30 January 2017

Goundhog Day

Rico says that Groundhog Day, besides being a dumb Bill Murray movie, is a local tradition, starring Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog (photo). It's on 2 February, and will be greeted with groundhog sightings and the traditional weather predictions: if Phil sees his shadow, it's six more weeks of Winter. (The Groundhog Day celebration is rooted in a Celtic tradition that says that, if a hibernating animal casts a shadow on 2 February, the Pagan holiday of Imbolc, winter will last another six weeks. If no shadow is seen, legend says, spring will come early.)

Phil is right about sixty-five percent of the time, according to Lisa Wardle at PennLive.com:
Punxsutawney Phil was right last year about our having an early spring. Across Pennsylvania, temperatures for both February and March were above average in 2016. Several regions also saw record daily temperatures during that period.
However, Punxsutawney Phil, Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators and Weather Prophet Extraordinary does not have a perfect track record for his 131 years on the job. 
We dug into the data to see just how often he and his handlers get it right.
"Unfortunately, there have been years where the president has misinterpreted what Phil said," handler Ron Ploucha told PennLive last year. "Because Phil is never wrong. Phil's prediction is one hundred percent correct, and we blame the variants on the president's interpretation of Phil's prediction."
Indeed, having two options doesn't provide much wiggle room. Either he sees his shadow and winter continues for six more weeks, or he doesn't, and we get an early spring. Holding Phil accountable only for Pennsylvania weather, we determined criteria for what counted as spring conditions (see methods below) and compared his predictions to historical data.
In 117 years of available records, our calculations show Phil and his translators have been correct about sixty-five percent of the time. 
Some quick facts: The longest streak of correct predictions is twelve years, which occurred from 1958-1969. Phil did not see his shadow on Groundhog Day any of those years.
His longest streak of incorrect predictions (or incorrect translations, perhaps) is three years, which occurred from 1948-1950 and again from 2011-2013.
According to The Punxsutawney Groundhog Club's records, Phil has only predicted an early spring seventeen times.
Rico says let's hope he does not see his shadow (enough Winter already), but he did, according to a Weather.com article (with the usual unbloggable video) by Eric Chaney:
Punxutawney Phil saw his shadow on Thursday morning, predicting six more weeks of winter during Groundhog Day festivities at Gobbler's Knob, a small hill just outside Phil's hometown of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.
"It's mighty cold weather, you've been braving," this year's verse read. "Is it more winter or is it spring that you're craving? Since you've been up all night and starting to tottle, I, Punxsutawney Phil, shall not dawdle," the proclamation read. "My faithful followers, I could clearly see a beautiful, perfect shadow of me. Six more weeks of winter, it shall be!"
Records dating to 1887 show Phil predicting more winter over a hundred times, while forecasting an early spring just eighteen times, including last year, The Associated Press reports. There are no records for the remaining years.
Dunkirk Dave also predicted six more weeks of winter after emerging in Dunkirk, New York. Dave, actually a female groundhog whose non-stage name is Sidewinder,  is claimed to be the world’s second-longest predicting groundhog.
But General Beauregard Lee, a resident groundhog at Georgia's Yellow River Game Ranch in Gwinnett County, predicted an early spring, along with a Super Bowl win for the Atlanta Falcons.
The Groundhog Day tradition has its origin in a German legend that says if a furry rodent casts a shadow on 2 February, winter continues, The Associated Press reports. If not, spring comes early.
Weather.com senior meteorologist Jonathan Erdman says that most northern cities have to go into April in an average year before feeling safe to store the shovel or snowthrower for the season. On the other hand, for much of the Northeast urban corridor and parts of the Lower Midwest, snow is typically done by the end of March.
Interestingly enough, the cities with the highest percentage of season snowfall after Groundhog Day are New York City and Philadelphia, both typically picking up half of their season's snow after 2 February.
Incredibly, in both Marquette, Michigan, and Tahoe City, California, in the Sierras, another seven feet of snow is typical after 2 February.
Rico says he is not happy about this...

26 January 2017

Not paying

The BBC has an article about the proposed wall on the Mexican border:

Mexico will not pay for Donald Trump's border wall, the country's president has said in a message to the nation. Enrique Pena Nieto (photo) said he "lamented" the plans for the barrier, but made no mention of changing a scheduled trip to Washington to meet the new president.
Trump responded, saying "it would be better to cancel" the 31 January meeting if Mexico is unwilling to pay. He has signed an executive order for an "impassable physical barrier" and insisted Mexico will reimburse the US.
In a televised address, Pena Nieto told the nation: "I've said time and again; Mexico will not pay for any wall. I regret and condemn the decision of the United States to continue construction of a wall that, for years, has divided us instead of uniting us." But Pena Nieto said his country offered "its friendship to the American people and its willingness to reach accords with their government".
President Trump took to Twitter following his statement, suggesting Mexico owed the US for the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). "The US has a sixty-billion-dollar trade deficit with Mexico. It has been a one-sided deal from the beginning of NAFTA with massive numbers of jobs and companies lost," he wrote. "If Mexico is unwilling to pay for the badly-needed wall, then it would be better to cancel the upcoming meeting."
Earlier, Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray, in Washington to lead a delegation that has held talks at the White House, told the Televisa network that Mexico's president was still weighing his visit, but said "the meeting stands for now".
Pena Nieto met Trump, then a presidential candidate, in Mexico City in September of 2016 and came under intense criticism at home, and his current approval ratings are low.
Trump said in an interview with ABC News that Mexico would "absolutely, a hundred percent" reimburse the US for his wall. But Congress would have to approve funding for the structure, which is estimated to cost billions of dollars.
Building a two thousand mile barrier along the Mexican border was one of Trump's key pledges in the election campaign. He spoke of a "crisis" on the southern US border as he signed the directives during a ceremony at the Department of Homeland Security on Wednesday. The orders also called for hiring ten thousand immigration officials to help boost border patrol efforts. "A nation without borders is not a nation," he said. "Beginning today, the United States gets back control of its borders."
The executive orders are among a flurry expected on national and border security this week.
Rico says it'd be much cheaper to offer a bounty in Texas on dead Mexicans...

24 January 2017

New war with Native Americans

The New York Times has an article by Peter Baker and Coral Davenport about Trump's early reversal of the Keystone deal:

President Trump moved assertively to resurrect a pipeline in the Dakotas that had become a major flashpoint for Native Americans, while reviving the Keystone XL pipeline, which had stirred years of debate over the balance between energy needs and environmental concerns.
The actions were the latest to dismantle Obama-era policies. Obama rejected the proposed twelve-hundred-mile Keystone pipeline in 2015, arguing that it would undercut American leadership in curbing reliance on carbon energy to address a warming climate.
Trump signed a document clearing the way for the government to reconsider the pipeline, as well as another expediting the Dakota Access pipeline from North and South Dakota to Illinois.
The decisions came a day after Trump formally abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, an ambitious, twelve-nation trade pact negotiated by Obama. In his opening days in office, Trump has also signed an order that begins to unravel Obama’s health care program, reversed the former president’s policies on abortion and housing, and ordered a freeze of any pending regulations left behind by the departing administration.
As proposed by TransCanada, a Canadian firm, the Keystone pipeline would carry eight hundred thousand barrels a day from the Canadian oil sands to the American Gulf Coast. Republicans and some Democrats argued that the project would create jobs and expand energy resources, while environmentalists said it would encourage a form of oil extraction that produces more gases that warm the planet than normal petroleum.
Studies showed that the pipeline would not have a momentous impact on jobs or the environment, but both sides made it into a symbolic test case of American willingness to promote energy production or curb its appetites to heal the planet. Torn by competing policy imperatives and conflicting politics, Obama delayed a decision for years before finally rejecting the pipeline shortly before an international conference in Paris, France to forge a global climate change agreement.
Keystone has never been a significant issue from an environmental point of view in substance, only in symbol,” said David Goldwyn, an energy market analyst and a former head of the State Department’s energy bureau in the Obama administration. Regarding the pipeline’s effect on the nation’s broader energy market, Goldwyn said: “One additional pipeline? It’s useful. It’s not indispensable.”
But it was a symbol Trump found important enough to seize on early in his presidency. He signed an executive memorandum inviting TransCanada “to promptly resubmit its application to the Department of State for a presidential permit” for the pipeline, although the document did not guarantee approval.
Speaking with reporters, Trump said he would “renegotiate some of the terms”, including an insistence that the pipeline be built with American steel, but left little doubt that he wanted it approved. “We’ll see if we can get that pipeline built,” he said. “A lot of jobs.”
Terry Cunha, a spokeswoman from TransCanada, said in an email that the company remained “fully committed” to building the project, although she declined to discuss the project’s next steps.
The Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota became the focus of protests when the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe objected to its construction less than a mile from its reservation. The tribe and its allies won victory last month when the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would look for alternative routes for the four-billion-dollar pipeline, instead of allowing it to be drilled under a dammed section of the Missouri River.
Trump signed an executive memorandum directing the Army “to review and approve in an expedited manner” the pipeline “to the extent permitted by law and as warranted”. In his session with reporters, he added “again, subject to terms and conditions to be negotiated by us.”
Trump owned stock in Energy Transfer Partners, the company that is building the Dakota Access pipeline, according to his most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission. Last month, a spokesman for Trump said he sold all of his stock in June of 2016, but there is no way of verifying that sale, and Trump has not provided documentation of it.
Critics denounced Trump’s decisions. “Donald Trump has been in office for four days and he’s already proving to be the dangerous threat to our climate we feared he would be,” said Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club.
Environmental activists vowed to keep fighting the projects. “This is not a done deal,” Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, the group that led the protests against the Keystone pipeline, said in a statement. “The last time around, TransCanada was so confident they literally mowed the strip where they planned to build the pipeline, before people power stopped them. People will mobilize again.”
In Canada, the government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcomed Trump’s decision. “We have been supportive of this since the day we were sworn into government,” Jim Carr, the natural resources minister, told reporters in Calgary, Alberta,  Canada, the center of nation’s oil industry, where the cabinet was meeting. Carr said the American reversal will lead “to a deepening of the relationship across the border.”
The green light for Keystone came after Trudeau’s approval of two pipeline projects linked to Alberta’s oil sands in late November of 2016. Expanded pipeline capacity and its potential to expand the market for the oil sands, which overwhelmingly export to the United States, are welcome developments in Alberta and neighboring Saskatchewan, both oil-producing provinces. But there is considerable opposition to Keystone and oil sands pipelines in general in other parts of Canada and within many indigenous communities.
In addition to the Keystone and Dakota directives, Trump signed three others intended to ease the way for businesses and promote American manufacturing. One instructed the Commerce Department to develop a plan to ensure that all future pipelines built in the United States be constructed out of American-made materials. Another was aimed at streamlining what he called “the incredibly cumbersome, long, horrible permitting process and reducing regulatory burdens for domestic manufacturing.” The last directive was intended to expedite environmental reviews for “high-priority infrastructure projects” like highways and bridges.
Trump’s actions came on a day when he met with the leaders of the country’s largest automakers, whom he has been pushing to produce more of their products in the United States. He singled out General Motors in a Twitter post this month for building the Chevy Cruze hatchback in Mexico. “Make in USA or pay big border tax!” he wrote.
Hosting the automakers, he made a point of holding out a chair for Mary T. Barra, General Motor’s chief executive. “You’re not being singled out, believe me, Mary, I promise,” he told her as journalists recorded the moment. “But you have a lot of plants from a lot of different items built in the United States. And it’s happening, it’s happening big league.” Trump said he understood that manufacturers faced regulatory burdens in the United States, and that he would make it easier for them to make their products in the country. “We’re going to make the process much more simple for the auto companies and for everybody else who wants to do business in the United States,” he said. “You’re going to find this to be from being very inhospitable to extremely hospitable.”
Anticipating criticism from advocates of tackling climate change, he added: “I am, to a large extent, an environmentalist, I believe in it. But it’s out of control and we’re going to make it a very short process. And we’re going to either give you your permits or we’re not going to give you your permits. But you’re going to know very quickly. And, generally speaking, we’re going to be giving you your permits.”
The auto executives offered praise for Trump after the session. “We’re very encouraged by the president and the economic policies that he’s forwarding,” Mark Fields, the chief executive of the Ford Motor Company, told reporters outside the White House as they left. He cited the withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. “We appreciate the president’s courage to walk away from a bad trade deal,” he said.
Rico says it remains to be seen how this all works out, but the tribes won't like it...

Keeping one

The New York Times has an article by Michael Schmidt and Adam Goldman about Trump's pick for FBI director:

The director of the FBI, James B. Comey (photo), told his top agents from around the country that he had been asked by President Trump to stay on the job running the Federal government’s top law enforcement agency, according to people familiar with the matter.
A decision to retain Comey would spare the president another potentially bruising confirmation battle and also keep Comey at the center of the FBI’s investigation into several Trump associates and their potential ties with the Russian government.
Retaining Comey could also help calm the bureau’s work force, which has been rattled after a tumultuous few months in which the FBI and the director himself were sharply criticized for moves that many felt influenced the outcome of the presidential election.
During the campaign, Trump harshly criticized the FBI and the Justice Department for not bringing criminal charges against Hillary Clinton in connection with her use of a personal email server. After Trump was elected, he said in a nationally televised interview that he had not made up his mind about whether he would ask Comey to resign.
When Comey and the president-elect met in Trump Tower for the first time this month for an intelligence briefing, Trump told the FBI director that he hoped he would remain in his position, according to people briefed on the matter, and Trump’s aides have made it clear to Comey that the president does not plan to ask him to leave, these people said.
Under federal law, the FBI director is appointed to a ten-year-term, intended to overlap more than one administration as part of post-Watergate overhauls created to give the director independence and insulate the job from politics. The president can fire the director, though. Comey, a former senior Justice Department official under President George W. Bush, was appointed by President Obama in 2013.
Those who described the plans for the FBI director spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to be identified discussing confidential conversations between Trump, his aides, and Comey.
Representatives for the FBI and the White House declined to comment.
On 15 January 2017, Trump’s chief of staff, Reince Priebus, appeared on ABC News’ “This Week” program and signaled that Trump had no immediate desire to get rid of Mr. Comey.
“Yes, he has confidence in Director Comey,” Mr. Priebus said. “We have had a great relationship with him over the last several weeks. He’s extremely competent. But, look, his term extends for some time yet. There’s no plans at the moment in changing that term. And we’ve enjoyed our relationship with him and find him to be extraordinarily competent.”
Comey will have to manage an increasingly difficult relationship with Trump and his White House, as the Comey is leading an investigation into ties between Trump’s associates including his former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and the Russian government. As part of that inquiry, agents have examined intercepted communications and financial transactions. Comey has repeatedly declined to discuss the investigation with members of Congress.
Clinton and many Democrats blame Comey for her defeat, and it is not clear whether she would have kept him on had she won.
In July, Comey held a news conference to announce that the bureau was recommending to the Justice Department that Mrs. Clinton or her aides not be charged in connection with the mishandling of classified information on her personal email server. At the news conference, Comey took the unusual step of criticizing how Mrs. Clinton and her aides handled classified information, saying it was “extremely careless.”
When federal officials concluded their investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server as secretary of state, the FBI director, James B. Comey, had a decision to make on how to announce that news. The choices he made in July set the FBI on the path toward the predicament it faces today. Then, eleven days before the election, Comey sent a letter to Congress saying new emails that appeared related to the investigation had surfaced, which the bureau needed to analyze.
The letter set off a flurry of reports about Clinton’s personal email server. The emails had been found as part of an unrelated investigation into illicit text messages Anthony D. Weiner— the estranged husband of Mrs. Clinton’s closest aide, Huma Abedin— had sent to a fifteen-year-old girl in North Carolina. Two days before the election, Comey sent another letter to Congress, saying that the emails had not changed the FBI’s original recommendation to not charge Clinton.
Republicans most likely would have attacked Clinton if she had asked Comey to resign upon her election, but some people close to her have said that she was willing to endure whatever political cost was necessary in order to ensure Comey lost his job.
The Justice Department’s inspector general is investigating Comey’s handling of the Clinton email case, including both his decision to discuss it at a news conference and to disclose just days before the election that he had new information that could lead him to reopen it.
The FBI says it welcomes the investigation, and FBI officials say they believe more information will be made available to the public that will help explain his actions.
On Sunday at the White House, Trump held an event to honor law enforcement officers who provided security for the inauguration. After calling the Secret Service director to the front of the room, Trump spotted Comey in the crowd. “Oh, there’s Jim, he’s become more famous than me,” Trump said.
Rico says he wonders what dirt Comey has on Trump to keep his job... (And Reince Priebus is another name you can't pronounce...) But won't it be funny if Trump ends up being a Russian (no longer Soviet) mole... (So reread The Cardinal of the Kremin.)

20 January 2017


Rico says he wonders why no one tried to fly a big armed drone over the Inaugural parade; that'd set the Secret Service into a tizzy...

The Trump nightmare begins

Rico says he's had the Inauguration on, but couldn't bring himself to actually watch...

Corrupt, crazy, and incompetent? Great.

From The New York Times, an anti-Trump Op-Ed by Paul Krugman:
Betsy DeVos, whom Donald Trump nominated as Education Secretary, doesn’t know basic education terms, doesn’t know about Federal statutes governing special education, but thinks school officials should carry guns to defend against grizzly bears.
Monica Crowley, selected as deputy national security adviser, withdrew after it was revealed that much of her past writing was plagiarized. Many other national security positions remain unfilled, and it’s unclear how much if any of the briefing materials prepared by the outgoing administration have even been read.
Meanwhile, Rex Tillerson, selected as Secretary of State, casually declared that America would block Chinese access to bases in the South China Sea, apparently unaware that he was in effect threatening to go to war if China called his bluff.
Do you see a pattern here? It was obvious to anyone paying attention that the incoming administration would be blatantly corrupt. But would it at least be efficient in its corruption?
Many Trump voters certainly thought they were choosing a smart businessman who would get things done. Even those who knew better may have hoped that the president-elect, his ego finally sated, would settle down to running the country, or at least delegate the boring business of governing America to people actually capable of doing the job.
But it’s not happening. Trump hasn’t pivoted or matured, whatever term you prefer. He’s still the insecure, short-attention-span egomaniac he always was. Worse, he is surrounding himself with people who share many of his flaws, perhaps because they’re the sort of people with whom he is comfortable.
So the typical Trump nominee, in everything from economics to diplomacy to national security, is ethically challenged, ignorant about the area of policy he or she is supposed to manage, and deeply incurious. Some, like Michael Flynn, Trump’s choice as national security adviser, are even as addicted as their boss to internet conspiracy theories. This isn’t a team that will compensate for the commander in chief’s weaknesses; on the contrary, it’s a team that will amplify them.
Why does this matter? If you want a model for how the Trump-Putin administration is likely to function (or malfunction), it’s helpful to recall what happened during the Bush-Cheney years.
People tend to forget the extent to which the last Republican administration was also characterized by cronyism, the appointment of unqualified but well-connected people to key positions. It wasn’t as extreme as what we’re seeing now, but it was striking at the time. Remember “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”? And it caused very real damage.
In particular, if you want some notion of what Trump governance is likely to look like, consider the botched occupation of Iraq. People who knew anything about nation-building weren’t wanted; party loyalists and corporate profiteers took their place. There’s even a little-known connection: Betsy DeVos’ brother, Erik Prince, founded Blackwater, the mercenary outfit that, among other things, helped destabilize Iraq by firing into a crowd of civilians.
Now the conditions that prevailed in Iraq— blind ideology, contempt for expertise, effective absence of any enforcement of ethics rules— have come to America, but in a far more acute form.
And what will happen when we face a crisis? Remember, Katrina was the event that finally revealed the costs of Bush-era cronyism to all.
Crises of some kind are bound to occur on any president’s watch. They appear especially likely, given the crew that’s coming in and their allies in Congress: given the stated priorities of the people about to take charge, we could very well see collapsing health care, and a trade war and a military standoff with China in the next year.
But even if we somehow skirt those dangers, stuff always happens. Maybe there will be a new economic crisis, helped along by the rush to undo financial regulation. Maybe there will be a foreign affairs crisis, say over adventurism in the Baltics by Trump’s good friend Vladimir Putin. Maybe it will be something we’re not thinking about. Then what?
Real crises need real solutions. They can’t be resolved with a killer tweet, or by having your friends in the FBI or the Kremlin feed the media stories that take your problems off the front page. What the situation demands are knowledgeable, levelheaded people in positions of authority.
But, as far as we know, almost no people meeting that description will be in the new administration, except possibly the nominee for the Secretary of Defense, whose nickname just happens to be Mad Dog.
So there you have it: an administration unprecedented in its corruption, but also completely unprepared to govern. It’s going to be terrific, let me tell you.
Rico says we survived Nixon, we'll survive (if unpleasantly) Trump. May it only be four years...

Tesla, cleared

From The New York Times, an unobtainable article by Neal Boudette about Tesla:

Tesla's Self-Driving system cleared in crash
The NTSB found that, while Tesla's Autopilot feature did not prevent a crash in Florida, the system performed as it was intended.

Rico says that, if it was easy, anybody could do it. (Rico apologizes for the stingy attitude of The Times, and thus the lack of their article; you can read about it in an article by Louis Hansen from The San Jose Mercury News:

Federal regulators said they have closed an investigation of a fatal Tesla Autopilot crash, finding no defects and declining to issue a recall notice.
The six-month investigation by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration  into the nation’s first self-driving vehicle fatality found no problems with the design or performance of Autopilot. The system, based on radar, camera and machine learning technology, allows Tesla vehicles to sense potential crashes, stay within lanes, and adjust speeds automatically.
The probe did not uncover a “safety-related defect trend,” the report said, adding that “further examination of this issue does not appear to be warranted.” But the report said that drivers do need to pay better attention when using self-driving technology.
Tesla, based in Palo Alto, California, said in a brief statement that it appreciated the thoroughness of the investigation.“The safety of our customers comes first,” the company said.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk highlighted one finding of the report: crash rates dropped about forty percent in Teslas after the system was installed.
The Federal agency specifically looked at the design and performance of Tesla’s automatic emergency braking system, the interface between the driver and the vehicle, data from other Tesla crashes, and changes the company has made to Autopilot.
NHTSA spokesman Bryan Thomas said the agency favored the changes Tesla made to Autopilot after the crash, including more aggressive warnings when drivers take their hands off the wheel and that the system disengages when drivers repeatedly ignore the warnings. “It certainly addressed the issues we were evaluating,” Thomas said.
On 7 May 2016, a Tesla owner in a Model S was driving using Autopilot on a divided highway near Williston, Florida. A tractor-trailer made a legal, left-hand turn across the highway in front of the Tesla. The Tesla driver and Autopilot failed to brake, and the car crashed broadside into the truck. Josh Brown, a forty-year-old Navy veteran and entrepreneur from Ohio, was killed.
The safety administration examined data from multiple Tesla crashes where the airbags deployed. It also evaluated the automatic emergency braking performance, designed to stop or slow a vehicle before impact. The agency found that Tesla’s emergency braking worked as promised although, like all emergency braking systems on the market, its primary function is to limit rear-end collisions. It was not designed to brake for vehicles, like the tractor-trailer in Florida, crossing in front of a Tesla, the report said.
The report noted Tesla instructed drivers to “always keep your hands on the wheel” while using Autopilot, but suggested that the company could be more specific about the system’s limitations in its owner’s manual.
The crash led Tesla to re-examine and overhaul several parts of the driver assistance package. In September of 2016, Musk announced a new version of Autopilot, adjusting software to make the system more dependent on radar sensors. New Teslas rolling out of the factory also have greater computer processing power to handle data from its suite of sensors. The company has been sending out software upgrades this month.
Karl Brauer, publisher of Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader, said the crash is an example of a driver putting too much faith in Tesla’s sensors and computing power. “It almost certainly will not be the last incident on this journey, but people need to remember one thing: there are currently no fully autonomous cars available for public purchase or use,” Brauer said.
The findings did not free Tesla from criticism. Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group critical of Tesla’s marketing of Autopilot, said in a statement Musk should be held responsible.
“The NHTSA has wrongly accepted Tesla’s line and blamed the human, rather than the technology and Tesla’s aggressive marketing,” the group said. “The very name Autopilot creates the impression that a Tesla can drive itself. It can’t.” The agency acknowledged criticisms about the system’s name, but said marketing was outside the scope of their investigation.
Rico says he's still hoping his father gets one...

Mnuchin failed to disclose assets

From The New York Times, an article by Alan Rappeport about another rich guy, fucking up:

Steven Mnuchin, Trump's nominee for Treasury Secretary, failed to disclose a hundred million dollars in assets. Mnuchin, who is testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, also did not list his role as a director of an investment fund in the Cayman Islands on a questionnaire. The revelation came hours before Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs banker, began testifying before the Senate Finance Committee, which has historically been bipartisan in its demands for transparency from nominees. Mnuchin was ready to outline his vision for the economy and defend himself against claims that he headed a bank that ran a “foreclosure machine” during the financial crisis.
“The Treasury secretary ought to be somebody who works on behalf of all Americans, including those who are still waiting for the economic recovery to show up in their communities,” said Senator Ron Wyden, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “When I look at Mnuchin’s background, it’s a stretch to find evidence he’ll be that kind of Treasury secretary.”
In a hearing marked by sharp exchanges, Mnuchin struggled to answer questions about his use of tax havens as a hedge fund manager and whether he thought such loopholes should be closed.
Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, pointedly asked Mnuchin if he was using Cayman Islands corporations to avoid taxation. He responded that he was working on behalf of his clients, in accordance with the law.
“Let me just be clear again: I did not use a Cayman Islands entity in any way to avoid paying taxes for myself,” Mnuchin said. “I would love to work with the IRS to close these tax issues that make no sense.” He added: “I would support changing the tax laws to make sure they are simpler and more effective.”
Republicans came to Mnuchin’s defense, suggesting that none of his omissions were willful, and they gave strong indications that they would vote for him.
Senator Orrin G. Hatch, a Republican from Utah, defended Mnuchin’s business record and described him as extremely qualified for the job.
“Objectively speaking, I don’t believe anyone can reasonably argue that Mnuchin is unqualified for the position,” Hatch said. “If the confirmation process focused mainly on the question of a nominee’s qualifications, there would be little, if any, opposition to Mnuchin’s nomination.”
But the process was also focused on Mnuchin’s financial disclosure form, and that prompted intense scrutiny. “In his revised questionnaire, Mnuchin disclosed several additional financial assets, including nearly a hundred million dollars worth of real estate, including a co-op in New York City, a residence in Southampton, New York, a residence in Los Angeles, California, and fifteen million dollars in real estate holdings in Mexico”, Democratic staff members of the Senate Finance Committee wrote in a memo. “Mnuchin has claimed these omissions were due to a misunderstanding of the questionnaire.”
According to the memo, Mnuchin also initially failed to disclose that he is the director of Dune Capital International, an investment fund incorporated in the Cayman Islands, along with management posts in seven other investment funds.
And he belatedly disclosed that his children own nearly a million dollars in artwork.
Asked about the omissions at the hearing, Mnuchin described them as a simple mistake made amid a mountain of bureaucracy. “I think as you all can appreciate, filling out these government forms is quite complicated,” Mnuchin said, noting that he had handed over five thousand pages of disclosures. “Let me first say, any oversight was unintentional.”
But Democrats pounced and tied Mnuchin to Trump’s campaign pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington.
Pressed as to whether his failure to disclose the information was an ethical lapse, Mnuchin insisted that he was following the guidance of his lawyers and made an innocent error. “I assure you that these forms were very complicated,” he said, explaining that he had pledged to be forthcoming to “the best of my knowledge”.
Senator Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, was unsatisfied with the response and shot back that “it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand the words ‘list all positions’.”
To that, Senator Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader from New York, added: “Never before has the Senate considered such an ethically challenged slate of nominees for key cabinet positions. Mnuchin’s failure to disclose his Cayman Islands holdings just reeks of the swamp that the president-elect promised to drain on the campaign trail.”
And American Bridge, the so-called Democratic super PAC, said Mnuchin’s holdings were a sign that Trump’s government would not look out for working-class Americans.
“By slamming through Mnuchin, Senate Republicans are becoming accessories to Trump’s future corruption, helping him stack his cabinet with shady billionaires who, like Trump, will rig the government to serve their own interests at the expense of the American people,” said Shripal Shah, vice president of American Bridge.
Rico says that, if you have enough money, you can 'forget' about a hundred million... (Rico wishes he had the problem...) But the Treasury Secretary should have a name you can spell, much less pronounce...

Years in Texas prisons after conviction voided

From The New York Times, an article by Richard Pérez-Peña about injustice in Texas:

The legal record shows that Jerry Hartfield’s first murder conviction was thrown out on appeal, and for the next thirty-two years, he was not officially guilty of anything, nor sentenced to anything. Yet he spent that time in Texas prisons, in what an appellate court now calls “a criminal justice nightmare”.
He was finally tried and convicted again in 2015, but, on Thursday, Hartfield (photo) moved closer to freedom than he has been in decades. A state Court of Appeals ruled that he was not only denied his constitutional right to a speedy trial but, to a degree the court had neither seen nor imagined before; it noted that the important precedents dealt with delays of three years, six years, eight years — not thirty-two.
The three-judge panel dismissed the indictment against Hartfield, who is developmentally disabled, in effect erasing the recent conviction. But it is still not clear whether, or when, he will get out of prison.
Prosecutors could appeal the ruling to the Court of Criminal Appeals, Texas’ highest criminal tribunal. The state Attorney General’s Office, which has argued against Hartfield, referred questions to the Matagorda County District Attorney’s Office, which did not reply to requests for comment.
“We are deeply mindful that our conclusion today means that a defendant who may be guilty of murder may go free,” Judge Gina M. Benavides wrote for the Court of Appeals. “However, based on the United States Constitution, it is the only possible remedy.”
All told, Hartfield, now sixty, has spent more than forty years behind bars for the murder of a bus station ticket clerk.
His case can seem like something out of absurdist fiction: a court ruling ignored or forgotten, an appeal dismissed by a court that agreed with the substance but said it had been filed under the wrong statute, a retrial after most of the evidence had been lost and witnesses had died, and an argument by prosecutors that Hartfield, himself, was to blame for the delays, and caused them intentionally.
“Once you call this Kafkaesque, you can’t really call anything else Kafkaesque, because there’s nothing else remotely like this,” said David R. Dow of the University of Houston Law Center, one of the lawyers who represented Hartfield on appeal. “This was the perfect storm of everything that could go wrong with the criminal justice system.”
On 17 September 1976, Eunice Lowe, a 55-year-old white woman, was killed at the the Continental Trailways station in Bay City, Texas, southwest of Houston. The killer bashed in her head with a pickax, stole money from the station and took her car, and there was evidence of sexual assault after death.
Hartfield, a black man, signed a confession that he later disavowed, and, crucially, investigators said he told them where to find Lowe’s car. Experts placed his IQ in the 50s or 60s, which his lawyers contend made him easily coerced by detectives, and unable to understand his rights or his confession.
A jury convicted him and he was sentenced to death. But the Court of Criminal Appeals later overturned that verdict, ruling that a potential juror had been improperly dismissed for having doubts about the death penalty, and ordered a new trial. After years of legal wrangling, the high court ruling took effect in March 1983.
Under Texas law at the time, prosecutors had a way to avoid a retrial and preserve the conviction, but only if they acted within a time frame set by the court. Because the trial error had to do with capital punishment, if the governor commuted the sentence to life in prison, then it would be as if the appellate court had never ruled, and the guilty verdict would remain in effect.
That was apparently never communicated to the prison system. Dow said that Hartfield thought he was awaiting a new trial, but did not have the capacity to understand the delay or what to do about it.
Whether the District Attorney’s Office understood what had happened at the time is unclear, but it never took steps to retry him, and the case lay dormant for the next twenty-three years. Prosecutors have argued that Hartfield had legal representation all along, because his original defense team remained his lawyers of record until a court formally dismissed them in 2013. But Hartfield’s new lawyers say he had no legal counsel from 1983, when the original team thought they were done with the case, until a Federal court appointed a lawyer in 2008.
Starting in 2006, a fellow inmate helped Hartfield file motions in various courts. Some were rejected outright, and at least one apparently went to the wrong office. One Federal judge ruled in his favor, but another said he had to keep trying in state court.
Finally, in 2013, Texas’ Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that Hartfield’s conviction and life sentence were void, but his motions were also void. The motions were filed under a law applying to people who have been convicted, the court said, and there was no valid conviction on record in his case. He refiled under a different provision, and prosecutors finally sought a new trial.
Hartfield’s lawyers said the charges should be dismissed because he was denied a speedy trial. Prosecutors argued that, while the government was negligent, the defendant was partly to blame for the delays. For more than two decades, they said, he acquiesced in his imprisonment without trial, as a ploy to avoid the death penalty and to make it harder to mount a case against him. (The Supreme Court ruled in 2002 that intellectually disabled people cannot be executed.)
The District Attorney’s Office was able to locate just one of the sixteen evidence exhibits used at the original trial, several witnesses had died, and at least one had dementia. The murder weapon was lost, along with blood and semen samples that could have yielded DNA. Lowe’s car no longer existed.
But the trial court ruled that the case could proceed, and in 2015, thirty-eight years after his first trial, Hartfield was convicted again and sentenced to life in prison. If that sentence were counted from the start of his time in prison, he would have been eligible for parole long ago.
If he is released based on the recent ruling, he would probably live with one of his two sisters, Dow said. “I’m not sure if he knows about this ruling yet,” Dow said. “I think it’s unlikely he really understands it very well.”
Rico says, even for Texas, pretty stupid, and the guy's totally unprepared for life on the outside...

Tehran building collapse

From The New York Times, an article (with the usual unbloggable Times video) by Thomas Erdbrink and Dan Bilefsky about a Tehran, Iran building collapse in which at least twenty firefighters were killed:

One of the Iranian capital's oldest and most prominent skyscrapers crumpled into a smoldering heap as millions watched on television. The scene unspooled as if in a disaster film: as firefighters fought to control a blaze in one of Tehran’s most prominent high-rise buildings, the structure suddenly collapsed in a smoldering heap of wreckage, while millions watched on Iranian state television.
The state-run channel PressTV said that at least twenty firefighters were confirmed dead and that dozens of people could be trapped beneath the rubble. But other local news agencies said that as many as fifty firefighters and shopkeepers could have been inside the building when it collapsed.
“It was total chaos, there was dust, there were people everywhere. No one knew what to do,” said Nasim Khakpour, a Teheran resident who had gone to buy a guitar for her brother in the area.
Firefighters had battled the blaze for several hours as police officers tried to shoo away shopkeepers trying to return to collect their valuables, PressTV reported. Then came the collapse. As the building fell, a television journalist reporting in front of the building suddenly raised his voice. Onlookers could be heard gasping and shrieking. Several firefighters burst into tears.
“They had been trying to put out the fire for hours when suddenly the building just collapsed,” said Ibrahim Najafi, a cosmetics seller, who could see the building crashing down from his shop window. He said there were six hundred stores, offices, and warehouses in the building. “My friends are in there. What a horrible day.”
People at the scene were visibly upset, and the police were required to control angry crowds who yelled at security forces, saying they had arrived too late. “My friend is calling me from under the rubble, help him,” one man was heard shouting.
In the chaotic aftermath of the collapse, ambulances had to fight their way through onlookers drawn to the scene, some taking selfies in front of the rubble. Army conscripts were deployed to clear paths for the emergency vehicles.
The high-rise, the seventeen-story Plasco Building in the center of Tehran, housed a shopping center and garment manufacturers, and it was as familiar to most residents as the Empire State Building is in New York City.
Built in 1962 by Habib Elghanian, an Iranian-Jewish businessman, and named for his plastics-manufacturing company, it was Tehran’s first modern high-rise and long stood as a symbol of the drive for modernization during the reign of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. After the 1979 revolution, Elghanian was accused of spying for Israel and was executed.
Firefighters said the blaze appeared to have started in the morning on the eleventh floor before spreading to a floor below, trapping some of their colleagues inside. Firefighters on the ground stared upward as the fire advanced, apparently horrified by the predicament faced by those in the building. Two of them comforted a colleague, his face ashen, as he knelt, pointing at the building.
The choreography of the structure’s collapse played out with cinematic inevitability. First, one side of the building crashed, just missing a firefighter standing on a ladder, The Associated Press reported. Then the rest came down.
So dense were the plumes of smoke that Jalal Maleki, a spokesman for Tehran’s fire brigade, told The Associated Press that the cloud was “visible from the southern parts of Tehran”, miles away.
Masoumeh Abad, a member of the Tehran City Council, said tenants of the building had been warned “at least twenty times” that maintenance was needed, the semiofficial news agency Fars reported. But local news outlets suggested that the municipality had been lax in carrying out safety regulations.
The Plasco Building had been fully stocked with garments for the Iranian New Year on 21 March 2017, for which Iranians traditionally shop for new clothes, and there were reports that the clothing had choked the hallways, impeding the work of firefighters.
Rico says no one is braver than firemen, but it seems Elghanian got his revenge...

Movie review for the day: Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is the incredible untold story of Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (played by Janelle Monae), all brilliant African-American women working at NASA, who served as the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit, an achievement that restored the nation's confidence, turned around the Space Race, and galvanized the world. The visionary trio crossed all gender and race lines to inspire generations to dream big.
Rico says a wonderful movie, brilliantly directed and acted. Kevin Costner, of Open Range, and Jim Parsons (Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory) both play against type.

In the immortal words of Joe Bob Briggs, see it today...

Intercepted Russian communications part of inquiry Into Trump associates

From The New York Times, an article about Trump and the Russians by Michael S. Schmidt, Matthew Roserberg, Adam Goldman, and Matt Puzzo:

American law enforcement and intelligence agencies are examining intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates of President Donald J. Trump, including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort (photo), current and former senior American officials said.
The continuing counterintelligence investigation means that Trump will take the oath of office on Friday with his associates under investigation, and after the intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government had worked to help elect him. As president, Trump will oversee those agencies and have the authority to redirect or stop at least some of these efforts.
It is not clear whether the intercepted communications had anything to do with Trump’s campaign, or Trump himself. It is also unclear whether the inquiry has anything to do with an investigation into the hacking of the Democratic National Committee’s computers and other attempts to disrupt the election. The American government has concluded that the Russian government was responsible for a broad computer hacking campaign, including the operation against the DNC.
The counterintelligence investigation centers at least in part on the business dealings that some of the president-elect’s past and present advisers have had with Russia. Manafort has done business in the Ukraine and Russia. Some of his contacts there were under surveillance by the National Security Agency for suspected links to Russia’s Federal Security Service, one of the officials said.
Manafort is among at least three Trump campaign advisers whose possible links to Russia are under scrutiny. Two others are Carter Page, a businessman and former foreign policy adviser to the campaign, and Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative.
The FBI is leading the investigations, aided by the National Security Agency, the CIA, and the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit. The investigators have accelerated their efforts in recent weeks but have found no conclusive evidence of wrongdoing, the officials said. One official said intelligence reports based on some of the wiretapped communications had been provided to the White House.
Counterintelligence investigations examine the connections between American citizens and foreign governments. Those connections can involve efforts to steal state or corporate secrets, curry favor with American government leaders, or influence policy. It is unclear which Russian officials are under investigation, or what particular conversations caught the attention of American eavesdroppers. The legal standard for opening these investigations is low, and prosecutions are rare.
“We have absolutely no knowledge of any investigation or even a basis for such an investigation,” said Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Trump transition.
In an emailed statement, Manafort called allegations that he had interactions with the Russian government a “Democratic Party dirty trick, and completely false.” “I have never had any relationship with the Russian government or any Russian officials. I was never in contact with anyone, or directed anyone to be in contact with anyone,” he said.
“On the ‘Russian hacking of the DNC,’” he said, “my only knowledge of it is what I have read in the papers.”
The decision to open the investigations was not based on a dossier of salacious, uncorroborated allegations that were compiled by a former British spy working for a Washington research firm. The FBI is also examining the allegations in that dossier, and a summary of its contents was provided to Trump earlier this month.
Representatives of the agencies involved declined to comment. Of the half-dozen current and former officials who confirmed the existence of the investigations, some said they were providing information because they feared the new administration would obstruct their efforts. All spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the cases.
Many news outlets have reported on the FBI investigations into Trump’s advisers. The BBC and then McClatchy revealed the existence of a multiagency working group to coordinate investigations across the government.
The continuing investigation again puts the FBI director, James B. Comey, in the middle of a politically-fraught investigation. Democrats have sharply criticized Comey’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server. Clinton has said his decision to reveal the existence of new emails late in the campaign cost her the election.
The FBI investigation into Manafort began last spring, and was an outgrowth of a criminal investigation into his work for a pro-Russian political party in the Ukraine and for the country’s former president, Viktor F. Yanukovych. In August of 2016, The Times reported that Manafort’s name had surfaced in a secret ledger that showed he had been paid millions in undisclosed cash payments. The Associated Press has reported that his work for the Ukraine included a secret lobbying effort in Washington aimed at influencing American news organizations and government officials.
Stone, a longtime friend of Trump’s, said in a speech in Florida last summer that he had communicated with Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, the anti-secrecy group that published the hacked Democratic emails. During the speech, Stone predicted further leaks of documents, a prediction that came true within weeks.
In a brief interview, Stone said he had never visited Russia and had no Russian clients. He said that he had worked in the Ukraine for a pro-Western party, but that any assertion that he had ties to Russian intelligence was “nonsense” and “totally false. The whole thing is a canard,” he said. “I have no Russian influences.”
The Senate intelligence committee has started its own investigation into Russia’s purported attempts to disrupt the election. The committee’s inquiry is broad, and will include an examination of Russian hacking and possible ties between people associated with Trump’s campaign and Russia.
Investigators are also scrutinizing people on the periphery of Trump’s campaign, including Page, a former Merrill Lynch banker who founded Global Energy Capital, an investment firm in New York City that has done business with Russia.
In an interview, Page expressed bewilderment about why he might be under investigation. He blamed a smear campaign that he said was orchestrated by Mrs. Clinton for media speculation about the nature of his ties to Russia. “I did nothing wrong, for the five thousandth time,” he said. His adversaries, he added, are “pulling a page out of the Watergate playbook.”
The lingering investigations will pose a test for Senator Jeff Sessions, a Republican from Alabama, who has been nominated for attorney general. If Sessions is confirmed, he will for a time be the only person in the government authorized to seek foreign intelligence wiretaps on American soil. Sessions said at his confirmation hearing that he would recuse himself from any investigations involving Clinton. He was not asked whether he would do so in cases involving associates of Trump.
Rico says we all need to reread Clancy's Cardinal of the Kremlin...

Lady Liberty Is black

From The New York Times, an article by Erin McCann about a new coin: The Coin? Gold. Its 'Real Value'? Lady Liberty Is Black.
The United States Mint will release a commemorative gold coin in April of 2017 that will feature Lady Liberty as a black woman, marking the first time that she has been depicted as anything other than white on the nation’s currency.
The coin, with a hundred-dollar face value, will commemorate the 225th anniversary of the Mint’s coin production, the Mint and the Treasury Department announced on Thursday. Going on sale on 6 April 2017, it will be twenty-four karats and weigh about an ounce.
It is part of a series of commemorative coins that will be released every two years. Future ones will show Lady Liberty as Asian, Hispanic, and Indian “to reflect the cultural and ethnic diversity of the United States,” the Mint said in a statement.
The announcement comes at a pivotal cultural moment for the United States, a week away from a transfer of power, following a bruising election dominated by debates about immigration, race, and political correctness.
Lady Liberty is among the most potent of American symbols. Her best-known depiction, a gift from France in 1886, stands in New York Harbor, a giant statue of a woman with white European features beckoning with a lamp to the refugees of the world. Emma Lazarus' poem is inscribed on its base:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she
With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!" 
“Part of our intent was to honor our tradition and heritage,” Rhett Jeppson, the principal deputy director of the Mint, said in a phone interview. “But we also think it’s always worthwhile to have a conversation about liberty, and we certainly have started that conversation.”
Do not expect to see anyone spending the coins at the store. Coins like this do not circulate for everyday use, but are minted for collectors in limited quantities. There will be a hundred thousand of them with the black Lady Liberty. They will sell for far more than face value, depending on the value of gold, currently more than $1,000 an ounce.
“As we as a nation continue to evolve, so does Liberty’s representation,” Elisa Basnight, the chief of staff at the Mint, said at a presentation in Washington.
The coin’s head (what the Mint calls the obverse) was designed by Justin Kunz and engraved by Phebe Hemphill, and it shows a profile of Lady Liberty with a crown of stars that holds back her hair. The tail (the reverse, in Mint lingo), shows an eagle in flight. Jeppson said that several women had approached him after seeing the coin and told him, “she looks like me when I was younger.” “I saw real value in that,” he said. “That we see ourselves in the images in our coins.”
The Mint is expecting the coin to sell well, Jeppson said. Any profit the Mint generates from the sale of its coins is returned to the Treasury. Last year, the Mint sent about six hundred million dollars back to the Federal government, Jeppson said.
In addition to the hundred thousand gold coins— more than is typical for this sort of commemorative coin — that will be printed at West Point, the Mint will also produce 100,000 of what it calls medals, silver reproductions of the image that will sell for around forty to fifty dollars.
“The silver medals will be done at Philadelphia, because that is the birthplace of the Mint,” Jeppson said.
The Coinage Act of 1792 established the Mint, and it also mandated that any coins produced include an image of “liberty” as well as an inscription of the word. Since then, the idea has appeared in many forms on American currency, both circulated and collectible, most often as the feminine Lady Liberty. “When you look at the very first coins that we produced, they had a crazy-haired Liberty on there,” Jeppson said.
These coins are already in production. The next ones in the series are in the planning stage. Rough guidelines are given to sets of artists and sculptors, some of whom are staff at the Mint and others who are part of a pool, as Kunz was. Their work is then shared with the members of two commissions— one a group of citizen advisers and one a fine arts commission— who make recommendations on the final design for the coin. “It’s difficult for us to say what future coins will look like until we get there,” Jeppson said.
All American coins embody the idea of liberty, in keeping with the Mint’s 225-year mandate. But the new coin is what Jeppson called an “allegorical liberty”, meaning Lady Liberty does not represent a specific figure from history.
Women, in generic depictions or historic ones, have been underrepresented on American currency. The suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony appeared on dollar coins from 1979 to 1981, and Helen Keller, the author and activist, appeared on the reverse image of the Alabama state quarter in 2003. Sacagawea, the Shoshone guide who led Lewis and Clark to the West Coast, appeared on a dollar coin that has been minted since 2000:
Last year, after a public campaign to put a woman on the ten-dollar bill, the Treasury secretary, Jacob J. Lew, announced a broad remaking of the nation’s paper currency— the bills that, unlike a hundred-dollar coin, circulate among many Americans every day.
Harriet Tubman, the abolitionist and former slave, will appear on the twenty-dollar bill, and women and civil rights leaders will be added to the five and ten dollae bills.
Collectors expect the black Lady Liberty coin to be popular. Whenever the Mint does something new, it creates buzz, said Gilles Bransbourg, a curator with the American Numismatic Society and a research associate at New York University.“It’s departing from any of the coins that have been produced so far,” he said. “It sends a strong message that the Mint is departing from the tradition that will be perceived as very white.” The Mint’s recent commemorative productions have occasionally featured nonwhite characters, he said, pointing to a 2006 gold series that revived the popular “Indian head” nickel of the early twentieth century. It shows an American Indian whose face is believed to be a combination of three different men who sat for its designer.
Symbolism aside, the new Lady Liberty coin is “really beautiful”, said Jeff Garrett, the president of the American Numismatic Association, who saw the coin several months ago. “It’s struck in high relief, which means the high points are much higher than circulating coinage. I’ll buy one for sure,” he said. “I’ll probably buy several.”
Rico says he owes his black friend Kema one when he can afford it... (But we should take the poem off the Statue of Liberty; we do not want any more huddled masses, thank you.)

Security officials working to keep Trump’s inauguration safe

From Time, an article by Josh Sanburn about what didn't happen at the Inauguration:

Thousands of police officers have arrived from around the country and are getting their assignments from DC police. Dump trucks and buses are being readied as makeshift barriers. Roads around the Capitol are slowly being closed off.
Law enforcement officials in the nation's capital are finishing final preparations for an estimated million people expected in Washington DC this weekend for the presidential inauguration of Donald Trump and a series of planned anti-Trump marches and protests around the nation's capital.
Officials are expecting nearly a million people at Trump’s inauguration, along with a hundred groups on Friday and Saturday that plan to either protest or gather in support of the incoming president, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said earlier this week. The sheer number of gatherings presents a unique challenge for law enforcement officials tasked with keeping this year's inaugural events safe, especially in light of terrorist attacks in Europe over the past year involving trucks used as weapons.
"We've got to be vigilant, we've got to plan, we've got to prepare," Johnson said.
Roughly thirty thousand law enforcement officers will be on hand for the inauguration and the Women’s March on Washington planned for Saturday. The event’s organizers have said publicly they expect two hundred thousand marchers, but a Washington DC, homeland security official told The New York Times that authorities are planning for nearly a half million.
For some departments, planning has been underway for months. Peter Newsham, the interim chief of Washington DC's Metropolitan Police Department, says his agency began preparing more than a year ago and started coordinating several months ago with Federal departments that have their own jurisdictions throughout the city on Inauguration Day.
Security officials have begun preparing large trucks and buses to form a security barrier around the inaugural events. They're a possible preventive measure against an attack by someone driving a vehicle, similar to one last year in Berlin, Germany. Nearby hospitals, meanwhile, have been notified in the event of possible injuries related to the inauguration, according to The Times.
On Thursday, three thousand police officers from around the country met to discuss logistics for keeping this year's route secure. Those officers— who will be wearing their own local uniforms— will be under the command of DC police, while personnel from a number of other agencies— including the National Guard, the Department of Homeland Security, the United States Coast Guard, and the Transportation Security Administration—will make up the rest of the nearly thirty thousand officials on hand.
The overall security plan for President Obama and President-elect Trump is controlled by the Secret Service, while the Capitol’s grounds where the inauguration and swearing-in ceremonies are held are policed by the Capitol Police. The sidewalks and parks surrounding the parade route along Pennsylvania Avenue will be patrolled by Park Police, while the street itself will be under the jurisdiction of the DC police. Security costs are estimated to reach a hundred million dollars.
Officials expect about half as many people this year compared to President Obama's inauguration in 2009, which drew nearly estimated two million. The main challenge this year will be securing the nation’s capital for two straight days as hundreds of thousands of protesters descend to protest the new president in what could be the largest inaugural protests since the 1970s and the Vietnam War era.
"The challenge about having a large-scale demonstration back-to-back with the inauguration is that officers will have longer working days," Newsham says. "But police officers are used to that kind of thing."
At this week’s news conference, Homeland Security Secretary Johnson said that officials “know of no specific credible threat directed toward the inauguration” but added that officials have “got to be vigilant”, citing potential “individual acts of violent extremism”. Newsham said he also knows of no credible threats to the events, adding that organizers of Saturday’s women’s march “have affirmatively said they want it to be a large peaceful event. We’re hopeful that will be the case.”
Rico says it was tight, given recent events elsewhere. (But ISIS missed their chance...)

19 January 2017

Flora imitates Snoopy

Rico says his female cat, Flora, likes to perch on his bedside dresser to wake him up; it reminds him of Snoopy...

How Six turned a bunch of actors into believable Navy SEALs

Esquire has an article by Eric Tegler about the new television show, Six:

In Six, the eight-episode drama series to debut on the History Channel, members of SEAL Team Six venture forth on a mission to eliminate a Taliban leader in Afghanistan, a mission that goes awry when they uncover an American citizen working with terrorists. The story may be fiction, but the actors must be believable as Navy SEALs. The man who took on this challenge is retired Navy SEAL and television producer Mitchell Hall.
SEAL Team Six— formally known as the Naval Special Warfare Development Group— is an elite among elites. This is the unit that took out Osama Bin Laden, and it's no easy task to join up. To begin with, three-quarters of candidates who go through basic SEAL training fail to qualify. Those who do make it may serve with a SEAL Team for several years before they're put forward as candidates to join Six, which weeds out more than half of those candidates.
The SEALs who make it through are the kind of unbreakable people that Hall must teach actors to emulate. "That shows the pedigree of Six," says Hall, who served with the team for five years in a twenty-year career in Naval Special Warfare, having deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Accurately portraying the methods, gear, and operations of SEAL Team Six is hard enough. Conveying the complexity of the decisions its operators must make is probably impossible, Hall admits. "It's an imperfect effort by imperfect soldiers with imperfect policy and often, unclear guidance."
But Hall, along with series creators David Broyles (another military special operations veteran) and Academy Award nominee William Broyles, were determined to try, and to correct Hollywood's habit of getting the elite military wrong more often that right. To achieve that authenticity, they essentially put the cast through basic SEAL training and tactical training.
Last winter, Hall met Six' lead actors, Walton Goggins, Barry Sloane, Kyle Schmid, and Juan Pablo Raba, for the first time at dinner in Encinitas, California. The next morning he plunged the quartet into ten days of intense, immersive training at SEAL FIT, a business that models fitness and mental training on the basic Navy SEAL course.
In the first five days, the actors were put through a regimen like the first phase of SEAL training. They had to work as a team while deprived of sleep. They hauled logs through water, endured running courses, and generally suffered. "They bonded in a way very few casts do," Hall says. He likens the training to "throwing a bunch of eggs at the wall and seeing which ones do not break." In fact, the series executives were seriously concerned the exercise would break and embarrass the actors, calling several times to check up on them. Throughout the training, the actors referred to each other using their character names. "There were times where they forgot each other's real names for a moment," Hall reveals. "They all suffered, but they came out better for it."
Hall hastens to add that the actors' training was merely representative; it's not even close to the full gamut that real SEALs go through. Still, they talk eagerly about the experience, including the second five-day period that was dedicated to tactical training, handling real guns used by Six, and learning basic tactical movements and skills. The actors wore real body armor. They also wear it on camera, where its weight and strain and its effect on restricting one's movement are clear. "It continued the process of helping them get into the minds of these operators, how they think, what motivates them," Hall maintains. "Before a scene, I'd pull actors aside and say, 'For this scene, as an operator, this is what I might be thinking. Put your own stamp on that.'"
One perhaps surprising thing he works on with actors is dispelling any preconceived notions they might hold about SEALs— especially that they're the hulking, macho tough guys stereotypes you see in popular culture. "You could walk past someone from the Special Operations community and you probably wouldn't even know it. They're fairly normal, well-adjusted guys who have a mental compartment that allows them to do some pretty interesting things."
Such compartmentalization is at the heart of what Hall says he seeks to portray in Six, "the impossible balance between an operator's professional life and his personal life—trying to be a father, a husband, a team mate, and a brother. To go back and forth between those extremes is quite a task."
Making actors walk, talk, and act like Navy SEALs wasn't the only challenge Hall and the production staff took on. They obtained, often at great cost, the actual gear that Team Six uses. The team's clothing, helmets, boots, and other equipment are not standard issue. They're often experimental and vendors are reluctant to release them. Like real SEALs before a mission, the actors were responsible for checking each other's gear before a scene. (The series had no Navy cooperation, a facet of post-Bin Laden policy by the military.)
Audiences will ultimately judge how well Mitchell Hall, the cast, crew, and producers have done. "We want the non-military audience to appreciate what these operators— and their families, I can't stress families enough— go through to do this for the United States. The military audience will be tough, but I think they'll appreciate the minute detail we went into from the gear to the verbiage to the basic movement. We did our homework."
The actors have done theirs, Hall affirms. "They did an amazing job. They turned themselves inside-out to honor these characters. I told everyone including myself, 'We have to earn the right to tell this story."
The show begins on Wednesday, 18 January at 2200 Eastern and Pacific on the History Channel.
Rico says they've set the bar pretty high for this one...

Why his jokes are so damn funny

Esquire has an article by Sammy Nickalls about a very funny man:
Louis C.K. has already gone down in history as one of the greats, arguably among the likes of George Carlin and Dave Chappelle. But what exactly makes his jokes so damn hilarious? What makes his stories stand out from the rest?
In the YouTube channel Nerdwriter, Evan Puschak dissected a Louis C.K. joke to figure out a formula that explains how he manages to get entire audiences rolling, from body language to delivery. And while not just anyone could deliver a Louis C.K. joke like Louis C.K., it's still fascinating to try to pinpoint what makes certain comedians successful. (Just be prepared to not find this joke funny at all after you're done watching.)
Rico says that Louis is funny as hell...

Alyssa McMurtry on Mother Russia’s resurgence

From Guernica:

Rico says we're back to the bad old days...

Earth Sets a temperature record for the third straight year

Rico says how is this possible, if Trump doesn't believe in global warming?

Subject: Today's Headlines: Earth Sets a Temperature Record for the Third Straight Year
Reply-To: nytdirect@nytimes.com

Today's Headlines - The New York Times

History for the day: 1809: Edgar Allan Poe is born

Subject: 1809: Edgar Allan Poe is born

This day in History
Edgar Allan Poe is born
On this day in 1809, poet, author and literary critic Edgar Allan Poe is born in Boston, Massachusetts. By the time he was three years old, both of Poe's parents had died, leaving him in the care of his godfather, John Allan, a wealthy tobacco merchant. After attending school in England, Poe entered... read more »
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