Saturday, January 29, 2011

There's Not Just a River in Eygpt

There are a whole lot of really upset people.  And who can blame them?  Mubarak stinks.  And he's our - the United States of America's - stinker.  And the Egyptian people know he's ours, and they know why he's been ours for almost 30 years now.  They may, however, be willing to put that at the back of their minds for a while if America is not seen as meddling in the country at this critical juncture.  I have thought from the outset of the riots that the best thing for the US government to do is to keep it's multiple yaps shut.  So far, the Obama administration has been very careful with it language, as Rachel Maddow shows at the beginning of this segment.  That's good.  I hope they continue to resist the temptation to play the heavy here, because it would most likely backfire.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Ancient Coal Combustion Technology Discovered

A new paper on the Permian-Triassic extinction event which was published this week is quite an interesting one.  The P-Tr (peter?) event is considered to be the most severe in the geologic record, with a huge number of families being wiped out in short order.  The new research is the first to provide clear support for the theory that the Siberian Traps flood basalt eruption contributed to the event, or might even have been the definitive cause.  The formation of the large igneous province has been propsed as a cause for a while, but a more recent idea is that the magma came up through a large region of coal beds.  The intense heat of the magma set the coal on fire, and the combination of eruption and combustion products led to a very large increase in carbon in the atmosphere.  The paper argues that the burning coal also injected a large amount of toxic material into the global environment.  (My guess is that the toxics are heavy metals, as the preview mentions coal fly ash.  But I can't say for sure because, as of now, the full article is behind a pay wall.)  The combination of rapid climate change and toxic materials caused the large number of extinctions.

While this paper is très intéressant, it also happens to be inconvenient for me.  I have seven different books on extinction events in one of my wish lists, and parts or all of each one may have suddenly been rendered obsolete.  I'll have to look at the contents now, instead of just selecting them on the basis of their covers titles.  Le sigh.

Dashed Again

By now I know that I should never get my hopes up.  But I enjoy heady sensation of being optimistic about the fate of my country when I can, so against better knowledge I was looking forward to this day.  Once again, I've been disappointed.   This time it's because the esteemed members of the United States Senate have seen to it that the chamber will continue to be the worst legislative body in the developed world.  The specifics of the negotiated rule changes are nice but essentially irrelevant. The most important goal, establishing that a majority of 51 can set the rules on the first day of the session, was taken off the table by Reid.  To top it off the rule changes that were agreed to aren't really rule changes at all, just standing orders, which I guess are some kind of less potent Rule Lite for those times you want the power of a rule, but not the scary permanence of one.  Or something.  (I should look up what standing orders actually are, but fuck it.)

Anyway, the upshot of this is that nothing will be done during this Congress, and the Republicans will do in January of 2015 what the Democrats should have done today.  Oh, well.

On to the next hopeless cause!

Update 2011/02/06: A good insider account of the reform effort is here.  It also makes the argument that the reform effort did result in everyone agreeing that Senate rules could be changed by a simple majority.  That's somewhat different than establishing a precedent, but point taken.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Breaking News Just In: Two-State Solution Still Dead

The most important international news in a few weeks really isn't news, if you've been paying attention to such matters.  Al Jazeera, a Qatar-based news organization that is probably the best source of information in the Middle East, has released a set of documents it claims are from parties to the negotiations between the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority.  I have no reason either doubt or believe their veracity based on the contents, but the ham-handed attack on Al Jazeera offices in the West Bank by a bunch of goons makes me think they are real.  And the documents do not paint the Palestinian negotiators in a good light.  They show how much the Palestinians were willing to give up in order to achieve peace relative to what international law indicates they should get.  They offered Israel a heck a lot of strategically located land, all of East Jerusalem and most of the suburbs east of the 1967 borders, and reduced the number of refugees from the 1948 war returned to Israel proper to a bare minimum.  And the Israelis rejected the offer.

That rejection just confirms that Israel has never been interested in peace.  The proof has always been plain to see, in tangible form, in the Jewish "settlements" built all over the West Bank, and most densely around Jerusalem.  Some have pointed to the forced removal of Jewish "settlers" from the Gaza Strip as evidence that the same might happen in the West Bank, and thus the Israeli government (which has always consisted of Jews and Druze at the ministerial level) had good intentions.  But the situations are far from similar, mainly because Gaza is so far from the Jewish holy city of Jerusalem, and the land between the Jordan and the sea.  (Gaza is at about the same latitude as the southern half of the Dead Sea.)  The number of "settlers" removed was also a fraction of the number currently living in the West Bank (about 2%).  Relocating the West Bank "settlers" would mean evicting and rehousing 6-7% of Israel's population.  An equivalent number in the US would be almost 20 million, which is slightly more than the population of New York state.  More evidence can be seen in the map contained in the documents, which resembles every map going back to 1967.

My main interest in all this is that America's unwavering support for Israel, even while claiming to be an honest broker, is just plain bad for America.  The backing complicates this country's relations with the Muslim world, severely disrupts its relations with the Arab world, and US leaders look like fools whenever they get rolled by the Israeli government.  The human rights aspects of the conflict - the displacement of Palestinians, the destruction of their property, the confiscation of their land, and the poverty the occupation causes - are also of concern to me.  Lots of other countries treat their subjects like crap, but Israel is unique in that it is the largest recipient of US state-to-state aid, and has been for decades.  Since Israel won't stop its reprehensible treatment of Palestinians while it is on the US dole, perhaps losing the subsidy would change its behavior.  That certainly is an experiment worth making.

For its own sake, the sake of the Palestinians, and perhaps even the sake of the Jewish ethnocracy itself, the US should do whatever it can to put distance between itself and Israel, not just cut aid.  Unfortunately, that's just not going to happen anytime soon because of domestic political considerations.  For a variety of reasons, unquestioning - no, embarrassingly slavish - support for Israel is a bipartisan affair, no matter what it does.  The reasons for the extreme level of support are hotly debated, so I'll just point out that (essentially) stating fealty to a foreign nation is not a prerequisite for a national political office in any country other than the US, as far as I know.  It's a bizarre situation, especially since the relationship is so counterproductive for the US.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Primary State

One of the reasons I think that this country has become less and less governable is the perpetual campaign, and the coverage that goes with it.  Because so little background research is required, it is just much cheaper to call the horse race than it is to do investigative reporting.   Thus, in a era where newsroom budgets keep on falling, we get more and more election coverage and "analysis", while the actions of people actually running the government get less and less scrutiny.

The 2012 election cycle, it seems, has started.  In what I would call a blatant ratings stunt, ABC News and a local New Hampshire affiliate are reporting on a "straw poll" of potential 2012 Republican presidential nomination candidates held last week, over 21 months away from the election.  Twenty-one months.  The results are meaningless, anyway, as no delegates were assigned and participation of Republican party operatives was below 50%.  But nonetheless, some mid-level director at ABC thought up this pseudo-event, approved it, and budgeted for it.  And then ABC covered the stunt like it was real news.  To make matters worse, other news outlets have picked up the story, amplifying the total non-event and giving it credibility it doesn't deserve.

What a total waste of human intellect.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Two Are Better Than One

It's been expected for a while, but nonetheless the publication of a study confirming the existence of two different species of elephant in Africa is good news.  It's good because, as the linked article points out, the previous management strategy that treated all elephants in Africa as one species put the existence of African Forest Elephant at serious risk.

I just find this stuff fascinating, personally.  The development of methods of genetic analysis for distinguishing species has led to substantial advances in taxonomy that would have taken decades using old methods.  (That may have also had a negative effect on future taxonomic research, but I suspect the concern is overblown because post-docs will seize opportunities in relatively understaffed fields once they learn about them.)  I think the next big question for taxonomists and geneticists to answer is how often are genes transferred between complex species.  This question has immediate relevance in the age of genetic engineering.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

We Had to Destroy the Village, Redux

Obviously, I'm not on the ground so I don't know what exactly led the US forces in Afghanistan to blow up an entire village.  But from here, without context but with some perspective, it sure does look like outright lunacy.  If it were the first and last village where such a thing occurred, then I could just chalk it up to the general madness of war itself, and move on.  But I think that the Pashtun nationalists, whether they call themselves the Taliban or something else, have inadvertently invented a significant new tactic.  I don't see how the US doesn't get charged with the responsibility of clearing a village that the militants have booby-trapped.  Typical villagers certainly don't have the ability to make a location safe.  The Afghan central government doesn't have the ability, either, and training Afghans to do the job will take years.  That leaves the US with the responsibility.  But the US military certainly isn't going to risk soldiers' lives on manually disarming each and every device.  So that leaves the mass destruction method, which works but tends to leave people homeless.  And thus, I believe, the villagers will end up being mad at both sides, which won't help the US effort one bit.

We need to GTFO of central Asia.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Easing Raul

One of my more outlandish predictions of a few weeks ago was that Obama would radically improve relations with Cuba this year.  While so far there's no evidence indicating that specific prediction will happen, there has been some progress made in the policy area.  Although the changes don't make the restrictions any looser than they were under Clinton, they are still improvements upon the Bush years (as so many of Obama's policies are).

As I've pointed out at a blog I post at anonymously (I don't want the cranks following me around the net), U.S. policy towards Cuba is stupid with a capital "S".  Cuba poses no military threat to the U.S., nor does it harbor terrorists that threaten the U.S.  Cuba has a higher level of democratic freedoms than Việt Nam, a country with which the U.S. has normal relations.  In addition, Cuba has roughly the same amount of press freedom, but a much better corruption ranking than Việt Nam.  Cuba's Peace Index score is much higher than that of the United States, though both are lower than Việt Nam.  At the leadership level, Raul Castro seems pretty intent on moving the country towards a more market economy.  Fidel, who was long a polarizing figure (or was long made into one) doesn't seem inclined to stop his brother even though he has mostly recovered from his illness of a few years ago.  While I don't believe that a free market either equals or necessarily leads to democracy, I do think that in the case of Cuba that improvements in one will be hard to separate from improvements from the other.  That is because the cultural similarities between Cuba and the capitalist democracies of the Americas are stronger than those between the East Asian mercantilists and the democracies of the Americas and Europe.

In other words, there is no justifiable reason for the US to continue its current policy of isolating the island nation.  There is, as I noted before, the politics of Florida, but that's a very poor excuse for such a counterproductive policy.  So, hopefully, my prediction will come true, and I will be asking my congresscritters to press the president to make it happen.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Beaver State Rails

At the request of a fellow commenter at the (unofficial) California High Speed Rail Blog, I have created another railroad map, this time for Oregon. Comments:
  • The map is comprehensive but not complete.
  • I've included the interurban lines of several systems, but not their local streetcar lines.  Additionally, no strictly urban streetcar systems are included.  This might seem like an arbitrary division, but interurbans often hauled freight (in small amounts) whereas streetcar systems almost never did.   Thus, the distinction.
  • No modern transit systems are included.  Right-of-ways abandoned by their original operator and reused later by a transit system are shown as abandoned.
  • For some logging railroads, I have only found brief descriptions of their general location, and have not been able to figure out the exact alignments.  These are drawn with simple, straight lines.  I may remove them in the future if I cannot find more information about them.
  • Temporary logging spurs are not included.
  • A number of abandoned lines are submerged in various reservoirs around the state.  I've drawn lines through the water, but they are not at all accurate.
  • Colors are as follows: green = BNSF; brown = UP; blue = everybody else; red = abandoned standard gauge; orange = abandoned narrow gauge.
  • Because of the limitations of GMaps, the content is split over several pages.  I've arranged the lines from north to south, but I have no control over where the breaks occur.  If an area you would like to look at is on two different pages, try flipping back and forth.  The page breaks aren't fixed, so all of the lines you want to see may (or may not) end up on the same page.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Vermont Ski Areas Map

Inspired by a recent episode of Vermont Edition, I have created this map of alpine ski areas in Vermont.  Location data for defunct facilities was taken from the descriptions on the New England Lost Ski Areas Project website.   I didn't include all of the areas on the list in my map, as a number of them were basically no more than backyard operations for friends and neighbors.  However, in southern Vermont (south of Route 4) there are quite a few defunct facilities of significant size - more than one lift and at least 6 different trails.  These are labeled with "defunct ski area" on the map, and their trails are usually visible in the satellite imagery.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

Viewsonic VX910 Capacitor Replacement

My main monitor, a Viewsonic VX910 built in 2003, has succumbed to the capacitor plague.   Below is a list of the aluminum electrolytic and polypropylene film capacitors on the inverter board.  On my board in particular, only the 330uF 25V electrolytic capacitor and one of the 0.15uF 250V polypropylene capacitors appear to have failed.  Nonetheless, I am going to replace all them, as all of the electrolytic caps are of the infamous CapXon brand.  There are also three ceramic disk capacitors, eight multilayer ceramic capacitors, and one box-type polypropylene capacitor on the board.  None of those are subject to the capacitor plague, and their lifetime is quite long according to the spec sheets I looked at.  In addition to the inverter board, the monitor has a display board with fourteen capacitors.  I see nothing on the net about replacing those caps, so I will leave them be.
  • 2 - 470uF, 25V, aluminum electrolytic, radial, 10mm D x 16mm L, 5mm LS, 105 C, low impedance
  • 1 - 330uF, 35V, aluminum electrolytic, radial, 10mm D x 16mm L, 5mm LS, 105 C, low impedance
  • 1 - 330uF, 25V, aluminum electrolytic, radial, 8mm D x 15mm L, 3.5mm LS, 105 C, Low impedance
  • 1 - 10uF, 50V, aluminum electrolytic, radial, 5mm D x 11mm L, 2mm LS, 105 C, low impedance
  • 1 - 100uF, 400V, aluminum electrolytic, radial, 16mm D x 31.5mm L, 7.5mm LS, 105 C
  • 2 - 0.15uF, 250V, metalized polypropylene film, radial, 5.6 mm W x 13 mm L x 14.7 mm H, 10mm LS, 105 C

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Perils of Excessive Modesty

The Senate rules reform proposal has been released, and while it's a move in the right direction, it's also too unambitious for my tastes.  On the super-majority itself, the 60 vote threshold to end debate would not be changed, but the burden of maintaining the filibuster would be put on the opponents.  The reform team also added two new side proposals to the ones I mentioned below: one to guarantee a minimum number of amendments on each bill to the opposition, and one to reduce the post-cloture debate time to two hours on nominees.  On balance, it would be a step in the right direction if passed, but a modest one.  Though the opposition might have to work a bit harder, it would still be able to halt any particular bill without extraordinary effort.

The most important outcome of passage of the proposal would be establishment of the principle that rules can be changed by a simple majority on the first day of the session.  That will happen because the Democratic reform leaders have chosen to use the so-called constitutional option (which is slightly different from the nuclear option which would have established the principle of rule changes at any time).  The other choice would have been to negotiate a set of rule changes with the Republicans that could gather 67 votes, which is the current requirement due to the debatable assertion of the Senate as a continuing body.  Of course, negotiation would have been pointless because the Republicans have no interest in altering rules that allowed them to obstruct Senate business at will.  So the Democrats will have to proceed on their own.

To me, once the precedent is established that rules can be changed by a simple majority on day one of a Congress, there wouldn't be much point in keeping the 60 vote threshold for cloture.  Eventually, it would be lowered to 50, so it might as well be done now.  The Republicans would accuse the Democrats of a "power grab" if the threshold were to be changed this year, but they are going to do so anyway, so I think the Democrats might as well get something for the lumps they are inevitably going to take.  But the Democrats are being typically fair-minded (or timid) about this, so the 60 vote threshold will remain in force.  I said before that streamlining the nomination process would be the most important result of any rules reform (though now it would be the second most important), and I think the proposal as it stands will provide a significant amount of improvement in that aspect of the Senate's duties.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Taming the Fili

It's a new year, and hopefully there will be a new paradigm in play in the Senate starting in a few days.  While there were plenty of accomplishments during the 111th Congress, a lot more progress would have been made if Republicans had not obstructed Obama and the Democrats at every opportunity.  What enabled them to do so was Rule XXII of the Senate of the United States of America, which provides for unlimited debate.  When a senator exerts this privilege, it is called a filibuster.  Contrary to common wisdom, the current rules do not require a Senator or Senators to hold the floor and speak to maintain a filibuster.  That's why Bernie Sanders' 8 hour and 37 minute speech was a newsworthy event.  Instead, a Senator simply has to indicate that s/he opposes a certain vote.  It's then incumbent on the rest of the Senate to override the objection with a vote for cloture.

If that sounds backwards, that's because it would be in most legislative chambers.  Because the Senate has seen itself as a club of wise old men supervising the country (though the wise part is not readily evident to outsiders), it has been able to operate under a rule, Rule XXII, that presumed a desire for consensus.  But with the increasing radicalization of the Republican Party, their desire for consensus has disappeared.  The Senate is now just like all other democratic legislative bodies on the planet, where conflict is present at all times.  The Republicans were able to exploit a rule created during a less divisive time to frustrate what would otherwise be considered a healthy majority held by the Democrats.

A lot of Democrats and a lot of Democratic Senators are deeply frustrated with what the Republicans did, which is why all returning members are interested in some kind of reform.  There has been some hand-wringing in various comments sections over losing the ability to block bad legislation if the Republicans take over the Senate in the future, which is likely to happen in 2012.  But I think it's important to take the long view.
  1. The filibuster has rarely been used for good.  The majority of filibusters, virtual or real, have been attempts to block needed progress.  Progressives have used the filibuster quite rarely to block something bad.
  2. It gives too much power to individual senators.  This was seen very clearly during the health care reality show debate, when conservadem Ben Nelson was bribed very publicly to sign on.  When every vote is always critical, the marginal vote can extract concessions at whim.
  3. It decisively tips power to conservatives.  Progressives already face the difficulty of persuading people to Do Something.  It's much easier to Do Nothing, which is usually what conservatives favor.  The resulting compromise is usually to Do Something Half-Assed in order to meet the demands of the last Senator to sign on.
  4. The Senate's election pattern makes it small-c conservative enough.  Again, there's no reason to make it harder to Do Something.  The rolling replacement cycle makes the Senate inherently conservative in that it doesn't fully reflect the current mood of the voting population.  That was the intent of the Framers of the Constitution, unlike the filibuster.
  5. If the filibuster is such a great idea, why not have the House adopt it?  Of course, if something like rule XXII was adopted by the House, the chamber would be full of fail like the Senate was, but to a greater degree because it has so many more members.  That's why the House eliminated unlimited debate in 1842.
I also think it's important to review the legal situation.  Here's how I see it (N.B. - IANAL).
  1. It's unconstitutional.  Article 1, Section 3, Clause 3 of the Constitution reads, "The Vice President of the United States shall be President of the Senate, but shall have no Vote, unless they be equally divided."  To me this says that all votes are to be decided by a simple majority, except for those explicitly listed in the Constitution as requiring a super-majority.  Rule XXII usurps the power of the Veep by requiring a super-majority for cloture, which is done by a vote, usually a recorded one.  This is another one of those cases where it would have been helpful if the Framers had spelled out what they intended. But I see no indication that they intended for normal business to require more than 50%+1 in either chamber, so I think it's a reasonable assumption that a simple majority was intended.
  2. The continuing body argument is bunk.  The Senate's traditionalists have asserted that the chamber is a "continuing body" because a majority of its members are always holdovers from the previous two cycles.  The continuity of membership is used to argue that the Senate is always in session and is bound to the rules either set at the beginning of the session back in the depths of time, or as amended using the procedure currently in the rules.  In the Senate's case, rule changes require 60 votes to come to the floor and 67 votes to pass.  (This supposed continuity doesn't exist in the House, where it is agreed by all that the rules are wiped at the end of each Congress and new ones can be adopted by a simple majority at the beginning.)  However, nothing in the Constitution indicates the Senate continues between Congresses.  The pocket veto indicates the opposite, because Senate bills can die in the same manner as House bills.
  3. A quorum can do what it wants.  It was established long ago that the power of quorum in the Senate is unlimited as far as conducting normal business is concern.  Setting the body's rules is just one of several items of business it can perform.  As such, it's not possible for a simple majority of 50%+1 Senators to be able to permanently require future votes to pass with a super-majority of some arbitrary number.  Nor does it make sense.  If it were to be true, a particularly destructive group of 50%+1 legislators could set a requirement of unanimous consensus for passage, effectively blocking the body from doing anything at all in the future.  That would be an absurdity.  (Note that a rule or law passed during the normal operation of a body is different from super-majority requirements laid out in the basic organizing document, which in the Senate's case is the Constitution.  Such documents are usually agreed to by consensus because before their adoption there is no procedure to follow.  They also frequently set a super-majority for amendment, which is very high in the case of the Constitution.)
Clearly, I'm in favor of blowing the filibuster to smithereens.   But the Senate is unlikely to go that far, mainly because it would mean individual senators would lose a lot of personal power to the body as a whole.  However, it could chose between several options that fall short of elimination.  One is to simply reduce the requirement to 55.  Another is to make the requirement for cloture 3/5 of members present and voting, not 3/5 of all seated members.  A more complex proposal is to reduce the requirement each time a vote is taken, starting at 60 or 67 and counting down to 50%+1.  A rather different proposal from the first three is to shift the burden to the opponents by requiring them to have a certain number of people on the floor.  If the number of members falls below a certain level, cloture is automatically invoked.

There are also a couple of proposals that could be adopted in parallel the ones above.  The first is to limit filibusters to final passage, instead of allowing them at multiple points in the process.  The other is to end the so-called secret hold.  Both of these make sense and I suspect they will be adopted even if nothing else is changed.

As for the filibuster in general, I have no idea what the result will be, if anything.  There is some question as to whether it can be done at all, given the precedents the Senate chooses to apply to itself.  It may take some kind of negotiated settlement to make any changes.  While it is won't help pass better legislation because of the change of control in the House, reform still would mean that Obama's judicial and other appointees would no longer be held up at whim.  Streamlining that process may be the most important thing the Senate achieves during the next two years.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Predictions About the Future

My last foray into predicting was something of failure, but why not try again?
  1. Unemployment will stay above 9%.  The economy is growing, but not at a rate fast enough to reduce the unemployment rate.  The somewhat more reliable employment-to-population ratio will also remain about the same, at 58.5 +/- 0.5%.
  2. Housing prices will fall slowly.  The various incentive programs put the brakes on the freefall in prices starting back in 2009Q2, but those have run out.  The issues of shadow inventory and mortgage resets still have to be resolved.
  3. Fed Funds Rate will stay below 1%.  Since the economy isn't growing very fast, the Fed will hold steady on this particular policy.
  4. The US dollar will go nowhere in particular.  There is still enough uncertainty in the global economy (mainly due to the Eurozone's problems) that flight to quality plus the carry trade will balance the Fed's monetary expansion.  I have no idea where any particular currency will go other than the yuan, which I'm confident will stay essentially unchanged.
  5. Oil will end the year at $110/bbl +/- $5.  Global growth will continue to drive the price up.
  6. The Euro will survive.  So far the Europeans have done a good job at kicking the can down the road, and I think that will continue for another 12 months.  That doesn't mean a country won't leave, however.
  7. Cuba-US relations will improve radically.  Obama will write off Florida because it's already un-winable for him in 2012, and instead fix this festering farce.  Fidel won't die, but Franco will remain dead.
  8. Counterinsurgency will remain the US strategy in Afghanistan.  The troop reductions will be minimal.  The political class is in complete denial about the damage being done to the US (not to mention Afghanistan) by the current policy.
  9. The Republicans will blink on the debt limit.  There's no way the people who own the Republican Party will allow the US to go into default.  The some of the newly elected teabagger types don't know that yet, but they will soon.  The outstanding question is how much Obama will concede before the Republicans back down. (added 2011/1/2)

New Year: Good Cheer and No Fear

Some New Year's resolutions I'll probably forget by next Wednesday afternoon:

Ignore everything to do with the 2012 election.  It's just fucking ridiculous - as well as bad for the country - that people are talking about this shit already.

Write more.  Benen cranks out 10-12 posts per day.  I should be able to turn out at least one per week.

Trim my RSS feeds.  Do I really need 200 sites in my reader, and is it even possible to read every story that pops up each day?

Pushups.  Since I can't stick with an exercise routine for more than a few months, I'm going to try sticking with a single exercise all year.

Fewer resolutions.  There's a thousand things I could be doing better, but thinking of resolutions won't be one of them.