Saturday, May 14, 2016

Natural Weekends

Blue Jays have a reputation as thieves or even worse, but that is probably a bad rap - the evidence that they constantly steal eggs from other birds' nests is not overwhelming. They are great imitators of other birds' calls, especially hawks, although the purpose of those imitations is also unclear.  I will say that there has been a constant battle between the Blue Jays and the Cardinals in our backyard the last few weeks.  Here is one of the Blue Jays just keeping an eye on things:

Friday, May 13, 2016

Clinton/Warren Ticket Makes No Sense

I really wish that this drumbeat for a Clinton-Warren ticket would simply go away as it really only makes sense for Hillary and no one else - certainly not Democrats as a whole. Why Elizabeth Warren would willfully neuter her effectiveness as a progressive voice by becoming Vice President, where your beliefs are by definition subservient to the President's, is beyond me. And with a chance to flip the Senate, why would Democrats want to potentially lose a Senate seat that is safely in their hands. Remember, the current Massachusetts governor, Charlie Baker, is a Republican, having defeated Martha Coakley in 2014.  He would be able to make an interim appointment until a special election occurred, some 5 months after Warren vacates her Senate seat.  That would mean that Democrats would lose a safe vote in the Senate during whatever short honeymoon period, if any, Clinton may get and until June, 2017. And let's not assume that Democrats would automatically win that special election - Scott Brown defeated the very same Martha Coakley (do we see a pattern here?) in the special election to replace Ted Kennedy after his untimely death. And that lost vote in the Senate turned out to be critical on a host of issues.  Yes, having Warren as her VP would probably help Hillary shore up her support with Sanders' supporters.  But for everyone else on the Democratic side, it just doesn't seem to make sense.

Stanley Cup - Conference Finals Predictions

The Stanley Cup Conference Finals begin tonight so it's time for my predictions:

Pittsburgh Penguins defeat Tampa Bay Lightning - Pittsburgh has been on a roll, playing great team defense and getting scoring up and down the lineup.  Tampa Bay's defense is somewhat depleted due to injury but it's possible some of their injured stars, including Steven Stamkos, may be back at some point in this series.  The wild card is the goalie matchup between Ben Bishop and Matt Murray - and, if Murray has a bad game, do the Penguins go to Marc Andre Fleury.  This should be a barn-burner of a series with both teams having a potent offense - it might very well go the distance.

San Jose Sharks defeat St. Louis Blues - No one has been able to stop Joe Pavelski and the Sharks offense yet and the Blues defense looked a little porous in the last series against Dallas.  Martin Jones looked a little shaky in nets in the latter part of San Jose's prior series with Nashville while Brian Elliott, with the exception of one bad game, has been outstanding in goal for St. Louis. The Blues will be trying to grind down the San Jose defense as the series goes along, but I just don't think St. Louis will be able to generate enough scoring to offset the Sharks' prolific offense.

Jodi Rell and Uncertainty

I promise this will be my last post on this, but I just can't get over the richness of Jodi Rell's comments, especially the complaint over the "uncertainty" for businesses in the state.  She states, "There's no predictability. There's no stability. What’s next?”. Well, welcome to the world that most of us live in. Most employees in this day and age live in a constant state of uncertainty and anxiety, never knowing if the next bad quarter, over which they have no control, will result in losing their jobs or reduced hours. It's hard to feel sympathy for businesses complaining about a lack of stability when most of us have been dealing with this uncertainty for decades without much support from those very same businesses.

Stanley Cup - Second Round Recap

The second round of the Stanley Cup wrapped up last night when the San Jose Sharks overwhelmed the Nashville Predators 5-0 in game 7 of their series.  You can see my predictions for the second round in this post. And here is a recap of all the series:

Pittsburgh Penguins defeat Washington Capitals 4-2 as predicted. The Capitals, the best team in the league all year long, picked a bad time to fall into a scoring drought. Matt Murray was Braden Holtby's equal or better in goal in the series and Washington's budding star Kuznetsov was almost invisible for the second series in a row. Some untimely defensive lapses, good team defense by Pittsburgh, and their greater depth in scoring was the difference in this series.

Tampa Bay Lightning defeat New York Islanders 4-1 as predicted. Ben Bishop, in goal for the Lightning, had a horrendous game 1 and was pulled but came back to help Tampa Bay essentially steal games 3 and 4 with some outstanding play.  John Tavares was held pointless in the last four games of the series and, without his offense, the Islanders just couldn't score enough to keep up with the Lightning.

St. Louis Blues defeat Dallas Stars 4-3 as predicted.  Dallas kept on beating the Blues defense with long stretch passes through the neutral zone, especially in the second period when both teams have to make the long change. St. Louis also had too many defensive zone failures that allowed Dallas to stay in the series.  Fortunately for the Blues, Kari Lehtonen was just horrible in goal for the Stars in the deciding game 7 and the Blues survived.

San Jose Sharks defeat Nashville Predators 4-3 as predicted.  I had thought this was going to be a long, hard series and it was, going all seven games.  Nashville just kept on coming and every time you thought they were done, they came back with a vengeance.  The Predators looked like they had solved Martin Jones, the Sharks goalie, with high shots over his shoulder.  But the Preds could not keep Anaheim's big scorers in check, especially Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski - but, then again, no one has been able to stop Pavelski in these playoffs. Game 4 of this series was one of the all time classics with the Predators prevailing 4-3 in triple overtime.  Joe Pavelski scored an incredible goal in overtime that was eventually disallowed due to goalie interference - a 50/50 call that could have gone either way.  Mike Fisher finally ended this terrific game, filled with end-to-end rushes, in the third overtime to seal the win for the Preds and tie the series at 2.  But all that effort took a toll on the Nashville defense and by the time game 7 rolled around, they just looked like they didn't have anything left.

One thing to note is how many goals have been disallowed in these playoffs due to coaches' challenges on offsides - some of which turned out to be critical calls.  I'll be back later this afternoon with predictions for the conference finals which start tonight.

Is Jodi Rell's Departure An Income Tax Dodge?

I'm not sure why former Governor Rell's comments have gotten under my skin, but they obviously have.  Although she states the taxes weren't a big factor for her, she complains that the state is in a "downward spiral" because of the uncertainty for the business community. News reports about her departure simply state that she is changing her primary residence to Florida, with no mention of putting her Brookfield home up for sale. So it may be that she is keeping both houses but living in Florida for most of the year. That may be a choice she and her husband would want to make, but it could also very well be just an income tax dodge, despite her claims to the contrary.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Astrophotography Adventure (cont'd) - Jupiter and Saturn

In my last post in this series, I made my first, pretty successful effort at imaging a Deep Sky Object, namely the Orion Nebula.  Using the knowledge that I'd gained from playing with NightCap Pro (NCP) and having already captured the Moon and Jupiter, I thought I'd see what kind of images I could get of Saturn with the Starblast 4.5. But Saturn did not come into my view until well after midnight, while Jupiter was in range for virtually most of the night.  So, I figured I'd get a few photos of Jupiter and then leave that set up alone and wait for Saturn to come into view.  Here is one of the better images of Jupiter from that night with no post-processing:

My prior images of Jupiter were actually better than this, so, in a way, this result was bit disappointing. After a quick snooze, I came back out and tried to capture Saturn, without much success unfortunately.  The image was so small it was hard to know if was really in focus and, because of that, equally hard to adjust the ISO and exposure length to get any detail at all, even just a good image of the rings.  Sadly, this is the best I could do, again without any processing:
Pretty badly overexposed and probably not in focus either. Both of the above photos were taken using the 7.5mm eyepiece with a 2x Barlow on the Starblast 4.5 inch, giving a magnification of just under 140x.
Seeing how poorly these images turned out, it was pretty clear that my set up was not correct. I was definitely having issues with determining whether the image was in focus and that made it impossible to get the correct ISO and exposure.  Even in my prior images of the Moon, I also had issues with focus.  In thinking about this, I came up with a theory of where I was going wrong.  My usual process was to focus everything with my own eyes through the eyepiece I was going to use.  Then I would attach the iPhone and attempt to take pictures without making any focus adjustment. I'm thinking that my eye and the iPhone lens are actually at different distance from the eyepiece, which is why the images are out of focus.  I really just need to focus through the camera. It is really a simple, but rather stupid, error on my part.  So, with this knowledge, I will start again with the Moon, focusing through the camera this time.  We'll see how that goes in the next edition...

Jodi Rell's Final Cheap Shot

It is really classy of former Governor Jodi Rell take some cheap shots at Connecticut as she moves her primary residence to her second home in Florida and continues to reap over $65,000 a year in pension money from the state. It would have been nice to see her pitch in to fix part of the mess she helped create, but I guess that would be asking too much. She never did it when she had the chance...

Even More Abuse - Poultry Workers Wear Diapers

It seems to be the week for highlighting the corporate abuse of workers - first the cartoonist who was fired, then the woman who was told to wear high heels, and now poultry workers have apparently taken to wearing diapers because of the lack of bathroom breaks. It is nice to see that the National Chicken Council believes that "such instances are extremely rare", as if that supposedly make is more tolerable. And, again, this is not some fly-by-night operation; this is Tyson Foods, another multinational corporation. Where do corporations find people who tolerate this kind of behavior - perhaps from the top business schools in this country?

More Corporate Abuse - Woman Must Wear High Heels

Following on the heels of the cartoonist who was fired from the Farm News in Iowa, we now have Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) sending a female receptionist home because she was not wearing high heels. This is the largest professional services firm in the world and one of the four remaining large accounting firms. All credit to Ms. Thorpe for asking how wearing flats impaired her from doing her job - of course, she received no good answer. What's more, apparently this is technically legal, even in this day and age. As a temporary worker, Ms. Thorpe possibly felt a little more liberty to speak up - I wonder whether salaried employees have simply put up with this discrimination in fear for their jobs.  And where do these companies that are supposedly employing the best qualified candidates out there find such retrogrades that would actually create and enforce policies like this...

One Third of Manufacturing Workers Need Public Assistance

Another indicator of the source of Trump's, and to some extent, Sanders' support comes from data released by the University of California, Berkeley, showing that over a third of manufacturing wage earners in this country relied on some form of public assistance even as they were employed. Increased competition in manufacturing from global competitors has not only shrunk the manufacturing sector by over one third since the 1970s but has also put downward pressure on wages here in the United States. Added to that, the rise in the use of temporary workers since the collapse of unions has also made it easier to keep wages depressed.  As we have discussed before, none of these elements were inevitable - they were the result of deliberate policy choices. Trade deals protected white collar jobs at the expense of blue collar workers and the resulting breakdown in the bargaining and political power of workers enabled profits to flow to shareholders and management.

Harry Reid - Uncensored and Uncut

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid has certainly been feeling the freedom that comes from knowing he is not running for re-election. Reid has been telling like it is to any and all comers on either side of the aisle - to Mitch McConnell, basically calling him a liar; to Donald Trump, "unhinged" and "egomaniac"; the Koch brothers and Morning Joe at the same time, quite a two-for; the states of Iowa and New Hampshire; and even President Obama. He certainly seems to be enjoying not having to use the usual moderate and diplomatic language that politicians and especially party leaders are seemingly required to use. And yesterday, he apparently gave Alan Grayson a piece of his mind, telling Grayson to his face that "I hope you lose" in his fight to become the Democratic candidate for Senate in Florida with fellow Democrat Patrick Murphy. I can't wait until after the November election when he really has nothing at stake...

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

It's Looking More and More Likely We Are Not Alone

NASA announced today that an additional 1,284 exoplanets had been discovered by the Kepler Space Telescope, more than doubling the number of known alien planets.  And it is increasingly obvious that exoplanets are actually quite a common phenomenon. Included in these numbers is an additional nine "habitable zone" exoplanets where conditions might exist for the presence of water and life as we know it, bringing that number to 21. The chances that some form of life exists beyond this planet just keep getting greater and greater.

Why I Hate The Gig Economy

I know that Uber is extremely popular and my aversion to the company is probably going to get me nowhere (both literally and figuratively!) but I really find the two pillars of the company's strategy to be detrimental to workers and not at all progressive.  I am not the first to point out that Uber, like Airbnb, has simply used regulatory arbitrage to build a business - see here, here, and here.  It always seemed incredible to me that a company that is essentially providing a taxi service with an app could somehow evade the regulations that applied to regular taxis and their drivers. Admittedly, taxi regulations around the country were archaic and probably not serving the drivers or the public particularly well - just try to hail a yellow cab in NYC when it is raining! But, just because the rules aren't up to snuff does not give you the right to ignore them.  It seems totally unfair that one group of drivers is covered by one set of rules and another set, that do exactly the same thing, are virtually unregulated - this is just the kind of inequality that offends my liberal sensibilities. It is really no different than Wall Street firms essentially "shopping" for the least effective agency to regulate them, something that we all can agree did not end well for any of us. In the case of Uber,, this has resulted in the use of drivers with criminal records, criminal acts by drivers, and drivers who are unfit to be on the road. It seems hard to believe that Uber and Lyft were so opposed to a measure in Austin that required fingerprint included background checks and prohibitions about stopping for customers in traffic lanes that they both withdrew their service from the city. It is certainly hard to argue that these were unreasonable regulations.

The second pillar of Uber's business model is the idea that their drivers are contractors and not workers. Now the difference between those two categories of workers has always been somewhat fuzzy and the issue is being decided by labor regulators in states around the country. Uber always says that their drivers' preference for making their own schedules is what make them independent contractors.  But most contractors have some specialized service they provide, are able to provide that service to multiple companies, and can negotiate their own rates.  I hardly think that driving requires some specialized knowledge; and the fact that Uber offers incentives for working 60 hours a week indicates that they would prefer the contractor to only work for them; additionally, you can get deactivated as a driver for promoting a competing service, including your own; and, most important of all, Uber sets the rates that all their drivers get paid.  Yes, for some drivers, the flexibility offered by Uber is a great thing, although they can be deactivated as a driver at any time for a number of reasons without any real recourse. And those deactivated drivers are not eligible to receive unemployment. Now, setting up this type of guild, as Uber has done in New York, certainly will give drivers more of a say, but nothing like what they would have if they could form a union. For Uber, not having employees cuts down on overhead related to payroll and withholding taxes and avoids unemployment insurance. And, it is important to note, there are usually fees associated with the regulated taxi services that go to the city and/or state.  Again, Uber avoids those fees and the municipalities lose that revenue. My belief is that it is always preferable for workers to be treated as employees and to get all the benefits that come with that status, as opposed to contractors.

Now, all of the above does not mean that I think we should eliminate Uber. No doubt, it has forced the regulated taxi industry to improve its service - there are now apps for hailing regular taxis. And the need for an Uber-like service in areas where taxi service is limited is something that makes real sense; but Uber does not provide service in those areas because of the lack of population density. However, I do want to level the regulatory playing field for all these services.  If that means more regulation for Uber and, possibly, slightly less regulation for the traditional taxi service, then that is fine. And the drivers for Uber should definitely be treated as employees and receive all the benefits that that status entails. What really annoys me is when Uber pulls out of an area due to a regulatory ruling and then goes to lobby the state to overturn those regulatory decisions. If the gig economy really is such a great thing for workers and the flexibility that Uber offers its drivers really does provide such a great work-life balance, then they should learn to play by the rules.

Another Free Trade Failure

In my prior Reality Check post, I noted with interest that Caribbean banks were listed as the fourth largest foreign holders of US debt, mostly due to bank secrecy laws in that area and the ease with which the true owners of assets can be hidden.  Of course, back in 2011, we had a chance to at least partially fix this problem when the Panama Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was being negotiated. But, as Bernie Sanders correctly pointed out at the time, the trade agreement actually protected US corporations and individuals from scrutiny about their use of Panama as a tax haven by international authorities.  However, at the same time, the US did sign a tax accord with Panama, which was separate from the Free Trade Agreement, that required fuller disclosure and improved exchange of information from Panama about US taxpayers.  Of course, because current US tax law does not allow for disclosures about individual taxpayers or information about requests made under these type of tax accords, it is impossible to tell whether the agreement really accomplished anything. Perhaps, upcoming revelations from the Panama Papers will give some indications of its effectiveness, or lack thereof. It is probable that the British tax authorities would have been interested in learning about their citizens use of these tax havens, but the FTA expressly forbid any information we may have gleaned on that issue from being passed on to the Brits. And, as Mr. Sanders correctly states, Panama's puny economy provides no rational reason for the US having a free trade agreement with Panama. However, there was one sector that saw a benefit - Wall Street firms now had a better entrĂ©e into Panama's financial services sector. What a surprise! And people wonder why Sanders' and Trump's similar message that free trade has failed the working class and advanced the interests of the asset class has such resonance in this political year.

A New Poster Boy for Republican Obstruction

I see that another nomination proposed to the Senate by President Obama is being held up by the Republicans in the Senate.  In this case, it is a single Republican, Senator Pat Roberts of Kansas, who refuses to allow the nomination of Eric Fanning as Secretary of the Army to go forward without an explicit assurance from the President that no prisoners from Guantanamo would be transferred to the prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Needless to say, there are no concerns about Fanning's qualifications but it should be noted that Fanning would also happen to be the highest ranking openly gay official in the Pentagon. And, of course, the fact that we already have a number of terrorists in prisons within the continental United States - the maximum security prison in Colorado currently holds Omar Abdel-Rahman, the mastermind behind the 1993 WTC bombing, and Zacarias Moussaoui, one of 9/11 conspirators - apparently has no impact on Senator Roberts' thinking. It is so good of Senator Roberts to continue to provide terrorists with a talking point and recruiting tool by making sure Guantanamo stays open and at the same time leaving the US Army leaderless. And it provides such an affirmative example to other countries that we ask to tackle terrorism within their own borders. Is this what Republicans call "standing up to the terrorists"?

Hillary Finally Moves to Co-Opt Sanders' Voters

It is good to see Hillary Clinton's proposal to allow people of a certain age to buy into Medicare - "Medicare for more", as the Times calls it. This would allow people over age 50 or 55, she was not clear which, to buy into the current Medicare program until they reach 65 when they are automatically covered.  This would actually be helpful on a couple of fronts. First, although Obamacare does offer people over the age of 50 health insurance, the premiums for those people can be multiples of what a healthy younger person would pay for the obvious reason that their chances of medical issues are much higher.  This proposal might be a cheaper option for those older people. And, by reducing the number of older people that insurance companies would cover under Obamacare, the premiums for younger adults could also be reduced.  Clinton was also unclear whether subsidies would be available for those poorer older Americans who bought into Medicare, as is currently the case under Obamacare.

This is a typically Hillary proposal - a smaller and more incremental change that will not really satisfy the supporters of "Medicare for all" that Sanders has made prominent in his campaign.  But, especially in the current political climate, it is these incremental changes that will, over time, get us to a single payer plan, although I'm sure most Sander's supporters would prefer not to wait that long. The larger point is that Hillary is at least focused on her weakness with working class as well as more progressive Sanders' voters and is making some moves to bring those voters into the fold. A few more baby steps to the left will certainly not hurt her.  The electorate is probably more progressive or, at least, open to more liberal ideas than it has been in a long time. Hillary should take advantage of that in the remaining primary season.

Meanwhile, Bernie continues to rack up victories - last night taking West Virginia and getting over 50% of the vote.  Next Tuesday, Oregon is the biggest state voting and Hillary leads in the polls there. And, on June 7th, the big states of California and New Jersey also vote.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Foggy Morning

A Foggy Morning

Cartoonist Fired For Being Pro Farmer

In what is a true testament to the thin skin of our corporate overlords and an indication of their raw power, a cartoonist for the Farm News in Iowa was fired for creating what was essentially a pro small farmer cartoon. Thankfully, the cartoonist is also a small farmer so he at least has that to fall back on.  The cartoon in question simply pointed out that the CEOs of Monsanto, DuPont, and John Deere made more money collectively than over 2,000 Iowa farmers combined.  Despite the fact that this is arguably true, some unnamed seed company complained to the paper and withdrew its advertising and the paper, in turn, fired the cartoonist. It is a sad day when simply pointing out the vast income inequality in our present society is enough to get you fired. You can only imagine how many other workers out there are constantly self-censoring their views because they fear for their jobs if they express their First Amendment rights. And it is a short but slippery slope from that kind of self-censorship to a truly repressive society - we have seen it happen many times before.

Bridgeport Board of Ed Dysfunction

I think we all know that Board of Education politics can become pretty rancorous and chaotic - it happens all across the country.  But I'm guessing that it is pretty unusual to have four college presidents, three of whom represent private universities, writing a letter commenting on the dysfunction of a local Board of Education. Of course, having the state intervene probably won't help matters either.

Mercury Transit Unseen

With Mercury's transit across the Sun occurring yesterday, I was unprepared as I did not have a solar filter for my Starblast. But I did remember have a solar lens for my trusty old Tasco that I've had since the early 1960s.  So, after a little rummaging around in the closet, I was able to bring out the Tasco with eyepiece and solar filter. And I saw absolutely nothing.  I think the solar filter had some kind of damage and absolutely no light could get through it.  So, I tried projecting the view without the solar filter onto a piece of paper but it was hard to know if I was properly focused, especially with the paper flapping about in the strong breeze. So, it's possible I did see Mercury but I certainly wasn't able to identify it.  I guess I'll have to wait for its next transit on November 11, 2019 - let's hope it's a clear day.  But here is a quick video showing Mercury just beginning its transit of the Sun, courtesy of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Trump Appoints Christie To Lead Transition Team

Chris Christie saw the handwriting on the wall for his future job prospects a long time ago - no chance to win the nomination and unelectable at home in New Jersey.  So he hitched his wagon to the Trump train in somewhat of a gamble. And now he has gone all in, agreeing to head Trump's transition team. Of course, the announcement is a bit premature - Trump hasn't won the Presidency yet. Let's hope we don't get to see Christie in action.

(FYI, the above paragraph also qualifies for the New Yorker's "Block that Metaphor" snippets.)

Bridgeport Budget Committee Makes Recommendations

The Bridgeport Budget and Appropriations Committee finally voted on Mayor Ganim's proposed budget on Saturday night. The committee delayed a new police class by one year and added $1.5 million to Ganim's proposed flat funding of education. The full City Council will vote on these Budget Committee recommendations on Monday night and, if the past is any guide, will adopt them.  Then the budget gets sent back to Ganim for a possible veto.

Reality Check - Who Owns All Our Debt

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.

In the last Reality Check, we discussed potential strategies for shrinking our annual deficit and reducing our national debt. Today, we are going to look at who we actually owe all this money to, especially focusing on the mistaken impression that China holds the majority of our debt.

As we have noted before, the total national debt outstanding was a little over $18 trillion dollars at the beginning of 2015. So let's look at who actually holds all this debt:

(Note on the graph - State and Local Governments account for 5%, not 13% as stated).

If you take the combination of the amounts owed to Federal Accounts and the Federal Reserve, we can see that over $7.5 trillion dollars of debt is actually owed to other federal government entities. And if we include the 5% owed to State and Local Governments, about 46% of our debt is actually owed to our own governments. And if we then add in Domestic Private Investors - individuals, pension funds, investment accounts - we actually essentially owe 61% of our debt to ourselves as a nation.

Let's take the analogy of a family budget that is trotted out on a consistent basis. If we think of the US as one big happy family, we only owe about 40% of our total debts to people outside the family; most of the debts we've incurred are borrowings from our parents, our children, our brothers and sisters. If we decided to cancel all the debts within the family, there would be no change in our family's financial position in total.  Yes, some of my brothers and sisters would be angry because perhaps I borrowed from them. On the other hand, they would not have to pay back the money they owed to my parents. And the parents - well, hopefully, they are just going to say that that's the price they pay for their kids. Now I admit this is a pretty simplistic and unrealistic analogy (I will explain in a future post why the family budget analogy is a terrible example), and the chances of this happening are pretty much nil as private investors and state and local governments would probably head straight to court. But there is one part of this scenario that is entirely feasible.  Every year, the Federal Reserve remits the profits it makes on interest payments on its Treasury securities back to the United States Treasury. In the same way, it could just as easily cancel the debt it is owed without any legal consequence - this debt is simply an accounting fiction.  Now, again, the Federal Reserve uses some of this debt in its open market operations to manage the money supply and interest rates and I'm sure it would be rightfully unwilling to do this  But, as far as I know, there is no legal roadblock to the Fed doing this - in fact, the gadfly Congressman Alan Grayson proposed this very idea to break the debt ceiling crisis in 2013.

Now let's look at the breakdown of the one-third of our debt that is owed to foreign investors:

Now, China and Japan are two of the top three countries that run a trade surplus with the US in terms of dollar value. And it would only make sense that they would be buying our debt in the form of US Treasuries with all the excess dollars that come with that trade surplus.  China and Japan together account for around a mere $2.6 billion, or just over 14% of the US debt, each accounting for just about half of that number. And, China has actually been reducing its US debt holdings - in fact, Japan actually surpassed China later in 2015 as the number one foreign holder of US debt. The idea, therefore, that China owns a majority of our debt is simply not reality.

More interesting, at least to me, are the 4th and 6th largest holders of US debt. Caribbean banks come in at #4 and this is not because they are an enormous trading partner. It is primarily because of the secrecy those Caribbean banks provide, essentially hiding the actual owners of our debt from view. It will be interesting to see if subsequent releases of data from the Panama Papers shed any light on large US debt holders in these secretive institutions. The situation in Belgium, ranked #6, is a little easier to understand. EuroClear, the major securities clearance facility in Europe, is located in Brussels so it would only make sense that there would be a large amount of Treasury securities being held there. In fact, I would guess that some of the US debt held by the other country that runs a large trade surplus with the US, Germany, is actually held in Euroclear.

Finally, remember that all the holders of our debt are essentially investors, most of whom are primarily interested in the constant interest payments that they receive or the liquidity of our debt securities provide that allows them to be easily converted into cash if necessary. None of these investors want to see any indication that the US would not honor its legal commitments and would most likely be unwilling to force any issue that would lead to that end as that would actually reduce the value of the holdings they have - any hint of instability would lead to higher interest rates which cause the price of bonds to fall and, therefore, the value of their holdings would decline.

Khan Wins London Mayoralty

It was nice to see Sadiq Khan overwhelmingly elected to be London's mayor, overcoming smears from his Conservative opponent and becoming the first Muslim elected to that post.  In a total repudiation of the Tory "dog-whistle" campaign that continually tried to tie Mr. Khan to Muslim extremists, the Labour candidate won an overwhelming victory by nearly 15%.  Even some Conservatives thought the campaign of their candidate, Zac Goldsmith, was reprehensible and will quite possibly hurt the party going forward.

Elsewhere around the United Kingdom, Conservatives lost nearly 50 council seats while Labour looks to have lost 11, despite the Tories trying to make these elections somewhat of a referendum on the left-wing policies of Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader.  Corbyn's critics within Labour rightfully point out that the party should be increasing the number of council seats not just losing less than the Conservatives, especially with that party increasing unpopular and suffering its own internal divisions. And, in fact, many of the Tory losses came to the Liberal Democrats and the xenophobic UK Independence Party (UKIP). Additionally, in Scotland, which used to be a fortress for Labour, the party could only manage to come in third place, losing another 13 seats.  The nationalist Scottish National Party (SNP) has essentially supplanted Labour as the dominant party in Scotland and, without that Scottish base, it is difficult to see Labour being able to form a government with an outright majority any time soon.

The results for Labour were, however, better than expected, probably good enough for the controversial Corbyn to escape an immediate leadership challenge, but also not good enough to eliminate the sniping from potential challengers and solidify his leadership position.  Already, Mr. Khan has been critical of Corbyn's campaign strategy and there are others who are biding their time, waiting in the wings. Of course, the Conservatives are also in some disarray, with the party split over whether to remain in the EU.  That referendum, on so-called "Brexit", will take place on June 23.  Interesting times in British politics...

Kentucky Derby Recap

Well, I hope you all saved some money and didn't take my Derby recommendations.  At least Exaggerator was closing fast and put in a good second place showing.  Destin was in the lead group at the top of the stretch but fell back badly in the last half of the stretch to finish sixth - not too bad for such a longshot.  Nyquist, the favorite and the winner, looked strong the whole way - the horse is undefeated in eight races and, as my sister, a part-owner of some thoroughbreds, once said, "all the horses enjoy getting out there and running, but only a few special ones seem to understand this human concept of winning."  Well, Nyquist looks like he gets it. So, could it be two Triple Crowns in a row, just like Secretariat and Affirmed in 1977 and 1978...We'll see you at the Preakness!

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Transit of Mercury

Tomorrow, Monday, May 9, viewers across most of the world will have a chance to see a rather rare event - the transit of Mercury across the Sun. For scientists, this provides a chance to study some of the mechanics of Mercury's exosphere.  Because of the strong solar wind, Mercury has no real atmosphere to speak of, but atoms are blasted off its surface by this wind and quickly evaporate into space. For the rest of us, it is a rare chance to observe Mercury crossing in front of the sun when it is near aphelion, the farthest point in its orbit away from the sun.  The much more common occurrence, but still rare, is when Mercury transits the sun near perihelion, that is when it is closest to the sun. Unfortunately, I do not have a solar filter for the Starblast so I'm not quite prepared for this event.  I may see what I can do using projection but not sure I want to risk hurting the optics with the heat buildup that comes from viewing the sun without a solar filter.

Do not attempt to view the Sun directly either through a telescope or binoculars or even with the unaided eye unless you have the proper filters!

I really can't stress this point enough...

Do not attempt to view the Sun directly either through a telescope or binoculars or even with the unaided eye unless you have the proper filters!

Natural Weekends

After some serious pruning last fall, our lilacs are thriving this year and the abundance of blossoms are nearly in full bloom.