Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mountaintop Mining, Rebellious Lawyering, and a Hockey Stick

Version:1.0 StartHTML:0000000167 EndHTML:0000006122 StartFragment:0000000487 EndFragment:0000006106
Mountaintop removal is a particularly destructive form of coal mining. Coal mining companies employ it in the Appalachians because the coal seams there are narrow and would not repay the cost of deep mining. Think of a mountain as a series of thin layers. First, of course, is soil and its attendant features: Trees, plants, wildlife, streams—everything that we see when we visit a mountain.

All these things hold no interest for the coal mining company. They are just in the way. The layers underneath the surface are those where coal is found. In mountaintop mining, the mine operators strip off the top layers until they reach the layer of coal, the seam. The operators then strip off the coal, put it in trucks or trains, and ship it to market.

The operators are not done, though. There is more coal down below, so they repeat the process, again and again, until the mountaintop is gone. Also gone are topsoil, trees, streams, and underground water deposits—aquifers--where a home owner might drill a well for drinking water or irrigation. In short, the operators remove everything that is capable of supporting life; they leave only rocks.

People complained about this, of course. Not the local residents, who are all in one way or another dependent on the mine operators. But other people, environmentalists, naturalists, and those interested in the future use of the earth, what is now called sustainability. These people got the federal government to pass laws intended to protect the land. They required that the mine operators replace the rocks where they had been. They also passed the Clean Water Act, which required the streams flowing down from the mountain be clean enough to support aquatic life.

The mine operators have consistently ignored these laws. It is actually impossible to replace the rocks where the were originally. The volume of rocks increase once they are exposed to the air. So the mine operators decided it would be okay to dump the rocks in the stream beds. Neighbors might object, but the mine operators have bought nearly all the property in the mining region, so there are no more neighbors.

Likewise, there is no one who can sue under the Clean Water Act. The former residents are gone. The water is probably grossly polluted, but mine operators will not permit anyone to test it. They test it themselves and file their results with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). For years, the EPA has been collecting these reports and filing them without looking at them.

I learned all these facts at the Yale University Rebelaw conference from lawyers who had been suing mine operators for years. These lawyers seemed pessimistic about the future of the mining region. The Appalachians themselves are beautiful. Tourism could provide residents with sustainable income. But wherever coal was mined, the land became useless. The air was dusty, the water was poisonous, aquatic life could not exist where there were once mountain streams. The mine operators could not be stopped because they owned the state governments of West Virginia and Kentucky.

This certainly seemed like a no win scenario to me. I went back to my hotel room depressed about coal, which not only destroys the landscape while it is mined, but also contributes to global warming and air pollution while it is burned.

But my mood turned around after I turned on the tv and saw one of the most extraordinary plays I have ever seen in sports. In the Gold Medal hockey game between Sweden and Canada, Canada led by one goal. Not a very secure lead. The Swedes had a gifted goalie who was turning away shot after shot. Then one of the Canadian players—Sidney Crosby--stole the puck at the Canadian end of the rink. He took off running with no one between him and the goalie. When he arrived at the goal mouth, he passed the puck to his own backhand and dropped it into the goal past the helpless Swedish goalie.

It was a simple play. The puck was traveling at high speed past the goal and then, miraculously, turned and flew into the goal.

I was reminded of this play the next day, when, as I returned home on the train, I read that a federal judge had declared the mining operators in West Virginia were violating the protected species act. Just as the puck had turned abruptly in the hockey game, the future of the Appalachian mountains, with their rills, hollows, and history, had just changed. Now there is a chance to stop the mine operators from flaunting the law and destroying the land.

We should never lose hope in our struggle to save the planet from exploiters and their shills. Everything can change in an instant. And yes, Canada went on to win the Gold Medal in Hockey.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Justice Sotomayor agrees with Justice Scalia on parental rights

This post concerns the case of Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl decided by the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in June 2013. The case reinforces the view of many that the Supreme Court is a bastion of white men where minorities and women count for little. Justice Sotomayor has quickly become an important spokesman for women, children, and minorities, as demonstrated in this case.

The baby girl in the case is the natural child of a member of an American Indian tribe, the Cherokee nation. SCOTUS got involved in this case because the father attempted to use provisions of a federal law, the Indian Child Welfare Act (1978) (the "Act") to gain custody of his daughter.

The opinion of the Court begins with a claim that the baby girl is classified as an "Indian" because she is 3/256 Cherokee. This statement is simply false. Baby girl is a citizen of the Cherokee nation because her father, Dusten Brown, is a citizen. The Cherokee nation does not ration citizenship on the basis of "blood quantum", but on derivation traced from an ancestor in the Dawes Rolls (1899-1906).

The male members of SCOTUS decided to determine citizenship in an entirely different, though not novel way, by the percentage of a person's blood that is Cherokee. The Cherokee themselves do not consider this important. The white settlers of America always considered this indication important, however. They referred to a person with only one Native American parent as a "half-breed", a term that soon became one of contempt, as if a person had chosen his own parents.

The classification of people by "divisions" of ancestry owes its origin to classification of African American slaves in pre-emancipation America. This classification made no sense then and the classification of Cherokees, officially recognized by this decision, makes no sense today.

SCOTUS apparently chose to declare that Baby Girl was not "really" Cherokee, since the Act was intended by congress to prevent precisely the sort of abuse from which this case arose, namely, the forced removal of a Native American child from its natural parents. Implicit in this decision is the belief that Native Americans are better off when deprived of any connection to their natural relatives and placed in good "white" families.

The three women members of SCOTUS disagreed with their male counterparts, led by Justice Sotomayor. The women (and Justice Scalia) determined that the government could not remove a child from its parent under the Act simply because the parent had never had custody of the child.

This decision is one more incident in the shameful history of white mistreatment of Native Americans. In response to this decision, the Cherokee Nation passed a law that natural children of Native Americans should be placed with their parents first, then with their Cherokee relatives in preference to any non-Cherokee adopters.

This action by the Cherokee Nation only reinforces the intent of the Act, however. Since SCOTUS managed, in this case, to ignore both the Act and the official position of the Cherokee Nation, it is highly unlikely that the present court would give more respect to Native American rights in any future rulings.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Krauthammer knows everything, understands nothing

Charles Krauthammer opened a recent column in the Washington Post by saying he is neither a global warming believer nor denier. Right there he lost me. There are no global warming believers, in the sense of a religious believer. The concept of believing in a scientific theory is absurd.

People have religious beliefs because they belong to a certain religion. People accept scientific theories because they understand the great advances that science has made over the last few centuries. Anyone who can read can learn what the advances of science are.

There were plenty of theories around before scientists began applying reason to phenomena and invented tools to test their data. Around 500 B.C.E., some Greek philosophers decided that men can learn the truth using reason. Then they went ahead and started arguing about the truth. For example, Plato argued that, since God is perfect, he must be a sphere, the perfect geometric shape. There were many competing ideas, that God was fire, or a superhuman being who lives in the clouds, or the sun.

The Greeks, brainy as the were, were unable to settle such arguments through the use of pure reason, though they certainly tried. After the fall of the Roman Empire, reason fell out of fashion and religion was in control. People began making decisions based on religious teachings. The Christian church used reason to support their beliefs. When reason opposed their beliefs, they opposed reason and the people who used it. Church leaders made a habit of executing people who disagreed with church teaching. They called these people names like heretic, witch, and Antichrist. People became frightened to speak out against the revealed wisdom of the church. This went on for over a thousand years.

Time did not stand still, however. Technology advanced. New devices were invented. The Church did not invent anything. They were happy to believe in what they always believed. After all, revealed religion could never change. It was, like God, eternal. But people found new ways to improve their lives. One device they came up with was a lens. Looking through lenses in just the right way, people found they could see small things they couldn't see with their unaided sight.

The church didn't find anything wrong with that.

Then someone named Galileo decided to look at the moon and the planets with a different configuration of lenses. He discovered something strange. The Church preached that planets are flat projections on the sphere of the sky. But Galileo discovered that Venus had phases, just like the moon. He reasoned that Venus must be round. He looked at Mars and discovered that Mars had satellites, just like the earth. He then reasoned that the earth must revolve around the Sun, not the other way around.

Galileo was not the first to consider this theory. Ptolemy, an early astronomer, and others had theorized that the Earth went around the sun. But Galileo was the first to offer proof of this theory. This was one of the earliest incidents of a man using reason to choose between two competing theories.

Galileo published his observations and got a rude awakening. The Church hadn't cared about small things, but the Church had preached for centuries that Ptolemy was wrong. They had God on their side. They brought Galileo before a court and told him to stop telling people his ideas or they would treat him as they always treated heretics, with fire. They burned all the copies of his book that could be found and put him under house arrest for the rest of his life.

Galileo was not the last person to suffer attacks by organized religion when he was right and they were wrong. Each step away from sacred text came with attacks and threats of eternal damnation. Charles Darwin suffered those attacks during his lifetime and even today his theories are attacked, long after he died.

Climate change denial does not consist of holding opinions opposed to the vast majority of scientists who are considered experts in the field. Climate change denial consists of refusing to accept the advice of scientists because you believe you know better than they do. Krauthammer is a denier, no matter what he says. He is also a sophist because, as Socrates said, he makes the worse argument seem better. He does this, like his fellow deniers, by selecting one "expert" as correct even though hundreds of other experts disagree with him. He does it by picking some facts to the exclusion of all others.

Krauthammer will not be persuaded by me. Nor will the millions of other deniers, most of whom have no rational idea why they deny the findings of scientists. If these people refuse to change their minds about science, they should at least refuse to take advantage of scientific discoveries.

Deniers should not use airplanes, because airplanes cannot fly without using scientific principles. They should not take their children to doctors when they break a leg. Instead, they should take their children to priests and heal the bones by prayer. They should not use electricity, which was developed by scientists and would be impossible to use without the theories of scientists.

The deniers should turn off their tvs and refuse to listen to weather predictions. They should stop using credit cards and other products of the internet.

All that is nonsense of course. Most deniers would refuse to alter their daily lives in such inconvenient ways, just as those who do not believe scientists nevertheless continue to breathe oxygen, whose existence was unknown to Biblical scholars. They believe in science because it has proven itself true, over and over again, for hundreds of years.

Krauthammer should take a deep breath, look around, and smell the coffee.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Skyfall: James Bond fails utterly (a la Sherlock) and gets a promotion

Submitted by Channing Kapin

I read your latest review of Sherlock and was amused by your anti-Bond rant.  Because in the latest Bond movie, Skyfall, which got a ton of critical praise Bond fails utterly and repeatedly and leads the baddies in a wild goose chase to the Scottish Highlands.  

After the de rigeur 20 minute, completely pointless pre-title chase scene Bond fails to catch the spy who stole the data disk holding all of the identities of all the spies in MI5.  Granted, it's not entirely his fault as his partner accidentally shoots him when he was just about to win the fist fight on top of a moving train (of course.)  Bond falls 5000 feet into a river where he's understandably presumed dead.  Instead of using his new found cover of Dead Guy to search for the stolen data disk, Bond walks into MI5 and announces his desire to go back to work.  The doctors declare him unfit for service, but M lets him go on the mission anyway, because she actively hates Bond in this movie and wants to see him die.

Anyway to skip the bulk of the stupid movie I'll just list the key Bond failures.

Bond passively watches as an assassin shoots someone (never mentioned again) and then gets in a fistfight and accidentally drops the assassin off a building instead of keeping him alive to get any information out of him.

Bond seduces the girl and mostly is responsible for her dying.  His plan to sneak into the Villain's lair is to walk into the villain's lair (this doesn't work.)  

The villain's stupid plan is to get captured and put on trial in London so he can assassinate M.  Bond helps the villain effortlessly enact his plan which causes untold casualties and property damage as his bombs detonate in rush hour subway trains.

Bond decides the only way to protect M is to take her to Scotland, where he wants the villain to follow him and wouldn't you know it M is killed.  Bond fails yet again and is rewarded with a promotion at the end of the movie because, as you mention he shoots the villain.

The movie sure looked pretty though.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Rupert Murdoch has turned Wall Street Journal into Political Rag

Investors need to know the truth. They need to know what is really happening that may affect the price of gold or oil so they can plan accordingly. That is why business journals have a reputation for telling it like it is. Their readers demand that they do.

That was before the advent of fact-free journalism, however. Rupert Murdoch, an advocate of fact-free journalism, has been encouraging Fox personalities to read the idiot cards without straying from the Republican Party line. Murdoch's most successful huckster at Fox, Bill O'Reilly, strongly advocates the doctrine of the Catholic Church. At least he did when Benedict was Pope. Pope Francis has led O'Reilly to challenge the papacy, however.

Francis has made the welfare of the poor the cornerstone of his mission:
As long as the problems of the poor are not radically resolved by rejecting the absolute autonomy of markets and financial speculation and by attacking the structural causes of inequality, no solution will be found for the world’s problems or, for that matter, to any problems. Inequality is the root of social ills.
O'Reilly, who always contends that he is a good Catholic, addresses the problem of the poor quite differently, because he believes that
some people are the cause of their own poverty. “If you’re an [addict] and you can’t hold a job, and you can’t support your children, […] then you’re bringing the havoc. You’re asking people who may be struggling themselves to put food on the table to give their tax money to you, […] and then you’re going to buy booze and drugs with it.”
So O'Reilly is now arguing with the Pope, who is the spiritual leader of O'Reilly's professed faith. Francis states that market capitalism is the cause of inequality and inequality is the root of social ills. O'Reilly says we shouldn't help the poor because their condition, poverty, is their own fault. These two sentiments share no common ground. Either you help the poor by ending inequality, as Francis preaches, or you don't, as O'Reilly recommends, because the poor are not worthy of our help.

O'Reilly is an author who uses a tv show to sell his books. Murdoch is a media mogul who uses his outlets to sell his philosophy. His philosophy is simple: rich people should be protected against threats to their wealth from poor people. This means poor people should be taxed more to keep taxes low on rich people.

This philosophy also means that all corporate actions, especially dangerous and illegal acts, should be protected in the courts and in the press.

In the past 50 years, no corporate actions have been more destructive of property and human life than those of asbestos manufacturers and purveyors of products made using asbestos. My article gives details of the long struggle to force corporations to pay for their deliberate poisoning of the environment. The struggle is not over.

Here comes the Wall Street Journal with an article that ignores the existence of the struggle for justice. The WSJ accepts claims by a single bankruptcy court judge that it is really the plaintiffs--the people suffering from asbestos poisoning--who are causing problems. The victims, according to the judge and WSJ, are corporations who fought for 50 years to prevent the public from finding the truth about asbestos, who spent millions to pretend that some forms of asbestos are safer than others, who successfully lobbied for laws that made it more difficult for victims to get justice.

This judge took it upon himself to accept the asbestos-using company's estimate of $125 million in damages because, he said, plaintiff's lawyers lied about how many claims they were filing. The decision says, in effect, the damages to plaintiffs may be $1.3 billion, but the plaintiffs should sue other companies for it.

The judge accuses plaintiffs of a "pattern of misrepresentation", though the well-documented actions of defendants in outright lies about their products is just as serious. Defendants introduced 15 cases to support their thesis. The judge asserted that "more extensive discovery would show more extensive abuse", but this was an assumption, not evidence. Since there may have been thousands of asbestos cases over the years, 15 cases is hardly a large sample. These cases were chosen by defendants as being particularly supportive of their claims.

The judge repeats the falsehood, fostered by asbestos producers and the government of Canada, that chrysotile asbestos is "relatively less potent" than other forms of the mineral. In fact, studies have shown that chrysotile asbestos may be more toxic, not less.

The WSJ also states that several states have passed laws against plaintiff's practices, but fails to note that industry lobbying groups and the right-wing front group ALEC were influential in passing those laws.
Only at the tail end of the article did WSJ quote spokesmen for the plaintiffs, who correctly observed that the opinion of this judge was out of step with the vast majority of other courts that have ruled on this issue in recent years.

Once again and predictability, the WSJ has come down on the side of corporations and against their victims. Their coverage appears fair until you look more closely and discover their bias, subtle but absolute.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Obama's All-in Compromise Strategy: Does it work?

We all thought we knew how to compromise. You make an offer. Your opponent makes an offer. Your first offer never reveals everything you are prepared to yield. You save that for your final offer.

This style of compromise is based on the idea that there is a middle ground somewhere that will satisfy both parties. This style works well when both sides are evenly matched and the compromise will not harm either party too much. This is the piecemeal style of compromise.

The piecemeal style does not work well at all when one side is much stronger than the other, as when a prosecutor is negotiating with a defendant in a criminal trial. The prosecutor has little to lose in this negotiation. True, a series of lost judgments can harm a prosecutor's career, but he or she must be willing to take that risk because a series of non-decisions can be just as harmful. Besides, a single case ordinarily will not make or break a career.

A defendant in a criminal case frequently has his whole life on the line. Criminal sentences are cruelly harsh these days. Even a first offense can lead to years spent in prison. A second or third conviction can lead to a life behind bars. In one recent case, a defendant was involved in a robbery with two accomplices. The two accomplices pleaded guilty but the defendant, a young man who believed that his two older friends had influenced him to commit a crime, decided to plead not guilty and go to trial. This defendant lost his gamble and the judge sentence him to spend much of his life in prison. Admittedly the judge was extreme in his sentencing, but what's the point of being a judge if you can't throw the book at scofflaws? 

So a criminal defendant is likely to seize at any offer of compromise to avoid a dire outcome. Any offer is likely to be better than what he can expect from a skeptical jury and a mean judge. So our prisons fill up with petty criminals. 
The piecemeal style of negotiation is not the only style, however. As an American, I became annoyed with the Turkish bazaar in Istanbul, where the salesman typically starts out with a price three or four times the value of a piece. Once when a tradesman used this approach on me, I simply turned and walked away. He followed me, cutting his price in half several times in succession. But I didn't want to deal with someone like that and I kept on walking.

It turned out that someone else was watching the incident, one of the seller's competitors, or even--who knows?--his boss. This man came an offered to show me better merchandise at his factory, located outside the bazaar. I went with him and bought two items. No bargaining involved, I simply accepted the price offered. I later discovered from my Turkish friend that the price I had gotten was a good one. Maybe not the best possible price, but still a good one.

I would call this the "all-in" style of negotiation. The name comes from tournament poker, where a player cannot wait for a good hand while his pile of chips dwindles. At some point, he will not have enough money to compete with the other bettors. He therefore pushes all his chips into the pot and calls "all in".

Until Barack Obama became president, all negotiations between presidents and the congress were piecemeal negotiations. One party made an offer to compromise, then the other made one, and so on. The result of this style of negotiation was not satisfactory for Obama, however. Frequently, one party may delay a bill by offering one compromise after another in a piecemeal fashion. In the end, the party withdraws its support and the session ends with no action on the bill that seemed so popular at the outset.

Obama saw that the piecemeal style had one big flaw--bills could not be continued on to the next session of Congress. So he tried the all-in strategy. In the health care bill, he offered the same bill that the Republicans had offered the last time the issue had been brought before the congress. He may have believed that the Republicans would simply cave in and accept their own proposal. But he probably realized that the Republicans never intended to pass that proposal and merely used it as a delaying tactic in their piecemeal strategy.

Obama's all-in strategy worked. The Republicans tried to make counteroffers, but they really had nothing else to give. Obama and his congressional allies passed the bill by buying off the few votes he needed to get the bill through the Senate. The all-in strategy essentially stops the clock ticking, preventing delaying tactics, especially if, as on the debt-limit bill, the all-in player refuses to offer any further compromise.

After the 2010 elections, Obama faced an obdurate congress that refused to be intimidated by the all-in strategy. Obama continued this tactic, however, and gained a political advantage by making his Republican opponents appear petty, self-interested, and even stupid. The Republicans countered by passing one meaningless bill after another, hoping the electorate would blame the president for the failure of these bills. After numerous meaningless bills failed to pass the Senate, however, even disinterested voters began to get the idea that the Republicans were not serious about solving problems and governing. 

It remains to be seen whether the all-in style wins in the long run.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

BBC Sherlock disses real Sherlock Holmes

Orson Welles described Sherlock Holmes as a man who was never born and will never die. The current BBC series Sherlock is trying to kill the guy nevertheless. The real Sherlock invented by A. Conan Doyle was an English gentleman wish a single outstanding skill: He solved crimes that no one else could. He had a friend, John Watson, who wrote about his cases for the press in a time when fiction appeared regularly on the front pages of newspapers.

Generations of readers have enjoyed the exploits of Holmes, who seldom stooped to violence, even when dealing with violent criminals. Once Holmes solved a crime by clever deduction, he invariably called in the police. His favorite weapon was a loaded hunting crop. This was not a firearm, but a riding crop weighted with lead shot to make it more effective as a weapon. Holmes did not strike people with this weapon, however, instead using it to disarm assailants.

Doctor Watson did carry, on occasion, his army revolver, but he seldom discharged it. Instead, Watson carried the revolver when Holmes suspected there might be need of it. Holmes himself carried a cane or a hunting crop. While Watson had a revolver in his pocket during the Adventure of the Speckled Band, Holmes drove a poisonous snake away by flailing at it with his cane. Watson did not see the snake in the dark, so was unable to use his weapon.

My point is that Holmes seldom carried a gun and only once fired it at a man. In the Sign of Four, Holmes and Watson fired simultaneously at a pygmy who was about to shoot a poison dart at them. Holmes thus showed great reticence to take a human life, even when he was threatened himself.

Holmes also had great respect for women. Many of his clients were ladies who found themselves in need of his assistance to find a lost sweetheart or recover stolen letters. Gentlemen of those times had very lax morals and prostitution was rampant in London, but Holmes never used women in that way and showed only sympathy for them.

Watson fell in love and married. His wife was Mary Morstan, whose
face had neither regularity of feature nor beauty of complexion, but her expression was sweet and amiable, and her large blue eyes were singularly spiritual and sympathetic. In an experience of women which extends over many nations and three separate continents, I have never looked upon a face which gave a clearer promise of a refined and sensitive nature.
Holmes shared Watson's opinion of Mary, although he vowed never to marry, because emotion might cloud the reason that he prized above all other virtues.

Such was the original Holmes, his faithful friend Watson, and Watson's loving wife, Mary.

The producers of the current production seem intent on destroying every vestige of the original Holmes. Holmes is no longer a gentleman. He is rude and insensitive to the feelings of others, even his friend Watson. In the latest installment of this travesty, Holmes makes love to a woman in a ruse to gain access to her employer's office. Watson is shocked by his behavior, not because it is crude and disrespectful, but because it is so out of character.

The producers have prepared an even more shocking plot twist however. Mary Watson, instead of a loving wife, is actually an assassin for the CIA. Just after Holmes discovers her in ninja garb(!) about to murder a man, Mary levels a pistol at Holmes's chest. Holmes takes a step toward her, convinced that she would never assault a friend. She shoots him at point blank range, however, thus completing the most unlikely plot twist in the entire Holmes canon. But one more outrage is to follow.

In the climactic scene of the episode, Holmes draws a pistol and murders a man in cold blood. This action is not merely entirely contrary to the character of the original man, but stands as an insult to fans as well. We are fans of Holmes because he is brilliant, true, but we are also fans because he is good. Holmes spends his life fighting against criminals and protecting their would-be victims. He never raises his hand against a man except in self-defense. He risks his own life to save others. He is a devoted friend and thoroughly honorable.

What, then, are we to make of this new Holmes, thoroughly despicable, a rake, and a killer? This new fellow has very little of the old Holmes. He is hardly able to make an accurate deduction. He deduces that the female assassin is not Mary. He mistakenly assumes that she will not shoot him. This new Holmes, in addition to being immoral and craven, is incapable of solving any crime. Like James Bond, he seldom solves anything; he only kills the criminal in the final scene.

We do not recognize this detective as related to his namesake. The producers obviously think they are being clever. The fans of Sherlock Holmes deserve better.

Monday, February 10, 2014

AOL's Tim Armstrong continues to act like an insensitive idiot

I worked for AOL in the early 2000s after AOL acquired Netscape. In 2002, AOL had 26.7 million subscribers. On the day I was laid off in 2002, AOL laid off more than 500 employees, many of them engineers, primarily in Silicon Valley. That was the day that AOL revealed its intention to destroy Netscape as an engineering company and to retain only the Netscape brand and internet portal.

Up until that time, AOL was persuading Netscape employees to stay with the company by giving them substantial bonuses not to quit. This did not stop many of the most talented engineers from leaving the company, however. Those people could get employment at other hi-tech companies in Silicon Valley, and did so. I was never one of the most talented employees, although I was a good employee who had worked at various Silicon Valley companies since 1992.

AOL had good benefits then, but the executives made terrible decisions from a technical standpoint. They acquired Netscape after that company had been responsible for the explosive growth of the internet by its engineering and marketing. During the year previous to the AOL takeover, Netscape engineers had created a new browser, Mozilla, completely redesigned from the ground up to replace creaky code in the old Netscape browser.

Netscape employees were justly proud of this achievement, but AOL didn't care about the browser or the employees. Although the browser was superior to Microsoft Explorer in many ways, AOL refused to base its own browser on the new technology. And it fired all the engineers who had created it. At its height, Netscape employed over 600 engineers, an (as I would guess) about 5 years of software engineering experience each, or about 3,000 man-years. Plus, these 600 had the experience of working together as a unit.

AOL's contempt for Netscape was shown by its decision, shortly before I left the company, to appoint as head of development a person with an MBA and no technical training at all. This person presided over the dismantling of the company, though, so she needed no technical expertise to do that job. At a management meeting in Dublin, Ireland, my partner and I, both engineers, suggested that AOL could improve its product by using patches to make updates instead of reinstalling the entire browser. A middle-management dweeb told us we couldn't do that because the browser was "too big".

My co-worker and I looked at each other in disbelief. Installing patches is how Microsoft updates Windows. Clearly the dweeb had no idea what he was talking about, since Windows is several times the size of AOL browser. Nevertheless, we took the hint and shut up. Suggestions from technical staff were not welcome at AOL, even on technical questions.

AOL's strategy was obvious. They had 26.7 million members paying around $20 apiece per year. AOL could sell these members to advertisers and earn even more income. They had no need to create new products or improve the ones they already had. Management simply wanted to milk the cash cow. The number of subscribers would fall, of course, but it was much more profitable to let them leave than to offer them incentives to stay. Software development costs money. Benign neglect does not, at least in the short term.

David Gang was a salesman in charge of technical development. I worked under his leadership, but never met the man. He was notorious for firing people at random and I couldn't afford to be fired. As they say in Japan, the nail that sticks out gets the hammer. I avoided standing out by avoiding all staff meetings. It didn't matter, because no one knew who I was and I wanted to keep it that way.

I worked for AOL the second time for about a year. My main task was to train engineering interns on the intricacies of programming a web browser. Four of the five interns I helped train were offered regular employment at the company. AOL let me go. I was one of those senior engineers who couldn't be retrained, but who were very helpful training interns.

As a result of their "benign neglect" strategy, AOL in 2013 had only 2.5 million members left, but still enjoyed enormous profitability. In February 2014, AOL's CEO Tim Armstrong announced that the company had increased its net profit for the first time in eight years. He also announced that he was cutting 401k benefits for everyone. The company had earned $412 million in net profits, but would have to cut benefits, he explained, because "two distressed births" had blown his health care budget out of the water. Those 2 births had cost $2 million. And also, Obamacare had cost the company $7 million. Why this was the case is not clear, but it is clear that AOL could have cut their medical insurance losses by buying insurance against overruns.

Armstrong was paid $12 million in the same year that he complained about premature babies and Obamacare.  One of his most successful ideas was buying Huffington Post, an online newspaper that competes in the same space as the New York Times. AOL paid over $300 million for HuffPo, an investment that may pay off. One aspect of the purchase is almost unbelievable, however: HuffPo doesn't pay most of its writers anything. Nada. Zilch. I wonder how those writers feel about contributing to the wealth of Tim Armstrong and his buddies in the 1% by donating their time and energy to HuffPo?

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Our Decrepit Constitution: Remedies (Part Two)

Our Decrepit Constitution: Remedies (Part Two)

6. Give the President More Domestic Power

The Founders persuaded the colonists to support the revolution by blaming a long list of problems on the King of England. They included this list in the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration also served—pehaps primarily—as a notice to the countries of Europe that the colonies wanted a new country, not reconciliation with the King. The colonists fought against the King and were not likely to accept a new monarch in his place.

The Articles of Confederation lacked a strong executive authority, which was seen as a major weakness. So the new Constitution had to describe a middle road. The office of the Presidency was a compromise between the power of a monarch and the limited authority of an administrator appointed by the Congress.

The President at first glance appears impressive. But the President does not propose a budget; only the House of Representatives can introduce spending measures. The President can appoint his cabinet, but they must be approved by the Senate. The President can negotiate and sign treaties with foreign nations, but the Senate must approve them before they go into effect. Likewise, the President appoints judges, but the Senate approves them.

This situation has lasted for two hundred years. At the beginning, when there was mutual respect between Congress and President, the system worked fairly well. As time went by, it worked less and less well. Today, Congress sees its approval as conditional on concessions from the executive branch, or simply as a way to attack the President.

It is absolutely impossible to imagine a corporation operating successfully under similar restrictions. The CEO appoints subordinate executives without any interference from the Board of Directors. The CEO proposes plans for the Board to approve, but once the plan is agreed upon, the CEO may implement the plan in any manner he or she sees fit. The President should have similar powers.

In line with their limited powers under the new system, the Senate may have veto power over presidential appointments, but only for 60 days. After that waiting period, the appointment becomes official.

7. Impeachment should be abolished

When it came time to establish procedures for removing a President from office, the Framers adopted a complex set of rules for impeachment, modeled after the British Parliament's impeachment procedures. In recent years, other procedures have been substituted for impeachment. The House or Senate may expel a member without any complex, quasi-judicial process. There is no reason to continue using this creaky, 18th century artifact, except that it can be used to completely stymie the political program of a president, as happened in President Clinton's second term. That alone is a reason to abandon the process, not to preserve it.

The last impeachment proceedings held in the Congress, against William Clinton, were entirely political in nature. The Republican House indicted Clinton with only five democratic representatives voting to impeach. The Republican Senate voted to convict Clinton with none of the democratic senators joining the Republicans.

The impreachment of President Clinton was a direct result of a Supreme Court ruling that Paula Jones could bring a charge against him in a civil court because there was little likelihood that he would be hindered in his duties as president while answering the civil suit (Clinton v. Jones, 1997). The Supreme Court was unanimous in this decision and they were completely wrong. Clinton spent much of the rest of his term as president embroiled in the Paula Jones case and the impreachment that followed.

After the National Initiative Amendment is passed, the Constitution may substitute a much simpler procedure involving a recall election. The House may vote for a recall by a two-thirds majority to place the recall on a special election ballot. The election must be held within 30 days to avoid any undue delay. If the President loses the recall election, he is immediately removed from office and the Vice President assumes his duties.

International Treaties

American Exceptionalism is a theory that regards the U.S. as a special nation. The idea has become part of conservative dogma since the 1980s. Ronald Reagan introduced the concept, if not the name, in a speech delivered to the first Conservative Political Action Committee. Reagan claimed he had a mystical revelation that America was part of a divine plan that involved men who believed in freedom and had a special kind of courage.

Reagan backed up his mystical belief in that speech with a number of examples drawn from history, particularly the history of the founding fathers. Most of his examples were entirely false, historically speaking, but Reagan connected with the conservative movement with his folksy charm and his Hollywood-inflected view of the world and world history.

Since the 1980s, the U.S. has withdrawn more and more from the family of nations. It has failed to sign treaties that offered cooperation on war and peace, the climate crisis, and the law of the sea. While President George H. W. Bush conducted an attack on Iraq with a broad coalition of nations under the auspices of the United Nations, his son rejected the advice of the U.N., instead attacking Iraq with a small coalition of U.S. allies. George W. Bush violated the United Nations Charter by carrying out an aggressive war without any threat to our national interest. Bush appointed an ambassador to the U.N. who believed the U.S. should withdraw from the organization.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Keystone XL Hangs by a thread of lies

The State Department recently issued another "final" report ("Report") on Keystone XL. The report supports construction of the pipeline, but State Department support was a foregone conclusion, because State has based its support on politics, not science. A small number of people will profit from the construction. Most of the oil and byproducts will be burned in other countries.

State bases its analysis of environmental impact on one simple conclusion: The tar sands oil will be extracted and burned whether or not the Keystone Pipeline is constructed. This conclusion is simply not true. We can stop what has been started by calling out the stupidity of the project and convincing the people of Canada and the U.S of its dangers. This argument is equivalent to saying that there will always be wars, so why shouldn't we start more of them.

The airwaves have been flooded by slick ads paid for by the American Petroleum Institute (API). API is the lobbyist for the oil industry. These ads announce that Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Warren Buffet all support the pipeline. These people have 2 things in common: (1) They are wealthy and stand to profit from continued reliance on fossil fuels; and (2) they are not experts in tar sands oil.

The API ads call the Pipeline a jobs bill. The Report says it will create 42,100 jobs. These jobs will last only one year, however. Communities in the region, many of them poor, will not receive any lasting benefit from these short-term jobs. Instead, the pipeline will contribute to the perpetuation of a rootless work force that has no stake in the community. Crime rates will rise precipitately as young men flood into small towns. In one town in North Dakota, the number of arrests is five times as high as it was in 2005.

The kind of employment that helps build communities and creates a steady benefit is long-term employment. After the pipeline is finished, according to the Report, such jobs will be created in the 5-state region through which the pipeline will run. Fifty of them. Three billion dollars invested in the pipeline will result in just 50 permanent jobs. By way of contrast, each $10 million (not billion) invested in public transit creates 314 new jobs and a $30 million gain in private business sales. As a jobs project, Keystone is an enormous waste of time and resources that should be going toward protecting the poor and disadvantaged from the consequences of climate change.

Capitalist groupies will argue that the free market, not the needs of the people, should determine how money is spent and on what. We are moving into an era of scarce resources. Money should be spent to improve our roads, bridges, and public utilities, not to provide more oil to people who are currently wasting what they have. What is more, profits from the oil will go back to the same wastrels and environmental hogs that brought us the Keystone Pipeline in the first place.

We need to stop the chain of stupidity that is making climate change worse by the moment. Stopping the Keystone Pipeline is a good place to start.

More information on Keystone and oil tar profiteering is available here, and here, and here.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

McKenzie Funk Makes a Buck (or more) from Climate Change

McKenzie Funk is a journalist from the Pacific Northwest who has written a book (Windfall: the Booming Business of Global Warming) about people who are making money from Climate Change. These people are profiting from the misery of the rest of us and need to be stopped.

Foremost among the Climate Change Profiteers, as nearly everyone knows by now, are the multinational oil companies. Like war profiteers and munitions manufacturers, these capitalists don't care where the money comes from as long as it gushes.

Funk spent five years going around the world researching the book, a journey that took him to Greenland, where separatists are using their new-found energy wealth to create a new nation, and Senegal, where the government was planting a hedge to keep out the encroaching sands of the Sahara (good luck with that, by the way).

One of the most disturbing sections of the book concerned our own Southwest, where profiteers are buying up water rights and selling them to the highest bidder. This is disturbing because the results of this monopoly grab are obvious and life-threatening. Those who own the water will thrive, while those who must buy the water may die or be forced to leave their homes.

Funk claims to be impartial about all this. The profiteers, who deal in human misery, should be recognized as parasites, stripped of their profits, and given some time in prison to think about their responsibility to the human race. But Funk says the profiteers are good guys, "doing things they believe in."

This is nonsense. People who try to corner the market in any commodity are criminals. People who try to corner the market in commodities that are necessary for human existence are no better than murderers, because they have a balance sheet where they should have a conscience, a bottom line where they should have a soul.