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29.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Looking forward Permalink to this item

There seem to be two reasons we didn't look too closely at the actions of the Bush-Cheney team under a new administration in 2009. "We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards," Obama said back then. Pretty much, we didn't want to know. And pretty much, the system that survives the occasional change of staff wants to keep going without interference.

Christie Thompson reports on ProPublica that six claims on detainee torture are skewered by an investigation that was done, and the scathing, 577-page report of the Constitution Project on detainee treatment, released two weeks ago, just as events in Boston utterly overwhelmed public attention.

It's not all behind us, not by a long shot.

Science friction Permalink to this item

Not sure where Paul Tyma's coming from, but his lengthy blog post from last Friday went by me on the slashdot feed today, and here: Why we'll never meet aliens. Well worth the read. Shorter: we'll hit the singularity first, or they already did, and it wouldn't be worth the trouble to go all. this. way. just to meet us. If they've got it goin' on to come all the way across the galaxy, they won't need to come here to study us, and they certainly won't need our water, our uranium, our gold-pressed latinum, our women, or our planet.

Comment #5 from "inDigiNeous" is entertaining, in another dimension. Think outside the box, dude.

"...just to clarify: I am one of those who have communicated with these ETs. They are very real, and we can communicate with them also if we open our third eye, or our spiritual side."

Along the way, Tyma mentioned Proxima Centauri, the nearest known star to ours. Four and a quarter light years from here, too faint to be seen by the naked eye. Which just seems to multiply the loneliness, doesn't it?

28.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

What you don't know could hurt you Permalink to this item

The folks at the Pew Research Center did another "News IQ" quiz, this one testing knowledge of science and technology, sampling 1,006 adults early last month. The report page starts with a no-spoiler box and a link to the quiz if you want to give it a whirl before seeing how the survey turned out, or my comments about it. It's a pretty quick process, with just 13 questions, some true/false and some multiple choice (with 2, 3 or at most 4 specific choices).

Once upon a time, I taught a college level lab section, and part of my job was to write tests. None of the questions had 50-50 odds. Two answer, true/false questions had the requirement that if the statement was false, after you identified that fact, you had to modify it so that it was true (which I made more difficult than just adding or removing a strategic "not"). No 2 or 3 option multiple choice questions, either, and mostly I went with multiple multiple choice: the answer could be one or more of the choices given. Or—why not?—none of them.

Results histogram, link to the report This quiz is nowhere near that hard. You should get all 13 correct, or at worse make an innocent mistake or two. Maybe you're not sure about red blood cells, but even so, you'll have a 33% shot at that one even with a blind guess. Which is to say that if you're reading my blog, I think you're in the top 93%, 85%, or at least 75% of the sampled population.

The results are slightly less alarming when I see that "don't know" was a selection many respondents made. Otherwise 47% right on a true/false question would be the same performance as a random guess (within the ±3.7% margin of error of "half," given their sample size). If the 25% who said they didn't know whether "Electrons are smaller than atoms" is true or false had just gone ahead and guessed randomly, there would have been about 60% with the right answer, well better than what you'd expect for 1,006 tosses of a fair coin.

If more than 40% of the population doesn't know what gas is considered the central issue for global warming, and four out of five can't even identify what gas makes up most of the atmosphere, how can we hope to have an informed discussion about human-caused climate change?

27.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Money for nothing Permalink to this item

Jolly April Jonquils in our yard When I was a newly minted engineer, 30 years ago now (my how time flies), one of my first tasks in navigating the bureaucracy was to learn how to buy something, to "cut a P.O." in the vernacular. (Somebody explained that verb to me once, but I forget.) Step 1 was filling out a purchase order form, which was in triplicate or maybe fourplicate. "Carbonless" paper was state of the art. Who, what, how many, how much. Depending on how much, you then collected one or more managers' autographs and turned it into Purchasing. Eventually, you got the stuff. In the early 1980s, the ballpark estimate of the "overhead" cost of all that process was $50. If you needed something or some things that cost $50 or $100, it wasn't worth the overhead, and you'd figure out how to use petty cash, or skip it, or buy more stuff so that the overhead was relatively smaller.

"Overhead" comes to mind from the indignant report being promoted by Citizens Against Government Waste (picked up by Fox News, of course, our McClatchy daily, and here, David Fahrenthold for The Washington Post).

(As an aside, I see CAGW has the "big banner sliding image hogging the top half of your browser window" design meme with a cute pig leading off, of course, and declaring they're "AMERICA'S #1 TAXPAYER WATCHDOG" and MAKE A TAX DEDUCTIBLE CONTRIBUTION!" which is funny, ironic, and annoying all at once. Everybody wants a piece of me. Please. No.)

Anyway, OMG, Feds spend at least $890,000 on service fees for at last count 13,712 bank accounts that have a zero balance, because "the government is required to pay $65 per year, per account to keep them on the books." You can just about smell the apoplexy from the CAGW head complaining about the "lack of attention to detail. And poor management."

Well, maybe. The accounts are tied to specific spending programs, and they're set up to enable separate accounting for each one, which seems like a good management practice. For many programs, funding comes to an end, and that seems like a good thing. We used to have twice as many zombie accounts, and have cut the number in half, so that's good too.

Somewhere in the story it's noted that the amount in question "is a tiny fraction of the federal budget," which indeed it is. We're spending $4 trillion a year, give or take. Focusing indignation on 0.000025% of this as "waste" is... well, not the best use of our time maybe?

I got a kick out of seeing Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) in the band, complaining of the spending with "no benefit whatsoever." Sort of like, I don't know, the U.S. Senate? Coburn's salary and travel expenses and office space and staff and staff travel expenses beggar the "waste" on empty bank accounts, we can be sure of that.

Wikipedia's page on Congressional staff tells us that back in 2000, the average Senator hired a staff of 34 people, and just the average Senate salaries back then for 14 positions tabulated is north of $640,000. Perhaps as a vaunted "fiscal conservative," Mr. Coburn could publish the spending that inures just to his share of government largesse, and set an example for his colleagues on how spending control starts at home.

And juxtapose that budget with what we get for it, other than a 16 day recess for Easter and Passover, a few weeks of "session" and now another recess until May 6, and pretty soon it'll be Memorial Day, and oh so humid in Foggy Bottom...

"It's a perennial question and it's a cheap shot," says Rep. Darrell Issa. "There's no better place to be than with your constituents. A very small percentage of members go on vacation during these periods." Ok, but other than the benefit of time with constituents (none of which, I might note, has ever ever ever been spent with me), what actual benefit do we get out of it? The satisfaction of seeing lots of campaign money raised and members getting re-elected?

24.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

One hell of a photoessay Permalink to this item

Probably the closest I'll get to a gun show: Patrick Blanchfield's and Jason Francisco's view of Family Businesses and Angry Young Men in the Georgia State Farmer's Market Exhibition Hall.

Rhodesian jungle rounds are a hot item they were told, "but if we're in the market for something a bit more extreme, he's got that too: Dragon's Breath, incendiary shells loaded with pyrophoric magnesium chunks and powder."

"[T]here's also the steady stream of folks, young men all, whom we saw on the way in. They circulate around the periphery with rifles on their backs and pistols on their hips, wearing handwritten signs like sandwich boards on their chests: 'Colt AR – $850 OBO' 'This Shotgun $500' 'Taurus .40 ASK ME.' These are private sellers, and the emphasis is on 'private': you can walk up to them and buy what they're carrying, no questions asked, for cash and a handshake."

The friend who pointed me in this direction commented "deluded people think criminals don't shop here."

Unintended consequences and such Permalink to this item

Mine wasn't the only mail generated in response to Saturday's nutty Statesman editorial; they ran ten letters in today's paper. Two of them were in agreement, one with congratulations for "hitting the proverbial nail right on the head!" and another from the founder of Idaho Carry, Open & Concealed who styled his address as "Hidden Springs," the suburban community (a.k.a. "census designated place") over the first line of foothills and in the Dry Creek basin, giving it a defensible perimeter, I suppose. (You may remember ICO&C as that organization with the one-winged eagle with a pistol in a gunbelt for a mascot.)

Tony Snesko is more strident than the homogenized editorial board, and has a wider range of targets. "Shameless politicians," don't you know, and "Obama/Feinstein."

"Any attempt to pass a gun law is a red herring that allows Congress to slither out the back door and proclaim victory for the Sandy Hook children when they are actually dancing victoriously on their graves, having successfully deceived a gullible electorate, and can now take the next step that has already been proclaimed by Mario Cuomo, the confiscation of our guns and the destruction of the Second Amendment, with the rest of our inalienable rights to follow."

That, and it's a "charade" "being perpetrated by skillful politicians to extricate themselves from having to admit that our society is in total moral and ethical decay." I would imagine for Snesko, they're literally damned if they do, and damned if they don't. You think he'd be happy at the Senate's purposeful inaction, but he sounds just as grumpy as ever.

As for the 80% against... reviews were not good. "Shocked and saddened," "way off base," "illogical," "an embarrassment to all Idahoans," "greasy slide," "every one of the NRA's talking points, not very original," "brain-dead," "one of the most poorly reasoned pieces I've read."

23.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Sales tax morass Permalink to this item

Nobody seems to like taxes very much (unless you're collecting them, I guess), but this business of collecting state sales tax for online transactions is sure an interesting folderol. Every state I've lived in has had a more or less substantial sales tax, but I do occasionally visit those strange havens where the price listed is what you pay. Oregon for example; no pocket full of pennies and odd transaction amounts there, if it says $4, by golly, the bill is $4.

In Idaho, where we're currently paying 6% at retail on most purchases (including groceries, and, infamously, Girl Scout cookies), we're also supposed to pony up "use tax" at that same fraction for things we bought online (or in person, for that matter; "if you buy something while in another state and are charged less than the Idaho rate, you owe Idaho the difference in use tax"). Be honest now, and tell Uncle Butch how much you owe for "Sales/Use tax due on Internet, mail order, and other nontaxed purchases" on line 28 of Form 40. See instructions on page 8 and do the arithmetic yourself.

You could join me and the other 1.36% of Idaho taxpayers who do that. Idaho legislators have been talking about joining the multistate Streamlined Sales and Use Tax Agreement... for six years now, and just can't bring themselves to do it. Twenty-four states are on board, but not Idaho. It would be nice to collect those unpaid taxes on the one hand, but on the other... Idaho businesses would have to become tax collectors for other states.

It's hard to believe, but I'm assuming the New York Times wouldn't lie about this, so here: the United States Senate has actually agreed to consider legislation to help states force online retailers to collect sales taxes. 74-20 in favor of talking about the "Marketplace Fairness Act," and the $10 or $20 billion of taxes that aren't getting paid to various states.

The small handful of states with no sales tax (two of the four happen to be our neighors) are in the opposition, defending their businesses' right to enjoy freedom from this "targeted strike against the Internet and the digital economy," as Oregon's Senator Ron Wyden deems it. And the requirement that the states provide software free to internet retailers with sales in excess of $1 million per year.

"Opponents predict a bookkeeping nightmare. Online retailers would have to keep track of more than 9,000 sales-tax regimes. Internet companies in states with no sales taxes—Montana, New Hampshire, Oregon and Delaware—would have to build a collection apparatus from scratch."

My graph of data tabulated in Wikipedia They don't say where "9,000" comes from, and I do wonder. I would have thought some number smaller than 50, like say 46. Ah, but local taxes, yikes. Do a search on that 9,000 number, and you find a lot of statements, but few sources. The American Tax Policy Institute footnoted a 2007 paper by LeAnn Luna, Donald J. Bruce and Richard R. Hawkins, which I'm surprised I was able to find and fetch: "Maxing Out: An Analysis of Local Option Tax Rate Increases":

"The number of local governments with sales taxes has grown from just under 3,000 in the early 1970s to over 9,000 today."

Their study was of Tennessee, from 1975 to 1999, and they give no hint of where they got either of those round numbers. Wikipedia contributors have put together a sortable summary table on a page with 182 footnotes as of this morning, showing the general tax statewise (with 5 zeroes), and "total with max local surtax" (only two zeroes, Delaware and live-free-or-die New Hampshire). I've charted those here in order of increasing general + max local surtax. The two double-oughts are at left, and Idaho is in the upper middle, at 6+2.5%.

Maybe the Senate could say one tax rate per customer. Or hey, how about a flat, nationwide sales tax?

22.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The boys who cried "sue" Permalink to this item

Not much to do but point and laugh at opponents to the Idaho-based health insurance exchange taking the trouble to call each of the 19 appointed members of the board to threaten personal lawsuits against them, except for the problem of not knowing where to point, since the calls were made anonymously. One call came from Florida, go figure.

I missed today's session, and will probably miss tomorrow's as well, but if you're a glutton for punishment (or want to gather some evidence for the complaint you're still typing up), you can tune in via Idaho Public Television.

Blame Obama mostly Permalink to this item

There's plenty of blame to go around, but in one of the more remarkable (as in, remarkably poor) editorials I've seen in the Idaho Statesman, the paper's editorial board blames the president for rampant paranoia leading to spiking gun and ammunition sales. And what better way to start talking about "ironic consequences" than a bizarre non sequitur for the lede?

"The law of unintended consequences sometimes can be as cruel and deadly as a loaded weapon left unlocked in a gun safe."

Or as cruel and deadly as a centuries-old amendment from the days when we enslaved black men and tried to extirpate natives, eh.

Obama's failure to lead where Congress could not do so on its own can be— and has been—criticized in its own right, and if you don't agree with him, you won't like namecalling directed at you... give the board credit for slightly better than "I know you are, but what am I?" in tossing "reckless" in his general direction.

Nobody polled gun owners? I supposed no one polled gun manufacturers either, but then they probably would have said "you're doing fine, keep it up" if they hadn't been too busy to answer the phone.

"Apparently, nobody polled gun owners and would-be gun owners about how they were going to react to:

Ah, but the market poll is always open. How would gun owners react to increases in gun violence on innocents? Buy more guns! Perceived attacks on the Second Amendment? Buy more guns! Discussion of legislation (since we haven't had any actual legislation yet)... Buy more guns!

"The next time gun control advocates hope to design laws to make us safer, we hope they include some on-the-ground reality polling, a more crisp focus on identifying and treating the mentally ill and a healthier respect for established law in Idaho and throughout the United States. The ability to purchase and conceal weapons is the right of law-abiding citizens."

Tell me again where in the Constitution there's a right to conceal weapons, and again where your "crisp focus" will be aimed next, by all means. It has to sound better than we don't need new laws because the bad guys don't obey them anyway.

We have heard one perspective from gun owners, the one tirelessly promoted by the radicalized and compromised National Rifle Association: we need more guns, and more "good guys" (and presumably gals as well) with guns, so we can win more shoot-outs. Oh, and something to deal with the mentally ill. Maybe a bus ticket to somewhere else.

19.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Take a deep breath Permalink to this item

Gwen Ifill's take may be old news by now (8:00am EDT... that is so 6 hours ago), but there's still time to review Journalism 101, and try to apply its lessons for this and future events.

"[G]etting more than one source (and taking a deep breath before reporting the information) is designed to reduce the potential for error."

The stream of consciousness flowing through Twitter is the raw material of history, and sausage.

The revolution will be televised Permalink to this item

And people will follow it on Twitter and YouTube. Not that two Russian punk extremists constitute a revolution, but consider the personal report from Huckleberries commenter "Phaedrus":

"I followed this on Twitter from the initial murder of the MIT police officer until 2 am. The cable news networks, CNN, MSNBC and Fox were at a huge loss as social media was on the spot covering everything live (although not always accurately) or as close to live as possible; I watched the uploaded video of the gun battle moments after at happened."

Excerpt of Jared Wickerham/Getty Images photo for comment The photostreams coming out of Boston have a certain revolutionary feel, if not in the direction any child of the 60s might have imagined. Large urban police forces are blurring the distinction between police and military, at least in the hardware department. Orders to "stay inside and lock your doors," public transit turned off, and hundreds (at least, one report said "thousands") of police officers conducting a manhunt for the surviving brother of the two presumed perps of Monday's bombing, and a night of mayhem last night. From the NYT coverage:

"Early Friday, a virtual army of heavily armed law enforcement officers was going through houses in Watertown, outside of Boston, one by one in a search for the second suspect. The police had blocked off a 20-block residential area and urged residents emphatically to stay inside their homes and not answer their doors."

A temporary banner over the top of the Boston Globe's website says it's "currently available to all readers," by which I take it they turned off their paywall. And on the flip side, the Cambridge Police Department said it was suspending its tweeting, so as not to tip off the subject via today's equivalent of the radio scanner.

And yes, black helicopters.

17.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Arithmetic has consequences Permalink to this item

What happens if you come up with a hypothesis, crunch some data and find support for it, publish a book about it, winning widespread acclaim, and then discover you crunched the data wrong?

One possibility is you carry on and insist that hey, it's a good hypothesis, even if our data doesn't actually support it the way we thought it did. But with "eight centuries of financial folly" in your book title, it should be a little embarassing, at least. That, or the "clear, sharp analysis and comprehensive data" that you claim in the blurb. Dean Baker, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

"This is a big deal because politicians around the world have used this finding from [Reinhart and Rogoff] to justify austerity measures that have slowed growth and raised unemployment. In the United States many politicians have pointed to R&R's work as justification for deficit reduction even though the economy is far below full employment by any reasonable measure. In Europe, R&R's work and its derivatives have been used to justify austerity policies that have pushed the unemployment rate over 10 percent for the euro zone as a whole and above 20 percent in Greece and Spain. In other words, this is a mistake that has had enormous consequences."

Next time, better double- and triple-check your numbers, because 88% of spreadsheets have errors, don't you know, and some of them are whoppers.

Update, from Paul Krugman: Correlation, Causality, and Casuistry, and The Excel Depression.

15.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Complicated by design Permalink to this item

A friend complained about her struggle with some major arcana in TurboTax this year, and put a pox on it and the IRS, but don't blame the Internal Revenue Service for what Congress and Intuit have wrought; they're just the bureaucracy charged with carrying out the rules and collecting the money.

You hear a lot of Congresscritters join the chorus of complaints about the tax code, but you don't hear any of them campaigning on having successfully reduced the complexity, now do you? Never mind balancing cuts in "revenue" and "spending," there ought to be a law that anyone proposing a change in the tax code to add complexity has to find something to simplify to go with.

Simpler, and even "return-free filing" has been a good idea for decades (Ronald Reagan was in favor of it), but then you wouldn't be buying a new copy of TurboTax every year, would you? So it's worth it for Intuit to spend $11.5 million to keep that dangerous idea quiet, even if it costs taxpayers two hundred times that amount. Especially if it does; they call it "gross income."

Spinning attitudes on taxes Permalink to this item

April onions, morning If the poll results cited by NBCNews' TODAY contributor Amy Langfield are representative, the headline could have been Most Americans think Uncle Sam fair on taxes, but ho hum, amirite? Headlines are not about accuracy, they're about getting attention. More Americans think Uncle Sam is unfair! More than used to, that is, and especially among conservative Republicans. Ten years ago, when tax rates were lowered to pretty much what they are today, the "fair" respondents were closer to two-thirds than the just-over-half 55 ±4% found in the latest poll.

"Do you regard the income tax which you will have to pay this year as fair?"

was the poll question being reported upon, garnering a comparison between the alternatives of "what I pay seems fair" and "I have to pay more than is fair," I'm guessing? Ah, but no reason to limit oneself to biased media, there's a link to the Gallup report, and halfway down they did break into the third alternative:

"Do you consider the amount of federal income tax you have to pay as too high, about right, or too low?"

50% said "too high," 45% said "about right," 2% said "too low" (and the remainder said... wha?). Which is interesting, because it means some people must have said their taxes are "too high" and they're "fair." Seems like "too" and "not" should go together either way. Too low and too high are both unfair, aren't they? But that would mean only the 45% "about right" group would have answered "yes, they're fair."

Gallup observes that "the decline in Americans' belief that their taxes are fair is due mostly to Republicans' changing views"; even though the self-indentified Republicans still have a slight edge to "fair," those deeming themselves "conservatives" say "not fair" by 50 to 45%.

Gallup speculates a bit under "implications" but at least one inference is clear enough: attitudes aren't closely tied to absolute rates. "Lower" strikes most people as "fairer" (more people thought "fair" in 2003, when taxes were lowered to essentially what they are now), and vice versa. Thinking taxes are going to go up probably feels unfair too.

Gallup didn't ask me, and I don't know how I would have answered on the spur of a phone call... other than maybe to hang up? That's what I did the last time Rasmussen called, but if the Caller ID or live human being (do they still use those?) had said "Gallup," I think I'd play along. Anyway, with the benefit of reflection, and having my taxes all done, I'd say "not fair," and "too low" (and "far too complicated").

Happy Tax Day everyone! Permalink to this item

No doubt you've filed (for an extension?) by now, leaving you time to consider the bigger questions. Such as James Livingston's suggestion, "why not tax corporations as if they were natural persons, in accordance with their newly discovered rights of free speech?" As opposed to our story so far, which is that

"by slashing corporate income taxes and forcing a new reliance on payroll taxes to finance government spending, we have redistributed income to the already wealthy and powerful. Our tax system has actually fostered inequality."

Anyone out there shocked, shocked to learn all the tax code fine print favors the wealthy? A system with sufficient complexity is ripe for manipulation, even as it defies accurate measurement and direct policy choices. Who should fund government, and by what means? We have plenty of answers, and arguments for and against, and precious little knowledge of cause and effect.

People pay all taxes, ultimately, so we shouldn't tax corporations at all? Increasing taxes on corporations will discourage investment and reduce jobs? But in spite of our nominally high corporate tax rate, we see examples like G.E. paying 0% on $5 billion domestic revenue. How much lower would their tax rate have to be to fuel economic growth? (Yes, we've been trying "negative tax rates" as this compilation (PDF) from Citizens for Tax Justice shows.)

Joseph Stiglitz reports the class contest score more directly: "As the top 1 percent has grown extremely rich, the effective tax rates they pay have markedly decreased." As Warren Buffett said, his class is winning. Which could mean a rising tide to lift all boats, but not necessarily:

"One of the reasons for our poor economic performance is the large distortion in our economy caused by the tax system. The one thing economists agree on is that incentives matter—if you lower taxes on speculation, say, you will get more speculation. We've drawn our most talented young people into financial shenanigans, rather than into creating real businesses, making real discoveries, providing real services to others."

Last but not least, Richard Eskow invites us to consider the upside of taxes:

If You Can Read This...
"Public education probably helped you learn to read. And when you read anything on the Internet, you're using technology invented with tax dollars. Taxes bring other benefits too, too numerous to mention, including the greatest one of all:

"You're alive. You haven't died of smallpox or any of the other diseases that are restrained by tax-funded public health programs. You haven't been crushed inside a collapsing building, mangled by a grain [silo], or met any of the other grisly deaths prevented by tax-funded safety programs.

"You didn't burn to death in a home that was never inspected for fire hazards, trapped helplessly as the flames rose and knowing there were no firefighters available to answer your call. You and your significant other weren't shot down like Batman's parents on the streets of an under-policed and lawless metropolis."

12.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

A reasonable expectation of privacy abuse Permalink to this item

There are plenty of stories to illustrate that employees of private companies and government entities should have no expectation of privacy for their use of email systems, even though the illusion of "writing privately" while you type away is so strong. Post-cube farm, yes, I rather did have some expectation that my private email was private. Turns out the Internal Revenue Service's mileage may vary considerably.

"The documents the ACLU obtained make clear that, before [the 2010 Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals decision in United States v.] Warshak, it was the policy of the IRS to read people's email without getting a warrant. Not only that, but the IRS believed that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to email at all. A 2009 'Search Warrant Handbook' from the IRS Criminal Tax Divisionís Office of Chief Counsel baldly asserts that 'the Fourth Amendment does not protect communications held in electronic storage, such as email messages stored on a server, because internet users do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in such communications.' Again in 2010, a presentation by the IRS Office of Chief Counsel asserts that the '4th Amendment Does Not Protect Emails Stored on Server' and there is 'No Privacy Expectation' in those emails."

Somehow, the age of messages makes them more ripe for unwarranted scrutiny. The 26½ year old Electronic Communications Privacy Act drew a distinction between fresh messages and those sitting on a server for 180 days, "or [that have] been opened." Because... if you read your email, the IRS should be able to too?! I'm not seeing how that made sense back in 1986 when email was somewhat more exclusive, and now that nearly everyone has it, it makes even less sense. Just because it's easy to get at message repositories maintained by third parties does not mean it should be permissible. This needs to be fixed.

10.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Reunited, and it feels so good Permalink to this item

Probably should have seen this coming, but still, an unexpectedly rich vein of irony ore to have the Russian Parliament moving ahead on anti-blasphemy. The godless Communists are showing us the way to a glorious new church/state unification.

The first two comments on the NPR blog post are good, noting that concerns about vague wording "lead[ing] to unjustified prosecutions" "seems to be precisely the objective," and "because god is sooooo sensitive."

The Beeb infers that reference to "offences against religions that are 'an integral part of Russia's historical inheritance' would imply protection for Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism."

I'm having a hard time altering my impressions of Vladimir P. to include piety among his virtues. Even without including Buddhism, the law would have nothing to do with protecting deities or their man-made support organizations that I can see. "Offending" is an absurdly low bar for state-sponsored prosecution. Never mind "disorderly conduct," we're moving into "bad attitude" territory. A.k.a. "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred," which is what took down two of Pussy Riot to get this ball rolling.

Full bloom on the BSU campus, April 6

8.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

How the Grinch stole cookie sales Permalink to this item

The cute little girls selling cookies met their match when they went up against the good old boys of the Idaho Legislature this session. Sudeep Reddy had his fun for the Wall Street Journal, writing things like "it was all very sweet."

"[Boise lobbyist Julie Hart] and several lawmakers blame a Senate committee chairman, Republican Sen. Jeff Siddoway, and other GOP leaders for keeping the legislation from coming to the floor. Mr. Siddoway didn't respond to a request for comment.

"Ms. Hart, who steered the group's campaign as a volunteer, says she had to explain to the girls how a bill with so much support could die so quietly."

Something like... I don't know, "well sweetie, all it takes is one man who's what they call the "chairman" of a committee who doesn't want it to happen, and he can just tuck it away in his desk drawer, and that's that."

Which leaves two states, the odd bedfellows of Idaho and Hawai'i as the last two holdouts taxing Girl Scout cookie sales, at least until next session.

Baroness departs Permalink to this item

Since she had long receded from public view over here, and having seen Meryl Streep's film portrayal some while after it was new, reports of Margaret Thatcher's death today were a bit of a surprise, in that I thought she was already gone. So, let the mythmaking begin, or perhaps not: Glenn Greenwald makes a good argument that "death etiquette" is misapplied to public figures if it's rewriting a history that never happened.

"[T]hose who admire the deceased public figure (and their politics) aren't silent at all. They are aggressively exploiting the emotions generated by the person's death to create hagiography. ... Those gushing depictions can be quite consequential, as it was for the week-long tidal wave of unbroken reverence that was heaped on Ronald Reagan upon his death, an episode that to this day shapes how Americans view him and the political ideas he symbolized. ... When a political leader dies, it is irresponsible in the extreme to demand that only praise be permitted but not criticisms."

He also notes that "tellingly, few people have trouble understanding the need for balanced commentary when the political leaders disliked by the west pass away." No false etiquette was invoked on Hugo Chavez' behalf last month. The Lede blog's collection of reactions included a 1976 quote that supposedly led to Krasnaya Zvezda's (Red Star) labeling her an "Iron Lady," with this:

"The Russians are bent on world dominance, and they are rapidly acquiring the means to become the most powerful imperial nation the world has seen. The men in the Soviet politburo donít have to worry about the ebb and flow of public opinion. They put guns before butter, while we put just about everything before guns."

I can't speak for the U.K., but in this here most powerful imperial nation the world has seen, with the benefit of 37 years' hindsight, "how interesting an idea."

As one would expect (and with plenty of time to prepare), her obituary from the New York Times covers fair depth and multiple angles of a figure about whom "indifference was not an option."

Count Paul Routledge among the unenamored, an anti-hagiographer even, calling for the inquest on her life and influence.

"She enthroned the profit motive, and unleashed the spivs and speculators in the City of London. She surrendered economic policy to the mysterious dark forces of 'the market', which led UK plc into one recession after another that led to the mess where we are today."

(And that's one of the nicer parts.)

6.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

When "no" means "maybe" Permalink to this item

I've done some image editing (a.k.a. "photoshopping") over the years, always on the up and up in financial matters (and no worse than an occasional parody otherwise), but with the occasional passing thought of how easy it would be to manufacture something fraudulent. It would be, you know.

I've also signed my share of electronic tablets for this, that and the other thing, but hadn't given that much thought until reading this story about rental car counter chicanery, upselling "loss damage waivers" to unwary travelers.

The added profit from selling insurance you don't need has been around a long time, but the electronic tablet signature adds two new twists: (1) no connection whatsoever between "sign here" and the document (not that you're going to read all that fine print, but still); and (2) this (with my emphasis):

"Consumer advocates say any effort should start with a letter to the company, and, if that doesnít work (it didn't here) to try lodging a dispute with the credit card issuer. But some Dollar customers tried that with little success: Dollar sent the credit card companies receipts with their signatures. A spokeswoman for Bank of America said it was bound by Visa and MasterCard regulations on disputed chargebacks, and, if the merchant has the customer signature accepting a charge, there's not much more it can do."

If the counter agent "clickety-clickety-clicks" you into a deal you didn't ask for, and gets your digitized John Hancock to apply as needed, you're kind of up the creek without a legal paddle. The company "denied allegations," naturally. Two lawsuits against Dollar Thrifty, possibly rising to class-action status will help sort out the obvious question, posed by the plaintiff's attorney:

"In my business, one incident can be written off as a mistake, two is a little too coincidental, and when you see three, you say, 'Hey, what's going on here?'"

5.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

An unlikely place Permalink to this item

It's off to the chihuahua dome today, and the first two rubbers of the USA v. Serbia quarterfinal Davis Cup tie! Thanks mostly to BSU coach Greg Patton, the NYT has a reason to write about the ends of the earth, our little Podunk:

"Now the U.S. team's desire for novelty and any whiff of an edge has brought Djokovic to Boise, Idaho: a pleasant city of about 210,000 that most foreigners and even a few Americans would struggle to place on a map."

Not sure where Christopher Clarey sits, but if they'd called on Timothy Egan to write the story, he wouldn't have missed the altitude by a hundred feet. In New York, that would've been the difference between swimming in Sandy surge and staying cozy and dry. Here, it's the difference between a view lot, and down along the river, where BSU and the tennis venue are. Not that an extra hundred feet will affect the players this weekend, but still.

And here we are, big time tennis in our town. The local paper has even been covering the event, spilling more ink on the sport in the last week than they have in years.

USA Today has a nice feature about coach Patton. And a better estimate of the elevation.

"Patton likens this weekend to the Super Bowl, World Cup and NBA Finals all wrapped into one."

4.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Oh oh Permalink to this item

Something that behaves well enough until it can have its own way in satisfying nonhuman desires? Hmm. What if the Singularity already happened, and we got corporations?

"Pretty much the only thing that the left and right in America can agree on is that moneyed influence has corrupted American politics and yet neither side seems able to do much of anything about it.

"What if the private pursuit of profit was—for a long time—proximate to improving the lot of humans but not identical to it? What if capitalism has gone feral, and started making moves that are obviously insane, but also inevitable?"

Did you make the list? Permalink to this item

If I'm reading this correctly, it sounds like the wealthiest quarter million offshore companies, trusts, and individuals with stashes of money in the B.V.I., Cook Islands and Singapore. The "Secrecy for Sale" project is a collaboration between "the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a 15-year-old Washington-based group that obtained the secret records [and] The Guardian, Asahi Shimbun, Le Monde, The Washington Post and more than 40 other news organizations." And yes, with the potential for "acute embarrassments and political reverberations" if not outright "political shock waves."

By "vast hidden wealth," they mean "as much as $32 trillion in undisclosed wealth stashed in overseas havens." Among the "key findings" bullet points, this, that made me think of our most recent G.O.P. candidate for president:

"The mega-rich use complex offshore structures to own mansions, yachts, art masterpieces and other assets, gaining tax advantages and anonymity not available to average people."

Not happening (anytime soon), but what it would look like Permalink to this item

We have a neighbor who likes his lights on at night. Yesterday, when we came home from choir practice I noticed one of the two side lights on his garage had burned out, and my thought was "one down, two to go." Not counting the footlights along the front walk, anyway.

But it's not like any city streets are going to go dark (any more than country lanes will go devoid of yard lights), so you'll just have to use your imagination as to what major world cities would look like at night, minus the light pollution... or, you could go to Danziger Gallery's exhibition of Thierry Cohen's beautiful composite images of big cities and night skies.

(H/t to Smithsonian Magazine, and Ran Prieur.)

I like image 9, looking from Yerba Buena Island over the Bay Bridge, the marine layer making a backdrop for the San Francisco skyline. Images 13, Shanghai, and 14, Los Angeles, add another layer of imagination: clear air.

Sold and bought Permalink to this item

The Lewiston Tribune's political reporter, William L. Spence, has an excellent piece on the nuts and bolts of how lobbyists play government. (Link to the Idaho Statesman, who ran it in this week's "Business Insider" magazine.) His focus was Idaho, but the observations are do doubt general.

"[T]he Statehouse is more like a dealer's showroom [than a sausage factory]: It's less a place where things are made than a place where things are sold. And like all good salesmen, lobbyists know how to play on their customers' psychological vulnerabilities."

Since Spence's writing, one of his main examples, the Idaho Farm Bureau's remodeling of the state's initiative process (a.k.a. SB1108) was signed into law by our governor, blessing the deal with content-free phatic: "I thought it was the right thing to do," he said. Hook, line, and sinker. April Fools!

Before this new law, signatures from 6% of registered voters statewide were needed to qualify an initiative or referendum for the ballot, and only 35 measures did so in the past 77 years.

"In the past 15 years, the success rate has been about one in seven. Nevertheless, by dangling fears of an urban-liberal ballot hijacking, the Farm Bureau may well succeed in imposing a new geographic hurdle, one that requires the 6% threshold to be met in 18 of Idaho's 35 legislative districts.

"It would take just over 21% of registered voters in Ada County to get to 6% statewide," notes Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks. "If you add in Canyon County, just over 15% of voters in the two counties would be able to qualify a ballot measure."

Never mind that 100% of registered voters statewide have the opportunity to vote on any initiative or referendum that qualifies fo the ballot. Nine of the state's 35 districts are in Ada County, because that's where the population is, don't you know. But Otter says he "agreed with the arguments that it's an issue for all Idaho-why shouldn't all of Idaho be included in it?" Nominee for best legislative non sequitur of the session.)

Why shouldn't some voters in Idaho be more equal than others?

3.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The price of stupid Permalink to this item

The story of Meridian's new City Hall is a sordid adventure. The crazy big numbers in Cynthia Sewell's report for the Idaho Statesman left me wondering about underlying facts, for which the Idaho Supreme Court's judgment handed down this week is amply forthcoming. To wit:

The projected started in 2006, and was "not to exceed" $12.2 million.

Trouble ensued. Not sure what the "contaminated soil" was, but "an unanticipated groundwater issue" added a basement that wasn't in the original plans, and "upgraded offices and council chambers from those contemplated in the parties' original agreement; re-design of the Mayorís office suite; better than standard exterior stone and brick; high tech mechanical and electrical systems; and an upgraded public plaza and amphitheater" jacked the price up past $20 million, which the city approved.

The construction manager, Petra Inc. asked for 4.7% of the cost of the project in excess of the original $12.2 million, which worked out to $367,808 as of April, 2008. (Its original fee was based on that percentage of the job.)

The city took occupancy in October, 2008, and the final project cost was $21,395,962.13.

The city disputed Petra's bill, filed suit in April, 2009, "seeking a declaratory judgment that Petra was not entitled to an increased fee." (Nothing? For a project that ran 75% over the NTE amount?!)

"During the pre-trial phase, myriad motions were filed by both parties."

They had a 59 day (!) trial, spanning fourth months from Dec. 2010 to April 2011, and the court ruled against the city on all but one of its claims. They "offset" Petra's claim by $52k, to $324,808... and added on $595,896.17 in court costs and $1,275,416.50 in attorney fees.

Sewell's report says the city spent "$895,402 for an outside attorney the city hired to handle the case; $842,474 to expert witnesses; and $316,518 in other costs."

If you're keeping score, that's $4,250,487.67, and counting. But some good news for the City of Meridian:

"The attorney representing the city agreed not to charge the city for the Supreme Court appeal if the city lost."

Petra and its attorneys are unlikely to be so generous, and by the time they add up their costs and fees, call it $5 million, well over ten times the bill the city thought was way too high. (And that doesn't include the $1.1 million worth of repairs the city says it's spent on "reconstructing" the HVAC, and a new roof.)

The city's attorney appears to have been fairly unpaid for the appeal, going by Justice Jim Jones' narrative. Regarding Petra's breaches (deemed "not material") and the city's notion of liquidated damages:

"Although the City is obligated to support its contentions with propositions of law, authority, and argument, here it achieves the somewhat dubious trifecta of lacking all three. ...

"At one point in its briefing, the City expressed its familiarity with 'the more than 160,000 pages' that [this case's record comprises]. One can only presume, then, that if points of authority are conspicuously missing from its argument, they must simply not exist. In any event, this Court is not required to go fishing through the record on counsel's behalf."

And from the newspaper report, something truly magical:

"The city said Monday it set aside enough money to cover the judgment, and residents will not see any changes in services or tax increases."

Because... they planted money trees for the landscaping? Maybe that has to do with Monday being April Fool's Day. Speaking of which, an amendment to the "LESSON LEARNED?" section, wherein the city "updated its construction management practices to ensure proper checks and balances are in place to protect the city on future construction projects," may I suggest a slightly different lesson:


2.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

Gnarly ride Permalink to this item

Photo of sidewalk along N Cole When is a 5 foot sidewalk not five feet wide? When there's a utility pole plunked down in the middle of it, and overgrown landscaping encroaching from the other side. I've been thinking about that and the many other roadway and sidewalk hazards while using N. Cole Road on my bicycle lately. Went out for a walk-and-ride today and zoomed in on some of the badly done transitions, stray concrete, bad maintenance and one ugly manhole cover that I normally dodge along with traffic, to send an email to the Ada County Highway District, including a pointer to my little slide show of roadway problems on N Cole Rd in Boise.

The northbound side is really horrific for bicycling, but it also happens to be the most direct means from point A to point B that I visit regularly. (For a variety of reasons, but mostly because it's only a single lane half the way, the southbound side is relatively safe, at least down to Ustick.)

Now that I have a rearview mirror mounted on my helmet, it amazes me to contemplate the days I used to ride without that, and just hoped that no one clipped me while racing in the right lane to the next stoplight. Now I at least know what's coming, when to bail on to the sidewalk if need be, and whether I can steer around the obstacle course without taking a hit.

1.April 2013 Permanent URL to this day's entry

The new abnormal Permalink to this item

2013 crocus in our backyard No joke, almost 20% of high school boys (and 11% of all school-age children) diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? I'm with James Swanson, professor of psychiatry and ADHD researcher: "There's no way that one in five high-school boys has A.D.H.D." And no way one in ten high-school girls has it, either.

More than three million prescriptions (mostly for Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta and Vyvanse)... to $9 billion in sales last year, and more than doubled in the last five years. The "epidemic" has been awfully good for drug companies' health, at least.

O wad some Pow'r Permalink to this item

Here's how we looked to the Guardian as Google's choice of how to commemorate Cesar Chavez' birthday interfered with... well, my goodness, it's the "intention to de-Christianization of our culture." It will eventually cease to be latent, or minor, people.

On a more positive note of cultural reflection, the remarkable obituary of Yvonne Brill, "believed to have been the only woman in the United States who was actually doing rocket science in the mid-1940s," and her advice on equanimity, after

the University of Manitoba in Canada refused to let her major in engineering because there were no accommodations for women at an outdoor engineering camp, which students were required to attend.

"You just have to be cheerful about it and not get upset when you get insulted."

And her father was a carpenter, too.


Tom von Alten      tva_∂t_fortboise_⋅_org

ISSN 1534-0007

Wednesday, 01-May-2013 14:57:36 MDT