Dec 31, 2011

Quite the instrument

Ok, I didn't get to the epic post. But this is still pretty awesome:

Dec 29, 2011

A trip to Belt Salvage

News is a bit light (plus I'm cooking up a whopper of a post for tomorrow, hopefully), so for now here are some pictures I took on a trip down to Belt Salvage with my dad for your consumption. It's a recycling and metal sale place that deals mostly in scrap metal; you can sell them your scrap copper, steel, or aluminum (plus some more, probably). This means they have some truly awesome piles of random scraps.

These two pictures are of some complex machine made by Mueller Martini of unknown function. A bit of googling makes me suspect it's a book-binder:

Our theory for this one was that it was some kind of reaction vessel for making industrial quantities of some chemical:

This crane, presumably functional, was in the "for sale" lot:

This looked like an old cannon, but on closer inspection it was really a lawn ornament—the inside of the barrel was made of rubber:

Here we have a giant pile of refrigerators. We were looking to scavenge a few of the feet that come on such appliances for a table my dad is making (more on this later this week):

Here's one of the scrap piles, with my dad on the lower left:

It was a lot of fun just wandering around and trying to guess the functionality of the more bizarre items.

Sunset over Cholla Bay

Dec 28, 2011

The Congo mineral embargo

David Aronson compares it to a hypothetical pharmaceutical:
Imagine that your stated goal is to help patients suffering from a terrible, debilitating disease. And imagine that a new drug comes along that promises to alleviate many of the worst symptoms of this disease, and that you launch a blitzkrieg campaign to persuade the relevant decision-makers to put the drug on the fast track for approval.

Now imagine that reports start filtering in from clinics where patients are being treated experimentally with the drug. The reports, at best, are mixed. At worst, they suggest that the drug may be truly harmful.

What do you do?

Do you redouble your efforts to get the drug approved? Mobilize the public to lobby elected officials by emphasizing the horrors of the disease and demanding that the government take action? Blame sensationalist media for playing up negative reports? Dismiss them as "temporary setbacks" or "inevitable side-effects"? Do you hold conferences in prestigious venues where only one side of the issue gets discussed? Plant stories in friendly media casting dissenting voices as corporate shills rather than patient-advocates? Cherry pick a couple of patients to act as spokesmen? And if all else fails, rely on that old standby, that the drug was never meant to be a "panacea"?

Or do you take a step back and revisit the research? Do you spend a little bit of the money you have on hand to make sure that you've got it right? Hire a few of the top specialists to conduct an independent evaluation? Make sure that you aren't breaking the physician's first commandment--to do no harm?
The idea here is that the "conflict mineral" campaign which was a part of the Dodd-Frank legislation is completely ineffective and in fact hurting the very people it was meant to protect. I'm not well-versed in the Congo, but Aronson has made a fairly persuasive case. Anyone else care to weigh in? *cough* Becca *cough*

Dec 27, 2011

My gift to you

Since I can't afford gifts for all my loyal readers (or anyone, come to think of it), I present to you some pictures. I was going through some of my sister's pictures from back in the day and found some atrocious ones of me circa 2004, back before all my hair fell out. I was a college freshman then. Here's me as a wannabe war photographer with a 10-buck camera.

Here's me doing my best "jaunty."

This one might be my favorite. Boy looks into the future!

Hard to believe that was seven years ago, and that I have only gotten more embarrassingly hideous since then. This life stuff doesn't let up.

Collected links

1. It's always obnoxious when big-time organizations steal journalism without attribution.

2. Medical science seems to have hit a wall.

3. How big media companies are actually the ones guilty of content theft.

4. Louis CK's internet experiment has gone well.

5. Some technical details on how SOPA breaks the internet.

Dec 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I hope everyone has a good holiday season. Tomorrow I'll be driving back stateside, and assuming we don't get renditioned by the border patrol or something I'll be back in Colorado tomorrow.

UPDATE: This reminds me of one of my favorite impersonations:

Dec 23, 2011

Merry Christmas!

I'm going down to Mexico for a couple days. See you on Monday!

Dec 21, 2011

Please, no more goddamn wars

Larison points to a Chronicles article that makes the case:
Instead of plotting a military action against Iran with no clear exit strategy at a prohibitive cost to our core interests, Washington would be well advised to prepare a strategy for dealing with Iran as a nuclear power. Deterring and containing Iran would be easier than deterring and containing the Soviets 50 years ago. The country’s regime, admittedly unpleasant, is neither suicidal nor tainted by the blood of untold millions, as the two communist nuclear powers were. If the Iranian government considers itself threatened by the United States, the solution is to try bilateral diplomacy based on an offer of U.S. security guarantees to Iran in return for a rigorous supervision regime and a formal pledge that Iran refrain from developing nuclear weapons. The Obama administration should make a direct approach to Tehran. A reasonable agreement would also allow Iran to enrich uranium to the extent needed for power generation and accept Iran’s right to the enrichment technology, so long as she agrees to subject her entire nuclear program to international oversight.
I can't believe we're having this conversation. But nevertheless it remains true that probably the best reason to vote Obama in 2012 is that he will be marginally less idiotic on this issue. Still a cold-blooded killer to be sure, but not the staring, glassy-eyed lunatic that the GOP primary will likely vomit up.

Dec 19, 2011

Hitchens and booze

Katha Pollitt, a colleague of his at the Nation, says what I would have suspected:
So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns). Drinking didn’t make him a better writer either—that’s another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don’t track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliché: that was the booze talking. And so, I’m betting, were the cruder manifestations of his famously pugilistic nature: as F Scott Fitzgerald said of his own alcoholism: “When drunk I make them all pay and pay and pay.”
No shortcuts to good writing on the booze track. I am (somewhat famously among my friends) terrible at holding my liquor; I've never been able to take even a small, mass-adjusted fraction of what some others I know can put away. But I wonder if in the long run that will turn out for the best.

Portland as a model for the world

Biking And Health
Created by: Healthcare Management Degree

Dec 17, 2011

Does the new defense bill apply to American citizens?

I said it did earlier, but Adam Serwer at Mother Jones says it doesn't:
So it's simply not true, as the Guardian wrote yesterday, that the the bill "allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay." When the New York Times editorial page writes that the bill would "strip the F.B.I., federal prosecutors and federal courts of all or most of their power to arrest and prosecute terrorists and hand it off to the military," or that the "legislation could also give future presidents the authority to throw American citizens into prison for life without charges or a trial," they're simply wrong.
Glenn Greenwald disagrees:
Myth #3: U.S. citizens are exempted from this new bill

This is simply false, at least when expressed so definitively and without caveats. The bill is purposely muddled on this issue which is what is enabling the falsehood.
He goes on at length. Obviously, I'm quite unqualified to judge who is right, though Greenwald does provide a lot more detail. More broadly, the question of truth in law these days seems mostly a partisan football. Regardless of who is right between Serwer and Greenwald, any president could find a Jon Yoo-style lapdog to give his professional opinion that the statue says whatever he commands it to say.

If the President has the power to assassinate American citizens on his word alone, locking them up forever doesn't seem like much of a stretch.

Dec 16, 2011

Star scale guide

This is the best demonstration of the scale of astronomical objects I've ever seen.

One more example of the difficulty of really grasping the scale of human insignificance.

Eurodoom watch

Tyler Cowen and Kevin Drum join the chorus calling for breakup. Yglesias adds:
If I were an elected official, I'd be extremely reluctant to pull the plug on this endeavor even though it was misguided from the start and isn't functioning in practice. But I'd be leaping at the opportunity to be the second prime minister to bail on the whole thing if someone else went first.
Who will take that bullet? Anyone want to start a pool? Greece is the obvious choice, but they still seem quite committed, sort of how the smaller, poorer countries are still joining up, despite the obvious sucking chest wound the Euro has inflicted on nearly everyone in it. It might take a bolder, more confident state, or perhaps one with a great history but not-so-great present. Spain? Italy?


Hitchens links

The internet is alight with tributes to the cranky bastard. Here are some of my favorites of his:

1. The moral and aesthetic nightmare of Christmas.

2. On the death of Jesse Helms: Farewell to a Provincial Redneck.

3. A savage takedown on the death of Jerry Falwell.

4. A far kinder obituary of Hunter S. Thompson.

5. Mother Teresa: a fanatic, a fundamentalist, and a fraud.

6. Perhaps my favorite: against taboos.

UPDATE: On the other hand, it's important not to forget even Hitch could be staggeringly full of shit.

UPDATE II: Gawker and Greenwald pile on. Also see this amazingly boneheaded article, titled "In Defense of Endless War." And the man called himself a fan of Orwell??

RIP Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

Here's him talking about George Orwell and writing:

And here's a sample of his devastating wit:

Dec 15, 2011

The Iraq war is over (not really)

Jonathan Bernstein strains mightily for optimism:
And, as it turns out, the decision to leave casts quite a bit of light on how Madisonian democracy works in the US, both for good and for bad. It’s a story in which the ocean liner metaphor people use was absolutely apt. It took a whole lot of pushing, but this certainly appears to be the case in which citizen action, working through a political party, ended a war.
I suppose this is basically true, but to me it really emphasizes how much the American system of government sucks. After Bush lied us into war, which ignited a disastrous bloody catastrophe in which thousands of American soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians died to no benefit whatsoever, we finally get to end the damn thing nearly nine years in—three years into a Democratic presidency.

Bernstein seems to think this means the system is working. I'd say it means the system is close to failure, and we are increasingly incapable of confronting even the most obvious challenges. If we take nine years to end a crisis of that magnitude, imagine what other, slightly less-visible calamities are slowly building to a boil. It's no mystery to me why we need $2 trillion in infrastructure spending right now and aren't going to get it.

Statistics of the day

About 97.3 million Americans fall into a low-income category, commonly defined as those earning between 100 and 199 percent of the poverty level, based on a new supplemental measure by the Census Bureau that is designed to provide a fuller picture of poverty. Together with the 49.1 million who fall below the poverty line and are counted as poor, they number 146.4 million, or 48 percent of the U.S. population. That's up by 4 million from 2009, the earliest numbers for the newly developed poverty measure.
As Atrios says:
We're basically in an extraction economy right now, where the real money is in finding points to siphon off all of the income that people generate. Unregulated utility monopolies, rapacious health insurance companies and the medical industry generally, and of course Big Finance, are all devoted to increasing the slice of your life that they can steal from you, fair and square.
We're witnessing the return of the robber barons.

"There is no such thing as law, there is only power"

So indefinite detention will become part of US law shortly. Glenn Greenwald provides the background at length here. Andrew sums up:
This soon-to-be-legislated power will also apply to American civilians. It is a legal and indefinite abolition of habeas corpus. And you will find every so-called liberty-lover in the GOP (with Ron Paul as the exception) rushing to vote for it
Greenwald (video above) made the quite true and and relevant point that this is not quite as horrible as it sounds in that it is not new—Obama, like Bush before him, has been claiming this power for years already. But this is still a new step. Most people do not pay attention to the legal arcana that is Greenwald's bread and butter. This total and codified disintegration of the rule of law in this country is now an agreed-upon fact.

Reading up on some Orwell, I came across this passage in "The Lion and the Unicorn," an essay about English culture:
It is not that anyone imagines the law to be just. Everyone knows that there is one law for the rich and another for the poor. But no one accepts the implications of this, everyone takes it for granted that the law, such as it is, will be respected, and feels a sense of outrage when it is not. Remarks like ‘They can’t run me in; I haven’t done anything wrong’, or ’They can’t do that; it’s against the law’, are part of the atmosphere of England...Everyone believes in his heart that the law can be, ought to be, and, on the whole, will be impartially administered. The totalitarian idea that there is no such thing as law, there is only power, has never taken root. Even the intelligentsia have only accepted it in theory.

An illusion can become a half-truth, a mask can alter the expression of a face. The familiar arguments to the effect that democracy is ‘just the same as’ or ‘just as bad as’ totalitarianism never take account of this fact. All such arguments boil down to saying that half a loaf is the same as no bread. In England such concepts as justice, liberty and objective truth are still believed in. They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions. The belief in them influences conduct, national life is different because of them. In proof of which, look about you. Where are the rubber truncheons, where is the castor oil? The sword is still in the scabbard, and while it stays there corruption cannot go beyond a certain point.
Emphasis mine. I felt almost sick reading that this morning. We are now a nation of naked power worship, and the corruption can now go very far indeed.

Dec 14, 2011

It's a hard world for women, even in the US

Dear god:
Nearly one in five women surveyed said they had been raped or had experienced an attempted rape at some point, and one in four reported being beaten by an intimate partner. One in six women have been stalked, according to the report.
Easy for most guys to overlook, I suspect. There is a long ways yet to go to civilize men.

Political decay watch

It's that time again! Read, if you dare, this Byzantine account of the fight to avoid blame for yet another government shutdown. The system is traveling mostly on inertia. One day some nutter is going push this over the edge.

Collected links

1. Need a quick way to make $100? I wouldn't do this for $10,000. And that is saying a lot.

2. The austerity fixation is killing Europe.

3. A crackdown on illegal immigration is snaring American citizens. People are being sent to jail illegally for days (perhaps by illegal police?). Imagine what is happening to the actual undocumented workers.

4. Best space pictures of 2011.

5. The next Eurozone crisis, coming to an economy near you in time for Christmas.

Dec 13, 2011

Lightspeed camera?!

Via Scientific American, some scientists have developed a camera that is so fast it can record the progress of photons. Check it out:

Unbelievably cool.

Department of WTF, ex-con bureau

Guess who's started a career as a crusading anti-corruption activist? Jack Abramoff. No, really. He's judging TPM's "Golden Dukes" competition for the worst (or best?) in Washington corruption, and he wrote a book about his life as a corrupt lobbyist.

At first I thought, jeez, that's kind of greasy. But then I reconsidered: shoot, the man did his time. That's more than the vast majority of Washington and Wall Street's panoply of criminals. Prison is not fun by any stretch of the imagination. If he wants to make a career profiting on the promotion of a pretty good cause, I say more power to him. I hope he discovers that working for something genuinely worthwhile can bring benefits no pile of cash, no matter how big, can match. Now let's see him come out for prison reform!

A new Tunisian president takes power

A new president was just inaugurated in Tunisia:
Rights activist and former opposition leader Moncef Marzouki became Tunisia's first elected president since the revolution.

"I am proud to carry the most precious of responsibilities, that of being the guarantor of the people, the state and the revolution," said the 66-year-old Marzouki on Monday, wearing his trademark oversize glasses and his usual grey suit with white shirt and no tie.

Marzouki was elected with 153 votes in the 217-member constituent assembly, with three of the 202 deputies present voting against, two abstaining and 44 opposition members casting blank ballots.
The election seems to have gone off quite well. Now comes the real challenge. Overthrowing an oppressive regime is often the easy part. While it can be terribly bloody to face down a dictator, it's relatively easy to maintain focus. The goals are easy to understand and widely supported.

Let me be clear: I am in no way diminishing the courage or the achievements of the Tunisian opposition. They have done a very great thing. But instituting a democracy on the bones of a dictatorship is a tough proposition. The democratic norms are weak among the political class. The incoming administration has little governing experience, and usually has tremendous credibility from their work overthrowing the oppressors. If they make mistakes leading to a loss of popularity, they can be tempted to leverage large majorities in the assembly to consolidate a new oppressive regime. This is basically what happened to countries all across Africa after the end of colonialism. Ghana, Zaire, Zimbabwe, Tanzania, Uganda, Ivory Coast and others, all fell into close to the same trap.

On the other hand, the atmosphere for democratic institutions is far better than it was back in the 50s and 60s. The Soviet Union's manifest failure means that Tunisia is far less likely to try disastrous socialist experiments. The internet (assuming the US government doesn't break it first) makes organizing and transparency easier. Many of the previously mentioned African countries (like Ghana) have since rebounded, so the new government can learn from their mistakes and their successes. For even more positive examples, there's always tiny Botswana, one of my favorite countries, which managed to successfully transition from colonialism to a representative democracy. "Washington Consensus" capitalism has been badly discredited; the government is less likely to try revolutionary Thatcherite mass privatizations right out of the gate.

The critical issue will be if the populace remains watchful of the government. If the leaders feel pressure to provide for their citizens, then things have a good chance of working out. So far I remain hopeful.

Note: expanded and clarified.

Happy 1111 posts!

Here's some Onion pop music commentary to celebrate. To be clear, I actually like some pop stars today, but this is still funny:

Pop Star's Single, 'Booty Wave', Most Likely Civilization's Downfall

Dec 12, 2011

The Gingrich Tax Plan

Yglesias points to the new Tax Policy Center report on Newt's tax plan, and provides some handy graphs. He missed the obvious thing though, which is to give it the treatment CBPP gave to Herman Cain's plan.

UPDATE II: The y-axis is dollars of tax cuts under the Gingrich plan. Bad science major!

UPDATE: Though I did spend about 12 seconds on Excel making this thing, obviously feel free to spread it far and wide. It did take me far, far longer to figure out how to make the picture appear full resolution. Blogger kept resizing it to an unreadable degree, as did Flickr and Photobucket. Finally Imageshack did the trick. They've got an option there to upload full whack, without any alterations, and then an embed function. Good to remember!

Department of WTF, the GOP id bureau

You can't make this shit up:
An anti-gay Alabama Republican was reportedly making secret sperm donations to at least nine New Zealand women he met over the internet, unbeknownst to his wife back in America...

Johnson has spent much of the last year in Christchurch, where he moved without his wife and her three kids (from a previous marriage), in order to help the country’s recovery from the February earthquake.

All the while Johnson was reportedly trolling the internet under the username “chchbill” for women who needed help getting pregnant. He reportedly had exchanges with at least nine women — among them several lesbians — at least three of whom are now pregnant.
I'm reminded of the second panel of this old Tom Tomorrow:

UPDATE: If you like that comic, check out the Daily Kos comics page, and the Tom Tomorrow merchandise site! I imagine it's tough to be a cartoonist these days; they need all the help they can get.

Dec 11, 2011

Greenwald bait

The case that established the "state secrets" doctrine was United States vs. Reynolds. After an Air Force plane crashed, the widows of the men who died on the plane sued the government to find out facts about the crash, and the government refused, claiming that those documents would reveal super-important secret information that would compromise national security.

The government was lying. It turns out that there was no information that would damage national security. As a cynic might have predicted, the documents did contain a lot of embarrassing details about the crappy condition of the plane.

Now fast forward to present day. The background to this story: awhile back the government seized a hip-hop blog and put up a big banner on its site accusing it of being a criminal enterprise:
Okay, now some details. First, remember It was one of the sites seized over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend back in 2010 -- a little over a year ago. Those seizures struck us as particularly interesting, because among the sites seized were a bunch of hip hop blogs, including a few that were highly ranked on Vibe's list of the top hip hop blogs. These weren't the kinds of things anyone would expect, when supporters of these domain seizures and laws like SOPA and PROTECT IP talk of "rogue sites." Blogs would have lots of protected speech, and in the hip hop community these blogs, in particular, were like the new radio. Artists routinely leaked their works directly to these sites in order to promote their albums. We even pointed to a few cases of stars like Kanye West and Diddy tweeting links to some of the seized domains in the past...

The Dajaz1 case became particularly interesting to us, after we saw evidence showing that the songs that ICE used in its affidavit as "evidence" of criminal copyright infringement were songs sent by representatives of the copyright holder with the request that the site publicize the works -- in one case, even coming from a VP at a major music label. Even worse, about the only evidence that ICE had that these songs were infringing was the word of the "VP of Anti-Piracy Legal Affairs for the RIAA," Carlos Linares, who was simply not in a position to know if the songs were infringing or authorized. In fact, one of the songs involved an artist not even represented by an RIAA label, and Linares clearly had absolutely no right to speak on behalf of that artist.

Despite all of this, the government simply seized the domain, put up a big scary warning graphic on the site, suggesting its operators were criminals, and then refused to comment at all about the case. Defenders of the seizures insisted that this was all perfectly legal and nothing to be worried about. They promised us that the government had every right to do this and plenty of additional evidence to back up its claims. They promised us that the government would allow for plenty of due process within a reasonable amount of time. They also insisted that, after hearing nothing happening in the case for many months, it meant that no attempt to object to the seizure had occurred. Turns out... none of that was true.
As in Reynolds, when the government commits an outrageous, unforgivable screwup, making hell out the lives of dozens of innocent people, what do they do? Hide behind secrecy:
Then, the deadline for the government to file for forfeiture came and went and nothing apparently happened. Absolutely nothing. Bridges contacted the government to ask what was going on, and was told that the government had received an extension from the court. Bridges, quite reasonably, asked how that was possible without him, as counsel for the site, being informed of it or given a chance to make the case for why such an extension was improper.

He also asked for a copy of the the court's order allowing the extension. The government told him no and that the extension was filed under seal and could not be released, even in redacted form.

He asked for the motion papers asking for the extension. The government told him no and that the papers were filed under seal and could not be released, even in redacted form.

He again asked whether he would be notified about further filings for extensions. The government told him no.

He then asked the US attorney to inform the court that, if the government made another request for an extension, the domain owner opposed the extension and would like the opportunity to be heard. The government would not agree.

And file further extensions the government did. Repeatedly. Or, at least that's what Bridges was told. He sent someone to investigate the docket at the court, but the docket itself was secret, meaning there was no record of any of this available.
If the government, or the government taking orders from large corporations, has unaccountable power, they will abuse it. It has always been thus. That's what makes SOPA and PROTECT IP so troubling.

Dec 10, 2011

What is the point of the European Union, anyway?

David Cameron's vetoing a new EU treaty seems to me obviously the right decision, even if he cloaked it in some rather bullshitty reasons about a financial transactions tax. The real reason, as Sullivan points out, is that the British people would have certainly rejected this treaty and his government would have collapsed like a flan in a cupboard. Cameron has been catching hell for this, as it apparently "isolates" Britain.

Suppose for the sake of argument that Britain is now isolated from the decision-making powers in Europe. My question: so what? I am increasingly skeptical about the whole rationale for the whole European project. People often talk about a possible "United States of Europe" as if the American version were a self-evidently good thing. America is certainly among the worst-governed countries in the developed world, suffering galloping political decay, and it's not at all obvious to me that it will survive intact even into the medium term. We barely made it through the debt ceiling debacle; imagine what President Gingrich will do to the place.

I don't think it's a coincidence that the best-governed countries around the world, like Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Holland, Singapore, etc., are all small- to medium-sized. Countries like that are big enough to be able to fund reasonable infrastructure and defend themselves, but small enough that their governance problems are surmountable, and perhaps most importantly, weak enough that they aren't tempted to traipse around the globe and engage in boneheaded meddling.

I think what people forget when they talk about the need for unifying Europe, especially looking back at WWII, is that Hitler was fundamentally a product of horrible economic collapse. These days if countries are fat, content, and prosperous, the chances of great power wars are zero. Nuclear weapons plus development = peace. It's akin to airline security. There is one development that has increased security aboard airlines, and that is the expectation that the passengers will fight any hijacker. Yet governments feel a need to impose a bunch of totally ineffective rules and a bloated agency over the top so they can say they've "done something" about the problem.

Is it so crazy to think that countries should just focus on their own homes and try to provide a good life for their own citizens, instead of jockeying for position in loopy supranational entities run run by lunatics? To my eye "influence" in Europe plus $1.50 will get you a cup of coffee, plus your very own lounge chair on the Hindenburg.

Weekend links

1. This twisted story on a Vegas real estate scam has to be read to be believed.

2. I didn't know I was psychic!

3. I might be surviving on Ramen noodles, but it still warms my heart to know that crazy old rich people can still give gigantic fortunes to their pets.

4. How doctors die. Worth considering.

5. The history of the world's most influential operating system.

UPDATE: More links!

6. How to beat a tantrum.

7. Another view from the dystopian future.

8. The only way to save the Euro is to destroy the EU.

9. The jet packs are here!

10. Defeating planned obsolescence: a new product will let you sharpen your disposable razors.

11. The Senate is, unsurprisingly, trying to crush innovation in wireless connectivity. More innovation = more competition = less profits for large, established players.

Dec 9, 2011

We don't need no water

The Eurodämmerung seems to be continuing apace:
Angela Merkel wants to use the EU institutions to police government budgets and financial rules. David Cameron had the idea of using the fact that Merkel would need his support to get that done as leverage to get her to agree to water down ideas about a financial transaction tax. Merkel didn't back down, and Cameron didn't back down either. So now Merkel's plan seems scuttled, which I think is exactly what I would have done if I were Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. But the rules of British politics seem to be that you must subject the PM to withering criticism any time anything newsworthy happens, so they seem to be going with the line that Cameron erred in letting Britain become "isolated" when defter manoevering would, allegedly, have gotten him a feisty coalition of Swedes and Hungarians to stand at his side.
Felix Salmon adds:
It all adds up to one of the most disastrous summits imaginable. A continent which has risen to multiple occasions over the past 66 years has, in 2011, decided to implode in a spectacle of pathetic ignominy. Its individual countries will survive, of course, albeit in unnecessarily straitened circumstances. But the dream of European unity is dissolving in real time, as the eyes of the world look on in disbelief.
I am getting increasingly cavalier about this whole thing. Bugger European unity, the cure is making the disease worse. Here's a chart of the "Taylor rule," which is a rule of thumb about how a central bank should manage its monetary policy. (Taken from this great round-up by Kevin Drum, which is more thorough but comes to the same conclusion.)

It's clear that, as various Euroskeptics predicted, the Eurozone is an insane currency area that has never worked and will never work. The ECB demands austerity for backstopping sovereign debt, solving the immediate crisis, but that will just make the underlying problems worse. Ezra Klein:
But the truth is, Europe can have all that and still fail because the crisis has another powerful driver: slow growth. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projects that, continent-wide, Europe will grow 0.6 percent in 2012 and 1.7 percent in 2013. Remove the strong performers like Germany and the Netherlands and it’s quickly apparent that the growth prospects for the others are grim.
The masses across the periphery won't take this forever. Sullivan:
So what we've got is a plan for serious austerity, enforced by Brussels and destined to pummel the economies of the peripheral countries even further. So forget the British veto, the real threat to the EU is that, at some point, the peripheral countries risk becoming less autonomous within the EU than the individual states are within the US, during what could become the worst depression since the 1930s. If you don't see future strife built into that formula, you are a more optimistic reader of history than I am.

We already have Germans dictating government fiscal policy in Athens and, to a lesser extent, Italy. Neither country has a democratically elected government. And so we see that Europe risks degenerating into a Franco-German bully zone, and in an era where democracy is resurgent in the Middle East, it is retreating in Europe. Does anyone think this is feasible in the long run? That the publics in countries whose economies are being effectively run by Berlin won't buckle at some point - especially if the core problem of an imminent new depression remains likely.
I think most European countries would be reasonably happy as long as they have a chance of growth and the various states aren't organizing to murder each other. The Euro's time has come. Time to rip off the band-aid.

The magic of the internet and why media companies want to kill it

Imagine a 16-year-old dude from France loves music and wants to make a career as an electronic musician. Imagine furthermore he remixes a Killers song, posts it on YouTube, and catches the eye of some industry players. He becomes a successful DJ, still only 17. He releases a mashup taking bits from dozens of different songs and weaving them into a new whole.

Now imagine someone else uses that song as background for an awesome dance video. Suppose for the sake of argument that someone is a balding math professorish dude with a predilection for backflips:

Would that not be the very height of awesome? Who is being harmed in this process? The playing field is more level; music and performance is democratized such that nearly anyone has a reasonable shot of getting their work out there. For all its flaws the internet is sometimes truly amazing.

The "anti-piracy" bill before Congress would make nearly all of the above process illegal. That is on purpose. Media companies want the only content out there to be the things on which they control monopoly rents. There was once a copyright bill (the Eldred Act) which would have granted basically infinite rights to anyone who was willing to pay a dollar to maintain their copyright, but released into the public domain the literally millions of works whose copyrights are fifty years old and for which there is no one willing to pay a dollar.

Media companies killed that bill. Why? Lawrence Lessig, Free Culture:
But when the copyright owners oppose a proposal such as the Eldred Act, then, finally, there is an example that lays bare the naked self-interest driving this war. This act would free an extraordinary range of content that is otherwise unused. It wouldn’t interfere with any copyright owner’s desire to exercise continued control over his content. It would simply liberate what Kevin Kelly calls the “Dark Content” that fills archives around the world. So when the warriors oppose a change like this, we should ask one simple question:

What does this industry really want?

With very little effort, the warriors could protect their content. So the effort to block something like the Eldred Act is not really about protecting their content. The effort to block the Eldred Act is an effort to assure that nothing more passes into the public domain. It is another step to assure that the public domain will never compete, that there will be no use of content that is not commercially controlled, and that there will be no commercial use of content that doesn’t require their permission first.

The opposition to the Eldred Act reveals how extreme the other side is. The most powerful and sexy and well loved of lobbies really has as its aim not the protection of “property” but the rejection of a tradition. Their aim is not simply to protect what is theirs. Their aim is to assure that all there is is what is theirs.

It is not hard to understand why the warriors take this view. It is not hard to see why it would benefit them if the competition of the public domain tied to the Internet could somehow be quashed. Just as RCA feared the competition of FM, they fear the competition of a public domain connected to a public that now has the means to create with it and to share its own creation.

Dec 8, 2011

Humanity suicide watch

Dave Roberts brings the doom:
In my last post, I discussed a new peer-reviewed paper by climate scientists Kevin Anderson and Alice Bows. It paints a grim picture:
-The commonly accepted threshold of climate "safety," 2 degrees C [3.6 degrees F] temperature rise over pre-industrial levels, is now properly considered extremely dangerous;
-even 2 degrees C is drifting out of reach, absent efforts of a scale and speed beyond anything currently proposed;
-our current trajectory is leading us toward 4 or 6 (or 8 or 10) degrees C, which we now know to be a potentially civilization-threatening disaster.
Like I said, go ahead and pour yourself a stiff drink.
He sets a deadline of 2015 as the point at which rich countries must start decreasing their emissions. I sure hope that we will get our collective act together, but if I had to guess, I'd say that not only are we not going to make that emissions target, we're going to accelerate past it.

The only thing that might save us is a giant global recession. Hey, it did the trick last time.

UPDATE: William deBuys has a new book out on this topic:
The Age of Thirst in the American West
Coming to a Theater Near You: The Greatest Water Crisis in the History of Civilization
By William deBuys

Consider it a taste of the future: the fire, smoke, drought, dust, and heat that have made life unpleasant, if not dangerous, from Louisiana to Los Angeles. New records tell the tale: biggest wildfire ever recorded in Arizona (538,049 acres), biggest fire ever in New Mexico (156,600 acres), all-time worst fire year in Texas history (3,697,000 acres).

The fires were a function of drought. As of summer’s end, 2011 was the driest year in 117 years of record keeping for New Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana, and the second driest for Oklahoma. Those fires also resulted from record heat. It was the hottest summer ever recorded for New Mexico, Texas, Oklahoma, and Louisiana, as well as the hottest August ever for those states, plus Arizona and Colorado.

Dec 7, 2011

Intern jams

I was doing by far the most difficult fact check I've ever done today, digging around in various corners of the internet looking for facts about Colombia, and stretching my Spanish to the limit. Here's a sample of what I was jamming to:

A luxurious but intense feel.

UPDATE: This reminded me of a couple articles from the NYT not long ago, one on Kaskade and one on Deadmau5 and Skrillex. The second is a bit hard on Deadmau5 for being musically dull at his shows; I can't speak to that, having never been to one. I can imagine that this might not play that well at an arena, perhaps more headphones music.

But I still think it's great.

The raindrops had it coming

My umbrella bit the big one awhile back, so I picked up one of these online the other day:

I get some funny looks on the metro, but it's totally worth it.

Dec 5, 2011

Self-promotion watch

I haven't had much time to write recently—it's getting close to issue time and I've been fact checking like a beast. I was pleased to notice Tyler Cowen pulled out a comment of mine, though:
Thinking in the short term, obviously the solution involving the least collective misery for everyone is for Germany to bite the bullet and backstop the whole continent’s debt in one way or another. But just past the immediate crisis I don’t see any reason for optimism. If recession really does hit, how are the SPIIG crowd going to get out of the “debt -> austerity -> crap growth -> more debt (or at least not much extra money to pay down the principal) -> more austerity” cycle? It seems like a 1918-style suicide pact.
The SPIIG governments have to be weighing the costs of cutting their losses and getting out. (Right?) People seem to agree that would be another devastating financial crisis, and thinking selfishly that would be bad, but if I were Spain and it’s a choice between 2-3 years of total chaos and 20-30 years of grinding hopeless misery, I think I’d go with the first option.