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Wednesday News

Good Morning Conflucians!!!

The big news we’re watching closely is hurricane Earl. Right now it has been downgraded to a category 3 and it seems to be sticking to a more outside path with no landfall in the US projected. Definitely good news. But we need to keep a close watch as it can still cause damage to many coastal areas. Discovery has a nice geeks guide to how hurricanes are tracked.

A couple of bits of big news from yesterday are worth repeating. First Murkowski conceded in her bid for Senate reelection in Alaska:

Senator Lisa Murkowski of Alaska conceded late Tuesday in her Republican primary race against Joe Miller, a lawyer from Fairbanks who was backed by Tea Party activists, Sarah Palin and other conservatives.

Mr. Miller shocked the political establishment here and in Washington last week when he emerged with a narrow lead, 1,668 votes, after the primary vote, on Aug. 24. His victory makes him the presumed favorite to win the Senate seat from this heavily Republican state.

Mr. Miller, who has proposed drastic cuts in federal spending, had trailed badly in local polls in the weeks before the election but benefited from a last-minute flood of advertisements, mailings and automated calls casting Ms. Murkowski as a Democrat in disguise. An abortion-related ballot measure also brought conservatives to the polls.

“Now is the time for all Alaskans to come together and reach out with our core message of taking power from the federal government and bringing it back home to the people,” Mr. Miller said in a written statement. “ If we continue to allow the federal government to live beyond its means, we will all soon have to live below ours.”

That’s pretty bad. The Tea Party candidates as we’ve seen are either loony or play one on TV. And of course that means we’ve lost another of the too few women’s voices in the Senate. The other aspect of this is the influence of Sarah Palin of course.

The other big news from yesterday was Obama’s speech basically announcing “Mission Accomplished.” The only thing missing from his bland speech in his newly renovated bland hotel room looking oval office was the flight suit. And maybe the inclusion of GWB in his own flight suite and perhaps a Mel Brooks choreographed song and dance number. The withdraw and its timetable was mostly planned by the previous administration:

President Obama marked the end of the U.S. combat mission in Iraq on Tuesday by declaring that after more than seven years, vast expenditures and thousands of casualties, the nation must focus its shrunken resources on rebuilding the ailing domestic economy.

Addressing the nation for only the second time from the Oval Office, the president appealed for support from a country impatient for progress on unemployment and other economic woes and increasingly weary of wars, including the one in Afghanistan, which Obama has chosen to escalate.

As he has done several times recently, Obama made note of his campaign pledge to wind down the war in Iraq, which he opposed from the outset. “That is what we have done,” he said. “We have removed nearly 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq.”

Of course in the fine print they don’t mention is the fact that we still have around 100,000 combat troops in the form of Blackwater, around 50,000 US troops with many combat troops among them, and many, many thousands of black ops combat troops all still there. They also don’t mention that many of those withdrawn troops will be recycled into Afghanistan as part of the serge efforts there. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

In economic news, the month of August was a bit of a loser with the Feds showing increasing worries in the latest meeting:

The stock market ended its worst August since 2001 with meager gains Tuesday after minutes from the latest Federal Reserve meeting showed officials’ increasing concern about the economy.

Stock indexes gave up most of their gains in midafternoon after the release of minutes from the Aug. 10 meeting. Fed officials recognized the economy might need further stimulus beyond the purchases of government debt the central bank announced that day. Some acknowledged the economy had softened more than they had anticipated.

The Dow Jones industrial average ended with a gain of 5 points, having been up 64 after a reading on consumer confidence in August came in stronger than expected. Stocks fell sharply for much of August after a series of reports suggested the recovery has weakened.

The Standard & Poor’s 500, the measure used most by stock-market professionals, finished August with a loss of 4.7 percent. It was the index’s worst showing for the month since August 2001, when it lost 6.4 percent as the dot-com bubble collapsed. Year-to-date, the S&P 500 is down 5.9 percent.

Some traders said there was disappointment the Fed wasn’t pessimistic enough to consider quicker steps to stimulate that economy.

According to the meeting’s minutes, released Tuesday, Federal Reserve officials were divided over whether they should resume purchases of Treasury bonds and what impact the move could have on the nation’s economy.

In the end, the policymaking committee elected to reinvest money from maturing mortgage securities in government bonds by a 9-1 vote.

But the minutes show there was wider disagreement behind closed doors than that final tally may suggest.

Most members of the Federal Open Market Committee thought it unwise to allow the Fed’s balance sheet to contract, which would have happened were it not for their action, because that would tighten monetary policy when the economic outlook was weakening, according to the minutes.

However, other members “noted that the magnitude of the tightening was uncertain, and a few thought that the economic effects of reinvesting principal … likely would be quite small.”

We’re all holding on by fingernails out here. And things aren’t really looking up. Maybe they’ll all come to their senses and do an actual job creating stimulus plan. Yea, right.

Which brings us to the looping political storm brewing. It’s not looking good for Democrats:

The Gallup organization dropped a bomb on the political world this week. In shorthand, the pollsters said Monday that if the midterm elections were held now, Republicans would take control of the House – and probably by a comfortable margin.

On Tuesday, James Campbell, a professor of political science at the University of Buffalo, weighed in with a prediction based on his modeling of the political climate. He said that Republicans are poised to gain 51 or 52 House seats, at least 11 more than needed to depose the Democrats.

Election Day is still two months away, but the twin findings added to the fear among Democrats that their House majority – and possibly their Senate majority as well – is in jeopardy.

Any bets? What are everyone’s predictions? I’m guessing around 50 seats change parties in the house unless something big changes the landscape. Maybe 5 in the senate.

Here’s a bit more from that article:

This week’s survey produced the largest lead for the Republicans in the history of asking that question: 51 percent to 41 percent. Ninety-six percent of Republicans said they would vote for the GOP candidate, while 88 percent of Democrats said they would support the Democrat. Independents, who helped power Democratic victories in 2006 and 2008, split 48 percent to 31 percent for Republicans.

This measurement (known as the generic ballot question) has sometimes been considered an imperfect or misleading indicator of House election results. Gallup begs to differ. Frank Newport, editor in chief of the Gallup poll, said that Gallup’s final survey of likely voters before Election Day has been an accurate predictor of the two parties’ share of the national vote in House elections. The national vote, in turn, he added, is an excellent predictor of seats won or lost.

Four years ago, when Democrats won control of the House, the final Gallup survey of likely voters gave Democrats an advantage of seven percentage points over Republicans. Their actual share of the national two-party vote was eight points more.

In 1994, when Republicans won the House and Senate, Gallup showed the GOP with a seven-point advantage in its final survey – exactly the margin between the two parties on Election Day.

That’s bad. That’s actually stunningly bad. First the gap is wider than in those two previous big turn over elections. And the fact that Repubs are above 50% is really bad too. Well, it’s not like we’re surprised. You install a non leader, no experienced, empty suit as the head of your party and surprise, he doesn’t work out so well. And what’s worse, he’s a frack’en Bush II clone who is passing Repub policies even they couldn’t have passed. Really Dems, that was your big political move? With friends like these, who needs enemies.

Speaking of great policies and their results (that was snark), we are seeing the obvious results of bailing out the too big to fail:

U.S. banks are making money again, although a split picture of the industry has emerged since the financial crisis.

The largest banks are thriving, mostly because they can borrow on the cheap and have rid themselves of bad debt. Yet smaller banks lack those advantages and are failing at the fastest pace in years.

Overall, banks made $21.6 billion in net income in the April-to-June quarter, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said. It was the highest quarterly level since 2007.

Banks with more than $10 billion in assets — only 1.3 percent of the industry — accounted for $19.9 billion of the total earnings.

At the same time, the number of banks on the FDIC’s confidential “problem” list increased by 54 in the quarter — growing to 829 from 775 in the first quarter. That’s a little more than 10 percent of the 7,830 federally insured U.S. banks.

Most of the biggest banks have recovered with help from federal bailout money, record-low borrowing rates from the Federal Reserve and the ability to earn big profits from fees on banking services and investment fees. They also have been able to cut back on lending in troubled parts of the country, such as Florida and Nevada.

Smaller and regional banks, however, have less flexibility. They depend heavily on making loans for commercial property and development. Those sectors have suffered huge losses. Companies have shut down in the recession, vacating shopping malls and office buildings financed by the loans.

All of the 118 banks that have failed this year have been smaller or regional banks. Last year 140 banks shuttered, most of them small institutions.

What? You’re not making big profits hand over fist? Sucker. But there is the potential for things getting better and some “good signs” in that the big banks are doing better:

The decline in bank lending stemming from the financial crisis showed signs of leveling off, the data show. Total lending declined by $107.5 billion, or 1.4 percent from the first quarter. It posted the steepest drop since World War II — 7.5 percent — in 2009 from the year before.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said banks’ lending standards are beginning to ease for some types of credit.

“But lending will not pick up until businesses and consumers gain the confidence they need to hire and spend,” Bair said.

She said the economic recovery is starting to be reflected in banks’ higher earnings and the improved quality of loans, with fewer defaults and delinquencies.

So if you businesses and consumers can just get some confidence already, we’ll be fine. You lazy bastards. (Yes, snark again.)

In some interesting ethics news, there are more congressmen being investigated for ethics violations:

A congressional ethics watchdog has asked for a further probe of campaign fundraising appeals to Wall Street firms by Rep. John Campbell (R-Irvine) and two other House members before lawmakers voted on financial regulatory overhaul legislation.

Campbell confirmed the Office of Congressional Ethics’ referral to the House Ethics Committee but denied wrongdoing.

“I am perplexed by OCE’s decision, as they have presented no evidence that would suggest wrongdoing,” he said in a statement Tuesday.

The action, two months before the November midterm election, comes as fellow Southern Californian Rep. Maxine Waters (D- Los Angeles) and Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) face rare ethics trials. Both have denied wrongdoing.

The Office of Congressional Ethics also asked the committee to further investigate Reps. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) and Tom Price (R-Ga.).

Campbell, Crowley and Price all held fundraisers in December, around the time of crucial House votes on the most sweeping overhaul of the nation’s financial regulatory system since the Great Depression. President Obama signed it into law in July.

Both Republicans opposed the legislation, which strengthened oversight of the financial industry and consumer protections. Crowley, the Democrat, opposed some amendments that would have toughened the measure but backed the final bill.

In startling news, the next edition to be published, the third edition, of the Oxford English Dictionary may be published in electronic form only:

The head of Oxford University Press, Nigel Portwood, recently caused a stir by openly considering the possibility that the third edition of the Oxford English Dictionary might be published in electronic form only. What prompted those thoughts was the success of the online version of the O.E.D., as it is usually called, and the limited sales of the printed 20-volume edition.

No decision has been reached, nor is one likely soon, since the third edition will not be ready to publish in full for another decade or so. And who is to say what publishing will look like a decade from now?

For Oxford, the decision to go online-only would make a great deal of economic sense. Current subscribers to the online edition pay $295 a year for access. The print edition is selling for $995. Which is the better deal for you depends on how you value shelving and the cost of leaving your desk to look up a word.

But the difference in price also represents linguistic currency. The online edition includes updates. The printed one contains what it contained in 1989, when the second edition was published: all of the words then in the language, their historical uses, etymology and pronunciation. Language is a living organism, and the O.E.D.’s help in understanding how we speak this instant is important. But even our spoken language is overwhelmingly historical in nature. That is the O.E.D.’s greatest value — as a guide to our spoken and written history.

I like having my hardback edition (well, the shorter two volume version at least). But it is a bit unwieldy and having a digital version is better for something like that. But as the article goes on to say, what about when the lights go out?

Speaking of trends and things we don’t want, the pentagon is funding companies to make flying humvees. You just can’t make this stuff up:

The race to build the world’s first flying military jeep just moved a step closer to the finish line. The Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has selected two companies to proceed with the next stage of its Transformer, known as TX—a fully automated four-person vehicle that can drive like a car and then take off and fly like an aircraft to avoid roadside bombs. Lockheed Martin and AAI Corp., a unit of Textron Systems, are currently in negotiations with DARPA for the first stage of the Transformer project, several industry sources told Popular Mechanics at a robotics conference here in Denver. DARPA has not announced the official winners yet.

It’s unclear how many companies competed for the DARPA project, but the competition brought together an unusual mix of large defense companies with smaller aviation firms vying to build the vertical takeoff and landing craft. Perhaps most surprising—and for some competitors galling— is that DARPA selected a rotor-based aircraft for one of the two winning submissions. At an industry day held earlier this year, DARPA officials had initially said they weren’t interested in a traditional rotary-wing aircraft, though they might consider a vehicle if the rotor was shrouded.

The only question I have is, will they have fricken lasers on top?

Which inevitably brings us to five ways humankind might be wiped out:

The Universe looks like a pretty tranquil place to live, doesn’t it? During the day the sun shines steadily, and at night the heavens are reassuring and unchanging.

Dream on. The Universe is filled to the brim with dangerous, nasty things, all jostling for position to be the one to wipe us off the face of the planet. Happily for us, they’re all pretty unlikely—how many people do you know who have died by proton disintegration?—but if you wait long enough, one of them is bound to get us.

But which one?

The first one is my favorite, death by asteroid:

Of all the ways we might meet our untimely demise, getting wiped out by an asteroid is the most likely. Why? Because we sit in a cosmic shooting gallery, with 100 tons of material hitting us every day. The problem, though, occurs every few centuries when something big this way comes. If you could ask a dinosaur, I’d imagine they’d tell you to take this seriously.

And we do. The B612 Foundation is a collection of scientists dedicated to making sure we don’t end up with our bones in some future museum. Their advice: no nukes! Instead, slam a spacecraft head-on into a dangerous rock to move it in a hurry, then fine-tune it with another spacecraft by using its gravity to pull the rock into a safe path. It sounds like sci-fi, but models show this is in fact our best bet to save the Earth.

Read on for more fun.

And finally, let’s look at a nice product comparison to test whether WD-40 really is a wonder product:

Conventional wisdom credits WD-40 with thousands of uses as a penetrating oil and lubricant. But is that really the case? We put the red-capped classic to the test in five common tasks to see how it held up against other lubes—and now think twice about our WD-40 overuse.

One of the more dispiriting facts of consumer life is that panaceas don’t routinely live up to their promises. Sure, sometimes you get penicillin, a product that needs no introduction, but other times you get Dr. Ebeneezer Sibley’s Reanimating Solar Tincture, an elixir alleged to restore life in the event of sudden death.

And then there’s WD-40, a putative fix-all that boasts uses ranging from driving moisture from a flooded motor to killing roaches to breaking in baseball gloves to reviving drowned cellphones. Such is its pop-cultural ubiquity that it even co-stars in a well-known handyman apothegm: “If it moves and it shouldn’t, you need duct tape. If it doesn’t move and it should, you need WD-40.”

But is WD-40 really toolbox penicillin? Or is it the snake oil of lubricants?

Read on for the details and products they compared. But I’ll give you the punch line. Nope, there are better products for most every use. Sad isn’t it. But not that surprising.

That’s a bit of what’s in the news today. Chime in with what you’re seeing.

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