December 2017, Part 3

Jim Miller on Politics

Pseudo-Random Thoughts

A Christmas Story From Ernie Pyle:  In 1943, Ernie Pyle was in Italy, covering the war in his own way.

Among the people he talked to were the examiners who questioned the German prisoners.   From one of them, he got this story.
One of the German kids who came through seemed terribly depressed.  When the examiners strike a case like that, they try to find out the trouble, other than the normal depression over being captured.  But they couldn't seem to get at this boy.

Finally, just to make light conversation, one of them said, "Well, cheer up, at least you'll be able to spend Christmas with us."

Thereupon the boy sat up and said eagerly, "Do you celebrate Christmas, too?"

He didn't know that we knew about Christmas, and apparently he had been brooding over the prospect of spending it with a heathen people.  After that he was bright and chipper.
He may even have gotten some presents from his captors, if there was a kindly chaplain around.

(Pyle calls the soldier a boy, but doesn't give his age.  Eventually, the Nazi regime was drafting boys as young as 16, but I don't believe they had done so in 1943.

Recycled from 2013, with the last paragraph omitted.)
- 8:31 AM, 24 December 2017   [link]

This Week's Collection Of Political Cartoons from Politico.

My favorites:  None.

That's right, I didn't find any that I especially liked — and I looked through them three times.  But you may find some you like.

And I loved this story.

(Note to cartoonists:  It is possible to overdo references to Dr. Seuss.)
- 4:21 PM, 23 December 2017   [link]

Do These Worms Look Like Christmas Trees, To You?  They do to many people, which is why the common name for Spirobranchus giganteus is the "Christmas tree worm".

<i>Spirobranchus giganteus</i> specimens

(You can find larger sizes of the picture, here.)

The giganteus is misleading; the worms are about "1.5 inches" long.

To see them, you'll need scuba gear.
- 7:32 PM, 22 December 2017   [link]

This Andy Marlette Cartoon made me laugh out loud.

(And I love those somewhat dated stereotypes.)
- 12:42 PM, 22 December 2017   [link]

Very Bad News:  Again.

Bloomberg's summary has the essentials.
Americans’ life expectancy at birth declined for the second year in a row in 2016 as the nation grappled with an opioid crisis, the first time that’s happened in more than half a century.

The overall decrease in longevity -- to an average of 78.6 years -- was driven by higher death rates among young and middle-aged Americans, even as older people are living longer.  Fatal drug overdoses jumped by 21 percent, and the rate of deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl doubled from 2015 to 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics said Thursday.
(Though I should warn you that the summary is followed by a paragraph making a dubious claim.)

Did the Obama administration respond effectively to our growing opiod problem?  Not as far as I can tell.

(You can find the two releases from the National Center for Health Statistics here and here.

As I understand it, most of the illegal fentanyl in the United States comes from China.)
- 10:55 AM, 22 December 2017   [link]

Update On Monday's Train Derailment:  (Mostly for folks in other areas, who haven't seen the news stories people here have.)

There were just three deaths.  (I erred by thinking an early Associated Press claim that there were six must be right.  I don't know why they erred.)  All three were train fans; two were even long-time members of a train lobbying group, All Aboard Washington.

There were five crew members on the train, an engineer, a conductor, a conductor being trained on the route, and two people serving food and drinks.  The engineer had traveled the route a number of times, during testing.

The trainee was with the engineer in the cab of the front locomotive.

No one hit the emergency brake before the accident.

The investigators have not said this explicitly, but they have hinted that the trainee may have distracted the engineer.

(The new route is a shortcut that cost about $180 million, and will save about ten minutes on a trip between Seattle and Portland.  The old route runs along Puget Sound and is almost certainly more scenic.

Speculation:  Those who backed this shortcut may hope that, in time, it will be part of a high-speed system linking Vancouver, British Columbia with San Diego (and perhaps farther).  That would explain why they spent so much money for such a small time gain.)
- 9:59 AM, 22 December 2017   [link]

Christmas Makes Some People Grumpy:  For instance, the editor who thought this cartoon appropriate for the season.

(Did it make me smile?  Yes, but more at the editorial judgment than the cartoon.)
- 7:27 AM, 22 December 2017   [link]

"Here Are The Most Absurd NFL Playoff Scenarios"   From FiveThirtyEight.
- 6:44 PM, 21 December 2017   [link]

Engineers Will Like the current "Pepper . . . and Salt" cartoon.

(I have no idea how long it will stay up.)
- 1:59 PM, 21 December 2017   [link]

Be Glad You Aren't A Devils Hole Pupfish:  That thought occurred to me after I read this New York Times article, which reminded me of this most endangered of species.
Devils Hole and the pupfish are located in the Amargosa Desert ecosystem, in the Amargosa Valley, of southwestern Nevada, USA, east of Death Valley and the Funeral Mountains and Amargosa Range.  The Amargosa River is part of Devil Hole and the region's aquifer hydrology.

Although pupfish have been found as deep as 80 feet (24 m),[3] they depend on a shallowly submerged limestone shelf of only 2 by 4 metres (6.6 by 13.1 ft) in area for spawning as well as for much of their diet (primarily diatoms).  Natural threats from flash floods to earthquakes have been known to disrupt this fragile ecosystem, but in the 1960s and 1970s, the major threat was groundwater depletion due to agricultural irrigation.[12]
(Links omitted.)

This pupfish, like other similar species in the area, is a survivor from the Ice Ages.   It lost its more extensive habitat and adapted to the new conditions, as the area dried up.

There is a captive breeding program, which is having some success, after many earlier failures.

(Why "pupfish"?  Because they seem to play with each other, like puppies.)
- 10:04 AM, 20 December 2017   [link]

Wonder Why All The Fuss About "Net Neutrality"?  Here's an explanation.
- 9:18 AM, 20 December 2017   [link]

Professor Mankiw Has "Mixed Feelings" About The Republican Tax Bill:  And so do I.

You can find a sketch of his thinking here and here.
As I have stated repeatedly, I have mixed feelings about the tax bill going through Congress. There is a lot of it that I don't like.  But I nonetheless disagree with much of the commentary of its critics.  A common refrain is that the bill entails big tax cuts for the rich. I am not so sure.
And some parts of it that he does like.

(I, too, would have preferred that it be "revenue neutral", given our serious deficit problems.

Mankiw does not discuss what I consider a serious defect in the tax bill.  If the news accounts are right — and they probably are — Trump is likely to benefit personally from this tax cut.  That is a blatant conflict of interest.)
- 3:00 PM, 19 December 2017   [link]

If Trump Hasn't Read The Whole Thing, Should We?   Probably, but it would be a mistake to treat it as a reliable guide to his actions.
A White House spokesman on Monday couldn't say whether President Trump had read the administration's new national security strategy in its entirety.

The comment came after CNN's Wolf Blitzer asked national security spokesman Michael Anton if Trump had read all of the 55-page strategy document rolled out earlier Monday.
. . .
“I can't say that he’s read every line and every word.  He certainly had the document ... and has been briefed on it,” Anton said.
It is likely, I think, that Blitzer had a tip from some White House insider, or acquaintance of Trump.  That isn't a question that would occur to most reporters.

Like a good trial attorney, Blitzer probably knew the answer to the question before he asked it.
- 1:59 PM, 19 December 2017   [link]

Speed Kills?  Unless all the news accounts are wrong, investigators think they know what caused yesterday's deadly derailment.
The train that careened off a bridge outside Tacoma, Washington, killing three people was traveling at 80 mph on a 30-mph stretch of track, federal investigators confirmed late Monday.

During a late-night briefing with reporters, NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr added that Train 501 of Amtrak's Cascades service from Seattle headed south to Portland, Oregon, was carrying 80 passengers, three crew and two service personnel.
So far, I haven't seen even a hint as to why they were speeding.  You would think that all three members of the crew would have seen the mistake, if there was one, in time.
- 9:24 AM, 19 December 2017   [link]

Some Will Like The Literary Reference in today's "Pepper . . . and Salt".
- 9:05 AM, 19 December 2017   [link]

If You Want To See Pictures Of The Amtrak Derailment, the Daily Mail has them.

(I didn't notice any significant mistakes, as I skimmed though the article.)
- 2:41 PM, 18 December 2017   [link]

Heartbreaking:  This New York Times article describing how hundreds of Venezuelan children have died — of malnutrition, in a country with the largest proved oil reserves in the world.

A few statistics, and a sinister government policy:
The Venezuelan government has tried to cover up the extent of the crisis by enforcing a near-total blackout of health statistics, and by creating a culture in which doctors are often afraid to register cases and deaths that may be associated with the government’s failures.

But the statistics that have come out are staggering. In the Ministry of Health’s 2015 annual report, the mortality rate for children under 4 weeks old had increased a hundredfold, from 0.02 percent in 2012 to just over 2 percent.  Maternal mortality had increased nearly fivefold in the same period.
. . .
The Venezuelan government has used food to keep the Socialists in power, critics say.  Before recent elections, people living in government housing projects said they were visited by representatives of their local Socialist community councils — the government-aligned groups that organize the delivery of boxes of cheap food — and threatened with being cut off if they did not vote for the government.
The government has refused, let me repeat, refused, offers of international aid.

Nicolás Maduro does not look as if he has been skipping meals.

(It is nearly certain, in my opinion, that those statistics are underestimates.)
- 1:49 PM, 18 December 2017   [link]

Amtrak Derailment:  By now, you have almost certainly heard about the giant accident south of here; a small passenger train derailed and fell on to the southbound lanes of Interstate 5.

There are at least six three deaths so far, and many injured.

The local TV stations are all running special coverage; if you want to see some of the scenes, you can try KOMO, King 5, KIRO, or Q13.

No doubt the local newspapers have coverage on their web sites; I would start with the Seattle Times and the Tacoma News Tribune.

More when I know more — which may not happen immediately.
- 10:50 AM, 18 December 2017   [link]

Worth Study:  It's not a quick read — I just spent an hour on it, and will be going back to it — but this Politico article is essential reading for anyone who cares about the security of the United States.

They begin with this indictment:
In its determination to secure a nuclear deal with Iran, the Obama administration derailed an ambitious law enforcement campaign targeting drug trafficking by the Iranian-backed terrorist group Hezbollah, even as it was funneling cocaine into the United States, according to a POLITICO investigation.

The campaign, dubbed Project Cassandra, was launched in 2008 after the Drug Enforcement Administration amassed evidence that Hezbollah had transformed itself from a Middle East-focused military and political organization into an international crime syndicate that some investigators believed was collecting $1 billion a year from drug and weapons trafficking, money laundering and other criminal activities.
I wish I could say I was surprised by this — but I am not.  The Obama administration was so determined to get a nuclear deal with Iran that they paid a very high price for it.

(It is likely, I think, that the Iranians finally signed a deal with Obama because they knew that any future president, Republican or Democrat, would be unlikely to give them such a good deal.)
- 9:33 AM, 18 December 2017   [link]

Today's "Pepper. . . And Salt" Is Nasty, but funny.
- 7:31 AM, 18 December 2017   [link]

The Republican Tax Bill May Make Manhattan Homes More Affordable:  (Or perhaps I should say less unaffordable.)

Here are some numbers from an article in this weekend's Wall Street Journal.
The final bill would allow a deduction of up to $10,000 in state and local taxes, an amount that can include property taxes as well as income or sales taxes.

In Manhattan, deductions for state and local taxes averaged more than $57,400, while deductions for property taxes averaged $14,400, according to Internal Revenue Service data from 2015.
(About one third of New York City taxpayers itemize, and about one half do in nearby suburban areas.)

Limiting those deductions could, according to an analysis by Moody's, cause home prices to fall in Manhattan by "as much as 9.5 percent".

Oddly enough, some seem unhappy at this potential boon to home buyers.

(For the record:  I have never been able to think of a justification for extending large tax deductions to very wealthy home owners, though I can understand why it is politically attractive.  One result, I believe, is that, as a nation, we have over-invested in very expensive homes.)
- 7:18 PM, 17 December 2017   [link]

Layoffs can be tough.
- 6:31 PM, 17 December 2017   [link]