Sunday, June 30, 2013

You Can Trademark "Three-peat"?

It appears that Pat Riley filed a trademark for the phrase "Three-peat" back in 1988, when his Los Angeles Lakers had won two consecutive championships and were looking for a third. They didn't get it, but Riley has made at least $900,000 off of the trademark already when other teams won three consecutive championships.

This is intellectual property protection gone out of control. You can trademark stupid puns and charge other people who want to use them? It has nothing to do with the actual social purpose of trademarks. Wikipedia has it that "a trademark, trade mark, or trade-mark is a recognizable sign, design or expression which identifies products or services of a particular source from those of others." It's not like we'll need a trademark on "Three-peat" to separate Miami Heat championship shirts that Riley knitted in his cottage by the sea from cheap imitations made by the dastardly Gregg Popovich. 

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Texas Republicans for Birth Defects & Genetic Diseases

Wendy Davis deserves a lot of credit for exposing the total
obliviousness of Rick Perry et al.
To repeat what I said when Arkansas passed a similar bill, pregnancy is unpleasant. In the grand scheme of human suffering it's not the worst thing in the world, but morning sickness, sleep deprivation, constant low-grade soreness, and the risk of other serious complications are not something you endure for twelve or twenty weeks unless you are trying to have a child. Women who choose to terminate the pregnancy in the late second or early third trimester tend to do so upon learning that the fetus has birth defects or genetic diseases that are either outright lethal or would lead to an extremely low quality of life. Many of these tests cannot be performed until the pregnancy has progressed to a certain point. The primary genetic screening, for instance, can't be done until week 16, and followup tests are needed to confirm actual genetic diseases. Demanding that women carry such a fetus to term, only to have it live for little or no time outside the womb, is patently ridiculous.

Read, for instance, Judy Nicastro's personal story on the topic.

(CC photo courtesy of Equality Texas)

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Awkward Gay Marriage Reactions

Nino Scalia is the natural choice for the inaugural post to Awkward Gay Marriage Reactions
I made a tumblr called "Awkward Gay Marriage Reactions". The point is, naturally, to memorialize the things people have said and will say on the topic of gay marriage for time evermore.

Please submit suggestions!

The Voting Rights Act and Future Political Coalitions

Josh Marshall's looks at the return of voter ID laws as an attempt to suppress the non-white vote, but I think that's slightly overstating the case. Rather than doubling down on being the white party, the lesson the Republican party seems learned is that they should become the non-black party.

The long answer goes something like this: The GOP now considers the black vote to be completely and irreparably lost. For Republicans to get their support among African-Americans back to Gerald Ford-era levels of 17% would take a herculean act of political & policy concessions. What's more, black voters are concentrated in states that are either safely Republican (the Deep South) or safely Democratic (New York, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey). Over the next decade or two, the benefit of increased black support would be limited to Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia. Now, those are four of the five most important swing states (Colorado is the fifth), but those are also the states where Republicans were the most aggressive and successful in pursuing voter ID and other suppression tactics. The well has already been poisoned in the places where it matters the most. Last but not least, the current Republican Governors of three of these four states are extremely unpopular. I think cockroaches are more popular than Rick Scott in Florida.

Contrast this situation the state of play among Latino voters. The Hispanic electorate does not have the same long-term ill will towards Republicans. As recently as 2004, Republicans earned 40-45% of the vote among Hispanic voters Hispanic population growth is concentrated in states that are growing, while Ohio and Pennsylvania are flatlining or declining in population. Better support among Latinos also does more to shake up the electoral map. Florida and Virginia might move into the lean-red column, while Colorado and Nevada would move to within Republican reach. Republicans also currently have extremely popular Hispanic Republican governors in the state houses of both Nevada and New Mexico. There's a much deeper political infrastructure to recruit and campaign for conservative Hispanic candidates. All in all, there's far, far, more opportunity for Republicans here than among black voters.

Historically, as immigrant groups assimilate into American culture, they become white in the eyes of mainstream America. At various times, Irish, "Slavs", Italians, Spaniards, and other non-Anglo Saxon people we now think of as white have been considered to be something other than white. Over time, if Latino identity drifts towards the mainstream white identity, their force as a left-leaning political bloc may dissipiate.

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Social Security Administration Is Incredibly Well-Run

That's the alternative headline to this report. Social Security's total outlays are slightly above $750 billion per year. To keep erroneous payments at $31 million -- .004% of spending!! -- is an astounding administrative feat.

To put this another way, imagine a median middle-aged household earning $65,000. To keep their improper payments as low as the SSA, they would have to keep waste down to $2.60 per year. That's a single error on a single bill. Nobody watches their spending this closely.

If a private business managed to keep improper payments this low, they'd be ecstatic.

Monopoly, Mo' Problems

Scott Lemieux's coverage of a recent Supreme Court ruling described a pretty awesome evil plan that people are using, and by people I mean corporations: "Antitrust law makes it illegal to use monopoly power to exploit customers—but corporations can use their monopoly power to compel customers to waive their right to bring an antitrust challenge." Basically, monopolies can leave you with no option but to sign a "don't accuse us of being a monopoly" contract.

There's an "effective-vindication rule" on the books designed to allow customers to still bring antitrust challenges in cases like these. Unfortunately, a conservative majority of Supreme Court justices have subverted it in the case at hand.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Speak, Friend, And Enter

I'm writing from New Zealand (the Middle-Earth of Earth) where it's occurred to me that if I ever should meet a lady with the insignia from the gate of Moria tattooed on the small of her back, I may ask for her hand in marriage. I suppose it could make a good stomach tattoo as well, perhaps with a bellybutton in the place of the star.

Pedo mellon a mino. That is all.

Friday Obama Caption Contest & Kitsch Cover

Original caption: "President Barack Obama talks with, from left, Pete Rouse, Counselor to the President, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office, April 2, 2013."

Today's Kitsch Cover is A Static Lullaby performing Britney Spears's "Toxic".  The video's on the edge of NSFW:

Thursday, June 20, 2013

PRISM, "Expectation of Privacy", and the Changing Norms

I've got a longer post on NSA surveillance, but let me start by observing that America has not had a serious discussion about what data should be public, semi-public, or private since ... I don't know, since some 19th century Congressmen discovered the executive branch was reading their telegrams. Every once in a while, a Supreme Court case forces the legal system to think about ones expectation of privacy, or a video rental place will leak the porn habits of a Federal judge, but we haven't really thought about consumer privacy very comprehensively. That goes for both protection from government intrusion and from private sector intrustion. As Wired's Bruce Schneier points out, advances in social media, GPS in everyone's phone and car, and the like mean that the "expectation of privacy" test will rapidly leave is with no privacy. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which protects the privacy of email hasn't been updated since the year Top Gun was released.

We are overdue for an overhaul.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

CBO Estimates Immigration Reform Will Boost Economic Growth, Raise Middle Class Wages

Yesterday the Congressional Budget Office scored the immigration reform currently under debate in the Senate. They estimate that in the long run, immigration reform would lead to a one-time increase in GNP of between 4.1 and 4.6 percent (for reasons somewhat beyond me, the report prefers using GNP to GDP). Because reform would lead to a larger US populaton, per capita GNP would increase by somewhere between 0.2 and 0.6%.

In addition, the CBO tried to examine the impact of immigration reform on income distribution. Due to the fact that immigration reform will produce a disproportionate share of extremely highly educated and extremely poorly educated new residents, they estimate that wages would rise slightly for those with incomes between the 20th and 80th percentiles of the income distribution, but they would fall slightly for those with very high and very low incomes. So if you're earning the median household income for a middle-aged household of roughly $65000, immigration reform would raise your real wages by somewhere between $100 and $500, with the exact amount dependent on luck as well as how the immigration reform impacts the wage distribution. An important caveat is that immigration to the US results in a tremendous wage increase for the immigrants themselves, and, in the long run, a monumental increase in potential living standards for their children. In sum, reform has a small positive impact for current residents, and a tremendous positive impact for new residents.

This is a more useful headline than the one that filled my RSS Reader yesterday, which trumpeted the deficit-reducing nature of immigration reform. That may be valuable for political purposes given our deficit-obsessed elites, but not really useful information in a larger sense. The United States government exists to serve its citizens; it runs a deficit in order to provide them with services. As long as bondholders are willing to lend the government money at fantastically low interest rates, there's no real reason to think much about deficit reduction at all.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Civil Liberties and Civil Rights Law

On Monday the Supreme Court issued another ruling that limits the practical effectiveness of constitutional protections afforded to those accused of committing crimes. Commentary can be found in many places, but I'm partial to Scott Lemieux's witty reparte on the subject.

I don't think it's a coincidence that much of the pro-defendant case law happened to take place during the Civil Rights era. The legal-political project of the Warren Court was, largely, to acknowledge that local government officials tended to put their thumb on the scales in favor of a franchised white majority, and that the federal government should act as a counterweight on the side of the disenfranchised. So we got case after case that overturned the actions of local government officials, who are now presumed to have a level of racial bias that was previously ignored or considered morally/politically/socially acceptable. Forcing the '60s era local police to adopt bright-line rules surrounding the accused's rights to remain silent, discuss their case with an attorney, or not to be physically assaulted while in police custody is a way of primarily exerting control over the actions of (mostly white) police forces and prosecutors as they interact with (mostly nonwhite) potential defendants.

Thus we should not be surprised that as the level of racial inequality recedes, courts begin to grant more and more deference to the government in criminal matters. This is not to say that racism does not exist, but objectively speaking the level of animosity today is substantially lower than it was in the 1950s or 1960s. It will be difficult to maintain political support for rulings that protect the accused as racial bias continues to recede.

Monday, June 10, 2013

A Note on PRISM and IOPS

I have several posts half-written on the subject of the NSA's data-gathering efforts, but let me start with a few words on which things in the computing world are and are not subject to "Moore's Law".

Let's first say that the real Moore's Law is a narrow statement about the rate of increase in the number of transistors per integrated circuit, but in its colluqial usage means something like "computing power per unit cost increases exponentially, doubling about once every 18-24 months" That is, if I buy $1 million worth of computing power today, and then 2 years later spend another (inflation-adjusted) $1 million on computing power, the newer computer will be roughly twice as "powerful" as the older one, for some definition of "powerful".

Moore's law cannot make this platter spin any faster.
Now let's talk about the fact that certain things happening inside your computer are physical processes that researchers have had a hard time getting onto the Moore's Law growth curve. Most importantly, large hard drives consist of platters that must be spun at higher and higher speeds in order to increase disk read & write performance.

Network bandwidth appears to be on a Moore's law-style curve, but the rate of growth is somewhat slower than, say, the growth in the amount of RAM you get for $100 or the amount of CPU power you get for $1000.

These facts turn out to be important because the amount of data supposedly being collected is large enough that it has to be kept on hard drives, as opposed to in RAM or even on solid-state drives. This has important consquences for our ability to do meaningful research on the raw data. But we'll cover that later.

German Courts Can Overrule ECB Monetary Stimulus?

It looks like that can happen:
Germany's constitutional court in the south-western city of Karlsruhe is set to hold a public hearing on Tuesday and Wednesday on the legality of the European Central Bank's bond buying plan after receiving complaints that the ECB was over-stepping its remit from, among others, the country's own central bank, the Bundesbank.
So can Ireland or Spain or Portugal take the ECB to court for engaging in excessively tight monetary policy? I really don't understand how all this works. My impression was that the ECB was insulated from political pressures in EU member countries. But it looks like Germany can try to stop the ECB from doing one of the minor things it's doing to save Europe from ongoing economic disaster, while everyone else is powerless to affect central bank policy in ways that save themselves.

There's been a lot of talk of kicking Greece out of the Euro. Maybe it'd be better if the other countries just kicked Germany out. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Sherrod Brown For Banking Chair!

I had a chance to meet some DC Democratic insiders this weekend, and there was discussion of the exciting possibility of SAFE Banking Act author Sherrod Brown becoming chair of the Senate banking committee in 2015 if Democrats control the chamber.

Right now Brown is 5th in seniority, behind chair Tim Johnson, Jack Reed, Chuck Schumer, and Bob Menendez. Johnson is retiring. Reed is going to be a good West Point man and run the Armed Services committee. Menendez would rather have the Foreign Services gavel than the Banking gavel -- people said he'd rather have a gig that takes him to France and Italy than to data centers in Seacaucus.

So it all comes down to Schumer. Wall Street absolutely wants their Schumer running that committee instead of Brown, but there are a few reasons why he might pass it up. If Senate leadership positions open up, Schumer might prefer those. He's done a pretty good job of representing Wall Street while not infuriating the national Democratic base over the course of his career, but becoming chair of the Banking committee would make that balancing act a more difficult and all-consuming job. Fail one way, and alienate big financial supporters. Fail the other way, and become nationally hated by progressive Democrats in a manner only exceeded by Lieberman. Either way, his path to Senate Majority Leader could be blocked forever.

What if Brown were to become chairman? Ryan Grim reports:
Several bank lobbyists and Wall Street analysts told Politico the industry wasn't looking forward to a Brown regime. "It would be a monumental shift in terms of both tone and substance from the [Chris] Dodd and Johnson chairmanships,” Isaac Boltansky, an analyst at Compass Point Research Trading, told Politico. “I think everything from too-big-to-fail banks all the way down to issues impacting the unbanked and underbanked would suddenly see a new energy behind them."
Or to pass on a quote from one person who works with Brown and other Senators: "I'm going to have to wear a flak jacket around him." It took me a moment to understand, but the idea was that his enemies in the financial industry might want him assassinated. Sherrod, after all, is the guy who didn't accept his congressional health care package for a decade while he was in the House, in protest of the fact that all Americans didn't have health care. People were talking to me about how he feels bad about himself if anyone gets to the left of him on economic issues. People were also doing impressions of Sherrod's  raspy voice.

A Brown regime would mean good things for Elizabeth Warren (as Grim notes), as their very similar ideological inclinations have made them allies. One nice comment I got from an ancient Democratic insider was that when Warren does things like calling out the SEC for not litigating enough, other Democrat who aren't playing such a vocal role tend to sort of wish they were asking such tough questions and getting the media attention. If that's right, it's exactly the sort of dynamic that we want.