May 03, 2014

#Cosmos and the commercialism of #NDGT

I blogged earlier this week about how I stacked up Neil deGrasse Tyson's remake of Cosmos on Fox vs. Neil Shubin's documentary version of Your Inner Fish on PBS, both on production quality and, related to a specific issue, how much each show actually challenged creationists and creationism.

Now, I'm jumping head-on into controversy, per the photo at right of a Cosmos-themed telescope with a ripoff price, along with other similar items offered for outrageous overcharges at Space.com.

I said then that, assuming he's getting a cut, this makes it look like Tyson has entered the world of Brian Dunning marketing. And now, I'm going to head into that in more detail.

For professional or semi-professional "scientific skeptics," or "movement skeptics," or whatever handle we and they use, Shubin isn't one of "us/them" (I'm not an "us" myself) in the same way Tyson is. Such tribalism can lead such folks to hype Tyson. And, to crack open their wallets to pay overcharges for stuff like this. And, yes, overcharges indeed.

I mean, somebody affiliated with the new Cosmos is getting a cut of the sales money, right? That's official trademark and branding on all of this swag.


Yours for just $15!
Some movement skeptics, many of them with a bit of upset, or more, reacted negatively when I first blogged about that Brian Dunning marketing as part of saying that it wasn't a sad day to me. So, some of the Tyson tribalists know how I feel about Dunning.

That would include how I feel about Dunning selling that swag, like what's pictured!

At highly inflated prices, like $27.95 for a T-shirt. Sounds like a guru selling to his cultic followers. Or $15 for the aptly titled rubber stamp; more on it below.

The principle of a man with a sharp eye for a sharp product, whether through "raking" with groupies on his own stuff or defrauding other affiliates with eBay, still stands.

I think that's part of why Tyson went Fox rather than PBS. Oh, a year from now, I may be able, with suitable donation, to get the set of Fish DVDs from PBS. However, it won't be an arm and a leg for overpriced stuff. Crap like a telescope with WiFi only increases my already high level of disdain for Space.com, too. Also, I can get another Celestron 90mm telescope on Amazon for almost $200 bucks less, even after Space.com's discount. I can buy 8x25 binoculars for less than half of Space.com's price even after its fire sale discount. (And, those discounts make me wonder if tribalism has not only failed to translate in ratings as well as Fox hoped, but has been a disappointment in swag, contra Space.com — and Tyson? — hopes.) Note: None of this is even close to an endorsement of Amazon.

Anyway, methinks that such branding opportunities would be better with the hope of additional eyeballs watching on a commercial network than on PBS.

Now, I don't think Tyson is Brian Dunning, as in, he's not stuffing cookies on people's computers in an Internet-era version of wire fraud. But, he's certainly eyeballing the main chance on money, isn't he?

For that matter, since production is by the studio of Ann Druyan, the widow of original Cosmos creator Carl Sagan there may be other people with their eyeballs on cash. And, it's moving elsewhere. A humanists/skeptics convention in Omaha is charging $45/per person general admission for people to hear Tyson in September. For just a cool $1,000, you can get into a VIP dinner with him. No, really.

Grantland touches further on the degree of Druyan's involvement, as well as that of both Tyson and co-executive producer Seth MacFarlane. As for who's making how much, teh Google still doesn't have a direct answer for me.

Dan Patrick, ladder-puller

There's plenty of Republicans who, uncannily, have pulled the ladder up after themselves after getting some sort of government-related assistance.

At the national level, there's of course Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas benefiting from affirmative action then wanting to end most of it. There's several GOP congressmen going to college on Social Security survivor benefits when a parent died, then wanting to privatize Social Security.

At the state level, there's attorney general and gubernatorial nominee Greg Abbott, getting a massive lawsuit settlement over the falling tree that paralyzed him, then preaching the gospel of tort reform.

And, there's Dan Patrick, filing for bankruptcy with his radio station years ago, wanting bankruptcy's "protection." A protection he surely won't extend to most people today.

As the Dallas Morning News reports, that's just part of Patrick's past business and business ethics problems. That's bad enough, but par for the course on modern Republicanism, as noted above.

It also appears that, based on the people who gave him money for the radio station takeover, that he engaged in at least the moral equivalent of money laundering.

Don't you love GOP politicians who talk about bringing a business mentality to government You know, like George W. Bush wrecking half a dozen companies before getting elected as governor then "MBA president." 

Anyway, that's secondary to reading about Patrick's financial shenanigans. The News has a good, thorough piece, serious enough it put two reporters on it. Serious enough that Patrick would respond only by written statement. And, that's probably a good reason not to believe anything he says beyond the narrowly tailored confines of his written statement.

Unfortunately, none of this is likely to make a difference in either the primary or general elections. Which will give us top GOP leadership even more heartless than Rick Perry and David Dewhurst. And the problem lies with the average GOP voter continuing to vote for people who act like their "betters," who perpetuate the idea of being a distinct social class even while claiming America is a classless society.

May 02, 2014

The jobless recovery is now a job-loser

Of course, Team Obama is touting the plus side of today's news, that the unemployment rate is down to 6.3 percent. The down side, of course, he'll ignore.

And, that's that 800,000 new people who left the work force. Per this NYT blog, as far as people in the workforce, we as a country have given up all the labor participation gains made since the start of this year.

Well, maybe that's not the down side.

Maybe it's that wages stayed flat, even with declining unemployment AND fewer workers in the job force.

Or maybe it's that wages stayed flat and people left the economy even as Wall Street set new records.

Much more than than the relatively mild Poppy Bush recession or the moderate Shrub Bush recession, even more than the Carter-Reagan double dip recession, the Great Recession's recovery is hollow indeed.

Now, monthly unemployment numbers are always subject to revision. But these are serious issues that "revision" won't totally cover up.

Add to that the fact that unemployment filings also jumped, and the drop in unemployment rate is obviously camouflaging a lot of ongoing weakness.

And, just figuring out "why" is only one step. Related to that, Gallup says this is part of a larger mixed bag, albeit with generally slightly declining trends.

Whether Dear Leader actually gets his hands dirty on trying to change that "why" is another. Ditto on the Federal Reserve doing anything besides further phasing back on its "quantitative easing."

May 01, 2014

Is #ERCOT run by climate change denialists?

ERCOT, for those who don't know, is the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, ultimately responsible for making sure the state doesn't have blackouts in summer (or occasionally during a hard cold snap in winter).

Well, the good folks at ERCOT, who have already said "don't worry" about possible fallout from the EFH/Luminant bankruptcy, now say, don't worry about this summer, saying the overseers expect about average temperatures.

Really? I've emailed asking whose forecasts they're using, because, per the nice big one at left from our friendly National Weather Service, ERCOT is full of shite.

Here's ERCOT:
New power plants coming online by August and a milder summer forecast for parts of Texas has officials at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas predicting that the state’s electricity reserves will be adequate for the hot months ahead. ...
“The outlook improves significantly by August, when we typically experience the highest system peaks of the year,” said Warren Lasher, ERCOT’s director of System Planning. “We may need to ask consumers to reduce electric use if we experience extremely hot weather or widespread unit outages during the early summer months.”
The top map is for June-August. As you can see, there's a 40-percent chance of above normal temperatures.

The map immediately at left is for August-October. It still has the populous portion of the state with a 33 percent chance of above-normal temperature, enough to still fall into an official shaded area. Maybe it improves moderately, but not significantly. (That said, the May-July one is worse than the June-August one, even.)

So, are you going to believe an oversight agency that's been wrong in the past, wrong enough that in early 2011, Texas had to import power from Mexico in winter, or are you going to believe the National Weather Service?

ERCOT asks us to believe it, and an in-house meteorologist instead. No thanks. Especially not since the NWS forecast maps were available two weeks ago. Besides, are we talking about today's normal, or what was normal/average 70 years ago, pre-climate change, and with less measurement history?

That also ignores other issues. With no more than average rain expected, plus a good chance of above-average temperatures, Texas drought is going to continue. That means more water usage for other things — water that's usually pumped from one place to another by electricity.

Things may not be disastrous, but I'd be less sanguine than ERCOT, were I ERCOT.

If not run by climate change denialists, at least, it appears to be run by PR doctors.

And, if ERCOT isn't run by denialists, TCEQ sure is, as Jim Mitchell notes.

Minimum wage, $10.10, $15, homelessness and other issues

As the Senate, just in time for May Day, gave President Obama a rejection on bumping the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, and Seattle activists continue to push for $15 an hour there, there are several other related issues.

First, a brief look at both measures.

The federal bill was decent overall. Beyond the actual rise, the 30-month phase in was long enough. And, hiking restaurant servers' minimum, at tipping restaurants, to 70 percent of the regular minimum, is good too. The biggest weakness is not indexing the minimum wage.

The Seattle bill? Socialist activist Kshama Sawant seems to be overreaching. Yes, Seattle is more expensive than the Midwest, but it's not that expensive. And, not including tips as part of that, so there's no separate minimum for servers? Yes, it probably would hurt a fair amount of restaurants. Fake protests aside, there's real concerns too.

And, not every other claim by the pro-$15 side in Seattle totally rings true, either. The biggest is linking the minimum wage hike with homelessness.

Well, social services type folks have generally split the homeless into three groups, with two of them often having some degree of overlap.

The first is those who have some sort of financial mishap. Would a higher minimum wage help them? Maybe, maybe not. Personal bankruptcies leading to homelessness are caused by medical cost burdens more than any other single cause. A higher minimum wage, at the Seattle level, is very likely going to lead to cuts in health care. Workers would have to pay a lot more out of pocket for private plans or else lose private coverage entirely. Beyond medical debt, a number of other financial issues can drive people into either short-term or long-term homelessness.  Right now, housing foreclosure is probably No. 2, especially for older people not working full-time. A higher minimum wage might help that, or it might lead to such people having their hours cut, if the hike is too high. Anyway, it's simplistic at best to connect a higher minimum wage to helping this roughly one-third of the homeless.

Yes, remember, I mentioned that homeless can be divided into three groups. While exact numbers fluctuate, they're roughly equal.

The second third? The mentally ill on our streets. A higher minimum wage won't help them. 

Better insurance may, in some cases. In many cases, though? Only a partial reversal of late-1960s libertarianism on de-institutionalizing some mentally ill may reach them. Short of that, there's not much you, I or society can do for schizophrenics who forget to, or simply refuse to, regularly take their medications. A higher minimum wage has nothing to do with that.

The third group, which overlaps somewhat with the second? Addicts and alcoholics. Again, a higher minimum wage will do nothing to help them.

Homelessness? Would be nice if the solution were so easy.

And, I think at least a few people in Sawant's camp know it's not so simple. Call me back in five years to see how well Obamacare has addressed the insurance-related issue, and also to see if Seattle, or San Francisco, or similar cities, or various states, have addressed how to get the mentally ill on the streets to be medication-compliant and, if necessary, in shelters focused on the mentally ill. Ditto for harm reduction measures for addicts/alcoholics, short of "open use" shelters. I'm divided on the issue of letting addicts or alcoholics have anything on site in a shelter. If they are allowed that, IMO, it should only be under supervision, with supplies kept by the manager. Open, individualized addictive drug or alcohol use shouldn't be allowed in shelters, though. And, without wanting to sound too much like a 12-Stepper talking about people "hitting bottom," however you phrase it, many of the non-mentally ill addicts and alcoholics, even if homeless, aren't (yet?) ready to quit.

And, with their mild climates and drug-friendly stereotypes, Seattle and San Francisco probably attract a fair number of out-of-area addicts/alcoholics. I'll bet Vancouver, B.C., does too.

Homelessness is also affected by housing costs, which in turn are affected by other issues. The same moderate climate that may draw homeless people, when mixed with scenic views, draws people to move there in general and raises housing costs. Is rent control part of the solution? Public housing which targets a wider income range than current, usually stereotyped, public housing? 

So, minimum wage advocates? I agree with the goal, in broad outlines. But, stick to the minimum wage.

That said, I suspect this is advice for deaf ears in Seattle. Seattle, home of the "black bloc" in the 1998 WTO meetings protests. Seattle, just across the border from Vancouver, home to Adbusters, friendly to such ideas. I'm not saying Sawant and the people in her corner are that confrontationalist; however, some degree of "overlap" wouldn't surprise me at all.

My ideal? $10.10, with no subminimum for restaurant servers. Restaurants can then decide whether to keep tipping as a policy or not. Oh, and index the minimum to inflation, please? Seattle's mayor's plan, to hit $15, but with a seven-year phase-in, isn't quite as bad as Sawant's. Still a bit stiff. If Seattle wants to stay ahead of the nation, maybe $12/hour with a six-year roll-in?

#Creationists, critters and #Cosmos — Fox vs. PBS

Not that I'm bothering to track down links to individual stories, but, per a number of online friends of mine, creationists, especially young-earth creationists  have been all atwitter about Neil deGrasse Tyson's remake of Cosmos on Fox. (Yes, there are old-earth creationists, too, who don't take Genesis 1-2 literally, but who don't generally accept the neo-Darwinian synthesis; one is named Pat Robertson.)

Well, Fox the broadcast network, as opposed to Faux News the stream of blather doesn't necessarily track conservative. Wouldn't shows like "The Simpsons" and "Married with Children" have gotten more wingnut blather, otherwise.

It's interesting, though, that PBS' recent three-part presentation of a film version of Neil Shubin's "Your Inner Fish" has apparently gotten less atwitterness.

There's a couple of possible reasons, I guess.

One is that PBS doesn't have Fox-like marketing department money, so this didn't hit the YEC world's collective dashboard, outside of professional agitators such as Discovery Institute.

Another is that, for professional or semi-professional "scientific skeptics," or "movement skeptics," or whatever handle we and they use, Shubin isn't one of "us/them" (I'm not an "us" myself) in the same way Tyson is. In short, tribalism has led such folks to notice YEC umbrage at Cosmos more than at Fish. And, to shove it back in YECers' collective faces.

In reality?

Given that OECers as well as YECers are hung up on evolution by natural selection, Fish was/is a much bigger time bomb.

It was also much better produced.

Take Cosmos week before this. The first half of the episode was pretty good, about trying to date earth and rock formations by geologic strata. Then, when it was realized that wasn't perfect, on we moved to uranium-lead radioactive dating.

However, Tyson then threw a curveball. Just before one of the many usual, long commercial breaks, he said that U-Pb chemist Clair Cameron Patterson wanted to tell his mom about his discovery and nailing down of this method before anybody else, but that he was about to land in big trouble.

I figured, after the break, that we learn his mom is a YEC who disowns him.

Not even close.

Tyson moves on to tetraethyl lead in gasoline. "Nice," but not much more. The issue of lead poisoning from our pre-1980s gasoline has been thoroughly covered in the past few years. Waste of half an hour for Tyson to do this.

Instead, he should have first given a hat tip to Marie Curie's work on radioactivity. He then could have gone to C14 dating for earlier events in our history, while noting its limitations. From there, he could have gone to strata, then uranium-lead dating, and briefly touched on other radiometric systems like potassium-argon that are used on certain rocks, and why other radiometric dating systems are used in certain cases. He could have wrapped up with an overview of how star and galaxy types, and finally, cosmic background radiation, are used to date the universe.

It would put his whole "calendar" schtick into one program and given a lead-in to this week's episode about stellar evolution and star types.

But, he didn't. That's how poorly produced Cosmos is. Not to mention cheesily produced.

Fish? Well done. One episode each on our inner fish, our inner reptile and our inner primate. Animation, when used, was of better quality and uniform design.

And, as far as something that should have both YEC and OEC folks gagging? It's Fish, more than Cosmos. With the three episodes, Shubin simple nailed how our evolutionary history, hundreds of millions of years of it, is present in our current human bodies.

===

Coming soon: Cosmos and commercialism.

April 30, 2014

#Oprah to own the Clippers?

Getty Images photo via ESPN
Per ESPN, it's possible.
Oprah Winfrey, David Geffen and Larry Ellison will join together in a bid to buy the Los Angeles Clippers if the NBA's board of governors votes to force Donald Sterling to sell the team, Geffen told ESPN's Jeremy Schaap on Wednesday.
Now, you might say, what about the Magic Johnson proposal, or others?

The NFL is the only league that officially opposes cross-league ownership, so it's possible, on Magic. I still think that, at a minimum, they'd try to force him to become part of Oprah's team, with or without his other partners from the Dodgers.

Oprah, even as a "face" owner only, adds to things as a woman as well as minority. And, her plus Geffen on the entertainment side? In LA? With the Clips now the top dog team there and set to build on that? Magic's Guggenheim group with the Dodgers just can't match that.


Would Shaquille O'Neal find a way out of his sliver of Sacramento Kings ownership to try to put together a deal? If nothing else, to taunt Kobe Bryant over at the Lakers? That, I doubt.

Also, since Geffen had reportedly tried to buy the Clippers before, I think the league would give them first shot for that reason, too.

As for Magic, I'll take him at his word about being interested in the NFL in LA. That said, per what I noted above, he'll have to leave the Dodgers if he does.

Yeah, Sean Combs is also interested. I think Oprah's wattage is brighter.

As for other possibles? I'm sure that, of two boxers reportedly interested, the NBA will take a pass on Floyd Mayweather Jr. That said, if the Oprah team could also find a sliver of room for Oscar de la Hoya, both Hispanic and an L.A. native, that would be icing on the cake for them.

Meanwhile, could there be backlash? Is this in a sense another Brendan Eich incident, in that it will provoke a lot of second guessing? I don't think so, and it shouldn't, no more than Mozilla's action on Eich, and the push for it to act, should have, even though it did. Jason Whitlock says we should all be careful, at least, and that we should make sure this is about all people, not just "black people." And, none of us is ever going to be perfect, speaking as a white male. But, we can all work on improving both public stances and private thoughts and attitudes. And, whether in our own selves or others, we live in a real world. Whether it's racism, sexism, or trying to do psycho-intellectual judo by leveling charges of such against others, we should expect progress without perfect, neither condemning progress because it's not perfect, nor letting foot-dragging be passed off as progress.

Besides, beyond now-owner Michael Jackson, many others in the NBA, including the players who started howling now, ignored Sterling before, like when he kicked Elgin Baylor to the curb. For some, like Mark Jackson, it's a quick change of mind.

For others, like Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, it's circle the wagons until there's too many, too strong, enemies outside:
"I like Donald," Cuban told The Mag in 2009. "He plays by his own rules." 
Well, a lot of billionaires do. That includes Mark Cuban. No telling what all he thinks is justified. Also, given that both he and Sterling are Jewish, it shows that racial or ethnic prejudice is not just limited to more narrow versions of Caucasians. (In fact, contra social justice warrior types, and per my comments a few paragraphs above, "-ism" isn't limited to any race, sex, etc.

April 29, 2014

Another year of Texas #drought is looking likely

Fortunately, Texas got spared from the recent spate of tornadoes that hit Arkansas, Mississippi and Alabama. Unfortunately, the state in general got almost no rain from the recent front. And, there's no likely change of rain in the 10-day forecast, even as we're supposed to be in the heart of Texas' rainy season. Meanwhile, per the nice National Weather Service 90-day temperature map, it's likely going to be hot; a 103 today at Edinburg confirms a likely long, hot summer. (Other than the fringe possibility of a slightly-likely bigger than normal Southwestern monsoon spilling into West Texas, forecast for the state for summer precipitation is normal, no better than that, with at least as likely of odds of below normal precipitation along most of the Gulf Coast.)

Earlier this month, in part due to worries about another year likely to be drought-stricken, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality appointed an official water master for the lower Brazos. Further south, the Lower Colorado River Authority has already restricted for this year water releases below Lake Buchanan and Lake Travis, the water storage and supply lakes for greater Austin, as the current storage levels of the two lakes is down to 36 percent of maximum. And, under even mild-to-moderate drought, levels by the end of summer will be below what they were a year ago, and likely below 2012 levels. That's even with LCRA municipal customers pushing water conservation on residents. 

Out in West Texas, where the Brazos, the Texas Colorado, and other rivers start, it’s not just “shaping up” dry, it’s already gotten there. Almost all of the state west of I-35 is in at least moderate drought, using official classification categories, and the majority is in severe drought or worse. If you want the not-so-pretty picture (though it does look better than California), just head to the United States Drought Monitor.

Sometimes, Texas can depend on hurricanes to break, or at least lessen, droughts, setting aside the problems of hurricane damage. Unfortunately, it looks like this won't be one of those years, either. As the story notes, blame El Niño, in part. Climate change scientists are, too. They've connected the swoop and plunge in this year's jet stream, the effect that has made California bone dry while pummeling the upper Midwest and Northeast with snow and low temperatures, to El Niño development connected with anthropogenic climate change.

And, there’s no guarantee this will end anytime immediately. We’re pretty much in the 1950s Texas drought records now, only with several times as many people in the state. Indeed, per that second LCRA graphic, and other things, by the end of this year, we may be beyond being in the 1950s. 

Related to that? There may have been worse droughts in the past than this one or the 1950s. On the other side of the Rocky Mountains, we know that’s the case. Witness the "demise" of the Anasazi, connected in part to severe drought by most anthropologists. Or, later, the Hohokam fleeing the Valley of the Sun due to drought. (Take notice, modern Phoenicians.)

That's another reason for smart, non-climate change denying Texans to not put too much stock in the State Water Implementation Fund, approved last year with the passage of Proposition 6 on the constitutional amendments election.

Several caveats apply. First, this fund is limited to helping projects listed in the State Water Plan. And, with $50 billion or so of projects listed in the SWP, without additional funding beyond a small amount from the Rainy Day Fund, which is loan-based, and not direct state funding, the SWIF will be of modest help. Per that loan-based part, a lot of smaller communities, especially in West Texas and doubly especially in areas near the water-draining work of oil fracking, simply can't afford major water supply upgrades. And, some water experts think the SWP, even, doesn't cover nearly all of the state's long-term water needs.

Related to that is the fact that we don’t know how much more water further development in oil and gas fracking will want. Or, as part of any good neighborliness, how much or how little oil and gas companies will offer to help small towns with their water needs.

Second,  the Texas Water Development Board is required to do its best to spend 10 percent of the funds for rural political subdivisions and agricultural water conservation, also of good news to this area. It also says the TWDB should spend 20 percent for water conservation and reuse. But, as many people noted before last November's vote, these are all "shoulds." None of them is a "shall." In short, Texas' small towns have no guarantees of special help. In fact, as the NYT points out, during last year's "priority call" on Brazos water, farmers lost out to cities even if they held older rights.

Third, we don’t know exactly how much our climate is likely to heat up in the future. Or dry up. That said, per the "swoop and plunge" of this year's jet stream, a tentative consensus of climate change scientists says that West Texas will likely get even drier in the future while Central Texas is probably neutral. And, per my comments above about long-term changes, outside of global warming, based on what we can tell about climate before modern Western record keeping, this should be a big caveat.

Related to that? A hotter Texas, if it is overall drier, means more evaporation from water storage lakes. Somehow, I doubt that the TWDB has even incorporated that into its thinking and planning. It's fine at suing New Mexico over Pecos River water, or raising issues with Mexico, but, as for doing things like regulating pump-until-its-dry overuse of the Ogallala Aquifer? Fuhgeddaboutit. And, for all we know, Texas rules on groundwater pumping are siphoning out water that eventually might percolate to the Pecos in New Mexico before it crosses the state line.

Hence the importance of today's Supreme Court ruling saying the EPA has powers to regulate interstate coal-fired electric plant pollution. While this decision just affected its powers on "traditional" pollutants like the sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides that cause acid rain, nonetheless, as the New York Times reports, it will likely form the basis of the EPA's plans later this year to officially start regulating CO2 emissions as a pollutant. (That said, expect those rules, along with a Keystone XL ruling, to be delayed until after midterm elections.)

Maybe, just maybe, all of this, if Democrats can hold the Senate, will actually get businessmen to start talking about a carbon tax.

All of these things will put more demand on water, and water dollars.

This isn’t meant to be alarmist.It is meant to inject a note of realism. At some point, to riff on the old saying, water may be worth fighting over even more than whiskey. It might even become worth as much of a fight as that newly-fracked Texas tea.

Goodbye, #TXU, #Luminant, #EFH, whoever the hell you are

Well, the old TXU, or at least the post-deregulation power-generating portion of it, Energy Future Holdings, or EFH, is officially in bankruptcy.

The Wall Street Journal summarizes why, as most of us know — badly gambling wrong on fracking.

That said, that's not the whole story.

Behind that decision stands the separation of the old TXU, and other old electric utilities, into different arms for generation, transmission and other things as part of Texas' electric deregulation.

Even at the time it was being done, it was being questioned.

And, between that and the wrongly-placed bet, this has been a time bomb waiting to detonate, oh, for about four years.
To a large degree, the prospects of Energy Future Holdings hinge on something it and its owners can’t control: the price of natural gas. While it has insulated itself somewhat, through financial hedges that protect it from price swings, it still needs the prices to rise sharply to have any hope of paying off its staggering debt load. 

Indeed, while the company met its roughly $3.6 billion in interest payments on its debt last year, it still faces a $20 billion balloon payment coming due in 2014.
And, the backstory to that is that greed can be a powerful motivator, even to the point of making even a Saint Warren of Buffett wrong, wrong, wrong, on some decision-making:
Investors who bought $40 billion of TXU’s bonds and loans — including legendary wise men like Warren E. Buffett — have seen huge losses as most of the bonds trade between 70 and 80 cents on the dollar. The other $8 billion used to finance the buyout came from the private equity investors themselves, along with banks like JPMorgan and Citigroup and large institutional investors like the Canadian Pension Plan. Several analysts and energy bankers say that this latter stake currently has little value. 
The whole NYT story linked above is worth a good read.

Next question is: what does this mean? The story at top says the restructuring will take about 11 months. But, especially since Oncor, the transmission arm, isn't involved, there's not a lot of jobs to be slashed, as is often the case in such filings. Per federal safety regulations, you have to have X number of people running your power plants, for example. And, given that your wrong bet on natural gas got you in this pickle, you  can't raise rates. Indeed, EFH/TXU has been peddling longer-term contracts up to the last minutes before bankruptcy, including to my place of work.

As for transmission issues? The Electric Reliability Council of Texas, or ERCOT, the folks that oversee transmission issues, say there should be no problem. But, we're expecting another hotter-than-normal summer here. (Or, maybe I should say, in light of global warming, we're expecting another "new normal" summer here.) Combine that with any questions about power generation, and how much of that can reasonably done from older coal-fired plants given today's Supreme Court ruling (see below) and I hope ERCOT, while being sanguine for public consumption, is nonetheless doing careful planning in private. That's doubly true since, contra GOP legislative and gubernatorial "geniuses" in Austin, deregulation has given Texas residents higher electric rates than before, ones that are, overall, considered to be above the national average.

At the same time, this could be good news for the environment. Luminant, EFH's electric generation arm, had four of the five worst power plants in the country for mercury emissions as of a couple of years ago. If the bankruptcy finally forces it to finish writing off its older power plants, and its use of much of the dirty lignite from here in the state, there's a benefit right there.

And, they'll probably have to do that write-off. Today's Supreme Court ruling on EPA power plant regulation authority is not good for coal-fired power plants in general, and certainly not for older ones, especially if they use dirtier coal. Besides, since that underscores, if indirectly, EPA authority to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, it's another good reason for Luminant to cut its losses. It will hurt some small towns near some of its power plants, but this is a call that needed to be made at some point anyway.

But, the bankruptcy filing didn't stipulate any plans for that, leaving state-level leaders of environmental groups a bit frustrated:
Tom “Smitty” Smith, director of Public Citizen’s Texas office, said trying to retrofit plants like Big Brown would be like spending thousands of dollars to fix up a junk car, and Luminant would be better off investing in wind and natural gas plants.
To me, it's a no-brainer in light of the SCOTUS ruling. That said, will its creditors buy on? There's other issues in the filing, per the link above, that could have environmental ramifications. And, speaking of "Big Brown"?

No wonder, based on the mercury link above, and its shaky bottom line, that TXU/EFH/Luminant was among the corporations suing the EPA. So, too, of course was our "sue Obama" attorney general, Greg Abbott. Guess what, Greg? You lost. Ain't the first time. Remember last October, when you lost two out of three? No wonder you're our state's top money-waster.

(By the way, does anybody also notice how Abbott gets as quiet as a church mouse whenever he loses as the SCOTUS level?)

As for details of that bankruptcy? It's a bit complicated, as the Dallas Morning News explains. Will it work? Spinning off the competitive, deregulated Texas Competitive Electric Holdings, in essence, what most of us saw as TXU before deregulation, isn't likely to thrill all creditors. And, a lot of junior creditors may get bupkis. I somehow am skeptical of the 11-month timeline to emerge from this bankruptcy. Every other financial claim by EFH in three-plus years has been wrong, at least to some degree. Why should we believe it now?

Also, any chance that some of the financial speculators behind EFH ask for some socialistic relief from the state? Stay tuned on that one. So far, Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, Texas Pacific Group and Goldman Sachs, the three speculative buyers, have resisted spending their own money more than absolutely necessary.

After all, it was bribery lobbying in Austin that let this takeover happen in the first place. Again, per that long NYT piece:
To that end (of getting state OK for the takeover), the K.K.R. group spent at least $17 million on lobbying (including 2,400 breakfast tacos on the Legislature’s opening day and San Antonio Spurs tickets for certain state representatives), according to Texans for Public Justice, a watchdog group. According to the group and others, the lobbying money was used to win over opponents in the Texas Legislature and fend off legislation that would have given regulators power to veto the deal.
Don't you sleep on this idea of Round Two of bribery lobbying in Austin being on the 2015 agenda of the Lege. That's especially true since the original round was bipartisan, including Democrats such as then-Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk. Electric issues had already been popping up at the edges of some primary races earlier this year.

That said, the buyout also personified the ugliness of "greenwashing":
Other advisers for the buyout team approached environmentalists, including the Natural Resources Defense Council and James D. Marston and Fred Krupp, two leaders of the Environmental Defense Fund, to support the deal. The buyout team offered to cut the number of proposed coal-fueled plants to 3 from 11.  
And, that's why I loathe "Gang Green" environmental groups.

April 28, 2014

#Cardinals reshuffle means little if Matheny won't play ’em

Welcome to the major leagues, finally, Oscar Taveras. Oh, oops my bad, I meant Randal Grichuk.

Grichuk, the "add-in" of sorts in the trade of David Freese to the Angels for Peter Bourjos, is officially no add-in any longer.

He got brought up for Shane Robinson, who's headed to Memphis.

Also headed down is rookie 2B Kolten Wong. I didn't think he's been struggling that bad, even though Mike Matheny parked his butt on the pine the last couple of games. Anyway, Greg Garcia has been hot at Memphis, and before the Cards signed Jhonny Peralta, some had talked about Garcia as the team's next SS, though others had questioned his range, among other things.

Robinson was a no-brainer.  And, if Garcia is this hot, and has experience at SS, does this push him ahead of Daniel Descalso in the depth chart? I say it should, given that he also has been leaving steaming piles in the batter's box; we'll see what Matheny says. 

It is a bit unfair that Wong seems to be getting a fair amount of the blame for the Cards' offensive woes. They're far more than him; to some degree, they hit 2/3 of the team. But, Wong's a rookie with a low-dollar contract. You certainly can't send Peralta down, literally, by service time rules, even though his BA and OPS are still in the crapper, and his SLG and OPS were until his 2-HR outburst last week. Realistically, you can't send down Bourjos. Unfortunately, you are stuck with Allen Craig, too, who's been the biggest stinker in all of this. And, while Jon Jay's been better than the other OFs not named Matt Holliday, nobody really thinks he's the long-term answer in the OF.

Wong, Craig, Bourjos, Descalso and Robinson are all below the Kozma Line, the Pete Kozma sabermetric answer to the Mendoza Line made infamous by Mario Mendoza. It was time for a move.

Meanwhile, the "why" of Grichuk instead of Taveras should make for plenty of talk. The two were almost dead even at the plate, although Grichuk currently has an edge in the field, and a decent-sized one.

Also, Jay's been good enough, at least, that, if Craig is still struggling, he should get ready for some pine time himself. The team can't afford to wait him out much longer.

If it's any consolation, Freese is having a year worse than Bourjos and as bad as Craig, so the trade is still worthwhile.

Speaking of Matheny, too, Bernie Miklasz notes he had a quick trigger for Wong in his cup of coffee last year. It's worth a read for other things. Bernie notes that Robinson, a rightly, bats better against right-handed pitching and that:
Robinson was miscast as a platoon option; for some reason Matheny never quite figured out that Robinson (who bats right) was better against RH pitching than LH pitching.
Again, our sub-genius manager in St. Louis. It's called sabermetrics, Mike; give it a shot, OK? Hell, this isn't even that sabermetric; it's called "splits."

On Grichuk vs. Taveras, Bernie refers to the defensive issue, noting that Taveras probably isn't ready for Busch's large center field.

That said, Bernie brings the talk back to our Sub-Genius Skipper:
I just hope Grichuk gets a chance to play. Obviously, the CF position remains unsettled in St. Louis. Bourjos has done nothing so far, which leaves Matheny leaning on Jon Jay, the guy Mozeliak tried to replace by making the Bourjos trade. Given the situation in CF, and Allen Craig's slow start and startling loss of of power, there should be plenty of chances for Grichuk to get into the lineup. 

Unless, of course, Matheny is caught up on on his “I'm going to stick by my guys” thing, which is occasionally a problem. I don't think Mozeliak wants Grichuk up here just to have a good seat in the dugout.
Ditto for SGS and Garcia, Bernie says:
The only way to find out about Garcia is to play him, and frankly I'd really be surprised to see Matheny put aside his “I'm sticking with my guy” sentiment to play Garcia over Descalso.
Wunderbar. Maybe Mozeliak needs to start "leaning" on Matheny more. Unfortunately, I'm not sure that Mo isn't still a bit in man-love with Matheny. It also makes me wonder if this is part of why Carlos Martinez isn't starting.

Disclosure: In addition to my general lack of enthusiasm for him since he was hired, I wanted Terry Francona in the first place when Tony LaRussa retired. Beyond the issue of Shelby Miller in last year's postseason (still not sure if Matheny or Mo gets more blame for that), I've voiced my displeasure with Matheny as recently as yesterday. Let's remember that Matheny had no prior managing or coaching experience in professional baseball besides that as a minor league instructor before Mozeliak hired him, too. By the end of this year, he'll have three full years and I can apply my WAR for managers idea to judge his actual performance.

And, it's probably time to ask more about what "my guy" entails. Based on issues of the past 12 months, I already have some tentative ideas.

Update, May 3: Grichuk has gotten decent playing time so far and Garcia hasn't been totally stinted, at least. Stay tuned.

Update, May 21: The "Matheny's guys" issue also applies to the pitching staff, don't forget.

#Toyota establishing US HQ in #Texas — Texas GOP reacts

Sounds like great news for Texas, right? Thousands of non-minimum wage jobs, thousands of jobs with health insurance, coming to Texas as Toyota will create a national headquarters for its US operations in Plano.

Well, of course its great news, and so says leaders of the Texas Republican Party.


Rick Perry touted the $40 million the Texas Enterprise Fund Rick Perry is Running for Something Fund was paying for these jobs. When gently reminded that this was $8,000 a job that he was paying for insured jobs, far, far more than a 5 percent match for Obamacare Medicaid expansion, Perry said "Don't confuse me with numbers."

Ted Cruz thought about calling Rick Perry a socialist, but wasn't quite sure he wanted to go that far yet. So, amazingly, he said nothing, even as smoke coming out of his ears above his furrowed brow indicated that the idea was stuck in his melting-down brain.

John Cornyn said what Ted Cruz said because, per Lyndon Baines Johnson, Cornyn has voluntarily put his pecker in Cruz's pocket.

Louie Gohmert was put into preventative detention by Rick Perry, who was afraid Gohmert would scare the crap out of the Japanese so badly that they would renege on the deal.

Greg Abbott promised Toyota officials the new headquarters would not have to comply with Americans with Disabilities Act standards. He also promised to sue the Obama administration if it tried to force this on Toyota.

When asked how he could stand for such a double standard, he said it was a dirty liberal trick to talk about him and a  "stand"-ard for anything.

Dan Patrick said he welcomed Toyota, as long as the Japanese there were all in America legally and did not stink or contaminate America, unlike he thinks Hispanics do. Patrick did say that if Toyota were to be for getting some Ill Eagles to mow campus lawns, he'd try to remember what part of his own past to remember or not.

David Dewhurst said he was amazed that not all Japanese were short. He asked if any of them had registered to vote in the primary election runoff, to re-elect him rather than somebody worried that they might stink.

Jerry Patterson asked if Toyota had a gun-friendly culture. He promised Glocks for all if Toyota did, whipping one out of his boot while there.

Ken Paxton asked if Toyota needed to buy any construction bonds with any of that Rick Perry money He touted his under-the-table financial genius, saying he could hide money wherever it needed to be hidden.

Joe Straus wondered why he couldn't get Toyota to San Antonio.

Note: It should be obvious by now to regular readers that this is going to be a semi-regular series. It's like shooting fish in a barrel, only in the case, the fish are generally too dumb to recognize they're dead.

Additional reasons to support the popular election of US presidents

Nearly 14 years ago, bush v. Gore reminded us that the popular vote in presidential elections doesn't always square up with electoral votes. Even without the loser in the popular vote winning the electoral vote, in a very tight election with third-party candidates, the winner may have only a plurality, not a majority.

But that's not the only reason to support direct popular vote of presidential elections.

Here are some related reasons.

First, we technically have no official national vote for president. That's because of the electoral college system, compounded with the fact that each state's voters, in what is now essentially a formality, vote separately. The electoral college is the only official vote there is. Usually, as it has been for years of presidential elections, the Associated Press's tally of state-by-state popular voting is summed up and made into a quasi-official figure. But that's not the same.

But that's just a minor point, albeit the introduction to the main one.

If we have direct popular voting for the presidency, that would be a national vote, across state lines. And, it would therefore require federal government oversight of presidential elections. I don't know if, in addition to fear of "the masses," this was another reason the Founding Fathers rejected direct election. I've never seen it mentioned in serious constitutional histories. Anyway, it doesn't matter.

Obviously, even more than the tatters of the Voting Rights Act that still remain, this would arguably allow for direct federal polling observation, etc., in places of concern. As far as disenfranchising voter ID bills, it would arguably prevent states from applying such a standard to presidential elections unless red-staters could force through a federal voter ID bill of similar stringency, or unless they decided they wanted to go to all of the expense of officially conducting all other elections separately from a presidential vote.

Obviously, this would mean that we would need a Federal Election Commission with actual legal teeth.

And, in the case of those pluralities, if we rightly insisted on an absolute majority to win? The FEC, rather than going through an expensive runoff process, could institute instant runoff voting or something.

April 27, 2014

#Cardinals still have an occasional idiot as manager

After having had Tyler Lyons, on call-up for Joe Kelly, lose his second straight game last week, the Cardinals had Adam Wainwright on the mound and totally in control against the Pirates on Sunday.

Per the linked box, Waino had just three hits and two walks given up through an eight-inning shutout performance, with a 7-0 lead. And, he had thrown fewer than 100 pitches.

So our brilliant manager, Mike Matheny, who has already illustrated misuse and overuse of the bullpen this year, has learned from this lesson, plus the easy opportunity to rest everybody, right?

Uhh, wrong!

Carlos Martinez unnecessarily pitches the ninth. 

These little things can add up after a while.

And, they continue to undermine confidence that people like me have in Matheny. No, he's not quite Ron Washington, but he's far short of brilliance.

And, by the end of this year, with him having three years in the hopper, per what I have blogged (and others) about WAR for managers or similar, we can make some more definite statements about just how far short of brilliance he is.

And, it's more than his relative lack of brilliance at times.

I'm going to introduce Bernie Miklasz, as he talks about Matheny and his "my guys" syndrome. Bernie does this in context of the spate of call-ups and send-downs Sunday night, which I blogged about here. Anyway, here's Bernie:
Given the situation in CF, ... there should be plenty of chances for (Randal) Grichuk to get into the lineup. 
Unless, of course, Matheny is caught up on on his “I'm going to stick by my guys” thing, which is occasionally a problem. I don't think Mozeliak wants Grichuk up here just to have a good seat in the dugout.
And, there you have it.

Also, if Matheny knew Mo was going to be making all these moves, and that he might have a thin batting order today, that was more reason yet for Waino to finish out the game from where I stand.