Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Is the GOP primary stuff done yet?


I can tell, because there's still a set of idgets running around doing their best to look like the people in their crowds, complaining about Super PACs, and sounding alternately fiscally/socially/financially conservative.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012


Thank you, LGBTQnation. I also noticed a bit of... oddness in this guy's testimony, but not quite the SAME bit of oddness. What I noticed was an absurd attempt to label as bigots those supporting passage of a bill (SB 6239) that would legalize same-sex marriage, expand civil unions, and extend various benefits to qualifying domestic partnerships in Washington state.

Give the first video link in this article a listen.

Did you catch it? He was all tangled up in grammatically clumsy, repeatedly stacking clauses, his basic point being as follows: those who support this Bill are "just as bigoted" as the people fighting against it. Apparently, this is because the Bill's supporters are "bigoted" against God's sense of fairness. Seriously. Listen to it again. Read along in the transcript as you do. I promise I'm not constructing a straw man argument here.


Just for clarity: this Hutcherson guy says that, since the Bill's proponents think it is "narrow minded", bigoted and unloving to limit marriage to one man and one woman, then it is EQUALLY "narrow minded", bigoted, and unloving to EXPAND our definitions, making them more inclusive, and providing substantially the same legal and financial benefits to legal consenting adults who wish to commit to one another, but whose genitals happen to match. And what could possibly be the cause for such Escher-like mental confusion? Well, God of course. The one man, one woman thing is how God sees to it that it is "fair", as if we are supposed to sit here and even tacitly acknowledge the blatant unconstitutionality of that sentiment.

Hey, Hutcherson! One question for you: what would your testimony have sounded like back in the anti-miscegenation days? Would it have been somehow equally unjust to advocate either FOR or AGAINST legalizing interracial marriage? Didn't God know better what was "fair" and what wasn't? Are there not numerous proscriptions in the Old Testament to the effect of not blending things like race (let alone dissimilar fabrics, FFS)? As an African American, do you think you might have any special insights there?

Or maybe he's reading this blog right now, but because he lives in Oppositeland, my article has morphed into a pleasant treatise on how it is possible to unscramble and re-shell eggs if you close your eyes REALLY hard while thinking about ice flowing uphill.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Flowers for Atheists

Me: "I'd like to send flowers to a friend. She's been having a rough time lately, so I thought I would try to cheer her up a little."

Cranston, RI florist: "What a nice thought. Did you have a price range in mind, does she have a favorite flower? How can I help?"

Me: "Just something cheerful. I don't want it to look like a funeral arrangement. I'm thinking bright colors (she's in high school), maybe a funny card, you know?"

Florist: "I understand. Let's see here... We have several arrangements to choose from. While I'm bringing those up on my screen here, I just had a quick question: is your friend an outspoken atheist?"

Me: "What??? Why on earth would THAT matter?"

Florist: "Well, if an atheist isn't outspoken - you know, if they keep it to themselves, we can help you out. But if your friend exercises her right to speak out on things that really offend her sensibilities, let alone the Constitution, then we can't deliver her flowers. That would be dishonest, you know, because then we'd be making it seem like she DESERVED to be reassured that she's fighting the good fight."

Me: ".......Yes she's outspoken. In fact, recently she was instrumental in having a prayer banner removed from a public school. Now she has people calling her evil and destructive, she's being vilified right left and center, and I'm just trying to do my part from a distance, cheer her up a bit, you know, let her know that she isn't alone and that there are lots of people who respect her courage in doing what she did."

..........dial tone........

An update & poll regarding those florists: http://news.providencejournal.com/breaking-news/2012/01/cranston-floris.html

Saturday, January 14, 2012

U.S. Energy Supply - Let's Do Some Math

There's a notion out there that the United States isn't facing a near-term energy crisis. The idea, seen here, http://www.kiplinger.com/businessresource/forecast/archive/The_U.S._s_Untapped_Bounty_080630.html, is that if we more fully extracted from known and estimated domestic energy resources, we would be just fine for at least 300 years. Like most too-good-to-be-true propositions, this one has its own issues:


1. The US has a 300-year supply of energy, at current rates of consumption. This includes petroleum in its various forms, as well as known and projected finds in natural gas, coal, etc. Alternative energies are estimated; see #2 for their proposed effect on supply and consumption.

2. Increased efficiency in using current sources in combination with the development of new and/or alternate ones will cause our consumption in absolute terms to remain constant in spite of population growth.


OK. Assumption #1 could make sense, with some caveats. It is easy enough to use publicly available information to come up with a reasonable estimate of current monthly usage of petroleum products, solar, wind, coal, hydro, etc. Given the nature of all the data, it would further be reasonable to overstate our usage somewhat, in order to be generous in our later averaging. We'll leave out smaller issues like whether power companies along the Canadian border ever sell electricity to Canada, and the opposite. We're just talking about macro numbers here.

I believe it would be appropriate to measure such usage not just in terms of barrels or cubic meters or metric tons, but also in our total BTU consumption. For example, having the metrics for both estimates of energy source volume as well as energy source output can help us compare the utility of different grades of coal or crude oil. Not all crude is create equal, and in the BTU output department this rapidly becomes a question of profitability for the entire supply chain. Do we use it to make plastic, which doesn't add to our energy supply, or might it be worthwhile to refine it into some sort of fuel? This is a macro problem, because in every instance in which part of our 300-year supply doesn't go toward the production of energy, we are removing it from that supply. If we are blending the energy and non-energy usage of our energy sources, then we deserve to be ridiculed for not using good sense in designing our estimate models.

The next bit is even more challenging: we must come up with a way to identify and quantify known reserves of various energy sources, whether they be coal seams, oil deposits (shale, coastal, wildlife refuge, and so forth), gas deposits, and of course proposed wind farm sites, solar sites, and all the other energy assets we can think of. This is, after all, an extremely important question; no statistician will ever feel comfortable making estimates based on estimates based on estimates, and then projecting out centuries into the future, without having substantial caveats.

Firstly, I think it important to understand that consumption varies. As time moves forward, will we continue to encourage people to drive greener cars by way of tax subsidies? Will we have the political will to keep after the auto manufacturers by way of increasing CAFE standards? The Republicans have routinely poo-pooed the idea of subsidizing green jobs or renewable energies. Is there a way to take this into account? These and other questions are important to keep in mind as you read the following math walkthrough. Remember that I'm taking their supply estimates at their word; they could in reality turn out to be much greater or much lesser. Obviously this would affect our numbers, so we would always need to be in a constant state of refinement as we track real numbers as they happen, revising the models as needed.

The following are just a few rough calculations. Let's walk through this:

300 years is 3600 months.

Think of this as though it were a loan with no interest rate, so that our 300-year supply becomes easy to amortize. Thus, much like a monthly mortgage payment, we can easily see how long it will take to deplete our 300-year supply, if one or more of our assumptions are wrong. For easy numbers, let's say that our total "loan" is $3,600,000 (for a total repayment rate of $12,000 per year). Thus, at current rates of consumption, we are "paying down" our "loan" (I.e., depleting our supply) by $1000/month. If absolutely nothing changes on either side, then we will completely deplete our energy supply in 300 years.

Yes, I know this is drastically oversimplified. However, as I discuss below, so is this whole 300-year setup. The longer I think about this rationally, the more websites and sources I see that seem to be shouting this figure (or similar) from the rooftops, the more convinced I am that its expositors are relying on their viewers' disinclination toward math and physics.

So, we've got this $3.6million loan, and we are paying it down $1000 per month. In our simplified scenario here, we are thinking of this as a zero percent loan. The principal (supply) is fixed in our scenario. Currently, the US gets around half its oil from abroad. With only 50% domestic production, a substantial amount of the chaos in the assumptions about oil is largely out of our hands. Although this article claims this 300-year supply would be achievable "without importing a single barrel of oil," I don't bother giving that credence. No country anywhere will deplete their own reserves any faster than they need to.

That having been said, what I'd like to do is calculate the effect of a very small but steady increase in our usage. Now, like the people that came up with the 300-year concept, I'm going to use somewhat unrealistic numbers, like a perfectly steady rate of consumption increase.

So, what happens if Assumption 2 is just a smoodge off? Say, efficiency of new technologies isn't quite overcoming population growth, the net effect of which is that our annual consumption is climbing 1% per year. A perfect 1% rate of increase would mean that each year we increase our payment by 1% over the previous one. Doesn't sound like much, does it? Well, at a 1% rate of increase, how early do we run out, in our perfect 300-year scenario? What about a 2% annual increase? 3%? Given historical increases of 4-8%, and given the ever-increasing appetite of emerging market nations, I think this question is perfectly reasonable, if not mandatory.

Using a simple Rule of 70 approach, we can be highly accurate:

At 1% annual growth, our annual consumption rate doubles every 70 years. Keep it simple and forget that along the way we will be taking a bit more out of our 300-year supply each year. Let's just double it at years 70 and 140:

Years 1-70: we use 70 years' worth of our supply.
Years 71-140: we use 140 years' worth. We have 90 years' worth left at the start of Year 141.
Years 141-210: we would use 280 years' worth, but we don't have that much left.

1% per year increase, on average, really simplified, drops that 300-year supply to ~165 years, because we would run out in Year 165 or so.

2% per year, using the same formula, we run out in Year 120 or so.

3% per year, using the same formula, we run out in Year 100 or so.

If we are able to uncover another year's worth of supply, in whatever form, then we simply have another 12 months before the reckoning. If, however, we have a BP-like event, which effectively shuts down production--even for a short period--of a healthy reserve, concurrently wasting resources in the form of spillage, then somewhere, somehow, we will have to lean a bit more heavily on different sources. Supposing three oil derricks are disabled one fall due to a severe storm? If they aren't producing, then some other site needs to crank out more for us.

All such minor interruptions must be factored in, even if roughly. Major ones should as well, for that matter. When they aren't, our projections lose at least some of their integrity. When you couple those oversights with the many other ones already discussed, these projections have no integrity. We would be just as "accurate" if we said that we'll wind up somewhere between just fine and totally screwed.

In any case, the 300-year claims just don't hold up to scrutiny. Their disregard for basic realities is appalling, and they shouldn't be used as an argument against the promotion and reasonable subsidization of renewable alternatives--indeed, these numbers should reinforce the sense of urgency we should have in developing and improving non-fossil fuel and renewable energy technologies.

The shoddiness of these blatantly unrealistic and contrived "facts" reflects badly on their creators, and the fact that they are routinely used in order to misinform the public is irresponsible and unethical.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Pope's Curious Sense of Timing

As a former very devout Catholic, I can recall believing deeply in the church's positions on various issues, from abortion to social justice. Twenty years ago (and more), the Catholics used to have some difficulty getting their full agenda pushed, because they'd tend to agree with the Democrats on social justice issues, but with Republicans on abortion issues.

This created an interesting tension, because they would constantly be asking both sides to fight each other and delay or stall the others' legislative initiatives. Ultimately, it came down to a question of opportunism: if the Democrats had control, the church would tend to push more for social justice issues, only really diving into the abortion side of things if the Democrats started getting uppity in the reproductive rights department.

I'm curious to learn the special motivation which is causing the Pope to weigh in, Santorum-style, on the whole gay marriage issue. Seems a curious time to add that to their repertoire on such a scale. Generally, Rome stays behind their front line, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They do all the heavy lifting so as to avoid the perception that Rome is ruling from afar and meddling directly in US politics.

Why now? Why didn't Rome yell its fool head off last year during the Planned Parenthood debacle? Why not throw Chris Pitts a bone, and proclaim that his latest attempt to undo decades of legal precedent in one misogynistic swoop? How about some Papal shouting about DOMA, or DADT?

No no, gay marriage is what finally got Benedict off his cathedra. Not when Santorum was advocating a Catholicism Americanum six months ago, or 3 months ago... Or in years past when any number of other candidates spoke out against extending what are largely legal benefits to people whose marriage contract might not be substantially different from any number of JOP-wed hetero couples.

Anyone else find that curious?

Monday, January 9, 2012

[ Venture ] Capitalism & Mitt Romney

John Marshall makes a good point in his Talking Points Memo commentary on the recent video trailer about Mitt Romney: it is a bit ironic to hear a sort of "Capitalist America is what it's all about" introduction which is then followed up with a Mordor-style hatchet job on one expression of Capitalism. The video was made by Winning Our Future, a PAC supporting Newt Gingrich.

To be fair, I should point out to my readers who aren't bothering to watch the video that it was not specifically endorsed by Gingrich, and I am unable to find a reference online to him endorsing it, beyond the usual Mitt slams in the two recent debates.

For me, it isn't about Romney, and it isn't about Gingrich.  It's not even about the spooky style (ffs, it comes across as a trailer for a new Saw movie).  It's about the intellectual disconnect in the message.

We can reasonably assume that the Gingrich campaign has seen the video.  We can further assume that, if its contents offended Newt's sensibilities sufficiently, he would have distanced himself from its message.  We can further assume that, since he hasn't--he seems to be getting a fair amount of mileage out of the Evil Bain meme--this video is something about which Newt is anywhere from "meh" to "schwing!".  Most importantly, the campaign must feel that at worst this video does no harm to Newt, and at best is a powerful case against Mitt Romney.

If the Right means what it says about the wisdom of the free market, or the power of Capitalism to bring America back to its prior economic glory, then we must ask them how restrained (ie, regulated) or unrestrained (ie, Ayn Rand's "absolutely unfettered") they would like to be.  This video certainly doesn't attempt to make a nuanced case for reasonable regulation, inasmuch as it is only a 3 minute teaser for a longer documentary... but is it too much to ask that they don't contradict themselves so blatantly?  It really just comes across as being silly, especially with the generic piranha-approaching-the-
surfing-contest music.

These are people who take pride in making so many issues sound purely black and white, and Capitalism is no exception.  How often do we hear GOP candidates extolling free markets while lamenting regulations?  Capitalism often is portrayed as the ideal to strive for; the free marketplace is supposed to be much more efficient and generally better for people.  Those idgets over in Europe just can't get anything right.  Government is incapable of effectively or efficiently regulating the economy, so we should just leave the economy alone.  Hey, it worked for our first 100 years or so, didn't it?

I make a hollow laughing sound in their general direction.

After the worst financial meltdown we've seen in our lifetimes, and after so many investigations revealing the extent to which both large banks and their regulators were at fault, these are the people who are saying that regulations are strangling the banks' ability to provide credit.  Do they ever listen to themselves?  I don't think ALL regulations are perfect, but if an environment of lax regulators combined with loophole-ridden rules was able to help produce the Great Recession, just exactly what the F do you expect will happen if we go back to a "more pure", less regulated system?

Hey, Capitalists!!!  If you're serious about the whole "free market" thing, Romney's your guy, because he has the most experience with one of the purest forms of Capitalism: predation.  Here's one way it works, Romney-style:

NB: There are thousands of firms around the world that do this; to say Romney's Bain Capital was exceptionally cruel or unusual for a capital management corporation would be extremely unfair.

You hire a team of analysts and start looking for opportunities.  An opportunity might be a new investment vehicle, or a new business idea, or (even better) it could be a troubled company with basically solid fundamentals and cash-flow.  The reason it's better to buy a troubled company is that there is far less risk.  You're paying pennies on the dollar for a huge portfolio of assets, and if the deal isn't quite sweet enough, you have the leverage to dump employees as a way to keep the balance sheet happy in the short term. In contrast, new ideas tend to have a high initial capital:failure rate, and new businesses that DO succeed sometimes take years to become truly profitable. Until then, your investors are financing the deal while tapping their feet waiting for a return on their investment.

Remember that not all capital management corporations walk into a deal with the specific strategy of breaking their companies into pieces, firing everyone, and selling all the assets off for cash.  Capital management is about scoring home runs, yes, but it really thrives on getting steadily high rates of return relative to the overall market.  It is always preferable (at least for the PR) to buy a company, make it better, and then patiently look for a serious buyer while you reap returns on that improved investment.

Now here comes the cruel part.  Employees are assets, and expensive ones at that.  Take into account everything that goes into hiring, training, and maintaining an employee, and it's some serious money.  Therefore, when a company is underperforming, employees are one of the first things on the chopping block.  Firstly, layoffs can save tons of money for the effort.  Secondly--if handled properly--layoffs can have a very positive effect on the remaining employees' productivity.  Thirdly, they allow for rather dramatic reorganizational efforts, which can ultimately help the company as a whole get back on it's feet and begin rehiring.  And when they DO rehire, they'll be able to plan and follow their productivity goals far more efficiently.

Companies like Bain Capital are very very good at finding weaknesses and exploiting them.  They are also very very good at defining an opportunity and maximizing its potential for their investors.  If they have to lay off a third, or a half, or all the employees at a given concern, they'll do that.  If they have to close a division, throwing most of a town into unemployment, they might do that, too.  If they have to add employees, they'll do that as well.  It is critical to remember that Bain Capital, like most businesses, has competitors out there, and their investors know this. If Bain doesn't perform well enough for them, someone else will.

Probably the most important thing that you won't hear is this: Every company that gets bought, was sold.  We presume that these deals were all legal.  Thus, Bain walks in, voluntarily makes an offer, and the company voluntarily accepts said offer.  Transaction over.  Bain is now in charge, because it owns the majority position.  If Bain then needs to close a division, or lay off some employees, then they have every right to do that, and if they are publicly traded, they are most likely REQUIRED to do that.  The difference between firing an incompetent worker and closing an unprofitable division is numbers, not philosophy.

This is just one demonstration of Capitalism at work, and it is one of the purest forms thereof.  Learn from it.

In conclusion, apart from the whole Don't-Nominate-Mitt-Because-He's-Not-Newt thing, why are Newt's folks bitching about Romney's background? Are they seriously saying that *gasp* Capitalism needs restraining regulations????  Or are they merely making the argument for moral or compassionate Capitalism?  Are they really saying that we could unregulate much of the economy without dire results for those not in financial or political power?

For a black & white issue, this one sure seems to look MUCH better in grey.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Creationism & Conservatism - Two Sides, Same Coin

Almost a year ago, I uploaded a video that I had worked on intermittently for something like 7 months.  I just found it linked on another blog site, and was touched to find it being treated fairly well.  I reviewed it and found it to be pretty good, although there are certainly things I would change.  My voice, for one.

Anyway, this is where my brain is almost a year later... this will be a bit on the rambly side but as I explain below, I have my reasons.

I discourage you from reading my post at the same time the video is playing.

In this video are my thoughts on creationism and its proponents, and how they are still attempting to make a case for teaching religion in our science classrooms.  In this video, I also compare this philosophical approach to that of our current conservative movement in America.

What they have in common is the quality of being selective in their facts, and ideological in their implementation.  In both cases, their reasoning is incomplete and deserving of ridicule.

I am seeing a lack of respect for the basic idea of a "fact."  We must have facts in order to move forward.  Facts are units of information or data on which both sides can agree.  It is fascinating to me that although so many influential people on the Right (and a few on the left, to be fair) continually ignore and intentionally suppress facts, while simultaneously deliberately misinforming their viewers, the charade is rarely challenged.  They act as though their listeners are rationally analyzing the situation in order to arrive at a reasoned approach toward a solution to a problem, but what is happening in reality is that their ideal "solution" has already been chosen, and now all they have to do is dishonestly parade a bunch of supporting "facts" to make it sound reasonable.

If we are to follow the All The President's Men philosophy, and always engage our skepticism by always Following The Money, then every time we see a flagrant disregard for full honesty, shouldn't we ask ourselves who would profit?  I think it's fair to assume that the dishonest among today's influential talking heads aren't being dishonest for fun.  Is it really just a case of keeping the paycheck coming in?

When fundamental facts are challenged by one side or another, it begs the question: why challenge the facts?  Are we doing things in the correct order?  Are we starting with impartial information, thenceforward arriving at a solution or approach that seems to be agreeable to most of the people involved?  Are we really doing that?

When one side's talking points are nearly universally misinformed, AND there seems to be no possibility for correction or reconciliation, what is our recourse as thinking people?

The video below is something I put together during the rise of the Tea Party movement, such as it is.  I compared their tactics and philosophical approach with those of the creationism movement.  In both, I see frequent disinformation, faulty reasoning, historical ignorance, blatant dishonesty, appeals to emotion, and, perhaps worst, revisionism in the historical record.

As I hinted above, some of my posts are finished, completed projects, and some are more of a ramble - a mental filedump where I spend a few minutes getting my thoughts into pixel form.  This post, in my view, certainly is in the latter category; although I won't apologize for it, I believe that the video below may help you understand where I'm headed, at least in general terms.  This line of reasoning is far from complete, and I confess that it is still somewhat undeveloped.  However, I think I did well with the script and presentation, so without further ado, I invite you to watch and comment on Creationism: a Square Peg in a Round Hole:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

The Perfect, the Cantankerous, & the Bigot

Last night's Iowa Caucuses: Basically a three-way split between the perfect guy, the cantankerous one, and the GOP's most visible bigot.

The perfect guy's finish was essentially the same as his finishes in all those debates last year: not too strong, not too weak, but still solidly in the top of the pack. To this extent, nothing has changed in the last ~7 months.

The cantankerous one saw one of his best showings ever, also aligning with his typical debate results: give him a chance to shine, and he'll get applauded disproportionately to the rest.

The bigot, however, was a bit of a surprise. Perhaps it is a case of the GOP saying, "OK. We'll try out THIS guy for a few weeks, and the only reason he's next is because it would seem far too rational to throw our lot in with Huntsman." It isn't too surprising to see Republicans pander to ideology, obviously... But sometimes one has to take a moment to analyze exactly what you are getting in exchange for that opportunity cost.

It amazes me that with a world full of problems, issues, concerns, potential threats, dangerous political ideologies, etc., one of the two biggest parties spends such an inordinate amount of time on one region: the pelvic one. Think about how much effort and posturing went into the attempted redefinition of rape last year, let alone the attempted defunding of Planned Parenthood. Think about how much time so many GOP candidates (and their spouses in many cases) spend fretfully wringing their hands worrying that, somewhere, someone is misusing an anus.

To be fair, it wouldn't be the first time that a candidate touted only one or two main issues. Indeed, it seems that successful presidencies tend to have a rather narrow focus in terms of where they spend the majority of their political capital. Santorum the Bigot has chosen the family as his anchor issue, but he can't do it rationally AND court the evangelicals.

This is the guy who wants to enhance the tax code's fiscal policy/social policy by significantly increasing tax deductions for children, for example. He wants one married man having missionary-style vaginal intercourse with his one female wife, he wants every single fertilized egg (NB: they prefer to be called "little people") to be carried to term, thenceforward to learn about creationism, mini ice ages, abstinence, Jesus, our fundamentalist Christian Founding Fathers, and of course the evils of socialism.

Bear in mind--this is important--absolutely NONE of this is compatible with a world in which two legal, consenting adults are entitled to the same treatment under the tax code as two OTHER legal, consenting adults who are "married.". It could NEVER happen, says the Bigot. The idea of allowing one group of people, substantially in the minority, the same privileges and financial advantages as another would absolutely DESTROY the majority's ability to live their lives the way they wish. It would undermine the very essence of the family. Plus, buttsex is icky.

In short, what the hell are we supposed to think of the GOP now? What was Jon Huntsmans's crime against the Party? What is so amazingly bad about him that prevents him from getting higher than a margin of error in polls?

More on this later...