Rags and Bones

Rags and Bones

By Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

Welcome to Billionaireworld

We live in decadent Rome; Sheldon Adelson has a Caligula-type quality, while the more modest and private Koch brothers resemble some less flamboyant emperor, Tiberius perhaps.(Yes, I know Rome is a tired metaphor, but its really on point.) There are other billionaires out there you've never heard of, surging up to play a significant role. The New York Times for April 11 profiled a lesser known one: Robert Mercer, a former math genius for IBM who now runs a hedge fund, and is bankrolling Ted Cruz's Presidential campaign. The article contains an extraordinary statement that unfortunately passes for normal in a sick environment; Trevor Potter, a "campaign finance lawyer who served as a Republican member of the Federal Election Commission", says "It just takes a random billionaire to change a race and maybe change the country". That is acceptable why? What use is my own voice and vote if Adelson, the Kochs or Mercer are actually picking the president? Why wouldn't I just retreat into silence and nonparticipation and, I don't know, breed gouramis, look at sunsets, and experience the Unbearable Lightness of Being? The article contains a couple of wonderful details about Mercer. Some of the employees who work at his Long island mansion sued him for not paying overtime, while deducting money from their compensation as punishment for "failing to replace shampoos, close doors and change razor blades". Even more striking is a $2 million lawsuit Mercer brought against a company he had hired "to build and install a model train and railway set at his home". Rome it is.

A Bluetooth fail

I am endlessly fascinated by poor technology design, and what it reveals about human nature, over-confidence, failure to observe actual requirements, a mind set in which the technology itself is the product, rather than a solution to a problem. I have started using my phone's Bluetooth connection to my car's electronics. One morning, I was in my house talking with a law client, when my wife started the car outside and literally drove away with my phone call, though it was a full day since I had used the Bluetooth connection in the vehicle. You would think Bluetooth would time out, or put up a dialog box: "Transfer this call to the car? Y/N".

Some years ago, I had a similar experience with another automobile-related technology, which I think has since failed (it has not taken the world by storm, anyway). We were using a car which had no key; a fob you carried had to be in the vicinity of the wheel for the car to start. My wife and I were headed to two different destinations along a Florida highway. She dropped me off to get a haircut, and only when she drove off to a dance lesson did I realize I had the fob. She was able to continue driving, but not to start the car again after her lesson. I solved that one by walking two miles along the highway.

Copyright trolling

It is rare for me to give any direct practical advice in this column, but here goes: if you have a web site or blog, don't use Google images to find illustrations for it. In the past twenty years, the media companies, the music and film producers, have influenced copyright laws--bribed Congress really--to create a really unbalanced situation. A work's creator need not place a copyright notice on it, and can even set it free on the Internet herself. You can pull the image off Google innocently, do a little investigation which still does not turn up a copyright notice, and use it on your own site--and then wind up the defendant in a frightening lawsuit with the plaintiff requesting statutory damages of $150,000 and legal fees. The going rate for settling these is about $4,000 or so. There is a whole industry that has sprung up of companies that specialize in bringing these cases, and lawyers who file them all day long. If you are using images on your site, make sure you are getting them from one of the sites which specialize in images available under Creative Commons licenses.


A long time ago, a completely forgettable movie called Conspiracy Theory, starring Julia Roberts and Mel Gibson, had a great line of dialog: "You mean NASA tried to kill the President with an earthquake?" (If that had been the actual plot of the movie, rather than a throw-away, I would probably remember the rest of the story.) Now it seems that humans are actually causing earthquakes. A federal U.S. Geological Survey site notes that before 2008, there was an average of 21 earthquakes per year in the central and eastern U.S. "In 2014 alone, there were 659 M[agnitude]3 and larger earthquakes". It appears, the page continues, that "wastewater disposal induced the {magnitude]5.3 Raton Basin, Colorado earthquake in 2011, as well as the [Magnitude] 5.6 quake that struck Prague, Oklahoma in 2011". The site punts on the question of whether fracking causes earthquakes, but that technology, like wastewater, involves injecting large quantities of fluid into rock. An article in the New Yorker from a few weeks ago says that Oklahoma is experiencing an average of two earthquakes a day of magnitude 3.0 and greater. It quotes William Ellsworth, a USGS scientist also extensively quoted in the federal website I found: "We can say with virtual certainty that the increased seismicity in Oklahoma has to do with recent changes in the way that oil and gas are being produced". Apparently, distinct from fracking, "wastewater disposal" involves pumping "billions of barrels of brackish water brought up by drilling for oil and gas....back into the ground". Fracking involves injecting "chemically treated water....into the earth to fracture rocks in order to access oil and gas reserves". Fracking "causes smaller earthquakes, almost always less than 3.0". This is a gripping and terrifying case study in late capitalism, public discourse, American politics, energy policy, greed, complacency, and fear.

Another manifestation of late capitalism

On a more benign note, Whats App just did a billion dollar IPO even though it has only a handful of employees. The venerable Craigslist, which most people don't realize is a for profit entity making megabucks on paid job and apartment ads, pioneered the approach of having no infrastructure, through the essentially deceptive and flawed innovation of allowing the customers to "support"one another, often amateurishly and rudely, and to police one another's uses of the system. The blogosphere is full of stories of people blocking competitors and anything they don't personally like on Craigslist, while Craig himself speaks vaguely of "community standards". The moral of the story is that any company going public without employees and particularly a customer service operation, is simply trying to make billions with no expense or infrastructure; the Internet does not magically substitute for knowledgeable human staff.

The Alps crash

Quite seriously, I plan never to fly again if I can possibly avoid it. If a pilot kills me along with himself, I will be seriously pissed off. Like my Bluetooth fail, there is huge learning here about the unintended consequences of technology design: protecting cockpits against intruders has now made it possible for the co-pilot to lock out the pilot while crashing the plane. I also wonder what changes have taken place in the world, in humans, that pilot suicide has become a Thing, a phenomenon which happens with some regularity, when it was unheard of for most of the first century of aviation. It ties in somehow, obscurely, to suicide bombings and school and other mass shootings: there is a type of human, increasing in frequency apparently, who is so vain, so disregardful of the lives of others, that he can contemplate taking as many people with him as possible when he dies. I like to think that nothing human is alien to me, but I can't get into the mind of the German co-pilot; his intentions and perceptions are beyond the event horizon of a black hole.

Elected judges

The framers understood that the only safe system to have judges appointed for life by the executive. This came out of a prerevolutionary history of judges serving at the will of George III, who knew they would be fired if they ruled against the home country and in favor of the colonists. Today's elected judges are as weak, as much like weathervanes, as those colonial ones. Since Citizens United, judicial races have become big ticket items of national importance, so that the Koch Brothers and their ilk are suddenly investing millions in state races. These elected judges later will not recuse themselves from controversies involving their masters, or matters of social policy like abortion, same sex marriage, labor unions, the environment on which the wishes of the billionaires are well known. This is just one of the many ways in which billionaire dollars are eroding the framework of American democracy.

The South Carolina police shooting

After an epidemic of police killing unarmed black men and getting away with it, a cop in South Carolina has been fired and indicted for murder--because a bystander video clearly shows him calmly shooting a running, out of shape, fifty something man eight times in the back. Like DNA, its hard to argue with video; without it, police lying, prosecutorial compliance like we saw in Ferguson, and contradictory eyewitness testimony will always allow a murderous officer to walk. However, the Eric Garner video, in which a member of NYPD can clearly be seen applying an illegal chokehold to a man who repeatedly says he can't breathe, was not enough to overcome a deeply racist environment, so there are limitations even to video.