Archive | September 2012

Donal Prime

After quite a few years of giving it away for free – it being content – internet sites are now demanding the financial security of marriage subscription fees. After years of watching you play the field, more and more sites want you to settle down and tie the knot with the mainstream media.

The Wall Street Journal has been hiding their most informative, well-reported articles behind a paywall, but lets anyone read their right-leaning OpEd pieces. The Baltimore Sun lets one read twenty articles per month for free, but it is hard to find a good article in the Sun with only twenty attempts. The New York Times also allows a small number of hits per month, but at least most of their articles are worth reading. I get emails with special offers from the NYT every week. I’d like to get the weekend paper subscription, which includes internet browsing, but they don’t deliver to my house in PA. I’m not poor, but the Great Recession still weighs on my mind, so I’ve held off from all sorts of long term obligations.

Last week Josh Marshall announced that Talking Points Memo was looking for eligible partners. Probably 80% of my online acquaintances derive from my years of posting and commenting at the TPM Cafe’. The Cafe’ was a stimulating place for liberals that felt ignored by the mainstream media’s fascination with conservatism. But the well-meaning people that essentially began socializing there were very attractive to the sort of trolls that feed off discord. Marshall eventually closed the Cafe’, and regulars left for Dagblog (already started by Cafe’ regulars) or a few new sites like Once Upon a TPM, which was renamed to Once Upon a Paradigm. Others started their own personal blogs.

Now Marshall has announced TPMPrime, which sounds a bit like the old Cafe’ and has clarified that the new membership section will cost about $50 per year. The idea of a site with good discussion and reasonable moderation is tempting, but again, the idea of another long term financial obligation is not.

So to defray costs I am announcing Donal Prime. Employees of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Baltimore Sun and Talking Points Memo are encouraged to contribute to the running of this blog. The rest of you can keep reading for free.

Is Elementary worth watching?

The short answer is Yes.

There are so many TV detectives out there with a problematic gift — Monk, Mentalist, Medium — but the first may have been Sherlock Holmes. Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation has been imitated and parodied as everything from a mouse to a cranky doctor, and now he is portrayed as a recovering drug addict with a Sober Companion who happens to be named Watson.

When I heard about the show, my thoughts jumped to the 1971 film, They Might Be Giants, in which George C Scott plays a delusional fellow who thinks he is Holmes, with a little Don Quixote. He ends up with a psychiatrist named Dr Watson, played by Joanne Woodward, and convinces her to help him pursue Moriarty. I recall one hysterical scene in a supermarket, where Holmes escapes pursuit by announcing such low special prices that even the officers that are after him stop to fill their carts.

Elementary is much more urbane, but there are moments of comedy. Jonny Lee Miller is an endearingly vulnerable Holmes and Lucy Liu is an initially no-nonsense companion who quickly gets into the thrill of the chase. Aidan Quinn does a nice turn as a police detective named Gregson (ha) who is gruff but no fool. No one asks the obvious question, “Why are you calling yourself Sherlock Holmes when he is a fictional character?” It is a stretch to believe that everyone is playing along, so either we must assume that the Conan Doyle stories don’t exist in this universe, or wait for a cleverer explanation.

The first episode was complicated enough, but the challenge will be differentiating Holmesian observation-then-deduction from that of all the other detectives working in the big city, not the least of which is Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock — based in contemporary London and solving crimes that are more closely based on the original stories. Some might doubt that, “whatever remains must be the truth,” can compete with DNA testing but to others, a faster-paced Elementary might be a welcome respite from the heavy procedurals that dominate crime drama.

Tennis Boycott Looms

Several weeks ago, the NY Times carried a long article about an impending pay dispute on the tennis tour. The NYT uses the term Grand Slams to refer to the Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon and US Open. I prefer the older term, majors, because a grand slam means having won all four, so to refer to each one as a grand slam makes no sense to me. They are each a leg of the Grand Slam, but that doesn’t roll off the tongue.

…The top men, led by Roger Federer, remain intent on applying pressure on the Grand Slam tournaments over prize money next year, beginning with the Australian Open in January.

… The ATP World Tour players are seeking much more than another routine pay raise. They want to capitalize on the narrow window provided by their golden age and current solidarity to correct what they perceive as a long-running inequity.

Late last year the ATP Player Council, with Federer as its president, began its push for more prize money at Grand Slam tournaments, particularly for early-round losers, in an attempt to address an earning gap in a top-heavy sport. The French Open, Wimbledon and the United States Open responded with larger-than-usual increases, weighted toward early-round losers. The United States Open, for example, included a raise of at least 18 percent for the first three rounds of the singles draw.

… The players are believed to be asking for between 12 percent and 13 percent of total revenue. With the Grand Slams committed to equal prize money, that means — with the women along for the ride — the men are effectively demanding about 25 percent of total revenue for prize money. …

In the case of the United States Open, 25-percent share would mean a hike in prize money from about $25 million to more than $60 million. The United States Tennis Association’s revenue for 2010, the most recent totals available publicly, was $243 million, with an estimated 80 percent to 85 percent of that coming from the Open.

The players are offering little change of their own in return, and if they fail to reach their prize-money goal next year, they are considering a range of potential actions, according to tennis officials familiar with the possibilities. Those include staging alternative events concurrent with the Grand Slam tournaments, stripping ranking points from the Grand Slam tournaments and skipping the Grand Slam tournaments altogether. …

The true level of unity among the current player pool remains unclear, but there appears to be much more unity of purpose at the top. The leading four players — Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Murray — and the ATP Tour’s new chief executive, Brad Drewett, have met repeatedly with representatives of the Grand Slam tournaments this year. Nadal and Djokovic are no longer on the ATP Player Council, but Federer remains its president.

It is all too easy to criticize athletes for demanding more pay in an era when many people are flat out of work, but what they are seeking is actually less of a gap between the elite players and the journeymen — which is sort of progressive. And for journeywomen, although equal pay for men and women is still a sore subject. Men complain about playing three out of five sets while the women play just two out of three. Martina Navratilova has countered that the five set format is much too long anyway, probably meaning much too long for TV. INTennis notes that some of the men don’t feel that the women players are doing much off the court to earn higher pay:

…Rumors of a boycott of the Australian Open had circulated in the news as the first week began.

On top of those rumors, the issue of equal pay between men and women at the Majors was also front and center. This battle started at Wimbledon when new ATP council member Gilles Simon talked to the media about his desire to change the balance in favor the men. His interest soon received Twitter support from Sergiy Stakhovsky, another new Council member. …

“We sit down, do you know how many talks we have in the locker rooms about the Grand Slams, about pay increases? … It comes to the point where the men are willing to commit themselves and to communicate and to do some work towards the Grand Slams, towards getting more, and the women are just riding on our backs,” he said. “They didn’t even say not one ‘thank you.’ I mean, they got an increase in Paris, they got an increase at the U.S. Open, they got an increase at Wimbledon. Did any of the WTA players ever come to the ATP offices and say, ‘We’re so grateful that the guys put this all together so we could get more money?’ There was no thank-you. Now I don’t want it…. They don’t appreciate what we did and we don’t appreciate them riding on our backs.… If they would have their council, if they would do work with the Grand Slams and talk to them, it would be a different story. But we do the work for them.”

Tennis is a miasma of conflicting interests. Most of the money comes from television advertising, and much of that (resorts, investments, luxury watches, diamond tennis bracelets) is aimed at the upper middle class and wealthy. The majors make most of that money. The ATP would like their nine World Tour Masters tournaments to be just as popular as the majors, but history is against them. The WTA has their own premier series as well. The players have a strong interest in the ATP and WTA, but they need to do well at the majors to make a name for themselves. And player’s agents, like ProServ, often have stakes in particular tournaments, and in televised sports.

Add to all that the drift in financial power away from North America and Europe and towards the Middle East and Asia — the tours now feature World and Premiere events in Dubai, Istanbul, Shanghai and Beijing — and a boycott looks like a calculated blow against the traditional tennis powers.


Update: In Australian Open now the richest tournament in tennis, we see that the AO, at least, has avoided the threatened boycott by adding about 4.15 million to the total purse:

The move to increase prize money for the first tennis major of the year followed reports that some players were considering bypassing the tournament if the purse was not increased, particularly for losers in the early rounds.

We’ll see if Roland Garros and the others follow suit.



Suicide or Burning Out?

Massive stars — ten times or more larger than our sun — burn much more brightly, but quickly exhaust the high mass of hydrogen that fuels their fusion. Once without ready hydrogen, they fuse helium, then even heavier elements in their core, before either exploding (nova) or collapsing into very dense stars (neutron stars, black holes). In a way, small, dim stars are more sustainable than bright ones.

I.R. is International Relations, and in Nightmares of an I.R. Professor, admittedly conservative historian Walter A McDougall recalls:

In Spring 2003 I had the privilege of teaching U.S. diplomatic history to one of those brilliant students for whom every answer conjured new questions. Following the last lecture, which occurred just ten days after the fall of Baghdad in Operation Iraqi , she praised my course for helping her to appreciate how swiftly the United States had become the mightiest nation in history. But then her voice fell and she asked how long I thought it could last? How long would America remain number one?

At first I was tongue tied. Historians are not given to bold predictions and anyway it seemed unwise to encourage either smugness or despair in a future leader. Then it came to me. It all depends, I replied, on whether Americans are as “exceptional” as they want to believe. If they are not—if the United States follows the pattern of all previous powers—then demographic trends, new foreign threats, technological revolutions, shifts in comparative advantage, foolish leadership, imperial overstretch, domestic decadence, or sheer loss of will must knock the United States off its predominant perch, maybe within fifty years. If, however, Americans’ institutions, values, and character really are a new order for the ages, a potent mix enabling them to adapt constantly, invent the future, and force other nations to adjust to their challenge, then their asymptotic trajectory may continue. I stopped there, but walking to my office I recalled Arnold J. Toynbee’s law that civilizations die by suicide, not murder.

From my reading of the collapse literature, I would say that civilizations die from scarcity, or complexity, or from making poor choices in response to changing conditions. Call that suicide if you will.

Is Revolution worth watching?

At the Post Carbon Institute, Tod Brilliant has decided to follow the new weekly TV drama, Revolution. Why?

1. PCI Population Fellow William Ryerson has spent decades advocating, with great success, the Sabido Method, a methodology for designing and producing serialized dramas on radio and television that can win over audiences while imparting prosocial values.

2. The premise is irresistible: Our entire way of life depends on electricity. So what would happen if it just stopped working?

I had been avoiding Revolution, but I broke down last night and watched the pilot with On Demand. Revolution is produced by JJ Abrams, who co-created Lost, directed the Star Trek reboot, produced Cloverfield, all of which were very good, and has credits for a lot of shows and films I haven’t seen. But the promos didn’t grab me.

I got a kick out of Bugs Bunny’s panicked expression as the power flickers out. Then, a long line of automobiles lurch to a stop, and their headlights go out, indicating that battery-derived electricity has stopped working. (I was waiting for Tom Cruise to drive past everyone, but that was EMP.)

Captain Sullenberger managed to glide his dead engine jet smoothly into the river, but in this scenario we see several jet planes tumble from the sky, so even the mechanically-operated rudders and flaps have stopped working. But as they go down, their red and green right-of-way lights are still lit on each wingtip, so what is powering those lights? Obviously the TV crew wants viewers to see them clearly as they crash, but it doesn’t make a lot of sense.

PCI describes the situation fifteen years later:

Humans have left the cities for the countryside to live in communal villages or prey on one another. The good guys sport henleys and hoes. The bad ones also wear henleys, but they ride horses and carry swords. Gun ownership is banned, effectively preventing any protection of property or crops (Transition Towns take note. Hah.). The post-carbon women are smokin’ and the men have Tom Brady jaws and stomachs of steel. In a barter economy, hair stylists seem to be highly valued.

I laughed at a rusted-out Prius being used as a planter. But then things got predictable or unbelievable, or predictably unbelievable.

The small village has a flimsy stockade, but apparently they don’t bother posting lookouts because it is a complete surprise when several dozen of the militia just walk in the open gate. No, “Hey militia coming! Hide your women and children!” The quietly menacing commander of the militia (above) just happens to look a lot like Barack Obama. That’ll win over one sort of audience. I guess racism blinked out with electricity because as I recall, once things went bad in New Orleans it was open season on black people caught in white neighborhoods. Maybe that’s a prosocial value, but if a black actress can play Guinevere, I suppose we can have black actors playing sadistic villains.

Though most carry crossbows, swords or machetes, some of the militia have guns. With all the firearms now available, it would have been more logical had all the militiamen been heavily-armed, very young, as in a Joseph Kony-style army, and casually violent enough to kill everyone in the communal village while taking the one person they wanted. Of course that would make for a short, bloody episode.

Traveling across a post-electric countryside is ridiculously easy in this show. Two women and a pudgy guy see nothing wrong with building a campfire in hostile country. They don’t bother to post watch, either. They probably never saw Daniel Boone, or any western frontier movie, when they were growing up.

I was describing the show to a friend, and I told him I suspected it would be like Terra Nova, or even the old serial version of Planet of the Apes, or a hundred other TV shows. You will follow the same group of people getting into and getting out of melodramatic situations week after week. Whatever caused the loss of electricity is just a macguffin. We won’t learn anything, and nothing will really change.

Patched Tubes

When I was a kid, we rode bikes all the time. When we got flats, my father taught us how to patch and repatch the tubes. Dad was a depression child, so he showed us how to use cuttings from old tubes as patches, too. Our tubes had the same Schrader valves as auto tires back then, and we only inflated them to about 40 psi. Now the tubes have presta valves, and I inflate to 100 psi.

When I first rode around in Federal Hill, Baltimore, I got flats on even short trips, so I swapped out the original Kenda Kwest tires. According to Xootr, Schwalbe’s very tough Big Apples might require an extra chain link to fit, so I got two of the Schwalbe Marathon HS 368, which were also supposed to be puncture-resistant. I had only one flat in the next three years — from a nail that was still in the tire — until now, when I’ve had two flats in the past two weeks.

Of course now I’m riding nine miles at a time on some fairly beat up roads. I’m also riding the paths near Camden Yards and M&T Bank stadium, which are strewn with broken glass as fans celebrate the Orioles trying to make the playoffs, and the Ravens new season.

Two weeks ago I had money, so I just bought a new tube and put it in. Last week was a bit tighter, so I thought, “Wait, I have four punctured tubes on the shelf – why don’t I just patch them instead of buying more Taiwanese rubber?” My patch kits had about a dozen patches, sandpaper, but no cement. The cement had hardened, so I threw it away three years ago. I stopped at Joe’s bike shop, which is close to home. They don’t sell just cement — I had to buy yet another patch kit. So I’m lousy with patches.

The instructions in the patch kit aren’t very clear, so just to be sure I looked up some advice online. Livestrong advises that patches are just to get you home, and that you should buy a new tube to be safe. Screw that. I patched two tubes on Sunday, and rode one of them in today. I’m a recession adult.

TTAC has a great article, Confessions Of A Renegade Car Guy: Why I Take The Bicycle. Great because he’s come to much the same arrangement as I have — a mix of biking and transit:

Sure, I could do like most of my colleagues do, and drive the car to work. It’s a 12km (7 miles) commute, some 20 minutes without traffic, 30 minutes on bad days, including the short walk to the parking garage.  Half city driving, half highway.

But even though I am more of a car nut than most any of my colleagues, I’m cheaper as well. Since commutes mean a cold engine and higher fuel and oil consumption, and the car has a real world average of 6.3l/100km (37.34MPG) I estimate the fuel consumption at about 2 liters a day. 1.4€ per liter, 21 commutes a month equal 60€ a month in fuel costs. I am not counting tire use, oil, car depreciation, or repairs induced. With that comes the convenience of a variety of radio stations, MP3 player connectivity, he at, and AC.

What’s the alternative?  I currently live in Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg is 3km from the German border, and the city shares its love of bicycles with its Northern European neighbors. As much as biking 11km to work is fun, I get quite sweaty doing so, and smelly people are rarely appreciated by their coworkers.

The solution? Combined commuting: 5 minute walk to the tramway, 25 minute tramway ride, followed by 5 minute biking to work. The bike is securely locked in a semi-public shed, and the overall commute time is barely higher than with the car.

Mighty Wind

Immense wind turbines. Obama is for subsidies; Romney is against them. Exelon is against them, too. The American Wind Energy Association (AWEA) recently terminated Exelon’s membership because Exelon opposed extension of the Production Tax Credit (PTC).

Extension of the PTC, first enacted in 1992, beyond 31 December has been the wind industry’s priority this year. It pays $22/MWh inflation-adjusted for a project’s first decade in operation. This subsidy costs the federal government at least $1.2bn each year. …

Exelon’s contention is that the PTC served its purpose in allowing the US to develop a wind industry, which now can stand on its own. Washington’s support of an intermittent resource at the expense of nuclear and other forms of firm generation ceases to make public policy sense, it argues.

Although Exelon is a major wind energy provider, they also own ten nuclear plants. Exelon claims that, “construction of new merchant nuclear power plants in competitive markets uneconomical now and for the foreseeable future.” But as with wind projects, government subsidies would shift risk from private firms to the government. You could make an argument that wind turbines rely on subsidies even more than steady breezes, and that nukes rely on subsidies even more than on fissionable fuel rods.

Those large turbines do generate clean electricity, and I vastly prefer wind to nuclear, but they are still a direct hazard to birds and bats:

Wind Turbines: Saving the Planet but Butchering Bats

“When people were first starting to talk about the issue, it was ‘bats running into the turbine blades.’ We always said, ‘No, bats don’t run into things.’ Bats can detect and avoid all kinds of structures,” and are even better are detecting stuff that’s moving. No, they’re exploding.

Baerwald and her colleagues discovered that bats’ “large, pliable lungs” blow up from change in air pressure created by moving blades. Up the 90 percent of the dead bats they examined showed the internal bleeding consistent with their argument. Birds, by the way, have different kinds of lungs so their deaths are from the more predictable blunt-force trauma.

What is less obvious is that wind energy firms clearcut huge swaths of forest around their turbines and access roads. That turns deep forest into shallow forest, and drives out deep forest wildlife.

I see a future for smaller wind turbines at each house. I also see a future for using wind to provide direct mechanical energy instead of converting it to electricity. But neither of those approaches involve a regular flow of cash to utility companies.