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Dueling Conspiracy Theories

Something happened during the last election. Depending on what news outlets you follow, you probably believe either that candidate Donald Trump colluded with the Russian government, sabotaging the campaign of Hillary Clinton, or that the DNC ordered the assassination of Seth Rich. You may not believe either accusation, and frankly there is no solid proof that either is true. You probably don’t believe both to be true, which is unlikely but still possible, because your media outlets have been presenting these as either-or conspiracy theories.

Seth Rich worked for the Democratic National Committee as a Voter Expansion Data Director. Some people claim he secretly favored Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton.

On 10 July 2016, at about 4 AM, Rich was walking home from a bar in the Bloomingdale neighborhood of Washington, DC NW. (I lived in and around DC until 1990, and never heard of that neighborhood, but in general NorthWest DC had become a place where affluent young people wanted to live.) Police were alerted to gunfire at 4:20 AM, and found Rich bruised and shot twice in the back. His girlfriend told reporters:

“There had been a struggle. His hands were bruised, his knees are bruised, his face is bruised, and yet he had two shots to his back, and yet they never took anything… They didn’t finish robbing him, they just took his life.”

Rich still had his wallet, watch, phone and was wearing a $2,000 necklace. There had been twenty robberies in the area, and police later labeled the killing a “botched robbery,” but it may actually have been a botched amateur assassination, since nothing was taken and he was still conscious when found. He died at hospital.

Two or three days later, WikiLeaks published nearly 20,000 Democratic National Committee emails. John Podesta and the DNC claimed those emails were obtained by Russian hackers, which given the numbers of hackers from Russia, is plausible. The DNC expanded that claim to involve the Trump campaign, and there is currently a House Intelligence Committee investigation into whether there was any collusion between Trump or his campaign, and the Russian government.

Julian Assange refused to confirm or deny that Rich had leaked the emails, but on August 11th, Wikileaks offered a $20,000 reward for information leading to Rich’s killer.

Former DC policeman Rod Wheeler, working indirectly for Rich’s family claims that he was told by a reliable FBI agent that Rich’s laptop proved that he had sent the emails to Gavin McFayden, a mentor of Assange and an official of Wikileaks, who has since died of lung cancer. Wheeler has recently walked back that claim.

Today, legions of podcasters are waiting for Kim Dotcom to fulfill his promise to prove that Seth Rich leaked those emails to Wikileaks. Dotcom claims he was involved, too.

But no matter what Dotcom does or doesn’t reveal, the full force of the Deep State will still be behind the Russian hacking theory, which seems to be the best means of attacking a President that recklessly announced his hostility to the establishment during his inaugural address.

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Overbooking 101

I’ve read a few outraged articles about United Airlines vs Dr Dao. As he often does, James Pilant questions the business ethics involved. I consider air travel an environmental tragedy, and agree that people wearing police uniforms are entirely too ready to dish out force and violence, but I have been generally aware (one of my brothers has been bumped) that overbooking was a common practice driven by A – people missing or not showing up for flights, or taking earlier flights and B – the airlines wanting to maximize profit by having a passenger in every seat.

I read somewhere that without overbooking the average flight might be only about 83% full, but I have seen many more empty seats on Greyhound. I’ve taken the bus from Altoona to Harrisburg to Baltimore dozens of times, and unless it is a holiday weekend, I see anywhere from 50 to 90% of seats going empty. Airlines, though, were hit hard by the price-gouging competition that came with the 1978 Airline Deregulation Act, and more recently by unpredictable fuel costs. So they overbook. As I am in the middle of reading James Kwak’s Economism: Bad Economics and the Rise of Inequality, I was trying to figure out why, in a deregulated and free market, overbooking isn’t perfectly balanced by some other market factor like voucher payments.

On April 11th, Cadie Thompson at Business Insider explained, The frustrating reason airlines overbook flights, but quoted Vinay Bhaskara, “Usually, they won’t overbook first class because that could tend to make your most lucrative passengers very angry.”

Four days later Thompson amplified the justifications, Here’s why overbooking flights is actually a good thing:

“By overbooking it actually does help keep the fares down because the airlines are able to maximize the amount of revenue they are able to collect and generate as much profit as they can,” said Henry Harteveldt, president and travel industry analyst for Atmosphere Research Group, told Business Insider.

“But if they didn’t overbook it’s possible they may have to charge more,” he said.

Overbooking is also beneficial to consumers because it allows the more flexibility in their travel plans, Vinay Bhaskara, Airways senior business analyst, told to Business Insider.

“Frequently, the people who benefit the most from overbooking are the last few people to buy, The ones who are not able to make plans in advance,” Bhaskara said. “Often times those seats are available at the last minute are only available because that flight can be overbooked. The airline knows some people are going to be missing the flight.”

Ultimately, though, overbooking is done because airlines want to ensure that they are making the most money on every seat. So they use historical data to help them predict how many people will likely miss a flight on a certain route. And most of the time it works.

Bureau of Transportation Statistics indicate that in 2015 about one-tenth of a percent of passengers were denied boarding (bumped), and that roughly 90% of those were voluntary, meaning that they took the vouchers offered. Journalist Bob Sullivan notes that while the voluntary numbers are declining, the involuntary bumps remain fairly constant. He blames the vouchers:

Again, that means one thing: the voucher offers aren’t nearly good enough.

Let’s speculate about why that is.  I’ve heard from many readers today about the vouchers they get from airlines in this situation, and here’s the truth: Experienced fliers are wise to the game. They are saying no more often.  Vouchers aren’t all they are cracked up to be, and they certainly aren’t the same as cash.  They expire.  Sometimes their remaining value is surrendered (a $400 voucher gets a $300 flight and $100 disappears).  Most of all, the vouchers must be used on the airline that just did the bumping. Who wants to fly an airline that just kicked them off a plane!

And, like rebates, some of them are never used, giving the airlines a secret source of revenue.

Kwak’s central theme is that the free market only operates perfectly inside your Economics 101 class:

“… Because nobody is ever forced to make a trade (in theory, at least), a transaction only occurs if it makes both parties better off. … prices naturally adjust until supply equals demand. …”

Kwak notes that in the real world, there is, “a fundamental tension between efficiency and fairness,” which sometimes leads to price gouging, and now has led to a bloodied man being dragged off a passenger jetliner, and being vilified in the press for not going quietly.

Update 20170420, a popular article at The American Conservative quotes Fox, The Daily Mail and the Independent to paint Dao as a sharpie who instigated the whole mess, hoping for a lawsuit.

Deep Trump

In previous posts I have included some quotes about what an American Deep State might look like. Many thanks to Felicity for linking to DONALD J. TRUMP AND THE DEEP STATE by Peter Dale Scott on Who.What.Why. Part 1 is mostly about what constitutes the Deep State, and how at least two factions are in opposition:

… those who saw the election as a contest between outsider Trump and a “deep state” tended to give two different meanings to this new term. On the one hand were those who saw the deep state as “a conglomerate of insiders” incorporating all those, outside and inside the traditional state, who “run the country no matter who is in the White House…and without the consent of voters.”[8] On the other were those who, like Chris Hedges, limited the “deep state” to those perverting constitutional American politics from the margin of the Washington Beltway — “the security and surveillance apparatus, the war machine.”[9]

But both of these simplistic definitions, suitable for campaign rhetoric, omit the commanding role played by big money — what used to be referred to as Wall Street, but now includes an increasingly powerful number of maverick non-financial billionaires like the Koch brothers. All serious studies of the deep state, including Mike Lofgren’s The Deep State and Philip Giraldi’s Deep State America as well as this book, acknowledge the importance of big money.[10]

It is important to recognize moreover, that the current division between “red” and “blue” America is overshadowed by a corresponding division at the level of big money, one that contributed greatly to the ugliness of the 2016 campaign. In The American Deep State (p. 30), I mention, albeit very briefly, the opposition of right-wing oilmen and the John Birch Society “to the relative internationalism of Wall Street.”[11] That opposition has become more powerful, and better financed, than ever before.

It has also evolved. As I noted in The American Deep State, (p. 14), the deep state “is not a structure but a system, as difficult to define, but also as real and powerful, as a weather system.” A vigorous deep state, like America, encompasses dynamic processes continuously generating new forces within it like the Internet — just as a weather system is not fixed but changes from day to day.

In Part 2, Scott links the often-bankrupted Trump to lenders with ties to Russian financial interests, making a better case for Russian hacking of the recent election than I have seen elsewhere.

The existence of a Deep State is dispiriting, and makes me feel like a rat in a cage. It is one thing to talk about opposing conservatives, or electing progressives, but that seems like throwing rocks while the apparatchiks of the deep state are targeting drone strikes.

I’m OK; You’re Hiding an Email Server

I just watched a youtube of a Morning Joe segment with Andrea Mitchell, Chuck Todd, et al, reacting to the Office of the Inspector General’s report, and doing a good job of looking surprised and dismayed that Hillary Clinton lied about the legality of her email server. Did they all just realize this? I doubt it, but they aren’t protecting her anymore. So, what has changed?

For one thing, only a few weeks after Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee, Clinton’s poll numbers against him are already low enough that talk of her coasting to victory has been suspended. When she enjoyed a commanding lead in the polls, it had been predicted that the media would eventually present Clinton vs Trump as a close race – because they get better ratings that way. And after the first few Trump vs Clinton polls showed a tighter race, establishment media like TPM and FiveThirtyEight, spent some time trying to make the case that Trump had simply consolidated earlier than Clinton, and that she would regain her lead after Sanders dropped out. But – already – several more polls have shown it to be fairly close, with some showing Trump in the lead.

For another thing, The Young Turks – and I am told many other outlets – have reported rumors that the DNC is preparing Joe Biden as a replacement before the convention. Even CNN sees that Hillary is in trouble: Role reversal: GOP unites behind Trump, Democrats in disarray:

For Democrats, those who were hoping the tensions between Sanders and Clinton would dissipate greatly underestimated how serious the tensions are between Sanders, his supporters and the Clinton campaign.

The energy that has been moving his candidacy is much more than a cult of personality or a quixotic hope for socialism in America. Sanders and many of his supporters have been motivated by a principled argument about the problems with the Democratic Party and American politics.

In their minds, Hillary Clinton — and her husband — are symbols and leaders of a damaging development that has taken place since the 1970s. They argue that since Ronald Reagan was President, the Democratic Party decided to embrace the basic arguments of the conservative movement.

Democrats, they say, started to champion free markets, deregulation, nonunionized workplaces and a militaristic approach to foreign policy. As Democratic candidates catered to wealthier suburban voters, they left behind working-class Americans, unions, African-Americans, the poor and other disadvantaged groups.

I am actually surprised to see such a cogent summary in CNN. Not because their writers can’t write, but because their editors don’t usually let the truth out the door.

Recovering with Heart Medication

I was reminded of this 2012 interview where Aussie serve and volley throwback Pat Cash said of tennis, “It’s the perfect sport to take performance enhancing drugs, with the recovery, strengthening etc, but I think the lack of positive results shows that tennis is a clean sport.”

Cash may have been right for when he was playing, but today a whole slew of sports are finding that players are using questionable substances to help recover between exertions. According a TASS interview of the Latvian manufacturer Grindeks, Mildronate, a heart attack recovery medication which is marketed as Meldonium:

“is widely used in the clinical practice. … During increased physical activity, it restores the oxygen balance of tissue cells as well as it activates the metabolic processes that results in lower requirements of oxygen consumption for energy production, … Mildronate is widely recognized by health care professionals and patients, and this may include athletes as well.”

Mildronate was not approved by the US FDA, or in the European Union, but was widely available in Eastern Europe. After it was rumored to be used by a lot of Eastern European athletes, it was added to the World Anti-Doping Agency’s monitored list in 2015. The drug was banned by the WADA starting January 1, 2016.

Tennis player and model Maria Sharapova is the biggest name to have been caught, and claimed she had been using meldonium for ten years on the advice of her doctor. Although Grindeks was widely quoted that the normal course of treatment was 4 to 6 weeks, Sharapova clarified that she took the drug, “not every day,” but in low doses as recommended by her doctor, and that the full Grindeks quote was:

“Treatment course can be repeated twice or thrice a year. Only physicians can follow and evaluate patient’s health condition and state whether the patient should use meldonium for a longer period of time.”

Just this week champion breaststroke swimmer Yulia Efimova was suspended. Other Russians include cyclist Eduard Vorganov, figure skater Yekaterina Bobrova, skater Pavel Kulizhnikov, short-track skaters Semion Elistratov and Ekaterina Konstantinova, volleyball player Aleksandr Markin and biathlete Eduard Latypov, but almost 100 athletes in total have been caught using Meldonium.

According to the New York Times, “One such study, at last year’s European Games, suggested that nearly 500 of the 6,000 athletes competing were taking the drug. That study was also forwarded to WADA and its list committee.”

Even though she is very beautiful, I’ve never been a big fan of Sharapova and her shrieking, but I have been impressed in the last few years by her persistence in the face of getting hammered by Serena Williams. It is sad that her persistence may have been chemically enhanced.

Will clean diesels survive the VW scandal?

Several years ago, I blogged about so-called “clean” diesels. I concluded that they were cleaner than previous diesels, but even so emitted too many fine particles. Though HVO seems fairly safe, other bio-based diesel fuel often emits too much nitric oxide. In short, the simple and reliable diesel engine has to be made much more complicated to meet emission standards.

As an alternative to building gasoline-electric hybrids, German automakers like Mercedes, BMW, Porsche, Audi and Volkswagen embraced that complexity, and some of their diesel models even won green vehicle awards. In addition to German diesels, American drivers can usually buy diesel versions of full size pickup trucks, Chevrolet and Jeep offer diesel passenger vehicles, and Mazda was thinking about bringing their SkyActiv diesels to the US.

But it has now been revealed that Volkswagen installed what is called a defeat device in their software that would make their diesel engines run cleaner during an emissions test, but then allow them to run dirtier and cheaper at all other times. In what has to be a criminal conspiracy, VW group is now exposed to tens of billions of dollars of penalties and their stock has plummeted. Current owners of VW and some Audi TDI diesels back to 2009 are facing recalls and sales of 2015 and 2016 models are on hold. Other manufacturers will face increased scrutiny.

Even though I have come to see the widespread use of automobiles as an environmental hazard, I’ve generally been a fan of German car design, so this rankles me more than the GM or Toyota design failures.

Now stepping back, can we believe that burning fossil fuels in cars or smokestacks can really be made clean?

Baltimore After Freddie Gray

In the flurry of articles about the widely televised violence after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody, most television outlets and several pundits focused on the violence. Like WBALTV’s reporting staff and my former coblogger Ramona, most decried any sort of violence, but a few invoked the Boston Tea Party as an example of resorting to violence when other measures were exhausted. One pundit excoriated any outsider that would call for violence, but in the manner of Chris Rock, “understood” why frustrated black residents might go there.

David Simon, the Wire creator who still lives in Charm City, heard the devil call his name and told Bill Keller of The Marshall Project that the violence has been simmering for decades:

Probable cause was destroyed by the drug war. It happened in stages, but even in the time that I was a police reporter, which would have been the early 80s to the early 90s, the need for police officers to address the basic rights of the people they were policing in Baltimore was minimized. It was done almost as a plan by the local government, by police commissioners and mayors, and it not only made everybody in these poor communities vulnerable to the most arbitrary behavior on the part of the police officers, it taught police officers how not to distinguish in ways that they once did. …

And the city willingly and legally gave itself over to that, beginning with the drug-free zones and with the misuse of what are known on the street in the previous generation as ‘humbles.’ A humble is a cheap, inconsequential arrest that nonetheless gives the guy a night or two in jail before he sees a court commissioner. You can arrest people on “failure to obey,” it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble. These things were used by police officers going back to the ‘60s in Baltimore. It’s the ultimate recourse for a cop who doesn’t like somebody who’s looking at him the wrong way.

Simon talks about the class aspect of black officers from the counties humbling city blacks. A Gawker article looks at the clueless elite class, quoting some unwary Maryland Hunt Club denizens:

“You want to know what I think,” said the one in the Black Dog Martha’s Vineyard sweatshirt. “The cops have the hardest job in the world besides our troops in Afghanistan. You know, and I tell my kids this, if a cop tells you to stop, you stop. It’s sad what happened to this guy, but let the police do their job. I feel these people protesting, I really do. But if the police really did something wrong, it’s going to come out.”

“Baltimore is a shithole,” said the man with the cigar. He wore a navy blazer with a pocket square. His eyes were ice blue and close together.

“This guy,” said the man in the gray sweatshirt. “His spine was broken before the cops picked him up. I talked to doctors at Johns Hopkins. But his spine was already broken.”

I had already heard the ‘Freddie Gray was already injured’ meme, but it has been debunked. I had already heard the shithole meme, too. I was telling a more conservative friend about David Simon’s opinion piece, and he came back with, “Baltimore’s done, it’s finished. They show the Inner Harbor on TV, but the rest of it is a shithole.” He had asked his wife if she would have come to Baltimore knowing what she knows now. Nope.

Now that the curfew has been lifted, and the national guard has left, WBAL is featuring reports of people cleaning up and businesses trying to make money again. The Horseshoe Casino is open again. Presumably the Orioles will host the Blue Jays on Monday, and Pimlico racetrack is running ads for Black-Eyed Susan Day, in which ladies with hats will watch a race on the Friday before Sunday’s Preakness Stakes – a leg of the Triple Crown and a claim to national attention. I bike through mostly black neighborhoods and around Pimlico every day. I tell worried friends that no one bothers me and that poorer people seem less territorial about sharing the road with bikes than more affluent drivers on the East side of I-83.

Over the last week I looked to see if things had changed along my route home. Since early Spring there has been a traffic beggar at Russell and Hamburg Streets, and one at Martin Luther King Boulevard and Pratt Street. He likes my bike. On Friday I saw other beggars resting on blankets in the shade of a building. One guy was walking up take a pee between a pair of piers. Two piers and pee-er. And the beggars – equipped with small brown, cardboard signs – seemed to be stationed every two blocks along MLK Blvd. Some had partners on blankets. And they were all scraggly white people.

Further along is a four or five tent encampment under Route 40 where it passes over MLK. The folk in the tents are black, but there are white street beggars on the corners. On Friday loose brick pavers were laying in the sidepath I use. A coworker mentioned that he sees tents at various spots along the I-495 rights of way, and is sure there are others that are better hidden. As I turn onto Eutaw Street and ride up to Druid Hill Park, I stop seeing beggars of any color. I’m not sure what the demographics are, but apparently the people driving these roads aren’t giving it away.

Personally I don’t think my friends would have found things much better anywhere else. Baltimore has more black people than most cities, but despite the positive spin of employment numbers, there seem to be plenty of poor people everywhere. Skin color just brings the conflicts that result from a declining economy into sharper relief.