Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for October 16th, 2013

“Breaking Bad” in politics: The meth-house documents

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Fascinating story by Kim Barker for ProPublica:

In a sharply worded ruling, a federal judge in Montana said Tuesday that documents found inside a Colorado meth house pointing to possible election law violations will not be returned to the couple claiming the papers were stolen from one of theircars.

Instead, the thousands of pages will remain where they are — with a federal grand jury in Montana, investigating the dark money group American Tradition Partnership, once known as Western Tradition Partnership, or WTP.

The documents, detailed last fall in aFrontline documentary and ProPublica coverage, point to possible illegal coordination between candidates and WTP, which since 2008 has worked to replace moderate Republicans with more conservative candidates in both Montana and Colorado. The documents, including a folder labeled “Montana $ Bomb,” provided the first real glimpse inside a dark money group. Such so-called social welfare nonprofits, which have poured more than $350 million into federal election ads in recent years, don’t have to disclose their donors.

Conservative political consultant Christian LeFer, a former WTP official, and his wife, Allison LeFer, who helped run the couple’s printing shop, sued Montana’s former Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry and the state of Montana to recover the documents.

On Tuesday, the LeFers lost in almost every way possible. They didn’t get their documents. They didn’t get any money; instead, they’ll have to pay Murry’s fees, which haven’t yet been totaled. They won’t be able to file their complaint against Murry ever again.

And on every page of his ruling, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy seemed to somehow insult them.

At one point in his 34-page ruling, Molloy referred to “the procedural morass caused by the LeFers’ posturing.” Since last fall, the LeFers have filed at least five separate complaints in different courts, sometimes with factual errors.

Molloy’s colorful order is a fitting coda for one of the strangest stories about how dark money groups have tried to influence elections.

Although WTP operated at the state level, . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 3:46 pm

Posted in Election, Law, Politics

Eight questions that will decide whether Obamacare is a success

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Very interesting article, and I think has the right emphasis.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 3:41 pm

Whining about Netflix

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First, I hate that Netflix abandoned their sortable lists of movies (which I always sorted on the red-star ratings) and went to an unsortable page of images. Images, unlike lists, do not lend themselves to a rapid scan: you have to look at each one. Moreover, to see the red-star rating, you have to hover your cursor over the image, which takes time.

Formerly there was an option to use the list, but that capability has been removed. (I’m desperately hoping now for a Netflix competitor who will do a better job.)

Second, about those red-star ratings. My understanding is that the red-star ratings are computed on the fly, based on my previous ratings. As eHow.com explains it:

Whether you’re logged into your Netflix account online, or streaming videos through a game console or Netflix-enabled device, you will have noticed there are red stars below each of the available titles. These red stars are Netflix’s way of recommending movies to you. The star rating is their best guess at how much you’ll like a given movie.

That account is consistent with this Wikipedia entry on the million-dollar prize Netflix offered for an improvement in the algorithm that predicts how a user will rate a film.

This is important because two different Netflix support people told me that the red stars simply reflected how other people liked the movie and had nothing to do witha  prediction of how I would like a movie. But note the text:

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 1.51.33 PM

Note: “Our best guess for Michael” is less than 2 stars. (2 stars = dislike)

Note also: This movie is suggested as one of the “top ten” for me.

What on earth are they thinking?

When I tried to contact support—and Netflix has only phone support, the better (I suppose) to ignore complaints and make sure there’s no record of complaints—I was told by two separate support staff that the red-star ratings are NOT influenced by how I’ve been rating movies. And the recommended movies (“Top 10 for Michael”) are based purely on the movie category (Action/adventure is a category I watch frequently), and ratings are ignored. If they are right, then it’s a bad way to run recommendations: suggesting a movie the customer is almost certain to dislike as one of the top 10 recommendations for him.

I fear Netflix is badly broken, and by carefully not keeping any records of complaints, and not allowing any written complaints (that can be forwarded and copied to appropriate people within Netflix), they are not going to know this.

It’s frustrating for me. Can you tell? 🙂

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 2:01 pm

Posted in Movies & TV

Things that happen when one party no longer wants to play “Government”

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Jeffrey Toobin writes in the New Yorker:

The current spectacle of government dysfunction in Washington could scarcely be worse, right? Wrong, actually—because a case now before the Supreme Court might create an entirely new level of gridlock and inaction. The budget deadlock has frozen the current operations of existing government agencies, but the case before the Justices will determine whether some of these agencies will exist at all.

On the surface, National Labor Relations Board v. Canning concerns an arcane issue—the scope of the President’s constitutional power to make appointments while the Senate is in recess. But the case is actually immensely important, because it addresses the ability of the President—especially this President—to exercise the basic responsibilities of office in the face of flagrant obstruction by the Senate. (I’ve written about this case before. O.K., I admit I’m kind of obsessed.)

Many of the President’s most important powers come from his ability to appoint the members of quasi-independent agencies, like the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Federal Trade Commission, and the National Labor Relations Board. All of the President’s appointments to these bodies are subject to approval by the Senate. This case concerns what happens when the Senate refuses to take up-or-down votes on the President’s appointments. If the Senate refuses to vote on a President’s nominees, how can the President fight back?

This is far from a merely theoretical issue. Since Obama became President, Republicans in the Senate have engaged in unprecedented obstruction of his nominees to these agencies. Worse, Republicans have been able to thwart the President even though they have been in the minority. Filibusters (once extraordinary measures) have become routine in the contemporary Senate, so as few as forty senators can prevent any nominee from coming up for a vote.

In response, Obama has done what any number of his predecessors have done—make recess appointments. This power reflects the eighteenth-century origin of the Constitution. At the time of the framing, it took members of Congress many days or even weeks to travel to the capital (then Philadelphia) to attend congressional sessions. The authors of the Constitution had to come up with a mechanism so that the President could keep the government running during the long periods when Congress was not sitting—when Congress was in “recess.” So, during recesses, the President was given the unilateral power to fill vacancies for the remainder of the congressional session.

Fast-forward a couple of centuries to the era of senatorial obstruction. As I noted in my earlier piece, all Presidents in the modern era have used recess appointments to fight back against a Senate that refuses to act. The question raised by the Canning case is what counts as a recess. In any realistic sense, it’s actually a pretty silly dispute. There really is no need for senatorial recesses at all anymore. Today, every senator is no more than a few hours away from Washington. Recesses are legacies of the horse-and-buggy era.

But the issue is enormously important, and the National Labor Relations Board shows why. Republicans have always loathed the N.L.R.B., but, before Obama, a Democratic President’s nominees were almost always either confirmed or rejected. Not anymore. Wielding the filibuster, Republican minority in the Senate refused to allow the confirmation votes on Obama’s nominees to the N.L.R.B. The President responded with recess appointments. As has been customary in recent years, some of those recesses were between congressional sessions and some were brief recesses during sessions. The Noel Canning company argued that the Constitution did not recognize intra-session recesses but, rather, only inter-session recesses.

A conservative panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled against the Obama Administration, declaring that intra-session recess appointments (like several to the N.L.R.B.) were invalid. Most important, the Court ruled that all actions taken by these recess appointees were invalid. This meant that more than a thousand N.L.R.B. decisions were suddenly declared null and void. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 11:23 am

Externalizing costs: Payroll edition

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Businesses work hard to increase profits, and any reduction in cost drops right to the bottom line. Revenue increases are subject to all sorts of deductions before the profit emerges, much smaller than the revenue increase: there’s the cost of goods sold (the cost of materials and manufacturing), overhead charges for R&D, administration, marketing, and so on. Cut $10 from costs, and profits go up $10; add $10 in revenue, profits may go up as little as $1 (depending on the margin).

One way to wipe out some costs is to get them paid by others. That’s why companies like GE and others do not want to clean up their pollution: they want the public (or at least someone else) to pay those costs, because if the company paid the costs for cleaning up its own environmental mess, that would hurt profits.

Sometimes externalizing costs is relatively benign: AT&T realized early on, looking at the rate at which call volumes were increasing, eventually they would have to hire millions of new telephone operators. So they figured out the dial system, and then direct-dial long distance. And they do require millions of operators, but now we are the operators: we place our own calls. Similarly the supermarket externalized clerical costs by having customers fetch their own groceries to the counter: externalizing those costs.

So the externalization of costs is not always bad. But, as in the case of companies dumping toxins for the public to pay to clean up, it can indeed be very bad.

In the Washington Post Michael Fletcher looks at how low-wage companies like fast-food companies externalize payroll costs:

Taxpayers are spending nearly $7 billion a year to supplement the wages of fast-food workers, even as the leading fast-food companies earn billions of dollars in annual profits, according to a pair of reports released Tuesday.

More than half of the nation’s 1.8 million “core” fast-food workers rely on the federal safety net to make ends meet, the reports said. Together, they collect nearly $1.9 billion through the earned income tax credit, $1 billion in food stamps and $3.9 billion through Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, according to a report by economists at the University of California at Berkeley’s Labor Center and the University of Illinois.

Overall, the “core” fast-food workers are twice as likely to rely on public assistance than workers in other fields, said one of the reports, which examined nonmanagerial fast-food employees who work at least 11 hours a week and 27 weeks a year.

Even among the 28 percent of fast-food workers who were on the job 40 hours a week, the report said, more than half relied on the federal safety net to get by.

“These statistics paint a picture of workers not being able to get their fair share of the largest, richest economy in the world,” said Sylvia A. Allegretto, lead author of the report by the university economists, which was paid for by Fast Food Forward, a group that supports walkouts by fast-food workers. “It is a good thing that we have these work supports, but they should be a last resort.”

Those workers are left to rely on the public safety net even though the nation’s seven largest publicly traded fast-food companies netted a combined $7.4 billion in profits last year, while paying out $53 million in salaries to their top executives and distributing $7.7 billion to shareholders, according to the second report, by the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. . .

Continue reading. And it’s not just fast-food companies: Wal-Mart does much the same.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 10:58 am

Juan Cole lays out 10 ways the US could avoid a catastrophic war with Iran

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Worth reading. With the budget fight off the table, Iran will surface soon.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 10:42 am

Posted in Iran

Businesses show their concern for asthma patients: Zero

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Kevin Drum writes at Mother Jones:

Dr. Russell Saunders is pissed off:

As I’m sure comes as no surprise, I prescribe a lot of medications….One medication I prescribe with great frequency is albuterol, a bronchodilator. Asthma is a very common childhood illness, and one that primary care providers can often manage without consulting subspecialists.

….So I prescribe a lot of albuterol [inhalers]. Or rather, I would if they existed. Unfortunately, albuterol inhalers per se are not currently on the market. What my patients really get are prescriptions for Proventil or Ventolin or Proair. There are, at this time, precisely zero generic albuterol [inhalers] on the market.

The reason why there are none on the market and thus patients (or their insurance companies, if they are blessed with good coverage) are forced to pay for the name brands is contained in this horrifying and infuriating article about pharmaceutical pricing in the New York Times. If it does not make your blood boil, then I congratulate you for having a more even temperament than I.

I’m pretty sure that I don’t have a more even temperament than Saunders, but I do have one advantage over him: I already knew what was going on with asthma inhalers even before Elisabeth Rosenthal’s piece—the latest in her series about the high cost of American health care—appeared a few days ago.

Here’s the short version of the story: as Saunders says, albuterol is a cheap medication because it went off patent long ago. Then, a few years ago, as part of the campaign to eliminate CFCs and save the ozone layer, CFC-based inhalers were set to be banned. Pharmaceutical companies took advantage of this to design new delivery systems and surround them with a thicket of patents. As a result, even though albuterol itself might be off patent, only name-brand asthma inhalers are available—and since there was no generic competition the big pharmaceutical companies were free to jack up prices to their heart’s content. And they did. After all, as Rosenthal points out, this isn’t like acne medicine that you can do without if it costs too much. If you have asthma, you need an inhaler, period.

Is your blood boiling? Well, wait a bit. The story is actually even worse than this. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 10:35 am

Posted in Business, Medical

Documents to Remain Open in Examiner’s Lawsuit Against Fed

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Good news.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 10:15 am

Posted in Business, Government, Law

Doctors’ secret for how to die right

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Interesting factoid: Doctors frequently recommend courses of treatment for their patients that they would not choose for themselves (because they’ve observed the treatment in action). Melinda Welsh reports at NewsReview.com:

Dr. Ken Murray wrote an essay for the web-only magazine Zócalo Public Square,thinking he’d be lucky to attract a few dozen readers and generate an online comment or two. Instead, the physician—a UC Davis medical-school graduate who taught family medicine at the University of Southern California—drew an avalanche of responses. In fact, what he wrote put him center stage in a swirling debate about life, death and doctors.

What did he reveal that was so groundbreaking?

He claimed that a vast majority of physicians make dramatically different end-of-life choices than the rest of us. Put simply, most doctors choose comfort and calm instead of aggressive interventions or treatments, he said. Another way to look at it is that doctors routinely order procedures for patients near the end of life that they would not choose for themselves.

What do doctors know that the rest of us don’t?

According to Murray, physicians have seen the limitations of modern medicine up close and know that attempts to prolong a life can often lead to a protracted, heartbreaking death.

Murray’s 2011 “How Doctors Die” was translated into multiple languages and written about in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and The Sacramento Bee. Thousands of people commented on it via the scores of newspapers and blogs that reprinted it. Readers told of “near-dead relatives being assaulted with toxic drugs,” said Murray, being offered “painful procedures for no good reason.” Among the responses were hundreds of anecdotes from physicians and health-care professionals that backed Murray’s thesis.

“Most of the stories were heart-wrenching,” he said.

Data that prove the divide aren’t hard to find. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 10:14 am

Charles Krauthammer makes a very good point

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I have to say that I will pay more attention to Charles Krauthammer’s opinions after reading his comment on the controversy about the “Redskins” name for the Washington team. Via ThinkProgress:

“Well, I’m not able to achieve high dudgeon, like Costas, or like my friend George on the other side,” Krauthammer countered. “I’m in low dudgeon over this. I think this is not something that is sort of a matter of principle, and I respect the [Dan] Snyder position. I don’t think there’s any intent of malice, there’s no intent of a slur, and there is 80 years of history. But words have histories of their own, and they evolve. The word Negro, 50 years ago, was the most respected word in referring to an African American. It was used 15 times by Martin Luther King in the I Have a Dream speech. Fifty years later, because of its own history, having to do with Black Power and a complicated history, it’s become a word that is patronizing. You would never say there are 30 Negroes in the U.S. House. You wouldn’t say that.

“In the same way, Redskins has evolved,” Krauthammer continued. “And despite its history, it is now considered a slur. Growing up, I used to use the word gyp. I never knew until I became an adult that it was a shortening of Gypsy. And I didn’t take a poll of Gypsies at that point to see how many are offended. I stopped using it. It’s very easy to do. It has nothing to do with the sensitivities of a mass of people. It has to do with simple, elementary respect. You don’t use that word if you can avoid it.”

The quotation is taken from this Washington Post column by Dan Steinberg.

 

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 10:09 am

Posted in Daily life

Alan Grayson is outspoken

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And, in general, I think he’s right.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 10:00 am

Posted in Congress, GOP, Government

An interesting response to Libertarians

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R.J. Eskow writes for AlterNet, republished in Salon:

Dear Libertarian:

We don’t know each other, but I’m writing because you’re one of the many people who wrote to me in response to a piece I wrote recently (“11 Questions You Should Ask Libertarians to See If They’re Hypocrites”).

A lot of people responded. Some of you made reasonable points, while some of you simply ranted. A frightening number of you expressed hostility to democracy itself.

I don’t know your name, your age or your life story. But I’m addressing this to you in the hopes that we can get to know one another a little better.

Who are you?

I’m writing because you wrote a blog post, or addressed me on Twitter, or made a YouTube video about what I’d written. Or maybe you sent me an email. I’ve learned that you guys use Internet technology quite a bit. That’s no surprise, since the Silicon Valley is swarming with libertarians. But it is somewhat ironic, don’t you think, that so many of you disseminate your opinions on government-created technology? (Defense Department research created the Internet.)

What’s even more ironic is that so many Internet billionaires (I’m looking at you, Peter Thiel) are extremist libertarians in their views. They support their views with wealth they’ve accumulated using government-created technology, government-protected patents, a government-educated workforce, and consumers who are protected and educated at government expense.

I called that hypocritical in my last piece, which made some of you angry. Hey, it’s my opinion! Sue me, as the expression goes. (Wait: as libertarians, I suppose you can’t literally sue me. Courts are a government entity.) But I’m not writing this letter to pick a fight. I want to address those libertarians who were essentially courteous and respectful. You wrote thoughtful responses to my piece, and I’ll respond to some of your specific points shortly.

But first, let me say that I appreciate the dedication so many libertarians have shown in defending civil liberties and opposing the militarized state. I wish that liberals had been more steadfast on these principles since Obama took office. Ron Paul was the only 2012 presidential candidate to speak the truth about US military intervention, and Rand Paul’s anti-drone filibuster was admirable.

I also appreciate and admire your willingness to reject conventional thinking. We should never stop discussing new concepts, however radical. Ideas are beautiful things when they’re well constructed, and some libertarian ideas are admirable in their construction—even if I find them sorely lacking in real-world situations.

Finally, libertarians have also been great allies on the subject of Wall Street and large corporations, especially when it comes to ending their government funding, their implicit subsidies and exemptions from prosecution.

Anecdote Break

Before we continue, an anecdote: I went on a talk show to discuss banking reform with one of the guys from  Reason magazine, and in the kitchen afterward we were both surprised at how much we agreed. He was funny and imperturbable. We decided to air our differences over coffee.

I said “You people are 60 percent great, and 40 percent irrational.”

“I’ll take 60 percent,” he cheerfully. “What else?”

“Talking with you guys is like being on a first date that’s going really well, until all of a sudden she starts talking about her alien abduction and how space people are speaking to her through her fillings.”

He said, “The existence of alien life is a very real possibility.”

Like I said: Very funny.

Finally I said “Okay, I’ve told you what I think. What do you think about people like me?”

His answer: “Nice, but way too serious.”

The Libertarian Experiment, 1776-1929

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be serious about. It’s true that libertarian ideas can be intriguing. But political debates have real-world, human consequences. If an exciting idea doesn’t work in practice, we have a moral obligation to change our thinking.

My deepest criticism of libertarians is that they aren’t willing to change in the face of experience. This nation conducted a long experiment in libertarian economics, after all, from its inception until the mid-19th-century or thereabouts. Our economy retained many libertarian features—minimal regulations and labor laws, for example—until the early 20th century.

They weren’t the “good old days,” at least not for most Americans. It was a time of robber barons, poverty wages, unsafe working conditions, and financial instability. To return to that level of deregulation in today’s advanced industrial economy would be even worse. We’d see frequent BP-type environmental disasters, accelerated climate change, and financial crises that span the entire globe.

Triumph of the Will?

Several of you told me that economic transactions, including the employer/employee relationship, should be based on “free will.” But garment workers in early-20th-century New York or 21st-century Bangladesh aren’t allowed to exercise their free will. They either accept poverty wages and lethal working conditions or they starve. Why does an employer’s freedom to negotiate trump the employees’ right to organize collectively? “Free will” is pretty narrowly defined.

One of you wrote that, “You have a right to the product of your labors, but you can’t force someone to pay you more than what you are due.” But you can force someone to accept  less than what they’re due, if the alternative is starvation. That’s not a free and fair transaction.

You wrote that no transaction is immoral “as long as force is not involved.” But what human forces are more brutal than hunger, privation and death? . . .

Continue reading.

The comments are interesting as well.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 9:44 am

Posted in Business, Government

New B&M shaving store in Leeds (UK)

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I just received this email:

w\Ee have just opened a brand new retail store in Leeds, UK. We sell over 700 products from brands including Penhaligon’s, Geo F Trumpers, Truefitt & Hill, D R Harris, Merkur, Edwin Jagger and lots more. You can see some pics on our Facebook page.

Our store is quite unique in having everything together under one roof. I know you are in the US and this probably isn’t very helpful for you but if you have any international blog readers then I thought it might be of interest to them.

So you guys in the UK have a new resource.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 9:24 am

Posted in Shaving

Superb sacrifices in chess

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I would have guess Bobby Fischer and Robert Byrne’s game in 1956, but others were new to me, and the first is quite wonderful. Take a look.

And while we’re on chess, take a look at this:

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 8:51 am

Posted in Games

Tagged with

BBS with Gillette Rocket

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SOTD 16 Oct 2013

I haven’t used my little Mühle synthetic lately, so today I brought it out. It really is an excellent little brush, and I had no trouble at all in working up a creamy lather from LA Shaving Soap Company’s Vanilla/Eucalyptus/Mint shaving soap—and a fine fragrance it is.

Three passes with the Gillette Rocket holding a Kai blade (I presume: it could be Tesco, which also uses perfectly blank blades, but I think it is a Kai). Very smooth and trouble-free shave.

I discovered my HTGAM Bay Rum hidden in back of the shelf, so brought it out. It’s a dark brown bay rum, and I think it’s a shake-before-each-use variety. Very good fragrance, felt good.

Written by LeisureGuy

16 October 2013 at 8:47 am

Posted in Shaving

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