01 January 2017

Guess Who #1

It's a new year, and I'm going to start something I've been thinking about for years: a "guess who" puzzle. I've taken lots of pictures over the years. Lots of them have been of statutes, because statues don't screw up your shot by moving suddenly.

I'm going to post a picture of (part of) a statue. Take a guess and try to identify the featured person, and, for extra credit, where in the world the statute can be found. If nobody gets it within the first day or so, I'll start providing hints.

Here's the first one:


Good luck!

23 December 2016

No, Donald, Boeing isn't going to run right out and "price-out" a Super-Hornet that's "comparable" to the F-35.

It wasn't the first time, and - disturbingly - it probably won't be the last, but Donald Trump used his Twitter account to cause sharp and unexpected after-market stock price moves for two different companies yesterday. (Did those swings benefit Donald or his family? Probably not, but we know so little about his finances that it's impossible to be sure.) Yesterday, it stock prices for uranium mines rose after Trump sent a tweet about the need to expand our nuclear arsenal. This time, Lockheed Martin's market cap took a $1.2 billion dollar beating, while Boeing shares went up, after The Donald sent this:


I just have a couple of thoughts on this:

First, it appears that investors need to start taking "Twitter risk" into account when picking stocks. If you want a stable investment, you'll need to look for companies that are unlikely to attract Trump's interest, in industries and sectors that are unlikely to attract Trump's interest. Otherwise, you need to be prepared for the possibility that the value of your investment might abruptly fluctuate by a few percent depending on what a POTUS with no known capacity for self-restraint decides to Tweet. 

Second, while I'm sure Boeing's CEO was very polite during the meeting with the President-elect, and made all the appropriate noises at all the appropriate times, I'm fairly sure that both CEOs present were mentally making a gesture that involves rapidly moving a lightly-closed fist in an up-and-down motion. And after the meeting, an excited and invigorated Boeing CEO didn't immediately turn to his assistant and start snapping orders cancel people's Christmas holidays so they can drop everything to "price-out" a new super hornet variant. Instead, a mildly exasperated CEO turned to his assistant and said something to the effect of, "get someone to dust off that thing we did last year when we were trying to get the Navy to pick up a few more hornets and send it to the schmuck's people," before turning to the Lockheed CEO and saying, "I don't know about you, Marillyn, but I need a drink."

Here's the thing. This whole thing around the F-35 and price overruns is very transparently Trump trying to establish that he's a big-league businessman, a super negotiator, and is going to negotiate great deals for the USA. But the thing is, compared with Lockheed and Boeing's CEOs, Trump is not big-league. Estimates of the value of the Trump Organization's holdings are all over the place, but most of the estimates are in the $3.5 billion range. The market cap for Lockheed's stock is over 20 times that; Boeing's is even higher. If Lockheed is the New York Yankees of business, Donald Trump is the Staten Island Yankees. He's not playing in their league, has never played in their league, and was not in any danger of getting an invitation to play in their league. 

I'm sure that Trump's grand plan is to use the threat of going to Boeing to try to negotiate Lockheed down on the F-35. The thing is, his "I asked Boeing to price out an alternative" thing isn't going to give him a lot of leverage in that regard. 

First, a new fighter plane project, even one done on the cheap by basing from an existing airframe like the Hornet, is likely to run into the tens of billions, minimum. "Pricing out" a project like that is a multimillion dollar enterprise - an investment that Boeing is highly unlikely to undertake when they have no real hope of repayment. 

Second, Trump doesn't sign the checks on the F-35, Congress does. Congress has had no problems signing off on military purchases the President and DoD didn't want in the past, ant that's not particularly likely to change now.  That's particularly true given that Lockheed was careful to spread the F-35 project and its components across about 40 states. It's literally harder to find a Senator who doesn't have an interest in keeping the F-35 going than one who does. 

Bottom line: Trump undoubtedly thinks he was acquiring leverage to use against Lockheed with that Tweet. He didn't. He screwed with their stock price a little, but that's all.

14 December 2016

We need to investigate Russia's interference in the election because it's a threat to our country. But we need to stop pretending it's why Trump won.

Our intelligence services are saying, "with high confidence," that Russia engaged in successful hacking of a number of people and institutions connected with the Clinton campaign, and was responsible for leaking the information they received to the public with the intention of interfering in our elections, and possibly with the specific intent of helping the Trump campaign. (I doubt that it will ever be truly clear whether they genuinely wanted a Trump victory, or merely wanted him to come close enough to delegitimize and cripple Clinton.)  That's bad. That's a threat to the stability of our country. It's something that we have to address, or face the probability that it will happen again.

But we also need to acknowledge that the Russian hacking and leaks, as bad as they were, did not cause Trump's victory.

That's likely to be a controversial statement, so let me break down my reasoning on this:
In order for the Russians to have made the difference, there would have to be tens of thousands of voters in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania who did not vote for Clinton, but would have voted for her were it not for things revealed in the leaked emails.  Maybe there were that many people who were that pissed off by the controversial risotto recipe, but I have serious doubts.

There simply weren't very many new revelations in either the DNC leaks or the Podesta emails, and no new narratives were spun around the leaks. The leaks simply reinforced (sometimes naturally, sometimes after sufficient spinning) existing narratives. The narratives were already there prior to the leaks.

Seriously, people didn't suddenly start believing that the DNC had tried to do what it could to help Clinton overcome Sanders in the primary when it was revealed that the interim Chair of the DNC had, at a bare minimum, assisted the Clinton campaign with debate prep during the primaries, and possibly had done so using information obtained as a result of her affiliation with CNN. People started to believe the DNC was trying to do what they could to help Clinton based on things like the scheduling of the debates on holiday weekends, the threat to bar anyone who participated in independent debates from official ones, and the refusal to let candidates like Lessig enter the debates at all.

People didn't suddenly formulate an opinion regarding Clinton's relationship with Wall Street when they saw the leaked transcripts from Podesta's email. People, both on the right and from the Sanders camp, had been demanding those transcripts for months before the leak and had been criticizing Clinton's big-money speaking engagements for even longer.

The people who got angry about things that turned up in the Russian-sponsored leaks were already angry about those very issues. In order for the leaks to make the difference between victory and defeat, tens of thousands of them would have had to care about those issues to begin with, but still be definite Clinton voters, but then be pushed over the edge to either not vote at all or to vote for a different candidate because of unconfirmed leaks which were - at that time - being widely reported as potentially being linked to the Russians.

Seriously, how likely is that.

No, if the Russians have succeeded at anything, it's at convincing people that their attempt at intervention actually did anything to sway the 2016 election. It didn't. The harm that it has indubitably done to us will come later, and will in part result from all the "but if only" bullshit theories that are spun around their minimal interference.

There are reasons that Trump won, and that Clinton lost. We will find them closer to home than Russia.

12 December 2016

If you think Mitch McConnell committed treason, you need to stop and read the Constitution.

The title on this one should be self-explanatory, really.  Russia intervening in our elections is very, very bad. The fact that the United States Senate Majority Leader was too concerned with partisan advantage to agree to a unified approach to an external threat is even worse.  But he did not commit treason. This is immediately clear to anyone who reads the Constitution, and even more clear to anyone who has read the Federalist Papers.  Sadly, that hasn't stopped a distressing number of Democrats from demanding that McConnell be charged with treason.

There is the one and only crime which is defined in the United States Constitution. The definition is found in Article III, Section 3, Clause 1, and the relevant language is very clear:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying war against them, or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort.
Let's break that down and apply it to this situation.

"Treason against the United States, shall consist only..."
 That phrasing unequivically establishes that the clause is both the definition of treason and that it is the only definition of treason - in other words, if the acts don't fit the rest of the definition, they aren't treason.

"...in levying war against them..."
Mitch McConnell did not levy war against the United States. Metaphorical war only counts if you want to metaphorically charge him with metaphorical treason. It doesn't work in the real world, and shouldn't. I'll get to why in a minute.

"...or in adhering to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort."
The provision does not say "giving aid and comfort to another country." We are not at war with Russia. Russia, therefore, is not legally our enemy. if Russia is not an enemy, giving Russia aid an comfort cannot be treason. It's really that simple.

Now I could get into all kinds of caselaw, discuss whether McConnell's inaction would fit the definition in the event that Russia was an enemy (it doesn't), and so on, but that would use more of my time than I care to spare on this absurdity. McConnell's decision to refuse to join in a united, bipartisan effort to call out Russia's attempts to influence our election was exactly the kind of thing that you would expect from the king of obstructionism, but it's simply not treason. And it's not treason for good reason.

It's not an accident that treason is defined in the Constitution, or that it's defined as narrowly as it is. That's a feature, built in by the founders, as James Madison (writing as Publius) explained in Federalist 43:

But as new-fangled and artificial treasons have been the great engines by which violent factions, the natural offspring of free government, have usually wreaked their alternate malignity on each other, the convention have, with great judgment, opposed a barrier to this peculiar danger, by inserting a constitutional definition of the crime, fixing the proof necessary for conviction of it, and restraining the Congress, even in punishing it, from extending the consequences of guilt beyond the person of its author.

In short, the founders didn't want groups of Americans throwing reckless charges of treason around as a way to pound on their political opponents, so they crafted the definition so as to make that impossible.

So, before you sign any of the petitions demanding that McConnell be hung, drawn, and quartered - or the modern equivalent - it might be good if you take a moment to think about what you are doing, and why it's something that the founders considered to be incompatible with the America they were trying to establish. 

Right. Back to here.

Right. I apparently greatly underestimated how much effort Facebook has put into monetizing the Pages thing. If I want to keep my longer political commentary separate from my personal page, yet still be reasonably confident that posts will show up on friends' timelines, I need to pay for the privilege.

Not planning on doing that. So back to Blogger it is.

These messages will show as links on my page; Anyone who liked my The Questionable Authority page on Facebook will will also get a link/text to the post.

01 August 2016

How an American railfan learned to hate commuting with @SW_Trains

I've always had a fondness for trains. This announcement should surprise no one who knows me, because if you know me at all, you know that I'm a geek - someone the Brits might call (with classic understatement) a bit of an Anorak.  And I'm a dilettante of an anorak at that - I rarely delve too deeply into any one geekish pursuit; instead, I skim the surface of many. But my love of rail is rooted a bit more deeply than my other hobbies. 

Growing up in the Bronx, I learned that train = special very early. Whenever we went anywhere different when I was growing up, a train was involved. Maybe it was just the D or the 4 into Manhattan for a day trip to the museums.  Maybe it was a walk down to the overpass at the end of 204th Street to watch the commuter trains run up and down the Harlem Line, or, if the four of us kids had been really good, to stand on the overpass and watch trains move around the MTA's Concourse Yard. But all of that paled to the real trains - the ones that belong to the decade-long summer vacations of childhood.

Every year, my hassled and massively overburdened parents would shepherd four kids and several massive bags to the subway, on and off the subway, and into the massive concourse of Grand Central Terminal to catch an Amtrak train up the old New York Central's famed Water Level Route, to the amazing, exotic destinations of Albany, Rochester, and Buffalo on our annual excursion to visit our grandparents. And when we got to Buffalo, and out to the cottage on Lake Erie, there would be long days sitting outside watching the trains and counting the cars - several trains an hour - along the double-track Conrail mainline. 

The romance faded, of course.  The summers got shorter. The mixed freights and cabooses were replaced by endless strings of intermodal containers with end-of-train devices at the rear. And I got older, and the fascination of trains was overtaken by a fascination with girls (occasionally at the expense of watching what was in front of me when I was on my bike). 

But that was enough to leave me with warm memories. So when we learned that we were moving to Andover this year, I took a look and saw that Andover is just over an hour by train from London, I considered that almost a bonus. My British friends might make complaining about rail a national pastime, but I just laughed. Regular service to almost anywhere in the country you might want to go? Multiple trains per hour to many, many destinations? Rail connections to the Continent? They didn't know how good they had it. 

And when we arrived, the first several journeys confirmed that for me. There were a couple of minor issues, but they seemed unimportant, particularly while I sat at the window, and watched the English countryside roll by. I sat and read, enjoyed my commute, even got to know the difference between the Class 159s I ride and the 450s and 455s that haul closer-in commuters on the suburban routes, and the 444s that run on the electrified long distance routes. The romance was alive and well. 

It was. 

Yet I now find that I spend at least as much time bitching and moaning about the service as any Brit I know. I routinely get off the train feeling much more miserable than I was when I got on, whether it's morning or night. I thoroughly dislike my commute. 

Over the next few days or weeks, I'm going to explore how that happened, and try to figure out what went so wrong. A bit of it is the result of natural causes - of reality not living up to the standard set by memory - but most of it isn't. Some of it will be down to failures of the company that operates the trains (the Stagecoach Group, which runs the South West Trains franchise). Other problems result from the system that gives the franchisee so little control over things that matter to the commute, and still more from privatization itself. 

I'll talk about the privatization first, in the next post. 

24 June 2016

Sorry, #leave , but you're all UKIP now.

Britain is out.

And now I find that I've got quite a few #leave friends who are suddenly anxious to make sure that I know that they aren't racists. That they did not vote leave because Nigel Farage made them afraid of mass rapes by migrants. That they voted leave for other reasons, such as the impact of undemocratically adopted Brussels regulations on the UK, or EU overreach into national affairs, or because they feel that the UK should negotiate its own trade deals. That they aren't, in short, racists.

And I believe them.

I don't think that voting to exit the EU was the best choice, but there's legitimate cause for complaint about the EU. So much so, in fact, that it's insane to think that the result of the vote was entirely driven by irrational xenophobia. I don't think, for example, that the Minister The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, joined the "out" campaign because he thinks that Nigel Farage talks good sense. I think that his motivation is much more likely to be tied to other factors, such as frustration with a Court of Justice for the European Union that seemed determined to overrule as much of the common law system as possible.

But I don't care.

Because the thing is, it was clear from the start that a victory for #leave wouldn't happen without the UKIP support. So while toxic Nigel wasn't part of the "official" Leave campaign, while there was an "official" distance placed between "official" Leave and UKIP, there were no efforts to place any actual distance between UKIP and Leave. When Nigel spouted off about mass rape, there was not loud condemnation; instead, there were remarks about the effect of Turkey joining the EU, and whether the UK could manage suddenly growing to 70-80 million. There was no condemnation, but there were many dog whistles.

The Leave campaign voluntarily got into harness with UKIP, because that's what it was going to take to get across the line. The Leave campaign does not get to cut those chains that easily now that the race is done.

"Mainstream" leave couldn't have done it alone, and nor could UKIP. They did it together, and together they remain.

Sorry, #Leave, but you're all UKIP now.

25 May 2016

The most important legal case of this year was published last week. You've probably never heard of it.

The title of this post seem a bit click-baity, but it's not an exaggeration. The case that I'm going to discuss has a direct effect on Australia's public health efforts to require plain-packaging for tobacco products, will have a similar effect on other such efforts in other countries, and will have downstream effects on regulatory efforts on public health, environmental, and human rights issues around the world.

But here's the thing: this case isn't a US Supreme Court case, it's not a case from any of the European Union courts, and it's not even a case from the International Court of Justice. In fact, it's not a court case at all. It's a decision reached by a panel of three arbitrators, which is subject to little to no appellate review, and which is enforceable around the world.

For clarity: yes, I did just say that the most important legal case of this year is the product of arbitration proceedings rather than any national or international court; and no, I am not exaggerating.

There's an obscure area of international law that permits corporations to force countries into arbitration when the corporation believes that they have been unfairly and inequitably treated by the country, or when they think the country has taken their property without paying fair compensation. Corporations have been using this area of law to challenge public health and environmental regulations. The decision in this case may make it a little harder, and more risky, for corporations to do this in the future.

The case is: Philip Morris Asia Ltd. v. The Commonwealth of Australia, and is part of Philip Morris' ongoing efforts to fend off increased regulation of tobacco products.

I'm going to do my best to explain this case, and why the case is so massively important, as clearly and simply as I can. I'm going to simplify the living crap out of everything, drop as many of the boring and obscure technical details as I possibly can, and I can promise you that this is probably still going to bore the everliving shit out of most of you. But please try to stay with me anyway.  It's one of those areas where there's a lot of scary stuff hidden behind all the boring.