Saturday, June 18, 2016

Natural Weekends - All Osprey, All Weekend

The Ospreys have been circling low overhead all week long.  You can hear them talking to each other with their high pitched screeches as they scour the creek for some good food. So this weekend is dedicated to these magnificent creatures:

Friday, June 17, 2016

Three Great Ball Strikers On US Open Leaderboard

The second round of the US Open Golf tournament is wrapping up right about now at historic Oakmont Country Club and three of the best ball strikers on the planet are on the leaderboard - Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, and Lee Westwood. Besides all being fantastic tee-to-green players, all three players struggle mightily when they get on the green. Any of them would have won a boatload more tournaments if they could just make a few more makeable putts. And it's not like they are poor readers of greens or have terrible putting strokes - it's just nothing ever seems to go in when they need it. It would be great to see any one of these three go on and win this weekend.

Rubio May Run For Senate Job He Abhors

It's looking like Marco Rubio may actually get back in the race for Senatorfrom Florida. Having abandoned his re-election bid in order to focus on his failed bid for the Presidency, Rubio is now having second thoughts about being jobless come next January. His name recognition and ability to raise money will probably make him competitive should he decide to run, but you do have to wonder about all the baggage he carries with him from his Presidential campaign. He was basically AWOL for the last two years from the Senate as he focused on the primaries and he has mentioned on multiple occasions his hatred for the job of Senator. In addition, his total and epic flip-flop on immigration reform probably won't help him in a state where there is a large minority population. And there is real danger for his political future in running and losing. Being trounced by Trump in the Florida primary and then losing his Senate race for re-election would probably be the death knell for Rubio's political career.  On the other hand, it may be Republican's best chance to retain that Senate seat in Florida. It's hard to believe there isn't another job for Rubio somewhere in the Republican grift machine that would give him slightly more pleasure and just as much money as working in the Senate he abhors. Rubio must make his decision in the next week, as June 24th is the filing deadline.

Please Turn Off The Lights

When I was a child living about 40 minutes outside of New York City, it was still possible to see the Milky Way on a clear, dark night. But that view was nothing compared to when I went out to Colorado as a teenager - the sky at night was magnificent and magical. That sense of awe in seeing the stars at night is what led to my interest in astronomy. And, sadly, it is something that a majority of the US and Europe can no longer see.

Besides losing that sense of awe that shows us all how small and insignificant our world really is, recent studies have shown that the perpetual twilight that we live in at night is not only bad for human health but also throws off the rhythms of the animals around us. And, as usual, we do this primarily out of fear - fear of the dark and what might be hiding in the darkness.  In a marvelous book called The End Of Night by Paul Bogard, he shows how it doesn't have to be this way.  Flood lights actually blind us at night and create the dark spaces for criminals to hide in. Much of the light actually escapes upward toward the sky, confusing flying creatures rather than illuminating the ground. Parking lots are flooded with light all night even when all the stores are closed. Of course, it only takes a few minutes in the dark for your eyes to adjust and you'd be surprised at how easy it is to see when that happens. You can easily read a book with just the light of the full moon.

Light pollution is probably not one of the most pressing issues we face these days. But with the technological advances in lighting these days, it really would not be a huge effort to reduce it significantly. Wouldn't it be worth that effort to see the stars again - I certainly think so. With that I'll leave you with one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons:

Russian Track And Field Team Banned From Rio Olympics

The IIAF, the governing body of international track and field, has voted to ban the Russian track and field athletics team from the Rio Olympics. The final decision now moves to the International Olympic Committee which has historically deferred to the decision of an individual sport's governing body. The reason for this ban is not just because Russian athletes have admitted or been caught doping.  The real reason is the brazen complicity of not only sports federations within Russia but also the Russian government. You can be pretty sure that lots of athletes from countries around the world are doping. And, some countries' sports federations probably cover test results up for some of their top athletes. But state-sponsored doping really requires some serious punitive action by the international sports' governing bodies. At the Olympic Games in Sochi, apparently, the Russians secretly penetrated the IOC testing laboratory and would replace tainted Russian athletes' samples with clean ones on a daily basis. And the latest report earlier this week indicated that independent drug testers from the UK that had been sent to Russia to test their athletes had been threatened by members of Russia's Federal Security Service.  It will be interesting to see how many of the Russian athletes appeal the expected IOC decision to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Switzerland.

On the other hand, getting banned from Rio is maybe not the worst thing that could happen. The list of potential problems with the Rio games is quite frightening.  Besides Zika, you have political upheaval, serious crime, and a collapsing economy in Brazil.  Infrastructure projects crucial to the games have still not been completed and the quality of the work that has been completed is suspect. The waters at some of the swimming and boating are heavily polluted and drug-resistant bacteria has been found at Rio's most famous beaches. Many athletes from countries around the world have already chosen not to go and fully one-third of the available tickets for the Games have not been sold. So the Russian track and field team will just be joining a host of others in not going to Rio.

Study Shows Atrocious Media Coverage Of Campaign In 2015

I've been meaning to mention the study put out by the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy on media coverage of the political campaign during the calendar year of 2015.  it certainly has some eye-opening statistics.  It shows that Donald Trump received some $55 million in advertising-equivalent media coverage compared to Cruz, Bush, and Rubio whose value were all in the mid-$30 million range. Incredibly, Trump actually received POSITIVE coverage two-thirds to three-quarters of the time:

Part of the reason for this clearly imbalanced coverage is that the media spent a mere 12% of the time examining Trump's positions and more then half of the time playing the roll of stenographer, documenting Trump's rise in the polls and campaign appearances.

On the other hand, poor Hilary Clinton could only manage one month in the entire 2015 year where press coverage was more positive than negative. And negative coverage like that actually equates to millions in the advertising equivalent of attack ads on her campaign. But the press did manage to fulfill their role in discussing issues when it came to Hillary, more than doubling Trump and Cruz and quadrupling Bernie Sanders.  They devoted 28% of their coverage to Hillary's issue positions. Shockingly, however, the tone of 84% of the coverage on those issues was negative, while the coverage of Trump's and Cruz's positions were positive or neutral.

This is coverage about a candidate who could possible be one of the most prepared Presidential candidates we've ever had when it comes to detailed knowledge across a broad range of issues. And Bernie Sanders fared almost as badly for the opposite reason. For a guy who ran a primarily issue-oriented campaign, he managed to only attract 7% of the coverage on his issues.

All in all, these number show an almost complete failure of the media to fulfill its traditional role in civic society, which is part of the reason we ended up with Donald Trump as a nominee. And when you look at this study, it's also not too hard to understand why Hillary, with good reason, hates the media.

Bush As Republicans' Savior Shows Party's Total Disarray

In a clear indication of how much trouble the Republican party is in with Donald Trump at the head of the ticket, it seems that they will be relying on former President George W. Bush to come in and help raise money for down-ballot Republicans. Apparently Donald Trump has no patience for the job of actually fund-raising for the Republican party and his own election campaign. Politico reports that Trump stopped after making just three of the 20 calls to big donors that were suggested by the RNC.

Now, Bush may not be as unpopular now as he was when he departed in 2009, but I'd hardly call him a unifying figure even for the Republican party.  While the big money donors may like him, there are parts of the conservative base that feel he betrayed their cause. And his appearance will be a reminder of the disastrous financial crisis that we are still digging out of eight year later. And, if Bush does raise his profile by fundraising and campaigning, I doubt that Trump himself will be able to resist continuing his prior attacks on Bush, calling him a "disaster". Actually, the disaster is the Republican party and the emergence of G.W. Bush as a potential savior just make that even more striking.

Mea Culpa - Inflation Nearing Fed Target But That May Not Be Good News

Every once in a while as a blogger you just have to eat your words - and hopefully it is ONLY every once in a while.  Yesterday I wrote that the Fed still had "this innate faith that inflation will magically return to the 2% level".  And then the Cleveland Fed released its latest figures on the median and trimmed-mean Consumer Price Index (CPI) showing them rising at a 3.2% and 2.1% annualized rate respectively.  In addition, the Bureau of Labor Statistics show the CPI for all urban consumers rising at 2.6% annualized rate and the CPI less food and energy rising at a 2.5% annualized rate. However, the Fed's favorite inflation indicator, Core PCE, does still remain below their 2% target. But all the other important inflation indicators are at or above their target. So, mea culpa.

It will be interesting to see whether these number will hold over the next few months.  We have already seen weakness in the labor market and in future inflation expectations. And US industrial production was down again in May, the fourth straight month of decline and capacity utilization is still more than 5 percentage points below its historical average. With many economists worried about secular stagnation, a slowing economy with rising inflation may actually portend something worse, call it secular stagflation, where a low or no-growth economy suffers from high inflation.

Assassination Of Jo Cox Shows Deep Division Brexit Generates

The shocking murder of Labour MP Jo Cox is all the more striking because it happened in Britain where guns and gun ownership is highly regulated. It appears that the gunman may have used a home-made weapon built from instructions sent to him by a US neo-Nazi group.  Although this detail has not been confirmed, it would be terrible if America's obsession with guns contributed to Ms. Cox death in any way. In addition, as with the killer in Orlando, it has been reported that the suspect has had some history of mental illness.

Whatever the killer's mental state, this was clearly a political assassination and it highlights the strong feelings that the upcoming vote on Britain's exit from the European Union has generated. And regardless of the outcome of the vote next week, those feelings will still remain and will be a defining part of British politics in the years ahead.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Fed Has Another Groundhog Day On Rates

Yesterday, the Fed released its statement at the conclusion of the Open Market Committee meeting where they held rates steady as expected. The Fed also basically took a July increase off the table and the number of Governors who expected two increases by the end of the year dropped, another indication of the Fed backing away from its stated intentions. But the statement and their projections still show this innate faith that inflation will magically return to the 2% level by 2018 which flies in the face of the market's inflation expectations.

In a piece that you should read in its entirety from the Washington Post the other day, Larry Summers makes the case that the Fed continues to make the same mistake again and again. He states, "Watching the Fed over the last year there is a Groundhog Day aspect. One senses they really want to raise rates and achieve a more 'normal' stance.  But at the same time they do not want to tighten when the economy may be slowing or create financial turmoil. So they keep holding out the prospect of future rate increases and then find themselves unable to deliver. But they always revert to holding out the prospect of rate increases soon, partly for internal comity and partly to preserve optionality." And this is exactly what we saw yesterday, as the Fed keeps on holding out the prospect of a rate increase but then ends up having to back away because the data does not support it.

Summers also points out that the odds of a recession in an economy that is well out of recovery are starting to grow and the neutral rate of interest has also declined over the last few years. In fact, his theory as to why future inflation expectations are so low is precisely because they are factoring in an economic slowdown in the next couple of years. Stagnating growth around the world and political uncertainties (Brexit, Trump) also play into this.  All this begs for inflation target well above the 2% range. And if that is the case, that calls for the Fed "to signal its commitment to accelerating growth and avoiding a return to recession, even at some cost in terms of other risks".

Each time the Fed backs away from another proposed rate increase and let's its 2% inflation projection stand in the face of declining inflation expectations, it is another blow to Fed credibility. But, even worse, it makes it even more clear that the Fed is fighting the wrong battle, continually looking to slow down non-existent growth instead of promoting policies that encourage even a little too much growth.

Feelings of Helplessness Driving Electorate Anger And Anxiety

I've been meaning to take on this Gregg Easterbrook opinion piece in the Times from about a month ago, but just haven't gotten around to it.  But today is the day. In his piece, Easterbrook bemoans the lack of optimism on all sides, liberal and conservative, these days. He has special condemnation for progressives and liberals - conservative have long been doomsayers holding onto the past, but liberals have always pointed toward a better future with optimism. As he rightly points out, "Pollution, discrimination, crime and most diseases are in an extended decline; living standards, longevity and education levels continue to rise."

But some of his other examples of how much better things are today actually seem to me to be fueling our pessimism. With regard to the "death of manufacturing", he says, "It’s just that advancing technology allows more manufacturing with fewer workers". Well, that is most definitely true but it's a bug rather than a feature for someone looking for a manufacturing job. About stagnating middle class wages, he cites a study from the Brookings Institute that shows middle class income rising 36% when factoring in reduced taxes and increased benefits over the last generation. To counter that, I'll cite this graph from Branco Milanovich that shows global income growth by income percentile from 1988-2008:

As you can see, compared to most of the rest of the world, the middle class in the developed world has fared incredibly poorly. So, despite an increasing quality of life, they feel they are actually falling behind.

Other examples of unfounded liberal pessimism that Easterbrook cites actually seem to contradict that very point. Among other items, he lists the liberal doomsayers' predictions that the world's supply of petroleum would run dry, that large numbers of animal species would be going extinct, and crop failures would be widespread. Well, it is quite possible that we reached peak oil this decade; scientists say that we are in the midst of the sixth period of great extinctions in the Earth's history and global warming will only accelerate this process;  and global warming will only create more havoc with global agriculture - in fact, some point to a severe drought as the trigger for the civil war in Syria. It appears, then, that those liberal pessimists may have been onto something.

On the other hand, Kevin Drum takes a slightly more nuanced view of the reported pessimism and anxiety of today's voters. As he rightly points out, Hispanics and other minorities are actually far more optimistic these days than their white counterparts. And, he notes, current economic statistics reflect a well-functioning economy so that doesn't readily explain the anxiety that voters are reported to feel. Rather, he thinks this anxiety, especially among Trump voters, is the more cultural than economic - "It's cultural, not economic. It's demographics, not paychecks. It's about not being the boss anymore. It's about lower-class white communities now exhibiting pathologies—drug abuse, low marriage rates, etc.—that were once reasons for them to look down on blacks." I can't say that I necessarily disagree with that premise, but that explanation certainly doesn't apply to those voters who supported Sanders so passionately. So, I'm not sure it's the whole story.

My belief is that the current levels of anxiety in the electorate arise from a deep-seated feeling of helplessness. Way back in 1993, Bill Clinton said, " If you work hard and play by the rules, you should be given a chance to go as far as your God-given ability will take you". That was hardly true for everyone even back then, but it seems even more out of reach for most of us today. Perhaps our anxiety is driven by the overwhelming nature of the enormous problems we face combined with the ineffectiveness of our institutions to deal with those issues. But more importantly, as Cecilia Ford points out, is the fact that we feel we have no control over our environment. No matter how good we are at our job, we could lose it tomorrow because of globalization or automation; reducing carbon emissions requires a world-wide effort which is way beyond our individual capabilities; international and domestic terrorism can strike us without warning; even a good education does not guarantee a good job; there's been no progress on intractable problems like Israel-Palestine internationally or gun control domestically; Republican Congressional strategy is based on making sure nothing gets done and nothing works as it should. In addition, technology continually floods us with even more bad news on a continual basis - you actually have to make an effort to avoid it. And the same technology helps fragment families and communities while giving a fa├žade of closeness. And this is just not a US issue - it is widespread across Western Europe as well.

All these and many, many more that I haven't mentioned combine to feed into our feelings of helplessness. And that helplessness feeds a despair that is driving the unrest that pervades the electorate in the US and in Europe, with both conservatives and liberals. And that despair creates the demand that the status quo can not stand - things must change.

Astrophotography Adventure - Mars Attempt

In my prior astronomy post, I described my latest attempts at imaging Saturn and was able to produce at least one decent image from those attempts. So, my next try was to see what I could get for Mars.  Mars reached its nearest approach to Earth earlier this month, so it is probably one of the best times to get a really good image. But, because of its closeness, it is also incredibly bright so I am having real trouble with the images being overexposed.  I've made a number of attempts but really have been less than satisfied with not only my images but what I can see visually with the Starblast 4.5. Any clear surface detail like Syrtis Major or the polar caps have eluded me, which is pretty disappointing. So far, this is the best image I've produced using a video stacked with Registax and a little post-processing with GIMP.

And here is the original video:


I'm thinking of getting some planetary filters, red for Mars and yellow for Saturn, which will hopefully improve both the images and the visual observations of these two planets.

A Little Brexit Panic Begins

It looks like the real possibility of Britain's exit from the European Union is starting to create a little panic, especially in the London financial community.  Having all but ignored this up until a week before the election, it is about time that they reacted.  Some have argued that not much will immediately change as there will be a negotiating period for a new arrangement. But we all know that companies and markets will all move much more quickly than the negotiations. There is no doubt that UK stocks and the pound will fall dramatically and the City's place as a premier international financial center will be diminished.  But beyond that, it's anyone's guess. It promises to be a wild ride.

Could OJ Have Suffered From CTE

I hope you have been watching the fabulous five part "30 For 30" on ESPN the last few days about OJ Simpson. It is a fascinating, detailed analysis not only of OJ but of race, class, celebrity, and justice in Los Angeles. You should definitely take a look if you can.

I want to make clear that what I am about to ask now in no way is meant to excuse OJ for the things he has done.  He is clearly responsible for his own actions. But it is a question we might have asked if we knew then what we know now about the toll of repeated concussive hits to the head. Is it possible that OJ suffered from CTE resulting from his football career?  It's a question that certainly came to mind while I've been watching the series and also a question that we may never know the answer to.  In fact, OJ's defense team tried to use concussions in a failed strategy to get a new trial in his armed robbery case in Las Vegas. And earlier this year, Dr. Bennet Omalu who essentially "discovered" chronic traumatic encephalopathy in football players and who, it must be said, has also not personally examined Simpson, said he "would bet his medical license" that OJ had CTE. But, to reiterate, this would still in no way excuse what Simpson has done.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Deck View - Cocktail Hour

Senator Murphy Filibusters For Gun Safety

Senator Chris Murphy is taking his fight for gun control to the Senate floor, starting a filibuster that will continue as long as he can. He tweeted, "I am prepared to stand on the Senate floor and talk about the need to prevent gun violence for as long as I can. I've had ." He has now been joined by fellow Connecticut Senator Blumenthal and Senators Booker, Durbin, and Schumer. Senator Nelson from Florida has also joined along with Senator Cardin from Maryland. Murphy is insisting that the Senate take action on two specific items - restricting those on the terror watch list from legally purchasing guns and requiring universal background checks. Significantly, Senator Manchin, the traditionally pro-gun Democratic Senator from West Virginia, has also joined the filibuster, supporting both these measures.  Although it is doubtful that anything concrete will result from this filibuster, it is nice to see our Connecticut Senators and Democrats taking such a strong stand.

Newtown Families' Novel Suit Against Gun Maker Moves Ahead

The tragedy in Orlando is something that the people of Newtown, Connecticut know very well as 26 lives were lost in the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School back in 2012. And, as in Orlando, the AR-15 rifle was used at Newtown. In a novel legal approach, the families of some of the Newtown victims have found a way to sue Remington, the manufacturer of the AR-15.  Thanks to a 2005 law passed by Republicans and signed by President Bush, gun makers and gun sellers are actually protected from liability if a gun is used in a crime. One of the only loopholes in the law was primarily targeted at gun sellers who could be held liable if they carelessly gave or sold a gun to a person who was clearly going to misuse it. For the gun makers, the fact that they would have no idea who was actually buying their guns seemed to offer broad immunity from this provision.

The novel legal approach that the families have taken is that the AR-15 is a weapon of war and, as such, the gun maker would know that the weapon would be misused even of they didn't know the individual buyers themselves.  The case seemed like a long shot, but Judge Barbara Bellis of the State Superior Court has allowed the case to go forward, allowing discovery requiring Remington to produce marketing materials and internal documents, and even setting a date for trial two years hence. The marketing materials and internal documents could show that the guns was being marketed in a way that reflected its use in war, further bolstering the families' claims. Needless to say, Remington is trying to have the case thrown out and a hearing is set for next week for a final decision on Remington's motion.

If you have any doubt about the AR-15's lethal capability, even when modified for civilian use, take a look at the segment PBS News Hour had on the gun last night with former Defense Department official Phillip Carter. The weapon is designed to create as massive a casualty as possible, even in its ammunition. Says Carter, "The other thing about this bullet is, because it’s so small and moves so fast, it tends to tumble or become volatile when it hits a person, and so it tends to create a very large wound and very difficult-to-treat wounds. Again, it’s a military weapon. It’s not designed for hunting, where you might want to preserve the meat so that you can eat it. It’s designed to wound or kill soldiers in combat." Yet the NRA insists that the gun can be used for hunting, as well as for self-defense and sport shooting. Their claim for hunting is ridiculous and, of course, every gun can conceivably be used for defense and sport, although the AR-15 seems particularly ill-equipped for both. As the Newtown families' lawyer perfectly summed up, "[T]here is one civilian activity in which the AR-15 reigns supreme: mass shootings.”  Let's hope the judge allows the case to move forward with the result that gun makers are prohibited from marketing and selling military weapons to civilians. It would be at least a small step toward a little sanity in our gun laws.

Fed Credibility Hurt By Desire To Tighten In Face Of Falling Inflation Expectations

The Federal Reserve finishes up their June meeting today which will be followed by the scheduled press conference by Chair Janet Yellen. The ever-prescient Tim Duy raises an important question about how she will characterize inflation expectations going forward.  In prior statements, Yellen and the committee keep on insisting that they expect inflation to continue to climb to their stated goal of 2%. And yet, as even Yellen noted, inflation expectations have actually fallen putting the 2% goal seriously into question.  And, as Duy notes, interest rate tightening is usually predicated on rising inflation expectations, as this graph shows in the late 1990s and mid 2000s.

And yet the Fed keeps on signaling that it is intent on raising rates, sooner rather than later, even in the face of falling future inflation. After all, it is hard to reconcile the need for tightening while at the same time admitting that inflation expectations are actually falling. In fact, falling inflation expectations are actually a signal for further easing but there is no sign of that coming anytime soon from the Fed. If they continue down this road of pushing to raise rates in the face of falling inflation expectations, they will further damage their already suspect credibility. So it will be very interesting to hear what Yellen has to say today.

Markets Finally Notice Brexit's Gaining Momentum

With the vote barely a week away, it looks like financial markets are finally beginning to take the possibility that Britain will leave the EU seriously.  Of course, it is usually impossible to pinpoint any one reason for the movement of a market on any particular day. But, in the US, the stock market was down for its fourth consecutive day with analysts pointing to Brexit as a factor.  And the fear of Brexit also contributed to the German 10-year bond yield going negative with some predicting those yields could fall even further.  And today, the NY Times' Neil Irwin expresses some worry that financial markets are too complacent about the possibilities of Brexit, a slowing US economy, and even the election of Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, the momentum for "leave" seems to picking up as we head into the home stretch of this vote. As expected, Rupert Murdoch and his Sun newspaper finally come out forcefully against remaining under "dictatorial Brussels". And, just like our US election, immigration has become a flashpoint. As I've mentioned before, Britain's exit from the EU could be the first of many dominoes to fall that could reshape not only Britain but Europe as well.

Louisiana's Successful Medicaid Expansion Pressures Other States

It is hard to overstate the apparent success that Louisiana is having now that it finally has expanded Medicaid under Obamacare. Just since the beginning of June, over 200,000 people have enrolled and there is no doubt that the state will easily reach its goal of enrolling around 375,000 and saving the cash-strapped state close to $200 million.  Louisiana is the first of the Gulf Coast states to finally stop refusing the virtually free federal money to increase Medicaid coverage and it will put a little more pressure on other Gulf states, especially Alabama which is also considering expansion, to move forward.

What's even more remarkable about Louisiana's success is that the Republican legislature refused to fund any additional money to help kick-start the enrollment program; it has managed to register the 200,000 on a shoestring. State agencies used data from existing state health care systems and from the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in order to contact and enroll eligible recipients.  With Louisiana's success at expanding Medicaid at virtually no additional cost while at the same time saving the state nearly $200 million, it is really hard to see how long the remaining holdouts can hold the line. Even in Kansas, there is a push finally move forward with expansion that would also aid the state's disastrous finances. And in Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe's attempt to expand Medicaid has been thwarted by the Republican legislature's tying the entire state budget to a ban on accepting federal funds to expand health care coverage in the state. McAuliffe has vetoed this provision as unconstitutional and it will be interesting to see where that case goes from here.

The common denominator in Louisiana's expansion and the attempt in Virginia is the election of a Democratic Governor in those states.  Without that, it is probable that neither state would be doing what they are today. But you do have to wonder, when people see the success that other states are having, how long Republicans can actually legislate against accepting federal funds to expand health care coverage. It's hard to see that's a winning long-term strategy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

DC Appeals Rules FCC Can Regulate Internet As Utility, Preserve Net Neutrality

In a huge win for consumers, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC can regulate broadband as a utility. This decision means that net neutrality can be enforced by the FCC.  Broadband providers had wanted to be able to block or slow the delivery of internet content to consumers as well as give preference to other content. In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court ruled that the FCC was well within its authority when it developed these rules. Needless to say, the broadband industry immediately indicated it would appeal this decision to the Supreme Court. But, with the current 4-4 liberal/conservative split on the court, it is hard to see this decision being overridden.

Being able to regulate the internet as utility not only protects net neutrality but it may also make it easier to ensure that broadband access is available to all Americans. And that's good news for all of us.

Gun Control Talk Fuels Gun Sales As Owners Add To Their Stockpile

Talk about war profiteering, the shares of gun-makers Smith & Wesson and Sturm Ruger posted large gains yesterday in response to the shootings in Orlando. The reasoning has less to do with the fact that significantly more people will buy a gun as a response to the shooting. Rather it has to do with the fact that any serious talk of gun control sends all those people who are utterly convinced (against all evidence) that the government is always just about to take all their guns away back to the gun stores to stock up on even more guns.

The fact of the matter is that gun sales have been increasing over the last few years even as fewer and fewer Americans are actually buying and owning a gun. Depending on which study you take, gun ownership is down around either 10% from the mid-1990s or 20% from the mid-1970s.  In both studies, less than half of American households currently have a gun.  So, if gun ownership is down, who is buying all these new guns. The answer, of course, is the people who already own a gun.  So, fewer Americans have guns but those that do have quite a lot of them, and they are buying even more. And that should scare all of us.

Polls And Markets Diverge On Brexit Probability

It looks quite possible that British pollsters could end up with egg on their face once again when it comes to the Brexit vote. In 2015, polls showed a virtual 50-50 election when in fact David Cameron and the Conservatives went on to rout Labour by about 7%. Over the weekend, a couple of new polls on the question of Britain's exit from the European Union showed the "leave" camp gaining momentum and opening up a significant lead.  The Independent's poll showed a 10 point lead for "leave", while the Times and Financial Times showed much slimmer margins but still had "leave" in the lead.

Meanwhile, betting sites in Britain continue to show the "stay" side having a huge lead, with a nearly 2-1 probability that they will win.  In addition, the financial markets and even the European Union have shown remarkably little concern that Brexit will, in fact, occur. Because of the split in the Conservative party, the "stay" vote will need the votes of Labour and the Scottish National party in order to actually win the referendum.  And you really have to wonder how those voters are going to react.  Certainly, many members of both those parties probably think staying in the EU is a good thing. On the other hand, voting to "stay" gives David Cameron even more power going forward, which is not a good outcome for either of those parties. It just might be easier for those voters to stay at home - if the "stay" vote wins, that's OK; and if "leave" wins, Cameron will probably be ousted, his legacy tarnished and Conservatives in disarray, and that's OK with them too.

Admittedly, history has shown that the preference for a radical change such as this starts diminishing quickly as you get closer to the actual vote.  What sounds good in the abstract becomes a little more difficult to support when you actually have to vote, especially when the future that change will create is so hard to predict. As I have said before, relying on voters to be reluctant to pull the lever for change once they actually have to vote, if they even vote at all, should not inspire a lot of confidence in a "stay" victory. And, unless the polls change significantly in the next nine days, one side or the other is in for a big surprise.

What Kind Of State Is Puerto Rico In?

"The law is a ass - a idiot". That famous phrase from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist pretty much describes the situation Puerto Rico finds itself in when it comes to dealing with the crippling $70 billion debt that it currently owes. The economy is in pretty bad shape already and, if Puerto Rico does default on its debt, government employees will be let go and pensions and benefits will not be paid. So, an orderly restructuring through bankruptcy is the best alternative if it were possible. On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled in 5-2 decision that a law that Puerto Rico passed in 2014 that would have allowed Puerto Rico's public entities to seek bankruptcy protection was in violation of the federal bankruptcy law.

US Bankruptcy Code allows a state to seek protection for its public entities but a 1984 amendment passed by Congress made it clear that the word "state" did not include Puerto Rico or other US territories.  On the other hand, federal law precludes "states" from enacting their own bankruptcy laws. Puerto Rico argued that the federal law's use of the word "states" did not include Puerto Rico and therefore they were entitled to write their onw bankruptcy laws.  The Supreme Court did not agree. So, as far as the Bankruptcy Code goes, Puerto Rico is not a "state"; but as far as federal law goes, Puerto Rico is a "state".  Puerto Rico is not covered by US bankruptcy law, but US law says it can't write its own bankruptcy law. And if that's not bad enough, because of this Supreme Court ruling, Puerto Rico will have to rely on a dysfunctional US Congress in an election year to change the law and allow bankruptcy in order to avoid the devastating effects of defaulting on their debt.

Could Bridgegate Be Why Christie Is Trump's "Manservant"?

You have to wonder why Chris Christie, the head of Trump's transition team in November, keeps on willing to be humiliated by Trump himself. Needless to say, Christie hopped on the Trump bandwagon before almost everyone else, endorsing him way back in mid-February, and became a surrogate attack dog for Trump. But Trump keeps on treating him like a dog. First, it was Christie's deer-in-the-lights stare during Trump's victorious post-Super Tuesday press conference - a look that was so bad that Christie was forced to issue a statement that he wasn't there against his will. Then, during a fundraising stop last month in Christie's own New Jersey, Trump demanded that Christie, who was offstage, stop eating Oreos. And the latest from a piece in the upcoming New Yorker is that Trump actually sent Christie out to McDonald's to pick up his food.

Now, everyone likes a winner and perhaps Christie felt like he might be able to go somewhere if Trump won the nomination and the Presidency.  But at this point, you wonder why he just might want to lower his profile in the campaign rather than continue to be abused.  On the other hand, eventually the Bridgegate scandal is going to get to court and things could really get serious for Christie at that point. The trial of Bridget Anne Kelly, Christie's former chief of staff, and Bill Baroni is scheduled to go to trial in September and there is some speculation that Christie could be revealed as an unindicted co-conspirator before or during that trial.  If that does turn out to be the case, a position in the Trump administration could be the exit he would need, allowing him to resign as Governor of New Jersey before he gets thrown out. And endorsing Trump was probably not a big gamble, as Trump and Christie actually know each other and probably none of the other candidates would touch an unindicted co-conspirator in a high-profile position in their administration. Only Trump would be so brazen as to do that. So, if you believe that Bridgegate could be real trouble for Christie, then his tolerance for continued humiliation by Trump becomes a bit more understandable.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Set-Top Box Proposal Pits Tech Against Telecoms

An interesting battle seems to be shaping up between tech/advertising companies like Google and the cable industry and, as usual, you and I are stuck in the middle with virtually no say in the result.  Earlier this year, the FCC proposed rule changes that would allow competition in the set-top boxes that people use to receive cable and online video.  Sadly for cable industry, this competition would severely cut into the nearly $20 billion that the industry makes from forcing you to rent that box from them. That was blow number one.

Then came a proposal to force the cable companies to lease some bandwidth to competitors with limits on what could be charged, further cutting into cables' potential revenue. Blow number two. 

But the final proposal relating to privacy provisions really sticks it to the cable companies. That proposal restricts the companies' use to collect and share data for targeting customer advertising but applied those rules only to cable and telecom companies, specifically exempting companies like Google. Along with the set-top rule, this would mean that Google could track user data for advertising purpose through a set-top box that Google provides but that the cable companies could not do the very same tracking with the set-top box that they provide.

It is hard to ever feel bad for the cable industry in particular. They have had a virtual monopoly for decades now and their poor service is notorious (see this painful attempt to cancel Comcast service). But, in this case, you do have to feel that they really are being treated unfairly. Needless to say, the cable and telecom industries are going all out to stop these FCC rule changes, spending over $20 million in lobbying just in the first quarter of this year. And while these two industries battle it out, more and more young people have cut the cable cord completely while the rest of us oldsters still cling to that dream of just being able to subscribe to only the cable channels we want. At the rate things are going, cable may die long before that dream becomes a reality.

CT Delegation Blasts Congress as Complicit in Orlando

As a Connecticut resident, I am proud to see that my congressional delegation has just about had enough of their colleagues who refuse to do anything to combat gun violence. Having had to deal with the devastating losses at Sandy Hook, they certainly can sympathize with what Florida and Orlando are going through now.

Yesterday, it was Senators Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal who called out their fellow legislators as "complicit" in the massacre in Orlando. Said Murphy, "Congress has become complicit in these murders by its total, unconscionable deafening silence. This doesn’t have to happen, but this epidemic will continue without end if Congress continues to sit on its hands and do nothing — again.” And that was followed by Representative Jim Himes who rebuked his fellow House members saying, "I will not attend one more 'Moment of Silence' on the Floor. Our silence does not honor the victims, it mocks them."

Although the Orlando shooter's link to terrorists does not look like the prime motivating factor in his gunning down over a hundred people, even if he had been put on a watch list by the FBI, who had questioned him on at least two separate occasions, he still would have been able to legally buy the assault weapon he used. That is because Senate Republicans nearly unanimously voted down a measure restricting the ability of people on the federal terrorism watch list to buy a weapon. Because nothing should apparently get in the way of your constitutional right own a military weapon - even if you're a terrorist.

Microsoft Buys LinkedIn

Microsoft has agreed to buy LinkedIn today for $26.2 billion dollars.  The merger between the computer giant and the business oriented social media site certainly could offer lots of promise for Microsoft.  Being able to include a LinkedIn profile in an Outlook contact, via Cortana. or on Skype looks like it provides some value for Microsoft, providing they can actually get that done. A potential drawback, however, is that LinkedIn profiles can be full of bad or outdated information. The reason LinkedIn's user base of over 400 million is so large is that it is not possible to delete your account. I know I haven't touched my profile since I set it up probably over 5 years ago and I know many others whose profile is hopelessly out of date.

I'm even more skeptical of using LinkedIn technology as a social media platform for the existing Microsoft Office user base of over 1 billion users. There are a lot of users, myself included, that are determined to stay as far away from the Microsoft ecosystem as possible and like the fact that LinkedIn has remained an independent platform. And LinkedIn users rarely log into the system on a regular basis, which is hardly a great positive for a supposed social media site.

We've seen all this before - mergers of two powerhouses in different economic sectors and it has rarely been a success. And Microsoft has a history of being unable to truly integrate many of its recent purchases into the core of its business. I'm betting we will see the same result here.

Small Earthquake Hits Stamford

A magnitude 1.3 earthquake hit the Stamford area this morning a little after 10am.  Thankfully there was no apparent damage and most of us probably never even felt a thing. This comes after Byram had recorded a slightly smaller earthquake in January of this year. Although I didn't feel a thing here in Bridgeport, I do recall our cat was a little upset right around that time, although there's no way to know if that was connected to the earthquake.  But animals normally do sense these things much more than humans.

Penguins Win Stanley Cup

The Pittsburgh Penguins defeated the San Jose Sharks 3-1 last night and won the Stanley Cup in six games.  I have to admit, this series didn't look anything like my prediction (a not unusual circumstance, to be sure). I had thought that this might be a more free-skating affair with up and down action and lots of scoring chances. And, yes, there were the lots of scoring chances - pretty much all for the Penguins.  Pittsburgh was dominant in all phases of the game - they were faster than the Sharks; they won all the puck battles; they kept the Sharks bottled up in their own defensive zone for minutes at a time; and they outshot and out-chanced San Jose by a 2-1 margin, or even more, in virtually every game of the series. The Penguins stars of Crosby, who won the Conn Smythe award as the series MVP, and Malkin thoroughly outplayed the Sharks' pair of Thornton and Marleau, who was particularly invisible throughout the series. In fact, this looked like the same San Jose teams that just never showed up in the playoffs over the last few years. They consistently passed up chances to shoot, instead looking to make the perfect play, and constantly turned the puck over.

Martin Jones, the San Jose goaltender who I had surmised might be the weak link in this series, was, in fact, probably the only reason this series went to six games. In game five, he made 44 saves, the most by any goalie whose team faced elimination in the post-expansion era, almost single-handedly winning the game for the Sharks. And in game three, he was spectacular in the first period, keeping the San Jose in the game so they could pull out an overtime win. Joe Pavelski, who had been unstoppable in prior series, only had one point against the Penguins and that was an empty net goal.

For the Sharks, this is probably the end of the road as this looks like the last gaps of a very veteran team. It might be time to rebuild.  For Pittsburgh, this was a completely dominant performance and showed that they were clearly worthy of winning the fourth Cup in franchise history. And with their superb performance throughout these playoffs, both Crosby and Malkin solidified their Hall of Fame credentials. Congratulations Penguins!

Republican Reaction To Orlando Racist, Homophobic, And Egotistical

Obviously, we will learn a lot more about the true motivations of the Orlando shooter in the coming days and weeks, but right now this clearly looks more like a hate crime than a coordinated attack by international terrorists.  Republicans, however, believe that anything that can remotely justify the use of the phrase "radical Islamic terrorism" will work to their political advantage. And so we get these remarkably tone-deaf statements from the two top Republican primary vote getters.

First, Donald Trump tweets, "Appreciate the congrats for being right on radical Islamic terrorism, I don't want congrats, I want toughness & vigilance. We must be smart!".  It really takes an enormous runaway ego to congratulate yourself in the wake of the worst mass shooting in American history. In my prior post, I expressed my skepticism that this tragedy would do anything to change our murderous gun control laws and that another massacre will probably soon eclipse this one. But if that happens, I certainly won't be congratulating myself for being right; rather, I would be mourning the loss of life and my inability to have stopped it. 

That was soon followed by Ted Cruz who declared, "Enough is enough. What we need is for every American - Democrat and Republican - to come together, abandon political correctness, and unite in defeating radical Islamic terrorism". Well, thanks Ted; I'm sure ISIS is reeling from the fact that you've identified them with words, as opposed to the continuing battlefield defeats the group is suffering in Iraq and Syria with the help of the US and others.  More importantly, I guess your fellow Texan, Lt. Governor Dan Abbott, took your words to heart, abandoning all pretense of political correctness, when he tweeted this verse from the bible just hours after the carnage in Orlando ended, "Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows."  His clear implication is that the victims in Orlando had it coming because they were gay. 

Hopefully, more responsible Republican leaders will possibly take Cruz's point to heart and join the rest of us in abandoning our political correctness and denounce these racist and homophobic comments for exactly what they are.

The Massacre In Orlando

In the early hours of Sunday morning, a man stormed into a gay nightclub in Orlando and committed what is now the worst mass shooting in American history, killing 50 and wounding 53, many seriously, reportedly using an assault rifle and a handgun. Let's be clear - whatever tangential ties this man had to terrorist organizations, this was a hate crime. It is clear that he apparently had a problem with gay men and that this gay nightclub was a specific target as opposed to the generalized violence of terror. And it also appears as though there may have been a failure at the FBI who had investigated this man at least two times before. We will obviously learn more details about all this in the days ahead.

Sickeningly, we will now have to hear the specious arguments from the NRA and gun rights advocates saying that, if only someone in the club had been carrying a gun, the carnage could have been minimized. Well, you may believe that the Second Amendment gives you the right to carry a gun, but it certainly does not and should not REQUIRE me to have a gun when I want to go out for a fun evening with friends. And, of course, statistics show that having firearms in your home actually INCREASE your chances of death or serious injury.  We will also have to hear the pathetic argument that citizens need the ability to arm and defend themselves against the tyranny of government. Seriously, here has never been an armed group in history of this country that successfully defended themselves when the full force of the government came down upon them. In 1860, one third of the 33 states actually tried and were defeated after four bloody years of battle. So, if 11 states combined couldn't do it 150 years ago, your stockpile of a handful of guns is certainly not going to stop the government today.

Sadly, this is just another of the worst mass murders in the United States that I have seen in my lifetime.  I am old enough to remember when a deranged ex-marine went to the top of the tower at the University of Texas and shot 49 people, killing 16 nearly 50 years ago. And, despite enormous efforts, the ability to restrict guns or ammunition has not gotten any better since then - in fact, it's probably gotten worse. Guns have gotten more powerful and arguably easier to obtain and magazines hold more and more ammunition. So, I'm highly skeptical that this latest outrage will actually result in any progress on gun control. If the massacre of defenseless children at Sandy Hook could not move this Congress and this country to take action, I doubt that this weekend's carnage will, especially since the targets were young gay men. And that is truly a sad thing to say. Until we have major shift in Congress or in the Supreme Court's ridiculous reading of the Second Amendment, this weekend's bloodshed will, sooner rather than later, be eclipsed by another worst mass shooting sometime in the future. And, shamefully, as a country, we seem to have chosen to do absolutely nothing to stop that.