Saturday, February 22, 2014

El Nino May Return in 2014

What may happen if it does return:
* El Nino could bring dry weather to Australia, which is already struggling with a drought that has forced ranchers in the world's third-biggest beef exporter to cull cows, raising fears of a global beef shortage. El Nino could also curb wheat, sugar and cotton production in the country.
* An El Nino episode usually results in below-average rainfall in main palm oil producers Indonesia and Malaysia, cutting yields and pushing up global prices.
* It could also hurt crops in Thailand, one of the world's largest rice exporters, potentially worsening drought conditions usually seen in March-April.
* El Nino would bring milder-than-normal temperatures to the major crop production areas of the U.S. Midwest. Iowa and Minnesota would benefit from the event's tendency for wetter-than-normal summers as the western Corn Belt continues to recover from a drought.
* But excessive rains in the saturated soils of the eastern Corn Belt could be troublesome, particularly following this year's overly snowy winter. Drought-hit California, a major dairy and wine grape state, could see more rain than normal.
* In China, El Nino could bring more rain to areas south of the Yellow River and cause flooding in the country's major rice and cotton growing regions.
* Lower-than-normal temperatures could also occur in the country's top corn and soy areas in the northeast, leading to frost damage and lower grain output.
* A strong El Nino in India would trigger lower production of summer crops such as rice, sugarcane and oilseeds. India is the world's No.2 producer of rice and wheat.
* The Philippines' weather bureau already expects rainfall to be "way below" normal by April in most parts of the country, including rice-growing provinces in the Central Luzon region and sugar plantations in the Visayas provinces. El Nino could worsen that.
* Previous El Nino episodes caused severe dry spells in the archipelago affecting vast tracts of farmland. A rice shortfall due to typhoons and drought connected to El Nino in 2010 prompted record imports of the national staple.
All I can remember is that El Nino usually means wetter than average year here, while La Nina brings us drier weather.  We'll see what comes.

Despite Polar Vortex, January Amongst Warmest Ever

The Atlantic Cities:
Much of America is about to be overrun by another miserable cold-dozer next week, but on the planetary scale, things have actually been warm. January's temperatures were the hottest for the month since 2007 and, with a combined global average of 54.8 degrees, this was the fourth warmest January since records began in 1880.
That's the word from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, which recently released an updated "State of the Climate" that includes the above map of temperature anomalies. Note cooler-than-normal patches in the eastern U.S., central Canada, Scandinavia, and a big hunk of Russia, which had country-scale temperatures 9 degrees below average. But the big story was heat, heat, heat, as NCDC explains:
During January 2014, most of the world's land areas experienced warmer-than-average temperatures, with the most notable departures from the 1981–2010 average across Alaska, western Canada, Greenland, Mongolia, southern Russia, and northern China, where the departure from average was +3°C (+5.4°F) or greater. Meanwhile, parts of southeastern Brazil and central and southern Africa experienced record warmth with temperature departures between 0.5°C to 1.5°C above the 1981–2010 average, contributing to the highest January Southern Hemisphere land temperature departure on record at 1.13°C (2.03°F) above the 20th century average. This was also the warmest month for the Southern Hemisphere land since September 2013 when temperatures were 1.23°C (2.21°F) above the 20th century average.
Some other outliers: France tied its warmest January on record with 1988 and 1936; China logged its second-warmest January since it started collecting records in 1961; and in Spain, it was the third-hottest month since 1996.
I think this is the main reason why NOAA always ends up on the list of budget cut goals for the Republicans.  They point out that just because it is colder than shit in the populated areas of the U.S., much of the rest of the world has higher than normal temperatures.  That still doesn't stop every person I know from saying, "so much for global warming."  As much as I'd hate it, we're probably due for a summer that's hotter than Hell.  Not that it would convince anybody of anything. 

National Engineers' Week Weekend Reads

I didn't realize it was National Engineers' Week until my friend wished me a happy one. Here are some of the stories that caught my eye the last couple days:

The Tea Party in Texas Doesn't Have Much Beyond Ted Cruz's Name - David Weigel   If that's all they have....

Creaky Trains Made of Bamboo Still Rule the Rails in Cambodia - Wall Street Journal

5 Things You Need to Know About the New Farm Census - Modern Farmer   1. American farmers are old white men.  Um, yeah.

Clarence Thomas's Disgraceful Silence - Jeffrey Toobin

Exxon CEO Joins Anti-Fracking Lawsuit After Drilling Threatens His Property Value - Salon

Where Soccer Gets Made - Roads & Kingdoms

Half of U.S. Farmland Being Eyed By Private Equity - IPS

Positive Thinking is Bad for You - Yves Smith

And a couple audio and video pieces - World's Best Slalom Skier Prepares for Olympic Event - NPR and Gate Crasher - Mikaela Shiffren - 60 Minutes

Friday, February 21, 2014

Magical New Zealand

Magical New Zealand from Shawn Reeder on Vimeo.

Texas Regulators Look Out For Industry Ahead of Citizens?

Say it ain't so.  It's so, according to the Center for Public Integrity, as reported by Bloomberg:
Our investigation and records obtained from Texas regulatory agencies reveal a system that does more to protect the industry than the public. Among the findings:
1. Texas' air monitoring system is so flawed that the state knows almost nothing about the extent of the pollution in the Eagle Ford. Only five permanent air monitors are installed in the 20,000-square-mile region, and all are at the fringes of the shale play, far from the heavy drilling areas where emissions are highest.

2. Thousands of oil and gas facilities, including six of the nine production sites near the Buehrings' house, are allowed to self-audit their emissions without reporting them to the state. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), which regulates most air emissions, doesn't even know some of these facilities exist. An internal agency documentacknowledges that the rule allowing this practice "[c]annot be proven to be protective."

3. Companies that break the law are rarely fined. Of the 284 oil and gas industry-related complaints filed with the TCEQ by Eagle Ford residents between Jan. 1, 2010, and Nov. 19, 2013, only two resulted in fines despite 164 documented violations. The largest was just $14,250. (Pending enforcement actions could lead to six more fines).

4. The Texas legislature has cut the TCEQ's budget by a third since the Eagle Ford boom began, from $555 million in 2008 to $372 million in 2014. At the same time, the amount allocated for air monitoring equipment dropped from $1.2 million to $579,000.

5. The Eagle Ford boom is feeding an ominous trend: A 100 percent statewide increase in unplanned, toxic air releases associated with oil and gas production since 2009. Known as emission events, these releases are usually caused by human error or faulty equipment.

6. Residents of the mostly rural Eagle Ford counties are at a disadvantage even in Texas, because they haven't been given air quality protections, such as more permanent monitors, provided to the wealthier, more suburban Barnett Shale region near Dallas-Fort Worth.
Texas officials tasked with overseeing the industry are often its strongest defenders, leaving the Buehrings and other families interviewed for this story to mostly fend for themselves. Oil money is so thoroughly ingrained in the Texas culture and economy that there is little interest in or sympathy for those who have become collateral damage in the drive for riches.
Color me shocked.  Really, you can say much of this about any state that is run by Republicans, Ohio included.  Businesses own the regulators, and even when they don't, the agencies have been unduly attacked so often for being anti-business that they go out of their way to work with companies.  Most EPA horror stories are just that, stories.  I still hear about EPA regulating cow flatulence, even though it is total bullshit.  But people breathing toxic air, way less bullshit.

Fuck Yeah, Wright State Researches Twitter Cursing


It feels like people are always swearing on Twitter, huh? FastCo reports the work of a team of researchers from Wright State University in Ohio which analyzed 51 million tweets by 14 million english language users to figure out the dynamics of how exactly people use profanity on the social network.
"Fuck" is by far the most frequently used, accounting for more than one-third of the bad language recorded:

The most popular curse word is fuck, which covers 34.73% of all the curse word occurrences, followed by shit (15.04%), ass (14.48%), bitch (10.34%), nigga (9.68%), hell (4.46%), whore (1.82%), dick (1.67%), piss (1.53%), and pussy (1.16%).
Together, "fuck" and "shit"—and their variants account for nearly half of all the profanity on Twitter, and the top seven words account for more than 90 percent of tweet profanity.
Now that is some important research under way at Wright State, Wrong University.  After seeing some facebook post from Sarah Palin earlier this week, I was wondering about how frequently cunt was used in online posts.  Now I know.

A Collective National Orgasm?

So the Canadian women won the gold in curling and hockey, the men are beating the piss out of the British in the curling final, and the men's hockey have the U.S. and Sweden between them and gold. How big of a freak out will the Canucks have if they can sweep gold in all four?  I think they might just burn America's Hat (or toque to them) to the ground.

Update: Only Sweden stands in the way of what would seem to be a perfect Olympics for America Jr.

Further Update:  Adam Gopnik with a more Canadian reaction to their hockey success:
I’m sure that there will be Americans disappointed at the loss, but if it’s any consolation, an American watching her team lose in international hockey just can’t compare, for emotional weight, with a Canadian watching her team win. Hockey is Canada—it just is—and the sense of pleasure flooding over my homeland was palpable today, represented by a steady stream of e-mails and texts and phone calls. You could practically feel it, as tangibly as any polar vortex. (That cold north wind that blew across the city around 3 P.M.? The exhalation of relieved Canadians.)
Even more than today’s solid showing, even more than yesterday’s unforgettable win—and even if Canada brings home a second gold medal in hockey after Sunday’s game against Sweden—what I suspect will go down in Canadian history is the message the core of the women’s team left in the men’s locker room before the semifinal: “Tonight is yours. Own the moment. We are proof that every minute matters. The podium is reserved for the brave. Earn every inch. Dictate the pace. Go get em! From the girls!” There’s something beautifully Canadian about the juxtaposition of the big rhetorical flourishes and the modest descant of that “from the girls.”
Ahhh.  I still like the idea of mass mayhem better.

Arizona Senate Passes Bill Protecting Righteous Bigots

Arizona Daily Star:
State senators voted Wednesday to let businesses refuse to serve gays based on owners' "sincerely held" religious beliefs.
The 17-13 vote along party lines, with Republicans in the majority, came after supporters defeated an attempt to extend existing employment laws that bar discrimination based on religion and race to also include sexual orientation. Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, said that's a separate issue from what he is trying to do.
But Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said that's precisely the issue.
"The bill opens the door for discrimination against gays and lesbians," he said.
Yarbrough, however, said foes of SB 1062 are twisting what his legislation says.
"This bill is not about discrimination," he said. "It's about preventing discrimination against people who are clearly living out their faith."
A similar measure is awaiting a vote in the House, probably later today.
Arizona already has laws which protect individuals and businesses from any state action which substantially interferes with their right to exercise their religion. This bill extends that protection to cover what essentially are private transactions.
I'm not intimately familiar with the Bible, but I do remember some stories about folks with sincerely held religious beliefs being attacked for those beliefs and how they put them into action.  They were scribes and Pharisees who tried to follow the precepts of their religion, and some rabble-rouser kept criticizing them.  The scribes and Pharisees attempted to keep away from known adulterers and tax collecting swindlers, and avoid doing business with them, but that guy would go to those bad guys' homes and eat dinner with them, and  come to their defense when the religious folks tried to show those folks how they sinned against the laws of the scribes and Pharisees' religion.  He'd even imply that the scribes and Pharisees were hypocrites who weren't any better than the obvious sinners.  I don't remember who that trouble maker was, but I think he ended up being found guilty of some crime, so he's probably not very credible anyway.  I'm sure the folks trying to protect people who are clearly living out their faith are more familiar with those stories than I am, so I should probably quiet down and defer to them.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Lightning and Wind Turbines

Ars Technica:
To see what was going on, Joan Montanyà and Oscar van der Velde of the Universitat Politècnica de Catalunya in Barcelona and Earle Williams of MIT set up an array of radio sensors spaced kilometers apart around an area with several wind farms in Spain. The system maps the location of lightning radio emissions in three dimensions.
The array caught several interesting phenomena in the act. On a few occasions, periodic flashes about three seconds apart were detected over wind turbines—in one case lasting for over an hour. These turned out to be very low-energy discharges that sparked upward each time a blade of the turbine swept past the high point.
Most of us are familiar with cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-ground lightning, but the sensors picked up a fairly extraordinary ground-to-cloud-to-ground strike during one storm. For most cloud-to-ground strikes of tall objects, fingers of positive charge called “leaders” often travel upward from the object before reaching a region of negative charge in a cloud. Current then courses downward through the path of that leader, through the object being struck, and into the ground.
In this case, a negative leader reached upward from the turbine and into an area of positive charge about 5 kilometers up. This is the kind of strike that can damage turbines so badly. In this case, however, there were both positive and negative charges interacting in the clouds, and the downward strike lashed out laterally, striking the ground fully 20 to 25 kilometers from the turbine.
The researchers also captured some high-speed footage of lightning striking some nearby wind turbines, seen below. Of interest here is the fact that several turbines get involved in a single strike. Positive upward leaders jump from three different turbines at the same time, with one becoming the lucky recipient of the downward strike. Close examination also shows small, failed leaders extending from the tips of three other turbines. This shows that the turbines weren’t very well isolated from each other electrically.

That is kickass.

Learning To Catch the King: Salmon Fishing in the Yukon Delta

A Contract Chicken-Raising Primer

Perdue owns the chickens. It also supplies the feed that they eat. About a month from now, when the birds have grown to about 4.5 pounds, the company will send a truck to carry them away, and Watts will get paid. But he never knows how big his check will be.
"It's like that test you took in school — you kind of want to know how you did, but you really don't? It's that kind of feeling," he says.
The uncertainty is part of a peculiar payment system that the chicken industry uses. It's often called a tournament. Critics say it's more like a lottery.
The companies set an average price that they will pay for raising the chickens — in this case, 5 cents per pound. But some farmers will get more than that, and others less, depending on a formula that measures their performance. It's mainly based on feed efficiency: how much weight the chickens gained, compared to how much feed the company supplied.
The farmers are ranked, like teams competing in a sports league. The top-ranked farmer can get paid up to 50 percent more, per pound of chicken delivered, than the one at the bottom. "The pie doesn't change," Watts says. It's just divided into bigger and smaller slices.
The entire chicken industry uses this system, and Tom Vukina, an economist at North Carolina State University who's studied it, says that from an economic point of view, it's beautiful.
"It is really brilliant," says Vukina. It solves problems that academic economists have examined with high-powered theory. Problems such as how companies can make sure workers do a good job when they can't be monitored, or how to convince independent contractors to invest in new equipment.
Some farmers contend that the feed efficiency depends on which birds a farmer gets:
The really unfair thing, according to Craig Watts, is that whether he ends up at the top or the bottom of the rankings is out of his control. It seems to depend mainly on which birds the company sent him.
"I've been a good grower, I've been a bad grower, and I've been an every-point-in-between grower, and I'm the same guy doing the same thing," he says. "I'm the only thing that's constant on that farm."
But once you owe all that money, he says, you're stuck, because those loans are secured by the land on your farm, or by your home. "We've got ties to the land, and they exploit that, because we're going to do whatever it takes not to lose our farm," Watts says.
Somebody on the farmer side has to be making money, but it would be interesting to see how many guys are consistently at the top in the payment system.

Open Door to Solitude

Open Door to Solitude from Filson on Vimeo.

An Even Bigger Particle Accelerator than the Large Hadron Collider?

Scientists at CERN are considering it, and Alexis Madrigal gives a partial history of how the super colliders have grown throughout their history:
The particles inside Ernest Lawrence's 1931 cyclotron particle accelerator traveled just 11 inches inside the perimeter of what he called his "proton-merry-go-round." The initial size was tiny, but Lawrence's strategy was, as we might say now, scalable: If atoms could be accelerated a bit inside a device with a diameter of 11 inches, then imagine how fast one could make them fly if a bigger device was built. They quickly built a 27-inch version, then a 60-incher a few years later.

Most simple histories of physics date the birth of Big Science to Lawrence's cyclotron. Physics needed big machines. There were things that a big machine could test that no people working unaided or with a smaller machine could. And that's never stopped being true. Bigger equals more energy equals better atom smashing.

Which is why the Large Hadron Collider opened to such fanfare a few years ago. It's the largest particle accelerator in the world, tucked underground near Geneva. The tunnel through which particles travel is now 27 kilometers (16.8 miles) long. Lawrence's cyclotron could reach energies exceeding one million electron volts. The LHC turns up the dial to 14 trillion electron volts. That's an improvement of seven orders of magnitude.
Of course, the United States was actually building the Superconducting Super Collider (they completed 20% of the tunnel), which would have been almost as big (87 kilometers in circumference) as the one the Europeans are considering building by 2075, but Congress pulled the plug in 1993.  More forward-thinking Congressional leadership for you. I do find that Livermore's 11 inch particle accelerator has grown into a currently 27 kilometer version of the same thing to be fascinating.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Westlands Almond Problem

The East Bay Express gets into the weeds on almond production in the western San Joaquin Valley:
Errotabere's farm resides within the Westlands Water District, a barren landscape southwest of Fresno that gets very little rain — even in non-drought years. The average annual precipitation in the district is just eight inches, and the region suffers from poor drainage, high levels of toxic minerals in the soil, and salt-laden groundwater. "It's really an area that should have never been farmed," said Richard Walker, a retired UC Berkeley geography professor and an expert on agricultural economics.
Yet Westlands is almost all farmland, thanks to water from Northern California and the Sierra Nevada that the federal government pumps out of the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta and ships south through a series of canals and aqueducts. Throughout the 20th century, this massive transfer of water turned a large section of California desert into a bountiful — and profitable — farming region....A decade ago, Westlands' major crop was cotton. But today, almonds are on their way to becoming king. Since 2000, the amount of land dedicated to growing almonds has more than doubled in the district, bringing the total to 75,000 acres. And now about one out of every ten almonds sold in the world comes from Westlands. The only crop more common in the district is tomatoes, which cover 80,000 acres.
Westlands farmers like Errotabere have shifted to growing almonds, and to a lesser extent, pistachios, because of the exploding international demand for them. California produces 80 percent of the almonds sold worldwide, with gross revenues of more than $6.2 billion in 2013 — nearly double what they were in 2009. Last year, almonds were California's most lucrative agricultural export by far. "We have good markets, and we're a global product that's extremely desired," said Richard Waycott, CEO of the California Almond Board.
According to the article, an acre of almonds requires 1.3 million gallons of water a year.  That's almost 48 inches of water in an area that gets an average of 8 inches of rain a year.  It's a shame that a lot of farmers in the region face potential financial ruin in the ongoing drought, but planting 75,000 acres of almond trees in the desert is stupid, and a terrible waste of water.  As the article states, there are numerous areas in California that can produce almonds in a much more water-ef ficient manner.  This region growing almonds is just a product of greed and terrible public policy.  Read the whole article, it is fascinating.

Curlers as Wildlife

The Industrial Re-Revolution

Via the Big Picture (click to enlarge):

Rich Folks and Lottery Winners

Charles Kenny considers billionaire Tom Perkins' recent notorious remarks speculating that talk of increasing taxes on the wealthy is comparable to Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany, and that votes in elections should be determined by wealth (he claimed that was a joke).  He says Perkins' luck in getting wealthy is comparable to winning the lottery:
Perkins had a successful career as a corporate executive before he co-founded his VC firm. Given that he made the bulk of his money gambling on startups, he should understand the role that luck plays in wealth accumulation. For example, what if Kleiner Perkins’s first investment had been to plow $38 million into Segway, the personal transportation flop? Or $100 million in Fisker Automotive, which recently laid off most of its staff? What if the firm had backed solar panel manufacturer MiaSolé, sold to a Chinese clean-energy company at a huge loss? The venture fund did make all those investments—and, as a result, has had lackluster returns over the last decade (although Perkins hasn’t been involved in investment picks for a while). Indeed, Perkins wouldn’t have his soapbox today if his VC firm had been similarly unlucky in its early years—it probably wouldn’t have survived that long.
And, of course, Perkins had the chance to be a successful executive in the first place because he was born privileged enough to enter the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an undergraduate in 1953, when a little more than 5 percent of Americans aged 25 to 29 had a bachelor’s degree. If he had been born in Liberia, perhaps to a single mother, all bets of billionaire status would be completely off. He surely worked hard, and took risks informed by smarts and insight, but he was incredibly lucky to start where he did and end up where he is now, with enough money for a classic car collection and a massive yacht....A
study by British economists Nattavudh Powdthavee and Andrew Oswald released last week looked at lottery winners involved in a general survey of attitudes in the U.K. Comparing views before and after lottery wins, the economists looked at winners’ political allegiances and views toward income distribution. Those surveyed were asked if they agreed or disagreed with the statement “ordinary people get a fair share of the nation’s wealth,” and if they supported the (more right-wing) Conservative Party or the (left-leaning) Labour Party.
A win of just £500 (about $840) made survey respondents 5 percent more likely to change their vote to Conservative from Labour and significantly more likely to think that the current distribution of income was fair. The larger the lottery win, the bigger the impact on the respondents’ beliefs—even though their income rankings rose purely by chance. Considering that Perkins’s earnings from betting on tech startups are more than 1 million times the £500 that Powdthavee and Oswald found sufficient to shift attitudes, and since he did far more to earn his wealth than the lottery winners did, his views on redistribution aren’t surprising.
I think if you talked to some of these folks, they'll say they got where they are because of being smart and working hard.  Perkins is almost certainly very intelligent, as the MIT reference on his resume would tend to indicate.  I'm probably not quite as dumb as my writing would indicate (some folks might even refer to me as somewhat intelligent), but I can tell you that I never really worked hard at school or at work.  Most of that stuff came pretty naturally to me, and the vast majority of folks out there could attend the best schools and work 20 hours a day and never be able to do things that seem second nature to the really smart folks like Perkins.  I'm pretty sure that if he was born with somebody else's genes and environment he wouldn't be where he is today.  It would be nice if he were to realize that being born on third base doesn't mean he hit a triple.

I have a hard time believing that winning $1000 makes somebody markedly more conservative, politically, but I do think that becoming a billionaire might.  As the article says, though, making a fortune at venture capital is a hell of a lot like winning the Mega Millions, except one takes somebody else's product, funds it, then take a massive slice of the windfall if there is one.  That seems like a high-risk, high-reward gamble, with more than it's share of luck.  As the article points out, the system Mr. Perkins has flourished in is especially kind to entrepreneurs, who can walk away from bad debts and failed ideas, and not be saddled with paying them off forever.  Likewise, massive amounts of public expenditures, funded by previous generations of wealthy taxpayers, went into the infrastructure that made Mr. Perkins success possible.  He wasn't operating in a vacuum, separated from the rest of society.  While his time, money and effort paid off in a massive windfall, many other as worthy, or maybe more worthy folks saw watched as the figurative dice of their lives hit craps.  Maybe he ought to shut the hell up and appreciate how lucky he has been.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Chinese Investors Flock To Detroit

Pacific Standard:
 Detroit, the largest American municipality to ever file for bankruptcy, is clearly broken. More than $18 billion in debts pushed the city to this point. In December, a federal judge ruled that even city workers’ pensions are fair game for cuts.
Yet for some—namely foreign investors and owners of the Cleveland Cavaliers—Detroit’s diminished state spells opportunity. Late last year, a Peruvian developer bought the former Packard automotive plant—all 30 football fields of it—for $405,000. Chinese investors are collecting derelict homes, some by the dozens. And Dan Gilbert, founder of Quicken Loans, owns or controls over eight million square feet in more than 40 properties in downtown Detroit. That’s as much space as three Empire State Buildings, and enough to make him the second-largest property owner in downtown after General Motors.
“If Dan Gilbert ever gets tired of Detroit,” Kurt Metzger, director emeritus of Data Driven Detroit, told me, “Detroit is screwed.”...
In an October auction, a Chinese firm bought two buildings in downtown Detroit for $13.6 million, including the former home of the Detroit Free Press. The buildings were purchased at auction by the Shanghai-based Dongdu International Group, which outbid Gilbert and snagged the buildings sight unseen. Similarly, since last summer and fall, Chinese and other foreign investors have remotely been buying abandoned homes, often at the cost of an inexpensive dinner, through online auctions and Michigan-based realtors.
But it's not just Detroit:
 Chinese investors continue to run, not walk, toward foreign financial opportunities. Real Capital Analytics says Chinese investment in Europe tripled from 2012 to 2013; in the U.S., the $4.3 billion spent in 2013 by the Chinese on commercial property was more than the previous five years combined. And, according to the Rhodium Group, a New York-based consulting firm, Chinese companies doubled their direct investment in the United States from $7.1 billion in 2012 to $14 billion in 2013 (and up from just $340 million in 2007).
I remember back when I was in high school and the Japanese were buying up real estate in the U.S.  I was such a jingoistic asshole racist right-wing nut back then.  I thought all those Japanese purchases were terrible, and that Congress should block them.  Then the Japanese economy blew up, and American investors bought most of them back at a discount.  I wouldn't be surprised if the same thing happened with the Chinese.

Visionary Self-Made Billionaire and Welfare Queen

The Streetwise Professor unloads on Elon Musk:
But my main issue with Musk was not about the stock price.  It was about the fact that all of his companies were heavily dependent on government subsidies and support.  This support socialized the potential losses, and allowed Musk (and other major investors, notably Goldman) to capture the upside.  My point was if his products and business models were so great, he could succeed on his own, by attracting private capital.....
SpaceX was  looking for a commercial launch site, and  seeking state subsidies in order to build it.  The company has been playing states off against one another, looking for tax benefits. My current home state, Texas, has been one of his targets.
Cynically, Musk focused on one of the poorest parts of the state-Brownsville-and dangled the prospect of a mere 600 jobs, in exchange for  $20 million dollars or so in tax benefits.  Some of which will come from the taxpayers of that very poor community.  And sadly, the state legislature has succumbed.....
The poorest people in Brownsville will not benefit the slightest from the SpaceX venture. But he and his lobbyist successfully importuned the state and county to take taxpayer money and give it to SpaceX by invoking their poverty. It was utterly cynical for a billionaire to extract tens of millions from Texas taxpayers in the name of the poor Mexican Americans of Brownsville.
I know this is the way the game is played. And that’s the problem: the game is cynical and wrong. It is mere rent seeking. Musk is particularly appalling because he is a rent seeker posing as a technological visionary. His businesses all depend on extracting rents from the government, which he pockets.
But he has a cult of personality that portrays him as some towering visionary genius.
Amen. If you scratch at the surface of many of our supposedly self-made elites, you'll find out they benefited enormously from public investment. But start talking about having a bit more of their fortune go toward investing in other people's potential and you'll usually hear a bunch of squealing. Taxpayer subsidies for corporations, especially when those businesses get states to bid against each other for a facility, are just handouts to shareholders, who are the people who least need government handouts. Agriculture subsidies are bad policy, but tax breaks for corporate expansion are ridiculous.

Goodbye Again, Chase Bank

Today I went in to close down my checking account at Chase Bank, since it's been over six months since I opened it, meaning the $200 cash bonus they paid me was now all mine.  I told the manager that I wanted to close it, and when he asked why, I told him that I'd only opened it to get that $200.  He pulled the account up and noted that the only activity in the account had been one deposit.  I explained that the one deposit wasn't mine, but the deposit of some guy in New York who was probably wondering where his money disappeared to.  That's right, I'm saying the $23.75 mistakenly deposited in my account, which I reported to Chase almost two weeks ago, was still in there.  He looked at the image of the deposited check and confirmed that it didn't belong there, then told me he'd call wherever in Hell they had to call to straighten it out, but warned me that they still might send me a check for $23.75 to close out the account if it didn't get worked out correctly.  I probably should have told him that in my experience Chase doesn't send out checks when money is left in an account, but instead they just wait a while and then take the leftover cash as fee income.  Oh well, I'm done with Chase for another six months, when I'll be eligible for another cash bonus.  Heck, it's worth messing with them just for blog material.

Why the Middle-Class is Struggling

The money that used to go to the middle class is going to the really rich:
For the last 15 years, an international consortium of economists has been building data bases on the income shares of the richest people in the developed countries, based on pre-tax market income including capital gains and tax-exempt income, and excluding government transfers. The American data reveals the greatest inequality by far, followed by Great Britain.
The stunning income distribution has a remarkable symmetry.  In 2012, the top 10 percent captured half of all reported income. But the top 1 percent got almost half of that — 22.5 percent — while the top 10th of 1 percent (0.1 percent) captured half of that. All three are within a few decimal places of the previous highs — which occurred in 1928, just before the market crash that ushered in the Great Depression.
The percentages don’t quite capture the violence of the skew.  The stock market implosion of the 1930s followed by World War II’s strict price controls and high marginal taxes brought the top 1 percent’s income share down to about 9 percent by the end of the war.  Executive and financial sector pay was quite restrained, even through the good times of the 1950s and 1960s, and the 1 percent’s income share did not start to rise until the late 1970s. It took off for the stratosphere then — amid the oceans of cash sloshing around Wall Street during the 1980s leveraged buyout boom.
The sums involved are enormous. The difference between the 1 percent’s income share in 1975 (8.9 percent) and today’s 22.5 percent is 13.6 percent. That additional share of personal income is worth $1.6 trillion. Each year.
What can you buy with $1.6 trillion? Well, it’s more than the annual outlays for Social Security payments, and about twice as large as Defense Department appropriations. It’s enough to pay off the federal debt held by the public in about seven years.
Is that money getting trickled-down?  Fuck no, it isn't.  Is it getting invested wisely?  Fuck no, it isn't.  Click through to that link.  That dude has made over a billion dollars a year several times, and he pays a lower tax rate than most middle-class families.  And he buys a $43 million house and tears it down to build a new one.  I believe these folks can pay much higher income taxes.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Ted Cruz is Democrats' Best Weapon

Dana Milbank talks about the fallout from Ted Cruz's insistence on a cloture vote for raising the debt ceiling.  Here is his description of the Republicans' scramble to find the votes:
But 15 minutes after the voting should have ended, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell had apparently secured only two of the five Republican votes he needed to join all 55 members of the Democratic caucus to pass the measure. He raised three fingers in the air and worked his way among his members but was met with folded arms and shakes of the head. Looking queasy, he patted his thigh nervously and drummed his fingers. In the hubbub, Sen. John Hoeven (R-N.D.) knocked a full glass of water and coaster from McConnell’s desk to the floor......
Watching the chaos from the side of the chamber was the man who caused it: Cruz, his hands in his pants pockets and a satisfied grin on his face. The Texas Republican strolled to the clerk’s table to check on the vote count and was met with a look of disgust from Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.). And the feeling was widespread: Moments after Cruz walked into the Republican cloakroom, four senators emerged from it and changed their votes to “aye.”

Cruz reemerged from the cloakroom, chewing gum, his hands again in his pockets. He smirked as his colleagues finally overcame his filibuster after a ­59-minute struggle.
Milbank goes on to describe how Cruz forced several key senators to cast "aye" votes that will be used against them by Tea Party challengers in the primary.  I can't figure out what Cruz's game is.  He is aligning himself as the leader of the moron caucus, and all I can figure is that he's trying to win the 2016 GOP presidential nomination by being the Tea Party candidate.  All the damage he's done to the party will cause the majority of his fellow office holders and the chamber of commerce types in the party to fight him tooth and nail to make sure he doesn't get the nomination, and he will seriously damage the electoral chances of whoever wins the nomination, including if he were to somehow win it.  I just don't see how this does any good, unless he's just looking to bail out of electoral politics and join Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh in the grifter caucus so he can collect money from the rubes.  Everything I've seen from him so far indicates that if he's planning on staying in electoral politics, he's one of the worst strategic planners the GOP has ever had, and that's saying something.

The Best of LANDSAT 8

Wired features photos from NASA's LANDSAT 8.  My favorite:

A large iceberg breaks off of Antarctica's Pine Island glacier in this image taken by Landsat 8 on Nov. 13, 2013. The berg was dubbed B-31 and was estimated to be 21 by 12 miles across. (More info and high resolution version)  HOLLI RIEBEEK, NASA/USGS
Just to put that in perspective, 21 by 12 miles across is half the size of my county, or over 160,000 acres.

Another one of my favorites here.


Stormscapes from Nicolaus Wegner on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Development of the Area Code

The Atlantic looks at how phone area codes became an identifier of who we are and where we are from.  I found the way AT&T engineers came up with the original area code system to be pretty interesting:
Engineers at Bell Labs designed the numbering scheme beginning in the early 1940s and working into the next decade. They took advantage, in that, of a supremely rare and an even more supremely geeky opportunity: to design a system, from scratch, that would ensure a maximum amount of efficiency for a maximum number of phone users. The area codes that lead our own phone numbers today—212, 202, 415—were direct results of their work.
They were also based on a particular type of hardware: rotary phones. To use those phones, you placed a finger in the hole of the number you intended to dial, then rotated the dial clockwise until you hit the phone's finger stop. What this translated to, as far as the phone was concerned, was a series of clicks. Lower numbers on the phone, starting with 1, registered a lower number of clicks than the higher ones. What this translated to for the human user was less time required for dialing.
The system Bell's engineers devised married the hardware of the rotary phone to the machines that would provide the infrastructure for the nation's expanding phone network. Computers, back then, were primitive. To ensure that area codes would be recognizable to the computers that were to translate the codes into geographical areas, the engineers created a system that placed either a 1 or a 0 as the second digit in each area code. (Those with 0 in the middle indicated states with only one area code—hence DC’s 202 and Florida’s 305—while those with a 1 denoted states with multiple codes.) The system meant that those early computers would be able to distinguish between a long-distance area code and a local number. Which meant in turn that they could route calls across the nation, to regions of the network and finally to local networks.

NASA Photo of the Day

February 11:

The Heart and Soul Nebulas
Image Credit & Copyright: Leonardo Orazi
Explanation: Is the heart and soul of our Galaxy located in Cassiopeia? Possibly not, but that is where two bright emission nebulas nicknamed Heart and Soul can be found. The Heart Nebula, officially dubbed IC 1805 and visible in the above zoomable view on the right, has a shape reminiscent of a classical heart symbol. Both nebulas shine brightly in the red light of energized hydrogen. Several young open clusters of stars populate the image and are visible above in blue, including the nebula centers. Light takes about 6,000 years to reach us from these nebulas, which together span roughly 300 light years. Studies of stars and clusters like those found in the Heart and Soul Nebulas have focussed on how massive stars form and how they affect their environment.

Is the F-35 Worth It?

Changing Jet Stream May Mean Weather Changes

New research suggests that the main system that helps determine the weather over Northern Europe and North America may be changing.
The study shows that the so-called jet stream has increasingly taken a longer, meandering path.
This has resulted in weather remaining the same for more prolonged periods.
The work was presented at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Chicago.
The observation could be as a result of the recent warming of the Arctic. Temperatures there have been rising two to three times faster than the rest of the globe.
According to Prof Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University in New Jersey: "This does seem to suggest that weather patterns are changing and people are noticing that the weather in their area is not what it used to be."
The meandering jet stream has accounted for the recent stormy weather over the UK and the bitter winter weather in the US Mid-West remaining longer than it otherwise would have.
"We can expect more of the same and we can expect it to happen more frequently," says Prof Francis
The jet stream, as its name suggests, is a high-speed air current in the atmosphere that brings with it the weather.
It is fuelled partly by the temperature differential between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes.
If the differential is large then the jet stream speeds up, and like a river flowing down a steep hill, it ploughs through any obstacles - such as areas of high pressure that might be in its way.
If the temperature differential reduces because of a warming Arctic then the jet stream weakens and, again, like a river on a flat bed, it will meander every time it comes across an obstacle.
This results in weather patterns tending to becoming stuck over areas for weeks on end. It also drives cold weather further south and warm weather further north. Examples of the latter are Alaska and parts of Scandinavia, which have had exceptionally warm conditions this winter.
That may mean longer cold spells, but also longer wet spells and droughts.  A jet stream shift might result in six weeks of wet weather in planting season, or drought for much of the summer.  In other words, it could lead to more frequent and more prolonged weather disasters for agriculture.

Why is Luge Faster than Skeleton?

Sled runners and aerodynamics:
Why is luge faster than skeleton? Two main reasons. First, it has to do with the materials of the respective runners, or the metallic bars attached to the underside of the sled. Skeleton racers ride downhill atop a set of tubular steel runners, which sort of look like they were yanked off of a stainless steel towel rack. The dullness of these runners helps to limit a skeleton racer’s speed. A luge sled, by contrast, rests atop a pair of razor-sharp steel blades that cut into the ice like a pair of skates. The sharp edges of the luge runners help make the luge sleds faster than their skeleton counterparts.
Another reason why luge is faster than skeleton? Luge racers assume a much more aerodynamic position than skeleton racers. In skeleton, you lie face-first on the sled and lead with your helmet. In case you haven’t seen one lately, helmets tend to be big and round. All of that surface area creates more drag, slowing the skeleton sled down. But luge racers lie on their backs and lead with their feet. Less surface area, less drag, faster sled. It’s basic science, people!
I guessed the aerodynamics, but I didn't realize the skeleton sleds used tubular runners.