advice from a fake consultant

out-of-the-box thinking about economics, politics, and more... 

Sunday, November 29, 2009

On Stimulating The Future, Or, "It's The Ytterbium, Stupid!"

We’re diving deep into “geek world” today with a story that combines economic hardball, the periodic table of the elements, and a barely noticed provision of the Defense Authorization Act that seeks to break a monopoly which today gives China near-absolute control over the materials that make cell phones, electric cars, wind turbines, and pretty much every other tool of modern life possible.

If we successfully break the monopoly, we’ll be able to create millions of new manufacturing jobs in this country—and if we don’t, somebody else owns the 21st Century.

Ironically, the global warming we’re trying to fight with new green technologies might be an ally in our efforts to make those very same green technologies happen.

There’s a revolution in industrial processing going on, rare earths are at the center of it all...and in today’s story, the revolution will be televised.

“Everything in the Universe comes out of nothing.
Nothing—the nameless is the beginning...”

--Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, Chapter One
(Translated by Man-Ho Kwok, Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay)

So What Are Rare Earths?

Rare earths are materials that are, as it turns out, not always especially rare; nonetheless, they all have properties that are quite rare, indeed. You’ll find them hanging out in their own special section of the Periodic Table of the Elements, kept well isolated from all the others.

For example, your television and computer monitor rely upon the element europium, which makes the color red appear on your screen. There is nothing else known to exist that can be used for the same purpose. Therefore, the ability to make TVs and computer monitors is entirely dependant on access to this material.

Cerium is the most effective agent available for polishing glass, and if it wasn’t for cerium, your eyeglasses—and everything else in the world with a lens—would be a lot tougher to produce...and they would be lenses of lower quality, to boot.

Erbium lasers work better than carbon dioxide (CO2) lasers for facial surgery, and its unique ability to emit and amplify light under optical excitation makes it essential (and, at the moment, irreplaceable) when producing either fiber optic cable for transmitting data or the optoelectronic “building blocks” of the next-generation data storage systems that will eventually replace every hard drive and memory chip on the planet today.

And what is the rare earth application with which you are probably the most familiar?


As it turns out, if you mix the rare earth element neodymium with iron and boron, you get what is by far the most powerful magnetic material available—and it’s easily fabricated into lots of useful shapes.

computer in a box1.jpg

These magnets have found their way into the headphones and speakers you listen to, the hard drive in your computer, your DVD player, every power everything in your car (they’re used in electric motors), and, eventually, into the electric motors that are likely to be actually propelling your car.

(Driving a Prius or some other hybrid vehicle? You’re driving around with about a kilo of neodymium under the hood, a number that’s soon expected to double.)

Of course, I could be wrong.

The rare earth application you’re most familiar with might be...batteries.

The nickel metal hydride battery (NiMH) has been the rechargeable battery of choice for about a decade now, turning up in everything from your cell phone to your camera to hand tools. This type of battery can be fabricated using several chemical formulations; the key here is that either cerium or another rare earth element, lanthanum, are essential to whatever formulation is chosen. Other rare earths are used as additives to make these batteries work better in high-temperature applications.

(Just for the record, that hybrid or “all-battery” vehicle you’re driving has at least 25 pounds of lanthanum on board.)

“New and improved” in rechargeable battery circles means lithium ion batteries; they also require lanthanum (although europium, yttrium, and protactinium are being considered as experimental additives).

These materials are also critically important if you’re in the business of building missiles or rockets or military communications systems—or civilian communications systems, for that matter.

So Why Is All Of This Such A Big Deal?

It’s a big deal because there is, shall we say...a bit of a supply problem.

"There is oil in the Middle East; there is rare earth in China...."

--Deng Xiaoping, 1992

You may recall that europium is the only thing that can make the color red on a TV set, and from the 1960s until the 1980s the only place in the world that was producing any rare earth element (REE) in any quantity was Molycorp’s Mountain Pass mine, in California’s Mojave Desert.

All of that changed in the 1990s as China decided to “...[i]mprove the development and applications of rare earth, and change the resource advantage into economic superiority", to quote Chairman Jiang Zemin. Since that time China has worked to expand ore production at its two major deposits as well as to expand the associated refining and fabrication industries that actually turn raw metals into finished products.

China was able to do this primarily because of two big cost advantages: cheap labor and access to REE as a byproduct of other mining activities (which basically means that if your copper mine’s ore also contains trace elements of REE, you do it cheaper than digging for just the REE). REE, we should mention, do not readily “gather” in large and easily mined “veins”, unlike other minerals, making mining more difficult.

Because of environmental problems at the Mountain Pass operation and price competition from the Chinese, there has been no US mining for REE since 2002, and today, more than 95% of the world’s REE production is based in China.

And all of a sudden, the Chinese might not have any spare REE for the rest of us.

What’s happened is that all those companies moving to China to do fabrication of REE material are raising the local demand, and it’s now being suggested that exports of REE from China could soon end. (A quick example: lanthanum and neodymium demand and supply were equal in 2008; this means supply will have to increase before lots of new hybrid or battery-only cars can hit the road.)

Some are suggesting there may be additional motives on the part of the Chinese Government, but I was unable to substantiate those rumors.

(The complete supply picture is a bit more complex; this because scrapping today’s consumer products for tomorrow’s REE is also an option, but at some currently unknown cost and efficiency.)

So Now What?

So that was the bad news; here’s the (potential) good news, located about 850 pages deep in a conference report that finalized the Legislative Branch’s work on the 2010 National Defense Authorization Act:

“...Report on rare earth materials in the defense supply chain (sec. 843)

The House bill contained a provision (sec. 828) that would require a report on the usage of rare earth materials in the supply chain of the Department of Defense.
The Senate amendment contained a similar provision (sec. 837).
The House recedes with an amendment combining the requirements of the two provisions..."

Of course, we better do more than just write a report, as all too often “write a report” is actually just another way of saying “ignore problem for now”—especially if, as the not enacted Rare Earth Supply-Chain Technology And Resources Transformation (RESTART) Act Of 2009, said:

“China’s ability—and willingness—to export REE’s is eroding due to its growing domestic demand, its enforcement of environmental law on current producers, and its mandate to consolidate the industry by decreasing its number of mining permits. The Chinese government’s draft rare earths plan for 2009 to 2015 proposes an immediate ban on the export of dysprosium, terbium, thulium, lutetium and yttrium, the “heavy” REE and a restriction on the exports of all the other, light, rare earth metals to a level well below that of Japan’s 2008 demand alone.”

Another source of good news: we have friends who also have access to REE, including Canada, Iceland, and in what has to be a “silver lining, dark cloud” moment, Greenland, who is just about a month away from gaining control over its natural resources from Denmark and assessing what, for the moment, appears to be the world’s largest known find of REE on the country’s southwest coast.

(This good news is, of course, balanced against the fact that access to the site will be much, much, easier...thanks to global warming.)

Of course, access to ore isn’t enough, and whatever supply is located, we’ll still need the ancillary capabilities that we lack today to refine and fabricate these metals into the American-made products we want to produce over the course of the next several decades.

So how’s that for a tale of geekiness?

The entire world that we know today—and the one we want for the future—depends on a small batch of odd metals, 95% of which currently come from China, who appears to be leveraging that advantage in a way that is not just an economic threat, but a National Security threat as well.

We have the potential to fix the problem, if we are so inclined, but we better get to it, and quickly, as our clock seems to be running a bit short.

And we need to do more than just dig holes in the ground. We need to establish an entire production chain—otherwise we’ll be mining ore that we’ll be shipping to...China...which is what we’re trying to avoid in the first place.

You know, a green economy is one thing...but a green economy that trades Big Oil for Big Battery is quite another—and if you’re just trading one “resource master” for a different one, what's the point?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

On Giving Thanks The European Way, Or, Freedom: It's The New Black!

I have a Thanksgiving story for your consumption that has nothing to do with turkeys or pumpkin pie or crazy uncles.

Instead, in an effort to remind you what this holiday can really stand for, we’ll meet some people who are thankful today for simply being free.

It’s a short story today, but an especially touching one, so follow along and we’ll take a little hop across the Atlantic for a trip you should not miss.

Europe's Having An Anniversary

It is 20 years now since a series of events began in Europe that culminated in the fall of the Soviet Union and the dictatorial governments in numerous other neighboring countries, and the European Commission has produced a series of eleven three-minute films to mark the occasion.

brandenburg gate.jpg

Each is particular to one country, and each tells personal stories from people who were on the ground at the time...and each will help you fill out a history that today might not extend further then the memory of what happened over the course of a few evenings at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

I'll describe a few of the films below, but I want you to go to the website of an ad agency to see them (something you'll rarely hear me say...); that ad agency being Belgium's Tipik.

The Baltic Countries Were First

Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania were the first to declare their freedom, but before that occurred each had organized unique protests, including one that involved all three countries.

Estonia's film describes how environmentalists were at the forefront of revolution; in a time when writing about environmental pollution could get you arrested, Rein Sikk and Raivo Riim did it anyway.

Latvia's "Singing Revolution" is chronicled in the words of attorney Romualds Ražuks, who swears the birth of his daughter united the re-emerging nation...which, in my opinion, is a lot of pressure to put on a little girl.

Lithuanians, in an homage to Hands Across America, gathered 2.1 million people, in Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia, to hold hands as a form of protest one afternoon. "The Baltic Way" is described to us by social scientist Dr. Aldona Pocienè and sculptor Vladas Vildžinus.

Two border guards, one Hungarian and one Austrian, recount a day when they allowed 120 men, women, and children heading for a picnic in Austria to cross their checkpoint just ahead of the Hungarian Army, who had orders to shoot border crossers.

What's Czech Minus Slovakia?

Blanka Brejska.jpg

Hana Bošková and Jiří Hollan were on Prague's Národní Avenue November 17th, 1989, the day armored vehicles tried, literally, to crush a crowd of protesters--and a revolution. Eventually both became citizens of the Czech Republic following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia as a nation.

Two days later, in what is today Bratislava, Slovakia, people took to the streets; although the revolution was successful in removing the Government in place at the time, there are those who are still learning the lessons of how hard it is to be free.

"...Now we try to deserve the democracy and the love we create..."

--Zuzana Cigánová

I promised a short story today, so I'll point you to just one more little holiday clip--and its mine. Over the weekend, I ran into a car with, shall we say...remarkable...decorations, as you can see from the video...

...and who doesn't feel thankful for fun?

So that's it for today: enjoy the holiday ahead, don't scorch the marshmallows, and when the talk gets around to "what are you thankful for...?" you can answer with: "I'll do you one's what a whole continent's thankful for".

After the holiday we have a lot of new ground to cover, and not much time; our weekend homework will be a conversation about unusual metals and the American economy...and how, just like oil, one will come to a dead stop without the other.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

On Murdoch And Google, Or, Hey, Rupert, Where’s My Check?

Our favorite irascible media tyrant is in the news once again, and once again it’s time for me to bring you a story of doing one thing while wishing for another.

In a November 6th interview, Sky News Australia’s David Speers spent about 35 minutes with the CEO of NewsCorp, Rupert Murdoch; the conversation covering topics as diverse as software piracy, world economics, the role of Fox News (and Fox NewsPinion©) in American politics, a strange defense of Glenn Beck, and, not very long afterwards, an even stranger defense of immigration.

We have heard a lot about the…how can I put this politely…challenges Murdoch seems to face associating factual reality with his reality, and we could have lots of fun going through his factual misstatements—but instead, I want to take on one specific issue today:

Rupert Murdoch says he hates it when people steal his content from the Internet to draw readers to their sites…which is funny, if you think about it, because he has no problem at all stealing my content (and lots of yours, as well) for his sites.

(To begin, a quick note: all the Rupert Murdoch quotes you’ll see today came from the YouTube, specifically the Sky News Australia interview, which is there posted in its entirety. Although each quote presents Mr. Murdoch’s words exactly, they aren’t necessarily in their original order; that’s so we don’t go jumping around from topic to topic too much in this story. When that happens the quotes will be split into separate paragraphs, each with their own set of quotation marks. Words in italics were words Mr. Murdoch himself emphasized.)

David Speers began the interview by asking Murdoch about the concept of public access to free news content online:

“Well they shouldn’t have had it free all the time, I think we’ve been asleep, ar, and, it costs a lot of money to put together good newspapers, good content, and you know they’re very happy to pay for it when they’re buying a newspaper…and I think when they read it elsewhere they’re going to have to pay…”

And it’s not just the public, either. Murdoch is particularly incensed at the idea that one news organization would intentionally steal content from another:

“Well…the people who just simply pick up everything and run with it…and steal our stories, ahh, we say they steal our stories they just take them, ummm, without payment…”

“…if you look at them, most of their stuff is stolen from the newspapers now, and we’ll be suing them for copyright. Ummm, they’ll have to spend a lot more money on reporters, to cover the world…when they can’t steal from newspapers…”

Mr. Murdoch is, after all, running a business…but beyond that, he acknowledges that the News Corporation “experience” is also critical, and that creating that experience requires him to deploy top-notch talent.

For that reason he is dismissive of the suggestion that he might establish a free site augmented by a “premium” site that charges for…well, premium content:

“…there’s also, in in a newspaper, uh we got a newspaper, or a news service, there’s a thing called editorial judgment, there’s a thing called quality of writing, um, quality of reporting, and, ah just to say you know we’ll take what’s average stuff that comes from an agency and uh, not charge for that, it’s okay but I think you’re really degrading the whole experience if you do that…”

And this is the part of the story where I come in.

It was with great surprise that I heard Mr. Murdoch saying all this, because, for the longest time, Murdoch’s own newspaper, “The Wall Street Journal”, has been carrying my stories (along with hundreds of others daily) on their website. In fact, my most recent story, “On Determining Impact, Or, How Stimulative Is Stimulus?” ran on their site just a couple of days ago, on November 18th.

Now don’t get me wrong: in contrast to Mr. Murdoch, I like being carried in as many places as possible, even if I don’t always know about it, and I’m glad the WSJ likes the work, so I am surely not complaining…it’s just that I was surprised to discover that News Corporation’s editors, exercising on a regular basis what can only be considered fine judgment, had apparently recognized the “quality of writing, um, quality of reporting” that I bring to the table, and, in an effort to enhance the experience they provide their clientele, have been regularly posting that writing…and Mr. Murdoch hates news organizations that steal content…and yet, despite all that, News Corporation never seems to send me a check.

So, Rupert…where’s my money?

But it’s not just bloggers and the WSJ: the movie review site Rotten Tomatoes is owned by IGN Entertainment, which is owned by FIM, which is part of…wait for it…News Corporation.

And what is the Rotten Tomatoes business model, exactly?

That would be to be the website that gathers movie reviews from a community of reviewers, posting them all in one space, and to use those reviews as the basis for the “Tomatometer” ratings they apply to movies…the Tomatometer being the central brand identity around which the entire franchise is built.

What's not included in the business model?

Paying money for those reviews, a fact I was able to confirm after an exchange of email today with the folks at Rotten Tomatoes.

So, Rupert…where’s their money?

We could end this story right here, but there is one other quote from the Sky News interview that deserves to be put in the record, not only because it’s a comment on Murdoch’s view of the newspaper business, but also because it may be instructive as to how he views television as well:

“…people who have been buying papers for 20 years, um, even bad newspapers, it’s hard to see them, um…can’t stop buying all papers or even changing newspapers…”

(For the record, I attempted to obtain a comment for this story from Dan Berger, who is News Corporation’s primary press contact, but that effort was not successful as of the time this went to print.)

And with that, we come to the “wrap it up” part of the story:

Murdoch is quite upset at the idea that other news organizations will steal the stories that he invests time and effort and money into creating, and yet at the same time he’s absolutely dependent on acquiring content for his own sites that he doesn’t pay for—and my guess is that virtually every one of the people who have been providing him this content, myself included, are at least reasonably happy with the process that got us here…but we’d be even happier if he would get those checks out to us in time for a bit of extra Christmas shopping.

Oh, yeah, and one other thing: when it comes to news, Murdoch believes that brand loyalty is apparently capable of trumping quality of content in the eyes of at least some beholders…and in truth, I think he’s right.

AUTHOR'S NOTE: This story was first posted the evening of November 19th, and sure can now be seen on the "Wall Street Journal" website.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

On Determining Impact, Or, How Stimulative Is Stimulus?

We strive to be, if anything, a participatory space around here, and I’ve had a question come to my inbox that is very much deserving of our attention.

To make a long story short, our questioner wants to know why, on the one hand, despite the passage of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA, also known as the “stimulus”), unemployment in the construction industry continues to increase, and, on the other hand, why there is such a giant disparity, on a state-by-state basis, in the cost of saving a job?

They’re great questions, and, having done a bit of research, I think I have some cogent answers.

A few facts will help set the stage:

I post on numerous sites, one of those being Blue Oklahoma, and about ten days ago I received an email from a reader who wanted me to know that he had data up regarding how effective stimulus dollars are at creating construction jobs.

He also wondered if I would be willing to blog about his work, which is itself posted in the form of a blog, with handy charts and graphs; I’ll quickly summarize what he had to say for your dining and dancing pleasure:

Although the goal of the stimulus was to create construction jobs, today’s data suggests that roughly 10 times as many jobs were lost in the construction industry in the recent past 12 months (September 2008 – September 2009) than were created by the stimulus efforts this year to date.

“The major question surrounding the ARRA and the construction industry on this reporting deadline is: How many construction jobs has the stimulus bill actually created or retained?

--Chris Thorman, State by State: Is the Stimulus Bill Creating Construction Jobs? [emphasis is original]

In the blog he reports that if you were to go to the website, download the state summary data located there, and then do a bit of quick math, you’d find that:

“…the ARRA has created or saved 73,352 construction jobs across the nation at a total cost of $15.8 billion since the bill was signed into law.

That’s $222,107 per construction job.”

He has also created a chart, that is intended to show, on a state-by-state basis, the cost per job—and there is enormous variation in the results, from a low of $47,536 in Minnesota to a high of $535,171 in California.

As a result, he’s come to this conclusion:

“Jobs are being created and saved but nowhere near a rate that will allow the stimulus bill to claim victory over construction unemployment.”

So the question for us becomes: how solid is his analysis?

In order to get a better answer, I decided to examine some of the underlying data supporting his conclusions—and to put it as gently as possible, the numbers that we’re seeing today are a bit…squishy.

There are a couple of reasons why, which, naturally, require a couple of quick explanations. (This is a “quick and dirty” education; there are exceptions to some of what you’ll see described below.)

Right off the bat, it appears that identifying exactly how many jobs are being saved is more difficult than it seems—but before we can really understand that, we need to take a moment and understand exactly how jobs are counted.

If you work 40 hours a week, which is the equivalent of a full-time job, you would equal one (warning: technical term ahead) “Full Time Equivalent”, also known as an FTE. Two people, each working 20 hours a week, are also one FTE, as are any other combinations that you can come up with that get you to 40 hours a week. From here on, when we use the word “jobs”, we also mean FTEs, and vice versa.

The rules of the stimulus program are unique unto themselves, and one of the unique rules, at least for the moment, is that overtime hours don’t count when counting FTEs; since we’re talking about the number of construction jobs the stimulus might be creating, and about 25% of construction jobs involve overtime work, this rule is probably distorting the outcome.

States are also having problems translating FTE tracking systems they already have in place into the new Federal FTE definitions being used to figure out how many jobs are being created with stimulus funds.

An example of this problem is laid out in a document from the University of Connecticut (UConn) describing how their FTE reporting is going. The State FTE tracking system uses “cumulative” reporting, the Federal system, “incremental” reporting; the only thing you need to know about the two systems is that, quoting from the report:

“…At no time would the state and federal FTE figures match.”

There’s another issue in play here: this is a brand-new bureaucracy, and everyone is still “finding their way”, on both the State and Federal sides. Here’s another quote from the same UConn progress report:

“Note #2: We have experienced challenges in reporting, primarily with formatting issues. Solutions include working directly with OPM [the State’s Office of Policy and Management] and the respective OSPs [the University’s Office for Sponsored Programs] to enhance timeliness and formatting accuracy. The reports submitted June through September 2009 were definitely part of the learning process. Currently, we are working directly with the respective OSPs to ensure the correct reporting templates are used for state reporting purposes.

Put all that together, and you have a collection of “structural” issues that will probably cause the “real” construction FTE numbers to be somewhat different from today’s “reported” numbers by some currently unknown amount that can probably be “estimated out” later on.

The biggest distortion in statistics, however, is a “timeline” issue, and it’s because trying to estimate the “cost per FTE” at the beginning of construction projects is inherently problematic.

To illustrate this point, let’s drill down to one individual project and see how things work:

Award number OK56S09550109 was granted to the City of Shawnee's Housing Authority to modernize the HVAC (Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning) system at a public housing development. The current reporting is that $856,585 was awarded for the work, for which 2.5 FTEs have been reported.

However, as of the reporting date only $61,674 has been expended (or $70,084--both numbers appear on the same webpage); that money going to Childers-Childers, Architects.

The 2½ FTEs are .5 each of two administrators and 1.5 architects.

Obviously there will be more jobs created as this project moves from design to construction, and the estimate of roughly $340,000 per FTE that could theoretically be cited as accurate today will no longer be valid once a bunch of people show up and actually start installing stuff.

In fact, it could be reasonably argued that the "correct" number is $24,669 per FTE (or $28,034), based on the amount expended and jobs created to date.

This “timeline issue” is a statistical problem that Thorman himself acknowledges in his blog:

“With 73,352 jobs created/saved during this reporting period, the number will undoubtedly go up in future months as more projects begin and as more projects enter more labor-intensive phases. The construction jobs created/saved by the stimulus will likely get better before they get worse.”

(Just for the record, a third method you could use to count FTEs would be to divide total grant awards against total estimated construction employment throughout the lifetime of these projects.)

You may recall that the reason we’re having this discussion is because we are trying to come to some conclusion about what impact the stimulus is having on creating jobs—or, alternatively, creating even more geeky FTEs.

Well, having looked at the thing all the way down to the individual project level, it may be that the best answer that’s available…is that there’s no answer yet available.

With that in mind, my conclusion is that we will need some time to create a large enough “statistical universe” of completed or nearly-completed projects before we can begin to make useful extrapolations about the stimulus’ future success, and my guess is that it will be six to 12 months before that threshold is reached…which means I have no idea whether the stimulus is creating or will create a sufficient number of construction jobs relative to its budget, and It may well be summer of 2010 before we do know.

And that, my fellow political observers, has the potential to make the ’10 Congressional midterms very, very, interesting.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

At 50th Birthday Party, Geov Parrish Announces New Lobbying Career

SEATTLE (FNS)--Longtime activist Geov Parrish unexpectedly revealed to the crowd gathered to celebrate his 50th birthday Friday evening his impending plans to end his decades-long career as a public issues advocate in exchange for new opportunities in the field of corporate communications management and image development.

The announcement appeared to be even more shocking to the glitterati gathered for Parrish’s 50th birthday extravaganza at Seattle’s tony Rainier Club than the fact that the event was sponsored by longtime Parrish nemesis Frank Blethen, publisher of the “Seattle Times” and a frequent target of Parrish’s acerbic criticism regarding the state of corporatocracy and its negative impact upon the state of the Nation.

A new commercial venture and three new business relationships were unveiled: a corporate communications consultancy, tentatively to be named “I Am The State!”, is to be opened in the next few weeks, after suitable office space is located, with the United States Chamber of Commerce and The Seattle Times Company as the first two business associates; additionally, Parrish will be joining the Board of Directors of the Strangelove Foundation, an organization devoted to maintaining the purity and essence of our precious bodily fluids.

A book deal was also announced.

Parrish, who among his other work was a founder of Seattle's alternative newspaper "Eat The State!", was in an ebullient mood as he explained the thought process behind his decision:

“After spending so many years fighting for affordable, high-quality health care for all Americans—all to no avail—I’ve decided to focus my efforts on getting myself high-quality health care, no matter what the cost...and considering, on the one hand, that my projected income next year from just the US Chamber of Commerce and Seattle Times operations are going to be somewhere in the range of $2.5 million dollars, and, on the other hand, that when my company pays for my new gold-plated executive health insurance plan it’s fully tax-deductible, I’m thinking the cost of health care is probably not going to be a problem for me going forward.

And then I thought: what better day to make the announcement...than Friday the 13th?”

Apparently channeling Dave Chappell, Parrish then offered the crowd a certain single-fingered gesture before shouting:

“I’m rich, bitchaaas!”

In an exclusive interview, Frank Blethen explained to me the rationale behind the surprising new relationship:

“There was a time when we could afford to ignore publications like “Eat the State!”, but as conditions for traditional publishers continued to deteriorate we found ourselves having to face the uncomfortable reality that last year Parrish’s paper was actually more profitable than “The Seattle Times”, and it was at that point that the Board and I decided to approach Parrish with an offer of employment.”

Parrish declined the offer, citing his unwillingness to be anyone’s employee. Blethen, however, would not be dissuaded:

“...we were determined to have him, in whatever capacity we could, and finally we hit upon the idea of hiring him as a consultant. We still couldn’t come up with enough of an annual retainer for Parrish to be fully persuaded, so I made a quick call to Tom Donohue at the Chamber, which is how we came up with the proposal to have him advise not just The Seattle Times Company on media outreach and branding strategies, but, through the auspices of the Chamber, to provide those same services to other companies that could use ‘the Parrish Touch’.”

As the Obama Administration’s plans for a new energy policy begin to become more certain Parrish’s I Am The State! is also expected to provide services to companies outside the media community.

I was able to confirm this with a quick call to Exxon/Mobil spokesman Harry Paratestes, who told me that:

“...we are one of several companies that are seeking to reinvigorate our corporate image ahead of any new energy legislation that might be forthcoming from this and future Administrations.

Parrish’s ability to successfully position his own media property while simultaneously destroying three competing papers—first, the “Seattle Weekly”, then, Hearst’s “Seattle Post-Intelligencer”, and finally, the “Seattle Times”—gives us the confidence we need to invest in his ideas and every expectation of a profitable and mutually satisfying outcome.”

Based on a recommendation from Tom Donohue, Center Street Publishers is rumored to have offered a $3.5 million advance for the rights to Parrish’s new book documenting his change of circumstances, “The State Can Eat Me!”; it is anticipated that distribution will be not only through traditional retail channels, but also through Conservative websites such as Human Events, which is currently offering books by Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin at deep discounts to entice new website subscribers.

A number of times during the evening I attempted to obtain a comment directly from Mr. Parrish regarding these developments, but due to my inability to penetrate either the cordon of sunglass-wearing security personnel or the ever-present entourage that now surrounds him that effort proved to be impossible.

In a written statement, Parrish’s people informed us that his next move will be to visit the Columbia Tower, Carillon Point, and the South Lake Union area to identify a suite of offices that can be redesigned to meet his specific requirements (which, I’m told, include an indoor shooting range, a cafeteria operated by the local “Popeye’s” chicken franchisee, and the largest organ in the State of Washington); during the period of construction, we were informed, he will be in residence in either the other Washington, at the Hay-Adams Hotel, or Atlanta, Georgia, at the Omni Hotel at CNN Center, where, despite the fact that he was initially recruited by the “Times’” Blethen, he will be doing his first consulting work for other members of the Chamber.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Paying For Immoral Things, Or, Is Stupak On To Something?

There has been a great wailing and gnashing of teeth over the past day or so as those who follow the healthcare debate react to the Stupak/Some Creepy Republican Guy Amendment.

The Amendment, which is apparently intended to respond to conservative Democrats’ concerns that too many women were voting for the Party in recent elections, was attached to the House’s version of healthcare reform legislation that was voted out of the House this weekend.

The goal is to limit women’s access to reproductive medicine services, particularly abortions; this based on the concept that citizens of good conscience shouldn’t have their tax dollars used to fund activities they find morally repugnant.

At first blush, I was on the mild end of the wailing and gnashing spectrum myself...but having taken a day to mull the thing over, I’m starting to think that maybe we should take a look at the thinking behind this...and I’m also starting to think that, properly applied, Stupak’s logic deserves a more important place in our own vision of how a progressive government might work.

It’s Political Judo Day today, Gentle Reader, and by the time we’re done here it’s entirely possible that you’ll see Stupak’s logic in a whole new light.

So let’s go back a moment and reconsider what Stupak wants: his religious beliefs are offended by the concept of abortion, and he is taking steps to ensure that the government is not using his taxpayer dollars to pay for the procedure.

This precedent is fascinating—and what I’m inviting you to do today is to consider, for a moment, what our government might look like if we take his logic and...extend it a bit.

“...In the game of life, the house edge is called Time. In whatever we do, Nature charges us for doing it in the currency of time...”

--Bob Stupak, Yes, You Can Win!

I always try to find common ground with those I oppose, and the most logical place to start would be to consider the fact that Stupak and I are both morally offended by the idea that we use taxpayer dollars to go around killing people.

So where do we differ?

For starters, I find it morally offensive that my taxpayer dollars are used, on a daily basis, to fund the actual killing of actual, living, people by my, Congressman Stupak, in the name of finding common ground, how about if the same day your Amendment goes into effect we also stop funding any military activities that might reasonably be expected to, as I hear people say, “stop a beating heart”, so as to prevent offending my religious sensibilities?

John Allen Muhammad, the so-called “Washington Sniper”, is scheduled to be executed today. Are you prepared to support legislation, Congressman Stupak, which will prevent his “post-term abortion” and the potential abortions of all those other human lives on Death Rows around this country if those state-sponsored abortions are as much of an affront to my religious beliefs as they should be to yours?

During the more or less four months worth of slow-walking and stalling that we have seen so far in this process 15,000 Americans have died...or, if you prefer, five 9/11s...simply because they have no health insurance—and unless your religion is a lot more bloodthirsty than mine, the abortions of 15,000 people because of the...what’s the word I’m looking for here...let’s see...could it be...sloth...of your colleagues should be an act as reprehensible as the greatest of blasphemies ever recorded in The Bible.

With that in mind, are you prepared to join me in cutting off the use of my taxpayer dollars to fund the salaries, the “public option” health care, and the office operations of those legislators who are behind these killings?

What else do we do that’s aborting lives on a daily basis that I’m sure Congressman Stupak would be glad to allow me, as a result of the offense to my conscience (and, presumably, his), to “negatively fund with extreme prejudice”?

There’s that Drug War, of course, and whatever we're doing in those secret prisons—and public ones—and subsidies for those who clear mountains and poison lands...not to mention the tax dollars I’ve been providing for a company who did electrical work that’s aborting soldiers.

So whaddaya think, Congressman Stupak?

Since you’re so proud of your pro-life credentials, are you ready to stand up with me and defend the principle that all human lives deserve to be protected, and that we have the right to withhold funding for all those activities that are morally repugnant...or are you just another one of those “enablers” who helped kill 15,000 people this past few months?

Enquiring minds want to know.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On Snow And Cameras, Or, Health Care Gets A Day Off

Whether you are deliriously happy, incredibly sad, or still uncertain about how you feel about what has emerged from the House this weekend, it’s probably safe to say that one thing everyone sick of the whole thing.

Of course, we’re far from done—but just to give us all a break, I’m going to abruptly change the subject.

I have a Flip Video camera—which I am still getting used to—and last night we ran up the hill to Snoqualmie Pass, Washington, ostensibly to test the camera’s low-light capabilities...but really so we could drive around in all the fresh new snow.

There’s plenty of time to get back to the political wars in a bit; but for right now let’s head up the mountain, see some cool stuff, talk about what the camera can—and can’t—do, and, just for fun, we’ll answer the age-old Seattle question: “how long does it take to find three places that sell espresso at the top of a mountain pass in the middle of nowhere?”

Snoqualmie Pass is Seattle’s closest ski area (just take I-90 about 40 miles east, and when the road quits going up, you’re there). The Pass and the surrounding mountains are high enough that you can get a lot of snow on the ground—in fact, in an average winter 33 feet of snow will accumulate; in 1955-56 you could have stuck a stick 68 feet long in the snow...and the ground would have still been a foot out of reach.

When you have that kind of snow to deal with, you have to make certain adaptations, which is how we get to our first video. What you’ll see is a fire hydrant shed, which is basically a little A-frame cabin for a fire hydrant:

(This was lit by car headlamps.)

There is a “Travelers’ Rest” building that’s been there since 1938—but you won’t see it in the next video, because it’s behind me. What I want you to pay attention to, instead, is how the camera reacts as it pans, and also the how the camera responds to the varying light levels in the clip:

The Travelers’ Rest building now houses restrooms and (naturally) an espresso shop. Here’s the view through one of their windows:

You can see that if the image is well-lit, and the camera is nice and still, the results are surprisingly good...for a camera that fits in a pocket.

The Alpental Lodge is located a hundred feet or so above the Pass; this sodium-lit video shows snow falling in the Lodge’s parking lot:

There is a mountain gorge with a genuine babbling brook in front, and a covered wooden bridge gets you over to the Lodge from the parking lot. This next video shows how the camera reacts to low light combined with movement. It’s also a great example of how well the camera records sound, which it does pretty well. (As the video progresses, the light changes from ambient light to fluorescent to sodium lamps as the bridge ends.)

We are still a little ways from Alpental’s opening, but this is an “almost picture postcard perfect” image of the back of the Lodge—and again, you’ll note that if enough light is present, the results can be great:

People live up here, as you might imagine, but again, when you have this much snow, you have to adapt. In order to get in and out of the house in a place where the snow will probably pile up well past the second story windows before it’s all done, you need a plan. The two videos that follow show the “snow sheds” that people build just to get from the front door to the car.

In about four to six weeks, when serious snow is on the ground, these sheds will be completely buried, creating exit tunnels that are somewhat reminiscent of what you might see attached to an igloo.

We’re almost to the end, and it’s time to answer the question we posed at the beginning of the story: exactly how long does it take to find three places that sell espresso at the top of a mountain pass in the middle of nowhere?

Who picked the one minute, fifteen seconds square on the grid? If it was’re the winner.

The final video of the story shows just what kind of a snow shovel works best when clearing the kind of snow that accumulates at the Pass. This video was taken at the front doors of the third espresso location you saw from the previous video.

See the yellow “caution” tape around the windows? Snow will be piled up at least that deep in a few weeks; they will have to cut holes in the snow banks to allow people to walk around the side of the building to get to that side of the parking lot.

Normally this would be the part of the story where I would wrap everything up, and to do that today I’m going to offer a few thoughts about the little Flip Video camera.

I bought this camera because it is so small that it can easily be carried in a shirt pocket, because with this camera it’s so quick to start shooting, and because it was capable of recording in 720p, which is a high-def format.

I knew, going in, that it would have a number of limitations, and we have seen those on display in the videos here. I did not buy this camera as a substitute for a Red Camera—but I did buy it as a camera that I could use for field interviews that could be put on the Web, and, as some of the video on display here testifies, the camera is fully capable of doing that and more.

So there you go: we saw some très cool snow video, you, perhaps, learned a few things about adaptation, and we managed to get in a camera review besides.

And the best part: for at least a few minutes—no health care!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

On Projecting R-71's Outcome, Or, We Visit A Political Party

Over the past few days we have been talking about Washington State’s Referendum 71, which was voted on this week. If passed, the Referendum will codify in law certain protections for same-sex couples.

In the first story of our three-part series we discussed Washington’s unusual vote-by-mail system; in the second we examined the pre-election polling.

Today we talk about what happened Election Night at the R-71 event and where the vote count stands today...and where it might end up when we’re all done.

We have lots of geeky electoral analysis ahead—and as a special bonus, we have video of the event, including an exclusive interview with Charlene Strong, the woman who became one of the icons of the pro-71 campaign.

It’s a lot to cover, so we better get right to it.

The Big “Catch-Up”

If you are new to this story, we’ll give you a real quick “catch-up”:

On Tuesday’s ballot Washington voters were asked to consider Referendum 71, which is going to decide whether E2SSB 5688 (passed by the Legislature and “[e]xpanding the rights and responsibilities of state registered domestic partners”) shall be allowed to go into effect. (E2SSB, by the way, stands for "Engrossed Second Senate Substitute Bill".)

Voting to approve means the bill will go into law, voting to reject will prevent the bill from having any force or effect under law.

Washington State votes almost entirely by mail, and all ballots postmarked by midnight, November 3rd will be counted. Since lots of voters put their ballots in the mail on November 3rd (myself included), that means, when things are close, that the outcome of any particular question might not be known on Election Day.

About 2/3 of Washington’s population of 6.8 million is concentrated in the Western portion of the State; 3.5 million of those residents live in just three counties: King, Pierce, and Snohomish (Seattle, Tacoma, and Everett being the largest cities in those counties). 25% of the State’s population (1.9 million) resides in King County.

Clark County, which is immediately adjacent to Portland, Oregon (largest city: Vancouver), is slightly smaller in population than Eastern Washington’s largest county, Spokane, which has a population of roughly 450,000.

As it happens, the voting on R-71 is rather close, which is consistent with the pre-election polling...which means at this point you’re pretty well caught up and we’re ready to move on to new business.

The morning sun rose above the Cascades and reflected its dusky orange glow off the bottom of the thin clouds Wednesday morning, enveloping those who were awake with a blanket of soothing daylight.

The night before, however, supporters of same-sex marriage had gathered, in their goat leggings and leather, to engage in a horrifying bacchanal involving the setting of bonfires, the invocation of incantations, and the sacrifices of---

Well, actually, none of that ever happened...but it sounded like a lot of fun, didn’t it?

What Actually Happened

Instead, a crowd of roughly 250 gathered at Seattle’s Pravda Studios to wait for the results. The event was quite upbeat before results were announced, and that mood was reinforced when it was announced that seven Western Washington counties, including King County, were voting to approve the Referendum.

I was lucky enough to get some insight as to how that happened when I interviewed Charlene Strong, who tragically lost her partner three years ago. Her face and her story have figured prominently in this campaign—but as she pointed out to me, the seeds of whatever happens in this election were planted years ago:

...”...the citizens of Washington State...put a Governor in place that is all about equality and a Legislative team that is all about equality and I feel very proud tonight to be a citizen of Washington State, and I’m sure I’ll be feeling that way for quite some days to come...”

(I am not, and have never been, a camera operator for the MTV Networks. Instead, I’m still getting used to my little Flip Video camera...which is why much of the interview appears to have been conducted with the most gracious Ms. Strong’s shoulder. Mea culpa.)

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

And with the stage having been set, let’s get geeky:

Washington’s Secretary of State keeps track of statewide ballot measures (including verifying the petition signatures), and it is on their site where we will find statewide results. At the moment (the moment being 6:24 PM, November 4th) 593,956 voters have voted to approve and 556,090 voted to reject, which means R-71 is leading 51.65-48.35%.

Ballots representing almost 33% of the State’s voters have been counted so far, and it is estimated that 394,482 ballots are on hand, around the State, waiting to be counted.

Here’s how the five largest counties are shaping up:

King County Elections reports that R-71 is passing by a 66-33% margin (202,125 to 101,403), with a total of 438,557 votes having been received so far from the County’s 1,079,842 registered voters. These numbers tell us that 135,029 votes are currently on hand, waiting to be counted. (63,446 votes came in today.)

It is likely that 90,000 of those uncounted votes are going to be “approved” votes, based on current trends. If a similar number of votes came in tomorrow, roughly 40,000 more votes would be “approve votes”, suggesting as many as 130,000 more “approved” votes could be waiting to be tallied up.

(Based on these numbers, we already know that King County will exceed the 51% statewide turnout rate that the Secretary of State projected before the election.)

Snohomish County Elections reports that 101,737 votes have been received so far, with 45,000 votes currently uncounted. Voters are approving the measure, but with a much closer margin: 51.72-48.28% (51,222-47,809). The remaining 45,000 votes should add about 1,000 votes to R-71’s lead.

We do not know how many votes were received today by the County, but if we assume that 50% of the total number of votes were in the mail in Election Day, then another 50,000 or so votes should be still on the way, which should also increase R-71’s lead by about 1,000 votes, if current trends hold.

(If we assume that the County will achieve a 50% turnout rate, roughly 40,000 Ballots should be in the mail, which only adds 800 additional votes, not the 1,000 estimated in the precious paragraph.)

The Pierce County Auditor reports that 90,367 votes are in, and the “rejected” votes are leading, 47,307 (53.08%) to 41,809 (46.92%). The estimate is that 50,000 ballots remain to be counted. 60,000 additional votes would be needed for the County to reach a 50% turnout rate, and if you projected that 110,000 votes onto the current trend the “approve 71” final vote should decline by about 6,500 votes.

Clark County Elections indicates that R-71 is losing there as well, with 36,206 (46.01%) voting to approve and 42,481 (53.99%) voting to reject. 13,000 ballots are reported to be uncounted. Clark County has 215,626 registered voters, and based on these numbers it would take an additional 14,450 votes to get to a 50% turnout. That suggests the “approve R-71” vote should decline by about another 2,000 votes.

Finally, Spokane County. There are 257,092 registered voters in the County, and they came out against R-71 in a big way, with 38,079 (39.98%) voting to approve and 57,169 (60.02%) voting to reject. The estimate is that 35,000 votes remain to be counted, and it’s likely those votes will decrease the “approve R-71” lead by about 6,000 votes.

The County has exceeded 50% turnout, and we do not know how many votes arrived today. If we assume 60% turnout, another 25,000 votes would be in the mail, reducing the “approve R-71” lead by another 5,000 votes.

The Big “Wrap-Up”

So what does all this mean?

How about this: I have forever told people that if the candidate or measure you support can win, with a reasonable margin, in Washington’s five largest counties, you’re gonna win the election.

With that in mind, let’s tally up the numbers and see where we are:

The King County tally, by my guess, will add another 130,000 “approved” votes to the statewide total. Snohomish County voters could add 2,000 more votes. Pierce, Clark, and Spokane Counties should reduce the “approve” votes by about 14,500 votes.

Add it all up, and I’m estimating that R-71 could gain 117,500 votes...but that number will certainly go down because of the votes of the rest of the if I had to guess (and I guess I am) I would project that R-71 is going to pass with a margin of victory somewhere in the range of 80-100,000 votes, as opposed to the current margin of roughly 37,000 votes.

There are lots of caveats here: the estimates of incoming ballots could be off, the 50% turnout estimate could be inaccurate, and currently uncounted votes might not follow the trends of the votes counted so far.

Additionally, I will freely admit that I’m biased: I support R-71 (and to take it further, if same-sex couples want to long as I don’t have to buy all of them presents, I don’t see the problem), and this bias could be affecting my judgment.

So that’s today’s story: based on the return data that is known, and my own guess on what’s likely, I’m going way out on the proverbial limb and projecting that R-71 wins by somewhere between 80-100,000 votes, primarily on the strength of the uncounted King County vote and an estimate of votes that will arrive over the next 48 hours.

As with any modeling project, there are a lot of potential problems that might affect the model’s output—including my own biases—but I feel good about this estimate, and over the next week or so, we’ll see if I’m right.

Additionally, we got to have an inside look at the “process” of R-71...and we got to have an exclusive conversation with Charlene Strong’s shoulder—which, I promise, will become a “teachable moment” for yours truly as we grow, going forward, from a “words only” storytelling service into a video storytelling service.

It’s a great place to end Part Three—and it leaves us perfectly positioned to move on to a discussion of what we can learn from Tuesday’s skirmishes—but for now I have to go and strap on the goat leggings and get back to work.

After all, the doomed won’t sacrifice themselves, will they?

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

On Closing The Deal, Or, Referendum 71 Polling Analyzed

It is now Election Day around the US, and one ballot question that is attracting national attention is Washington State’s Referendum 71.

Voting “yes” on the Referendum would codify in law various protections for same-sex domestic partners, and it is similar to a measure that the citizens of Maine are also voting on today.

We have polling data that is fairly fresh, so let’s take this last chance to look at where we might be, and what you should be looking for over the next few days as you attempt to judge how this one is going.

As always, a few words of setup are in order.

Washington State is one of two vote-by-mail states (Oregon is the other). Ballots went out to voters 20 days before Election Day, and any ballot postmarked before midnight, November 3rd will be counted. (In the November 2008 election, 50% of ballots were still in the mail at the close of business on Election Day)

As a result, there will not be a “final” count tonight…and if the race is exceptionally close, it could be weeks before the recount process is complete.

You should also be aware that the lead can change after Election Day, based on how many votes are coming in, and where they’re coming from. You can track the statewide results at the Washington Secretary of State’s website.

(And if you want to learn more about Washington’s unusual ballot system, visit your local library…or my last story.)

This vote is on a Referendum. What that means is that the Legislature initially passed the bill we are considering today, and now a group of citizens, who didn’t like what the Legislature did, have gathered sufficient signatures to force a final vote by the People before the bill can become law.

Voting “yes” means the bill granting additional rights to “committed couples” will become law (the law would apply to same-sex couples of any age, or male-female couples if one partner is over the age of 62); voting “no” will prevent the bill from taking effect.

If you support the Legislature’s actions, you would have opposed the proponents of the Referendum while they were gathering signatures—but now you would be voting “yes” on Referendum 71. This is more than a bit confusing, and a poll conducted this summer suggested as many as 10% of voters shared that confusion. (Since then, of course, people have been running ads.)

Now, a few words about the poll we’ll be discussing. There is no daily tracking poll for us to work with, which means we won’t be able to analyze trends over time. Instead, we have a “snapshot in time” with which to work.

This study (“The Washington Poll”) is conducted two to five times per election cycle by members of the School of Social Sciences at the University of Washington, and it appears to have been a “neutral” poll over the years.

The poll was conducted over a period of two weeks, from October 14-26th. 724 people were interviewed, and there is a 3.6% margin of error. Because results were collected over a two-week period, we do not know if opinions have been shifting or if respondents have been holding firmly to their positions during the collection period.

All that said, here’s what we do know:

First, the Secretary of State projects 51% of Washington’s 3.5 million voters will be heard in this election, which is lower than the 85% last year, which is no surprise.

And how that 51% views The Big Question, Yes or No: among all voters, it’s 56% yes, 39% no, among likely voters, 57% yes, 38% no, and among those who report they have already voted, it’s 55% yes, 45% no. These numbers are all outside the margin of error, suggesting we can have high confidence that “yes” is ahead.

Roughly 5% of both likely voters and all voters report that they might change their minds, and that holds true for those who support and oppose the Referendum, suggesting the two groups might well cancel each other out.

Democrats are more likely to support the Referendum than Republicans are likely to oppose it, and centrist voters are leaning slightly in favor (48%-46%, with 7% unsure.)

Roughly 4.8 million of Washington’s nearly 6.7 million residents live in Western Washington, and more or less 4 ¼ million of those are residents of the Puget Sound region.

Puget Sound voters are running 60-35% in favor, all voters in Western Washington are leaning 55%-40% for, and voters in Eastern Washington are leaning slightly against, 46%-49%.

Independents and Republicans are the most likely to be undecided, at 7% and 6%, respectively.

Females are more likely than males to support R-71 (62% yes, 33% no, versus 49% yes, 47% no). Moderates are leaning for it by 57%-36%, and Liberals like it better (87%-11%) than Conservatives dislike it (27%-68%).

All age groups are leaning for R-71, with the ever-reliable voters over 65 supporting the measure by a 52%-42% margin.

A Survey USA poll released October 6th showed the yes/no results were within the margin of error, with 13% undecided. The more recent Washington Poll shows undecideds under 3%, suggesting that the more people think about this, the better they like it.

So that’s the story as of this morning: Referendum 71 looks like it might pass, but a lot of the votes will be in the mail, which means the results might be unclear at the end of this evening.

There are very few left to make up their minds, one way or the other, although it is possible that some will be confused as to whether “yes” means “no”, and vice versa.

The fact that most of the results are well outside the margin of error suggests that the “yes” supporters should be feeling pretty good about their situation…and in about 12 hours, we’ll see if that’s going to be true—or not.