Skipping TV Ads

SkipItDo you hate those annoying TV ads where hucksters bellow at you or prattle repetitively? How about those inane ads for gold and silver investing by that B-list actor? Do you record shows on your DVR just to be able to fast forward or hop over them? If yes, then prepare for a nasty shock. This defense may be coming to an end.

I think it is our right to fast forward over recorded shows, choosing to watch only those ads that interest us. Obviously advertisers disagree and being able to skip ads calls into question the entire commercial TV business model. And now they are fighting back.

Cable companies and purveyors like Netflix and DirecTV are beginning to implement technology that locks out fast forward and direct skipping. I saw evidence of that yesterday on my Cox cable service. I was watching a show that I had recorded and a notice popped up saying that fast forward was disabled, and sure enough it was. I don’t know how far Cox has gone with this, but I believe that Comcast and TimeWarner are going forward aggressively on it.

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A Nuclear Deal?

obama iran negotiationsIt’s beginning to look like this deal won’t go through after all if the Senate has its say, and that may be for the best. I know that all they are claiming is a framework for final negotiations, but both sides have now publicly released their versions of the deal and they are vastly different. These are not just negotiating positions, both purport to be what was agreed. This is the obvious and predictable consequence of not producing a signed agreement.

They differ on when and which sanctions will be lifted, how many and what kind of centrifuges are allowed, how and where inspections will be performed, how much fissionable material they can keep, what level of enrichment is permissible, what specifically happens to their plutonium reactor, etc. For heavens sake, what did we accomplish at all?

The Iranian negotiator slightly nods his head. Kerry writes furiously in his notebook and says, “Good, we have agreed on this point.” And the Iranian turns to his colleagues and whispers in Farsi, “There he goes again! What is that idiot writing down this time?”

Is Putin Crazy?

putinI have an increasing suspicion that Putin may be mentally unstable. If so, nothing on the international scene could possibly be more dangerous — not ISIS, not anything. Obviously he is shrewd and there is little evidence that he is psychotic, but some of his statements and actions have become erratic and disconnected with reality. It is a situation reminiscent of Stalin in his later years.

The media are all over the place on this topic, although the bare consensus is that he is just wily and manipulative. My guess is that Putin’s mental state isn’t disabling but it makes him unpredictable and capable of making very risky choices.

For example, recently he placed his Northern Fleet on a status roughly equivalent to our DEFCON 1. This is full deployment and corresponds to a situation where nuclear war is imminent. The official explanation is that this is in response to NATO exercises in the arctic, but it is out of all proportion and seriously threatens an inadvertent mishap.

Now my concerns might be written off but for another telling point. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had a long telephone conversation with Putin. There was no language barrier since Putin is fluent in German. Immediately after ending the call, she called President Obama and expressed almost identical concerns.

Our Racial Problem

I was watching a discussion on TV and, as is common today, the topic of race and bigotry came up. Doesn’t it seem that this is an itch that we just can’t stop scratching? Anyway, the question arose as to how to distinguish between personal preference and bigotry.

In a free society, which is at least our aspiration, surely people should be allowed their personal preferences, at least as long as they don’t impinge on the rights of others. Yet exercise of this right is often perceived as bigotry. And in fact, the simple truth is that frequently this has indeed conflicted with the excluded people’s rights in some manner. For example, suppose I only want to live among others of my own race. Fair enough, but not if I prevent some people from purchasing a nearby home by restrictive covenants or even just discourage them by social attitudes.

Voluntary association with those like you is a common occurrence, and not just by the privileged in society. Look at the dining halls in any college or a business cafeteria. You will likely see black and white tables that exist by mutual consent, and both groups would be upset if that demarcation were broken. In almost all cases, this is simply a matter of comfort.

I am coming to the unhappy conclusion that our racial problem, at least as it is currently seen, is a relatively permanent condition, though in time miscegenation might help erase it. The reason is that personal preference is a fundamental human trait and it is often inseparable and indistinguishable from some sort of bigotry. And that’s too bad.

More Real Money

money_in_toiletAs Senator Everett Dirksen sardonically remarked about profligate government spending: “A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.” I was reminded of this when I read the following disturbing news item.

More than 6.5 million Social Security numbers exist for Americans who are 112 years or older, a new inspector general’s audit found, even though there are only 35 people known to be older than 112 in the entire world. The audit came after a man attempted to open bank accounts using active Social Security numbers from people born in 1869 and 1893. The inspector general found 70,000 active but too-old Social Security numbers were used between 2006 and 2011 to claim $3.1 billion. (NPR)

For a small fee, say $1B, I will show them how to search their records for anyone older than any specified age.

The Social Security Administration maintains a Social Security Number Verification Service that purports to keep every active SSN in a searchable database. This service primarily exists to allow employers to verify employees but it is open to anyone in the public with a valid reason to use it. Like all massive databases it probably has deficiencies, but it would probably suffice for my task.

Please don’t tell Health and Human Services about this, as that might jeopardize my fee.

An All-Clinton Ticket?

Hillary Clinton Holds Final Primary Night Event In New YorkWhat if the Democrats nominate an all-Clinton ticket? Could they nominate Hillary for President and Bill for VP? At first glance this seems almost like a dream ticket, although it is by no means obvious that Bill would be interested in playing second fiddle when he has lead the orchestra for so long. More interestingly, is it even allowed by the Constitution?

I am no legal scholar, but the situation seems unclear and would almost certainly end up in a Supreme Court case. There are three constitutional amendments involved and, as is often the case, the precise wording of these amendments leads to uncertainty.

The 22nd Amendment says that Bill can’t be elected to the Presidency again after having served twice. But can he succeed to the Presidency under the terms of the 25th Amendment? That isn’t the same thing either operationally or legally, even though the net effect is the same. The 12th Amendment compounds the confusion. It defines the eligibility rules for VP. The candidate must be eligible to hold the office of President. Note that it doesn’t speak to how he attains that office. This amendment also adds another nuance. If both candidates on the ticket are from the same state, one of them will lose the votes of the state’s electors. But that is easily overcome. Dick Cheney did that in 2000 when he moved from George W. Bush’s home state of Texas to his previous home in Wyoming.

So perhaps this intriguing ticket might pass muster legally. Politically however, it is a fascinating possibility regardless of which political party you support.

More generally, I am personally conflicted by the 22nd Amendment. Certainly we don’t want an effective monarchy but do we really want to exclude the most obviously qualified candidates? A reasonable compromise has been proposed and I like it. Ex-Presidents should become lifetime members of the U.S. Senate, thereby continuing to provide us with their knowledge and expertise. This would require yet another amendment, the wording of which would no doubt cause future scholarly dispute.

The NASA Follies

Asteroid_Redirect_Mission_boulder_pickupConsider this scenario …

A group of top NASA executives and engineers are seated around a conference table for a briefing on a proposed mission.

A young engineer summarizes the plan, somewhat nervously: “Basically, we will send a probe to capture asteroid A0176-A and insert it into a stable low Earth orbit. Then we will mount multiple scientific missions to examine its geology thoroughly.”

There was a long silence. Faces were solemn and worried glances were exchanged. Finally a senior executive spoke up: “So, you plan to transport a planet killer from the asteroid belt and insert it into Earth orbit, unlike anything we have attempted before? Now, what could go wrong with that?”

The young engineer’s boss quickly intervened: “We have analyzed an alternative option that isn’t quite as ambitious but would still have real scientific value. We could pick a boulder off the asteroid surface and put that into orbit instead. It would be far less risky if orbit insertion failed.” He looked hopefully at his colleagues.

Finally, the grizzled old NASA chief spoke up: “To be clear, you expect me to tell the President that we want to spend $1.5B to find a rock and put it into Earth orbit? Meeting over!”

Now of course this is a fictional scenario. But something like this must actually have happened. This mission is part of NASA’s Asteroid Initiative. But for safety reasons, the boulder would be inserted in a Moon orbit instead. The unfortunate consequence is that scientific missions to this captured fragment of an asteroid would be too expensive. Other than demonstrating that we can do Asteroid Belt garbage collection, mostly all we will accomplish is to give our Moon a mini-Moon.

The cover story for the press is that it will be “a stepping stone to Mars.”

Personal aside: I have worked on several NASA projects and have the greatest affection and admiration for their work.