April 2012 Archives

It sounds like the Obama Administration is making some powerful and effective moves in the Asia-Pacific.

While a formidable power in many respects, and one potentially with a great future, China is simply not a peer competitor of Washington in Asia at this point, and its illusions and pretensions left China uncomfortably exposed when the real world power decided to raise its game in the Pacific Basin.

Fine tuning diplomacy is a difficult thing, especially when adjusting the relations of great powers. Since the administration began to roll out its maritime initiatives last fall, a number of things have happened -- some by coincidence, some as unforeseen consequences of steps the US took -- that have actually made our China policy much stronger and more effective than planned.

This is good to read. I've long been a China-skeptic, thinking that China's recent economic and power growth are an unsustainable bubble.

Popular Mechanics did a write-up about the Air France 447 voice recordings in December, and this recent Telegraph article draws similar conclusions. The article claims to have new revelations, but I don't see anything that is new since December.

The official report by French accident investigators is due in a month and seems likely to echo provisional verdicts suggesting human error. There is no doubt that at least one of AF447's pilots made a fatal and sustained mistake, and the airline must bear responsibility for the actions of its crew. It will be a grievous blow for Air France, perhaps more damaging than the Concorde disaster of July 2000.

But there is another, worrying implication that the Telegraph can disclose for the first time: that the errors committed by the pilot doing the flying were not corrected by his more experienced colleagues because they did not know he was behaving in a manner bound to induce a stall. And the reason for that fatal lack of awareness lies partly in the design of the control stick - the "side stick" - used in all Airbus cockpits.

Scary stuff. The voice transcripts are haunting.

I'm all in favor of finding a business reason explore the solar system, but I'm not sure that we have the technology to make asteroid mining profitable.

There are over 1,500 asteroids that are as easy to get to as the surface of the Moon. They are also in Earth-like orbits with small gravity fields, making them easier to approach and depart.

Asteroid resources have some unique characteristics that make them especially attractive. Unlike Earth, where heavier metals are close to the core, metals in asteroids are distributed throughout their body, making them easier to extract.

Asteroids contain valuable and useful materials like iron, nickel, water, and rare platinum group metals, often in significantly higher concentration than found in mines on Earth.

I'm not a geologist, but don't vulcanism and water play an important role in concentrating metals on earth into veins that can be mined? If these valuable materials are in an asteroid wouldn't they be distributed rather uniformly? How would they be separated from the rest of the rock?

For comparison, there's a lot of gold in seawater right here on earth. Water and gold are pretty easy to separate, but no one has yet found a way to make a profit doing this. Wouldn't it be exponentially more expensive to separate platinum from rock on an asteroid?

President Obama's "We Can't Wait" campaign to bypass a gridlocked Congress does not demonstrate that he has changed his opinion on the separation of powers built into the Constitution -- it shows that his earlier complaints about Bush's use of executive power were completely disingenuous.

Many conservatives have denounced Mr. Obama's new approach. But William G. Howell, a University of Chicago political science professor and author of "Power Without Persuasion: The Politics of Direct Presidential Action," said Mr. Obama's use of executive power to advance domestic policies that could not pass Congress was not new historically. Still, he said, because of Mr. Obama's past as a critic of executive unilateralism, his transformation is remarkable.

"What is surprising is that he is coming around to responding to the incentives that are built into the institution of the presidency," Mr. Howell said. "Even someone who has studied the Constitution and holds it in high regard -- he, too, is going to exercise these unilateral powers because his long-term legacy and his standing in the polls crucially depend upon action." ...

The Obama administration started down this path soon after Republicans took over the House of Representatives last year. In February 2011, Mr. Obama directed the Justice Department to stop defending the Defense of Marriage Act, which bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages, against constitutional challenges. Previously, the administration had urged lawmakers to repeal it, but had defended their right to enact it.

So... President Obama decided to change his tune on executive power immediately after his party lost control of Congress. What a "remarkable" "transformation"!

(HT: Gizmodo.)

Jon Corzine is getting away with stealing $1.6 billion because of his political connections. Meanwhile a man goes to federal prison for whistling at a whale.

John Hinderaker proposes an alternative to Obama's "Buffett Rule": how about the "Geithner Rule"?

President Obama has now admitted that the "Buffett Rule," formerly the centerpiece of his re-election campaign, is a silly gimmick that will raise hardly any money for the treasury. (Actually, it might cost the federal government money, as increases in the capital gains rate have been known to do.) So how about if, instead, we start talking about the Geithner Rule, which is: everyone pays what he owes under existing laws? ...

Most tax evaders don't wind up in prison. In fact, some wind up working for the government. Take Tim Geithner. Geithner, Obama's Secretary of the Treasury, is a tax cheat. When he worked for the International Monetary Fund, the fund did not pay withholding taxes on his income, but rather paid Geithner a specifically-designated additional amount which Geithner was supposed to use to pay self-employment taxes. Geithner kept that money, but didn't pay the taxes. Byron York explains: ...

Short version: The International Monetary Fund paid Geithner money to reimburse him for taxes he was supposed to pay. Geithner took the reimbursement but never paid the tax.

When the IRS audited Geithner, he paid what he owed for 2003 and 2004. But he didn't pay what he owed for 2001 and 2002. Why? Because the statute of limitations had run on those years, so the IRS couldn't sue him to collect the money or charge him criminally for failing to pay it. Only when he was nominated as Secretary of the Treasury did Geithner go back and pay what he owed for 2001 and 2002.

If it bothers you that our Treasury Secretary is a tax cheat then buy a TAX CHEAT! stamp and stamp it over his name on your currency.

Bush-era TSA head Kip Hawley definitely understands the problems with our approach to airport security and is right in laying the blame with the politicians rather than the TSA itself.

The crux of the problem, as I learned in my years at the helm, is our wrongheaded approach to risk. In attempting to eliminate all risk from flying, we have made air travel an unending nightmare for U.S. passengers and visitors from overseas, while at the same time creating a security system that is brittle where it needs to be supple.

Any effort to rebuild TSA and get airport security right in the U.S. has to start with two basic principles:

First, the TSA's mission is to prevent a catastrophic attack on the transportation system, not to ensure that every single passenger can avoid harm while traveling. Much of the friction in the system today results from rules that are direct responses to how we were attacked on 9/11. But it's simply no longer the case that killing a few people on board a plane could lead to a hijacking. Never again will a terrorist be able to breach the cockpit simply with a box cutter or a knife. The cockpit doors have been reinforced, and passengers, flight crews and air marshals would intervene.

This is spot-on. The only things that should be banned from aircraft are items that could bring down the plane or inflict mass casualties.

Clearly, things needed to change. By the time of my arrival, the agency was focused almost entirely on finding prohibited items. Constant positive reinforcement on finding items like lighters had turned our checkpoint operations into an Easter-egg hunt. When we ran a test, putting dummy bomb components near lighters in bags at checkpoints, officers caught the lighters, not the bomb parts. ...

1. No more banned items: Aside from obvious weapons capable of fast, multiple killings--such as guns, toxins and explosive devices--it is time to end the TSA's use of well-trained security officers as kindergarten teachers to millions of passengers a day. The list of banned items has created an "Easter-egg hunt" mentality at the TSA. Worse, banning certain items gives terrorists a complete list of what not to use in their next attack. Lighters are banned? The next attack will use an electric trigger.

All of Hawley's recommendations are good, and I'm actually quite surprised to read so many sensible suggestions from a high-level bureaucrat.

One important consideration that isn't mentioned: the long security lines are themselves tempting targets for terrorists, and an attack at an airport line would disrupt our country as much as a downed plane.

Tim Lynch explains that stand-your-ground laws are an important protection for crime victims but are not a license to provoke a fight and then kill the other person without repercussion.

With respect to incidents outside the home, the Stand Your Ground statutes clarify the law for innocent persons by dispensing with any legal obligation to retreat, hence the name, "Stand Your Ground." What has been overlooked is the fact that the statute only applies to a person under "attack." Again, the rationale is that it is bad enough for an innocent person to find himself under attack by a criminal, but to then have to worry about whether the law requires a retreat is simply too much to ask. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once observed, "detached reflection cannot be demanded in the presence of an uplifted knife." The Florida law says that if you are under attack, retreat if you like, but be assured that you may also stand your ground and fight back if that seems to be the best option. ...

When Zimmerman made the fateful decision to disregard the police dispatcher's statement to await the arrival of the police and not to follow his "suspect," he was acting outside and beyond the Stand Your Ground law. Other legal principles enter the picture and those principles run against Zimmerman. By following Martin, Zimmerman's actions set up the perilous confrontation. Consequently, he will likely be seen as an aggressor in the eyes of the law. Even if Martin threw the first punch, that punch will likely be considered the result of Zimmerman's provocation. Since Martin was unarmed, a gunshot in response to non-deadly force (fisticuffs) will probably be deemed beyond the bounds of normal self-defense. (The Florida legal system will have to consider all of the available evidence and ultimately determine Zimmerman's legal responsibility.)

I don't know what facts will be presented to a jury, but I bet this will be a complicated case for them to work out. If Zimmerman provoked the fight and then shot Martin when when Zimmerman started losing, then the shooting was not self-defense. But Martin might also have been in the wrong if his actions escalated from self-defense to delivering a beating to a prone/pinned Zimmerman. There's no reason why both men can't be guilty.

I'm very fortunate to have the best job in 2012!

I have to say that I agree: being a software engineer is fantastic fun. Please, don't anyone else get into the field.

Piracy off the Eastern coast of Africa continues but at a dwindling pace.

After two years of immense prosperity, the last year has been a disaster for the Somali pirates. For example, in the last eight months, only six ships have been captured, compared to 36 ships in the same eight month period a year ago. Pirate income is down 80 percent and expenses are up. Pirates have to spend more time at sea looking for a potential target, and when they find one, they either fail in their boarding efforts (because of armed guards, or better defense and more alert crews) or find anti-piracy patrol warships and armed helicopters showing up. Unlike in the past, the patrol now takes away the pirates weapons and equipment, sinks their mother ships and dumps the pirates back on a beach. The pirates claim that some members of the anti-piracy patrol simply kill pirates they encounter on the high seas (some nations have admitted doing this, at least once, in the past). But no one does this as official policy, and the rules are still basically "catch and release." The big change is that the patrol has become much better at detecting pirates, on captured fishing ships, and shutting these pirates down. Often the pirates bring along the crew of the fishing ships, to help with the deception. But the patrol knows which fishing ships have "disappeared" and quickly identify those missing ships they encounter, and usually find pirates in charge. The anti-piracy patrol also has maritime reconnaissance aircraft that seek to spot mother ships as they leave pirate bases on the north Somali coast, and direct a warship to intercept and shut down those pirates. The pirates have been losing a lot of equipment, and time, and money needed to pay for it.

I don't like the idea that there's a "tolerable" level of piracy, but that seems to be the most pragmatic course available.

The bottom line is that the pirate attacks, even if they took two or three times as many ships in their peak year, would not have a meaningful economic impact on world shipping. Total cost to shipping companies (ransoms, extra fuel, security equipment and services) is over $10 billion a year. For example, the international anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden costs $500 million a year, a fraction of a percent of the defense budgets of the nations involved. Politicians and bureaucrats can stand that kind of pain, and will likely do so and refrain from doing anything bold in Somalia.

Decisively dealing with pirates would necessarily harm civilians as well, and no one wants to get branded as a war criminal. So, the piracy continues.

I think that correct predictions were easier to make when we were on a shallower part of the exponential growth curve... and even back then the vast majority of predictions were very wrong.

(HT: Kotaku.)

It's all over Drudge, but just in case you missed it here is hidden camera footage of a white guy with no identification being offered Attorney General Eric Holder's primary ballot.

The only explanation for objecting to voter ID laws is that some people are perpetrating voting fraud and don't want to stop.

Ok, so she's not in a bikini, but the rest is true!

(HT: Gizmodo.)

Christ is alive!

To celebrate, here's a list of the religious affiliation of various superheroes.

(HT: Tyler Cowen.)

A reasonably useful scale of science fiction harness.

The Supreme Court justices voted on Obamacare last Friday and Drudge immediately speculated that one of the left-wing justices tipped off the president. Joseph Curl thinks that Obama's actions over the past few days show that the president was tipped-off and knows that the ruling will go against him.

And Mr. Obama no doubt already knows that's just what the court will do when it rules in June. The justices fiercely questioned the president lawyer over three days, mocking his often indefensible arguments for why the government can force Americans to buy health insurance, and then took a preliminary vote last Friday. Clearly, a justice sympathetic to the president passed along the outcome -- and Mr. Obama's comments this week certainly appear to show the court is planning to rule against the trillion-dollar mandate.

If President Obama were unsure about the ruling wouldn't he be playing nice? If he received a leak and heard that Obamacare is going to be upheld, wouldn't we be hearing "I have confidence in the Supreme Court to make the right decision"? The only possibility that fits the evidence is that Obamacare is toast.

What's most interesting to me is that Obama didn't attack the conservative justices exclusively.

US President Barack Obama on Monday challenged the "unelected" Supreme Court not to take the "extraordinary" and "unprecedented" step of overturning his landmark health reform law.

Though Obama said he was confident the court would uphold the law, the centerpiece of his political legacy, he appeared to be previewing campaign trail arguments should the nine justices strike the legislation down.

In a highly combative salvo, Obama also staunchly defended the anchor of the law -- a requirement that all Americans buy health insurance -- as key to giving millions of people access to treatment for the first time.

"Ultimately, I am confident that the Supreme Court will not take what would be an unprecedented, extraordinary step of overturning a law that was passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress," Obama said.

He says the word "confident", but he is acting defensive and angry. You do the math.

Notice that Obama doesn't decry the possibility that a conservative majority might strike down Obamacare in a narrow 5-4 vote -- he attacks the whole court. My guess:

  • Obamacare is toast
  • Obama knows that the vote is currently shaping up to be worse than 5-4 against him
  • Obama is trying to intimidate one or more left-wing justices to vote with him and narrow his loss
  • Obama is shaping the narrative in advance of this historic rebuke

A 5-4 loss might be the best outcome for Obama's reelection. Nate Silver disagrees and says that a Supreme Court loss will be a huge defeat for the President.

The latest fad seems to be articles claiming that if the Supreme Court declares President Obama's health care bill to be unconstitutional, it would be good news for him politically. This position has been argued by the Democratic pollster Mark Penn, the Democratic strategist Bob Shrum and CNN's James Carville, among others.

The theory seems to rest on the notion that Mr. Obama could use the health care bill to rally his base, either by railing against the Supreme Court or by trying to advance a new plan.

There are a few basic problems with it:

1. Mr. Obama does not face a major problem with his base, but his standing is tenuous with swing voters.
2. Among swing voters, the health care bill is not very popular.
3. The Supreme Court declaring the health care bill unconstitutional will not make it more popular among swing voters.

The health care bill is not popular with swing voters, but a properly designed (and Constitutional) replacement might be. I guess we'll just have to wait and see how this plays out.

I had never thought about it before, but it makes sense that the "whales" are able to negotiate special terms with casinos before they show up to play.

Sophisticated gamblers won't play by the standard rules. They negotiate. Because the casino values high rollers more than the average customer, it is willing to lessen its edge for them. It does this primarily by offering discounts, or "loss rebates." When a casino offers a discount of, say, 10 percent, that means if the player loses $100,000 at the blackjack table, he has to pay only $90,000. Beyond the usual high-roller perks, the casino might also sweeten the deal by staking the player a significant amount up front, offering thousands of dollars in free chips, just to get the ball rolling. But even in that scenario, Johnson won't play. By his reckoning, a few thousand in free chips plus a standard 10 percent discount just means that the casino is going to end up with slightly less of the player's money after a few hours of play. The player still loses.

But two years ago, Johnson says, the casinos started getting desperate. With their table-game revenues tanking and the number of whales diminishing, casino marketers began to compete more aggressively for the big spenders. After all, one high roller who has a bad night can determine whether a casino's table games finish a month in the red or in the black. Inside the casinos, this heightened the natural tension between the marketers, who are always pushing to sweeten the discounts, and the gaming managers, who want to maximize the house's statistical edge. But month after month of declining revenues strengthened the marketers' position. By late 2010, the discounts at some of the strapped Atlantic City casinos began creeping upward, as high as 20 percent.

Gambling by the normal rules is for suckers. Those huge, glamorous buildings are built from donations.

President Obama said it was "unprecedented" and "extraordinary" for the Supreme Court to overturn a law passed by Congress, and now the Fifth Circuit is asking him to explain his position on the power of judicial review.

Here's a bit of transcript from this morning's oral argument in Physicians Hospital of America v. Sebelius, a case involving a challenge to the Affordable Care Act:
Judge Jerry E. Smith: Does the Department of Justice recognize that federal courts have the authority in appropriate circumstances to strike federal statutes because of one or more constitutional infirmities?

Dana Lydia Kaersvang (DOJ Attorney): Yes, your honor. Of course, there would need to be a severability analysis, but yes.

Smith: I'm referring to statements by the President in the past few days to the effect...that it is somehow inappropriate for what he termed "unelected" judges to strike acts of Congress that have enjoyed - he was referring, of course, to Obamacare - what he termed broad consensus in majorities in both houses of Congress.

That has troubled a number of people who have read it as somehow a challenge to the federal courts or to their authority or to the appropriateness of the concept of judicial review. And that's not a small matter. So I want to be sure that you're telling us that the attorney general and the Department of Justice do recognize the authority of the federal courts through unelected judges to strike acts of Congress or portions thereof in appropriate cases.

Kaersvang: Marbury v. Madison is the law, your honor, but it would not make sense in this circumstance to strike down this statute, because there's no -

Smith: I would like to have from you by noon on Thursday...a letter stating what is the position of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice, in regard to the recent statements by the President, stating specifically and in detail in reference to those statements what the authority is of the federal courts in this regard in terms of judicial review. That letter needs to be at least three pages single spaced, no less, and it needs to be specific. It needs to make specific reference to the President's statements and again to the position of the Attorney General and the Department of Justice.

Aside from my belief that much of what President Obama says is useless and information-free, it's great to see a politician actually held to account for the dumb things he said. I wonder if the DOJ will actually fulfill this order or ignore it?

Illinois may be forced to cut pensions for currently retired teachers. This may violate the state constitution, but arithmetic is even more powerful than constitutions.

The Illinois Teachers Retirement System could be insolvent as soon as 2029, leading executive director Dick Ingram to raise the politically explosive possibility of reducing pension benefits for already retired teachers. ...

The state owes TRS $43 billion, an amount that will not change even if benefits for working and future teachers are reduced.

"This painful collision between what is fair and what is real is the outcome of the fact that the unfunded liability has grown to such a level that no one has been able to determine a reasonable plan or expectation to pay down this amount," Ingram wrote. "If that is the case, the only other option available that would significantly change the amount owed is to reduce past service costs for active members and retirees."

The baby boomer generation has been plundering its decedents' wealth for decades. Boomer electoral clout is fading as the generation dies off and their children and grandchildren come of age. It's understandable that the boomers would like their plunder to be secured by law and tradition, but it's unlikely that their victims will go along with the existing arrangements once the power balance has shifted.

Insiders are selling their shares.

Insider Selling.jpg

Time to chase the trend lines!

Here are some interesting numbers from an article about space debris:

With some 900 active satellites in orbit (nearly half of them American) there is a need to provide better tracking of dangerous space junk. About 75 percent of all satellites are non-military (most of them commercial, the rest government non-military birds).

So... (0.25 military) * (0.5 American) == (0.125 American military)

That seems like a very high proportion.

(HT: GeekPress.)

I'm (very) new to pinterest and not very artsy, so help me out. What's the best way for a technology company to engage with the Pinterest crowd? What can a tech company pin that might hit the mark on this new social system?

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