2012 - %3, September

Cell Phones: Maybe It's Just Me

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 2:09 PM EDT

Oddly enough, a lot of commenters on my previous cell phone post seem to think I'm bashing young people, or that I don't understand that portability is the reason people like cell phones, or that there are now lots of other communications options that make voice calls less necessary than in the past. But there was no bashing of the younger generation in that post, portability is pretty obvious, and I myself am a big user of email, Twitter, blogging, and so forth. (Though not texting much. I am that much of an old fogey.) So believe it or not, I already knew all that stuff!

However, another reader just flatly takes issue with my contention that the audio quality of cell phones is lousy:

Your comments on wireless voice quality are...inexplicable to me. I got rid of my landline as a redundant expense six or seven years ago and have never once regretted it. My experience with wireless voice quality is very different from yours — even with some fairly significant hearing loss, I find my ability to hear and understand other people is much greater on the cell phone than it ever was on the POTS. And for the last few years, using a stereo bluetooth headset the quality is amazing, you can hear a whisper as the active noise cancellation cuts out the background clutter. I do use GChat for a lot of my more "recreational" calls, but that's because it's completely free and the option to just kind of slouch in front of a tabletop microphone and a pair of stereo speakers is irresistible. But I would only use the wireless for important/business calls.

Part of it might be my carrier — Verizon has always kind of owned Silicon Valley — I became a customer in '93 when they were still GTE Mobilnet — and the coverage and capacity at least SEEMS unlimited....

This is more interesting to me. I happen to use Verizon too (on an iPhone these days), though the people I talk to are on a variety of different carriers. But I still don't much like talking on my cell phone, and even when I'm on a landline I usually find it pretty frustrating to talk to other people who are on cell phones. This is true even under good conditions. Under not-so-good conditions, which is pretty common, it's even worse. But maybe this is just me. I've always had an unusually hard time following conversations when there's a lot of ambient noise (just turning on the bathroom faucet makes it hard for me to hear the TV), so maybe I'm ultra-sensitive to this. I guess that most of you don't really have any problem with the overall voice quality on cell phones. Yes? No?

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We're Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 20, 2012

Thu Sep. 20, 2012 1:42 PM EDT

From left, Pfc. Michael Weymouth and Sgt. Christopher Ouzts, engineers with the 569th Engineer Company, Fort Carson, Colo., provide dismounted security for Air Force Tech. Sgt. Michael Myers while clearing a hill of IED threats in the district of Takhteh Pol, Kandahar province, Afghanistan, Sept. 7, 2012. Photo: US Army.

Chart of the Day: One-Third of Americans No Longer Have Decent Phone Service

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 12:36 PM EDT

Via Nate Silver, who's making a point about political polling, I came across the CDC's latest estimate of the number of homes that rely solely on wireless phones. There's no real surprise here, it's just that I haven't been paying attention to this for the past several years. So my vague memory is that about 20% of homes have no landline phones, but that number has continued to rise and is now just a bit under 40%. The chart below, with my own extrapolation to September 2012, shows the trend.

I've now owned a cell phone for 14 years, and I have yet to hold a conversation with either party on a cell phone that didn't suck. The sound quality is bad, the delay is bad, the voice activation that continually cuts off tiny bits of conversation is bad, and the general level of background static is bad. And that's on basically solid connections. When you're on a weak connection, you might as well be talking on tin cans. It doesn't surprise me in the least that young people, who have grown up with this, don't like to talk on phones much. I hate talking to people on cell phones too.

Will Jim Lehrer Ask Romney and Obama About Climate Change?

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 12:08 PM EDT
Jim Lehrer

On October 3rd, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney will face off in the first of three debates, this one on domestic policy. It could be a chance for Romney to regain lost ground after his week from hell, but for a few environmental groups the focus is less on the candidates and more on the moderator, PBS's Jim Lehrer. The question: Will he ask about climate change?

Just after the debate moderators were announced, the League of Conservation Voters began collecting signatures—60,000 so far—to petition Lehrer, a veteran presidential debate moderator, to ask the candidates how they plan to deal with the climate crisis. Other groups have since folllowed suit, including the Environmental Defense Fund and Al Gore's Climate Reality Project. They plan to officially deliver the petitions to Lehrer next week, LCV spokesman Mike Palamuso said.

"Even if the candidates were endorsing climate action at every campaign stop, there's such a bigger audience for the debates that we want to make sure this is part of the conversation," he said.

The odds aren't particularly good: On Wednesday Lehrer announced the broad topics he would bring up in the debate, none of which address the environment directly. And just this week PBS's NewsHour program, which Lehrer edits, came under fire for "balancing" a segment on climate change with a diatribe from Heartland Institute-connected meterologist and climate change skeptic Anthony Watts.

But hey, anything is possible. PBS spokeswoman Anne Bell wouldn't comment on Lehrer's plans, in part because she doesn't know them: Tweaks are often being made right up until the red light turns on. Still, he's always open to suggestions, she said.

"He takes in tons of information, and as for how he processes it out, that's his own magic formula."

Ben Bernanke's Great Inflation Coverup

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 11:55 AM EDT

This is what Ben Bernanke is up against:

Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas President Richard Fisher said the central bank’s third round of bond purchases will probably fail to create jobs while risking higher inflation. “I do not see an overall argument for letting inflation rise to levels where we might scare the market,” Fisher said yesterday.

....“A sustained increase” in inflation expectations “would suggest incipient doubts about our commitment to the Bernanke doctrine of sailing on a course consistent with 2 percent long- term inflation,” Fisher said in a speech in New York.

Bernanke's problem is pretty simple here: he almost certainly wants higher inflation, but he can't say he wants higher inflation. He simply doesn't have enough support for inflation tolerance among his Fed colleagues.

Nonetheless, higher inflation would be good. The simplest way to see this is to look at interest rates. Once the Fed has reduced interest rates to zero, it can't go any further. But what if the economy is so bad that all the standard models suggest you need negative interest rates to get the economy back on track? The only answer is higher inflation. If inflation is running at 2% and interest rates are at zero, the real interest rate is -2%. If you borrow money, you're effectively being allowed to pay back less than you borrowed, which provides a big incentive to buy a house or expand your business.

But if even that's not enough, then how about inflation of 4%? As long as you promise to keep interest rates at zero, the real interest rate is now -4%. The Fed is making it almost irresistable to take out a loan and buy new stuff. And there's a virtuous circle here: businesses understand that negative borrowing rates stimulate consumption and demand, so not only is it super cheap to expand production, but they have good reason to think it will pay off as demand increases in the future.

But this all depends on tolerating higher inflation for a while, and inflation is a major hot button in American politics, as guys like Fisher demonstrate. So Bernanke has to pretend that he's still dedicated to 2% inflation even though he's probably not. This is unfortunate, since it blunts the power of his policies. If he could come right out and make it clear exactly what he's doing and how long he plans to keep it up, it could have a big impact. But he can't, and so his policy loses about half its power. All because inflation is such a boogeyman. This is the price we pay for our mindless fears.

"Chaos on Bullshit Mountain": Jon Stewart Lampoons Fox News Response to Romney Videos

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 11:24 AM EDT

On Wednesday night's episode of The Daily Show, host Jon Stewart discusses Fox News' response to the Romney fundraiser video—a reaction he calls the "chaos on Bullshit Mountain."

Stewart mocks the news channel's multifaceted spin on the issue, particularly the conclusion that the leaked "47 percent" footage contained hard-hitting truths that will ultimately help the Republican candidate win.

"It's like Romney jazz! It's the words you don't hear [that matter]," Stewart said, lampooning Fox talking heads' claims about what Romney "actually" meant to say.

 

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Barack Obama's Radical Socialist Pop Business Bafflegab

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 10:57 AM EDT

I don't really blame Republicans for desperately trying to change the subject after the release of the secret Romney fundraising video, but it cracks me up that they're trying to make hay out of this 1998 statement from Obama:

I think the trick is figuring out how do we structure government systems that pool resources and hence facilitate some redistribution because I actually believe in redistribution, at least at a certain level to make sure that everybody's got a shot. How do we pool resources at the same time as we decentralize delivery systems in ways that both foster competition, can work in the marketplace, and can foster innovation at the local level and can be tailored to particular communities.

It's not just that this is 14 years old. It's not just that Obama extols competition, the marketplace, and innovation. It's the fact that this is basically buzzword central. I mean, this is a guy who's obviously trying to make it sound like he has some kind of actual governing philosophy, and tossing in every piece of MBA-speak he can think of to hide the fact that he's saying nothing. If he had immediately followed this up with a reading of "Jabberwocky" I wouldn't have been surprised.

And this is supposed to be the evidence that Obama is some kind of radical socialist who hates the free market? Sure. In reality, it's evidence that he was spending a little too much time back then in the pop business aisle at Barnes & Noble.

In States With GOP-Dominated Courts, Is Judicial Election Spending Pointless?

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 6:01 AM EDT

Judicial elections are kind of under the radar, but some 39 states hold elections to fill their courts—elections that are in no way exempt from the pay-to-play rules of the Citizens era. Judicial candidates spent a record $4.6 million on TV ads this election season, more than quadruple the spending two years ago.

But a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice and the Justice at Stake Campaign suggests that isn't the whole story. Two states, Alabama and Ohio, have actually seen a big drop-off in spending. Why? Because Republicans in these big-spender states fundraised so well in recent years that they succeeded in dominating the state supreme courts. "Money and special interests continue to transform judicial elections around the country," Alicia Bannon, counsel in the Brennan Center’s Democracy Program, said in a press release. "We are seeing uncontested races in traditionally high-spending states like Ohio and Alabama, where big money over the past decade delivered the high court to a single party."

To Match Walton Heirs' Fortune, You'd Need to Work at Walmart for 7 Million Years

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Just how rich are the Waltons? According to the latest edition of the Forbes 400, released yesterday, the six wealthiest heirs to the Walmart empire are together worth a staggering $115 billion. This marks the first time in American history that one family has controlled a 12-figure fortune. While the nation's richest person is still Bill Gates, the sixth-, seventh-, eighth-, and ninth-richest Americans are all Waltons.

To put that in perspective, here's a chart of things the Waltons could afford to pay for:

Sources: Center on Budget Policy Priorities, CNN, Los Angeles Times, Congressional Budget Office

The Waltons' fortune might be something to celebrate if not for the fact that they've raked it in at our expense. Sasha Abramsky writes:

In 2004, a year in which Wal-Mart reported $9.1 billion in profits, the retailer's California employees collected $86 million in public assistance, according to researchers at the University of California-Berkeley. Other studies have revealed widespread use of publicly funded health care by Wal-Mart employees in numerous states. In 2004, Democratic staffers of the House education and workforce committee calculated that each 200-employee Wal-Mart store costs taxpayers an average of more than $400,000 a year, based on entitlements ranging from energy-assistance grants to Medicaid to food stamps to WIC—the federal program that provides food to low-income women with children.

The average Walmart worker earns just $8.81 an hour. At that wage, the union-backed Making Change at Walmart campaign calculates that a Walmart worker would need:

  • 7 million years to earn as much wealth as the Walton family has (presuming the worker doesn't spend anything)
  • 170,000 years to earn as much money as the Walton family receives annually in Walmart dividends
  • 1 year to earn as much money as the Walton family earns in Walmart dividends every three minutes

For more on the Walton fortune, see my 2011 chart: "6 Walmart Heirs Hold More Wealth Than 42% of Americans Combined"

How Many Refrigerators Does It Take to Store a Whale?

| Thu Sep. 20, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Caroline Cannon, an Inupiat from the Alaskan village of Point Hope, fears oil companies aren't prepared for the challenges of the Arctic.

Caroline Cannon recalls walking onto the frozen Chukchi Sea with other women of her hometown of Point Hope, Alaska, and cooking hot lunches for the men out hunting at the ice's edge for whales, seals, and walrus. It was a long-time tradition in this remote Inupiat village of 700 on the North Slope at the northwestern edge of the state. But the tradition came to an end three years ago, when the increasingly thin ice became too dangerous to traverse on foot.

"It's a different thing when you have to cook in the village and transport the meals out into the ocean," says Cannon, who won the 2012 Goldman Environmental Prize for her work opposing oil exploration in the Arctic. "We knew something was happening with climate change, but now it's critical that we take it to heart." 

Just days after ice cover in the Arctic reached the lowest level ever recorded, Cannon flew to Manhattan this week to speak at a Greenpeace-hosted panel on why Arctic ice is disappearing at an astonishing rate, and what international governments ought to do about it. Also on hand were a few of the usual climate-beat suspects: NASA scientist James Hansen, 350.org founder Bill McKibben, TIME environment editor Bryan Walsh, and Greenpeace International Director Kumi Naidoo, who was among those who boarded and temporarily shut down a Russian oil rig in the Arctic last month.

Many of the panelists, audience members, and reporters present were familiar to one another, and chatted chummily over coffee and mini-muffins at a mid-morning cocktail party before the panel. It was a telling scene in light of later panel discussion on how the world of climate-change activism is too insular, creating what Hansen called a disconnect between "what scientists understand and what the public knows."

Cannon was the exception, likely the only person in the room who's gone mano-a-mano on her own home turf with disappearing permafrost and rising sea levels. Her main beef was with oil companies ready to exploit vast Arctic oil reserves before being adquately prepared to handle a potential spill. She pointed to the fact that Shell closed its new Arctic shop early for the winter after less than a month of drilling as evidence that the company doesn't yet have the infrastructure in place to cope with the high seas, shifting icebergs, and brutal winds of the Arctic.