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Housekeeping Notes

| Sat Apr. 19, 2014 8:50 AM PDT

These are real housekeeping notes. That is, notes about stuff around my house. First topic: LED light bulbs.

I've purchased several LED floods that are can-mounted in my ceiling. They're great. The quality of the light is good; they turn on instantly; they don't flicker; and they use hardly any electricity. There's only one problem: they seem to last less than a year. The LEDs themselves last for decades, of course, but the circuitry that drives the bulb doesn't. As near as I can tell, there's eventually enough heat buildup in the can to burn out the chip that controls the whole thing, and when the chip burns out, no more bulb.

I'm just guessing here, but this has now happened three times out of five bulbs I've purchased, and in all three cases the case of the bulb was hot to the touch when I unscrewed it from the base. So here's my question: Does anyone know for sure what's going on here? Is my guess that a chip is burning out probably correct? Am I just buying cheap bulbs? Can anyone recommend a can-mounted flood that's reliable and will actually last for the 25 years that manufacturers so cheerfully promise?

Second: a cell phone update. In last weekend's thread, the Google Nexus 5 got a lot of love, but so did the Motorola Moto X. I had actually made up my mind on the Nexus 5, but the T-Mobile store only sold it in a 16GB version, so I decided to go home and buy one online. But then I started dithering because of all the nice things people had said about the Moto X. Eventually, after far more dithering than makes sense for someone who doesn't use a cell phone much, I decided the slightly smaller Moto X was the better choice. So: thanks, folks! I don't think this would have come across my radar otherwise.

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The US Government Really Isn't Worried About "Transcendence" Happening in Real Life

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 3:34 PM PDT

This post contains spoilers, but the movie is bad so I don't think you'll care.

Transcendence is an awful movie—two hours of squandered potential. (You can read my colleague Ben Dreyfuss' review here.) The film stars Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, and Kate Mara. It was executive-produced by Christopher Nolan, and marks the directorial debut of cinematographer Wally Pfister (the guy who made Christopher Nolan movies look like Christopher Nolan movies). The plot goes something like this: Depp plays a renowned artificial-intelligence researcher named Will Caster. He gets assassinated by a terrorist group that fears super-intelligent, sentient machines will one day rule the world. Will's wife Evelyn (played by Hall) has the bright idea to upload his consciousness to a big computer thing, hoping he'll live on in cyberspace or something. It works, and this achieves technological singularity (when A.I. becomes greater than the human mind), which Will calls "transcendence."

Things get really creepy and it starts to look like Johnny Depp The Omniscient Computer really is trying to take over the world. The US government begins to wage a secret war on him/it, and gets into bed with some shady, gun-toting characters in doing so.

Anyway, that may sound like a cool premise, but the movie is really, very boring—but it did get me and my buddy thinking: What would our government do if this happened in real life? Does the government have a contingency plan if (as some believe is possible) sentient machines began outdoing mankind? What if the machines went to war against us? What would Barack Obama do???

Okay, this is stupid. But if America once drew up legit plans to invade Canada, maybe there's a chance we have a plan for this. I called up the Department of Defense, and was transferred to spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart. I asked him these questions, and if anyone working in cyber warfare had anything to say about this. His response:

I'm gonna be frank with you. There is nobody here who is going to talk about that...There are currently no plans for this. It's just a completely unrealistic scenario. We have a lot of people working on this team on serious stuff, but this just isn't a real threat.

"Well," he concluded, "at least not for now."

For now.

Obama's America.

Here's the trailer for the Johnny Depp movie:

Review: "Transcendence" (2014)

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 2:29 PM PDT

"Transcendence"

Released by: Warner Brothers Pictures

Starring: Johnny Depp, Morgan Freeman, Rebecca Hall

Directed by: Wally Pfister

Screenplay by: Jack Paglen

Release Date: April 18, 2014

Rating: PG-13

Runtime: 119 minutes

Review: Wow awful.

 

Beloved Author Gabriel García Márquez Was Also a Go-Between for Colombian Guerrillas and the Government

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 1:41 PM PDT
García Márquez (center) with the Colombian culture minister Paula Moreno (left) in 2009.

Gabriel García Márquez passed away on Thursday at his home in Mexico City. He was 87. The Nobel Prize-winning Colombian novelist was celebrated for such works as One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera. "The world has lost one of its greatest visionary writers—one of my favorites from the time I was young," President Obama said on Thursday.

When a literary figure as towering as García Márquez dies, there are too many fascinating things to write about—his writing, his political history, his wild ride of a life. (Hell, I could see myself writing an entire term paper on his friendly relationship with Colombian pop star Shakira!) I'm not going to attempt anything close to a definitive obituary of a man who gave the world so much through his art. I'll leave that to others.

But I'd like to highlight one politically significant part of Gabo's life: García Márquez wasn't just an acclaimed writer and passionate supporter of left-wing causes—for a time, he was an intermediary between Colombian leftist guerrillas and the government.

Here's an excerpt from a 1999 New Yorker profile written by Jon Lee Anderson:

García Márquez who has often referred to himself as "the last optimist in Colombia," has been closely involved in the peace negotiations. He introduced [Colombian president Andrés] Pastrana to his old friend Fidel Castro, who could facilitate talks with the guerrillas, and he helped restore good relations between Washington and Bogotá. "I won't say that it was Gabo who brought all this about," Bill Richardson, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, said early this summer, "but he was a catalyst." García Márquez was invited by the Clintons to the White House several times, and friends say he believed that he was going to not only carry off the immediate goal of getting some sort of negotiated settlement between the guerrillas and the government but also finally help bring about an improvement in relations between the United States and Cuba. "The U.S. needs Cuba's involvement in the Colombian peace talks, because the Cuban government has the best contacts with the guerrillas," he explained to me. "And Cuba is perfectly situated, only two hours away, so Pastrana can go there overnight and have meetings and come back without anyone knowing anything about it. And the U.S. wants this to happen." Then he smiled in a way that indicated he knew much more than he was telling me, as usual.

The whole profile, which you can check out here, is definitely worth a read.

I now leave you with this footage of García Márquez visiting Shakira and dancing:

R.I.P.

This Climate Scientist Just Won Another Victory in Court

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 1:15 PM PDT
Michael Mann called the decision "a victory for science."

Michael Mann, the perennially embattled climate scientist best known for his "hockey-stick" temperature graph, came out victorious yesterday in a court battle against a Virginia legislator and a conservative think tank that had sought to obtain thousands of Mann's emails and research documents from his time as a University of Virginia professor.

The Virginia Supreme Court ruled that unpublished scientific research can be exempted from the state's Freedom of Information Act requirements, because disclosing such information would cut into the university's competitive advantage over other universities. As a result, some 12,000 of Mann's emails and papers won't be released to the Energy & Environment Legal Institute (formerly known as the American Tradition Institute) and Virginia Delegate Robert Marshall (R-Prince William), who had requested the documents in 2011.

In a statement on his Facebook page, Mann called the decision "a victory for science, public university faculty, and academic freedom."

Back in 2012, a lower Virginia court ruled that the documents in question were considered "proprietary," and thus shielded from FOIA requests. ATI appealed the decision, and the case landed with the state's Supreme Court last October. The main question was whether research-related documents should get the same kind of protection as trade secrets and other information that could cause financial harm if released. ATI argued that Mann's emails didn't merit such protection, while Mann and U-Va. maintained that scientists should be able to hammer out their work behind closed doors before presenting a finished product to the public.   

In a brief filed with the Supreme Court late last year, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press argued that in protecting Mann's research, the lower court had actually set the scope too wide, leaving open the possibility that a university could claim virtually any document to be proprietary. But yesterday's Supreme Court ruling revised the exemption criteria so that non-research-related documents—things like budgets and communications between administrators—could still be accessed with a FOIA, said Emily Grannis, the Reporters Committee staffer who authored the brief.

Of course, Grannis said, the ruling is only binding in the state of Virginia, but it could serve as a model for how other states set limits for what qualifies as proprietary if similar cases arise elsewhere.

Newly Released Clinton Doc: White House Aide Blasts Bill Clinton and Al Gore for "F***ing Stupid" Move

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 11:58 AM PDT

Among the trove of Clinton-era documents released Friday afternoon by the former president's library is an email from an angry White House aide who blasts President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore for not attending the funeral of Oklahoma Democrat Carl Albert. Known as the "Little Giant from Little Dixie," Albert, who stood five feet four-and-a-half inches tall, served as speaker of the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1976.

Albert died on February 4, 2000, and many Democratic politicians attended his funeral five days later. But Clinton and Gore skipped the event. In an email, Tim Emrich, who worked on the White House's scheduling team, said "it's fucking stupid" that Clinton and Gore didn't attend. Emrich elaborated: "It's stupid that neither BC nor AG is attending this funeral. ESPECIALLY AG, it's such an easy home run in the largest democratic part of the state."

Here's the email:

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READ: The Clinton Administration's Internal Memo on the "Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy"

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 11:43 AM PDT

In a 1995 internal memo, President Bill Clinton's White House Counsel's Office offered an in-depth analysis of the right-wing media mill that Hillary Clinton had dubbed the "vast right-wing conspiracy." Portions of the report, which was reported on by the Wall Street Journal and other outlets at the time, were included in a new trove of documents released to the public by the Clinton presidential library on Friday.

The report traced the evolution of various Clinton scandals, such as Whitewater and the Gennifer Flowers affair allegations, from their origins at conservative think tanks or in British tabloids, until the point in which they entered the mainstream news ecosystem. Making matters even more complicated was new technology, the report explained: "[E]vidence exists that Republican staffers surf the internet, interacting with extremists in order to exchange the ideas and information." The administration even had a name for the process: "The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce."

Per the document:

The Communication Stream of Conspiracy Commerce refers to the mode of communication employed by the right wing to convey their fringe stories into legitimate subjects of coverage by the mainstream media. This is how the stream works. Well funded right wing think tanks and individuals underwrite conservative newsletters and newspapers such as the Western Journalism Center, the American Spectator and the Pittsburgh Tribune Review. Next, the stories are re-printed on the internet where they are bounced all over the world. From the internet, the stories are bounced into the mainstream media through one of two ways: 1) The story will be picked up by the British tabloids and covered as a major story, from which the American right-of-center mainstream media (i.e. the Wall Street Journal, Washington Times and New York Post) will then pick the story up; or 2) The story will be bounced directly from the internet to the right-of-center mainstream American media. After the mainstream right-of-center media covers the story, Congressional committees will look into the story. After Congress looks into the story, the story now has the legitimacy to be covered by the remainder of the American mainstream press as a "real" story.

Chief among the White House's frustrations was conservative reaction to the death of Vince Foster, the president's former chief of staff. Right-wing outlets alleged that the Clintons had murdered Foster (or hired someone to do it) and covered it up as a suicide. According to the report:

The controversy surrounding the death of Vince Foster has been, in large part, the product of a well-financed right-wing conspiracy industry operation. The "Wizard of Oz" figure orchestrating the machinations of the conspiracy industry is a little-known recluse, Richard Mellon Scaife. Scaife uses his $800 million dollar inherited Mellon fortune to underwrite the Foster conspiracy industry. Scaife promotes the industry through his ownership of a small Pittsburgh newspaper, the Tribune-Review. Scaife's paper, under the direction of reporter Chris Ruddy, continually publishes stories regarding Foster's death. The stories are then reprinted in major newspapers all over the country in the form of paid advertisements. The Western Journalism Center (WJC), a non-profit conservative think tank, places the ads in these newspapers. The WJC receives much of its financial backing from Scaife.

(Ruddy went on to found Newsmax, a conservative media outlet now promoting the theory that Chelsea Clinton decided to have a baby in order to help her mother's 2016 presidential bid.)

Read the document in all of its glory:

 

 

Friday Cat Blogging - 18 April 2014

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 10:50 AM PDT

I have to leave early today for yet another pulmonary checkup, so Friday catblogging comes a little ahead of schedule this week. Here is Domino pretending she doesn't notice the fabulous feline shadow she's casting in the late afternoon sun. But it is fabulous, no?

Krauthammer Lights the Way for Tidal Waves of Secret Campaign Cash

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 10:03 AM PDT

Charles Krauthammer writes today that he used to think there was a simple and elegant solution to the fight over campaign finance reform: "For a long time, a simple finesse offered a rather elegant solution: no limits on giving — but with full disclosure." But now he's changed his mind:

This used to be my position. No longer. I had not foreseen how donor lists would be used not to ferret out corruption but to pursue and persecute citizens with contrary views. Which corrupts the very idea of full disclosure.

It is now an invitation to the creation of enemies lists. Containing, for example, Brendan Eich, forced to resign as Mozilla CEO when it was disclosed that six years earlier he’d given $1,000 to support a referendum banning gay marriage. He was hardly the first. Activists compiled blacklists of donors to Proposition 8 and went after them. Indeed, shortly after the referendum passed, both the artistic director of the California Musical Theatre in Sacramento and the president of the Los Angeles Film Festival were hounded out of office.

....The ultimate victim here is full disclosure itself. If revealing your views opens you to the politics of personal destruction, then transparency, however valuable, must give way to the ultimate core political good, free expression.

Our collective loss. Coupling unlimited donations and full disclosure was a reasonable way to reconcile the irreconcilables of campaign finance. Like so much else in our politics, however, it has been ruined by zealots. What a pity.

I wonder if Krauthammer feels the same way about free speech? Or gun rights. Or fair trials. The scope of zealots to abuse the system in those cases is infinitely greater than the sparse, weak-tea "harassment" he points to in the case of campaign finance disclosure.

On a larger scale, I realize that the Koch brothers think they've suffered abuse akin to the Holocaust at the hands of Harry Reid, but that's what happens when you enter the political arena in a big way. You take your lumps. That's no reason to allow billions of dollars to influence the political system with not even the slightest shred of accountability for where it's coming from. With allies as weak as Krauthammer, ready to cave at the slightest provocation, campaign finance disclosure is now just the latest victim of conservative goal post moving.

How Will We Know If Obamacare Is a Success?

| Fri Apr. 18, 2014 9:26 AM PDT

Will Obamacare be a success? Ross Douthat thinks we should all lay down some firm guidelines and hold ourselves to them. Here are his:

For my own part, I’ll lay down this marker for the future: If, in 2023, the uninsured rate is where the C.B.O. currently projects or lower, health inflation’s five-year average is running below the post-World War II norm, and the trend in the age-adjusted mortality rate shows a positive alteration starting right about now, I will write a post (or send out a Singularity-wide transmission, maybe) entitled “I Was Wrong About Obamacare” — or, if he prefers, just “Ezra Klein Was Right.”

Let's take these one by one. I'd say a reduction in the uninsured of 25 million is a pretty good metric. If, by 2023, the number is substantially below that, it would be a big hit to the law's success. Getting people covered, after all, has always been the law's primary goal. What's more, I'd be surprised if more states don't expand Medicaid and get more aggressive about setting up their own exchanges by 2023. At some point, after all, Republican hysteria about Obamacare just has to burn out. (Doesn't it?)

On health inflation, I think running below the post-WWII average is a pretty aggressive standard. That would require health care inflation of about 1 percent above overall inflation. If we manage to keep it to around 2 percent, I'd call that a reasonable result.

But my biggest issue is with the age-adjusted mortality rate. I know this is a widely popular metric to point to on both left and right, but I think it's a terrible one. Obamacare exclusively affects those under 65, and mortality just isn't that high in this age group. Reduced mortality is a tiny signal buried in a huge amount of noise, and I very much doubt that we'll see any kind of clear inflection point over the next few years.

So what to replace it with? I'm less sure about that. Maybe the TIE guys would like to weigh in. But this is a longtime hobbyhorse of mine. Medical care does people a ton of good even if it doesn't save their lives. Being able to afford your asthma inhaler, or getting a hip replacement, or finding an antidepressant that works—these all make a huge difference in people's lives. And that's not even accounting for reduced financial strain (and bankruptcies) and lower stress levels that come from the mere knowledge that a doctor is available if you need one—even if you don't have a life-threatening emergency that requires a trip to the ER.

In addition, I'd probably add a few things. Douthat doesn't include any negative metrics, but critics have put forward a whole bunch of disaster scenarios they think Obamacare will be responsible for. It will get harder to see doctors. Pharmaceutical companies will stop innovating. Insurance companies will drop out of the exchanges. Premiums will skyrocket. Etc. Without diving into the weeds on all these possible apocalypses, they count as predictions. If, in 2023, we all have to wait months for a routine appointment, or we can't get the meds we need because drug companies have gone out of business, then Obamacare is a failure regardless of what else it does. I don't think these things will happen, but they're surely on my list of metrics for judging the law's success.

UPDATE: Whoops. It turns out that one of the TIE guys, Austin Frakt, has already weighed in on this. You can read his comments here.