• Iran Cracks Down on Oil Smuggling Out of Iran

    For all you know, this file photo could be an oil tanker transiting the Strait of Hormuz. It's not. It's actually sailing in Venezuelan waters. But how would you know if I hadn't told you?Juan Carlos Hernandez/ZUMA

    Here’s the latest from the Persian Gulf:

    Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has seized a foreign tanker and 12 crew members accused of smuggling Iranian fuel, according to reports carried by Iranian state media Thursday….Quoting a Revolutionary Guard statement, the media reports said the tanker was caught transporting smuggled Iranian fuel to unspecified foreign customers. It was detained Sunday, the report said, after departing Iran’s Larak Island in the Strait of Hormuz, the strategic waterway through which a significant percentage of the world’s traded oil is transported.

    Wait a second. I thought that Iran wanted to smuggle oil out of the country and it was the United States that wanted to stop it? Or is this not so much smuggling as it is just outright theft? And how is the UAE involved in this? Or are they? It’s getting hard to tell the players without a scorecard these days.

  • Trump Hits a New Low . . . Again

    Martin H. Simon/CNP via ZUMA

    Were tonight’s Trump-led chants of “send her back” at a rally in North Carolina a new low for our president? Sure, probably. But Trump hits a “new low” about once every month or so. As a public service and a walk down memory lane, here’s a very non-exhaustive list of things that have been called new lows for Trump over the past few years. Enjoy.

    2015

    July 20: Attacks John McCain for being a POW.

    November 13: Compares Ben Carson to child molester.

    November 21: Proposes Muslim registry.

    November 23: Retweets claim that 81 percent of white people are killed by blacks.

    November 26: Mocks a reporter’s disability.

    December 8: Calls for ban on Muslim entry.

    2016

    March 8: Defends his penis size in nationally televised debate.

    March 23: Attacks Ted Cruz’s wife.

    March 30: Says that women who get abortions should be punished.

    May 3: Suggests that Ted Cruz’s father killed JFK.

    June 3: Attacks federal Judge Gonzalo Curiel.

    July 27: Asks Russia to please find and release Hillary Clinton’s 30,000 emails.

    August 1: After Khizr Khan accuses Trump of never sacrificing anything for his country, Trump attacks Khan and says that he has too made a lot of sacrifices, such as “building great structures.”

    August 10: Suggests his supporters might want to shoot Hillary Clinton.

    October 8: “Grab ’em by the pussy” tape.

    October 12: More women accuse Trump of sexual assault.

    October 19: Invites President Obama’s estranged half-brother to final debate.

    2017

    February 22: Attacks transgender children.

    March 4: Accuses Obama of tapping his wires.

    June 29: Accuses Mika Brzezinski of “bleeding badly from a face-lift” during a New Year’s party.

    July 2: Retweets video of CNN being attacked.

    August 15: Suggests that there were “very fine people on both sides” at Charlottesville.

    September 30: Attacks mayor of San Juan after Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico.

    October 13: Ends Obamacare cost-sharing program.

    November 29: Retweets three anti-Muslim videos from the leader of an extremist British group.

    2018

    January 12: Shithole countries.

    June 8: Begins separating children from their parents at the border.

    July 5: Insists on meeting with Vladimir Putin with no one else present.

    September 13: Says the 3,000 dead from Hurricane Maria is “fake news” invented by Democrats.

    October 18: After murder of Jamal Khashoggi, reminds everyone that Saudi Arabia is a good customer.

    October 19: Calls Stormy Daniels “horseface.”

    October 19: Applauds Rep. Greg Gianforte’s body slam of a reporter.

    November 1: Runs racist ad just before midterm elections.

    November 7: Suspends CNN reporter Jim Acosta.

    November 12: As wildfires are raging, threatens to cut off federal aid to California unless they change their “forest management” practices.

    December 29: Says any deaths of children along the border are strictly the fault of the Democrats.

    2019

    February 9: Mocks native American genocide.

    March 8: Accuses Democrats of being the “anti-Jewish party.”

    March 20: Attacks John McCain yet again.

    May 24: Retweets doctored video of Nancy Pelosi.

    July 11: Attacks British prime minister Theresa May.

    July 14: Tells Democratic congresswomen to go back where they came from.

  • Do You Know Where Your Barycenter Is?

    As you undoubtedly already know, being the scholars and gentlepeople that you are, the moon does not precisely revolve around the earth. Its mass is so big relative to the earth that the two of them revolve jointly around each other. It looks something like this:

    The red cross at the center of the two-body system is called the barycenter. The solar system has a barycenter too, largely because of the influence of Jupiter, and the barycenter moves around relative to the sun in a complex pattern that looks like this:

    A new paper in Scientific Reports by V. V. Zharkova, S. J. Shepherd, S. I. Zharkov and E. Popova explains what this means for climate change:

    Since the Sun moves around the solar system barycenter…then the distances to its perihelion will be 1.47 × 108 km and to it aphelion 1.52 × 108 km. The solar inertial motion means for the Earth that the distance between the Sun and the Earth has to significantly change (up to 0.02 of a.u) at the extreme positions of SIM, and so does the average solar irradiance, which is inversely proportional to the squared distance between the Sun and Earth.

    ….If the Sun moves in its SIM closer to Earth’s aphelion (position 1) decreasing the Earth orbit eccentricity and to the autumn equinox as it is happening in the current millennium starting from Maunder Minimum, then the distance between Sun and Earth at the aphelion will become shorter approaching 1.49 × 108 km during the summer in the Northern and winter in the Southern hemispheres, and longer at the perihelion approaching 1.50 × 108, or during a winter in the Northern and summer in the Southern hemispheres. Hence, at this SIM position of the Sun, the Earth in aphelion should receive higher solar irradiance (and temperature) during the Northern hemisphere summers and Southern hemisphere winters….This is what happening in the terrestrial temperature in the current millennium starting since Maunder minimum and lasting until ≈2600.

    Thanks to the sun’s movement around the solar system’s barycenter, its distance to the earth changes on a cycle lasting about 2200 years, with smaller cycles of about 200 years embedded within the larger one. Thus, the earth has been warming since 1500 AD and will continue warming until 2600 AD, after which it will begin a cooling cycle lasting until 3700 AD. This is what’s causing global warming. However, the next 30 years will see a cooling trend thanks to one of the smaller cycles reaching a minimum in 2050.

    This all sounds great except for one thing: it’s completely full of shit.

    Ken Rice of the University of Edinburgh, UK, criticised the paper for an “elementary” mistake about celestial mechanics. “It’s well known that the sun moves around the barycentre of the solar system due to the influence of the other solar system bodies, mainly Jupiter,” he says. “This does not mean, as the paper is claiming, that this then leads to changes in the distance between the sun and the Earth.”

    ….Gavin Schmidt of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies says the paper contains egregious errors. “The sun-Earth distance does not vary with the motion of the sun-Earth system around the barycentre of the sun-Jupiter system, nor the sun-galactic centre system or any other purely mathematical reference point,” he says. He says the journal must retract the paper if it wants to retain any credibility.

    So how and why was this article written? And how did it get accepted in a journal from the publishers of Nature? Those are both mysteries. Scientific Reports says it has begun an “established process” to investigate the paper it has published. “This process is ongoing and we cannot comment further at this stage,” a spokesperson said.

    In the meantime, all the climate denialists have themselves a jen-u-ine scientific paper to show that greenhouse gases aren’t doing any harm after all. It turns out that global warming is all down to celestial mechanics. And if the paper is eventually retracted? Then it will become yet more evidence of the scientific establishment covering up inconvenient truths. Oh joy.

  • Lunchtime Photo

    Here are some illuminated jellyfish from the Moonlight Forest show at the LA County Arboretum last winter. Jellyfish! After yesterday’s gloomy black-and-white photo, I figured we could all use a big slug of color today.

    December 9, 2018 — LA County Arboretum, Arcadia, California
  • NAFTA 2.0 Is Completely Useless

    A while back I noted that the new USMCA treaty (i.e., NAFTA 2.0) would not increase American GDP. The government’s own analysis projects a GDP decrease of 0.12 percent, but then adds back 0.47 percentage points because they figure that newfound certainty in things like intellectual property rules will increase investment. This suggests that we might be better off just adopting the IP rules and skipping the rest.

    But wait! Jeffrey Schott of the Peterson Institute for International Economics—normally the kind of place that loves trade treaties—says that even this is bogus:

    Some supporters of the deal say it provides new rules that will benefit the U.S. But those “new” rules aren’t new. Rather they mirror provisions affecting labor, the environment and e-commerce from the revised Trans-Pacific Partnership that have been carried out by Mexico and Canada since that accord went into effect on Dec. 30, 2018. Trump withdrew from the TPP, but Canada and Mexico remained in it, and already apply these provisions in trade relations with the U.S.

    Is this true? It seems like it. The main IP provisions of the USMCA are here. A side-by-side comparison with TPP is here. As near as I can tell, Canada and Mexico already agreed to all of USMCA’s IP rules when they signed onto TPP, with one exception: patent protection for biologics is ten years in USMCA compared to eight years in TPP. That’s about it.

    Unless I’m missing something, Donald Trump has negotiated a treaty that favors Canada and Mexico when it comes to trade in goods, and does virtually nothing new to favor the US in IP law. It’s even more useless than I ever imagined.

    POSTSCRIPT: Needless to say, if there are any legit trade experts out there who think I am missing something, please speak up!

  • Background Briefings Are a Scourge

    Technology journalist Brian Merchant says he’s tired of PR flacks from tech companies refusing to talk unless it’s off-the-record:

    After my experience with Amazon, I decided that on all matters of importance, I am no longer going to listen to a public relations representative try to change my mind on background with unquotable statements attributable to no one. No reporter should, not when the stakes are as high as they are. If an actual source—an engineer, or a policymaker—wants to go on background for protection, that’s one thing. But a spokesperson should either go on the record or get off the phone.

    I get that day-to-day journalists have a different job than I do. They need responses from tech companies when they write about them, and they genuinely want to hear both sides of a story. Nevertheless, it’s inconceivable to me that they routinely let companies get away with this. And not just tech companies, either. This goes for everyone. As Merchant says, a background briefing allows a company flack to say anything without being held accountable. They can fill your mind with any kind of nonsense as a way of trying to change what you write, and it’s all but impossible to check out the truth of what they’re saying.

    I have long refused to talk to anyone on background. Obviously this is pretty easy for me, especially since I don’t talk to very many people in the first place. But the truth is that corporate PR shops aren’t very useful even when they do talk on the record, and little is missed if you give up the routine practice of “asking for comment” on every story. Inevitably, the comment is either “no comment” or “we deny it.” Who needs it?

    Either talk on the record or shut up. Those should be your choices.

  • No, Kamala Harris Isn’t Being Preposterous

    Over at National Review, John McCormack says that Kamala Harris is being “preposterous” about her Medicare for All plan:

    “Senator Sanders says that that is impossible to achieve without a middle class tax hike,” CNN correspondent Kyung Lah says. “I’m not prepared to engage in a middle class tax hike,” Harris replies, suggesting that taxes on Wall Street and financial services can fund the $30 trillion program.

    There might turn out to be something preposterous about this eventually, but there’s nothing preposterous about it yet. It all depends on what kind of plan Harris proposes and what the total funding source will be. If Harris were a Republican, she’d just issue a vague, one-page description and then punt on the funding, saying that she’ll work with Congress to figure out the hard stuff. But since she’s a Democrat, I’m sure we’ll eventually get a 30-page white paper about the whole thing.

    Politically, I think something along the lines of Joe Biden’s plan is probably the best bet. I’d keep Obamacare; add a Medicare buy-in; phase in a corporate health care mandate that eventually covers everyone, with the option to either provide insurance or pay a payroll tax; and guarantee subsidies such that no one ever has to pay more than 10 percent of their income in premiums. That’s the bare bones, with lots of details to be added. Overall, I’d say the goal should be for public financing to cover 80-85 percent of all health care expenses.

  • LA Needs an Old Approach to Homelessness

    Homeless in LA.Kevin Drum

    A couple of years ago LA passed a big bond measure to address its homelessness problem. The money is mostly earmarked for permanent shelter, which is, needless to say, expensive and time-consuming to build. I’ve long thought that this makes little sense, but I’m no expert—as people are fond of reminding me whenever I write something about homelessness—so I’ve just kept quiet.

    Today, however, the LA Times features a pair of op-eds suggesting that Los Angeles should ditch its permanent shelter model and follow the New York model instead, which focuses on getting people indoors and then working from there. Here is New York’s Dr. Marc Siegel:

    Whereas L.A. has focused (unsuccessfully) on trying to create long-term affordable housing, New York City has focused on creating temporary shelters. As a result, today only about 5% of New York City’s homeless population is without shelter. In Los Angeles, 75% of the homeless population is without shelter. Our homeless numbers are not that different from yours in Los Angeles, but in New York, few people are living on the street.

    ….As a physician, I witnessed firsthand a huge shift when New York began its emphasis on providing shelter for all. Mental illness, drug addiction and contagious diseases like hepatitis A, B and C were still a problem, but they weren’t nearly as severe as when so much of the homeless population was “bedless,” living in cardboard boxes or in the subway. It is simply impossible to provide good treatment to a patient with mental or physical illness living in that way.

    In Los Angeles, local government officials are dispatching more garbage trucks and portable toilets and showers to skid row, but that’s just a Band-Aid. As long as there are thousands of people living on single city blocks, there will be problems with garbage disposal and human waste, which means rats will abound. And rats carry fleas, and fleas are carriers of typhus bacteria, which causes fever, muscle aches, and severe headaches, among other symptoms.

    Darrel Steinberg, a longtime mental care advocate in the California legislature, who is now mayor of Sacramento, agrees:

    I still believe strongly in the concept of housing first, but I’ve also come to see that focusing primarily on permanent housing is insufficient. We simply don’t have the housing stock necessary to address our current crisis, and building it will take too long and cost too much. We need an infusion of short-term shelter and housing options to serve as a bridge for those currently living on our streets.

    ….In 2019, New York City will spend about $1.6 billion to shelter 75,000 people. Our unsheltered population numbers about 90,000. I believe the cost of getting them indoors would be a bargain considering what California spends on public safety and cleanup without actually getting people off the streets. I think Californians would overwhelmingly agree.

    In California, at least, permanent housing is practically a mantra—and in an ideal world it’s a good idea. In the real world, unfortunately, it’s simply too hard and too expensive to build enough permanent housing in all the places it’s needed. What’s more, not all homeless people are able or willing to live in permanent housing in the first place.

    As Siegel says, we should focus primarily on getting the homeless indoors any way we can. Different people are willing to tolerate different rules and different levels of supervision, and we should accept this if that’s what it takes to get them to take the first step off the streets. And if, for some people, that’s the only step they’re ever willing to take? We have to accept that too. If we can keep them relatively clean, safe, and accessible to medical care, that’s a big win all by itself.

  • Does Waymo Really Have Self-Driving Cars Ready to Go?

    Andrej Sokolow/DPA via ZUMA

    The New York Times says that automakers are resetting their expectations for self-driving cars after discovering that there’s more weird behavior on the road than they anticipated:

    Argo’s chief executive, Bryan Salesky, said the industry’s bigger promise of creating driverless cars that could go anywhere was “way in the future.” He and others attribute the delay to something as obvious as it is stubborn: human behavior. Researchers at Argo say the cars they are testing in Pittsburgh and Miami have to navigate unexpected situations every day. Recently, one of the company’s cars encountered a bicyclist riding the wrong way down a busy street between other vehicles. Another Argo test car came across a street sweeper that suddenly turned a giant circle in an intersection, touching all four corners and crossing lanes of traffic that had the green light.

    I’ve said before that the bellwether for autonomous cars is Waymo, so what do they have to say?

    Waymo operates a fleet of 600 test vehicles — the same number it had on the road a year ago….“We are able to do the driving task,” Tekedra Mawakana, Waymo’s chief external officer, said in an interview. “But the reason we don’t have a service in 50 states is that we are still validating a host of elements related to offering a service. Offering a service is very different than building a technology.

    This is a fascinating quote. But what does it mean? If Waymo can “do the driving task,” does that mean they can really, genuinely, 100 percent do the driving task? And if that’s the case, why not ditch the whole taxi service idea and just sell self-driving cars to individuals? (Or lease them or whatever.) Hell, I’d be interested in a car that just did highway driving with 100 percent reliability—i.e., reliability so high that I can take a nap instead of keeping my hands on the wheel. So what’s up with that, Waymo?

  • Wages Are Up, But Will They Stay Up?

    Still bored. My Twitter mentions are a cesspool right now. The white nationalists are out in force this evening for some reason.

    Anyway, here is year-over-year growth in wages for blue-collar workers for the past 20 years. We’ve had a nice uptick over the past year or so, the fifth time since 1999 that wage growth has been above 1 percent for a sustained period. The dashed orange line shows the average over the period of the chart.

    However, wages have already started to tick back down. Here’s an up close and personal look at just the past few years: