Here's a story I'd kind of like to believe:

Actor Tom Arnold is making waves with recent claims that he has outtakes from "The Apprentice" that feature President-elect Donald Trump using inflammatory language...."When the people sent it to me, it was funny," Arnold said, explaining that hundreds of people have seen the footage that was sent around years ago as a Christmas video.

"He wasn't going to be president of the United States. It was him sitting in that chair using the N-word, using the C-word, calling his son [intellectually disabled]," Arnold said.

...."If that had gotten released, it absolutely would have finished him," [Dori] Monson told Arnold. Arnold disagreed. "I think if the people that like him saw him saying the N-word, matter-of-factly saying this stuff, I think they would have liked him more for being politically incorrect," said Arnold.

Arnold says that the folks who originally made the video got cold feet when they were asked to release it during the campaign: "They were scared of his people. They're scared they'll never work again," said Arnold. "There's a $5-million confidentiality agreement."

OK, sure, but if it was sent around as a Christmas video and hundreds of people have seen it, it's hard to believe that one of those hundreds didn't quietly leak it. This is Hollywood, after all, and I think we can assume that 90 percent of the folks on the distribution list were Hillary supporters. And surely at least a few dozen happened to keep their copy lying around.

So call me skeptical. But on the off chance it's for real, let's get it out there! Surely there's some Democratic billionaire who will promise to make good on any settlement if Trump sues.

Earlier today Matt Yglesias put up a map from the Census Bureau showing median incomes by county. He used it to make the point that the Midwest "Rust Belt" isn't actually all that poor. I don't have any complementary point to make, but I thought the map was interesting to look at. I've recolored it so that the poorest counties are shown in hot pink, which makes them easier to see.

Matthew Cole at the Intercept reports that Rep. Ryan Zinke, Donald Trump's pick for secretary of the interior, submitted several bogus travel vouchers back in the '90s, when he was an officer at SEAL Team 6. It turns out he was traveling to Montana not to "scout for training locations," but to renovate a house he planned to live in after he retired. He was warned to knock it off.

So far this seems pretty minor. It was nearly 20 years ago, and hardly amounted to a major felony. But then there's this:

After Zinke was caught and warned, he continued to travel home and submit the expenses to the Navy. The offense would normally have been serious enough to have ended Zinke's career, but senior officers at SEAL Team 6 did not formally punish him…[Instead] he was told he would not be allowed to return to the elite unit for future assignments, according to the sources. Zinke continued his career, and he was eventually promoted to Navy commander, the rank he retired at in 2008.

So the guy was caught, confessed, warned to stop, and then went right on doing it? If that's really how it happened, it demonstrates a dedication to corruption a little more serious than the odd bit of expense account twiddling. I guess that makes him perfect for the Trump administration.

At about 3:30 a.m. on Saturday, China agreed to return the US Navy drone they had seized in the South China Sea. Four hours later, Donald Trump tweeted his thoughts about this: "China steals United States Navy research drone in international waters―rips it out of water and takes it to China in unprecedented act." Then, a few hours later, he bizarrely changed tack: "We should tell China that we don't want the drone they stole back.- let them keep it!" Did Trump know when he wrote those tweets that the Chinese had already agreed to return the drone?

That information would have been known to Trump had he received the "Presidential Daily Brief" prior to posting his first tweet. Whether he did that Saturday, or whether he or his staff even bothered to check with the State Department or the Pentagon about the status of the matter before weighing in, is unknown. Officials in Trump’s transition office did not respond to queries from the Huffington Post.

Trump has said that he finds the PDB repetitive and that he does not need a daily briefing because he is smart. His staff has said Trump is receiving the briefing about three times a week.

That's from S.V. Date, and I love the second excerpted paragraph. It makes Trump look like the idiot he is, but there's nothing objectionable about it. That's exactly what he said. Trump can hardly cry foul at this characterization.

He will, of course, because he and his team have made a whole new profession out of grievance mongering. You'd think that he expected to govern without criticism or something—and judging by the remarkable volume of whining out of Trump and his team, maybe he did. But since he refuses to speak with the press, and his staff does nothing but kvetch and tap dance, we may never know.

I don't have any special reason to post this except for the fact that trade is very much in the news following Donald Trump's election victory. For the record, then, here's the US trade deficit since 1980:

And just for extra fun, here's the same chart excluding trade with China and imports of crude oil:

The main lesson here is that the US trade deficit hasn't been spiraling out of control for the past decade. It's been declining. And practically all of it for the past five years has been accounted for by oil and China.

Alex Tabarrok draws my attention to an article in the New York Times Magazine this weekend. It's about machine learning in general, but it starts out with this:

Late one Friday night in early November, Jun Rekimoto, a distinguished professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Tokyo, was online preparing for a lecture when he began to notice some peculiar posts rolling in on social media. Apparently Google Translate, the company's popular machine-translation service, had suddenly and almost immeasurably improved. Rekimoto visited Translate himself and began to experiment with it. He was astonished. He had to go to sleep, but Translate refused to relax its grip on his imagination.

That explains it! About a week ago I happened to be clicking some links from somewhere and ended up on a Chinese site. Just for laughs I ran it through Google Translate, and I was surprised at the quality of the text I got. It was much more readable than usual and seemed to be a pretty accurate translation. I chalked it up to either coincidence or the fact that I hadn't used Google Translate in a while, and went on my way.

But no. Google Translate really has taken a quantum leap:

The Google of the future, [CEO Sundar] Pichai had said on several occasions, was going to be "A.I. first." What that meant in theory was complicated and had welcomed much speculation. What it meant in practice, with any luck, was that soon the company's products would no longer represent the fruits of traditional computer programming, exactly, but "machine learning."

A rarefied department within the company, Google Brain, was founded five years ago on this very principle: that artificial "neural networks" that acquaint themselves with the world via trial and error, as toddlers do, might in turn develop something like human flexibility…It was only with the refugee crisis, Pichai explained from the lectern, that the company came to reckon with Translate's geopolitical importance…The team had been steadily adding new languages and features, but gains in quality over the last four years had slowed considerably.

Until today. As of the previous weekend, Translate had been converted to an A.I.-based system for much of its traffic, not just in the United States but in Europe and Asia as well: The rollout included translations between English and Spanish, French, Portuguese, German, Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Turkish. The rest of Translate's hundred-odd languages were to come, with the aim of eight per month, by the end of next year. The new incarnation, to the pleasant surprise of Google's own engineers, had been completed in only nine months. The A.I. system had demonstrated overnight improvements roughly equal to the total gains the old one had accrued over its entire lifetime.

The robots are coming. Go ahead and scoff at the fact that some Uber cars ran red lights last week, but that doesn't change anything. Every technology has hiccups at first, and AI is the biggest, toughest, and most important technology ever attempted. It will provide plenty of laughs over the next decade or two.

Until suddenly it doesn't and the economy has permanently lost 20 million jobs—with many more to come. We're not ready for that day, not by a long way. We should get started.

Reuters reports on lead poisoning:

ST. JOSEPH, Missouri — On a sunny November afternoon in this historic city, birthplace of the Pony Express and death spot of Jesse James, Lauranda Mignery watched her son Kadin, 2, dig in their front yard. As he played, she scolded him for putting his fingers in his mouth.

In explanation, she pointed to the peeling paint on her old house. Kadin, she said, has been diagnosed with lead poisoning. He has lots of company: Within 15 blocks of his house, at least 120 small children have been poisoned since 2010, making the neighborhood among the most toxic in Missouri.

Of course, it's not just St. Joseph. Reuters got hold of neighborhood-level lead testing records and found thousands of high-lead communities across the country:

Reuters found nearly 3,000 areas with recently recorded lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of that city’s contamination crisis. And more than 1,100 of these communities had a rate of elevated blood tests at least four times higher.

The poisoned places on this map stretch from Warren, Pennsylvania, a town on the Allegheny River where 36 percent of children tested had high lead levels, to a zip code on Goat Island, Texas, where a quarter of tests showed poisoning. In some pockets of Baltimore, Cleveland and Philadelphia, where lead poisoning has spanned generations, the rate of elevated tests over the last decade was 40 to 50 percent.

Here's a map of the worst hotspots in the country:

The whole piece is worth reading. My only disappointment is that the authors spent most of the article talking about the dangers of lead paint. That's worth talking about, but lead-saturated soil is even more worth talking about. That's why Lauranda Mignery doesn't want her son digging in their front yard: there may not be any paint there, but there's probably lots of old lead that settled in the soil decades ago when we were all burning leaded gasoline.

Sadly, there's barely any money in the federal budget these days for testing, let alone remediation. It would cost tens of billions of dollars to clean up all the old lead, which is mostly a problem in poor communities populated by people of color. And though it's not polite to say this, nobody cares enough about them to spend tens of billions of dollars.

Judd Legum of ThinkProgress reports that "members of the Trump Organization" pressured the government of Kuwait to switch their annual National Day celebration from the Four Seasons to the Trump International:

In the early fall, the Kuwaiti Embassy signed a contract with the Four Seasons. But after the election, members of the Trump Organization contacted the Ambassador of Kuwait, Salem Al-Sabah, and encouraged him to move his event to Trump's D.C. hotel, the source said.

Kuwait has now signed a contract with the Trump International Hotel, the source said, adding that a representative with the embassy described the decision as political. Invitations to the event are typically sent out in January.

Abdulaziz Alqadfan, First Secretary of the Embassy of Kuwait, told ThinkProgress last week that he couldn't "confirm or deny" that the National Day event would be held at the Trump Hotel. Reached again Monday afternoon, Alqadfan did not offer any comment. An email sent directly to Ambassador Al-Sabah was not immediately returned.

Legum writes that his source is a person "who has direct knowledge of the arrangements between the hotels and the embassy," and that he was able to "review documentary evidence confirming the source's account." I have a feeling that a lot of foreign governments are going to be getting phone calls from the Trump Organization over the next four years.

Now, Trump's defense, if he bothers to offer one, will be that nothing happened. Someone in his company made a sales call to the Kuwaiti government, offered them a deal they couldn't refuse, and closed the business. What's wrong with that? But Newt Gingrich has a whole different idea about how Trump should deal with potential violations of the law:

"We've never seen this kind of wealth in the White House, and so traditional rules don't work," Gingrich said Monday during an appearance on NPR's "The Diane Rehm Show" about the president-elect's business interests. "We're going to have to think up a whole new approach."

And should someone in the Trump administration cross the line, Gingrich has a potential answer for that too.

"In the case of the president, he has a broad ability to organize the White House the way he wants to. He also has, frankly, the power of the pardon," Gingrich said. "It's a totally open power. He could simply say, ‘Look, I want them to be my advisers. I pardon them if anyone finds them to have behaved against the rules. Period. Technically, under the Constitution, he has that level of authority."

Jeez, it's too bad we didn't have this Newt Gingrich around in the '90s. He and Bill Clinton would have gotten along a lot better if he'd had this kind of charitable attitude toward presidential ethics back then.

On a more serious note: Are you fucking kidding me? The Trump Organization is going to poach business away by "encouraging" foreign governments to see the benefits of holding their events at a Trump property? And Newt Gingrich thinks we should just go ahead and change the law to allow this kind of thing? And if nobody salutes when that gets run up the old flagpole, then Trump should just go ahead and issue pardons to anyone who gets harassed by overzealous prosecutors.

What country do I live in, anyway?

Just for the record, I want to make sure I understand something:

  • During the presidential campaign, Mitch McConnell and his fellow Republicans promised to raise hell if President Obama responded aggressively to Russia's interference in the election.
  • Now that the election is over, Republicans are bashing Obama for not having a more aggressive response to a ruthless cyberattack by a hostile foreign power. It's yet another example of Obama's fecklessness on the foreign stage.

Do I have this right? Just curious.