Friday, April 22, 2016

Another Thing I Didn't Know About Art

A front page story in the NYT today discusses the polar opposite financial situation that the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) and the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) find themselves in.  While MOMA just received a $100 million donation from David Geffen, the Met is struggling with a $10 million deficit and will have to cut programs and staff in order to get their house in order.  It certainly is an indication of how popular modern and contemporary art, an area that the Met has studiously avoided, has become. However, the Met has many thousands of objects, some of which never see the light of day and you would think that they might consider selling off one or two of those items in the basement in order to shore up their finances. But, apparently, this is strictly verboten. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) requests its members not to associate themselves with any museum that actually sells some of its art work, rather than curating it forever. Now they have some possibly valid reasons for this, primarily because it may concern donors that their gifts could be sold off on a whim. But you would think there might be some exception for items that never actually get displayed or when the museum is in desperate financial situation.

Now I know my ignorance of art is pretty broad, but I was truly surprised to find this out.  Just another thing I never knew...

The 80s Returns to Our Area

Some other musical acts recognizable from my long ago youth are coming to the Fairfield/Bridgeport area in the next few days.  And no, I don't mean Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton! On Saturday, Bruce Hornsby will be at the Edgerton Center at Sacred Heart University. And next Wednesday, Spyro Gyra will be at FTC Stage One. There are a limited number of seats still available for both shows.

Astrophotography Adventure (cont'd) - next attempt

After a rather disappointing first attempt at imaging the Moon and Jupiter with my Starblast 4.5 inch and an iPhone, it's time to give it another try.  The pictures from the first try were definitely overexposed and also seemingly out of focus, although it was tough to tell because of the overexposure. This time I used the Low Boost on the ISO on NightCap Pro and I upped the magnification to around 140X (7.5mm eyepiece with 2X Barlow).  I decided to just try photos of the moon with this configuration and my hope was that the higher magnification would help make it easier to achieve focus as the lunar craters would be an easy focus point.  And I have to say I am pretty pleased with the results:

Still a bit out of focus, but so much better than the first overexposed images. The crater Tycho is in the lower middle of the photo and you can kind of make out the rays system that extends from it. Other than being cropped, there was no post-processing for this image.  I'm sure some work in GIMP could improve it quite a bit.

This one is even better, showing Copernicus with its rays in the lower middle left and the Jura Mountains in a semicircle in the upper left edge.

I'm pretty pleased with these, considering this is just the second attempt with the iPhone.  The Low Boost increased the low range of ISO and easily eliminated the overexposure problem.  Then it was just adjusting the exposure time to see what kind of picture you got.  There is still an issue with the focus and I'm not quite sure why that is. Both of these images are simply photos - I haven't even begun to play with video and Registax. And neither have them have been post-processed in any way.  I'm pretty sure that post-processing could improve both these pictures greatly.
Obviously, excluding the Sun, the Moon is probably the easiest photographic target. The next easiest is probably Jupiter. So next time I will try again with Jupiter using what I've learned here. That's just the way astrophotography goes...

New Proposals for Restricting Wall Street Pay

New rules that put restrictions on how some Wall Street firms pay out bonuses were put out for comment by one of the six government agencies responsible for adopting those reforms. The rule changes were mandated by Dodd-Frank which became law in 2010 and the initial proposal which came out in 2011 was considered so weak it had to be shelved.  Finally, nearly 5 years later, we have a new set of proposals and they certainly don't look like they will change they way Wall Street compensates their top people in any substantive way.  As the New York Times notes, "(T)he proposals leave many financial firms, including large asset managers and hedge funds, shielded from the new restrictions because of the way the regulators have defined which institutions are subject to them...For those institutions subject to the rules, the new restrictions are broadly in line with changes that many banks have already been making since the financial crisis". I would still expect the bankers to complain that these proposals are too restrictive and interfere with the conduct of their business.  But the fact of the matter is that this is probably a win for Wall Street, again.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Marathon Man - Ben Beach

I've discussed what a great time of year this is for sports fans.  And one of the premier events is the Boston Marathon which celebrated its 120th running on this past Monday. Well, Ben Beach, a great friend of this blog, just finished his 49th consecutive Boston Marathon in 5 hours and 31 minutes, far below the 6 hour cutoff time that the Marathon recently imposed for those runners who have run 25 or more consecutive years. So Ben has qualified for 2017 and his 50th in a row - quite an achievement, especially considering the fact that dystonia severely restricts the miles he can put in for training. Here is a nice article on Ben that ran before the 2015 marathon discussing his record-breaking exploits. A veritable youngster in his mid-60s, Ben is closing in on the legendary Johnny Kelley's feat of finishing 58 Boston Marathons. What's even more incredible is that this is not the only streak of this length that Ben has going - he has a similar run of attendance at Harvard-Yale football games. What dedication!

Reducing CO2 Emissions Gets Cheaper and Easier

Despite the collapse of oil and coal prices, investments in wind and solar technology continue to soar and prices for the energy they produce continues to fall. As the above article indicates, "recent solar and wind auctions in Mexico and Morocco ended with winning bids from companies that promised to produce electricity at the cheapest rate, from any source, anywhere in the world". Yes, even cheaper than oil, coal, or gas power plants with the prices of those source materials at recent historic lows. And the key point about wind and solar energy is there is only one direction for prices to go and that is down. Since wind and solar are basically technologies with no source fuel costs that create the variability in prices that we see with traditional energy production, increased efficiency and economies of scale will continue to push prices lower. As of 2016, renewable energy sources now account for nearly 18 percent of total US energy production.

Another innovation that also helps reduce carbon emissions is the exponential improvement in battery storage systems. Battery backup is not just for your phone or computer anymore. Big energy consumers are finding it cheaper to switch over to these large battery systems during peak pricing hours and utilities are finding it cheaper to provide battery-stored power rather than "turning on" natural gas fueled peaking power plants during peak demand. As with solar and wind, we can only expect the storage technology to become cheaper and more efficient in the future.

2015 was the first year the world saw a reduction in global emissions during a year of economic growth, albeit weak. Obviously, the economic downturn in China, India, and Asia in general had a lot to do with that.  The real question is whether wind and solar can become attractive enough alternatives for those Asian dynamos to forgo using coal if and when their economies pick up again. Now declining global emissions do nothing to solve the problems that are "baked in", so to speak, due the amount of carbon dioxide we have already put into the atmosphere.  But it is a start to reducing global warming's impact and as the technology for solar and wind improves along with some global political will, the day of declining emissions may be a lot closer than we think.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Mercury After Sundown

Mercury, the innermost planet in our solar system, reached its greatest elongation Monday night but, of course, it was cloudy around here. Fortunately, however, the planet should be easy to see in the north/northwest about 45 minutes after sundown for the next week to ten days. It will still be twilight, but if you can find the Pleiades, Mercury will be the bright object almost directly south of that open cluster, fairly low on the horizon. In a telescope, the planet appears as a crescent with one third of the planet illuminated.  Hopefully, I can get out one evening and try to get an image of it for my astrophotography adventure.

Spring in Southern Connecticut

After a few days in a row of temperatures in the 60s and even 70s (finally!) and the forecast for more of the same in the next few days, the buds on most of the trees here in southern Fairfield County have just opened up.  And in another week or two they will pretty much all be in full bloom. Maybe it's just me in my old age, but it seems like the transition from winter to summer that is spring is a lot shorter than I remember - it all just happens so quickly now.

The Cherry Blossoms Are Already Out

The Oak Is Has Just Popped

The Lilacs Are Getting Ready to Blossom


Astrophotography Adventure (cont'd) - First Photos

So, here we go - the very first attempt at imaging.  There were two inviting targets to shoot at, the Moon and Jupiter.  And here are the rather poor results:


The Moon

Both shots terribly overexposed!! Obviously, I need to become more familiar with the NightCap Pro application. I probably need the use the low ISO boost option and cut down the exposure time even more. And I've also found it hard to make sure I am properly focused when looking at what I see in the app.  But it's a start and it's clear this can be done. I think it's just going to take some trial and error with the app in order to get things right.  But that is true of any kind of astrophotography you do.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Importance of Feeling the Bern

Just a quick addendum to my  "Feeling the Burn" post, specifically referencing the incredible importance of the Sanders' candidacy moving the Overton window to the left and raising the issues that are important not only to the Democratic Party, but to the nation itself.  John Judis had a marvelous post on how you can absolutely support the political guideposts that Sanders has laid out while still recognizing the necessity of voting for Hillary if she wins the nomination. Sanders' positions on free college education, single-payer health plan, and the need to overturn Citizens United and restore full voting rights for all are now part of the mainstream political conversation. And, incredibly, and seemingly under the radar, he has also moved acceptable views on the ever-intractable Israeli/Palestinian issue. It is hard to believe that a candidate, even a candidate of the Jewish faith as Sanders is, could say that Israel's action in Gaza was "disproportionate" and that the Palestinians need to be treated with respect and not have those statements cause over-the-top outrage but instead apparently receive applause, especially when those statements were made in New York. Hopefully he can move the acceptable views on this issue in the same way that Duncan Black started changing the whole conversation about Social Security.

It is just another example of how important Sanders' candidacy is. And whatever happens tonight in New York, I hope Bernie stays in it all the way to the convention if he loses. His message is too important and bears repeating so the whole country can hear - he is laying down the markers for a progressive future.

Traffic Question

How is it that you can be cruising along at 65mph on I95 and then suddenly traffic comes to a complete stop. After crawling along for a minute or so, all of sudden the road opens up and you are back up at 65.  Somewhere in the haze of my formal education, I think I remember a statistical/mathematical theory that covers this phenomenon. But it is just another one of those increasing number of things that I find incomprehensible.

Taxing Moments for States

The layoffs have begun in the Connecticut state government as budget talks continue and Governor Malloy opts not to increase taxes in order to close the deficit. As the Times article indicates, Connecticut gets one half of its tax revenue via the income tax. Unfortunately, as income inequality increases and the top 0.1% get richer, this means that the state is actually relying on fewer and fewer people for more and more of that income tax.  Correspondingly, as the rest of us seem to end up in lower paying jobs, the tax base provided by the majority of the population is shrinking.  New Jersey has recently run into this problem when just one taxpayer's move to Florida has actually put the state budget in jeopardy.  Now part of this is a distinctly New York City metropolitan area problem, as the outrageous money made on Wall Street has also been a lucrative tax source for New York and the neighboring states and those states seem to have become over-reliant on those incomes. But no state should be in a position where a single individual or, for that matter, corporation has so much influence on their tax base. Now the obvious answer is to have income spread rather evenly over a large portion of taxpaying public. But that is obviously not a problem the states can resolve in the short term. Cutting spending, as Connecticut is doing, is another alternative, but that can only take them so far. The only other option seems to be increasing consumption or sales taxes but that is a place that politicians are loathe to go. In the end, that may be their only choice unless they can find some other creative solution.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Feeling the Burn

I know this is the time of the presidential primary season when supporters of a candidate behind in the delegate count say they will NEVER vote for the presumptive nominee. And, yes, 99% of these same voters will come back into the fold and vote for that nominee when November rolls around.  I understand the passion of the Sanders' supporters - in fact I agree with him on the majority of the issues. But I must say I am dismayed and a little bit shocked by the "Bernie or Bust" and #neverhillary movement, especially coming from those people who, if I may say so, are old enough to know better.  Perhaps I can forgive his younger supporters who may not have been focused on relatively recent history; but I can't forgive those older voters who vow to not participate or, worse, support Trump over Hillary because, like Sanders, Trump has shown disdain for our trade deals and doesn't play politics as usual.  I have only two words for these people: Ralph Nader.

Those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it.  Like Sanders, Nader believed the whole system was corrupt and he had a similar "pox on both their houses" when it came to distinguishing between the Republican and Democratic parties. And, because of those 2.74% of people who voted for him and countless others who did not bother to vote at all, we got one of the worst presidents in generations in George W. Bush - a president so bad even his own party has largely disowned him.  We got a disastrous war in Iraq that has spawned a generation of terrorists, has destabilized not only Iraq but Syria, and creates enormous pressure on neighboring Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. We got Guantanamo and waterboarding. We got Katrina. We got John Roberts and Samuel Alito on the Supreme Court. We went from an over $200 million annual surplus to doubling our national debt, increasing income equality, and the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression that we are still trying to dig ourselves out of. And I could go on...

Listen, Bernie has run a great campaign, an honorable campaign.  He has focused like a laser on the critical issues - money in politics, the power of Wall Street and the corporatocracy, free college education, single-payer health plan, and the way the game is currently rigged.  He has steered clear of criticizing Clinton over all the faux-scandals like emailgate and Benghazi! and focused on substantive areas where she is weak - the close ties to Wall Street, the interventionist foreign policy, and her general incrementalism. He has moved Hillary to the left on the minimum wage, TPP, and the Keystone pipeline; and has moved the Overton window to the left accordingly. And this is probably just the beginning of the debate within the Democratic party between the incrementalism represented by Clinton and more revolutionary change represented by Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The stakes in this election are incredibly high and to ponder sitting the election out is, frankly, unthinkable.  The Supreme Court potentially hangs in the balance with repercussions for women, labor, voting rights, immigration, and restraining the power of the corporatocracy. I may prefer a single-payer plan, but I'm not willing to put the millions of people who finally could get affordable health insurance at risk by letting a Republican Congress and President repeal Obamacare through the budget reconciliation process - I doubt they would do it, but do I want to find out?

With Sanders and Warren, progressives have a strong voice in the current Democratic party.  It is possible that Democrats will take over the Senate this year. So, rather than taking the ball and going home because our preferred candidate is not getting the nomination, we should all be focused on winning more congressional seats in off-year elections and retaking so many of the state houses that we have lost.  The demographics are with us and the opportunity to break the gerrymandered grip that Republicans have on the House could be within our grasp with the 2020 Census, as is a filibuster-proof majority in the Senate. It would be nice to take these opportunities because then there would be the chance for the revolutionary change that Sanders' supporters seek.

Now this whole post may be moot in another 36 hours if Bernie wins New York. But if he doesn't, or the next time Hillary waffles or obfuscates, and you find yourself thinking you just can't vote for her, put that thought out of your mind and repeat after me: Ralph Nader, Ralph Nader, Ralph Nader.

The Church Confession

Just a quick review of the Church concert on Saturday night at FTC Stage One. I admit that I was barely familiar with the band but did remember they had the big hit in the 80s with "Under the Milky Way". There were two sets - the first set comprised their entire 1982 album Blurred Revolution plus one other song; the second set was songs from across their ouvre, including their most popular numbers.  At the risk of insulting the band, I would describe them as kind of like the House of Love with quite a bit more electric guitar work. The band was dynamic and it seemed they enjoyed the intimacy of the venue. With the passion and professional craftsmanship of the band and the two sets, it was easily worth the price of admission.

Reality Check - Debt and Deficits

Monday's Reality Check - a weekly presentation of facts and figures to help us all discuss important issues with some degree of understanding. Because, despite living in this post-modern, post-truth world, the fact remains that facts still remain.

Continuing our discussion of the US Federal Budget, today we are going to be looking at two important elements that, too often, get confused - the deficit and the debt. The deficit is the annual amount that spending by the government exceeds revenue collected.  As we mentioned in the prior post, the deficit for FY 2015 is $438 billion. On the other hand, the debt is simply the total amount of outstanding debt at any given time.  As of March, 2015, the total federal government debt came to around $18.100 trillion. Now one of the problems in talking about these government figures is that the numbers themselves are so staggeringly large that they are virtually incomprehensible to most of us ordinary humans. So let's try to put these numbers into some kind of perspective that we can understand.

First, let's just point out that the $438 billion in deficit for FY 2015 only adds around 2.4% more to the total debt.  So think about someone who has $100,000 in mortgage and credit card debt and they added $2,400 to that debt this year.  I don't think that we would necessarily consider that person irresponsible, especially since they were keeping up-to-date with the interest payments on their debt.  And we certainly wouldn't say that their debts were "spiraling out of control", as we often hear from some pundits.

Now let's look at these numbers in comparison to the US economy as a whole.  Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is defined as the total output of goods and services in a specific time.  For 2015, US GDP was measured at nearly $18 trillion. Accordingly, the annual deficit of $438 billion is again just above 2.4% of the US annual GDP and this would be the equivalent of $2,400 for a person making an annual income of $100,000.  Again, I don't think we would call this person profligate or a reckless borrower. And, as it happens, economists have a rule of thumb that, barring unusual economic conditions, deficits should be around 2 or 3 percent of GDP.  So, the current US deficit is right in that recommended range.

But, you're thinking, the deficit may be fine at 2.4% of GDP, but what about that $18 trillion in total debt we owe.  Well, that debt is a little more that 100% of our nearly $18 trillion GDP. Again, thinking about our example of someone with $100,000 in annual income, this would be the equivalent of a $100,000 mortgage - an amount we would hardly consider an outrageous debt.  Now, economists recommend a debt-to-GDP ratio of around 60 or 70 percent and, therefore, they have some concern about our level of debt.  But we have to remember that we are recovering from the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression in the 1930s, certainly an unusual economic environment. And it should also be pointed out that Japan has maintained debt-to-GDP ratios of around 200% for a number of years, seemingly without the adverse consequences some economists have predicted.

Speaking from my own fiscal history, when I graduated from college, my debt to income ratio was about 175%. And, similarly, when I bought my first house, the ratio was about 130%.  And when I used my home equity to renovate what would become my current house, my debt-to-income ratio was close to 200%.  So it would be pretty ludicrous for me to say that the current US deficit and debt is unsustainable when, by standard measures, my own finances were in much worse shape than the government's. And I can't imagine what the ratios are for younger people today with the cost of a college education. Now you may say - wait, the US Government only collects a portion of total US GDP in taxes - and that would be true.  But, by the same token, an individual with $100,000 in income also has expenses not related to just paying the mortgage.  The bank holding your mortgage will not be asking for that whole debt to be repaid all at once and, similarly, the US Government does not have to pay off the debt in one fell swoop.

To sum up, when you actually start comparing the US debt situation with our own personal finances, you realize the situation is not nearly as dire as some would like to make it out to be. Now, in further Reality Checks, we will discuss some potentially worrying trend lines, the differences between the government and the family budget, and the reasons why balancing the budget and eliminating the debt is a political fantasy.  But that is for another day.