potters are still alive and well in America, threatening our democracy with their money and our common morality with their greed.
Call me naive or sentimental but I still believe the George Baileys will continue to win this contest. They know we’re all in it together, and that if we succumb to the bullying selfishness of the Potters we lose America and relinquish the future.
I really like the "job creator" line.  My take on the movie which I posted last year is here.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Dropkick Murphy Christmas

via Anne Laurie:

Separation of Church and State

NYT, via nc links:
The idea of Protestant civil religion sounds strange in a country that prides itself on secularism and religious tolerance. However, America’s religious free market has never been entirely free. The founding fathers prized freedom of conscience, but they did not intend to purge society of Protestant influence (they had deep suspicions of Catholicism). Most believed that churches helped to restrain the excesses of mob democracy. Since then, theology has shaped American laws regarding marriage, public oaths and the bounds of free speech. For most of our history, the loudest defenders of the separation of church and state were not rogue atheists, but Protestants worried about Catholics seeking financing for parochial schools or scheming their way into public office to take orders only from mitered masters in Rome.
Activists on both the left and the right tend to forget this irony of the First Amendment: it has been as much a weapon of religious oppression as a safeguard for liberty. In the 19th and early 20th century, when public school teachers read from a Protestant translation of the Bible in class, many Americans saw benign reinforcement of American values. If Catholic parents complained, officials told them that their Roman dogma was their own private concern. The underlying logic here was not religious neutrality.
The Protestant bias of the American public sphere has mellowed over time, but it still depends on “Christian secularism,” said Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, a political scientist at Northwestern University. This is a “political stance” premised on a “chiefly Protestant notion of religion understood as private assent to a set of propositional beliefs,” she told me. Other traditions, such as Judaism and Islam and to some degree Catholicism, do not frame faith in such rationalist terms, or accept the same distinction between internal conviction and public argument. The very idea that it is possible to cordon off personal religious beliefs from a secular town square depends on Protestant assumptions about what counts as “religion,” even if we now mask these sectarian foundations with labels like “Judeo-Christian.”
I always like to remind Catholics how welcoming Protestants have been to us over the years.  "Judeo-Christian" is a nice way to try to change the culturally significant Jewish and Catholic populations from "them" to "us".  Personally, I don't enjoy such manipulations.

NASA Photo of the Day

December 22:

Saturn at Night
Image Credit: NASA, JPL-Caltech, Space Science Institute, Cassini Imaging Team
Explanation: Splendors seldom seen are revealed in this glorious picture from Saturn's shadow. Imaged by Cassini on October 17, 2012 during its 174th orbit, the ringed planet's night side is viewed from a perspective 19 degrees below the ring plane at a distance of about 800,000 kilometers with the Sun almost directly behind the planet. A 60 frame mosaic, images made with infrared, red, and violet filters were combined to create an enhanced, false-color view. Strongly backlit, the rings look bright away from the planet but dark in silhouette against the gas giant. Above center, they reflect a faint, eerie light on the cloud tops while Saturn casts its own dark shadow on the rings. A similar Cassini image from 2006 also featured planet Earth as a pale blue dot in the distance. Instead, this scene includes icy moons Enceladus (closer to the rings) and Tethys below the rings on the left.

Immaculate Reception

40 years ago today:

Damn Steelers. Here's to the Bengals ruining this anniversary celebration this afternoon. Who Dey!

Government At Its Worst

Lost in the political standoff between the Obama administration and Congressional Republicans over the budget is a virtually forgotten impasse over a farm bill that covers billions of dollars in agriculture programs. Without last-minute Congressional action, the government would have to follow an antiquated 1949 farm law that would force Washington to buy milk at wildly inflated prices, creating higher prices in the dairy case. Milk now costs an average of $3.65 a gallon.
Higher prices would be based on what dairy farm production costs were in 1949, when milk production was almost all done by hand. Because of adjustments for inflation and other technical formulas, the government would be forced by law to buy milk at roughly twice the current market prices to maintain a stable milk market.
But the market would be anything but stable. Farmers, at first, would experience a financial windfall as they rushed to sell dairy products to the government at higher prices than those they would get on the commercial market. Then the prices customers pay at the supermarket would surge as shortages developed and fewer gallons of milk were available for consumers and for manufacturers of products like cheese and butter.
Why is so much legislation just add-ons to old law?  These guys take so long to put the laws together, you'd think they could scrap out the old stuff that doesn't apply.  Apparently not.  Also, there's this:
“This is a totally antiquated law that has nothing to do with farming conditions today,” Professor Smith said. “It was put as a poison pill to get Congress to pass a farm bill by scaring lawmakers with the prospect of higher support prices for milk and other agriculture products. Letting it go into effect for even a few months would be particularly disastrous for consumers and food processors. “
It appears that these guys are dysfunctional enough that they need to avoid the poison pills, unless they are taking actual pills.

Scott Adams on the Fiscal Cliff

Congress is a bunch of useless pieces of shit:
I'm impressed by the trigger that Congress included in the Budget Control Act in 2011. The idea is that if Congress can't agree on a better way to balance the budget by year end, automatic and painful spending cuts and tax increases will go into effect. The hope was that members of Congress would act responsibly if there was a gun to the head of total strangers that they don't give a shit about.

I've never wanted to run for Congress until now. The job looks boring, but I'm attracted to a system that punishes total strangers for my bad performance. I assume this is some sort of "best practice" that our government is borrowing from a successful system elsewhere. So starting today, if you tell me you don't like my blog, I will pay a stranger to kick another stranger in the nads. If Congress is right about the trigger concept, you should see a big improvement in my blogging performance. I'm all about incentives.

There's a Wally-esque genius to this budget trigger concept. It actually solves Congress' biggest problem, namely that doing anything that is balanced and appropriate for the country renders a politician unelectable. Republicans can't vote for tax increases and get reelected while Democrats can't cut social services and keep their jobs. But don't cry for Congress because this isn't the sort of problem that can thwart a building full of lawyers. They put their snouts together and cleverly invented a concept - called a trigger - to take the blame for them. This way, both sides can screw their supporters while still blaming the other side. No one has to take responsibility for anything.
I couldn't agree more.  Republicans won't admit our economy will tank worse without the social programs they hate, and don't seem to realize that the "capitalist" system would be an even more complete disaster right now without what crappy government redistribution programs we have.  Democrats are too of cowards to come up with a functional system to pay for those programs, or ones which were actually even more effective.  Both parties are hung up on killing people on the other side of the world for no apparent reason and spying on us, apparently "for our own good."  Something will end up being done, but I'm pretty sure who will get hurt and who won't be affected. 

A Different World Five Miles Away

Dina Rasor:
We would spend time with coaches Fred, Khalid and Waleed and began to hear how they were saving these kids, starting from age 6 to age 14 from the violent streets, teaching them with very strict discipline and insisting that they were tutored. But they only had them for part of the year and in the early to mid-2000s, the cuts in money for opportunity, the loosening of gun restrictions and the rise of drugs were taking their toll. Khalid and Waleed had played for the Steelers during the 1980s where the same poverty and lack of opportunity due to cuts in state and federal budgets drove both of them into drugs and prison sentences; but they turned themselves around and decided to coach to keep another generation from making their same mistakes.
But while Nick was playing for the Steelers in 2004, these coaches were losing the battle. One of their stars, Terrance Kelly had made it through high school and had been recruited by the University of Oregon for a full scholarship to play football. Coach Fred, who had been coaching the Steelers for three decades, was so excited for him and for the example it set for the younger kids, even the 6-year-olds. Several days before Kelly left for college, he was waiting for a friend in the car in Richmond when another kid came up and shot him dead. Although it was just one of the gun murders in Richmond that week, it made the news for a few days. But it devastated the Steelers from Coach Fred down to the 6-year-olds since Kelly had been seen as a role model. All three of the coaches seemed to have physically shrunk from the shock. Unknown to me at the time, several other players a few years earlier had been killed during the off season and two teammates, while playing well together during the season, had one of them shoot the other when they went back to their separate neighborhoods. The coaches felt they were losing the war in bringing these kids out of the escalating and endless violence.
At the end-of-the-season awards ceremony that year, we were the only white couple and enjoyed watching each group of kids getting awards and advancing up to the next team. Since the Steelers won almost all their games and were champions year after year, the mayor of Richmond and many of the clergy of Richmond were in the packed auditorium of parents. The room grew somber as the father of Terrance Kelly spoke and encouraged the kids to stay in school and study.
As my son Nick went up with his teammates to receive his awards, they had a special ceremony for the 14-year-olds who were graduating out of the Steelers to their high school teams. But then they lined up the boys and one of the clergy and the coaches went and put their hands on the shoulders of each boy to pray that he would live to adulthood. My husband and I were stunned. The fact that at age 14 these boys had to get blessings to make it to manhood shook us to the core.
The whole thing is worth reading, at least for folks like me who don't interact with such places.  While I would like to support the kind of work Khalid does, I just don't think I could handle the almost guaranteed exposure to tragedy actually doing the work involves.  I think it would further damage my already faltering faith in God and humanity.

It's Festivus

Airing of grievances will begin shortly: