Saturday, September 21, 2013

Portrait of a Metal Worker

PORTRAIT OF A METAL WORKER from Eliu Cornielle on Vimeo.

Searching For The Origins of Baseball

David Block believes both the Doubleday legend and the Alexander Cartwright derived-from-Rounders stories of the origins of baseball are false.  He thinks some game called baseball was being played in the mid 18th century:
In 2007, Block was on a computer terminal in the British Library in London. He came across a comic novel called The Card, by John Kidgell, which was published in 1755. He found this passage:
… the younger Part of the Family, perceiving Papa not inclined to enlarge upon the Matter, retired to an interrupted Party at Base-Ball, (an infant Game which as it advances in its Teens, improves into Fives, and in its State of Manhood, is called Tennis.)
Did you catch that? A mention of baseball nearly a century before Doubleday's "invention"! The problem was, in The Card the precious word baseball ran up against the right-hand margin. Like this:
… Party at Base-
Ball, (an infant Game …)
The OCR software didn't read it in its hyphenated form, base-ball. It read it as a single word, baseball, which had been hyphenated only because it ran off the page. Ask Ken Burns if he ever had to worry about stuff like that.
What was your first reaction when you found the reference in The Card? I asked.
"Wow, 1755, are you kidding me?!" Block recalled. Then his smile disappeared and his modesty returned. "No, of course I was much more restrained, being in the reading room of the British Library."
He searches through diaries and books to find old references to the game.  All I know is that the evidence against the Abner Doubleday legend is immense.

Testing Nuclear Battery Safety

Wired highlights how the Department of Energy tested nuclear batteries used for powering spacecraft to see how well they could prevent radioactive contamination of the environment in the event of an accident:
To explore the solar system’s darkest, deepest, and most frigid territories, nuclear batteries are the best power sources available. There is, however, a downside: The isotope of plutonium inside them (plutonium-238) is some 270 times more radioactive than the isotope of plutonium inside nuclear bombs (plutonium-239).
As a result, anti-nuclear activists consistently protest the launches of NASA’s plutonium-powered probes. They posit that space exploration isn’t worth the risk of catastrophe. But the Department of Energy, which builds the batteries inside NASA’s fleet of deep-space robots, spared no abuses in assessing their safety.
“They wanted proof of the worst that could happen, so we did our best to smash them, blown them up, shoot them and break them,” said Mary Ann Reimus, an impact test engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory who tested the safety of nuclear batteries throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Reimus and others carried out most of their tests in remote deserts near Albuquerque, New Mexico while looking on from concrete bunkers.
My favorite test, along with pictures:
A second rocket-sled test sliced a nuclear battery with a thin aluminum plate traveling at 684 mph, nearly the speed of sound.
“That was fun to watch from the TV in the bunker,” Reimus said. “We were several hundred feet away, but you could hear a fsssssh sound, a boom and a heavy thud.”
Remarkably, a GPHS and a fuel capsule sliced edge-on survived the hit with only a small amount of fuel escaping.

That looks like fun.  They also warn that deep-space exploration may be in danger because the country's scientific stockpile of plutonium-238 is running out.  More could be produced, but it doesn't look too likely right now.

The End Is Near

In Geologic Time:
Earth will be able to host life for just another 1.75 billion years or so, according to a study published on 18 September in Astrobiology. The method used to make the calculation can also identify planets outside the Solar System with long ‘habitable periods’, which might be the best places to look for life.
The habitable zone around a star is the area in which an orbiting planet can support liquid water, the perfect solvent for the chemical reactions at the heart of life. Too far from a star and a planet’s water turns to permanent ice and its carbon dioxide condenses; too close, and the heat turns water into vapor that escapes into space.
Habitable zones are not static. The luminosity of a typical star increases as its composition and chemical reactions evolve over billions of years, pushing the habitable zone outward. Researchers reported in March that Earth is closer to the inner edge of the Sun’s habitable zone than previously thought.
The inner edge of the Sun’s habitable zone is moving outwards at a rate of about 1 meter per year. The latest model predicts a total habitable zone lifetime for Earth of 6.3 billion–7.8 billion years, suggesting that life on the planet is already about 70% of the way through its run. Other planets — especially those that form near the outer boundary of a star’s habitable zone or orbit long-lived, low-mass stars — may have habitable-zone lifetimes of 42 billion years or longer.
Stories like that used to freak me out as a kid.  I remember thinking how terrible it was that the Sun would burn out in like 3 billion years, and I wondered what would happen to our farm, and my desccendents.  Now, as I approach middle age and don't have any progeny, I'm not too concerned about anything beyond 50 years from now.  

Friday, September 20, 2013

Kinda Sutra

Folks tell about the outlandish beliefs they held as kids about where babies came from:

The Kinda Sutra from Nonfiction Unlimited on Vimeo.

I don't remember when I understood the mechanics of the baby making process, but I know that by third or fourth grade I was certain about the Insert Tab A into Slot B process. This can be attributed to my best friend watching "The Last American Virgin" on HBO and telling me all about it.

But I'd figured out by about first grade that thinking about girls, especially the parts covered up by bikinis, made my pee-er (the name used at my house when I was a little kid) get a lot bigger, and I was always afraid that my mom would see that if she came into the bathroom while I was taking a bath, and I'd get in trouble for my dirty thoughts.  So by the time I was attending parochial school, I was already doing the Baseball, Margaret Thatcher distraction tricks to try to get the evidence to go away.  I think I had the mechanics understood before my friend regaled me with tales of the movie, but I can't exactly remember when I fully grasped it.  Unlike the one guy in the video, my girls are gross stage went away when I was really young, but the girls' this guy is gross stage pretty much still hasn't gone away.  Damn this cruel world.

Really Rich Welfare Queens

The NFL and NFL owners (along with other professional sports teams):
In Virginia, Republican Governor Bob McDonnell, who styles himself as a budget-slashing conservative crusader, took $4 million from taxpayers’ pockets and handed the money to the Washington Redskins, for the team to upgrade a workout facility. Hoping to avoid scrutiny, McDonnell approved the gift while the state legislature was out of session. The Redskins’ owner, Dan Snyder, has a net worth estimated by Forbes at $1 billion. But even billionaires like to receive expensive gifts.
Taxpayers in Hamilton County, Ohio, which includes Cincinnati, were hit with a bill for $26 million in debt service for the stadiums where the NFL’s Bengals and Major League Baseball’s Reds play, plus another $7 million to cover the direct operating costs for the Bengals’ field. Pro-sports subsidies exceeded the $23.6 million that the county cut from health-and-human-services spending in the current two-year budget (and represent a sizable chunk of the $119 million cut from Hamilton County schools). Press materials distributed by the Bengals declare that the team gives back about $1 million annually to Ohio community groups. Sound generous? That’s about 4 percent of the public subsidy the Bengals receive annually from Ohio taxpayers.
In Minnesota, the Vikings wanted a new stadium, and were vaguely threatening to decamp to another state if they didn’t get it. The Minnesota legislature, facing a $1.1 billion budget deficit, extracted $506 million from taxpayers as a gift to the team, covering roughly half the cost of the new facility. Some legislators argued that the Vikings should reveal their finances: privately held, the team is not required to disclose operating data, despite the public subsidies it receives. In the end, the Minnesota legislature folded, giving away public money without the Vikings’ disclosing information in return. The team’s principal owner, Zygmunt Wilf, had a 2011 net worth estimated at $322 million; with the new stadium deal, the Vikings’ value rose about $200 million, by Forbes’s estimate, further enriching Wilf and his family. They will make a token annual payment of $13 million to use the stadium, keeping the lion’s share of all NFL ticket, concession, parking, and, most important, television revenues.
After approving the $506 million handout, Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton said, “I’m not one to defend the economics of professional sports … Any deal you make in that world doesn’t make sense from the way the rest of us look at it.”
This is a pretty good example of where our priorities are.  Some of the giveaways are just ridiculous:
Though Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal claims to be an anti-spending conservative, each year the state of Louisiana forcibly extracts up to $6 million from its residents’ pockets and gives the cash to Benson as an “inducement payment”—the actual term used—to keep Benson from developing a wandering eye.
Yeah, $6 million could probably be used for, you know, educating kids, or making sure folks have health care.  And how about this:
 Many NFL teams have also cut sweetheart deals to avoid taxes. The futuristic new field where the Dallas Cowboys play, with its 80,000 seats, go-go dancers on upper decks, and built-in nightclubs, has been appraised at nearly $1 billion. At the basic property-tax rate of Arlington, Texas, where the stadium is located, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones would owe at least $6 million a year in property taxes. Instead he receives no property-tax bill, so Tarrant County taxes the property of average people more than it otherwise would.
Yeah, that makes sense.  Seriously, how do politicians give these ridiculously rich folks such crazy deals?  It is absolutely criminal.  But this is the economy of the past 30+ years writ large.  We get less in government services and infrastructure, pay more in taxes, and the folks who have more money than God pay less and less.  If the guys at the top don't come to their senses, I may have to invest in pitchfork and torch companies.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Command and Control

Mother Jones has an excerpt from Eric Schlosser's new book on the various accidents and near misses of our nuclear program over the years, along with an interview.  I've highlighted a few of them, where the U.S. accidentally dropped nuclear bombs or crashed planes carrying the bombs, along with tests and bad ideas the government had about how to beneficially use nuclear bombs, but this story is a new one to me:
Launch Complex 374-7 was involved in two incidents. The first took place on morning of 27 January 1978, at approximately 0915, when the oncoming missile combat crew approaching the launch complex noticed oxidizer vapors rising from the missile complex. They drove to Damascus and contacted the command post, which in turn notified the Missile Potential Hazard Team (MPHT) members. By 0945 the MPHT directed the missile combat crew commander at the complex to turn off the circuit breakers to the heaters on the oxidizer transport trailers. The heaters were used to keep the oxidizer between 42 and 60 F in preparation for flowing into the holding trailer. Meanwhile, a helicopter from the 37th Air Rescue and Recovery Squadron was sent to provide aerial surveillance of the situation. At 1030 the helicopter crew confirmed the presence of oxidizer vapors rising from the trailer and crossing State Highway 65 in a cloud approximately 3,000 feet long, 300 feet wide and 100 feet in height. The MPHT immediately directed the Van Buren County Sheriff's Department to block Highway 65 and requested evacuation of civilians in the path of the oxidizer cloud, including an elementary school 1.5 miles north of the complex. At 1042 a second helicopter with propellant transfer personnel in rocket fuel handlers clothing outfits was dispatched. Upon arrival at the complex, the team reported that the oxidizer trailer tank was at 101 F and leaking around the manhole cover, the safety rupture discs had not yet burst. They sprayed water on the tank to cool it off and tightened the manhole cover bolts, decreasing the amount of vapor considerably. By 1405 Highway 65 was reopened to traffic. By 2120 the oxidizer had been transferred to the holding trailer and the hazard situation was terminated. Four civilians displayed some symptoms of contact with the vapors and were transported to the Little Rock AFB hospital for evaluation. Two were released the same day and two were held overnight for observation, subsequently released, readmitted and released on 4 February 1978.
The second incident, and the one that makes this launch complex exceptionally significant within the context of the entire Titan II program, took place at 1835 hours 20 September 1980, during a routine Stage II oxidizer tank repressurization procedure. An 8.75 pound socket wrench socket was inadvertently dropped from a work platform in the launch duct on Level 2. After a drop of approximately 66 feet, the socket hit the missile thrust mount and bounced in towards the missile, puncturing the Stage I propellant tank, filled with Aerozine 50, a 1:1 mix of unsymmetrical dimethyl hydrazine and hydrazine. A Missile Potential Hazard Team was formed and the surrounding civilian population evacuated as a precautionary measure. A propellant transfer system team was formed to attempt to penetrate into the launch control center and into the launch duct area.
At 0300 hours on 21 September 1980, the accumulated fuel vapors were ignited, causing an explosion that destroyed the missile silo. The silo closure door, which weighed 740 tons, was thrown several hundred feet upwards and landed 625 feet to the northeast of the silo. The W-53 warhead was found damaged but basically intact without a detectable leakage of radioactive material.
Amazingly enough, only one person was fatally injured: Senior Airman David Livingston, one member of a two- man propellant transfer team investigating the status of the silo just prior to the explosion.
A 40-member Eighth Air Force Mishap Investigation Board and a separate Missile Accident Investigation Board evaluated the accident and concluded that the near-disaster was caused by human error and gave high marks to the silo, which largely contained the massive explosion, and the warhead, which was not blown up by its conventional explosive components. In fact, a partial glass of Coca Cola abandoned in the control center did not spill in the massive explosion, a testament to the facility’s shock- absorbent design.
 The book excerpt gives a lot of fascinating information about the Titan II, its propulsion system, the silos and procedures for working with the missiles.  For example:
The missile was designed to launch within a minute and hit a target as far as 6,000 miles away. In order to do that, the Titan II relied upon a pair of liquid propellants—a rocket fuel and an oxidizer—that were "hypergolic." The moment they came into contact with each other, they'd instantly and forcefully ignite. The missile had two stages, and inside both of them, an oxidizer tank rested on top of a fuel tank, with pipes leading down to an engine. Stage 1, which extended about 70 feet upward from the bottom of the missile, contained about 85,000 pounds of fuel and 163,000 pounds of oxidizer.
Stage 2, the upper section where the warhead sat, was smaller and held about one fourth of those amounts. If the missile were launched, fuel and oxidizer would flow through the stage 1 pipes, mix inside the combustion chambers of the engine, catch on fire, emit hot gases, and send almost half a million pounds of thrust through the supersonic convergent-divergent nozzles beneath it. Within a few minutes, the Titan II would be 50 miles off the ground.
The two propellants were extremely efficient—and extremely dangerous. The fuel, Aerozine-50, could spontaneously ignite when it came into contact with everyday things like wool, rags, or rust. As a liquid, Aerozine-50 was clear and colorless. As a vapor, it reacted with the water and the oxygen in the air and became a whitish cloud with a fishy smell. This fuel vapor could be explosive in proportions as low as 2 percent. Inhaling it could cause breathing difficulties, a reduced heart rate, vomiting, convulsions, tremors, and death. The fuel was also highly carcinogenic and easily absorbed through the skin. 
The missile's oxidizer, nitrogen tetroxide, was even more hazardous. Under federal law, it was classified as a "Poison A," the most deadly category of man-made chemicals. In its liquid form, the oxidizer was a translucent, yellowy brown. Although not as flammable as the fuel, it could spontaneously ignite if it touched leather, paper, cloth, or wood. And its boiling point was only 70 degrees Fahrenheit. At temperatures any higher, the liquid oxidizer boiled into a reddish brown vapor that smelled like ammonia. Contact with water turned the vapor into a corrosive acid that could react with the moisture in a person's eyes or skin and cause severe burns. When inhaled, the oxidizer could destroy tissue in the upper respiratory system and the lungs. The damage might not be felt immediately. Six to twelve hours after being inhaled, the stuff could suddenly cause headaches, dizziness, difficulty breathing, pneumonia, and pulmonary edema leading to death.
Sounds like fun to work around.  Apparently, there were hundreds of more accidents and near misses, and it is a real tribute to the scientists and engineers, along with Lady Luck, that we didn't have a massive nuclear accident that killed thousands of people during the Cold War.  And if we had this many fuckups and accidents, I can only imagine how many crazy things happened in the Soviet Union.  Maybe that proves there is a God.

Was The Taper Talk A Miscalculation?

There have been quite a few folks attacking Ben Bernanke for misleading the markets about whether the Fed would taper QE3 bond buying:
Economists and market analysts on Thursday blasted Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke after the Fed stunned markets with its unexpected decision to not cut its stimulus.
Bernanke came under fire for having stoked nearly unanimous expectations that the Fed would announce the "taper" of its $85 billion a month bond-buying program after its policy meeting Wednesday.
The decision cost investors who bet on a stimulus cutback hugely, though benefiting many with long positions in global stocks.
Many blamed Bernanke and fellow members of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) for having since May repeatedly suggested a September taper of the quantitative easing (QE) program.
University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers called the surprise "the result of a needless miscommunication.
"This whole taper debate is one that should never have happened," he wrote.
After Bernanke first spoke of a stimulus cut in May and June, "taper-talk came to dominate the financial headlines, and a monetary meme was quickly born. The result... was that markets over-reacted," he said.
"Despite Bernanke's effort yesterday in the press conference to paint the FOMC decision as entirely consistent with earlier communication from the FOMC, it was not," said Chris Low at FTN Financial.
"The Fed may have done the right thing for the economy... but the Fed's communications credibility is shredded."
I've got a question, though.  What if the Federal Reserve wanted to get a feeling for where interest rates would go if they did end their bond purchases, and they wanted to see what kind of effects the higher interest rates would have on the real economy?  What better way to find out than to give the market the impression that the bond buying was coming to an end?  What if May to September was an experiment to see what the post-taper world would look like, and whether it was just too soon to stop?  I would say the Fed got a really good idea of how much the mortgage market would slow down, as Calculated Risk's chart shows:

But the key is the refinance index is down 65% since early May, we will probably see the refinance index back to 2000 levels soon.The second graph shows the MBA mortgage purchase index.  

The 4-week average of the purchase index was generally been trending up over the last year (but down over the last few months), and the 4-week average of the purchase index is up about 3% from a year ago. 
Not only that, but Bernanke and company were able to see that no matter what the economy is doing, Republicans in Congress are crazy enough to blow it up. They've come to realize that there is no chance of fiscal policy moving in the direction where it is a help to the economy and not a major hindrance.

But back to my question.  What if the telegraphing of September tapering was to see what the post-taper world might look like?  How many people got hurt by it?  Mainly just traders and speculators.  Now sure, some folks got hurt by the higher interest rates the last few months, like home buyers and municipalities issuing debt.  But how many more would have been hurt if the Fed just plowed into ending QE3 for good?  If the folks most hurt were the speculators, I'm not losing much sleep.  But it does explain why so many folks on Wall Street felt so betrayed.  I think that Bernanke and company realize much more than our Wall Street fat cats that most people out there are still suffering from the not-so-booming economy, and definitely unlike the folks on Wall Street, the rest of the country is still poorer than they were five years ago.  So, in the end, I think the Fed was right in postponing the taper.  I just wish they could come up with some ways to help out the common folks, and not just the Wall Street assholes.

Who Is This Guy?

Pope Francis is really getting people talking:
Pope Francis has warned that the Catholic Church's moral structure might "fall like a house of cards" if it doesn't balance its divisive rules about abortion, gays and contraception with the greater need to make it a merciful, more welcoming place for all.
Six months into his papacy, Francis set out his vision for the church and his priorities as pope in a lengthy and remarkably blunt interview with La Civilta Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit magazine. It was published simultaneously Thursday in Jesuit journals in 16 countries, including America magazine in the U.S.
John Allen, a senior correspondent with the National Catholic Reporter, told CBS Radio News the pope is not changing church policy but makes it clear that he wants a less judgmental church.
"I think he is conscious that he's at a sort of make-or-break moment where the kind of pope he wants to be - if he wants to affect real change - he's got to be explicit about it," Allen said.
In the 12,000-word article, Francis expands on his ground-breaking comments over the summer about gays and acknowledges some of his own faults. He sheds light on his favorite composers, artists, authors and films (Mozart, Caravaggio, Dostoevsky and Fellini's "La Strada") and says he prays even while at the dentist's office.
But his vision of what the church should be stands out, primarily because it contrasts so sharply with many of the priorities of his immediate predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI. They were both intellectuals for whom doctrine was paramount, an orientation that guided the selection of a generation of bishops and cardinals around the globe.
Francis said the dogmatic and the moral teachings of the church were not all equivalent.
"The church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently," Francis said. "We have to find a new balance; otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards, losing the freshness and fragrance of the Gospel."
I really didn't anticipate the Pope saying that the Church harps on gays, abortion and birth control too much.  I'm not going to argue with him, I'm just really, really surprised.  I haven't been hanging out with any Shiite Catholics lately, but it'd be interesting to hear what they have to say about all this stuff.  I'm sure they would point out that the Pope hasn't really changed any teachings, but I would imagine they are kind of taken aback by this Pope's willingness to challenge the conservative direction of the Church over the past 35 years.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

What Happened at the Yarnell Hill Fire?

Here's a fascinating story about the Prescott Hotshot team who died in the Yarnell Hill fire this summer:

THE GRANITE MOUNTAIN crew could see Donut on the UTV racing across the flats. They could see the helicopters and air tankers pivoting from Peeples Valley to Yarnell and dozens of emergency vehicles, lights flashing, speeding down Highway 89 toward Glen Ilah, the subdivision where Truman lived. It would have been difficult for the hotshots, who had been trained to help however they can, to sit idly by and watch houses burn. They would have been thinking of their fellow firefighters placing themselves in harm’s way.
With conditions changing so dramatically, Eric and the crew’s leadership—Steed, Clayton, Travis, Robert—would have gathered for a moment on the ridge to discuss their options while the other hotshots sat perched on white granite boulders watching the drama unfold.
Do we hunker down in the black and do nothing but watch Yarnell burn? Or do we head down there, do some point protection, and try to save a couple of homes? Eric would have made the decision. He couldn’t have imagined that, by heading for town, he was leading his crew toward a series of increasingly compromised circumstances, each more desperate than the last.
He radioed out that Granite Mountain was moving back toward Yarnell.
Donut drove Eric’s supe truck to the edge of Yarnell. There, he and the Blue Ridge hotshots joined a few engine companies who were wetting and widening a contingency dozer line—a last effort to stop the fire from burning straight down Highway 89.
Donut radioed to Steed. “Buggies are parked. I’m with Blue Ridge. If you guys need anything, let me know.”
“Copy. I’ll see you soon.” It was the last time Donut spoke to Steed.
Do we stay safe or do we try to do more?  I would guess that thought process goes through most firefighters' heads right before they go into a situation they won't be able to get out of.   The whole story is amazing and emotional.  I feel for the lookout who survived, along with all of the survivors of the men who died in the fire.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Original Dow 12: National Lead

A little history of the National Lead Company:
NL Industries (NYSENL), the former National Lead Company is lead smelting company now based in Houston, Texas. National Lead was one of the 12 original stocks included in the Dow Jones Industrial Average at the time of its creation on May 26, 1896.It began business in Philadelphia in 1772. The name National Lead Company was used since 1891 after a series of mergers. During World War II, National Lead (later NL) entered the consumer market for titanium paints, creating a product line under the name Dutch Boy. Dutch Boy paints competed with other brands that contained mineral products supplied by National Lead. National Lead Company changed its name to NL Industries in 1971. The company headquarters is in Houston, Texas. Dutch Boy was sold off in 1976 to paint company Sherwin-Williams.
A little more information from a much more in-depth history:

Harvest Moon This Week

Scientific American:
This Thursday's full moon carries the title of "Harvest Moon" for those living in the Northern Hemisphere. But what gives the special moon its name?
The moon officially turns full when it reaches the spot in the sky opposite (180 degrees) from the sun. That moment will occur on Thursday (Sept. 19) at 7:13 a.m. EDT (1113 GMT).
Thursday's full moon is the one nearest to the September equinox this year, making it the Harvest Moon by the usual definition. Other definitions of the Harvest Moon, according to Guy Ottewell's Astronomical Calendar 2013, are the full moon on or after the date of the equinox, or the full moon in October. [The Moon Revealed: 10 Surprising Lunar Facts].
Although we associate the Harvest Moon with autumn, this year's version is actually the last full moon of the summer season. In fact, it's this summer's fourth full moon, an oddity of sorts since most of the time there are only three full moons per season.
Since this summer had four, the third full moon is designated as a Blue Moon, which was indeed the case last month. The 2013 Harvest Moon comes less than 3.5 days prior to the Autumnal Equinox, although a Harvest Moon can occur as early as Sept. 8 (as will be the case next year) or as late as Oct. 7 (as was the case in 1987).
The only full moon names I ever remember are the Harvest Moon and the Hunter's Moon.

Monday, September 16, 2013

How Detroit Went Broke

The Detroit Free Press looks into Detroit's finances through the years.  Yes, failure to shrink government payrolls and generous pensions played a major part, but I don't think anything is a bigger factor than this:

There was just no way to come to grips with that major of a population change, especially as those left behind were the poorest folks in the region.  A few other interesting causes of the financial trouble, smaller amounts of state aid, corporate welfare to bring back auto plants, and Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick's disastrous Wall Street deal to take on debt to fund pension plans:
The deal hailed by Wall Street was a disaster. The borrowing scheme now represents close to one-fifth of the city’s debt and stands as a key reason the city filed for Chapter 9 bankruptcy on July 18.
Many said it seemed like a good idea at the time, but the financial machination now stands as a prime example of the city’s willingness to borrow huge sums — and how Kilpatrick took borrowing to new heights.
For a year, Kilpatrick had lobbied the City Council to approve the idea of borrowing to fund pensions. The mayor said the city’s pension obligation, left unaddressed, would force him to lay off 2,000 employees.
But his new deal was designed to fix all that. He estimated the city would shave $277 million a year from its pension contribution obligation and prevent layoffs. It worked like this: Detroit sold pension obligation certificates of participation and shoved the money into its pension funds, making them nearly 100% funded. Separately, the city also bought so-called swaps, or derivatives, a complex Wall Street financial deal to permanently lock in steady interest rates in the range of 6%, a comparatively good rate at the time....
Three years later, interest rates tanked and the stock market collapsed. Detroit’s credit rating was downgraded. In desperation, the city pledged its casino tax revenue as collateral to creditors to avoid a payment of up to $400 million that, back then, would have pushed Detroit into a bankruptcy filing.
The city now owes $2.8 billion for principal, interest and insurance payments over the next 22 years, according to a Free Press review of the city’s records. The bill soared in part because the city made only interest payments for about five years.

The True Size of Africa

At The Economist, via Ritholtz:

A sphere cannot be represented on a flat plane without distortion, which means all map projections distort in one way or another. Some projections show areas accurately but distort distances or scales, for example; others preserve the shapes of countries but misrepresent their areas. You can read all the gory details on Wikipedia.
Gerardus Mercator's projection, published in 1569, was immediately useful because it depicts a line of constant bearing as a straight line, which is handy for marine navigation. The drawback is that it distorts the shapes and areas of large land masses, and the distortion gets progressively worse as you get closer to the poles. (Africa looks about the same size as Greenland under the Mercator projection, for example, even though it is in fact 14 times bigger.) This was not a big problem for 16th-century sailors, of course, and the Mercator projection remains popular to this day.
In Mr Krause's map (above) he seems to have used the shapes of the countries from a Mercator projection, but has scaled up the outline of Africa, without changing its shape, to show the appropriate area. An alternative and arguably more rigorous approach would be to repeat the exercise using an "equal area" projection that shows the countries' areas correctly while minimising shape distortion.
The curvature of the earth stuff in surveying throws me for a loop.  I'll leave that stuff up for other folks.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

NASA Photo of the Day

September 11:

LADEE Launch Streak
Image Credit & Copyright: Jeff Berkes
Explanation: On September 6, a starry night and the Milky Way witnessed the launch of a Minotaur V rocket from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia. So did a large part of the eastern United States, as the spectacular night launch was easily visible even from light polluted urban areas. This 35 second exposure captures part of the rocket's initial launch streak and 2nd stage ignition flare along with a fiery reflection in calm waters. The stunning view faces south and west from a vantage point overlooking Sinepuxent Bay in Maryland about 20 miles north of the launch pad. Heading east over the Atlantic, the multi-stage rocket placed LADEE, the Lunar Atmosphere and Dust Environment Explorer, into a highly elliptical Earth orbit to begin its journey to the Moon.
Also, during this launch, NASA captured an image of an unlucky frog also being launched.

A Largely Forgotten Speech After the Birmingham Church Bombing

Andrew Cohen remembers a speech by a white lawyer in Birmingham the day after the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham killed four little girls:
On Monday, September 16, 1963, a young Alabama lawyer named Charles Morgan Jr., a white man with a young family, a Southerner by heart and heritage, stood up at a lunch meeting of the Birmingham Young Men's Business Club, at the heart of the city's white Establishment, and delivered a speech about race and prejudice that bent the arc of the moral universe just a little bit more toward justice. It was a speech that changed Morgan's life—and 50 years later its power and eloquence are worth revisiting. Just hours after the church bombing, Morgan spoke these words:
Four little girls were killed in Birmingham yesterday. A mad, remorseful worried community asks, "Who did it? Who threw that bomb? Was it a Negro or a white?" The answer should be, "We all did it." Every last one of us is condemned for that crime and the bombing before it and a decade ago. We all did it.
He had written the speech that morning, he would recount years later after he and his family were forced to flee Birmingham because of the vicious reaction his words had generated from his fellow Alabamans. He had jotted down his remarks, he said, "from anger and despair, from frustration and empathy. And from years of hopes, hopes that were shattered and crumbled with the steps of that Negro Baptist Church." He had had enough of the silent acquiescence of good people who saw wrong but didn't try to right it.
Cohen goes on to alternately quote the speech and fill in with explanation.  Here's a little bit about the threats Morgan received after the speech:
 Following the speech, the threats began almost immediately. The very next morning, at 5 a.m., Morgan received a call. "Is the mortician there yet?" a voice asked. "I don't know any morticians," Morgan responded. "Well, you will," the voice answered, "when the bodies are all over your front yard." Later, Morgan recounted, a client of his drove an hour to tell him to flee Birmingham. "They'll shoot you down like a dog," the client told Morgan. Little wonder that Morgan quickly closed down his law practice and moved himself and his family to safety....
"Chuck told me that he received a stream of threats both by telephone and letter for weeks after his speech," recalls Steve Suitts, the renowned author, scholar, and civil libertarian who was one of Morgan's longtime friends. "Once we discussed the anonymous threats that Alabama-born Justice Hugo Black received from white Southerners after the Brown decision, and a note I had found in Black's papers saying 'Nigger-lovers don't live long in Alabama.' Chuck smiled and said he got the very same language in a note after his speech in 1963.
"But, the threats that worried Chuck the most were those made against his wife, Camille, and his little boy, Charles," Suitts told me this week via email. "He once told me that he had received a note that he did not share with Camille or anyone else. It listed all the places that Camille and Charles had been on a recent Saturday and said something like, 'Wife and kid of a troublemaker ain't always getting home. Next time?' That one worried him the most, because it meant someone had actually followed his family all day."
The reign of terror in the south between the end of Reconstruction and the end of the Civil Rights movement is terrifying in the structured, state-sanctioned violence and intimidation fueled purely by hate.  The treatment of Mr. Morgan was scary, but not nearly as terrifying as what blacks faced.  It is a part of American history we can never forget.  This is definitely an article to read.

Banks Exploit Ethanol Credit Market

NYT (h/t nc links)
The market in ethanol credits is exactly the kind Wall Street loves: opaque, lightly regulated and potentially very lucrative. Officials at the E.P.A., which oversees the market, say they have seen no evidence of improper trading, like hoarding, in the market. But they do not police the RIN market as a financial regulator would....
The RINs story began in 2005, when the Bush administration joined Democrats in Congress to pass an energy bill mandating renewable fuel standards. That law was broadened in 2007 to establish requirements for the amount of biofuel to be blended into gasoline annually through 2022. This year, refiners and importers are required to blend 13.8 billion gallons of ethanol, up from 13.2 billion last year. For 2014, the figure is 14.4 billion.
But the estimates Congress used about how much gas Americans would keep buying were wrong. When the biofuel credits were created, gasoline consumption was projected to grow 6 percent by 2013. But thanks in large part to the recession and more fuel-efficient cars, consumption has actually fallen.
As a result, refiners this year began hitting what is known as “the blend wall,” meaning that the amount of ethanol the government is requiring them to use is close to the maximum amount that can be blended into gasoline without creating problems for gas stations and motorists.
 This doesn't bode well for market-based pollution controls, or for federal regulation in general.  It has been obvious for some time that we won't meet the cellulosic ethanol requirements in the RFS, and also that without many, many more folks using E85 ready vehicles, the blend wall would come into effect.  The fact that EPA seems almost powerless to make reasonable changes because of opposition by entrenched interests is dispiriting.  The way that ethanol plants popped up because of the policy, and the way that the bankers found the ways to squeeze money out of market participants is also troubling.  The impact this policy has had on grain and livestock farming, the rural economy and land prices is immense.  Unwinding it will be very messy.  I believe that we can get smarter and more efficient government with regulation, but this is a challenge to that belief.

Restaurant Auction Brings Crowd

A longtime Dayton restaurant, the Stockyards Inn, held a liquidation auction of furniture, decorations and antiques.  Among the items sold was an old painting of a hog:
Wilson Bunger drove to the auction from New Madison in part because he knew a century-old painting of a hog that hung on the wall of the restaurant would go up for sale. The 82-year-old Darke County resident said the hog in the painting belonged to his grandfather, who sold breeding stock. His grandfather had commissioned an artist to paint the hog and to have it hung in the restaurant sometime between 1910 and 1920 as advertising of sorts for his business, since a working stockyards was located across Springfield Street from the restaurant for much of the 20th century.
Bidding on the painting reached $4,000. And Bunger outbid everybody.
“I wanted to keep it in the family,” he said.
The auctioneer's photo doesn't look like the photo of a $4,000 painting:

Another interesting item was a photograph of the old stockyard across the street:

Look at all those Herefords.  You won't see that high of a percentage of Herefords at any stockyards today.   Finally, the oldest kegerator I've ever seen:

Looks like you'd be cutting ice in the winter and storing it in the ice house to use that thing.