Saturday, January 19, 2013

Landscapes: Volume 3

Landscapes: Volume 3 from Dustin Farrell on Vimeo.

Desperate For Hockey

James Hughes contrasts NHL players and fans desperate for hockey with the members of the Shackleton expedition, desperate to live:
After Christmas, a bored Canadiens defenseman took to Twitter to suggest a pickup game at a public rink in Montreal, the hockey-crazed city where the NHL was founded in 1917, and people of all ages arrived in droves to skate alongside a pro. Like all bright spots during hockey's shipwrecked season, however, there was a bitter chaser. The following week the New York Times reported that cooling systems are now required to keep ice inside Arctic arenas frozen, posing concerns that the Canadian tradition of pond hockey might fade by midcentury.
Cooling systems were hardly necessary at Antarctic pick-up games. In Sara Wheeler's biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the English zoologist and third editor of the South Polar Times, she recounts a hockey game in 1911 that "was abandoned when the puck, which they had made from shellac and paraffin wax, shattered as soon as it was struck." Other pieces of equipment were built to last. Among the items preserved by sub-freezing conditions inside a prefabricated hut erected during Robert Falcon Scott's deadly Terra Nova expedition over a century ago, one can still find tins of digestive biscuits, a chemistry set frozen in mid-use, a box of penguin eggs, and hockey sticks. (On a related note, a stick belonging to the Australian cartographer Alexander Lorimer Kennedy, used during the Australasian Antarctic Expedition of 1911-14, sold at a Christie's auction in 2007 for more than $3,000.)
No account of the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration is complete without reflecting on Shackleton's ill-fated voyage on the Endurance. In 1915 the ship froze into the ice "like an almond in the middle of a chocolate bar," according to the ship's storekeeper, resulting in an unimaginable quest to reach civilization that stretched over 400 days. The icebergs that surrounded the ship resembled "the creations of some brilliant architect when suffering from delirium," the captain wrote in his diary. The men's faces were filthy from blubber smoke and the icicles on their noses couldn't be cracked off without tearing skin. In the early days of their isolation, the men kept their spirits up by hosting dog derbies and stockpiling seal meat. "Hockey and football on the floe were our chief recreations," Shackleton wrote in his diary, "and all hands joined in many a strenuous game. " He later noted that hockey games "on the rough snow-covered floe kept all hands in good fettle." The welcome distraction didn't last long. The crew lived in perpetual fear of the "Crack of Doom" that would split their ship for good and send it sinking into "the drink." In July 1915, Shackleton met with his captain and second in command to plan a full retreat from the relative comfort of the ship's cabin and exist out in the open. "The ship can't live in this, Skipper," Shackleton said. "What the ice gets, the ice keeps."
The hockey lockout wasn't quite that bleak, that's for sure.  However, a winter in Canada without hockey would have to have led at a minimum to a massive drinking binge.  Especially after the juniors did so poorly at the World Championships.

Drawing People of Color

In an interview about political cartoonists drawing President Obama, Politico's artist Matt Wuerker drops a great joke on my Congressman:
WUERKER: I think it's changed a little bit. I think that one of the changes that happened in the beginning I think the first years of the administration, a lot of cartoonists were very careful about dealing with the caricature of an African-American.
STANTIS: Absolutely.
WUERKER: And it was a minefield that people were tiptoeing across in a lot of ways. And a couple of people stepped on some mines and some - one of our boneheaded brethren drew him as a monkey for Rupert Murdoch or something. And people began to have to sort of, you know, you had to deal with the legacy of some really virulent racist imagery in American cartoons going back centuries. But we got over it. And the cartoon gods work in mysterious ways, just as we're having to grapple with drawing the first black president. The cartoon gods gave us the first orange house speaker so...
WUERKER: And so...
CORNISH: I'm sure John Boehner would quibble with that description.
WUERKER: Well - but it was suddenly, you know, it was like, OK, we're drawing people of color here, so this is fun and...
That made me laugh a good bit.

Church Faces Priest Challenge

Dayton Daily News:
Plans to merge two Warren County parishes at a new church in Springboro are part of a regional strategy by the Archdiocese of Cincinnati designed to reorganize 230 parishes into 100 regions by 2015.
In the Dayton-Cincinnati diocese, the numbers of both Catholics and able pastors dropped between 1997 to 2012.
The number of Catholics in the diocese has dropped more than 12 percent during the past 15 years, from 546,100 in 2007 to 477,338 in 2012, according to the Official Catholic Directory.
During the same period, the total number of priests in the diocese dropped more than 20 percent from 646 to 512 — the number of active diocesan priests by almost 25 percent from 242 to 176, according to the directory.
In Cleveland, Boston, and other cities around the U.S., Catholic leaders are merging parishes, closing churches, importing priests and turning to laypersons to offset the shortage and shifts in the Catholic population in the U.S.
“It’s diocese by diocese,” said Melissa Cidade, a research associate at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University in Washington D.C.
From 1965 to 2012, the number of American priests shrank from 58,632 to 38,964, according to CARA data collected from dioceses around the U.S.
Overall, the number of Catholics in the U.S. grew from 45.6 million to 66 million, according to data collected by the center, located at Georgetown University.
While parish populations have dwindled in the Northeast and Midwest, large, new parishes are building new churches in the Southeast. “Catholics are following the same migrations as anybody else,” Cidade said.
The numbers are pretty grim, but with the Church's political positions and sexual teachings alienating young people, a shortage of priests may end up being just one of a number of problems the Church faces.  As the numbers from the Archdiocese of Cincinnati show, without Hispanic immigration, Church  membership is tailing off pretty hard.  Closing parishes will be inevitable, with or without priests to staff them.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Just Exercising Their Second Amendment Rights

Some fellow Ohioans had a little problem while target shooting with their AK-47s (h/t Imani Gandy):
Two men are under arrest after their target shooting with an AK-47 assault weapon sent bullets flying through a Medina County neighborhood Wednesday afternoon.
One Parnham Drive resident, unaware of the hail of bullets, scurried back into her home as police arrived to warn her and her two small children of the danger, another homeowner ran to her basement.
Montville Township police found themselves dodging bullets as they tracked down where the shots were originating.
“When I get about a half mile back in the field up on a hill, gunfire started again, and started hearing rounds go over my head,” said Montville Police Sgt. Matt Neil.
Police said the men on Windfall Road were shooting at a target in a field with handguns and an AK-47.
“They were drinking alcohol, they had some drugs on them and they were just outside, in their backyard shooting paper targets,” Neil said. “They felt because they were shooting at a downward angle, that it would have been OK.”
Bullets skipped off the ground, and carried over hills striking at least two homes police estimated to be a 500 yards from where the target shooting took place.
Mark Bornino, 53, of Windall Road in Montville Township and R. Daniel Volpone, 45, of Parma were arrested.
Not a good idea in suburbia. Just remember, guns don't kill people, people with guns do.

The Levels Of Indefensibly Defending Sports Figures

From the Sports Guy's all-Manti Te'o mailbag:
Q: You have established the Levels of Losing. This whole Manti Te'o thing has got me thinking of the Levels of Indefensibly Defending Sports Figures. There has to be a certain level to where you can't defend your favorite stars without coming off as a pathetic, nonsensical fan. If there were five levels in all, Joe Paterno's supporters would be the highest (Level 5). Mel Gibson's fans are a 4 but dying to be a 5. Every Notre Dame fan defending Manti right now would probably be a 3 (with the chance to climb). This idea is in its infancy stages, how can you help?
—Joe, Syracuse

SG: Come on, you barely need any tweaking! You were right there! Fine, I'll help. You should have gone with six levels (you missed one).
Level 1: Reserved for harmless stuff — like Boston fans defending Kevin Garnett every time he acts like a bully or an a-hole (just because he's on our team and we love him and that's what you do when it's your guy), or Cowboys fans blindly defending Tony Romo's litany of choke jobs just because they love Tony Romo, or Miami fans refusing to admit that Dwyane Wade is an occasionally dirty player, or Utah fans arguing that Karl Malone really DID have some clutch moments. All benevolent fan-defending goes here.
Level 2: A blown-out version of the first level — the stakes are a little higher only because there's a little more of that hits-too-close-to-home sensitivity. Like how Ravens fans fly off the handle every time someone jokes about Ray Lewis's incident from 2000. Yes, you could throw Kobe and the Lakers fans in here. As well as Red Sox fans post-2004 right after any steroids joke about Manny or Papi.
Level 3: Any longtime O.J. Simpson fan now making the "If we're going to make excuses for Junior Seau, why can't we make the same excuses for everything that happened to O.J. after he retired? What if he has CTE, too?" defense. This gets its own level. By the way, I'm all-in on the CTE O.J. defense. He should start pushing it right now.
Level 4: Any Notre Dame fan pushing the whole "Look, Manti is the one who's a victim here!" scenario. If you play the catfishing/naive angle hard enough, the "victim" door is juuuuuuuuuuuuuust open enough that they don't sound completely insane. Just marginally insane.
Level 5: Anyone defending baseball cheaters (Bonds, Clemens, McGwire, etc.) with the always hilarious "We don't know for sure" defense or the equally hilarious "Come on, everyone was cheating, any competitive person would have done what they did" defense. All PED defenses go here. So does everyone defending Lance Armstrong's last two decades of lying/cheating/bullying/threatening/intimidating because "he did some real good, too."
Level 6: Anyone who wanted the Paterno statue to stay up; anyone who thinks that Paterno and/or Penn State's administration didn't have an inkling that something was at the very least a little off with Jerry Sandusky; anyone who rushed out a mostly flattering post-scandal biography about Paterno without waiting for the entire investigation to play out; and anyone who said the words, "Well, this may have complicated Joe's legacy, but it didn't change all the great things he did." Welcome to the highest level of Indefensibly Defending Sports Figures.
I was a Level 5 defender of Pete Rose for way too long.  Finally, I was able to admit that Pete might have been a really good ballplayer, but he's a really dumb guy, with a pretty bad personality.  But he's still the Hit King.

Even Scarier Than The Republicans

David Remnick looks at the Israeli far right, which is crazier than the GOP, and growing ever more influential:
In 1977, Menachem Begin came to power, representing, for the first time, a coalition of constituencies that resented the Labor élite and felt excluded from the mainstream of Israeli life. Begin’s support came from the poorer émigrés from North Africa and Arab states; Jabotinskyite conservatives; the ultra-Orthodox; and religious Zionists, including the settlers. But when Begin, as part of his Camp David settlement with Anwar Sadat, returned the Sinai to Egypt and, with the help of the Army, went about dismantling the Jewish settlements there, leaders of the settler movement felt betrayed. Moshe Levinger, one of its most flamboyant extremists, threatened to carry out an act of suicidal martyrdom. As government-financed settlements thickened throughout the occupied territories, the P.L.O. carried out violent attacks, and the Palestinian question came to dominate the national argument. Meanwhile, the politics of Gush Emunim became increasingly radical, even breeding a small group of homicidal fundamentalists. In 1984, authorities uncovered plots by a settler group known as the Jewish Underground to bomb Arab buses and to blow up the mosques on the Temple Mount. Not long afterward, a Brooklyn-born rabbi, Meir Kahane, was elected to the Knesset on a poisonous political platform. Kahane was unapologetically racist—Arabs, for him, were “cockroaches” and “dogs”—and he was not squeamish about calling for violence. In February, 1994, five months after Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir Arafat signed the Oslo Accord, one of Kahane’s followers, an Army doctor named Baruch Goldstein, murdered twenty-nine Palestinians at the Cave of the Patriarchs, in Hebron. Kahane’s party was banned in 1988 and he was murdered two years later, in New York. His taste for violence may have fired Goldstein, but it did not enter the political mainstream. Yet, as Ami Pedahzur writes in “The Triumph of Israel’s Radical Right,” the traces of Kahane’s legacy—the sacralization of xenophobia—are evident both in the Likud and throughout the radical right. Much of Naftali Bennett’s support comes from mild-mannered religious suburbanites on both sides of the Green Line, but he has also been blessed by some of the more vehement fundamentalists on the scene. Avichai Rontzki, from 2006 to 2010 the chief rabbi of the I.D.F. and now the head of a yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Itamar, helped Bennett form the Jewish Home Party. Rontzki has said that soldiers who show their enemies mercy will be “damned,” and, after a prisoner exchange with the Palestinians that he opposed, he said that the I.D.F. should no longer arrest terrorists but, rather, “kill them in their beds.” Dov Lior, the chief rabbi of the settlement of Kiryat Arba and Hebron, once called Baruch Goldstein “holier than all the martyrs of the Holocaust”; he endorsed Bennett before moving on to a smaller, more reactionary party.
It looks like nothing will bring about a two state solution. With demographic trends stacked against Israel, I think we'll be looking at an apartheid-style state in the future. Democracy and a Jewish Greater Israel will be unable to co-exist.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Craziest Story I've Ever Heard

But until the mushroom cloud of a Deadspin report enveloped his life Wednesday, Te'o was considered to be all that was right and good about college football. He was more than an All-American linebacker from Notre Dame; he was an ideal, a template for integrity, compassion and humility.
Te'o might still be all of those things. Or none of them. We still don't know for sure.
We do know he issued a statement saying that he was the victim of an elaborate online and telephonic deception. We know that his "girlfriend," and her death from leukemia, were the figments of someone's depraved imagination. What we don't know is whether Te'o's imagination was involved in the deception.
Notre Dame says it wasn't. ND athletic director Jack Swarbrick did more than vouch for Te'o's reputation; he all but dared anyone to question it. The victim, said Swarbrick, wasn't simply Te'o himself, but also Te'o's innocence, his unconditional desire to help others.
"There's a lot of tragedy here," said Swarbrick in a Wednesday evening news conference. "There's a lot of sorrow here. But the thing I am most sad of, sad about -- sorry … That the single most trusting human being I've ever met will never be able to trust in the same way again in his life. That's an incredible tragedy."
I really don't know what to think about this deal.  Could somebody be that naive?  I find it hard to believe, but, damn, the dude seems so earnest.  I think the only other football player I would ever think something like this would happen to is Tim Tebow.

Gerrymandering The Presidential Election

Pennsylvania Republicans are giving it a try:
Pennsylvania Republicans are going ahead with their cute little plan to steal a bunch of electoral votes in 2016 by splitting the state’s tally along House district lines.
On Monday, seven Pennsylvania Republican state representatives introduced a bill to make this vote-rigging scheme a reality in their state. Under their bill, the winner of Pennsylvania as a whole will receive only 2 of the state’s 20 electoral votes, while “[e]ach of the remaining presidential electors shall be elected in the presidential elector’s congressional district.”
Pennsylvania is a blue state that voted for the Democratic presidential candidate in every single presidential race for the last two decades, so implementing the GOP election-rigging plan in Pennsylvania would make it much harder for a Democrat to be elected to the White House. Moreover, because of gerrymandering, it is overwhelmingly likely that the Republican candidate will win a majority of Pennsylvania’s electoral votes even if the Democrat wins the state by a very comfortable margin. Despite the fact that President Obama won Pennsylvania by more than 5 points last November, Democrats carried only 5 of the state’s 18 congressional seats. Accordingly, Obama would have likely won only 7 of the state’s 20 electoral votes if the GOP vote rigging plan had been in effect last year.
I would expect Republicans in states like Ohio, Wisconsin and Michigan to try this shit.  Obama won the electoral vote with a 51-47 margin.  However, Republicans maintained control of the House of Representatives.  Can you imagine how much of a mess it would have been if Romney still managed to win the Electoral College because of something like this?

The Original Card Counting Computer

The Verge covers technology in use at casinos to prevent cheating, and some of the technology developed to aid beating the house (h/t Ritholtz):
One of those thousands was a Raytheon engineer and devout Baptist from Mountain View, California, named Keith Taft. "Keith Taft was about 10 steps ahead of everybody back in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s," says Snyder. "He was astonishing. He's a legend."
Taft’s job at Raytheon involved integrated circuits. On a family vacation in 1969, he happened to play a few hands of blackjack. He won all three, pocketing $3.50 in profit. Though he’d never used it himself, he remembered a little bit about Thorpe’s strategy from Beat the Dealer. One of his first thoughts about card counting was: couldn’t a computer do this?
At the time, the word "computer" still conjured up images of men in white lab coats standing in front of reel-to-reel machines, clipboard in hand. Intel’s first RAM chip appeared in 1970, followed soon after by the 4004 and 8008 microprocessors. The first personal computer, the little-known Kenbak-1, debuted in 1971, retailing for $750. (Forty were sold.) The hardware that would power Taft’s wearable blackjack computer had just begun arriving in the marketplace. He’d also moved into R&D at Fairchild, which gave him the computing power to develop his software algorithms.
Two years later, he had his blackjack computer, a system he called "George" — 15 pounds of circuitry and batteries strapped around his midsection, with wires running down his leg and into his shoe, where he input card values with a pair of switches strapped to his toes. During George’s first test run, a casino employee happened to place a hand on Taft’s back, vindicating the decision to not strap the computer there. Oh, and there was the battery acid that leaked through his shirt and scarred his chest.
Where there is money to be made, there is somebody around to try to take advantage of it.  That is an amazing story.  The whole story is interesting, but the main takeaway is that unless you have an actual information advantage, the house will eventually win.  

Wednesday, January 16, 2013


I BEAT MIKE TYSON - (FULL FILM) from Joshua Z Weinstein on Vimeo.

Chart of the Day

Derek Thompson puts up a chart on America's choice of booze:

I'm definitely fighting the trend.  Go Beer!  Let's rally.

Texas Looks To Water Infrastructure In Drought

NYT, via Big Picture Agriculture:
Texas is in the grip of a record-breaking drought that began in the fall of 2010 and continues to affect many parts of the state. So far, it is the third-worst drought in Texas since at least 1895, when statewide weather records begin, with the multiyear drought in the 1950s being the worst, said John Nielsen-Gammon, the state climatologist.
The drought has cost farmers billions of dollars and has forced hundreds of communities to limit water usage. Eighteen public water systems were projected to run out of water in 180 days or fewer as of Tuesday, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which monitors and assists those systems.
Meanwhile, the levels of many lakes and reservoirs, a crucial part of the water supply, have steadily decreased with the lack of rainfall.
Without additional water supplies, Texas will be short 8.3 million acre-feet of water by 2060, according to the Texas Water Development Board. It is a nearly unimaginable amount: one million gallons of water equals just 3.07 acre-feet. The board also estimates that failure to meet water needs in times of drought in 2060 could cost Texas businesses and workers up to $116 billion.
But advocates for other causes worry that water may overshadow the state’s other needs and divert attention from restoring the money to social services, parks, education and other programs that was cut during the last legislative session. Thousands of state employees were laid off. School districts have reported eliminating thousands of jobs, increasing class sizes and reducing library services and other programs.
Water will be the only real story in the Great Plains over the next 20 years.  The Great American Desert may just run out of water.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

A Fracking Bust For Pa. Town?

All Things Considered:
DETROW: Other stores on Towanda's main drag benefitted too. Jan Millard works at a place called the New Shoe Store. She says the drillers who moved to Towanda from the South brought their culture and their money with them.
JAN MILLARD: About, oh, probably three years ago now, I had a guy come in, and he said: Well, he said, where are all your pull-on boots? And I said: Oh, I hardly ever sell a pull-on boot. And he said: Well, you better get some then, he said, because you're going to need them. And the very next customer that came in after him asked for pull-on boots again. And I thought, holy smokes, we better get some pull-on boots.
DETROW: But a boom has a downside too. More people will lead to more crime. Police Chief Randy Epler says his force has had its hands full.
RANDY EPLER: DUIs, bar fights, domestic issues.
DETROW: And rent soared too. Apartments that went for $300 a month in 2008 cost more than $1,000 these days. The rent has stayed high, even though the rate of drilling has fallen. Bradford County's gas is what's considered dry. That means it doesn't contain valuable byproducts like ethane and butane that drillers can separate and sell. So as drilling companies have focused on western Pennsylvania and Ohio, where the gas is more valuable, the number of new wells has fallen. Jan Millard at the boot store says the shift was sudden.
MILLARD: I had so many regulars. The same guys would come in every week. It's like they didn't have any place else to go but the shoe store. And they'd come in, and, you know, you'd get kind of friendly with them. And it seems like so many of them have gone, just gone.
DETROW: Nobody in Towanda thinks the drillers are gone for good. The town has seen booms and busts before - coal a century ago, timber a few decades later. Towanda's economic fortunes now lie with something beyond the town's control: the price of natural gas. If prices increase enough to spur more drilling, the current slowdown may just be a lull in Towanda's latest boom. If they stay low, however, it could be the beginning of Towanda's next bust.
It will be interesting to see where things head in the Marcellus and Utica shales.  There are already reports of companies bugging out of eastern Ohio:
Chesapeake, the No. 2 gas producer in the U.S., announced in November it was pulling back from drilling for oil in eastern Ohio. Oklahoma-based Devon Energy Corp. announced in August disappointing results in Medina and Ashland counties last year and shifted east.
“Even with all the technology we have, those wells aren’t working out for a variety of good geological reasons,” Stewart said. “It’s very hard to get very large chain molecules to move through very dense rock even though you hydraulically fracture it.”
I think there is way more hype about the bright future of U.S. energy than any politicians or drillers want to admit.  I guess we'll see who's right.

Does The Littoral Combat Ship Work?

Spencer Ackerman:
In less than two months, the Navy will send the first of its newest class of fighting ships on its first major deployment overseas. Problem is, according to the Pentagon’s chief weapons tester, the Navy will be deploying the USS Freedom before knowing if the so-called Littoral Combat Ship can survive, um, combat. And what the Navy does know about the ship isn’t encouraging: Among other problems, its guns don’t work right.
That’s the judgment of J. Michael Gilmore, the Defense Department’s director of operational test and evaluation, in an annual study sent to Congress on Friday and formally released Tuesday. Gilmore’s bottom line is that the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) is still “not expected to be survivable” in combat. His office will punt on conducting a “Total Ship Survivability Test” for the first two LCSes to give the Navy time to complete a “pre-trial damage scenario analysis.” In other words, the Freedom will head on its first big mission abroad — maritime policing and counter-piracy around Singapore — without passing a crucial exam.
The systems the LCSs will carry, from their weapons to their sensors, compound the problem. The helicopters scheduled to be aboard the ship can’t tow its mine-hunting sensors, so the Navy is going to rely on robots instead — only the robots won’t be ready for years. And the faster the ship goes, the less accurate its guns become.
In fairness, the point of operational testing is to uncover and flag flaws in the military’s expensive weapons systems. And first-in-class ships often have kinks that are worked out in later vessels. Plus, it’s not like the Navy is rushing the Freedom to fight World War III. The local pirates there would never be confused for a serious navy. But the flaws Gilmore identifies go to the some of the core missions behind LCS’ existence: to fight close to shore, at high speeds; and to clear minefields.
Superb.  Luckily, not much happens to our Navy as far as combat goes, but you'd expect a little more for the money ($670 million).  I guess they'll work the bugs out as they go.

Bucket Shops And Stock Market Interest

Bloomberg looks at how gambling at bucket shops in the late 19th century drove interest in stock markets for the general public (h/t Ritholtz):
In 1863, electrician Edward A. Calahan invented the stock ticker, a telegraph receiver capable of printing letters and numbers onto paper tape. At first, almost all ticker customers were brokers and bankers. By around 1880, however, the ticker had spawned a new kind of business, called bucket shops.
Bucket shops were the equivalent of off-track betting parlors where customers placed wagers on the price movements of stocks, offering a kind of vicarious participation in the market. Although bucket shops subscribed to the same ticker service that bankers and brokers did, no securities changed hands and the wagers didn’t affect share prices on stock exchanges. Several hundred of these shops were operating around the country by the turn of the 20th century.
Before their rise, the public had typically viewed the stock market from the sidelines, as fascinated but disinterested spectators. Financial failure was something that high-profile speculators suffered, not ordinary people. The bucket shops changed that. After 1880, stories began appearing in newspapers about reckless men who had squandered tens of thousands of dollars, bankrupted themselves, ruined their reputations and destroyed their families.
Although some contemporaries blamed the amateur investors for their own failures, others blamed the big exchanges for fostering a get-rich-quick mentality. In 1903, federal appellate judges prevented the Chicago Board of Trade from cutting off the flow of its quotations to bucket shops. The vast majority of transactions on the Board of Trade were “in all essentials gambling transactions,” they ruled. “The Board of Trade does not come with clean hands, nor for a lawful purpose, and for these reasons its prayer for aid must be denied.”
Those who believed in the social and economic utility of speculation on the organized exchanges, however, regarded increasing public participation via bucket shops as the real problem.
It is a good thing they got the gambling out of the capital markets.  Otherwise, we could have all kinds of trouble.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Robots Taking Our Jobs

The Citadel

The folks at Balloon Juice are busy poking holes in the wingnut fantasy town slated for Idaho called the Citadel:

 As I’d just opened the picture above, my son happened to come into my study.  He asked what I was looking at — it seemed to him a sketch from one of the medieval combat games he likes and knows I don’t, and he wondered what would possess me to bother with such a thing.
I told him that, no, this wasn’t history or fantasy,* but rather somebody’s actual idea of someplace that would serve to protect them from an overweening federal government.  He just looked at it pityingly, wondering, and he asked me, “have these folks never heard of cannon?”
And damn if that hadn’t been literally my first thought on reading the caption “Interior Defensive Walls & Towers.”  I mean, artillery much?

More on the rules for living there:
Two: Every able-bodied Patriot aged 13 and older governed by this Agreement shall annually demonstrate proficiency with the rifle of his/her choice by hitting a man-sized steel target at 100 yards with open sights at the Citadel range. Each Resident shall have 10 shots and must hit the target at least 7 times.
Three: Every able-bodied Patriot aged 13 and older governed by this Agreement shall annually demonstrate proficiency with a handgun of choice by hitting a man-sized steel target at 25 yards with open sights at the Citadel range. Each Resident shall have 10 shots and must hit the target at least 7 times.
Four: Every able-bodied Patriot of age within the Citadel will maintain one AR15 variant in 5.56mm NATO, at least 5 magazines and 1,000 rounds of ammunition. The responsibility for maintaining functional arms and ammunition levels for every member of the household shall fall to the head of household. Every able-bodied Patriot will be responsible for maintaining a Tactical Go Bag or Muster Kit to satisfy the Minuteman concept. Details TBD and posted elsewhere.
And there’s this:
Eight: All Patriots, who are of age and are not legally restricted from bearing firearms, shall agree to remain armed with a loaded sidearm whenever visiting the Citadel Town Center. Firearm shall be on-the-person and under the control of the Resident, not merely stored in a vehicle.
It’s not enough to live in a walled community that has locked gates–everyone still has to carry a loaded gun in the public areas. That’s how you know you’re really free.
And the folks who are planning on building all those Goddamned useless walls think that the infrastructure spending in the stimulus bill was wasted spending?  Shit, even if things go to Hell in a hand basket, I bet somebody is going to be able to keep some planes flying, and as Tom Levenson's son pointed out up above, 18th century technology can fire projectiles over those walls.

History of Nintendo 2012

My experience with them ended with the 1985 entertainment system:

History of Nintendo 2012 from Anthony Veloso on Vimeo.

Nitrogen Fertilizer Sources

Big Picture Agriculture highlights where nitrogen fertilizer comes from:

After the year 2000, it became more profitable to use imported ammonia in the U.S. due to high natural gas costs. As a result, many of the nation’s smaller ammonia plants closed. Between 2000 and 2006, U.S. ammonia production declined 44 percent and U.S. ammonia imports increased 115 percent. As shown by the pie graph which follows, in 2009/10 the United States imported nitrogen from Trinidad, Canada, Russia, Egypt, Venezuela, and other nations.
Ammonia production plants are located near natural gas supplies, as shown on the 2006 map below. The fertilizers are consumed in the Midwestern Corn Belt within a very short time frame in the fall and again in the spring. Pipelines, barges, and railways are required to move and handle large volumes of fertilizer during these periods of high demand. Consequently, the compromised barge traffic on the Mississippi River from recent low water levels concerned farmers. A logical opportunity for utilizing our increased natural gas supply lies in producing more of our own nitrogen fertilizer. We imported 54 percent, or 10.79 million tons (a record) of the nitrogen fertilizer used for farming here in the U.S. in 2011, according to the USDA.

Our long term planning is a disaster.  Close fertilizer and chemical plants because natural gas prices are high.  Build gas power plants because natural gas prices are low.  Build coal plants because gas prices are high.  Build more fertilizer, chemical and power plants because gas prices are low.  What's next?  I'll bet on gas prices being high.  Give it five years and we'll see what is in the headlines.

Red Storm

From last week, but still cool:

A white shelf cloud caps brownish dirt from a dust storm, or haboob, as it travels across the Indian Ocean near Onslow on the Western Australia coast in this handout image distributed by and taken January 9, 2013. (Reuters/Brett Martin/ #

Sunday, January 13, 2013

A Bad Day To Come To Work Hungover

Sean Pronger (Chris's brother) tells the story of the day he got to practice on the same line as his childhood idol, Wayne Gretzky, albiet hungover (or still drunk):
However it all came about, the rest of the practice was a nightmare. My thought that I could just skate around and bang in the odd rebound to make an impression was delusional. And the idea that Wayne was on board with my "situation" turned out to be false. The Great One had no intention of playing pitch and catch with Graves all day so I could have my walk in the park.
Every single pass Gretz made was to yours truly. And I'm not talking about those beautiful saucer passes you see in his video Hockey My Way. I'm talking about wobbly hand grenades that would blow up as soon as they hit my stick. And by the way, I was playing the off wing. That's right, I had to try to catch those bouncing Betties on my backhand.
The practice that started as a chance of a lifetime turned quickly into a series of drills that I furiously tried to execute so I wouldn't be cut.
I remember a three-on-two drill that started with sweat pouring off my face. I was busting down the right side fully aware a puck was heading my way. Sure enough, Gretz lobbed another wounded duck my way and the puck landed somewhere near my blade. Then the whistle blew and Muckler was starting the drill over again.
"Where did the puck go?" Graves asked.
"In the stands!" someone replied.
Apparently, when Wayne passed the puck over I did such a
good job of receiving it that it hit my stick, blew up, and flew over the glass. It was like someone had a joystick and hit the jackass button every time the puck came to me.
The whole story is hilarious, and hopefully isn't the only good one in his new book on his career as a benchwarmer.

NASA Photo of the Day


NGC 602 and Beyond
Image Credit: NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA) - ESA/Hubble Collaboration
Explanation: Near the outskirts of the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy some 200 thousand light-years distant, lies 5 million year young star cluster NGC 602. Surrounded by natal gas and dust, NGC 602 is featured in this stunning Hubble image of the region. Fantastic ridges and swept back shapes strongly suggest that energetic radiation and shock waves from NGC 602's massive young stars have eroded the dusty material and triggered a progression of star formation moving away from the cluster's center. At the estimated distance of the Small Magellanic Cloud, the picture spans about 200 light-years, but a tantalizing assortment of background galaxies are also visible in the sharp Hubble view. The background galaxies are hundreds of millions of light-years or more beyond NGC 602.

The Diminishing Influence of Rural America

The Des Moines Register looks at Ag Secretary Vilsack's comments about the decline of influence (and population growth) of rural America:
Vilsack pointed to rural America’s diminishing impact as a reason Congress was unable to pass a farm bill in 2012 during an election year. More than 80 percent of lawmakers are not representing rural areas, making it an uphill battle for those outside of urban areas to be heard in Washington.
As their influence diminishes, lawmakers representing nonmetro America are left to collect a smaller piece of government spending, and they have less influence on laws and regulations that affect people in their area.
“It’s time for us to have an adult conversation with folks in rural America,” said Vilsack, who urged those living in rural areas to be proactive and not to hang on to the successes of the past. “We need a proactive message, not a reactive message. How are you going to encourage young people to want to be involved in rural America or farming if you don’t have a proactive message? Because you are competing against the world now and opportunities everywhere. Young people have all of these opportunities.”
The former Iowa governor said the strong agricultural economy “supported by high commodity prices, growing demand for ethanol and other renewable fuels and the increased use of public land for recreation” has failed to improve the rural economy. Poverty rates hover at 17 percent, higher than in metropolitan areas.
Farmers and lawmakers representing agriculture-intensive states or districts strongly disagree with Vilsack’s analysis of a declining of rural America. While their political power in Washington may have eroded, farmers point to the food, fuel and jobs they produce, along with their impact on the country’s economy, as evidence of their ongoing importance.
“It’s a little disappointing to hear the secretary of this great nation make a comment like that. We have less power as a vote, but as far as relevancy, we are more relevant today than we’ve ever been,” said Justin Dammann, who raises corn, soybeans and cow calves near Essex in far southwest Iowa. “I kind of question if (Vilsack is) not just trying to get us fired up.”
Talking to farmers and lawmakers representing agriculture-intensive states or districts isn't going to get you much useful information.  Farmers love to puff up how important we are to those damn useless citiots (my invention), but the fact is that people living in Manhattan can afford to import their food staples from Brazil or other parts of the world if necessary.  Even with record crop prices (driven by China demand and government-mandated biofuels production), folks paying for $2500 studio apartments will be able to afford bread and meat.  And talking to those Tea Party representatives of flyover country is just a fool's errand. 

In fact, the backassward policies of those Representatives is one of the main things making rural areas less relevant.  The idiots like Jim Jordan and Tim Huelskamp who represent areas which end up being net beneficiaries of federal taxation and spending policies but oppose those same policies makes them worthless to deal with when legislating.  Yet, these representatives are guaranteed to get re-elected, no matter how useless they are as legislators.  The fault for this falls directly on rural residents who just don't understand their government or their own dependence on that government for sustaining their way of life.

The big problems with the sustainability of rural life are also the big problems affecting the entire U.S. economy and the middle class especially.  They are globalization, income inequality and increasing productivity decreasing the need for employees.  Right now, farmers are making a stack of money, but as farms get bigger and use ever more productive equipment, fewer people are needed to do the work, so the returns go more and more to capital.  This leaves less money going to the rural version of the have-nots, the non-farmers.  Kids from rural areas are going to college and moving to the city to get a job.  With populations stagnating, rural areas will never thrive. 

The danger for rural areas is that the residents have bought into the conservative mantra that rural areas are "real America," and everybody else is leeching off of them.  The facts just don't sustain that.  One of the biggest cash welfare programs currently going is the earned-income tax credit, and if you look at the statistics for median income for rural and urban areas, it is pretty clear who qualifies for that program.  That welfare payment comes as a refundable tax credit, so without actually looking closely at your tax return, you might not even realize you get it, since payroll taxes (which aren't refunded) are such a high percentage of most workers' tax payments.  Such an oblique transfer payment gets lost in the discussion of taxes and welfare programs, and allows a number of  welfare beneficiaries to not even realize they are beneficiaries.  Slashing federal social spending will quickly make the loss of such benefits to rural areas very noticeable very quickly.  The programs benefiting rural areas touch on all parts of our lives: transportation, agriculture policy, transfer payments, defense spending (How many rural areas have large military bases?  I'm looking directly at you in the Great Plains.), food programs, education, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, etc.  Since incomes are lower in rural areas than in urban areas, people in rural areas don't pay nearly as much in federal taxes as people in urban areas.  Therefore, in entitlement spending, rural areas are overrepresented as recipients.  This makes the Tea Party representatives, and the voters who elect them working against their own interests.  Don't think that representatives of urban areas don't know this, and therefore don't let the rural areas gain any more influence than what they already misuse.  Stagnation in already sparse populations, lack of wealth and cluelessness in the operations of the world will definitely lead to a decline in political influence, no matter how quick you are to claim your own greatness.

Defusing The Debt Ceiling Bomb

Richard Thaler encourages John Boehner to take the debt ceiling out of the picture in the budget battle (h/t Mark Thoma):
Which leads to my proposal for restoring Mr. Boehner’s relevance: He should propose that the debt ceiling be raised for at least two years or, even better, propose that it be abolished. He wouldn’t need a majority of his own party to vote for such a bill, of course, because it would have wide support among Democrats. He would just have to propose it and persuade some of his colleagues to support it. That would be enough.
Here is why I think this is a good idea, for him, the Republican Party and the country:
Congress has plenty of incentives to make a deal on spending. Taxes have already been increased and Republicans are eager to even the score. The sequestration-induced spending cuts coming on March 1 should provide more than enough impetus for Congress and the president to agree to something, even if it’s only a plan to undertake serious tax reform and a comprehensive evaluation of all government spending. By removing an option that we should never rationally use, we can immediately accomplish an often-cited Republican goal — reducing global uncertainty — and likely restore our triple-A credit rating. The Bipartisan Policy Center has estimated that the dillydallying about the debt ceiling last time, which ticked up interest rates, will end up costing more than $18.9 billion over 10 years, about the same amount as the recent Medicare “doc fix, ” which blocks cuts to doctor reimbursement rates.
Tea Party conservatives would undoubtedly be outraged by this suggestion, arguing that Republicans need to retain the debt ceiling threat if they are to get the best possible deal from the Senate and the president. But taking this crazy threat away from a group that just might use it is precisely the point.
By undertaking this act of unilateral disarmament, Mr. Boehner and whichever Republicans had the courage to join him would be signaling that they’re willing to engage in the serious discussions the country needs, and to put pressure on Democrats to do likewise. Anyone who has a large bomb and is threatening to push the button doesn’t deserve to be a party to these discussions.
In other words, Jim Jordan and the other Tea Party loons are the Iranian mullahs working to get the bomb in our budget negotiations.  Except the Iranians are probably more responsible, and less likely to blow up everything they can.

Corps Facing Tough Options On Mississippi

Weekend Edition Sunday:
There's good news and bad news here. The good news is, there's been some rain in the Midwest and historical trends say river levels typically bottom out in January before rising in February.
The bad news, however, is if that doesn't happen this year, the Corps is running out of options.
The Corps is already releasing water from Carlyle Lake in southern Illinois, but that's the last reservoir left for the Corps to tap.
The biggest target is the Missouri River. The longest river in the country, it runs through or touches seven states and is the Mississippi's biggest tributary, but it is currently off limits.
"The Corps is sort of caught in the cross hairs here of a lot of competing interests in the Missouri," says John Thorson, a water law attorney who has long studied the Missouri River.
The Corps cannot legally release water from the Missouri to benefit navigation on the Mississippi.
The recent historical drought in the U.S. has scorched both the Mississippi and Missouri River basins. About 20 percent of the Missouri River's storage capacity for a 12-year flood has already been used up.
"It's going to be a dry year, and there might even be reductions in some of the authorized purposes on the Missouri, such as navigation," Thorson says. "So even within the basin itself, there's going to be impacts."
John Thorson says President Obama might be able to use emergency powers to release Missouri River water, or Congress could pass some new legislation, but those moves would be extremely unpopular with Missouri River states.
At Thebes, Army Corps of Engineers Commanding General Thomas Bostick says the president is aware of the Mississippi River situation and all options are on the table — including the Missouri River water. But he says the Corps is already releasing more Missouri River water from its reservoirs than it normally would, just to meet water demands on that river.  "There's a lot of second [and] third order effects; there's a lot of interests, whether it's hydropower, ecosystems, the environment, water supply, navigation," Bostick says. "All of those purposes are important for us to look at and the impact of one over the other."
More on the work at Thebes here.  They didn't mention one of the growing users of Missouri River water: fracking.  We're sending a good deal of water toward the Mississippi right now, but it will be coming in downstream of Thebes, and won't help the Missouri at all.

The Next Oil?

The Diplomat focuses on rare earth metals (h/t Ritholtz):
Rare earth metals (REM) are increasingly becoming a critical strategic resource. The 17 elements can be found in most high-tech gadgets, from advanced military technology to mobile phones. China currently holds claim to over 90 percent of the world’s production. As global demand increases, Beijing’s export reductions in recent years have forced high-tech firms to relocate to China and forced other governments to pour money into their exploration and production. An emergent India is among those concerned about China’s control of rare earths. In the past 12 months, the geopolitics of rare earths has become evident. REMs are becoming a strategic resource over which the two emerging giants are competing in Asia. Indeed, one might say rare earths are fast becoming “the next oil.”
The name, rare earth metal, is a misnomer. The metals are, in fact, far more abundant than many precious minerals. Yet their dispersion means they are rarely found in economically viable quantities. The similarity of chemical properties of the 17 REMs, demonstrated by their close proximity on the periodic table, makes them very difficult to separate. Their extraction is capital- and skill- intensive. End uses for REMs are varied but recent figures cited by the U.S. Geological Survey noted that in the U.S. the end use was predominantly for battery alloys, ceramics and magnets, sectors that are continuing to grow to cater for high-tech industry. The extent to which REM’s are used in defense technology is such that without their production modern warfare—fighter jets, drones, and most computer-controlled equipment—would have to undertake a lengthy process of redevelopment. A sovereign monopoly of such a resource is therefore a serious concern for any nation.
Two decades ago, Deng Xiaoping, the former leader of the Communist Party of China, noted the importance of REMs, “The Middle East has oil and China has rare earth,” he said in 1992. His foresight was impressive. China holds half of the world’s deposits of REMs, 55 megatons (Mt), according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Not counting countries comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the U.S. holds the next largest national reserves with approximately 13Mt. India, on the other hand, has a mere 3.1Mt of estimated reserves. Continued cuts in China’s exports have led to a scramble for production, as other countries realize their reliance on China’s resources. Propelled by increasing demand and a need for self-sufficiency to provide for growing industry demands, India plans to triple its output by 2017.
All I can say about this is that I tried to ride the wave by speculating on shares of Molycorp, which was working to restart mining at the Mountain Pass mine in California.  That was a terrible gamble.  It is only down 84.30% so far.  Well, you win some, you lose some (and that isn't a top five loser).

Crop Report Shows Drought Damage

According to a USDA report, U.S. corn growers produced 10.8 billion bushels, 13 percent below the 2011 crop. The corn yield in 2012 is estimated at 123.4 bushels per acre, down from 147.2 yield in 2011.
For growers, the spring of 2012 looked like the beginning of a banner year. With favorable conditions, farmers planted at the fastest pace in U.S. history and planted the largest acreage in the past 75 years. But historic drought conditions in most of the corn-growing states caused the corn crop conditions to decline rapidly.
Soybean production made a comeback late in the season when the weather cooled and rains came back.
Soybean production for 2012 totaled 3.01 billion bushels, down just 3 percent from 2011 crop. Despite the decrease, this was still the seventh largest soybean crop on record. The U.S. yield is estimated at 39.6 bushels, which is 2.3 bushels below last year’s yield.
We ended up a little below the national average on corn, but above on beans.  It wasn't great, but could have been a lot worse.