Kevin Drum - November 2013

The Final Frontier: 500 Microseconds Between Wall Street and Chicago

| Sat Nov. 30, 2013 4:57 PM EST

A couple of months ago, there was a big scandal over the fact that someone apparently learned about a Fed decision sooner than they should have. It takes seven milliseconds for a signal to travel from Washington DC to Chicago over a fiber optic cable, but a couple of big orders were placed on the Chicago exchange a mere couple of milliseconds after the Fed announcement. Shazam!

But if an advantage of a few milliseconds is so important, why bother with fiber optic cables? Why not mount repeaters on blimps or something, and then relay wireless signals? At the speed of light, it would only take about four milliseconds from DC to Chicago.

I suppose I should have guessed, but naturally someone is doing this:

Ari Rubenstein, a "Star Trek" fan who counts physics as a hobby....heads Strike Technologies, a New York company that's part of a budding cottage industry racing to build networks of ultra-fast microwave radio transmitters linking the world's financial hubs.

....Strike, whose ranks include academics as well as former U.S. and Israeli military engineers, hoisted a 6-foot white dish on a tower rising 280 feet above the Nasdaq Stock Market's data center in Carteret, N.J., just outside New York City.

Through a series of microwave towers, the dish beams market data 734 miles to the Chicago Mercantile Exchange's computer warehouse in Aurora, Ill., in 4.13 milliseconds, or about 95% of the theoretical speed of light, according to the company.

Remember that Keynes thing about goosing the economy by burying money in landfills and letting people dig it up? In terms of social utility, this strikes me as about the same thing. It's hard to imagine millions of dollars being spent more uselessly. Even gold-plated toilet seats probably have more value to society than this.

In any case, I still think my idea for a neutrino communications network that transmits directly through the earth is a better bet. Sure, you'd need a million gallons of chlorine or heavy water or something to act as the detector, but that seems pretty trivial in order to save another 500 microseconds. Who's going to be the first to do this?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Friday Cat Blogging - 29 November 2013

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 3:26 PM EST

Today is a "Where's Waldo" edition of Friday catblogging, except that Domino is a lot easier to find than Waldo. Our quilt this week is another double Irish chain. Thanks to poor planning on my part, nearly all of our Irish chain quilts got backloaded into the end of the year, which is why you're seeing a bunch of them lately. And there's still one to go. This one is machine pieced and hand quilted.

In other news, I'm reliably told that whatever else you may think of it, the Daily Mail is your go-to destination for pictures of cute cats and other animals. Also, judging from its front page, it's the place to go for hyperbolic Black Friday News. Here is today's top headline in the US edition: "Black Friday chaos sweeps America: Man shot for a TV and another is stabbed for a parking space as shoppers turn violent." You may, if you wish, take this as a data point against my thesis that Black Friday is fading away.

Chicken vs. Turkey, Round 2

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 2:51 PM EST

In the great chicken vs. turkey debate, a friend writes in with further data to support turkey lovers:

Consider how we deal with other fowl.

Duck certainly has a lot more flavor than either chicken or turkey, but it is far less available, more perishable (hence sold frozen) and substantially more expensive (4-8x more expensive than chicken). Similarly, other domesticated or farmed fowl is both more expensive and less available, regardless of taste. An average goose is roughly the size of a medium turkey, but offers less meat and more bone per pound of live weight. But the ultimate determining factor is that it is simply more expensive.

Game birds, such as guinea fowl, partridge, pheasant, quail, squab, cornish hens and a variety of ducks (as opposed to the standard Muscovite) are harder to raise, are inefficient meat sources and are supremely more expensive than both chicken and turkey, which is why we tend to save them for holidays and other special meals, if we eat them at all. No one in his right mind would argue that they are flavorless, and few would worry about their relative taste value compared to chicken, despite frequent personal dislikes of the particular flavors.

In other words, chicken isn't objectively tastier, it's just cheaper and easier to farm, in addition to being more convenient for consumers. So ignore the turkey haters and enjoy your leftovers today.

Black Friday Is Now Just a Dark Shade of Gray

| Fri Nov. 29, 2013 2:26 PM EST

This year's meme of the day—literally—is that Black Friday is just a bunch of meaningless hooey. To sample just a few: Neil Irwin tells us that Black Friday sales have no broad significance; David Lazarus says Black Friday crowds are losing out to the internet; Suzanne Kapner says Black Friday doorbusters are just an illusion; Lydia DePillis says Black Friday is a terrible and dangerous tradition; and the staff of the Christian Science Monitor this year debunks no fewer than 16 Black Friday myths.

Is it like this every year? Maybe. But I don't remember quite such relentless dyspepsia over Black Friday in years past. Plenty of horror, shock, and disgust, to be sure, but not mere shoulder-shrugging dismissal. Because of this, I'm officially declaring that the Black Friday bubble has peaked. If you own stock in Black Friday Inc., it's time to sell.

Chicken vs. Turkey Is an Unfair Fight

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 5:58 PM EST

This year, Matt Yglesias's annual bout of turkey hate takes a quantitative approach:

Consider these striking facts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistical Service's latest report on poultry production (PDF).

It reveals that in the United States in 2012 we produced a staggering 49.5 billion pounds of chicken meat worth an aggregate of $24.8 billion.

By contrast, we raised a paltry 7.3 billion pounds of turkey worth just $5 billion.

If everybody likes turkey so much, then why aren't you buying any?....Here at Slate we think it's very important to be clear on what's a contrarian take and what's the conventional wisdom. And the conventional wisdom is that turkey is bad and you should eat chicken if you're interested in some not-very-flavorful poultry. People eat turkey on Thanksgiving because it's traditional, but people do not enjoy eating turkey.

Unfortunately, there's a confounding variable that Matt has failed to consider: as the illustration on the right demonstrates scientifically, turkeys are big. One reason that we don't buy turkeys routinely throughout the year is that your average household of 2.58 members doesn't want that much of anything. Most of us don't cook big standing rib roasts very often either, but that's not because we don't like beef. It's because they're too damn big for everyday consumption. Add to that the fact that roasting a turkey is a pain in the ass, and you just aren't going to have turkey very often.

Now, that said, it's hard to escape Matt's central contention that turkey isn't really all that tasty. Most of us eat it only alongside forkfuls of cranberry sauce or drenched in gravy, which pretty much gives the game away taste-wise, doesn't it?

Still, this raises yet another question. Of that 49.5 billion pounds of chicken, I'd guess that a sizeable fraction of it is consumed in the form of chicken nuggets of some variety. So why aren't there turkey nuggets instead? Once you batter it and toss it in a deep fryer, turkey would taste just fine.1 And that brings up a second reason that we eat more chicken than turkey—one that should be of special interest to a Moneybox columnist: it's cheaper. According to that Ag Department document above, chicken goes for 50 cents per live-weight pound while turkey sells for 73 cents.

In other words, we don't really need to get into inherently personal arguments about the relative tastiness of chicken vs. turkey. Chicken is both cheaper and far more convenient than turkey for your average consumer, and that's enough. It's no surprise that it's the world's poultry of choice.

1Wouldn't it? I'm no foodie, and anyway, I happen to like nibbling on turkey leftovers from the fridge with nothing more than a little salt as seasoning. But maybe there's something about turkey meat that makes it poorly suited to the indignities of nugget-dom. Anyone happen to know?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Quote of the Day: Green Goo Edition

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 2:08 PM EST

From Stephanie Mencimer, after whipping up one of the holiday offerings in The Romney Family Table:

My DC-bureau testers lost their nerve when presented with the green goo. Some claimed nut allergies (a likely story!). Fortunately, Caldwell, like me, hails from the Jell-O belt and was undeterred.

Fearless journalism indeed.

A Brief Whine About E-Books, Digital Publishing, and International Nonsense

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 1:47 PM EST

There's nothing much going on today, and I have something to whine about. So you're stuck with my whining today.

Or maybe, considering the subject, this is more like whinging. Anyway. Earlier this year, Charlie Stross published a a thoroughly revised version of his 6-part Merchant Princes series. It's now three books and began shipping in April. I want to read it.

But I can't, because it was only published in Great Britain. At the time, Stross explained that we Americans were SOL: "The Merchant Princes re-issue won't be sold in the USA until Tor US decide to publish it. This will not happen in 2013 (because their 2013 schedule is full)."

Hmmph. I could buy the books from England, of course, but (a) it's expensive, and (b) I don't want three more dead-tree books in my library. I want to read them on my tablet. But I can't do that either, because publishers these days are all hellbent on using digital technology to maintain more control over their products than they ever had in the physical world. I can buy the physical books and have them shipped to Irvine, but I can't buy the Kindle version and download it to my American tablet. For contractual reasons, Tor UK does not permit that, and the region coding embedded in the Kindle app enforces their desire. So I'm screwed. As Stross points out, this is something the rest of the world has had to deal with for a long time:

If you're based in the USA and want these books, well ... welcome to what it's like for those of us in the UK or rest of world who want new American titles! And (ahem) you might want to investigate the usual work-arounds. As these books are DRM-free, all you'll need to do is set up a sock-puppet AMZN account that is tied to an address in some other country and fed by a supply of amazon.co.uk gift coupons bought via ebay, or something like that. (Note that amazon.com gift coupons will get you precisely nowhere on amazon.co.uk, and vice versa.)

I dunno. I suppose I could do this. Maybe. If I set up an Amazon.co.uk account and try to buy a Kindle book, will it work? Or will it know that my tablet is located in the United States and make threatening noises at me? Do I need a separate Kindle app for my surreptitious overseas purchases? Or what? Has anyone done this? Are detailed instructions available on some handy website somewhere?

I know this is trivial. First world problems and all that. But I'd like to read these books, and the various contractual restrictions on e-books are maddening.

End of whine. Or whinge. Thanks for listening.

UPDATE: As several people have pointed out, DRM has nothing to do with this particular case because Tor books are DRM-free. It's mostly contractual restrictions that are at issue here. I've changed the headline to reflect this.

The Filibuster Is Dead, But Blue Slips Are Still Alive and Kicking

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 12:56 PM EST

Last week, when Harry Reid destroyed democracy as we know it by eliminating the Senate filibuster for judicial nominees, one of my first thoughts was, "But what about blue slips?" It's all very well to allow simple majorities to approve judges, but if Republican senators use the blue slip rule to keep them off the floor in the first place, then what good does it do?

As you may recall, the blue slip is a Senate tradition. If you're nominating a judge for, say, a New York court, the two New York senators get a say in things. If they return their blue slips, they approve of the judge. If they don't, the nomination grinds to a halt. Republicans have played games with the blue slip rule over the past couple of decades, requiring only one blue slip when a fellow Republican is president but two when a Democrat is president, but ever since the 2006 midterms Patrick Leahy has been chairman of the Judiciary Committee, and he's a pretty straight shooter. Even though the current president is a fellow Democrat, Leahy consistently requires two blue slips for all nominees, which makes it easier for Republicans to block Obama's judges. All they need is for one senator to withhold a blue slip, and the nomination is dead.

Leahy was presumably hoping that setting an example of fair-mindedness would prompt Republicans to act fairly too, and in this he was obviously wrong. Nonetheless, he hasn't changed his tune on blue slips, and TPM's Sahil Kapur wonders whether this is likely to change in the wake of filibuster reform:

"I assume no one will abuse the blue slip process like some have abused the use of the filibuster to block judicial nominees on the floor of the Senate," Leahy said. "As long as the blue slip process is not being abused by home state senators, then I will see no reason to change that tradition."

It remains to be seen whether Republicans will resort to withholding blue slips more frequently after the filibuster rule change. Some may be tempted to because it's now their most powerful weapon to thwart Obama from filling up the judiciary with his preferred nominees. If so, it'll put to the test Democrats' willingness to uphold the tradition.

Republican senators have been pretty free about using their blue slip privileges already, so I'm not sure just how much more abuse is left. Jeffrey Toobin provides a quick summary:

The list of federal judicial vacancies tells an extraordinary story. For example, there are seven vacancies on the federal district courts in Texas....Republicans don’t agree to any of Obama’s choices, and so the seats stay vacant, sometimes for years....The story is much the same throughout the parts of the South and the West where Republican senators preside. There are three vacancies in Kentucky, three more in Georgia, and two in Alabama. And it’s not true just for the district court; Leahy has honored blue slips for circuit-court judgeships, as well. There are two vacancies each on the Fifth and Eleventh Circuits, which together cover most of the states in the old Confederacy.

....Fifty-one of Obama’s nominees are pending, and the vast majority of the remainder are either very recent or in Republican-controlled states....By employing the blue slip, Republican senators can stymie Obama’s nominees (or prevent them from even being nominated) without having to resort to the filibuster.

How much worse can this get? One reason for optimism is that because Democrats have now proven they can be pushed only so far, maybe Republican senators will pause a bit before upping the ante even more. We'll see.

Only Republicans Believe Obamacare Is Doomed

| Wed Nov. 27, 2013 11:35 AM EST

Greg Sargent points us this morning to the latest CNN poll on Obamacare, and it shows that despite all the rollout problems, attitudes toward the law haven't changed an awful lot:

There are some additional crosstabs at the link, and Sargent points out that they paint a cautiously positive picture:

The poll also finds 54 percent believe current problems facing the law will eventually be solved, versus 45 percent who don’t. Again, that latter sentiment is driven by Republicans: Independents think they will be solved by 50-48; moderates by 55-43. By contrast, Republicans overwhelmingly believe they won’t be solved by 72-27.

Crucially, young Americans — who are important to the law’s success – overwhelmingly believe the problems will be solved (71 percent). Part of the campaign by Republicans to persuade Americans that the law’s doom is inevitable is about dissuading people from enrolling, to turn that into a self fulfilling prophesy.

Republicans are convinced the law is already a failure. And why wouldn't they? The Fox News bubble has been telling them that for months. But the rest of the country is willing to give it a chance and thinks its problems will probably be solved. When they are, support will go up even higher.