Archive for May 2013

Somalia On The Rio Grande

May 10, 2013

If it were just a matter of Texans killing Texans — with the victims embracing their fates — then I might be willing to let it all go with an “everyone to hell in their own handbasket”  reaction.  But, of course, the generalized Gresham’s Law tells us what follows from this kind of thinking:

Five days after an explosion at a fertilizer plant leveled a wide swath of this town, Gov. Rick Perry tried to woo Illinois business officials by trumpeting his state’s low taxes and limited regulations. Asked about the disaster, Mr. Perry responded that more government intervention and increased spending on safety inspections would not have prevented what has become one of the nation’s worst industrial accidents in decades…
Alfred_Rethel_001

This antipathy toward regulations is shared by many residents here. Politicians and economists credit the stance with helping attract jobs and investment to Texas, which has one of the fastest-growing economies in the country, and with winning the state a year-after-year ranking as the nation’s most business friendly.

Even in West, last month’s devastating blast did little to shake local skepticism of government regulations. Tommy Muska, the mayor, echoed Governor Perry in the view that tougher zoning or fire safety rules would not have saved his town. “Monday morning quarterbacking,” he said.

Raymond J. Snokhous, a retired lawyer in West who lost two cousins — brothers who were volunteer firefighters — in the explosion, said, “There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations.”

I’d be surprised, except for the fact that there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, if you look at matters like a (certain kind of) Texan:

Texas …is the only state that does not require companies to contribute to workers’ compensation coverage. It boasts the largest city in the country, Houston, with no zoning laws. It does not have a state fire code, and it prohibits smaller counties from having such codes. Some Texas counties even cite the lack of local fire codes as a reason for companies to move there.

Hold on a moment there, buckaroo!  No fire codes? That’s a reason to locate in Texas?

I guess the goal here is to reduce the incovenience of contracting with Bangladesh.

Seriously — if you think it an act of social responsibility to demand clothing retailers to demonstrate proper work place safety for their imports, shouldn’t we demand the same of, say every oil and gas company, refiners and all, that deliver products from Texas to the rest of these United States?

Anyway — guess the inevitable consequence of such “pro-business” concern. No prize for correct answers:

But Texas has also had the nation’s highest number of workplace fatalities — more than 400 annually — for much of the past decade. Fires and explosions at Texas’ more than 1,300 chemical and industrial plants have cost as much in property damage as those in all the other states combined for the five years ending in May 2012. Compared with Illinois, which has the nation’s second-largest number of high-risk sites, more than 950, but tighter fire and safety rules, Texas had more than three times the number of accidents, four times the number of injuries and deaths, and 300 times the property damage costs.

As I said at the top…if this were a problem for Texans alone then there is a part of me that says that they voted for this government (and regulatory regime), and they should enjoy what they’ve gotten — good and hard.  But (a) this ignores the fact that those most at risk are those with the least access to the levers of power, and even in a deep red state like this one, there are lots of folks who don’t want to be blown up in their back yards.  Some solidarity seems in order.

More broadly there’s (b):  Texas’s drive to hold harmless private businesses for any consequences of their decisions puts pressure on every other state.  There are alternatives, and lots of non-feral players recognize that there’s more to a positive business climate than crap schools, an immiserating approach to health care, a failure to provide worker and public safety, and an incentive structure that rewards environmental malice.  But to the extent that Texas is successful in attracting enterprises to its let-any-harm-happen frontier, the downward pressure on other states exists.  Bad laws, bad regulatory frameworks drive out good, just like Gresham could have said.

National Republicans are, of course, complicit in this drive to put ever more Americans at risk.  In the context of weak state protection for its citizenry, the onus falls on the federal government, through agencies like but not limited to OSHA and EPA.  But they aren’t meeting that task, and won’t.  There are lots of reasons why not, including some an Obama administration could address (and that we should push for), but a big part of the reason lies with the long-running effort by the GOP to hollow out government from within.

So, yeah, Texas remains too small for a country and too big as an asylum.  I know it’s a near impossible task to imagine dragging it, kicking and screaming, into the Century of the Anchovy.  But for our own sake, if not for theirs, we gotta try.

The first step is to remember:  Factio Grandaeva Delenda Est.

Image:  Alfred Rethel, The factory Mechanische Werkstätten Harkort & Co, c. 1834

Dog Bites Man — Internet Bank Heist Version

May 9, 2013

Least suprising story of the year here:

…in two precision operations that involved people in more than two dozen countries acting in close coordination and with surgical precision, the organization was able to steal $45 million from thousands of A.T.M.’s in a matter of hours.

In New York City alone, the thieves responsible for A.T.M. withdrawals struck 2,904 machines over 10 hours on Feb. 19, withdrawing $2.4 million.

The scam was simple and very smart:  hack credit card processing companies in India and the US; then raise the credit limits on pre-paid debit cards issued by a couple of banks in the Persian Gulf.  Clone the data on said cards so that teams IRL could hit machines in multiple countries, stuffing wads of cash in backpacks that surveillance video shows getting heavier and heavier. Rince, repeat, profit.

Constant_Wauters_Der_ertappte_Hausdiener

All this comes out of an unsealed indictment for a New York City crew of eight involved in the impressively effortful spree noted in the quote above.

Don’t try this at home, kids — not only is it a pretty hefty felony, and not your money and all that — but then there’s this:

The authorities said the leader of the New York cashing crew was Alberto Lajud-Peña, 23, who also went by the name Prime. His body was found in the Dominican Republic on April 27 and prosecutors said they believe he was killed.

I have no doubt that there are folks involved in this that you really, really don’t want to irritate.  None of the putative kingpins have been identified, but in an even less surprising footnote to the tale, the authorities are tracking down some of the loot in predictable forms:

The authorities have already seized hundreds of thousands of dollars from bank accounts, two Rolex watches and a Mercedes S.U.V., and are in the process of seizing a Porsche Panamera.

Part of me says that this is something to note because so much of the financial life of individuals and the economy writ large depends on the secure functioning of — and user trust in — global banking systems at every level from the corner ATM to the massive inter-bank clearing mechanisms.

The cyber security people I talk to have to hold their hands over the mouths to stop themselves from blurting “WAKE UP SHEEPLE!!!!!” — as that trust rests on a rickety tangle of hardware and software.  So while there’s a kind of Great Train Robbery thrill to the idea of capers like these, this could get ugly indeed.

The real question, though, is what role George Clooney will play.

Image: Constant Wauters, The servant as a thief1845.

 

For A Good Time In London

May 7, 2013

Come Thursday week, I’ll be trying to keep my head about me when many before have lost theirs (though I doubt they blamed i on me).

Anne_Boleyn_by_Hans_Holbein_the_Younger

Which is to say, I’ll be talking Newton, the Mint, counterfeiters and all kinds of good stuff at the Tower of London at 6:30, May 16.  It’s not a free event, alas, but tickets for any geographically enabled Balloon Juicers can be booked here.  I believe the talk will go up at iTunes U at some point, and I’ll add details when I post a reminder next week.

I  know that I’m often kind of late with this sort of announcement.  This marks a conscious attempt at improvement.  I’m channeling my inner Charles Dreyfus:  “Every day in every way I’m getting better and better.”*

*It was a Pink Panther flick that introduced me to the phrase whose origins lie here.

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of a Woman, inscribed in gold over red “Anna Bollein Queen,”  c. 1532-6. (Note:  there’s a fair amount of controversy over whether this or another drawing attributed to Holbein do in fact depict Henry VIII’s unfortunate second wife.

Role Model (Dogged Determination)

May 6, 2013

This morning I got copied on an email blast intended to encourage our graduate students to finish their theses in the next few days.

Cruel, I call it.

But still, it works for me as a goad to push Monday up the rails.

(Credit where credit is due, dept: the vid came to my correspondent via Gawker, btw)

Chat about whatever, with bonus points for any discussion of impossible tasks to be done by Friday.  Mine?  Finish version 4 (a conservative estimate) of my damn book proposal.

Oh Brave New World…

May 6, 2013

…that has such people in’t

(via)

A 3D printable plastic handgun is now (more or less) available.

As the linked article suggests, there is a nasty possibility of having the thing blow up in your hand if you use too-powerful ammunition…but still.

Talking Points Memo is also on the story, with a gussied up video that adds swelling music and shots of WW II bombers to the mix.  They grabbed this quote (warning – do not read while eating lunch):

“I recognize that this tool might be used to harm people,” Wilson said, according to Fox News. “That’s what it is — it’s a gun. But I don’t think that’s a reason to not put it out there. I think that liberty in the end is a better interest.”

Presented without further comment, this story, also now up on TPM.

And this one.

And…hell, wait half an hour and there will be another tragedy to report. (At somewhere north of 50 gun suicides per day, that’s a reasonably non-hyperbolic time period — to say nothing of gun violence imposed on others.)

The nuts, Civil War revanchists, and simple thugs who drive gun policy in this country are a danger to themselves and everyone else.  Demographics are getting them too...but not nearly fast enough.

Traitors in our Midst

May 4, 2013

I know John posted on this already, but I was struck again this afternoon by the actual meaning implied by incoming NRA president James Porter’s assertion that Barack Obama is a “fake president.”

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Let’s review.  In 2008 Senator Barack Obama and his running mate Senator Joseph Biden received 69,498,516 votes, accounting for 52.93% of the total ballots cast.  Their principle opponents, Senator John McCain and Governor Sarah Palin (yes, that happened) garnered ten million fewer votes, for a 45.65% of the total.  Obama and Biden took electoral college victories in 28 states, the District of Columbia, and in Nebraska’s second congressional district, to capture a total of 365 electoral votes out of 538 available.

In 2012, lest anyone has forgotten, Obama/Biden again won an absolute majority of votes cast — 65,910,437, or 51.1% to Romney/Ryan’s 60,932,795, accounting for 47.2% of the total.  The President took 26 states and the District to the Republican ticket’s 24 states, and the victors captured a commanding 332 electoral votes to the losers 206.

In other words, Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States, earned and retained his office by every legal measure — handily at that.  There’s a strong case that George W. Bush, “43” was, if not a fake, an illegitimate claimant to that office, losing as he did the popular vote in 2000 while gaining his electoral college victory by a 5-4 decision of the Supreme Court that one at least of those in the majority now regards as an error.

But Obama?  If you accept the idea of small “d” democracy, if you believe that the casting of ballots amounts to an expression of public will, then Obama is as real as it gets.

Which, of course, everyone in eyeshot of this post gets.

So what that’s the corollary to that positive statement?

Easy:  anyone who denies the reality of Obama’s right to his office is telling the majority of the American electorate that their votes are fakes too.  That public decisions don’t count.

That — given that we’re talking NRA here — the armed rump of the American right, among whom are over-represented amongst those who want to refight the Civil War, are the arbiters of who gets to hold power, and damned be to the rest of us.

I don’t know what you all call an armed minority spreading such stuff, but to me?  Well, it ain’t treason until someone actually takes up arms and attempts to enforce that view…but it sure is dancing near that line.

I’m not simply name calling here:  this is dangerous talk. There is a responsibility that lands on the elected leadership of the right to reject such talk, to dismiss it, to banish it from public discourse, because the failure to do so expands what Obama wonkishly termed the permission sphere for anti-democratic behavior — along with increasing the potential for political violence itself.

It may be all fun and games for a Republican party that gets to say “hell, we aren’t shooting anyone, so denying voting rights is OK, right?” But if the elected leadership — looking at you Boehner, McConnell, not to mention the 2016ers — fails to shut this kind of talk down, they will be complicit in the results.

Image: Toyohara Kunichika, Sen Taiheiki gigokuden, 1890(Description, via Wikimedia Commons: Taira Masakado (901-940), an evil usurper of the throne, charges into battle surrounded by look-alike decoys.)

David Brooks Single-Handedly Solves the Fertilizer Shortage

May 3, 2013

Today’s BoBo column is useful, very useful indeed.

It’s one of his nominally apolitical efforts, and as such, parsing its intellectual flaws and frauds yields a helpful guide to the ways Brooks puts his thumb on the scale of everything he writes.  A column like this one helps expose his genius for bullshit without the confusing (to some) aura of partisan argument.

Brooks here presents what seems to be  a humble (sic) precis of responses he received to questions posed in an earlier column in an exercise of what he termed “crowd sourced sociology.”

That Brooks might not be the best suited to launch such an effort could be seen in the first of those queries:

A generation after the feminist revolution, are women still, on average, less confident than men?

Cranach,_Lucas_d._Ä._-_Doppelbildnis_Herzog_Heinrichs_des_Frommen_und_Gemahlin_Herzogin_Katharina_von_Mecklenburg_-_1514

Someone with some methodological insight might see the problem in the way that question is phrased…and I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

But it’s really today’s column that captures BoBo’s skill of finding always and only the conclusion he seeks in any alleged analysis of the alleged data.   His key trick:  there’s always a turn, a sudden shift in the unstated assumptions of the piece that allows Brooks to assert a claim unsupported by the actual body of information he possesses.  Let’s see that in action here, from this beginning

I’ve read through a mountain of responses, and my first reaction is awe at the diversity of the human experience. I went looking for patterns in this survey…

But it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends. The essays were highly idiosyncratic, and I don’t want to impose a false order on them that isn’t there.

Fair enough.

But wait!  It’s BoBo, after all.  Who needs an understanding of the data when there’s an anecdote that dovetails with his preconceptions:

One of the calmest letters came from Carol Collier, who works at Covenant College.

One of the drums BoBo has been banging lately is the (in his view) value of acceptance of a body of received belief.  He’s been writing about modern Jewish orthodoxy, but he’s asserted more than once the importance of revealed religion as a source of stable selves.  So it’s no surprise what kind of reader would win his accolade:

She wrote: “As a believer in Jesus Christ, I see myself as redeemed, forgiven and covered in the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I believe that this is how God sees me, all the time and without exception. I believe that his smile and delight in me is unwavering. This view of myself is quite simple yet with profound implications. It allows me to accept criticism without self-condemnation and to accept affirmations without exalting myself. This is the ideal view of myself that I am always working at. It is a struggle, but a good one.”

Just to be clear, my issue isn’t with Ms. Collier; she believes what she believes and she feels what she feels, and, as T. J. Luhrman has been writing a lot lately, that experience is itself both a subjective reality and a data point.

No, what gets my goat is the all-too-predictable-use Brooks makes of Collier’s account:

I’ll try to harvest more social trends later.

Say what!? (BTW — there is no ellipsis there. That sentence follows directly from the quote.)

Let’s review.  At the top of his column Brooks tells us that “it was really hard to see consistent correlations and trends.”  Now, we learn that not only has he shown us (at least) one trend, there will be more to come!  Impressive.

So what is this trend?  Bobo reveals his discovery:

But, in the meantime, I’m struck by how hard it is to have the right stable mix of self-confidence and self-criticism without some external moral framework or publicly defined life calling.

D’0h.  Of course — BoBo’s Kulturkampf never rests.  We need to behave properly, as our faith teaches us, as the manners of our mythical ancestors would have us, as the non-sexually-abusing members of Brooklyn Orthodox communities may be claimed to act.

A confession, here.  Remember how I said above that this was an apolitical column.  There is actually no such thing in Brooks’ repertory.  It’s all political, which is why he creates his cultural and sociological fictions.  This column is a foundational one, a way to slip in a claim of reality — that enjoying a good life, possessing the crucial human skills of balance, depend on specific allegiances that Brooks can then assert must inform whatever specific political claim he wants to make.

Another thing:  Brooks offers in this pair of columns — the questionnaire and now this “results” piece — a veneer of  science-yness, the trappings of surveys and analysis that (he suggests) give his interpretations the disinterested authority of a mere reporter of fact.  What you actually see here, of course, is that Brooks either has no clue what goes into the construction of an observation or experiment a scientist would recognize as meaningful — or he does, but doesn’t care.  Let’s go to his conclusion to see that dishonesty in full flower:

If it’s just self-appraisal — one piece of your unstable self judging another unstable piece — it’s subjectivity all the way down.

So. To review again.  BoBo  says there are no trends or patterns he can see in his responses.  He then quotes a single reply and asserts that it captures one fact — presumably that of the connection of religious commitment to the possession of certain qualities of personality.  And then he states, with no reference to any of his data, (ex cathedra, as it were) that another way of knowing one’s self is invalid.

The scientific follies are so many, and so many of them are obvious, it’s exhausting to try and list them all. Just to suggest one — no where does BoBo suggest that he might have to deal with a selection bias in the population of his readers who choose to reply to him.  Given that he’s written often about the satisfactions of an externally constrained religious life, that might be a problem — but it is not one that seems to trouble him.

But the fact that his “study” is worthless as actual knowledge is both obvious and besides the point, his point.  Look one more time at that last sentence.  Notice the double sleight of hand there?

It’s not just the untethered nature of the assertion — our David telling us that self appraisal is suspect — but  this too:  it’s an answer to a question no one asked.*  He began by wondering how men and women compare for self-confidence; now he’s shifted to an assertion about the sources of his respondents self-judgment.  Not the same question at all.  (There’s the added problem of the subjectivity of religious experience as well, but to ask BoBo to do the very hard work of thinking about  about that is like asking a donkey to keep watch for angels.  It’s been reported to happen, but very, very rarely.)  All of his column is unconnected to this final point; it’s there just for atmosphere, to give this unsupported, culturally and politically freighted claim the aura of reality.  It’s pure propaganda.  This is David Brooks.

Enough.  I’ve wasted another perfectly good hour foaming at Brooks many sins.  Here’s the shorter: he always plays a rigged game.  The only reason to read him is to play “spot the bullshit.”

To add:  what bugs me from my particular bailiwick as a science writer is that he has so little knowledge of, or perhaps respect for, what actually goes into the very hard work of deriving actual understanding from the exceptional complexity of material reality — including the extraordinary tangle of human experience.  There are lots of way science is losing some of its cultural capital right now, some self-inflicted.  But nonsense like this sure doesn’t help.

Image:  Lucas Cranach the Elder, Portraits of Henry the Pious, Duke of Saxony and his wife Katharina von Mecklenburg, 1514.