Atrios today:

Self-Checkouts

Those still a thing? I mean, I know they are, but around me the 3 major supermarkets within walking distance got rid of them....Anyway, I know they still exist, but I do think our robot future is not quite as inevitable as people think. Worrying about the impact of future automation on jobs seems to be a cool tech away of ignoring the current fucked and bullshit jobs situation. And, yes, automation has been going on for decades, which is actually my point. There's nothing new about it, and I don't know why people think there will be this sudden automation discontinuity. The robots have been here for awhile, and they aren't really going away, but that doesn't mean the sci-fi dystopian workless future is just around the corner. Shit is fucked up and bullshit enough without worrying about things which haven't happened yet, and likely won't.

It really doesn't matter if artificial intelligence is distracting us from whatever you think the "real" problem is. It's coming anyway. The speed of the AI revolution depends solely on fundamental factors (mostly continued reductions in the cost of parallel computing power) and the level of interest in AI software development. The fundamental factors are obviously still barreling ahead, and it sure looks like the free market has a ton of interest too:

Besides, AI is the real problem. As we all know (don't we?), the decline of manufacturing in the US has far more to do with automation than with trade or globalization. That decline set up the conditions for an angry working class in three Midwestern states that finally decided it had found a savior in a guy who claimed it was all the fault of a bunch of foreigners. So now Donald Trump is president. How much more real can you get?

And that was just old-fashioned dumb automation. Smart automation is going to have a far bigger and far faster effect. We're not very far off from the first real destruction of an industry (probably long-haul trucking) thanks to smart automation, and after that it's going to come thick and fast.

So what are we going to do? Will our future be in the hands of demagogues who gain power by lashing out at scapegoats while they work hard to make sure that rich people get all the benefits of AI? Or will it be in the hands of people who actually give a damn about the working class and understand that a world of increasing automation requires a dramatic rethink of basic economics? I would sure like it to be the latter.

Unfortunately, like global warming, the effects of AI are slow and invisible—on a human timescale anyway. So it's easy to pretend—no matter how idiotic this is—that AI is just a rerun of the Industrial Revolution. It's easy to pretend that each new advance isn't really a step toward true AI. It's easy to pretend that each individual industry to fall is just a special case. It's easy to pretend that something else is always more important.

Is AI coming soon? I find this question too boring to spend much time on anymore. Of course it's coming soon. The only question I'm interested in is what we're going to do about it. I keep pondering this, and I keep failing to come up with any likely answers that are very optimistic in the medium term. Maybe I'm not thinking outside the box enough. But it sure looks like we're determined to keep our collective heads in the sand for a long time. At best, the result is going to be a grim future of plutocracy for some and the dole for everyone else. At worst, it's going to be a future of global genocide (do you think there's enough aid in the world to keep Bangladesh afloat when there's no longer any work there?).

Eventually everything will work out, probably after a lot of suffering and a popular revolt. But wouldn't it be nice to avoid all that?

Oh, and those self-checkout machines? I don't know about Philly, but there's hardly a supermarket within ten miles of me that doesn't have them. Not only are they still a thing, but they're only going to get better. So sorry about all those nice union jobs as checkers and baggers.

I try to ignore Donald Trump's tweets unless they actually have some substantive impact. As I've noted before, they're basically just communiques to his fans, and they should be read that way. Sometimes, though, it's worth noting what he's telling his fans:

I guess Trump has abandoned subtlety altogether. If a poll doesn't go his way, it's fake. Like this one:

And this one:

And this one:

And this one:

Ignore them. They're all fake.

Kellyanne Conway insists that her reference to the "Bowling Green massacre" was an "honest mistake." Guess what?

In an interview with Cosmopolitan.com conducted by phone days earlier, on Sunday, Jan. 29, Conway used the same phrasing, claiming that President Barack Obama called for a temporary "ban on Iraqi refugees” after the “Bowling Green massacre.” (The quotes did not appear in either of two stories recently published on Cosmopolitan.com.)

"He did, it’s a fact," she said of Obama. "Why did he do that? He did that for exactly the same reasons. He did that because two Iraqi nationals came to this country, joined ISIS, traveled back to the Middle East to get trained and refine their terrorism skills, and come back here, and were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre of taking innocent soldiers' lives away."

....In a follow-up text exchange Sunday night, Conway wrote, "Frankly they were terrorists in Bowling Green but their massacre took place in Iraq. At least this got clear-thinking people to focus on what did happen in Bowling Green. I gave new life to that ABC News investigative report and the fact that these two Iraqi nationals came to the US with a plan of death and destruction."

So the whole thing was deliberate, and she'd already given it a test run before she mentioned it on Hardball on February 2. She lied about the "massacre," and then she lied some more after she was caught. She also lied to Cosmo about the Iraqis joining ISIS and traveling back to the Middle East. But hey—at least it got people thinking about refugees being terrorists, and that's what counts, amirite?

From this point forward, we should all assume that everything Conway says is a lie unless proven otherwise.

A reader tweets: "CA high speed rail *and* Trump. Your favorite things, together at last!" The San Francisco Chronicle has the story:

Freshly empowered California Republicans in Congress are pushing the Trump administration to hold off on approving $647 million for the Caltrain system to go electric — something that could kill the redo of a line that carries more than 60,000 riders a day between the South Bay and San Francisco.

Wait a second. Caltrain is just an ordinary commuter line. I have nothing against electrifying it. What kind of bait-and-switch is this? Well, it turns out that this is just leverage to try to kill the LA-San Francisco high-speed rail project:

The Republicans don’t have anything against Caltrain electrification per se — it’s the high-speed rail line they can’t stand. And high-speed trains will have no way of getting from San Jose to San Francisco if the Caltrain line isn’t electrified....Republicans have long seen high-speed rail as a boondoggle, but they’ve been up against an Obama administration that refused to spike its funding. That’s not a problem anymore.

Huh. That's hardball for sure. Presumably, if Gov. Jerry Brown killed his beloved bullet train, nobody would have any objection to the Caltrain electrification anymore. Unfortunately for Brown, this actually seems like the kind of assholery that would appeal to Trump. We'll know his decision in a week or two.

Glenn Thrush and Maggie Haberman have a deeply reported story today about the first two weeks of the Trump presidency, filled with lots of juicy little details. But here's what leaped out at me. See if you can figure out what ties together these five excerpts:

  1. Chris Ruddy, the chief executive of Newsmax Media and an old friend of the president's, said, "I think, in his mind, the success of this is going to be the poll numbers. If they continue to be weak or go lower, then somebody's going to have to bear some responsibility for that."
     
  2. For a sense of what is happening outside, he watches cable, both at night and during the day—too much in the eyes of some aides—often offering a bitter play-by-play of critics like CNN's Don Lemon.
     
  3. [Steve] Bannon remains the president's dominant adviser, despite Mr. Trump's anger that he was not fully briefed on details of the executive order he signed giving his chief strategist a seat on the National Security Council.
     
  4. He almost always makes time to monitor Mr. Spicer's performance at the daily briefings, summoning him to offer praise or criticism, a West Wing aide said.
     
  5. To pass the time between meetings, Mr. Trump gives quick tours to visitors, highlighting little tweaks he has made after initially expecting he would have to pay for them himself.

Trump watches lots of cable; he monitors Sean Spicer's press briefing every day; and he fills up time between meetings by showing off the decor of the White House. He doesn't seem to be very busy with actual work, does he? And yet, he wasn't fully briefed on a simple executive order, something that would have taken no more than a few minutes. What's more, it's pretty obvious that he's also signed other executive orders that he barely understands.

This is pretty much what we all expected from Trump, but it's still jarring to see it confirmed. He spends a lot of time in front of the television, he obsesses about polls, he keeps an eye on the daily press briefing, he seethes with anger at criticism, and he putters around whenever there are no meetings scheduled. In other words, he still thinks he's the star of a reality TV show. He cares about his image and his ratings, but that's about it. When it comes to making America great again, he expects his staff to take care of things.

Here is how I spent a good portion of the Super Bowl today:

From left to right are Charlie, Emmy, and Heidi. In the background is Scout. And here is the exact moment that the Patriots won:

When I got home, Hilbert accused me of being unfaithful. What could I say? The evidence was conclusive. But he forgave me as soon as I changed clothes.

UPDATE: The NFL has disabled embedding for the video of the halftime show so you have to click here to watch it. You know what? On second thought, it wasn't even very good.

People seemed to  like Lady Gaga's haltime show.

It brought old conservative men…

young liberal women…

and SoulCycle together.

You all may remember that back in 2000-01 Enron engineered an artificial shortage of electricity in California, which sent prices skyrocketing. This was a harrowing affair, and ever since then California has been building new power plants. And building. And building. And building some more.

At the same time, demand for electricity declined after the Great Recession and then flattened out. But California kept building new plants anyway. As we all know, the result of higher supply and lower demand should be lower prices. However, as these three charts excerpted from the LA Times show, that's not how things have worked out:

This seems inexplicable. Why have prices gone up? And why are California utilities continuing to build new power plants even as they're mothballing recently built plants because there's no need for them? Ivan Penn and Ryan Menezes explain:

California regulators have for years allowed power companies to go on a building spree, vastly expanding the potential electricity supply in the state. Indeed, even as electricity demand has fallen since 2008, California’s new plants have boosted its capacity enough to power all of the homes in a city the size of Los Angeles — six times over. Additional plants approved by regulators will begin producing more electricity in the next few years.

The missteps of regulators have been compounded by the self-interest of California utilities, Lynch and other critics contend. Utilities are typically guaranteed a rate of return of about 10.5% for the cost of each new plant regardless of need. This creates a major incentive to keep construction going: Utilities can make more money building new plants than by buying and reselling readily available electricity from existing plants run by competitors.

The over-abundance of electricity can be traced to poorly designed deregulation of the industry, which set the stage for blackouts during the energy crisis of 2000-2001....Instead of lowering electricity costs and spurring innovation, market manipulation by Enron Corp. and other energy traders helped send electricity prices soaring.

....State leaders, regulators and the utilities vowed never to be in that position again, prompting an all-out push to build more plants, both utility-owned and independent....By the time new plants began generating electricity, usage had begun a decline, in part because of the economic slowdown caused by the recession but also because of greater energy efficiency.

The state went from having too little to having way too much power.

“California has this tradition of astonishingly bad decisions,” said McCullough, the energy consultant. “They build and charge the ratepayers. There’s nothing dishonest about it. There’s nothing complicated. It’s just bad planning.”

There you have it. Econ 101 didn't fail after all. Regulated utilities aren't a real market economy, and California's regulators have allowed epic overbuilding because of the trauma of the 2000 blackouts. Utilities have happily taken advantage of this because they make more money from building useless plants than they do from trading with other utilities.

Enron may be long dead, but its ghost lives on. California paid the price for Enron's machinations in 2000, and now it's paying the price again thanks to fear of another Enron happening someday. Plus we got Arnold Schwarzenegger out of the deal.1 It's amazing how much damage a single greedy company can do.

1Schwarzenegger was elected in place of Gov. Gray Davis, who was recalled. But the recall was largely driven by anger over the blackouts and the subsequent rate increases. It never would have happened if not for the electricity crisis.

Your White House at work:

Some early moves by Trump officials have given hints about their priorities — and raised concerns within the administration.

....According to one U.S. official, national security aides have sought information about Polish incursions in Belarus, an eyebrow-raising request because little evidence of such activities appears to exist. Poland is among the Eastern European nations worried about Trump's friendlier tone on Russia.

Read the story for more. Either somebody knows something the rest of us don't, or else those somebodies are stone crazy. Do they really think Poland is sending troops into Belarus?

A new report from the Colorado Retail Marijuana Public Health Advisory Committee tells us that among 18-25 years olds, 13 percent report using marijuana daily or near-daily. Mark Kleiman is taken aback that this has gotten hardly any attention:

We know from other studies by Beau Kilmer and his group at RAND that daily/near-daily smokers consume about three times as much cannabis per use-day as less frequent smokers, enough to be measurably impaired (even if not subjectively stoned) for most of their waking hours....The National Survey on Drug Use and Health finds that about one-half of daily or near-daily smokers meet the diagnostic criteria for Substance Use Disorder. That’s a frightening share of users, and of the total population, to be engaging in such worrisome behavior.

....More and more people using cannabis more and more often is a trend that pre-dates legalization and is not restricted to states that have legalized....What is clear is that lower prices...make it easier for users to slip into heavy daily use. Indeed, that’s the main — some of us would say the only significant — risk of legalization. That risk could be reduced by using taxes to prevent the price collapse. So a report on the effects of legalization that neglects heavy use is like a review of the last performance of “Our American Cousin” that doesn’t mention John Wilkes Booth.

That sounds like a lot. On the other hand, if half of daily marijuana users typically have substance use disorders, that about 6.5 percent in Colorado. Here are the national figures for the past decade:

The Colorado figure is higher than than the national figure, but not hugely higher. It's probably not a reason to panic, but it does bear watching.

The kind of people who read this blog are probably in favor of marijuana legalization—as I am—largely because they're the kind of people who use it occasionally and don't see a lot of harm in it. But like alcohol, there's a certain share of the population that will fall into addiction, and that share is likely to increase as marijuana prices come down. There's never a free lunch.