The Bundy Court Sketches

During the Bundy trials in Portland OR, Scott Klatt (on twitter as @hecktow) has been doing daily sketches of the scene in the courtroom. Some of his sketches from the trial are now for sale on ebay.
This is the sketch from yesterday, when the court was in discussion/argument about a malfunction in the operation of the jury, with the rest of the jury panel accusing one of its members of being biased. (The judge ruled that the juror be replaced with an alternate and that the jury deliberation process should commence over again).
Scott decided to go with a Halloween theme…in case you couldn’t guess, Federal Judge Anna Brown is the person at the top, gavel in hand, with her lectern marked 9A for Court 9A. Jurors are on the left, defendants and their lawyers bottom right.


Alternate Realities – Baghdad Bob syndrome

Do you remember Baghdad Bob?
Of course that was not his real name, any more than the British World War II German propaganda broadcaster was really named Lord Haw-Haw. (Lord Haw-Haw’s real name was William Joyce, and he was hanged for treason after the end of World War II). The name “Baghdad Bob” (along with a less popular “Comical Ali”) was bestowed upon him by the western media in the early days of the Iraq War, when he would show up to press conferences, and, replete with enthusiasm, he would describe a view of reality that soon diverged dramatically from the view that the media could see and determine from other evidence.
Soon, Baghdad Bob morphed into his own one-man entertainment channel, with the media eagerly showing up to his press conferences just to see What Amazing Shit He Would Talk Next.
Ultimately though, Iraq was tossed out of Kuwait, and Baghdad Bob receded into a historical footnote, a canned reminder of how utterly ludicrous propaganda begins to sound when it becomes obviously disconnected from reality.
But not so fast…one of the features (it may be a bug, but on an amusement level it is more of a feature) of this election cycle is the sheer amount of propaganda being created by supporters of Donald Trump. Those of us who watched the 2012 electoral cycle were able to see the whole “unskewed polls” propaganda attempt, as supporters of Mitt Romney, unhappy that the majority of the published polls in the last month of the campaign started to show Romney falling behind Barack Obama, began to construct an alternate reality. The creation of the website Unskewedpolls, which published manipulated data showing Romney winning the race, attracted a lot of ridicule as it insisted, in increasingly shrill fashion, that Mitt was going to win. When the election results came out, and he had lost, the website’s owner became a laughing stock as he frantically dug for more and more implausible explanations for how his site had created a set of incorrect predictions.
But…it gets better. Not only are the claims that the polls are skewed back, mixed in with confident sounding predictions that Donald will win because Lots Of People Are Going To Magically Show Up And Vote For Him On Polling Day, but the other folks studying at the Baghdad Bob School of Ludicrous Propaganda are branching out. Like failed ex-Libertarian and general-purpose conspiracy-believing loopy-loo Wayne Allyn Root, who thinks that Donald Trump could never possibly have harrassed any women. No sirree. And here is his explanation of why:

Apart from the appalling use of spelling and grammar (I was not aware that “handsomest” was even a valid English word, but them I am one of those intellectuals, which makes my judgment suspect in some social circles), this is so effing ludicrous that I did actually burst out laughing.


Wanker of the Day

A religious crackpot who thinks he was a serious candidate for the Mayor of Calgary doesn’t much care for women being in the police force:

Click through to Twitter and see how his response, when challenged to provide evidence, is to retreat to Christian cliches.


Today’s Round Up

1. Why did the US business community not stop Donald Trump
While a substantial amount of effort has been expended on discussing why and how Donald Trump came to be propelled to the GOP nomination by the GOP base, one topic that has attracted little comment is that, compared to the previous GOP candidate Mitt Romney, who was heavily backed by big business (being a long-established businessman himself, he had plenty of friends in high places in corporate America), Donald Trump is regarded with fear and suspicion by the majority of leaders of large businesses in the USA. There are even one or two business leaders, most notably Meg Whitman of HP, who have publicly backed Hillary Clinton instead. That would have been unthinkable in 2012. At this point in time, it seems that Hillary Clinton has done a better job of gaining big business support than Donald Trump, who has instead focussed his appeal as a smasher of the current system. This was never likely to appeal to big business, which prides itself on being at the top of the system.
There are a couple of business leaders who are backing Trump, most notably Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers. However, they seem to operate largely independently of the overall big business consensus. This article explains why the big business consensus that existed until recently has more or less disappeared. The net result has been a loss of influence by big business over the direction and policies of the Republican Party, which may not be a good thing.

2. The influence of the conservative media on the direction of the GOP
One of the often-remarked-upon features of Donald Trump’s campaign has been the violation of previous norms governing the tolerable level of bullshit in a campaign. Trump’s utterances and policy statements have been over the map, but they contain an astonishingly high level of total bullshit and deception.
As this article explains, the conservative media, by consistently tolerating a “parallel universe” narrative of GOP policy that is already based on bullshit, has legitimized bullshit to the point that increases in the overall bullshit level are not being detected and rejected. The article concludes (depressingly) that the process itself is to blame. In other words, even if the current collection of commentators (Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity et al) were to vanish in a puff of smoke, replacements would show up uttering the same level of bullshit, because many information consumers are locked into a worldview that, to be sustained, requires continuation of an equivalent level of bullshit lest cognitive dissonance kick in.


District gerrymandering

Forget the dystopian nonsense being talked about dead people on electoral rolls being “voter fraud”. Anybody pushing that line of argument is either being disingenuous or stupid, or both.
The real problem with the modern US electoral system is that generations of gerrymandering have converted most of the competitive seats into safe seats for one of the two major parties. This has been a gradual process, but it results in the total devaluation of general election results, and a focus on primary elections, since the winner of the primary in a seat guarantees that person will be elected.
Here is a good example of a gerrymandered district in North Carolina. The shape alone should bring up a warning flag…

Here is an even more blatant one:


More Trump book reviews from Twitter

When you are dealing with a person who operates on a day to day basis almost like a caricature of a real human being, the jokes tend to write themselves…


The challenge for capitalism in the 21st century – employment

It has been obvious to me for some time that there is an emerging challenge for governance systems throughout the world. The main challenge is the gradual inexorable automation of industry, which continually reduces the number of humans required to create goods and services. A subsidiary contributor is the move from dirty fuel sources based on digging stuff out of the ground towards cleaner energy sources that require far fewer humans (an offshore wind farm employs far fewer people than a deep coal mine).
Capitalism as an economic model works best when countries are continually expanding their economic output. In the past, expansion of economic output would add employment, and sometimes scarcity of employees would push up wages and salaries, thus increasing prosperity. Rightly or wrongly, human expectations in the Western World have become set on the idea that people should enjoy continually increasing standards of living. Governments that fail to deliver on that fundamental expectation tend not to stay in office for very long. This is one of the main reasons why just about every Western country has massive government debt. Governments would rather kick the can down the road by borrowing than go to the electorate and say “sorry, we can’t give you X because it would require money we don’t have”. They have learned that this is not an acceptable answer, so they fudge, borrow, fudge some more and avoid the issue in order to keep voters happy.
Science fiction writers, who mostly live in the future, have been thinking and writing about this for a long time. Charlie Stross has certainly noticed it. Here is a series of tweets he just posted.

Unemployment is a key measure against which governments are measured by the electors. When I lived in the UK, there was a level of unemployment for a long time, above which the incumbent government would be negatively measured. That “magic number” was 1 million. Governments would try everything to keep the number below 1 million, lest they be shamed and embarrassed. When the underlying structural level of unemployment rose above that number due to de-industrialization in the 1980’s, the government simply changed the rules for counting people as unemployed to make the number smaller. Most Western governments have a host of exclusionary rules that they apply to unemployment measurements in order to keep the numbers down. As a result, the real level of unemployment in most Westernized democracies (including the USA) is usually higher than the quoted official numbers. This article from the UK explains some of the ways in which current official unemployment statistics can under-count the actual numbers of people who are unemployed or under-employed.
There is also a significant level of under-employment (people working, but not full-time) that unemployment statistics, almost by definition, will not count. Australia is one country that actually measures underemployment in addition to unemployment.Today it seems to be around 8.5%. This is a significant extra dimension to employment that many countries, unlike Australia, do not measure.
In a market where too many people are chasing too few jobs, conventional economics predicts that wages and salaries for employed people will fall. This appears to have happened over the past few years in Europe and the USA. People are employed, but many of them have lost wages and benefits compared to 10 years ago. There is a lot of discontent as a result, which is being exploited by demagogues and nativists, who tend to see issues like this as proof that there are too many non-natives competing with the true citizens. We can see the political results throughout Europe and in the USA today.
Libertarians have been wrestling with the issue of increasing scarcity of employment for a while, and there is a proposal which has been extensively debated for the introduction of what is known as a Universal Basic Income (UBI), an economic safety net to allow people to live without necessarily being employed in the conventional sense. Needless to say, the UBI would run headlong into entrenched ideological opposition from authoritarians who would yell “entitlements!” and other hopelessly unhelpful nonsense. To be fair, there is not even agreement among libertarians about the usefulness of a UBI. (But then, to use the old joke, if you put 10 libertarians in a room and ask them the same question, you get 13 different answers, because libertarianism, like classical marxism, has never been implemented on a grand scale).
The challenge for the world is however a serious one. How do we as a species evolve a governance model that recognizes that lifelong employment at steadily increasing wages is an outlier, not a mainstream experience? What can we do to structure societies and manage people to allow them to accept leisure time as valid and fulfilling? These types of issues are almost never discussed by politicians, since they conflict with established narratives about what people have as valid life expectations. However, if the issues are not addressed, I predict that there will be an increase in conflicts between countries over time. When resources are perceived to be scarce, people adopt a zero-sum approach, the “I Win You Lose Tough Shit” approach. So this underlying structural issue is having real tangible consequences in terms of political governance. History tells us that nativist political governance eventually leads to conflict between countries. Nativists singing from a songsheet with the hook line “I will make us great again” eventually see expansionism and conquest as the way to prove that the country is indeed Great again. That will not be good for global civilization.


How to cope with English pronunciation

One of the aspects of English as a language is the totally irregular and exception-ridden relationship between how words are written and how they are pronounced.
Worse still, many pronunciations are context-dependent, which puzzles and infuriates everybody – both English speakers and people learning English as a second or subsequent language.
The divergences have a lot to do with the haphazard way in which Middle English evolved as a language and then on to Modern English between 1400 and 1700. The major event in English pronunciation changes, the Great Vowel Shift, occurred during the early days of the printing press, but the major part of the change occurred before the invention of moveable type. So, while the population was busy altering pronunciation, the way the words were written did not change.
Also playing a part is the high percentage of loan words in English from other languages, mainly due to the number of invasions and conquests by other countries.
English is nominally a Germanic language, but the high proportion of loan words, idioms and phrases from other languages makes it a true “mongrel” language.
Here is an attempt to explain (sort of) some of the oddities and rules in English.


The Return of King Coal? – the Myth and the reality

One of the enduring issues in the current Presidential campaign has been resentment in the old coal-mining areas of the USA against the Democratic Party, and Hillary Clinton in particular, concerning the decline of the coal mining industry in the broad region of the USA known as Appalachia.
Coal mining in Appalachia began in the 19th century. Some limited mining took place before the Civil War, but the real expansion occurred after the Civil War and into the early 20th Century as industrialization spread throughout the USA, increasing demand for coal for iron and steel manufacture. During that period, coal mining involved mostly extracting coal from seams underground using drift mine and deep mining techniques. The work was labor-intensive, dirty, and very dangerous. Fatalities and injuries were numerous.
By the middle of the 20th century, mining companies began transitioning from deep mining to what became known as strip (or open-top) mining, where the strata above the coal seams is stripped, dug or blown away, and the coal is then scooped up by gigantic bucket cranes. Strip or open-top mining is cheaper, and it requires fewer workers. However, the above-ground environmental damage is enormous. There are numerous hills in Appalachia which have been planed off down almost to ground level, destroyed to dig up their coal seams.
Exploitation of a coalfield is analagous to fruit-picking. The most lucrative seams, thickest and easiest to mine, are extracted first. Then progressively less accessible seams are slowly exploited. Eventually, most of the easily recoverable coal has been removed, the cost of extracting remaining coal rises steeply, and the coalfield slowly becomes unprofitable. This is a classic pattern, seen in numerous coalfields in the world.
In Appalachia, these events have been occurring for decades, part of the natural process of exploitation of what is a non-renewable resource (hanging around 100+ million years for new seams to be formed is not an option). Most of the easy-to-extract coal in Appalachia was mined decades ago.
However, there are two other factors that also entered the equation.
The first variable was the opening of open-cast mines in the Western states, specifically the Powder River basin in Wyoming. The world’s largest open-cast coal mine is in Wyoming, extracting coal 365 days a year.
The second variable is the overall price of coal. The trend for the last 5 years has been downwards. Coal as an energy source is dirty relative to other natural energy sources like natural gas, and is horribly dirty compared to wind and hydro-electric power. Demand for coal in China has declined due to the slowdown in the Chinese economy, and current market prices are around $40 per short ton for coal delivered from mines. This is not good for Appalachia, where extraction costs have reached that amount. By contrast, coal from Powder River Basin in Wyoming has an extraction cost of less than $10 per short ton. However, even in Wyoming, where deep coal seams are close to the surface and easily extractable, there are coal reserves that may never be mined due to the long-term decline in coal prices.
You don’t need to be a math genius to realize why Appalachian coal extraction is declining. Actually, it is worse than that. A number of coal companies have closed down or filed for bankruptcy. They cannot compete in a saturated low-price world market with coal from Appalachia at its current extraction costs.
Many of the companies also have future obligations for environmental restoration, clean-up and worker’s pensions that they are manouvering to minimize or shed. This is one example of corporate chicanery to allow coal mining companies to walk away from pension and other worker benefit committments. This kind of behavior is part of the reason that the coal industry was nationalized after World War II in the UK. Coal corporations proved to be poor stewards of worker welfare and the environment.
The overall combinations of low coal prices, cheaper open-cast coal sources in the Western USA, and gradual exhaustion of Appalachian coal reserves are not reversible by governments. Quite simply, the extraction of coal in Appalachia in most cases is not economically viable.
If coal prices were to double again, it might be viable, but the long term viability will still decline as coal reserves are gradually exhausted.
As the number of coal mines shrinks, local economies of scale such as transport infrastructure, suppliers etc. will also disappear, pushing extraction costs up further. We saw this in the UK in the 1980s as coal mines closed in coalfields. The cost of running the remaining mines rose rapidly, as the economies of scale disappeared, which accelerated closures until all of the mines disappeared. The closed mines across Appalachia will not be re-opening unless there is a dramatic increase in world coal prices.
Coal-mining areas always become unhealthily dependent on employment and trickle-down from the mines. Young men without the means or the ability to pursue a college education always need a reliable source of employment, and coal mining has historically been fairly well-paid compared to other laboring occupations (the “danger money” aspect). So when those mines close, the economies of the areas always suffer badly. The result is high male unemployment, which in turn triggers all manner of social and family problems. Many of the displaced miners are poorly suited for other occupations. (Despite what some politicians and sociologists think, only a small percentage of former coal miners are budding business entrepreneurs).
The obvious response, tried in the UK and Europe for a while, is to provide price or cash subsidies to keep mines open. However, governments that have tried to subsidize coal mining to keep employment in a region always end up deciding to not pick up the tab after a while. The numbers involved are large, and they start to look awkward. So the mines slowly close anyway, communities crater, social discontent rises, and government is blamed by the resentful local communities.
Some attempts over the years have been made to create replacement industries in Appalachia. The challenge is that the most obvious replacement, manufacturing, is also going offshore, and computerization and robotization is also reducing the number of manufacturing jobs associated with that industry sector. New-wave industries such as solar power offer more potential.
In the USA, the EPA is a favorite target of local and regional resentments, since coal mining companies have become adept at pointing the finger at government, claiming that it loads the coal mining companies with costs. Well, sure it does, if you consider requiring a coal company to, you know, put the top back on a mountain that it blasted away to dig out coal to be “unnecessary costs”. Ditto the idea that retired workers who in many cases have chronic health issues from mining in dangerous conditions should get a reasonable pension. Personally think that this is a minimum requirement for responsible stewardship. But that’s just me.
When Donald Trump swans into coal-producing districts in Appalachia and promises to bring mines back, my first instinct is to ask “How the hell is he going to do this? with mirrors?“. His appeal, to communities that are still struggling with social and economic problems caused by lack of enough local employment, is an emotionally powerful for people feeling that government has abandoned them.
Trump is playing off the perception, promulgated by her opponents, that Hillary Clinton does not care about the economic plight of Appalachia. The memes being passed around are mostly bullshit, but they have resonated with resentful populations in the region.
Trump’s claims, as usual, have no plan behind them. This is probably because there is no viable economic case for re-opening any coal mining operation in Appalachia. The region’s time has come and gone as a coal producing region.
But can the government no subsidize coal mining? Sure it can be done. One thing that is obvious if you look at the history of government is that the land exerts a powerful emotional attraction for both communities and politicians, The entire corn ethanol program is nothing more than a multi-billion dollar boondoggle for the farming industry, shepherded into law by Senator Bob Dole. (Once again the GOP gave the lie to its grand claims to be the party of small government). The US expends a lot of money annually on farming subsidies, again shepherded into law by coalitions of Federal and state level politicians. Jobs are an important electoral weapon. The fact that there has been no concerted wide-ranging effort to address the economic blight of Appalachia is interesting, especially since the region’s political map shows mostly Republican representation at Federal, state and local level. So when people blame the Democratic party for being tone-deaf to Appalachia, I always ask what the Republican politicians have been doing to improve the economies of the communities. The answer is usually some combination of crickets and blaming “government regulations”.
However, unlike Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton has actually articulated a plan for the region. It is far from clear how viable or useful the plan will be, and whether it can even be implemented will depend on post-election dynamics. However, it is superficially better than the pie-in-the-sky dreams that if government simply writes a blank check for coal companies, that jobs will magically re-appear. There is as much likelihood of that latter series of events as there is of pigs flying over my rooftop.