Friday, March 31, 2006

BushCo's Wetlands Gains Mostly "Wet Deserts"

As reported in the New York Times, the Interior Department released a report that the total acreage of wetlands in the US has actually increased. There's a catch though; the increase in wetlands is due to artificial wetlands such as stormwater collections ponds and mine runoff ponds:
Another successful wetlands-restoration project in southwestern Indiana is undoing the work farmers did decades ago to drain their land.
These projects helped hold down the net loss of marshland in Thursday's report. But the net gain noted in the report was fueled by an increase in pond acreage, which includes things like ornamental ponds in new developments and mine reclamation ponds.
For instance, the mining of sand and clay for the construction of two major highways in South Carolina, Routes 22 and 31, left the Myrtle Beach area dotted with large, deep ponds that qualify as wetlands in the Interior Department's survey but do not provide the wildlife habitat or perform the filtering functions of tidal marshes or cypress swamps.
Environmentalists are somewhat less enthusiastic about the results Interior Deparment's report:
Julie Sibbing, the leading wetlands expert at the National Wildlife Federation, called the mining-site ponds "wet deserts."
"The most stunning thing about this report," she said, "is that we're losing diverse natural wetlands in this country and the administration tells us it's O.K. because we've increased the number of ponds."
The Interior Department's report (available here) features pretty pictures of natural wetlands, but some of the wetlands, such as this slime pond from the US Geological Survey Website, are not so picturesque.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Microsoft Has Become the GM of Software

Much is being made of Microsoft's latest delay in shipping Windows Vista, now scheduled for early 2007. Why is a new operating system such a difficult thing for Microsoft to get out the door?
Some economists see the hegemony of Windows as a natural monopoly; it just makes sense that most computers run the same OS. But maintaining a market share of 90% is anything but natural, particularly given Microsoft's strategy of adding features to justify a market premium. Running an empire requires a bureaucracy, which is what Microsoft has become.
Microsoft is now, in some respects, the General Motors of software, increasingly unwieldy and burdened with the costs of maintaining its market dominance. There's a reason why Windows (or "Windoze" as one Slashdot poster put it) and other Microsoft products have the allure of a late 1980s Oldsmobile. Can you think of any Microsoft or GM product that is the best in its class? (At least GM cars don't feature talking paper clips that pop up to instruct you in the use of the turn signal as you approach an intersection.)
As the
NYT reports, Microsoft, like GM, has a vast array of constituencies to keep in the loop:
The problem, it seems, is largely that Microsoft's past success and its bundling strategy have become a weakness.
Windows runs on 330 million personal computers worldwide. Three hundred PC manufacturers around the world install Windows on their machines; thousands of devices like printers, scanners and music players plug into Windows computers; and tens of thousands of third-party software applications run on Windows. And a crucial reason Microsoft holds more than 90 percent of the PC operating system market is that the company strains to make sure software and hardware that ran on previous versions of Windows will also work on the new one — compatibility, in computing terms.
As a result, each new version of Windows carries the baggage of its past.
Even the most robust monopoly cannot hold 100% of the market. Beyond a point, depending on the industry and market, economies of scale break down and it becomes more expensive to gain and hold customers.
The challenge for Microsoft is even more daunting as it struggles to add features, keep Apple, Linux and Google at bay and still be able to charge a premium for its products. Immensely profitable monopolies like Microsoft do not last forever. They either fall prey to new technologies, lose market share or become regulated utilities (like power companies) and lose the ability to charge a premium. For instance, PC operating systems could come to resemble the infrastructure of the Internet, flexible platforms on which to build instead of the vast complex structures of Windows and Apple's OS X.
Make no mistake, Microsoft is still an immensely powerful force. Think GM in the late 1960s, when Detroit's competition consisted of the VW Beetle, a few inexpensive Japanese models and pricey European luxury cars. It may take Microsoft just as long as GM to falter under the burden of empire, but forces that eventually bring down every economic empire will likely erode its hegemony in the end.

Monday, March 27, 2006

The View from Ohio

The Washington Post reports that Mike DeWine, who is running for the U.S. Senate as an incumbent, is at pains to distance himself from some prominent Republican office holders:
COLUMBUS, Ohio, March 25 -- Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio) wants you to know he is not President Bush, whose popularity has plummeted.
Nor is he Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who was fined for taking unreported gifts.
Or Texas Rep. Tom DeLay, who is under indictment.
Or Ohio Rep. Robert W. Ney, who is under investigation.
Perhaps those who scold Democrats for not having one coherent policy message (other than we're not those other guys) might consider offering similar advice to incumbent Republicans.

Today's Civics Lesson: Giving Away Oil Reserves

Okay, here's today's civics lesson:
If you're helping oil companies screw the federal government, do you:
(a) Lie about it.
(b) Make the matter so complicated that no one but the oil company lawyers and accountants understand how it works.
(c) Rely on bureaucrats to make things worse.
(d) Explain how it's in our best interest.
(e) All of the above.
The answer is (e).
Confused? Did you read your homework? The New York Times reports on how oil and gas companies have managed to tap vast reserves in the Gulf of Mexico without paying royalties.
Let's start with answer (a).
"There is no cost," declared Representative Joe L. Barton, a Texas Republican who was presiding over Congressional negotiations on the sprawling energy bill last July.
As we now know, the total is more like $5 billion in royalty payments our federal government has given away. But this giveaway didn't start with last year's energy monstrosity.
Which brings us to answer (b). Even the congressman who first wrote the provision into law doesn't understand it:
The program's original architect said he was surprised by what had happened. "The one thing I can tell you is that this is not what we intended," said J. Bennett Johnston, a former Democratic senator from Louisiana who had pushed for the original incentives that Congress passed in 1995.
As for answer (c), the Times describes how, in 1998 and 1999, bureaucrats neglected to include any provisions for a threshold price above which the incentives wouldn't apply. Whoops.
And answer (d): When BushCo took power, the threshold was raised to a level that allowed oil and gas companies to escape paying royalties even at last year's prices. Interior Secretary Gale Norton expained how this is actually in our benefit:
"These incentives will help ensure we have a reliable supply of natural gas in the future," Ms. Norton proclaimed, predicting that American consumers would save "an estimated $570 million a year" in lower fuel prices.
So there we are class; the answer is (e), "All of the above."
Now does it make sense? Good. So could one of
you explain it to Rep. Edward Markey (Dem.-Mass.), who still doesn't get it?
"Taxpayers are being asked to provide huge subsidies to oil companies to produce oil — it's like subsidizing a fish to swim."

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Jack Markell on the Working Poor

Over at Jack Markell's Blog for Delaware, you can read about his keynote speech at a recent conference at the University of Delaware titled, “The High Cost of Low Income.” Jack describes some of the ways in which the cards are stacked against the working poor looking for basic financial services.
Not only is Jack a true wonk; he's wonky about stuff that matters.

Don't move or the puppy gets it.

Via BoingBoing, here's a minimalist computer game called "Don't Shoot the Puppy." The player wins by remaining absolutely motionless, which keeps the machines gun from blowing the cute little puppy away.
It's also available as a mousepad.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Running Windows on Macs? But Why?

I have two computers on my desk: a Mac, which is sweet, and a Windows machine, which is a necessary evil.
So I got a kick out of Arik Hesseldahl's column in Business Week, "Macheads, Just Say No to Windows" in which he comments on the interest in running an inferior operating system on a superior machine:
As one commenter on observed: "We've figured out how to put an inferior OS on more expensive hardware!" That way, he says, you can have both the frustrations of Windows and pay a lot for the equipment. "Next, how to mod your Porsche into a Toyota Camry."
Actually a GM product of suboptimal design might be a more apt analogy. Hesseldahl goes on to deliver some serious wailing on Microsoft:
Here's my first go at a TV-ad storyboard: Show a calendar changing years with a voiceover saying something like: "2004: Microsoft delays a beta test of its next operating system, Longhorn. 2005: Microsoft shifts release plans for its next operating system, now called Windows Vista, to 2006. 2006: Microsoft promises to deliver Vista to consumers -- in 2007." Cut to a calendar displaying the year 2007, followed by a question mark. Back to the voiceover: "Tired of waiting for a next generation operating system? Get a Mac, now running Leopard."

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Remedial Reading: The Dream Machine

Today we offer a new feature, Remedial Reading, in which your favorite wonk looks at worthwhile books I hadn't gotten around to sooner.
First up,
The Dream Machine, an exhaustive account of the origins of modern computing including the orignas of the Internet and the modern computer interface. Mitchell Waldrop weaves the story around one pioneer, J.C.R. Licklider, who seems to have been in the middle of it all from the 1950s through the 1990s. Licklider was instrumental in making the Pentagon's Advanced Research Projects Agency (or ARPA) the funder that underwrote most of the research that led to computing as we know it. Even the most alert readers, who know that the Internet started as the Arpanet, may not recognize Licklider's name. I didn't.
Licklider's passion was improving the way humans and computers worked together. Older geeks remember computers safe within air conditioned rooms watched over by the chosen few wearing white lab coats. Licklider set out to change that.
BoingBoing has a link to a 1972 documentary entitled "Computer Networks: The Heralds of Resource Sharing" that describes the beginnings of computer networking. The Internet didn't just happen; some really smart, really dedicated folks worked really hard to create the technology we use today.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The Senate Budget Resolution: It Could Have Been Worse

As bad as the budget resolution (S.CON.RES.83) that emerged from the Senate is (raising the debt ceiling and trying once again to resurrect ANWR drilling), it could have been worse. As daveweigel at Kos brought to our attention, an amendment (S.AMDT.3087) to "establish a reserve fund for Social Security reform" was defeated with 46 Republicans--and not a single Democrat--voting "Yea."
Two provisions of the failed amendment would have paved the way for privatization of Social Security by,
(2) ensuring that there is no change to current law scheduled benefits for individuals born before January 1, 1950;
(3) providing the option to voluntarily obtain legally binding ownership of at least some portion of each participant's benefits; ...
Translation: I and everyone else under age 55 wouldn't be protected from reductions in benefits, and the tax funded trust fund could be raided to set up private investment accounts, eroding the fiscal stability of the program and likely leading to, you guessed it, benefit cuts.

Federal Court Strikes Down EPA's "Humpty Dumpty" Attempt to Limit the Clean Air Act

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia yesterday ruled against the EPA's attempt to loosen the rules governing pollution controls at factories, refineries and power plants. The EPA had issused new regulations allowing existing facilities to actually increase emissions when repairing or upgrading equipment, based on a rather tortured interpretation of the intent and plain language of the Clean Air Act.
The New York Times article includes a link to the opinion, which includes this reference to noted legal scholar and political philosopher Lewis Carroll:
EPA’s approach would ostensibly require that the definition of “modification” include a phrase such as “regardless of size, cost, frequency, effect,” or other distinguishing characteristic. Only in a Humpty Dumpty world would Congress be required to use superfluous words while an agency could ignore an expansive word that Congress did use. We decline to adopt such a world-view.
This is the only legal opinion I've ever read (not that I've read many) that includes a footnoted reference to Through the Looking Glass. Simply put, the three judge panel concluded that the Clean Air Act says what it means and means what it says:
Accordingly, we hold that the ERP [Equipment Replacement Provision] violates section 111(a)(4) of the Clean Air Act in two respects. First, Congress’s use of the word “any” in defining a “modification” means that all types of “physical changes” are covered. Although the phrase “physical change” is susceptible to multiple meanings, the word “any” makes clear that activities within each of the common meanings of the phrase are subject to NSR [New Source Review] when the activity results in an emission increase. As Congress limited the broad meaning of “any physical change,” directing that only changes that increase emissions will trigger NSR, no other limitation (other than to avoid absurd results) can be implied. The definition of “modification,” therefore, does not include only physical changes that are costly or major. Second, Congress defined “modification” in terms of emission increases, but the ERP would allow equipment replacements resulting in non-de minimis emission increases to avoid NSR. Therefore, because it violates the Act, we vacate the ERP.
The News Journal reports that Delaware's former attorney general Jane Brady was among the 15 state attorneys general who challenged the EPA.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Sympathy for the Devil?

At the Enron trial, former CFO Andrew Fastow held up under cross examination, making it harder for the defense to maintain the line that Enron was doing fine, except for Fastow's theiving.
But Fastow may have done something even more remarkable; he may have elicited a shred of sympathy for himself since his bad boy days at Enron when he gave his ferocious temper full rein to bully fellow executives into line. The Houston Chronicle account makes the former financial wunderkind sound almost human:
The 44-year-old ex-CFO maintained his story and his composure throughout his time on the stand, even with Lay's lawyer Michael Ramsey sometimes yelling angrily at Fastow Monday afternoon and seemingly mocking Fastow's hearing impairment.
Fastow, who has frequently asked all the attorneys to repeat questions, asked Ramsey to repeat some queries.
"You really can't hear me?" an angry-sounding Ramsey shouted.
"Ask your client — I do have a hearing problem," Fastow replied.
The Financial Times (sorry, subscription needed) reports that defense lawyers elicited tears from Fastow:
It took four days of testimony, but defence lawyers managed to transform Andrew Fastow from the biggest villain in the Enron fraud trial to its most sympathetic witness.
Sherron Watkins, who wrote the famous warning letter to Ken Lay, is on the stand today.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

The Fallout from the Dead Dubai Port Deal

The Financial Times serves up a rare plea for international understanding from President Bush:
“In order to win the war on terror, we have got to strengthen our relationships and friendships with moderate Arab countries in the Middle East,” he said.
Unfortunately, Bush has been doing his worst to scare us half to death over the last four years. And to the extent that he's been more intent on foreign adventures than on making our ports and trains more secure, he only has himself to blame.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Andy Fastow Takes the Stand in the Enron Trial

I'm back from my weeklong immersion in the parallel universe of the Internet startup. While I've been busy trying to create a business where none existed, the Enron trial has returned to the front page with testimony from former CFO and con man Andrew Fastow.
Defense attorneys for Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling have stuck to their story that the only thing wrong with Enron was Andy Fastow. While the defense attorneys have tried to get other Enron execs to admit that they didn't actually commit any crimes, they have been more than happy to put the spotlight on Fastow's thievery. As Houston Chronicle columnist Loren Steffy points out, this may not work for the defendants:
When [Fastow] proposed partnerships to inflate the company's earnings and hide debt from investors, he was praised. When he proposed a system that would pay him millions on top of his Enron compensation to run them, senior management and the board not only approved, but directors happily waived the company's ethics policy.
It didn't matter because Enron needed him. Management needed the juice that only he could gin up; it needed the shot to its earnings. Enron's finances had deteriorated to the point where only a crook could save them.
The crook on the witness stand was, as he said, a hero to Enron. He may have been a greedy liar, but he was Enron's greedy liar, a wunderkind of deception and manipulation.
I'm reminded of one of those bank caper movies in which the leaders of the gang discover that one of their henchmen has been stealing from them. Yes Fastow was a particularly brazen criminal, but he fit the Enron culture, in which clever dealmaking and accounting skullduggery were valued more highly than operational execution and actual cash flow.

Monday, March 06, 2006

How Bozofied Is Your Employer?

Silicon Valley sensei (Japanese for teacher) Guy Kawasaki has created what he calls the GBAT (Guy's Bozofication Aptitude Test) for all of us working stiffs. Check it out and see how Bozofied your organization is. Here's one example:
6. Your HR department requires an MBA degree for any position; it also requires five to ten years work experience in an industry that is only four years old.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Linkin' Blogs: Delaware

Most blogs link to those who offer similar opinions. But this being Delaware, bloggers on the left and right have begun linking to blogs on both sides of the political spectrum. It's high time I joined in.
Hube (previously of Hube's Cube) and company have been publishing The Colossus of Rhodey since last July. Hube is a teacher and offers thoughtful commentary, particularly about education, such as the Indian River School Board's decision to back away from a settlement on the issue of Christian prayer at public school events. Check out the little cowbell thing on the site.
Paul Smith, Jr. offers a conservative Catholic perspective on events. He liberally (sorry) salts his own comments with regular helpings of what he calls Quote-a-palooza, such as this on the oddly persistent rumors that Dick Cheney could step down:
For some reason the Left has become convinced Cheney will leave soon, if they concentrate hard enough. It's the modern-day version of the hippies levitating the Pentagon." —James Lileks
Delathought is a conservative blogger who is willing to criticize (and compliment) Republicans and Democrats. A recent post, "I've lost my religion on George W. Bush," expresses his disappointment with the president, though not for reasons I would cite. For instance, he's disappointed that Bush didn't push harder on Social Security.
All of the above link to liberal blogs, just as Delaware Watch and Delawareliberal link to conservative blogs.

Friday, March 03, 2006

What We Have Here is a Failure of Situational Awareness

Eugene Robinson writes in today's Washington Post:
In a way, I'd worry less if I thought the president were being intentionally duplicitous. But I worry that somehow he didn't fully take in the reality of the situation, let alone its gravity. His response was to sign all the right pieces of paper and then reassure others, and perhaps himself, that everything was under control when it should have been obvious that nothing was under control.
Robinson is referring to Katrina, but could just as easily be writing about Iraq.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Unencumbered by Situational Awareness

I rarely quote George Will, and not always approvingly, but he seems to have it right in today's column:
Wars are not won simply by facing facts, but facing them is a necessary prerequisite.

"No Situational Awareness"

Kinda sums up the whole President Sluggo experience, doesn't it?
(Photo: AP)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Oh No! Mr. Bill! There Was No Situational Awareness!

So said President Sluggo last night:
"There was no situational awareness, and that means that we weren't getting good, solid information from people who were on the ground, and we need to do a better job," Bush told ABC News in excerpts of an interview to be aired on Tuesday evening.
The problem is that the AP has tapes that tell a very different story. More specifically, the tapes show President Sluggo was briefed about the possibility that the storm surge could cause the levees on Lake Ponchartrain to be breached.
In the interest of maintaining your own situational awareness, we advise that you stay tuned.