Friday, January 10, 2014

Mountain Spring Water

A chemical spill shuts down the water supply for 300,000 West Virginians:
The water that some 300,000 West Virginians usually depend on to slake their thirst, wash their bodies and brush their teeth is now good for only one thing -- flushing their toilets, authorities told them Friday.
"We don't know that the water is not safe, but I can't say it is safe," Jeff McIntyre, president of West Virginia American Water Co., told reporters about the water his company provides to customers in central and southwestern West Virginia.
That's been the case since Thursday, when residents of Kanawha County reported a foul odor -- similar to licorice -- in the air.
Investigators from the Kanawha County Fire Department and the state Department of Environmental Protection soon found where it all started -- a leak from a 35,000-gallon storage tank along the Elk River, which is a regional water source.
The chemical had overflowed a containment area around the tank, then migrated over land and through the soil into the river.
McIntyre said Friday he didn't believe the substance -- 4-methylcyclohexane methanol -- was still flowing. At the same time, that doesn't mean the situation will be resolved soon, so people can drink and bathe again.
"We have no timeline," said the utility executive.
Sure it was the Kanawha River and not the Elk River, but I always thought that very large chemical plants in the middle of the river right in the heart of the state capital seemed like a bad idea.  Anyway, this is a major big deal.  Much like a fertilizer plant explosion or a derailed train leveling much of a town, we seem to be regressing.  Notably, when the Bhopal disaster occurred, there was a plant on the Kanawha River using the same process.  At least nothing like that took place.  Yet.


Ancients from Nicholas Buer on Vimeo.

Cincinnati Owns a Railroad?

Why, yes, they do:
The idea of selling Cincinnati’s most unique and perhaps most valuable asset is being raised again, this time as a way to help the city get out from underneath its massive pension problems.
Newly installed City Council finance chair Charlie Winburn has begun floating the idea of selling the city’s Cincinnati Southern Railway and using the proceeds to pay down the pension’s $870 million unfunded liability both within council as well as with state legislators....
Rail company Norfolk Southern now pays more than $20 million annually to lease the line that runs from Cincinnati to Chattanooga, Tenn. Since the lease was renegotiated in 1987, the railroad has paid the city $432 million in lease payments, all of which go directly into Cincinnati’s capital budget. The lease runs until 2026, although Norfolk Southern has an option at that time to extend it another 25 years.
That continual stream of revenue is just one of the reasons Mayor John Cranley listed when voicing opposition to the idea in an interview with The Enquirer. The revenue is set aside for capital projects such as maintaining roads and bridges, Cranley said.....
Then there is the question about how much the city could actually get for the 337-mile stretch of track that runs about 50 miles west of the Smoky Mountains and the Cumberland Gap. Built in the 1800s and finished in 1887, the line carries about 45 freight trains a day for Norfolk Southern, which leases and maintains the tracks and right of way. It is the nation’s only such long-distance line owned by a city or municipality.
Winburn has consistently said the track is worth $500 million, but Seelbach said that previous city administrators told him it was worth between $1 billion to $2 billion.
Half a billion dollars “is a very low-ball figure,” Seelbach said. “This is our largest and one of our most important and lucrative assets and should be valued as such.”
Estimates of the cost to physically replace a mile of track range between $350,000 and $1 million, putting the value of the track alone – excluding right-of-way, switches and sidings – at $118 million to $337 million.
I had no idea the city of Cincinnati owned a railroad.  Here's a little more history about the railroad:
  In 1851, the Ohio Constitution was changed to prohibit cities from becoming owners in any joint stock company, effectively preventing Cincinnati from constructing its railway. To overcome this obstacle, the father of the Cincinnati Southern Railway, Edward A. Ferguson, put forth a "remarkable proposition." Mr. Ferguson proposed that if the city could not aid a private enterprise in building the railroad, the city itself should build and own the road.
Mr. Ferguson’s proposition was passed May 4, 1869 and the citizens of Cincinnati voted in overwhelming support of the railway on June 26, 1869. Charles G. Hall recounted the election in his 1902 history of the Cincinnati Southern Railroad, "The day was made a holiday. Nine bands of music paraded the streets. The fire bells rang at six in the morning, at noon, at three in the afternoon. Various wards organized. A full vote was urged."
It was not until 1880 – almost eleven years after the Ferguson Act was approved by the Cincinnati citizenry – that the first trains would complete the journey from Cincinnati to Chattanooga. While trains had run on the finished portion since the summer of 1877, it was February 21, 1880 that the first freight train rode the entire line, and March 8, 1880 that the first passenger train completed the 337 mile trip.
Cincinnati still owns the Cincinnati Southern
Railway and leases its use to Cincinnati, New Orleans and Texas Pacific Railway (CNO&TP), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Norfolk Southern. While CNO&TP handles most of the line’s maintenance needs, a major overhaul or the road was done in 1961 to modernize the track and tunnels.
In 1987, the City renegotiated the terms of the lease for more favorable annual income. From 2003 to 2008, the Southern Railway Note Proceeds totaled $95.5 million.
It seems like a damn shame to consider selling an automatic moneymaker, but before the city can go and file bankruptcy and screw its pensioners, it will have to sell it.  I'd recommend raising taxes to close the pension funding shortfall they should have been paying for years, but I know that'll never fly.  Before it is all said and done, that railroad will be sold, and for a song.  The kleptocrats who run our economy sill make sure of it.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Real Chris Christie Transportation Scandal

His cancellation of the commuter train tunnel under the Hudson River:
It's proper now to recall an action Christie took in 2010 that he owned up to quite proudly. This was his unilateral torpedoing of a $9-billion federal-state project to build a commuter train tunnel under the Hudson. The project would have doubled capacity on the route--a crucial improvement given forecasts of sharply rising ridership and the decrepitude of the existing tunnel. It was the largest public transit project at the time, and had already begun. Christie's refusal to approve his state's share killed it.
The cancellation made Christie a darling of the conservative budget-cutting movement, instantly raising his profile as a GOP up-and-comer. Two years later, he was still crowing about his courageous act before conservative audiences.
His depiction of the project was typically blustering and deceitful: "They want to build a tunnel to the basement of Macy’s, and stick the New Jersey taxpayers with a bill," he said. You'd think that was pretty funny, unless you were a New Jersey commuter who knew that the "basement of Macy's" in midtown Manhattan is actually Pennsylvania Station, where the commuter trains go. 
By then, Christie's rationale for killing the tunnel had been exposed as a passel of lies. He had claimed that it would cost more than $14 billion, and that New Jersey would be on a "never-ending hook" for 70% of the cost. In fact, as the Government Accountability Office reported, $14 billion was the maximum estimate, and $10 billion the most likely final bill. And New Jersey's share was 14.4%, not 70%.
But the cancellation allowed Christie to divert the state's share of the tunnel budget to a state highway fund, which in turn allowed him to avoid raising the state gasoline tax--already among the lowest in the nation--by a few cents.
That was such a stupid decision, and all to appeal to the anti-transit Tea Party morons that make up the base of the Republican Party.  Christie came around somewhat and realized that he didn't need to continuously pander to the jackasses of the Tea Party because most of America hates their ideology, but it hasn't prevented Christie from continuing to be an asshole.  I don't believe a word of his claims he didn't know his closest staffers were shutting down traffic lanes just to screw some political adversaries, but of all his moves, cancelling that tunnel was the dumbest.

When the Bengals Were Innovative and Winners

Rob Weintraub:
The Cincinnati Bengals have had several distinct eras. There was the epic fail of the 1990s, the lawless brigandry of the 2000s, and this decade's slapstick haplessness in big games, Sunday's follies being the latest example. As a die-hard fan, I've spent my entire adulthood despairing for my Bengals. To paraphrase Dean Wormer, inept, criminal, and choking is no way to go through life.
But there was another era that predated those Ages of Discontent. Hard as it may be to believe, there was a time when the Bengals lived on the sport's cutting edge, and the Queen City was a hothouse of invention, a pigskin Edison Labs. Back in the 1980s, Cincy coaches, led by the ever-inventive Sam Wyche, unveiled strategic schemes that have become the foundation of the modern NFL.
In virtually every other aspect, football from 1988 might as well have been played with mastodon skulls for all it has in common with today's sport. But the '88 Bengals, the finest make ever to roll off the franchise assembly line, could step out of the DeLorean to take the field this Sunday and look startlingly up-to-date. Those Bengals helped give the league the no-huddle offense, the zone blitz, inside and outside zone-blocking schemes, and the general notion to spread defenses out to create mismatches — all building blocks of modern game plans.
But ask your average fan about those concepts, and he or she will talk to you about Jim Kelly, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady, the "Blitzburgh" Steelers, or Mike Shanahan and Terrell Davis. The Bengals not only receive little credit today for their innovation, but they were also derided in their time as "wacky," "mad scientists" playing "popcorn football" (the striped pumpkin helmets didn't help). And of course, the team never fully benefited from its originality — others swooped in to reap the rewards.
History is written by the winners, and because of Montana-to-Taylor, the 1988 Bengals are mostly remembered for vaudeville — the Ickey Shuffle, backed by the SWAT Team, doing dance routines in the Jungle, with GNR blasting through the loudspeakers, 80-year-old Paul Brown prancing to the beat.
Oh, how I remember those days.  Sam Wyche was way ahead of his time (and not in the ironic way I talk about the International Harvester Scout and American Motors cars being ahead of their time).  I distinctly remember Marv Levy going to the league and getting them to ban the Bengals from using the no-huddle offense in the AFC championship game, even though they'd been using it all season:
Two hours before the AFC Championship was set to kickoff, the league office called the Bengals and told them if they went no-huddle, they would be hit with a 15-yard flag every time it happened. The Bengals won anyway 21-10.
Wyche told Sports Illustrated after the game, "The heck with them, we play by their rules and we still beat them."
It took Wyche four years to perfect it, but it paid off with a Super Bowl run.
Levy would take the no-huddle offense he hated (probably because he didn't think of it), modify it into the Jim Kelly led K-Gun, and go to four Super Bowls with it. [Fuck you, Marv Levy]
Wyche was fun to have around, even though his teams were maddeningly inconsistent.  But his last season in Cincinnati was the first in a horrific streak of ineptitude which overshadowed that tremendous 1988 season.  And when Wyche was fired, Mike Brown demonstrated his utter classlessness:
On December 24, 1991, just three years after the Bengals' Super Bowl appearance, Wyche was fired by owner Mike Brown, who had taken over the team upon the death of his father, club founder Paul Brown, four months earlier. Controversy erupted when the Bengals claimed Wyche had resigned, relieving the team of any future payments, but Wyche stated he was fired. [Fuck you, Mike Brown]
A little under two years after the Bengals loss in Super bowl XXIII, the Reds won the 1990 World Series.  Those were the professional sports highlights of my life.  It's been pretty ugly since then.

The National Ignition Faciility

The Atlantic:

This view from the bottom of the chamber shows the target positioner being inserted. Pulses from NIF's high-powered lasers race toward the Target Bay at the speed of light. They arrive at the center of the target chamber within a few trillionths of a second of each other, aligned to the accuracy of the diameter of a human hair. (Philip Saltonstall/Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory) #
More about the facility:
 At Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, a federally funded research and development center about 50 miles east of San Francisco, scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) are trying to achieve self-sustaining nuclear fusion -- in other words, to create a miniature star on Earth. The core of the NIF is a house-sized spherical chamber aiming 192 massive lasers at a tiny target. One recent laser experiment focused nearly 2 megajoules (the energy consumed by 20,000 100-watt light bulbs in one second) of light energy onto a millimeter-sized sphere of deuterium and tritium in a 16-nanosecond pulse. The resulting energetic output, while far short of being a self-sustaining reaction, set a record for energy return, and has scientists hopeful as they fine-tune the targeting, material, and performance of the instruments. The facility itself bristles with machinery and instruments, impressing the producers of the movie Star Trek: Into Darkness, who used it as a film set for the warp core of the starship Enterprise.
The pictures are awesome, and make me feel so dumb.  However, the pictures of Schwarzenegger getting a tour makes me feel like other people understand what's going on there even less than I do.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Genetic Deletion Hurts Fertility in High Milk Yield Dairy Cows

Science Daily, via Sowing Agricultural Seeds Daily:
Scientists have found a genomic deletion that affects fertility and milk yield in dairy cattle at the same time. The discovery can help explain a dilemma in dairy cattle breeding: the negative correlation between fertility and milk production.
For the past many years milk yield in Scandinavian dairy cattle has gone in one clear direction: up. This has been due to targeted breeding programs and modern breeding methods. Despite putting large weight in the breeding goal in Nordic countries, almost no improvement is achieved for fertility. It now seems that this unfavorable correlation between milk yield and fertility is partially affected by a deletion of a simple gene sequence. The presence and effects of this mutation have recently been discovered by scientists from Aarhus University, University of Li├Ęge, MTT Agrifood Research Finland, in collaboration with the Danish Agricultural Advisory Service and the Nordic Cattle Genetic Evaluation.
Scientists, farmers and advisors have generally assumed that the reduction in fertility is primarily due to the negative energy balance of high-producing cows at the peak of their lactation but now the scientists have also found a genetic explanation.
"We have discovered a deletion encompassing four genes as the causative variant and shown that the deletion is a recessive embryonically lethal mutation," explains Goutam Sahana. "This means that the calves die while they are still embryos and are aborted or reported as insemination failure. The fact that the mutation is recessive means that both parents must carry it and pass the genes on to their calf for the calf to be affected. The bulls carrying the deletion can be routinely identified in on-going genomic selection program and by avoiding carrier-by-carrier matings a quantum jump in fertility could be achieved in Nordic red breeds," adds Goutam Sahana.
To make matters worse, this particular mutation has become rather common in Nordic Red cattle, however, the deletion is totally absent in Nordic Holstein and Danish Jersey populations. Based on the frequency of the mutation in the population, it is estimated that 2.89, 1.32 and 0.42% of embryos are dying in Finnish Ayshire, Swedish Red and Danish Red cattle respectively due to this mutation.
The reason that the deleted gene sequence causing embryo mortality has become relatively widespread is that it has such as strong positive effect on milk yield. By selecting for high milk yields, breeders have inadvertently also selected for embryo mortality -- a situation of so-called hitchhiking.
The dominance of AI, and selective breeding for milk yield has massively increased milk production in dairy breeds, but I think it has probably made the dairy cow genomes extremely  susceptible to recessive mutations.  I also expect that at least some of the BSE cases in the U.S. and Canada have been genetucally inherited cases, and not a result of tainted feed.

Montana's Socialized Medicine

Maybe it is contagious, and they caught it from their neighbors to the north:
Now, 50 years later [after Saskatchewan established the provincial Medicare program], Montana has implemented a remarkable program to provide socialized health care to state employees.  They don’t call it “socialized health care,” but just put two and two together as you consider the following remarks from a story on National Public Radio from last July:
“Montana opened the first government-run medical clinic for state employees last fall. A year later, the state says the clinic is already saving money.”
Note that Montana’s experiment is not a “single-payer” insurance plan.  It’s actually socialized medicine, as the NPR report makes clear without stooping so low as to use the “S” word:
“The state contracts with a private company to run the facility and pays for everything—wages of the staff, total costs of all the visits. Those are all new expenses, and they all come from the budget for state employee healthcare.  Even so, division manager Russ Hill says it’s actually costing the state $1,500,000 less for healthcare than before the clinic opened.”
“Physicians are paid by the hour, not by the number of procedures they prescribe like many in the private sector. The state is able to buy supplies at lower prices.  ‘Because there’s no markup, our cost per visit is lower than in a private fee-for-service environment,’ Hill says.”
“Bottom line: a patient’s visit to the employee health clinic costs the state about half what it would cost if that patient went to a private doctor. And because it’s free to patients, hundreds of people have come in who had not seen a doctor for at least two years.”
“Montana recently opened a second state employee health clinic in Billings, the state’s largest city. Others are in the works.”
Don't use the S word.  The NPR story is here.

Stealing the FBI's Spy Files

What an amazing story:

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Danger of Metrics

After disruption, though, there comes at least some version of stage three: over­shoot. The most common problem is that all these new systems—metrics, algo­rithms, automated decisionmaking processes—result in humans gaming the system in rational but often unpredictable ways. Sociologist Donald T. Campbell noted this dynamic back in the ’70s, when he articulated what’s come to be known as Campbell’s law: “The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making,” he wrote, “the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor.”
On a managerial level, once the quants come into an industry and disrupt it, they often don’t know when to stop. They tend not to have decades of institutional knowledge about the field in which they have found themselves. And once they’re empowered, quants tend to create systems that favor something pretty close to cheating. As soon as managers pick a numerical metric as a way to measure whether they’re achieving their desired outcome, everybody starts maximizing that metric rather than doing the rest of their job—just as Campbell’s law predicts.

Keep an Eye on the Bull at All Times

I broke that cardinal rule today, and I've got a beat up body to show for it.  This bull has seemed much more temperamental than the last one, but I didn't thin k of that when I climbed over a six-foot wooden gate to bust a non-working tank heater out of the ice in the water trough.  After pounding the ice a few times with a wood post, I was trying to pry the heater up when the bull hit me in the crotch with his head.  He knocked me off balance and pinned me against the gate. Each time he pulled back to hit me again, I scrambled to get better footing.  It was a little worrisome waiting while he pinned me until another instant of freedom before he struck again.  Finally, I was able to scramble up the gate and get to safety.  I've got to keep him a few more months to get my cows bred back, but he's worn out his welcome at the farm.

Do We Need a Bigger Congress?

Bruce Bartlett looks at the issue:
One problem that continues to fester is that the Constitution says no state may have fewer than one House member. This means that small states such as Wyoming, Vermont and North Dakota are overrepresented in the House — and other states are underrepresented. This is a violation of the principle of one person one vote, established by the Supreme Court in the 1964 case Reynolds v. Sims.
A number of political scientists and legal scholars now contend that an increase in the size of the House is necessary to relieve the growing malapportionment under the fixed size of 435, the minimum representation requirement and the mathematical formula used for reapportionment. Articles making this argument have appeared in Perspectives on Politics, Polity, the Washburn Law Journal, the New York University Journal of Legislation and Public Policy and The New York Times....
In 2009, some activists brought suit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of the law freezing the number of House members at 435. But it was rejected by a Federal District Court in 2010, which said the question was a political one for Congress to decide, and the Supreme Court refused to review the case.
In closing, let me note that according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the House of Representatives is on the very high side of population per representative at 729,000. The population per member in the lower house of other major countries is considerably smaller: Britain and Italy, 97,000; Canada and France, 114,000; Germany, 135,000; Australia, 147,000; and Japan, 265,000.
While I appreciate the idea that one person representing 729,000 people is pretty crazy, I just can't imagine how  many clowns we'd end up with if we halved the size of the districts.  If Jim Jordan is the best his district can offer, who else would get elected if the districts were cut in half.  We could use a better class of public servants instead of more of what we've got.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Does the GOP Need To Pass a Farm Bill?

National Journal:
For the last several years, commodity prices have been so high that farmers haven't been concerned about their safety net and farm leaders have found it impossible to get their members to put on the kind of grassroots campaigns that are usually required to get a bill enacted. Those high prices have allowed Republicans, particularly in the House, to engage in an endless debate over food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
Now big crops and the Obama administration's decision to consider lowering the volumetric requirements for corn-based ethanol and biodiesel under the renewable-fuel standard have sent commodity prices plummeting and raised questions about land values. As Bloomberg has reported, corn prices in 2013 experienced their biggest one-year drop since 1960 and wheat prices dropped the most in five years. Prices haven't fallen below profitable levels yet, but farmers and their bankers now see that they need the certainty of a five-year bill, whatever its details.
Since the Democratic-controlled Senate passed a farm bill in 2012 and 2013 and the House passed it in 2013 after the most excruciating lengthy battle, there seems to be an understanding in political circles that if the conference report gets held up, rural voters will see it as the fault of the Republicans in general and the House Republicans in particular.
The evidence can already be seen in key Senate races. In December, Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said that the vote of his expected opponent, GOP Rep. Tom Cotton, against a comprehensive farm bill last June because it didn't cut food stamps enough had hurt Arkansas farmers. Pryor urged farmers to ask Cotton how he will vote on the conference report that will most certainly include both commodity programs and food stamps.
In Kentucky, Allison Lundergan Grimes, a Democrat running against Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, has charged in a TV ad that Congress's slowness in passing a farm bill means "McConnell's failure to lead hurts Kentucky farmers." Grimes has also called McConnell's vote against the Senate farm bill "shameful."
McConnell, who also faces a Republican primary, justified his vote, telling reporters, "In the Senate bill, it just largely became a food-stamp bill with production agriculture kind of stuck on as an afterthought."
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., is not up for reelection in 2014, but she recently used the farm bill in a fundraising letter. "The failure to pass a strong farm bill could do serious damage to Wisconsin's economy and to communities all over the country who depend on family farms moving local economies forward. Tea-party obstructionists can't be allowed to play political games with America's rural economy," Baldwin wrote to her supporters.
The farm bill could also become an issue in Senate races in Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, Montana, South Dakota, and West Virginia
Personally, I don't see it being a big part of the 2014 elections.  While farmers vote, there just aren't a huge number of people who actually get government money as farmers.  In the end, the food stamp portion affects way more people, and that is what the Republicans really want to cut.  Politically, those cuts probably won't hurt most rural Republicans, but you never can tell.

NASA Photo of the Day


Galaxy NGC 474: Shells and Star Streams
Image Credit & Copyright: P.-A. Duc (CEA, CFHT), Atlas 3D Collaboration
Explanation: What's happening to galaxy NGC 474? The multiple layers of emission appear strangely complex and unexpected given the relatively featureless appearance of the elliptical galaxy in less deep images. The cause of the shells is currently unknown, but possibly tidal tails related to debris left over from absorbing numerous small galaxies in the past billion years. Alternatively the shells may be like ripples in a pond, where the ongoing collision with the spiral galaxy just above NGC 474 is causing density waves to ripple though the galactic giant. Regardless of the actual cause, the above image dramatically highlights the increasing consensus that at least some elliptical galaxies have formed in the recent past, and that the outer halos of most large galaxies are not really smooth but have complexities induced by frequent interactions with -- and accretions of -- smaller nearby galaxies. The halo of our own Milky Way Galaxy is one example of such unexpected complexity. NGC 474 spans about 250,000 light years and lies about 100 million light years distant toward the constellation of the Fish (Pisces).

sixth element

sixth element from Level 4 on Vimeo.