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27.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Going out of business sale Permalink to this item

Graph of the subscription price for the Idaho Statesman

The last time our local daily gave us reason to communicate with them was for the newspaper equivalent of "same price but new, smaller container!" you've been seeing at the grocery store. Their "business model" had changed, don't you know, and they were now charging for their "24-7"ness whether or not they delivered. Literally. It ended with the invitation:

"If you have additional questions, please let us know."

Now with the letter from the "Sales Manger" (literally) that they're raising prices for the second time in well less than a year, two salient questions occur to me. First, do I want to go along with this, or call it a day?

Second, in regard to what looks for all the world like "death spiral pricing," I'm wondering how long they think they're going to stay in business. Daily papers have been part of my life since well before my reading level made all the content accessible. (My first paying job was recycling newspapers.) We can afford $5.80 per week (before tax). But the annual rate of increase is many times the rate of inflation, and contemplating an 18.6% price increase after a 15% increase last fall, and a 12% increase the winter before gives me serious pause.

26.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Sacred tenants Permalink to this item

There is a persistent error in thinking about liberals that "tolerance" is considered an absolute virtue, a good unto itself. I would say that that is not so; tolerance is valued to the extent that there is reciprocity, and in the absence of demonstrated transgression.

An organization called "Operation Save America" provided an outrageous example of inappropriate, intolerant and (to put it in terms they could understand, if only they were listening) sinful behavior. First of all, to imagine that one knows the mind of God so well that one can invade another's worship service, and interrupt something solemn is outrageous. Their own account of what they did last Sunday drips with sarcastic quotation marks, on "church" and "social justice," "pastor" (a woman, just imagine), on "meditation" and even on their own ridiculous sociopathy, "dynamic witness."

"Other saints stayed and dialoged until the conclusion of the service. It created no small stir. The 'social justice' candidates ran to the Christians and asked them many questions. Our brethren gave them the reason for the hope that lies within them and defended the faith. Seeds of truth were sown. may the Lord water them in Jesus’ name."

Saints, really? To arrogate intepreting the mind of God, truth, and holiness takes sanctimony to a new level.

Just as common decency cannot be assumed from all parties, "peace and tolerance" are neither sacred tenets, nor "sacred tenants" (as they put it), and yes, your people will be "summarily escorted out of the service" if you they cannot behave as civilized human beings.

One of the UUs on the receiving end of OSA's "witness," Bart Frost, styled them as religious terrorists. I can understand that from someone who experienced what he did, but from a cooler distance, I wouldn't elevate their miscreant behavior to that level. Call them misguided sociopaths, and don't aggrandize their mission.

Rev. Deanna Vandiver offered a more generous response than OSA deserves; essentially, they could stay if they could behave themselves. But they could not.

Right Wing Watch reported that the mayor of New Orleans went so far as to issue a perfunctory and unconsidered "certificate of recognition" to the marauding visitors, a "routine" courtesy for "visiting non-profits, faith-based organizations and conventions that request" such a thing. I couldn't say it better than the son of OSA leader Flip Benham:

"In a posting on Facebook about the mayor’s proclamation, David Benham ommented: "Are you serious? This is real?"

About as real as your connection to the Truth and the Gospel, perhaps.

25.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

On the internet, everyone knows you're a dog Permalink to this item

I've been writing about web tracking technology since Philip Greenspun explained it to me. Avoiding what others want to do "for" or to you is a Sisyphean task, and end users are on the wrong end of an endless technological arms race. Still, when I heard the piece on NPR's Science Friday about virtually unblockable tracking technology called "Canvas," I made a mental note to check out the story from ProPublica. I haven't been to YouPorn, but I have visted WhiteHouse.gov (although by now, it's a computer or two ago), two of the 5 percent of the top 100,000 sites that are said to be using it.

The folks behind Canvas, AddThis, say they're looking for a replacement for cookies (which, actually, work just fine for what they're intended, and for tracking, but they provide relatively direct means for users to opt themselves out, or for sites to offer the means for user opt-out. Indeed, AddThis has cookie-based opt-out, and I highly recommend you go do it, even if, as ProPublica warns, "fingerprint will likely still be collected, companies simply pledge not to use the data for ad targeting or personalization").

Unless you like the Kool-aid flavored with "We believe that delivering targeted and relevant advertising enhances your Internet experience" and don't understand that "non-personally identifiable information" leaves dots that can and will be connected. Indeed, there's now a term of art for connecting the dots, as the Electronic Privacy Information Center explains: Re-identification.

"Re-identification is the process by which anonymized personal data is matched with its true owner. In order to protect the privacy interests of consumers, personal identifiers, such as name and social security number, are often removed from databases containing sensitive information. This anonymized, or de-identified, data safeguards the privacy of consumers while still making useful information available to marketers or datamining companies. Recently, however, computer scientists have revealed that this 'anonymized' data can easily be re-identified, such that the sensitive information may be linked back to an individual. The re-identification process implicates privacy rights, because organizations will say that privacy obligations do not apply to information that is anonymized, but if the data is in fact personally identifiable, then privacy obligations should apply."

24.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Metadata Permalink to this item

In the opening for his latest op-ed, Nicholas Kristof's Idiot's Guide to Inequality, this:

"Data from Amazon Kindles suggests that [Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century may be the 'most unread best seller of all time.'] Jordan Ellenberg, a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wrote in The Wall Street Journal that Piketty’s book seems to eclipse its rivals in losing readers: All five of the passages that readers on Kindle have highlighted most are in the first 26 pages of a tome that runs 685 pages."

I'm fascinated by the idea that how readers interact with a text is now being captured by the devices with which they read the text, and sent back to the mother ship and on to university professors for meta-analysis. Not that one would need a Ph.D. to recognize that our attention spans have been pulverized by "information" technology in general, and by technology designed to pulverize attention in particular.

Kristof has five points about what's wrong with the current economic milieu which I'm guessing are Piketty's points, but he doesn't say. Who needs an op-ed for all that? A blog post with a list will do.

  1. Economic inequality is getting significantly worse in the U.S.
  2. Inequality is destabilizing.
  3. Markets are being manipulated by the winners.
  4. Unless you're The Most Rich, you're a loser.
  5. "Opportunity" is a better buzzword than "inequality."

That might be distilled too far, but Kristof's punchline seems somewhat weak tea:

"Inequality and lack of opportunity today constitute a national infirmity and vulnerability — and there are policy tools that can make a difference."

Without something more specific—and actionable—we're left exposed to the likes of "Paul Ryan's six-pronged anti-poverty plan" rolled out today for the American Enterprise Institute, prominently featuring the word "opportunity." Along with reduced spending, I'm sure. And "block grants." Don't just give the assistance to poor people, give it to the states who will know best what to do with it.

Is there time for something about healthcare insurance subsidies in Mr. Ryan's talk, do you suppose? I suppose not. Charles Blow:

"Some of the poorest states in the country consistently vote for Republican presidential candidates, have Republican governors and Republican control of the statehouses. Many of these are the same states that refused to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, which would have extended health care to more low-income Americans. What could possibly go wrong?"

The Fool on the Hill Permalink to this item

While watching the news last night (maybe it was, but more likely The Daily Show's meta-news), after the run-down of the Democrat-appointed judges vs. the Republican-appointed judges' latest detail parsing of the finer points of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (whether or not 5 million or so people should have it be "affordable" or not), there came the John Boehner soundbite, selected artfully to make one's blood boil. PoliticsUSA has some longer snippet, including

"For the second time in a month, the courts have ruled against the president’s unilateral actions regarding ObamaCare."

Where by "the courts," Mr. Speaker refers to the two Republican-appointed judges on the D.C. circuit Court of Appeals. And so the House will sue! (About something else, actually!) But the money quote was:

"Today’s ruling is also further proof that President Obama’s health care law is completely unworkable. It cannot be fixed."

Insert [sic] after "ruling" since of course there were two rulings on the day in question, and they were exactly contradictory. As Jon Stewart pointed out, it would take a mere two words, or at most a phrase or sentence to "fix" the particular "unworkable" brokenness of whether or not state-based and the state-partnered use of the federal exchange would provide eligibility for subsidies that are at the heart of the Congressional intent of the law, even if not Mr. Boehner's current tranche of Congress, still desperate to stick a finger in the president's eye at every possible opportunity. PoliticsUSA points out the increasingly obvious:

"John Boehner demonstrated that he is a terrible Speaker of the House, but he excels at making a fool out of himself."

23.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

How low can you go? Permalink to this item

You don't need the story, bar graph, or HuffPo ad load, it's all in the headline: Americans Hate Congress More Than Jar Jar Binks. Give them credit for connecting the dots between FiveThirtyEight's poll of Star Wars fans and a variety of political polls. And tossing this cigar in the punchbowl:

"For all the comedic potential Congress' low approval ratings provide, most of its members are likely to be reelected. In 2010, when just 21 percent of Americans approved of Congress, 85 percent of House incumbents seeking reelection held onto their seats."

Think of it as the perverse 80-20 rule. Is it as simple as incumbents getting a salary while they raise money for their next campaign, or whatever?

Comedy continues in the comments, Will Kraft says "it wouldn't surprise me if syphilis and bubonic plague are statistically more popular than congress right now," and Eduardo Escárez notes that "at this point, many deseases are more popular, because at least they did something."

22.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Robert Reich's tactical advice Permalink to this item

This just in, from Facebook, from President Clinton's Secretary of Labor, in regard to the D.C. Circuit's duo decision today:

"Just when you thought Republicans had run out of ammunition attacking the Affordable Care Act comes another bomb. Today, Judge Raymond Randolph (appointed by George H. W. Bush) and Judge Thomas Griffith, (appointed by George W. Bush) decided that 5 million of the 8 million Americans now eligible for subsidies under the Act should lose them because, said the judges, the Act gives subsidies only to people who enroll under state exchanges rather than the federal exchange. This is an absurd reading of the Act, that would essentially destroy it – and it’s the direct result of another Republican-mounted lawsuit designed to land on the desks of right-wing Republican judges. Randolph, by the way, is a staunch conservative who has publicly called the Act “an unmitigated disaster.” Griffith isn’t much better.

"The Obama administration will appeal to the entire D.C. Circuit. But rather than a long and drawn-out legal battle that might end up in the Supreme Court, the administration would do better to simply declare state exchanges to be part of the federal exchange system, and thereby undo the two judges’ tortured reading. The administration has the regulatory authority to do this; it’s already created state-federal “partnership” exchanges that don’t appear in the actual law. If John Boehner disagrees, let him sue."

Another brick through the window Permalink to this item

The godawful mess just got potentially godawfuller, with a mini-decision from two of the eleven judges on the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit that whatever Congress intended, what they said was that subsidies would flow only through the state-run exchanges for health insurance, and not through the federal exchange, thus leaving out the 36 states that did not set up their own insurance exchanges.

Idaho, weirdly, is one of the 14, by virtue of hotly contested state legislation that divided our normally reactionary GOP that expressed our intention to set up a state-run exchange, even though the first annual go-round merely fobbed Idahoans over to the federal exchange. Close enough! "A" for intention, if not effort.

So now with some millions of people in other states put at risk to lose subsidy and either a fair chunk of change or their insurance (or both, if they actually happen to need some health insurance), stand by for some exploding heads in the Idaho's tea party wing. If only we hadn't passed that damned Ottercare of Obamacare, we too could have our low-income citizens lose their subsidy and thus speed the day when the demon Affordable Care Act could be repealed! If only this had happened before the May primary, Russ Fulcher could have unseated Butch on the basis of anti-Obamacare!

The decision "will likely be appealed" to the full Appeals court, and if necessary to the Supremes, giving them another shot at crippling the ACA, or just taking it out back and shooting it dead. It's a deranged beast as it is, what with the bullet to the head of Medicaid expansion and the interminable Republican crazy against every jot and tittle.

Update: Same-day service from the Fourth Circuit in a ruling that said subsidies are too "a permissible exercise" of the IRS' discretion.

“You don’t need a fancy legal degree to understand that Congress intended for every eligible American to have access to tax credits that would lower their health care costs, regardless of whether it was state officials or federal officials who were running the marketplace,” said Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary. “I think that is a pretty clear intent of the congressional law.”

Once upon a time, anyway.

In Margot Sanger-Katz's news analysis that today's rulings are far from the last word, the NYT has an infographic map of the possible reach of the D.C. Circuit court ruling, counting Idaho among the "federally run or partnership exchanges." Hawai`i, Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Kentucky, New York, New Hampshire, Massachussetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Maryland have state-based exchanges by implication. Idaho is among the 9 states with 90%+ of exchange enrollees using a subsidy. (The lowest category shown is 70 to 80%.)

Today in spam Permalink to this item

Graffiti on a CPR boxcar at the Cole Rd x-ing

It comes in strange waves, washing up the sides of the bucket under an alien, orange sun. Maybe there are two suns. And a handful of moons. My view with gmail is the sender name text, the subject line and the first few words of the (text of the) body, more for short subjects. Sefi Shaul has become a regular. Viva La Freedom! he says this morning, Fire your boss - Quit your job - Travel around the world!

Oil change coupons are big, even though I can't imagine there's enough interest in fresh oil to justify as much of that as I'm getting. More readers could probably use whatever BloodPressureFix is selling, under the subject Pastor ENDS-high blood-pressure with one-weird-food and an equally-weird hyphenation-routine. I could kick start my medical billing & coding education with resources, save extra at the supermarket, regrow thicker, fuller hair, look 10 years younger in 10 minutes, find out 37 things I should hoard (two offers for that, are you kidding me?), reduce utility bills by up to 80%, perfect vision with one weird trick, Get Paid Thousands (Even If You Fall Flat), qualify for HARP Refi, obtain 1 Sneaky Linguistic Secret to Learn a Foreign Language in just 10 Days Revealed 6 and Simple as 1-2-3 to slim tummy.

There are BLOWOUT AUCTIONS, Premium Cigars for only $19.95, foreclosed homes in my area, cheap SUVs, ways to STOP IRS Tax Debt, Quick Cash - Up to 100000 dollars! and hardly room anymore for the porn spam. Just a busty teen and some E..N-L-A..R-G_E M-E-N..T..__P..L_L_S.

Belva and Darlene just want to say Howdy. Backatcha!

20.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Welcome to the machine Permalink to this item

My personal attitude toward healthcare is "less is more." If I'm taking care of myself, eating right, staying out of trouble, and (most of all) supremely lucky, I can just skip the whole thing. I would like to go like Oliver Wendell Holmes' wonderful one-hoss shay.

The project isn't going perfectly, but well enough that when I showed up at the front desk one morning in January, the clerk asked if it was my first visit? No, but my first visit since they got a new computer system, and so we were kind of starting from scratch (and I wonder what happened to all the old records). Was I married? Would I please indicate from this laminated list of choices what race I belonged to? And so on.

I'd noted with appreciation the sign on the entrance asking visitors with a cold or the flu to help themselves to a face mask, and one person leaving with one on as I came in. Good idea. And even more appreciation that I was about the only customer. I made myself comfortable and cracked the book I'd brought to read while waiting, but they didn't make me wait long enough to read more than a page or so. OK! Weight, blood pressure, pulse, temperature, respiration, and "what seems to be the problem today?" I started to answer the nurse's question, stumbling a bit between the very detailed, personal knowledge I had in mind, and her nearly blank slate. Before getting very far, I said "that's the short version, here's the long version," and handed over my neatly typed and printed summary, followed by more detail. Too much detail, but I'd done quite a bit of distilling to get it down to 2½ pages.

"Wow. Did you type all this?"

Yes I did, all that and much, much more. I don't remember which doctor's visit it might have been, but 15 or 20 years ago possibly, when it occurred to me that "the interview" was ridiculously incapable of capturing health history in any detail, and really, there ought to be a comprehensive electronic recordkeeping system for this stuff, too. Can a knowledgeable, experienced physician get to the heart of the problem with a handful of focused, probing questions, answered by a cooperative patient? Sometimes, maybe. But memory and experience are mutable, not always forthcoming, not fully reliable.

I started taking notes.

When a familiar theme recurred, I updated my notes, out of habit, and for the benefit of reducing anxiety. I reviewed old notes, and ended up looking back almost 13 years to the very first time this thing happened, to see both greater detail and long stretches of "no problem," in specific detail that I could not possibly have remembered off the top of my head. I summarized the course of things for my own benefit, and then refined and tightened the summary for the doctor's reference. All that specific detail, and the span of it made it sound like I'm sicker than I really I am, I think. But you never know. They don't know; nobody's ever come in to the office with a treatise in hand before.

The doctor and I talked a bit. I encouraged him to look at the very detailed history I was offering, beyond the tweet-sized digest the nurse had extracted and typed into the computer, and certainly a better introduction to a seldom-seen patient than he had ever been offered by said patient, and he eventually did focus some professional attention on it. He hit my knees and elbows with his little hammer and waved his light around and stuck a popsicle stick in my mouth and said "say ah," and suggested "we" "work this thing up," with a specialist. I let myself be persuaded.

He left, the nurse came back, wrapped things up, and pointed me in the general direction of "checkout," where I made my way to disburse $35 in co-pay, collect my one-page summary and follow-up instructions. I noticed the other half a dozen "front office" personnel were all busy with their machines, and/or phone calls. And I was out of there in less than 40 minutes total. I picked up some groceries and stopped at the gas station, and hadn't been home twenty minutes before the phone rang with a call from the office I'd been referred to, ready to set up my next appointment.

This seemed to be a newly well-oiled machine, if nothing else.

I ended up spending some quality time with a physical therapist over three sessions, after which my insurance company sent an "explanation of benefits," so to speak; they didn't plan to give me any, what with the diagnosis and service codes and my plan's deductible. That was no surprise, and ok with me. Physical therapy has always been great value for the money, and even though the price was a bit higher than I anticipated, that happens when you take your car into the shop, too.

Since then, Elks Rehab's billing department has kept in touch, but they keep sending me statements with $0.00 due and the account balance showing as "estimated insurance pending," now five months on. I would've preferred to settle up back in February, when I was "cured," but didn't push it. Now I'm watching the process just out of morbid fascination to see if they can ever figure it out.

19.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Tree tenting Permalink to this item

Tentsile photo

One of the Boise Weekly "Picks" in the latest issue caught my eye, with a catchy, color picture of the product, looking "a bit like a butterfly cocoon lying on its side." Here: the Tentsile Tree Tent is sub-billed as "Hammock, revisted."

Having spent a few nights in a hammock (sans tent), I can tell you it's a somewhat acquired taste. "Cocoon" is an apt metaphor; the nature of resolution of gravity and support are quite unlike "bed" and do not always lend themselves to "sleeping." Harrison Berry's brief treatment mentions "internal dividers" to "keep inhabitants from sliding to the lowest point," and the jolly suggestion that you can suspend yourself "between three trees, as high up as you want them to be." The Tentsile manual is not quite so sanguine about that: Terms of Use say "do not set up higher than 1.2 meter / 4 feet from the ground, or above hard, sharp or point objects." Because, you know. Also, "do not use after the consumption of any intoxicating substances." The manual also includes two helpful pages of "Risk Assessment," from strap failure to falling out at night ("keep doors closed"), and zombie attack.

A simple free-body diagram

The photograph brought the memory of one of my earliest engineering courses, Statics, and exercises in calculating tension in flexible supports. You can get the idea with a point load and just one member in tension:

For equilibrium (which is to say "you and your tent do not fall down"), 2Tsin(θ) = W, and so T = W/(2sin(θ)). Let's say you and your tentmate weigh 300 pounds together, and from the picture the angle is... zero? It can't be zero, though, because the sin(0) is zero, and T "blows up," as we say.

Christopher Jobson's enthusiastic blog post about a "portable suspended treehouse" uses more of Tentsile's marketing photos that show some actual angles with as many as four people inside. Few and little people make small angles, more and bigger people make bigger angles, and that familiar butt-in-a-bag look you can relate to if you've ever put yours in a hammock. If it's 15°-ish, the multiplier is only 2-ish, and 600 lb. tension will keep you static. With three supports, each one will only need 400 lb. tension, and no need to bring your calculator; you and your tent and its straps will work out the trigonometry with gravity's help.

It's an alluring concept in a photo, and I can imagine it going "absurdly viral," just as I can imagine a good 14 prototypes before getting to a production model. I'd be willing to test drive one, but I'd for sure want to do that with a little wind and rain before dropping six or seven and a half $hundred on the idea (even if they do plant three trees for every tent they sell). Their YouTube setup video reveals the industrial webbing and come-along hardware that makes it go, along with the "taut and flat" view with no load, and one average guy inside without dragging down to the ground. (Enjoy some of the other hammock vids on offer there: camping in the Adirondacks; wet overnight; and alpine winter hammock, Susanne Williams' solo girly bushcraft way.)

Sleeping by myself in a hammock was interesting enough; sleeping with another person (or two! three!) would multiply that. Let's just say you may be keenly aware of how often your friends roll over in their sleep.

17.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Northwest Outdoors Permalink to this item

Unwelcome news in today's paper: their outdoor writer, Pete Zimowsky, is heading down the trail after 40 (!) years on the job. He arrived in Idaho just before I did, and has been with the Idaho Statesman for four decades, a rather amazing statistic. Can't begrudge him the time off at this point, but the paper will be poorer without him. The good news for the rest of us is that he's collected a lot of his writing and photography on his own site, Zimo's Northwest Outdoors. The navigation header suggests it has most everything you need for a good time in the region. Yurts, rivers, mountains, canyons, critters, San Juans and the essential Outdoors Beer Blog.

Are we smarter than sixth-graders? Permalink to this item

Credit the gamification of discourse for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's 2008 civic literacy exam popping in the news and news feeds this week. It's longer (33 questions) and more difficult than some of the type, such that the average score back then was right about 49% for all 2,508 Americans, and only 55% for "college educators." On a straight-up multiple-choice test?! With a standard grading scale there were almost 20% Ds and more than 70% Fs. Fewer than 10% passed what looks like a high school level test. See what you think; my modest interest in history and civics and professional test-guessing technique were enough to get a perfect score.

The shocking-but-not-surprising-after-you-hear-it additional finding was that elected politicians show a substantial knowledge gap below the dismal average. (Not much of a sample though: 164 of the 2,508 who said they'd held an elected office at least once.)

Local prof David Adler provided the same conclusion the ISI was pitching: we should support more and better education in civics (and less indoctrination, adds the ISI). Two comments below Adler's opinion in the Idaho Statesman miss the point by insisting that Adler should have written about something else, given that "Lack of civic knowledge is only a superficial aspect of the problem" (Matthew Shapiro) and "why don't you guys [sic] focus on constitutional home-rule powers?" (Bill Sellers)

News site commentary is an oppositional medium, but I'm feeling "yes, and" this morning. Knowing a little bit about the Gettysburg Address might be superficial, but it's a proxy measurement for one's interest and engagement, at least. Whether knowledge of history and civics comes before, during, or after one cares enough to engage in important issues of the day is not as important as recognizing that interest, education and engagement are strongly correlated, and dependent upon each other.

The sorry state of Idaho's "imperial, micromanaging legislature" is about more than our lack of home-rule powers; it has to do with willful ignorance as well. Ill-conceived legislation garners an Attorney General's opinion that it's not constitutional, and our guys (and a few gals) say "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" (c.f. Battle of Mobile Bay, 1864, which would have been in:

(a) the Revolutionary War;
(b) the War of 1812;
(c) the Civil War; or
(d) World War Z?)

before running out to find a gadfly "scholar" to provide a contrary opinion they prefer.

Perhaps we should have candidates for for elected office take these tests (we'll need proctors) and report their scores. Have them be able to name the three branches of government or something in the First Amendment, at least.

16.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Bringing good things to life Permalink to this item

Looking through my collection of instructions and warranties today, I stumbled across the manual and some correspondence for our ancient GE telephone. The receipt had "Coast to Coast" penned in, and the not-quite-disappearing ink shows we bought it in 1985. It had a two year warranty, which we had to invoke, and Lippincott Industries up in Spokane had sent us a replacement. In December, 1986, I sent another letter, starting with "Dear Folks."

The enclosed phone is not working. Again. It works OK for incoming calls, but will not "dial." The only switch that seems to work is the switch hook. ...

Fortunately, we have another phone. Made by Western Electric. I was quite happy with your service last time it didn't work, but this time it's a little more important to do the job quickly as well as completely.

Whether or not I buy another General Electric device depends on how it turns out.

And what do you know, 27 years later, we're still using that phone. Third time was the charm.

Highway robbery Permalink to this item

NPR made some infotainment out of the funHouse technique used to "pay for" a temporary extension of the Highway Bill this week. There were no men or women on the street who knew what "pension smoothing" might be, because hey, they're just making this stuff up. Sounds vaguely bogus. Tweak a projected interest rate or a funding percentage requirement and project a decade or two over the horizon and hey presto! Here's some money for your stoopid highways and most importantly, See We Did Not Raise Taxes.

HORSLEY: Here's how the smoke and mirrors work in this case. Congress tweaks its formula, so companies that offer traditional pensions don't have to put as much money aside for future retirees. That makes the companies look more profitable in the short run, so they pay higher taxes - nearly $6.5 billion or more over the next decade. Over the longer term, of course, those companies may have to make up those pension payments. So years from now, the government's tax revenues could shrink. That's far enough in the future, though, that it doesn't count in today's congressional scorekeeping. Burman says lawmakers are spending the extra tax money now without thinking about the future.

BURMAN: It's a terrible deal all around. Basically, what they're doing with this pension smoothing is they're borrowing the money from American companies. And they're basically making a really risky loan because by those companies making smaller payments to their pensions, they're more likely to have their pension plans go bust.

Len Burman calls this what it pretty obviously is: a cynical budget gimmick sham. Forbes provides a helpful graphic illustrating the frustration of all caps and three exclamation marks: THIS $6.4 BILLION REVENUE PROVISION RAISES NO REVENUE OVER THE LONG RUN!!!

Congress also found some spare change in "extended customs fees" and money set aside to deal with leaking underground storage tanks. Think of it like reaching down behind the couch cushions.

Without some action, the Transportation Dept. was set to whack contruction spending by 28% (and minus 700,000 jobs?!) on August 1. Taking a page from the Japanese manufacturing playbook, this is "Just in Time" funding. They're also going to keep "inventory" lean with a bill that covers as few months (never mind the four years the administration wants) as possible.

Obama's "big motto for Congress right now: Just do something." Maybe if another couple bridges fall down they could take a break from their August beach and fundraising break, but I wouldn't count on that, either. If I were writing speeches for Obama, I would have included mention of the Shriners and clown cars in directing well-deserved ridicule at Congress. We seem to be closing in on the threshold of too ridiculous for ridicule, however.

15.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Help them help us Permalink to this item

Honeybees in a Datura flower, 2004

In Mark Winston's opinion piece in the NYT, Our Bees, Ourselves: Bees and Colony Collapse, this remarkable item (with my emphasis):

"Recently, my laboratory at Simon Fraser University conducted a study on farms that produce canola oil that illustrated the profound value of wild bees. We discovered that crop yields, and thus profits, are maximized if considerable acreages of cropland are left uncultivated to support wild pollinators.

"A variety of wild plants means a healthier, more diverse bee population, which will then move to the planted fields next door in larger and more active numbers. Indeed, farmers who planted their entire field would earn about $27,000 in profit per farm, whereas those who left a third unplanted for bees to nest and forage in would earn $65,000 on a farm of similar size. ..."

Less work, more bees, easy money. What's not to like? Winston's forthcoming book, Bee Time: Lessons from the Hivesounds like it'll be an interesting read. More about it on this post from his blog, "The Hive." From Bee Culture Magazine's review:

"[Y]ou would do well to stop and smell the bees, as it were, to see what you haven’t seen, and to hear what you haven’t heard in a bee yard, or a bee meeting, or in time spent with other beekeepers. There are indeed lessons to learn from a bee hive. This work will share some of them with you."

Le quatorze Juillet Permanent URL to this day's entry

A railroad runs through it Permalink to this item

A couple of links provided in comments under a Huckleberries Online end-of-the-week seemingly good news post about a deal between the city of Coeur d'Alene and BNSF bring up a legal and economic can of worms that hadn't reached my attention. It's a 19th century legacy companion to the land swap discussed in yesterday's item (below).

It was always a mystery to me why "checkerboarding" seemed like a good idea. As a draftsman and budding cartographer, I wondered how exactly the tracks would get through the zero-width intersections of the geometry, but I suppose the embedded generosity extended to the necessary "rounding." The brief Wikipedia entry on the subject describes the history with respect to the railroads moving west as the basic boomer/promoter concept: a wholesale giveaway will pay for itself by encouraging development that will make our half more than twice as valuable. (The 21st century version is about tax rates and "job creators"; clever ideas for ways to benefit the rich and powerful are never in short supply. Or how about a war in the middle east that will pay for itself?)

Former BN right of way, now a bike path along Idaho highway 8

Anyway, fast forward from manifest destiny and golden spikes to the senescence of all but the most profitable freight lines, and there is quite a bit of property owned and/or once used by the railroad that is available for repurposing. The jump from essential transportation to (typically) recreational transportation has been a good fit in a lot of places I know and love including the two domiciles that were closest to main lines, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and outside Moscow, Idaho.

This time around, the windfall is landing on the property owners who granted easements to railroads, probably were happy to have the quieter open space when the trains stopped running, and then teamed up with a savvy lawyer who is fleecing taxpayers on their (and his) behalf these days. In the Seattle-area, 42 mile "eastside corridor," Kansas City law firm Baker Sterchi skimmed a tidy $35 million for their work showering trackside landowners with government payments for converting railroad easements to trail easements. Lawyer Tom Stewart "has a perfect 26-0 record in rails-to-trails cases around the country." Just how badly wrong can this go?

"As it is, the full 42-mile corridor has cost taxpayers $221 million to date — more than $5 million per mile. And no trail has been built yet. Plus the lawsuits are not over. Stewart said 50 more property owners along the line just filed. He also suggested if the government moves to run light rail on the easement portions of the line, that may constitute another new use (on the theory that passenger light rail with stations is different from a commercial railroad)."

The other article, from USA Today (and run with a local angle on the Great Falls Tribune site) was about a Supreme Court decision in March about "an obscure Wyoming land dispute" that doesn't seem all that obscure any more.

"The justices ruled 8-1 that government easements used for railroad beds over public and private land in the West expired once the railroads went out of business, and the land must revert to its owners."

One aspect of obscurity is that "justices had a hard time getting information on the overall acreage or miles of trails involved" when the case was argued in January. Chief Justice Roberts thought the uncertainty about who owns what was "pretty unusual" and Antonin Scalia thought "incredible." Neither they nor the lone dissenter, Sonia Sotomayer are from around here, and her estimated downside of "hundreds of millions of dollars" seems understated in light of the Washington case, and some "80 other cases involving some 8,000 claimants."

The legal fees to Baker Sterchi alone might run hundreds of millions of dolalrs.

The USA Today/GFT piece has a comedic/tragic closing comment from Justice Stephen Breyer, whose "three bicycling accidents since 1993" might have involved head injuries?

“I certainly think bicycle paths are a good idea,” he said. But “for all I know, there is some right-of-way that goes through people’s houses, you know, and all of a sudden they are going to be living in their house and suddenly a bicycle will run through it.”

Just like the railroad used to, right?

Looking up the case, Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust et al. v. United States, and finding this NPR blog post adds a bit more high-irony: the plaintiffs are descendants of the owner of a sawmill that produced railroad ties, which is to say folks who profited from the government-backed railroad boom. Now Marvin is all about hey you kids, get off my lawn.

Thanks also to NPR for pointing to Lyle Denniston's entertaining recap of the oral argument of the case.

13.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Watching the timber grow Permalink to this item

Western Pacific Timber LLC has some of the old westward ho checkerboard lands in the upper Lochsa (originally given to the Northern Pacific RR), acquired from Plum Creek Timberlands, and they're thinking about making some money by wheeling and dealing, and who knows, maybe a bit of logging. Eric Barker's piece for the Lewiston Tribune ran in Wednesday's Statesman this week, and a shorter version went out on the AP wire. Last October, Rocky Barker covered some of the preliminary rounds in his Letters from the West blog. I'm guessing the most important fact of the matter is in the middle of Barker's blog post:

"The land was largely clearcut in the 1980s and 1990s and opponents often refer to it as 'hacked over' lands. But today most of it has young trees covering most it."

Apricot bonanza

WPT has at least some land it wants to get cutting on, and subdivide and sell (presumably), given that the talk of cooking up a land swap continues to go nowhere. The commissioners of vast and unpopulated Idaho County are said to be keen on let's make a deal in the latest report (as they have been for years).

"That is the economy of Idaho County," commissioner Skip Brandt said. "I would love to see a few million-dollar homes go in up there. So let the building commence."

In March, Becky Kramer reported for the Spokesman-Review that Forest Service retirees opposed the Lochsa land swap, some six years after it was initially proposed. The supposed "open and consensus-driven process" that Senator Jim Risch was going to lead has gone all quiet and back-door like, which is probably what would be required to swap "steep and inaccessible timberlands on the Idaho-Montana border" for popular recreation areas. In March, Risch's press secretary said he "is not spearheading the Lochsa land exchange."

And now in July, with still no hint of action from ID-01 Representative Labrador or either of our Senators, we hear from Risch's chief of staff that the senator has "too much [sic] other things going on."

Such as? Making his ad infinitum rounds of the D.C. party circuit? Never-ending fundraising? He sure as shootin' doesn't have too much other legislation going on; nary a word of that sort of such like.

12.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Waiting for the Arab summer Permalink to this item

Juan Cole, on TomDispatch: the Arab Millenials will be back.

"Some 42 months later, in most of the Middle East and North Africa, the bright hopes for more personal liberties and an end to political and economic stagnation championed by those young people have been dashed. Instead, a number of Arab countries have seen counter-revolutions, while others are engulfed in internecine conflicts and civil wars, creating Mad Max-like scenes of post-apocalyptic horror. But keep one thing in mind: the rebellions of the past three years were led by Arab millennials, twentysomethings who have decades left to come into their own. Don’t count them out yet. They have only begun the work of transforming the region."

Transformation is rarely instantaneous, but plays out over decades. In a region where the intrigues of a single country challenge the imagination, I appreciate what Cole offers to untangle the Gordian knot of the past, present and future. His take on the accomplishments to date, and the hope for the future is more optimistic than the daily news would give reason to expect.

"[M]any of the millennial activists who briefly turned the Arab world upside down and provoked so many changes are putting their energies into non-governmental organizations, thousands of which have flowered, barely noticed, in countries that once suffered from one-party rule. In this way, they are learning valuable organizational skills that -- count on it -- will one day be applied to politics. Others continue to coordinate with labor unions to promote the welfare of the working classes. Their dislike of nepotism, narrow cliques, and ethnic or sectarian rule has already had a lasting impact on the politics of the Arab world. So don’t for a second think that the Arab Spring is over, no matter the news from Libya, Egypt, Iraq, or elsewhere."

11.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Some whine with your crabcakes, sir? Permalink to this item

There's not much I can add to Mark Morford's perfectly prepared SFGate blog post on The best worst president ever beyond pointing you to it, as a public service. We're not conveniently located to gaze southward over the Pacific Ocean and I'm not that big on fermented grape product, but the common denominator is this nagging question of what are they complaining about? Not the specific item, such as Benghazi, or Obamacare, or arrogance, or illegal immigrants mind you, but the big picture complaint. We could complain about long-term unemployment still too high, or the debt doubled, or real earnings nearly flat, or food stamp recipients up 44%, or we could talk about corporate profits up 184%; the S&P500 up 145%; petroleum imports cut in half; 231% more wind and solar power generation and stuff. If facts were what the conversation was about.

But this isn't so much reality-based disputation; it's more in the self-righteous indignation vein, for which cognitive dissonance provides ample irony insulation. Morford's gonzo style is the appropriate antidote.

"They didn’t hear me, of course; the orgasmic thrum of their perfect lives drowned out my chuckle, and as I turned and looked at this beautifully entitled, happy crew from my vantage point only a few feet away but a million light years in perspective, we all shared one of the most spectacular, envied locales in the world and all of us sipped superb regional grape and not a single one of us suffered the slightest personal, social or economic indignity, every first-world need instantly met, every crab cake perfectly formed, the sunshine as flawless as Jesus on toast and no lines at the restroom and lots of free parking for his Lexus SUV."

10.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Big driver Permalink to this item

Can't say I'm a golfer, but I have golfed, and enjoyed the walk-around when I was a kid. The little 9-hole course in Lincoln Park featured a 425 yard hole which was always an opportunity for practicing multiple fairway shots. I suppose I could get there in two by now if I had one of those sledge-hammer drivers. Reading about Rory McIlroy rolling his drive up to the green of a 436-yard hole makes me think it must be time to have a talk about toning down club or ball technology, or else building much bigger golf courses. Or make them carry their own clubs, maybe.

Grand re-opening Permalink to this item

View through the Owyhee breezeway

We enjoyed seeing some of the old Owhyee Hotel after its complete gutting and remodeling to new pursuits. Living and working downtown is more fashionable than the old days, and nicer and newer hotels have been built for people who do come to visit. There were vendors and "no-host" bars set up here and there, including out in the parking lot, with a bandstand and musicians. We wanted to see the insides, and so did most everyone else. We were not so keen on waiting for an elevator to see the view from the roof (which I understand is quite nice). They had a polite young woman stationed in the stairway keeping people from walking up the 6 or 7 floors. Meh.

The highlight for us was getting carded by the event gatekeepers, executing the simple policy of "card everyone, no exceptions." "How old do you suppose I am?" I asked the gal. She was old enough to know to always guess low, or else she was giving me the secret signal that she's a Douglas Adams fan: "42?" she offered. "I love you," I said.

I don't think she did the indicated subtraction to figure out the right answer (so much harder in the new century and all), but she could see it was before July 9, 1993. Jeanette handed her D.L. to the other gal, said "if you think that's old, take a look at mine." She took a look and said, flatly: "I don't know what to say."

7.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Parlez vous? Permalink to this item

Marc Johnson's delightful post from across the pond brought back memories of our trip to France and the linguistic adventures now 22 years behind us. (Time has flown.) And after our first couple days in country, trying to get a train ticket fixed (after a different agent had casually and maliciously put us in the smoking car), my somewhat lengthy and slightly hopeful inquiry in English was met by the woman behind the window looking down her nose at me and coldly saying "Ici on parle Français." with utter finality. If only I'd had the wit to ask "Comment se dit..." with an appropriate english phrase for her to translate. But I was trying to figure out how to get that damn ticket fixed. She did not help. (I forget who did, but we did not have to sit in smoke on the TGV from Marseilles to Paris, thankfully.)

The second most memorable comment was from a disaffected teenaged girl, on a bench behind the Notre Dame cathedral, taking a much-needed sit down, and not happy about the local language. "Everything sounds like 'boudoir, boudoir, boudoir'," she said, derisively, with a very nasal and accurate delivery.

And finally, waiting in line at the Gare du Nord, rehearsing my succinct question about tickets to the airport in my mind, and then delivering it in apparently good-enough French when it was my turn. The ticket agent answered me... in perfect English, combining disdain for my pathetic attempt and a (very slight) grudging respect implied by not making me repeat the question.

Stated motto Permalink to this item

Who knew some states have crazy mottos? Given our politics of late, I would have expected Idaho to be in the vanguard, but cooler heads must have been prevailing when we settled on Esto Perpetua ("Let it be perpetual"). Thanks to Parade magazine and Vi-An Nguyen for the 50 state list.

The motto of mottos might be "Keep it short," which not all do. If your language sounds like music, no one will complain, so let Hawai'i sing it: Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ‘Āina i ka Pono ("the life of the land is restored in righteousness," to be sure.)

Quite a few make me wonder, "what were they thinking?" Is Kansas' motto about science fiction? Isaac Asimov and Gene Rodenberry must have loved it, poetic in Latin: Ad astra per aspera ("To the stars through difficulties"). If I were Virginia, I might talk about a replacement for "Sic semper tyrannis" after the assassin made that infamous. Or do they like having the implicit endorsement?

Michigan hides its geographical brag in the language of Rome: Si Quaeris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice (“If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you“). Montana's is direct in Spanish or English: Oro y Plata ("Gold and silver"). Good old New Hampshire's "Live Free or Die," and Maryland's most quixotic: Fatti maschil, parole femine (“Manly deeds, womanly words“).

Twenty-one went with Latin, twenty-four stuck with English, and five independent states have a language of their own: Hawai`ian (of course), Greek (California's Eureka), French (Minnesota's lovely "L'etoile du Nord"), Spanish, and the one native language, Washington's motto in Chinook: Al-ki, which they tell us means "Bye and bye." How appropriate to have something lost in translation.

Excerpt of the Colorado state seal

If we count the hyphenated Chinook word, there are eight states that accomplished their motto in one word, including Maine (Dirigo, "I lead"), New York (Excelsior), Rhode Island (Hope), Texas (Friendship), Utah (Industry), and Wisconsin (Forward). Scott Walker and Paul Ryan seem to be working to put that last one in reverse.

Three mottos include God; Colorado went with Numine instead of Deo, alluding to Virgil's Aenid and a more learned time if the Secretary of the Territory could have popped that off the top of his head with a moment's pause. The state seal has Providence's all-seeing Eye upon it, giving an unintended future twist to Nil sine Numine.

6.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Firecracker karma Permalink to this item

Things were a bit quieter last night, although we slept in the bunker again, just in case; our report is less than reliable. Having the Fourth on Friday is second only to Saturday (just wait 'till next year!) for sales of explosives I imagine, but whatever day it comes, the market is (dare I say) rocketing upward. The trend is not just more stuff and more days of noisemaking, but also bigger. Crazy bigger, I have to say. People a couple streets away from us were lighting off things that made me gasp and wait for an answering siren. But nothing burned in the city, that I heard of, and only a couple hundred people called the police to complain about "illegal fireworks."

Flax flower, 2010

Aren't they all? Patriotic fervor in ordnance trumps ordinance, and the consensus is that there's safety—legal safety, at any rate—in numbers. Large numbers.

The allure isn't what it once was for me, back when "use with adult supervision" was honored in the breech, as it were. It's more about "hey you kids get off my lawn" now, and having so many of the "kids" be nominally adults is less assuring, not more.

There's no doubt we'll continue to celebrate our revolutionary war and Independence Day with illegal fireworks manufactured in communist China, purchased on Indian reservations, with little regard for the fire, noise, pollution or balance of payments hazards, let alone the whining of codgers and pet owners. The big, bigger, biggest government shows are ever more over the top too, but never quite as satisfying as what you can light off yourself.

5.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Vast powers to shape behavior Permalink to this item

Farhad Manjoo looks at the bright side to Facebook experimenting on its users: they "inadvertently laid bare what too few tech firms acknowledge: that they possess vast powers to closely monitor, test and even shape our behavior, often while we’re in the dark about their capabilities."

Never mind that he proceeds to absurdly overstate the results of the study's finding, that "slightly happier messages in their [Facebook news]feeds caused them to post happier updates" and so on. (The results showed that happier messages caused a very slight—if statistically significant—contagion. Call it the monkey see, monkey do effect.)

Manjoo supposes that "studying how we use social media may provide important insights into some of the deepest mysteries of human behavior," which the limited scope attempt by Facebook did not really begin to do. He imagines protective services that greater knowledge could provide—"only by understanding the power of social media that we can begin to defend against its worst potential abuses"—without any inkling about how "understanding" and "we" might be connected.

Facebook and every other corporate enterprise will gain and guard their understandings about behavior and how to manipulate it without statistically significant sharing with the targets of its study, whether or not such studies are "greeted with an outcry."

"Wouldn’t you also be interested in what other tech companies know about us? How does Google’s personalized search algorithm reinforce people’s biases? How does Netflix’s design shape the kinds of TV shows we watch? How does race affect how people navigate dating sites?"

Or more importantly, how social media can select partisans of a particular stripe, and provide enough effective "nudging" to get out (or surpress) the vote, and control elections. He quotes Zeynep Tufekci, of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, and author of the research paper Engineering the Public: Big Data, Surveillance and Computational Politics:

"If they can nudge all of us to vote, they could nudge some of us individually, and we know they can model whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat—and elections are decided by a couple of hundred thousand voters in a handful of states."

From Zeynep's post on the subject:

"Today, more and more, not only can corporations target you directly, they can model you directly and stealthily. They can figure out answers to questions they have never posed to you, and answers that you do not have any idea they have. Modeling means having answers without making it known you are asking, or having the target know that you know. This is a great information asymmetry, and combined with the behavioral applied science used increasingly by industry, political campaigns and corporations, and the ability to easily conduct random experiments (the A/B test of the said Facebook paper), it is clear that the powerful have increasingly more ways to engineer the public, and this is true for Facebook, this is true for presidential campaigns, this is true for other large actors: big corporations and governments."

2.July.2014 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Corporate sins Permalink to this item

It could be a coincidence, but ironic either way that just when the Supreme Court ruled that some corporations (the undefined "closely held" ones) can have religious beliefs that need protecting so that they can impose them on their employees, there are so many corporations—and corporate leaders—that have lost any vestige of a conscience. As Knowledge@Wharton's interview with NYT reporter Gretchen Morgenson puts it, the U.S. corporate world has become a bull market for corruption. The increasingly disturbing trend:

“The giant accounting frauds that took down companies in the early 2000s, the corrupt brokerage firm research that harmed so many investors, the Libor [London Interbank Offered Rate] rate-fixing scandal that cast doubt on the basis for trillions of dollars of fixed income instruments.” And of course, said Morgenson, there was “the mother of them all” — the 2008 mortgage crisis, which she called “a debacle so big and so devastating that I wound up writing about it for seven years.”

For all the burdensome regulations you hear complained about, none of them seem to be working very well to rein in excesses (let alone outright thievery). Morgenson "described writing recently, for example, about pension funds that are suing Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s for negligence in their ratings, yet paradoxically continue to require that bonds that they buy are rated by Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s."

Because otherwise, how would investors know if they were any good?

raveling

Tom von Alten
ISSN 1534-0007