The Daily Parker

Politics, Weather, Photography, and the Dog

Where private enterprise just completely fails

Governments do much better at providing many services than private companies do, for the simple reason that private companies have incentives incompatible with the services. Bruce Schneier points out a shining example, nuclear security:

We can learn a lot about the potential for safety failures at US nuclear plants from the July 29, 2012, incident in which three religious activists broke into the supposedly impregnable Y-12 facility at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, the Fort Knox of uranium. Once there, they spilled blood and spray painted “work for peace not war” on the walls of a building housing enough uranium to build thousands of nuclear weapons. They began hammering on the building with a sledgehammer, and waited half an hour to be arrested. If an 82-year-old nun with a heart condition and two confederates old enough to be AARP members could do this, imagine what a team of determined terrorists could do.

Instead of having government forces guard the site, the Department of Energy had hired two contractors: Wackenhut and Babcock and Wilcox. Wackenhut is now owned by the British company G4S, which also botched security for the 2012 London Olympics, forcing the British government to send 3,500 troops to provide security that the company had promised but proved unable to deliver. Private companies are, of course, driven primarily by the need to make a profit, but there are surely some operations for which profit should not be the primary consideration.

Corporate structures also contribute to making this kind of operation unprofitable. If someone steals fissile material from Oak Ridge and blows up Toledo with it, the biggest liability Wackenhut or B&W would face is bankruptcy and dissolution. The shareholders won't go to jail; probably not even the managers responsible for putting profit above nuclear security would, either.

But the Army and the Department of Energy have no such profit incentive, and therefore have no incentives to cut corners or rely on broken technology. Instead they have incentives to do their jobs well, and protect Americans.

Government isn't a business. I hope someday more people understand this, and I hope more that it doesn't take a nuclear disaster to prove it.

Pluto tomorrow

New Horizons zips past Pluto in the early hours of the morning U.S. time tomorrow:

Last night at 11:23 p.m. EDT (this morning at 4:23 a.m. BST), New Horizons moved within one million miles (1.6 million kilometers) of Pluto, speeding towards the dwarf planet and its five moons at 30,800 mph (49,600 km/h). It will arrive tomorrow at 7:49 a.m. EDT (12:49 pm BST), although owing to the vast distances involved and a one-way communications time of 4.5 hours, we won’t know if it has been successful until the end of the day. The first signals and data are expected back at 8:53 p.m. EDT Tuesday (1:53 a.m. BST Wednesday).

Despite the long journey time, the flyby will last just over two hours. The best images can be expected on Wednesday, but it will take 16 months for all of the data taken by the spacecraft to be sent back to Earth. This is due to both the distance and the low bit rate of the spacecraft, which has the ashes of its discoverer Clyde Tombaugh on board.

The spacecraft is the fastest-moving human-made object in the universe. This is how it got to Pluto in only 9 years, with the trade-off that its visit will be so short.

Thanks, Obama!

For a wildly successful heath care regime:

What’s amazing about this is that the good news about Obamacare isn’t really debatable. It’s a simple fact that there has been a stunningly rapid drop in the number of uninsured, coming from multiple independent sources. It’s also a simple fact that outlays on Medicaid and exchange subsidies are coming in well below projections.

You can argue that this is all temporary — that premiums will eventually skyrocket even though they haven’t yet, that the predicted death spiral will come back from the er, dead. But Obamacare is, by any measure, doing better so far than even its supporters expected.

Of course, in the data-free zone of the Republican Party, this simple truth isn't even understood, let alone understood to be true. It would be great to have a real opposition party in this country; someday, maybe, we can.

Recovering from Ren Faire

Yesterday was almost entirely spent going up to the Bristol Renaissance Faire for its opening weekend. We had a lot of fun, ate more food (and more salt) than was probably healthy, and returned from the frozen North with squeaky cheese curds.

Of course, all that fun, sun, and driving requires about a day to clear out of my system. The symptoms of this clearing include following random Wiki threads, thinking about doing basic activities for unusually long times before doing them, and arranging my day so that I can put off shaving until absolutely necessary. This is why we don't usually go to Ren Faire on Sunday.

Railway stations of sad pandas

The Atlantic's CityLab blog has a host:

Train stations in America span all the styles of architecture this nation has to offer. There’s the the gorgeous Italianate train station in Jackson, Michigan. The Amtrak station in Raton, New Mexico, is a beautiful example of Mission Revival. Even the humble lil’ train station in Mineola, Texas, has got some flair. Whatever you might think about Orlando’s train station, it no doubt looks historic.

The stations I want to talk about are not those train stations. These are not the Art Deco transit hubs that look like vintage monuments to the future, or the Spanish Colonial stations that summon visions of desperados waiting for a train. These are the other train stations—the ones that make you wish you’d left the house a little later so you’d have to spend that much less time waiting at the station.

Warning: truly depressing train station photos follow. And depression, according to a new meta-analysis, damages your brain. So after looking at these photos, go for a walk, and then write your member of Congress to restore funding to Amtrak.

Republicans generously set up 2016 election for Democrats

Two by Josh Marshall this morning. First, on how Donald Trump has got the Republican National Committee chair near apoplexy:

If you're someone of [RNC chair Reince] Priebus' relative stature, approaching someone of Trump's arrogance and buffoonery, who is insulated from all of the pressures usually used to bring politicians to heel, you're not going to say, "Dude, STFU or else." I think you're probably to say something like "Dude, you're killing it. You've really struck a nerve. But a party can only handle so much of your awesomeness at once. Let's try to tone this down a bit."

The issue of course is that Trump has struck a nerve. It's not just his ability to get on TV or his (in political terms) limitless money. Trump's tirades against Mexicans have juiced his popularity among Republican primary voters, which is to say that his clown show has highlighted the fact that a lot of core Republican base voters are themselves hostile to immigrants and particularly ones from Spanish-speaking Latin American countries.

This does not detract one bit from the hypothesis that Trump is literally a clown. The more popular he becomes within the GOP, the more popcorn I reach for.

Then there's the hard-working Jeb Bush, who has hardly worked in his life and said yesterday that people need to work harder:

It goes without saying that it's probably not good politics to say your plan to move the country forward is that everyone needs to work longer hours. It approaches 47% level toxicity. Even more damning is that it makes zero sense in policy terms. Indeed, Jeb's 'work harder' prescription provides harrowing look at the level of derp that can be produced when you take a guy who isn't all that bright and push him to the head of the national leadership line without ever having put in an honest day's work or support himself in his life.

It's unclear to me whether Bush doesn't even fully understand the policies his advisors are trying to explain to him or whether this is just standard patrician work ethic morality. Whichever it is, the real structural problem in our economy is stagnant wages for more than a generation for most of the population. ... There's a decent argument that people working longer hours is the problem; it's definitely not the solution.

That sounds right. In fact, there's a good argument that a shorter work-week could help (says Forbes, Forbes I tell you!). But that doesn't fit with right-wing beliefs about working people, so as long as they have a majority in Congress, let's party like it's 1899.

We're number one!

Yes, Illinois was #1 in rainfall last month, making us the wettest state in the country:

The National Centers for Environmental Information (formerly NCDC) released their numbers for June, showing that Illinois did indeed have its wettest June on record with 236.2 mm (according to their calculations). That made Illinois the wettest state** in the US for the month.

**There are no statewide records for Hawaii. However, an examination of the four main sites in Hawaii indicate June totals that are far less than 9.3 inches.

Illinois, Indiana, and Ohio all had their wettest months in the 121-year record; Arizona, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, Maryland, Virginia, and New Hampshire had top-5 wettest months ever.

The weather patterns causing all this rain, by the way, are related to global warming, and similar to the patterns causing frequent polar vortices in the eastern U.S. Welcome to the future!

Was it stupidity or cowardice? (Both?)

Apparently Republican Maine governor Paul LePage (aka "the country's craziest governor") let "accidentally" let 19 bills become law by "forgetting" to veto them:

As the Bangor Daily News reported Tuesday evening, LePage appeared to be attempting to use the parliamentary procedure known as the pocket veto. By not signing the bills and "pocketing" them, LePage could under some circumstances have effectively vetoed them. In theory, that would have allowed the proposals to die without legislators having a chance to override his veto. But the pocket veto only works if the legislature has adjourned after the end of the second regular session. And there is the rub.

The clerk of the Maine House told TPM Wednesday morning that the legislature, which is nearing the end of the first regular session, has not adjourned. By not vetoing the bills within the required 10-day period, LePage allowed the bills he opposed -- some ferociously -- to become law.

Given that Maine is majority-Democratic, and LePage has deviated somewhat from his campaign persona by becoming a raging right-wing nutter, it seems possible to me that he allowed the bills to become law so (a) he could continue to grandstand on the issues without (b) actually signing bills he knew were pretty good for Maine.

But the actual reason this happened is most likely the omnibus explanation: stupidity.

Sometimes your opponent's own-goals are sweet indeed.

Am I dreaming?

OK, I think the Fitbit "sensitive" sleep setting has to go. Last night, I know I slept for longer than my Fitbit believes I did:

I think it's interpreting very slight arm movements as actual restlessness, whereas it used to ignore most of them. If I'd only gotten four hours of sleep last night, I'd have crashed at my desk already.

I'm setting it back to "normal" sensitivity now. Let's see what it shows tomorrow.