Robert Mueller: The Last Man Standing

Don Blankenship was once the most baronial of the West Virginia coal barons. His greed and contempt for the law were legendary — John Grisham used him as the template for his villain in the 2008 best-selling novel The Appeal. Annoyed by lawsuits that were costing him money, Blankenship spent $3 million to elect a judge to the state supreme court, after which he stopped losing lawsuits. Even after 29 miners died in an explosion in one of his mines — an explosion that miners and regulators claimed was the result of Blankenship’s penny pinching and disdain for miner safety — he remained untouchable.

Except by Booth Goodwin. While state authorities stood by, U.S. Attorney Goodwin spent years meticulously putting together and trying cases against Blankenship’s underlings and ultimately Blankenship himself. Goodwin was the reason Blankenship spent last Christmas in a jail cell instead of cavorting on the French Riviera with his favorite State Supreme Court judge (named Spike — I am not making this stuff up, there are pictures). Continue reading

The Song of Polly Anna

This is the Song of Polly Anna, as sung by the “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” Chorus, or whistled while passing graveyards:

When the fat lady finishes singing the Song of Polly Anna, it’s over.

Verse #1: “Unemployment is down to 4.1 percent, lowest in 17 years. 1.5 million new jobs created since I took office.” (Contributed by the Tweeter in Chief.)

“Don’t be fooled by low unemployment numbers,” says The Hill, not exactly a fringe publication, of the latest report. Candidate Trump actually had it right when he ridiculed the government reports as lipstick on a pig, or, perhaps more to the point, cosmetics on a corpse. The numbers are curried and combed, annualized, seasonally adjusted, revised and updated not to reflect reality, but to replace reality with a shimmering vision of 1950.

Case in point: the latest report estimates that just last month, 968,000 American workers left the workforce. While some of these people are elderly, students or disabled, their numbers have been swelled by people who could be working, who want to work, but have given up looking for work. Thus it is true that the number crunchers somehow massaged the unemployment rate to a 17-year low, primarily by counting as unemployed only those people actively looking for work. Meanwhile the number of people not in the work force, and thus not counted in the calculation, has reached 95 million, its highest level in 40 years.   Continue reading

Driverless in Manhattan: A Comedy

Drat. It seemed I had been proven wrong yet again. Just two months after having written that “The Self-Driving Car is Only an Oxymoron” and would never be a reality, I was confronted last week by headlines screaming a variant of : “Self-Driving Cars Will Roam New York City Streets Next Year.” The headlines were everywhere, from the New York Times to NPR, and the import was clear — driverless (or autonomous, or self-driving) cars are here, and ready to go on the streets of New York. (And if they can make it there….)

So I was on my way back to my hut in the Slough of Despond, there to lick my wounds a while, when I said to myself, “Wait a minute, perhaps we should read a bit beyond the headline and the first paragraph.” And what I found there made me smile again, briefly. Continue reading

Stock Market Achieves Escape Velocity, Leaves Earth

[Irony Alert: The following news is not fake. It is true, just not factual.]

The New York Stock Exchange announced today that according to its key indicator, the Dow Jones Industrial Average, the stock market has attained escape velocity, has left Earth’s atmosphere and is, as a spokesman said, “on its way to the stars.” Having set a new record high of over 23,000 on October 17, a spokesman said the Dow is expected to broach 1,000,000 by the end of the year. “We’re in warp drive now,” the spokesman said.

Asked how stock prices could be so high when corporations are struggling with enormous debt, anemic profits, poor sales and sagging prospects, the spokesman laughed heartily. “See, that right there is thinking that is so 1929. The era of stock prices being tied down to the actual value of anything, or to business performance, is long over. Now it’s all about expectations and psychology. Facebook isn’t valued at half a trillion dollars because of what it owns or because it’s advertising works. [See: “Digital Advertising: The Rise and Fall of Crappy Crap”] It has that valuation because it is blindingly popular.” Continue reading

Dopamine Dreams

Madness manifests in people and countries in some ways that are obvious to other people and countries, even while the crazy ones remain oblivious to their own affliction. People with dementia, for example, often don’t see anything out of the ordinary in having to be reintroduced to people they have known for years, who just left the room a few minutes ago, but friends and family understand instantly what has been lost. Countries that repeatedly invade patches of jungle or sand in Asia or the Middle East, expecting each time they do the same thing to win hearts and minds, accept their state of constant war and failure as normal, but the countries around them do not.

The crazier you are, it seems, and the more completely unhinged your behavior, the less aware you are that anything is amiss. It’s one of those situations where, if you think you have a problem, you don’t; it’s when you cannot conceive of anything being wrong with you that you are screwed. Continue reading

Hyping Data Analytics: What Color is Your Button?

I am an oracle, and will tell you your future. I’ll use a crystal ball, or some goat entrails, or data analytics. Same difference.

Last Sunday, 60 Minutes plucked from his richly deserved obscurity a former website designer with no prior political campaign experience, and celebrated him as the self-identified architect of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential victory. He did it, he said, with Facebook. He cited no evidence whatsoever for for this claim of omnipotence for a social medium that Betty White once described as “a very great waste of time.” But a fawning Lesley Stahl bestowed the CBS seal of legitimacy when she murmured, early on in the interview,  “And Facebook IS how he [Trump] won.”

Really? CBS used to call itself “The Tiffany Network,” but it’s more like Wal Mart than Tiffany’s now. And its crown jewel, 60 Minutes, seems more like a child’s charm bracelet, green with corrosion. The entire segment on Brad Parscale, the Trump campaign’s  digital director, was as uncritical of its subject and his grandiose claims as a Fox News segment on the compassion of Donald Trump. Continue reading

The Unbearable Lightness of Billions

Of course we’ll rebuild it, bigger and stronger than ever, but with what? (U.S. Navy photo of Hurricane Sandy aftermath by Chief Mass Communication Specialist Ryan J. Courtade/Released)

I have been trying to apply arithmetic to the problem of hurricane relief. I know, this is like translating computer code to cuneiform tablets, but bear with me — ancient learning was, after all, learning. The costs of recovering from Hurricanes Harvey (Texas), Irma (Florida) and Maria (Puerto Rico) are now estimated at about $220 billion. Congress has thus far appropriated $15 billion for the purpose, acting on September 9, the very day FEMA was expected to run out of money.

By its timely action, Congress solved seven per cent of the problem. With a burn rate of two million dollars a day, FEMA will be broke again in 75 days (from September 9). Nobody’s talking about this. At least, not in any way that makes sense. In a cheery piece claiming that FEMA can never run out of money, the explainer website HowStuffWorks says it can’t happen in the future because in the past, Congress has always bailed it out in time, just like it did with its seven-per-cent solution of September 9. Continue reading

Resilience is Illegal in Florida

Let’s say you live in Florida. Yes, I know, that requires us to assume you are pretty oblivious to the rising seas and corrosive stupidity assailing the state from every direction, but let’s just say you live in Florida. No offense.

You’re smart enough to know that life in Hurricane Alley could get difficult, and you live after all in the Sunshine State, so you installed solar panels on your roof, enough to run your house, just in case. Now, we just assumed you were dense enough to choose to live in Florida, so let’s assume, on the other side of the ledger, that you are smart enough to have avoided some of the major pitfalls of the rooftop solar business.     Continue reading

Fresh Vegetables and Staple Crops are Turning into Junk Food

Even when it’s plants, bigger is not necessarily better. (Wikimedia photo)

A small but growing number of beleaguered researchers is challenging the mightiest financial powers on earth to proclaim an increasingly obvious fact: worldwide pollution is robbing all growing crops of their nutritional value. It has been well known for a while — and argued vehemently by climate change deniers — that elevated levels of carbon dioxide pollution in the air stimulate the growth of plants. (“See?” the deniers said gleefully, “pollution is good for you!”) But what is now becoming apparent is that at the same time the carbon dioxide stimulates plant growth, it reduces plant nutrition.  More, it turns out, is not necessarily better. Who knew?

The man who is now the leading proponent of this idea, Irakli Loladze, is now at Bryan College of Health Sciences in Lincoln, Nebraska. He first stumbled on the concept in 1998 when he was a doctoral candidate at Arizona State University. He encountered some biology researchers who were finding that when they stimulated the growth of algae in a closed system, the zooplankton, the little critters that fed on the algae, did not flourish, but actually declined. Loladze desperately wanted to find out why, to see if the problem had wider implications, but there were two big problems. Continue reading

Irma Coverage: Slinging in the Rain

Breaking news: it’s raining here, too. (Wikimedia photo)

The history of humanity is a succession of stories of triumphs over disaster. That’s why they call us homo sapiens sapiens, which translates as “really, really smart dudes.” (Oh, wait. That’s not what they call us, it’s what we call ourselves. Still.) This past weekend, yet another triumph over yet another disaster. And I’m not talking about the resilience of the people of Florida, or the bravery of first responders or the fiendish cleverness of global-warming hoaxers; I’m talking about modern TV journalism as applied to disasters.

For days now, the best available satellite technology, fiber-optic communications, digital electronics and state of the art rain hoods have been deployed to provide us, the viewers, with unparalleled views of people who are too dumb to come in out of the rain. There are, apparently, hundreds of these people working in television. They are marvelously diverse, they come in all colors, genders, races and religions — although there are probably no conservatives, because they don’t believe in hurricanes. Continue reading