Friday/ Trump at Day 100

Day 100 of the Trump presidency is on Saturday.  The media was full of reports this week about the (non) accomplishments of President Trump, but his supporters remain optimistic that he will bring about significant changes.   The only really significant item is the appointment of a conservative US Supreme Court Justice – one for which Republicans in the senate had to change the rules so that Justice Neil Gorsuch could be appointed by a simple majority (under the old rules a 60-40 majority was needed).

As for legislation, there were the failed attempts at overhauling Obamacare, the one page ‘tax reform’ (really a tax cut for the rich), and really no proposal about badly needed infrastructure repairs other than that border wall with Mexico (which none of the border States want, by the way).   Finally, let’s not forget the head-snapping policy reversals, too many to recall – NATO being obsolete and then no longer, the USA withdrawing from NAFTA and then not, declaring China a currency manipulator and then not; the list goes on.

Thursday/ big tech earnings day

I remember the days in 2002-2003 when the NASDAQ Composite Index fell down to below 2,000, from its peak of 5,000 .. wondering, what will this graph look like 10 years from now? And know we know. It took 15 years to get back to 5,000!

Thursday was a big day for the earnings reports of technology companies, with Alphabet (parent company of Google), Amazon, Intel and Microsoft reporting earnings. (Apple and Facebook will report next week).

The share prices of both Alphabet ($908 as of Friday) and Amazon ($927 as of Friday) are now approaching $1,000.  Will that happen this year?  Time will tell. (Right now the US economy is only growing at 0.7%.  Most economists say it would have to achieve 2% growth to drive the stock market higher by year end).

The NASDAQ composite index continues to make new highs. It crossed 6,000 on April 25. (Screen from CNBC program called ‘Closing Bell’).

Wednesday/ a laughable stunt from the King of Debt

‘A laughable stunt by a gang of plutocrats looking to enrich themselves at the expense of the country’s future’ .. says the New York Times of President Trump’s ‘tax plan’ outlined by his top lieutenants Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn (both multimillionaires and former Goldman Sachs bankers).

I could not agree more.  The seven points from the proposal (on the right) are from the New York Times. Broadly speaking (more details are needed), all the tax cuts will add anything from $2 trillion to $7 trillion in additional debt over the first 10 years. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump said he would get rid of the $20 trillion national debt in 8 years – perhaps the most stratospherically unattainable boast of all he has made, ever.

So yes – all this nonsense from a President that has refused to release his own tax forms, that has appointed his son-in-law and daughter to White House positions, with their world-wide business interests intact, and that has not even tried to put his own businesses at arm’s length to the presidency.

 

 

 

Tuesday/ where is the USS Carl Vinson?

The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was in the news this month : part of a miscommunication between the White House and the United States Armed Forces.   A few days after President Trump stated that it was part of an armada steaming* to the Korean peninsula, the US navy published pictures picked up by the New York Times, that showed it was in fact going in the opposite direction.   South Korea was not impressed. Said a Yonhap news agency headline: Trump’s armada gaffe stains his commitment to the alliance.

(Update: On Wednesday April 26, Navy Adm. Harry Harris, the four-star commander of U.S. Pacific Command, testified at a hearing of the House Committee on Armed Services that he was to blame for the miscommunication).

*I love the word ‘steaming’, quaint word and old-fashioned as it is. Nimitz-class carriers are in fact nuclear-powered. There are ten of these supercarriers in service in the United States Navy.

Here is a great drawing of the USS Carl Vinson, its aircraft, and the Korean peninsula.  The flight deck is as big as four football fields.  (Source: On-line edition of De Volkskrant, a Dutch daily newspaper).

Monday/ the Webb space telescope

The Hubble space telescope turned 27 on Monday. After a troubled start with a faulty lens, it has by now provided many years of discoveries and spectacular pictures of the universe.  Plans are progressing nicely for the launch of the new James Webb Space Telescope, the Hubble Telescope’s replacement.  It is a project so ambitious, that it ate the whole NASA budget for some years, and was almost scrapped a number of years ago. Now, after 20 years, and with a budget of $8.7 billion, the James Webb telescope is on track to be launched in October 2018.  (New York Times article here).

Entirely new technologies had to be developed for it, such as the tennis court-sized sunshield for the lens. The shield has five layers and is made of a material called kapton. ‘It will then be unfolded in space in a series of some 180 maneuvers that look in computer animations like a cross between a parachute opening and a swimming pool cover going into place’ .. a process that will cause 6 months of high anxiety, says Bill Ochs, a veteran engineer at the Goddard Space Center in Maryland.

Picture and caption from NASA’s web site : It’s springtime and the deployed primary mirror of NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope looks like a spring flower in full bloom. Once launched into space, the Webb telescope’s 18-segmented gold mirror is specially designed to capture infrared light from the first galaxies that formed in the early universe.

Sunday/ the center holds (in France)

Macron, macaroon. Macron’s name makes me think of a macaroon (a sandwich cookie with a filling in the middle)!

It’s nice to see that independent candidate and centrist Emmanuel Macron came out on top of the final polls in today’s French election .. even though it’s unsettling that anti-EU, anti-immigration candidate Marine Le Pen still has a shot at winning in the final round, on May 7.

The pre-election polling turned out to be accurate, though, and one has to believe that most voters will coalesce around Macron in the final round.  En marche! (Forward!)

Election results from france24.com. The top two candidates go through to the final round on May 7. None of the traditional party candidates survived the first round!  President Hollande was so unpopular that he declined to stand for re-election, becoming the first single term French president since the dawn of France’s Fifth Republic in 1958 to do so.

Saturday/ don’t kill the world

‘We Kill the World (Don’t Kill the World)’ from German pop group Boney M. was a No 1 hit song in South Africa in 1981.
It was Earth Day today, I thought of the song, and looked up the words again.

 

P.S. Check out astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s four-minute Facebook video on the history and current state of science in America. ‘Science is a fundamental part of the country that we are’.

 

Friday/ the tulips are out

Friday was a beautiful sunny day in the city (66 °F/ 19 °C).
I finally see tulips blooming here in my neighborhood .. Seattle’s chilly winter weather meant that flowers, especially ones from bulbs like tulips and daffodils, are blooming a bit later than in past years.

Bright red tulips here on my block.

My Japanese maple is budding with beautiful colors in its new leaves.

 

Thursday/ asteroid watch

A large asteroid that ‘brushed’ by Earth (less than 5 lunar lengths away) on Wednesday was in the news recently, but I see we get smaller ones brushing by with a berth less than one lunar length just about every year.   In 2013 there was the Chelyabinsk meteor, that made a spectacular entrance into the atmosphere, even though it was just 20 m (65 ft) across.    So celestial objects larger than 100 m are serious trouble, since they might wipe out whole towns or cities.

Then there was the 10 km (6 mi) wide asteroid of 65 million years ago that killed the dinosaurs – and an even bigger one, thought to have hit Earth some 3.26 billion years ago, that was 37 km (23 mi) wide.  That last one caused an earthquake that would have measured 10.8 on the Richter scale.  Whoah.

YearAsteroids > 100 m (except 2013)SizeLunar Distance
2004Toutatis5,000 m (3.1 mi)4
Nov 2011(308635) 2005 YU55360 m (1,180 feet)0.84
Dec 20112011 XC2100 m (328 feet)0.9
2013Chelyabinsk meteor20 m (65 feet)0
20172014-JO25 'The Rock'650 m (2,000 feet)4.7

A graphical representation of the size of the asteroid thought to have killed the dinosaurs, and the crater it created, compared to an asteroid thought to have hit the Earth 3.26 billion years ago and the size of the crater it may have generated. A new study reveals the power and scale of the event some 3.26 billion years ago which scientists think created geological features found in a South African region known as the Barberton greenstone belt. Credit: American Geophysical Union

Wednesday/ solar eclipse fever

I like this retro-styled picture from Rainbow Symphony. Public Service Warning : DO NOT EVER LOOK AT THE SUN WITHOUT PROPER PROTECTION – you will get photokeratitis, a painful eye condition caused by exposure of insufficiently protected eyes to ultraviolet light!

Here’s a viewer from Rainbow Symphony: a piece of #14 welder’s glass that produces a green image of the sun.

For the first time since 1979, people in the continental United States will be able to see a total solar eclipse later this year, on Monday August 21. The sun is 400 times larger in diameter than Earth’s moon, but since the moon is 400 times closer than the sun, they appear to be the same size in the heavens.

I read on the Great American Eclipse website that the moon is actually moving away from Earth by about one inch a year.  That means that in a distant epoch, humans will run out of total solar eclipses to view, and only see annular eclipses (a ring of sun around the moon).

IMPORTANT NOTE (especially to humans in positions of great power):
Let us not destroy Earth before then with thermonuclear war, or by continuing the burning of fossil fuels for the generation of energy.

Here’s the path of the solar eclipse that interests me most, since it’s within reach to drive to from Seattle. (Hotels and campsites in towns close to and all along the path are filling up rapidly).

 

Tuesday/ here is the silver Krugerrand

The 1-oz. fine silver Krugerrand is larger than the 1-oz. fine gold one. The specific gravity* of silver is only 10.31, while that of gold is 19.32. (That’s an USA quarter dollar coin in the upper right corner, for reference).    *Indicates ‘how many times heavier than water’ the substance is.

 

 

I finally gave up trying to order a 2017 South African silver Krugerrand directly from the South African Mint, and used a local coin importer instead.

My silver Krugerrand arrived in the mail today – allowing me to check it out up close with my magnifier.  I love to ‘inspect’ coins, and stamps from up close and to see all the fine detail.

Here’s a close-up of the sliver Krugerrand. The Krugerrand had only been issued in gold since 1967. To celebrate the 50th anniversary, 1-0z. coins in silver and in platinum were issued.  For the first time, the family of gold Krugerrand coins is extended to a giant 50-oz Krugerrand (100 mm/ 3.93 in diameter), and a 5-oz Krugerrand and on the smaller side to tiny 1/20 oz. and 1/50 oz. coins. The design of the antelope (a ‘pronking’ springbok, one of South Africa’s national symbols) was introduced in 1984 for the gold coin, and is by Coert Steynberg. I spot an aloe at the bottom of the picture, as well.

Monday/ the giant shipworm, alive

Check out the Washington Post report of an elusive mollusk called the giant shipworm.  It is as big as a baseball bat (and technically a bivalve, not a worm).  Scientists had known of it for hundreds of years, from shell fragments and a handful of dead specimens.   Recently a local TV station in the Philippines ran a short documentary about a strange shellfish living in a lagoon : the giant shipworm (kuphus polythalamia).

Saturday/ April 15 is Tax Day

Here’s the confirmation message issued by the TurboTax tax software program (I filed my tax return in back in February).

April 15 is Tax Day in the United States (the day by which the prior calendar year’s taxes need to be filed).  Since April 15 falls on a Saturday this year and Easter Monday, procrastinators have until Tuesday April 18 to file their taxes.

There were protests in some cities, demanding that President Trump release his tax returns. In a tweet, Trump called the protests ‘small organized rallies ‘and ‘that someone should look into them’.  (Which elicited a storm of responses, of course. The honest truth is that someone should look into the tax returns of the President –  to determine all the multiple conflicts of interest between his business interests and his holding office as President of the United States, while also having his family members on the White House staff).

Friday/ Koryo Tours’s offerings

This ‘homage’ to a hamburger (served up cold, from a refrigerator on the airplane) is served on Air Koryo flights.

So : no nuclear test blasts on Friday in North Korea (good), during the Day of the Sun military parade.  The Rachel Maddow Show (daily news and opinion TV show) reported that the three-times-a-week flights from Beijing on Air China into Pyongyang has been suspended, though.

That still leaves the option of going there with Air Koryo, on a Soviet-era airplane (no jeans, no talking to locals, no traveling solo).  As the Koryo Tours website notes : Travelling with us to Pyongyang, and beyond, is something you’ll remember forever.

Great colors in the graphics on the main page of the Koryo Tours website.

One of the pictures on the Koryo Tours website. Traveling solo is not allowed in North Korea – you will always have two tour guides with you.

 

Thursday/ on North Korea watch

North Korea has conducted 5 nuclear tests the last decade, and all signs point to a sixth test this weekend.  (This April 15 marks the 105th birth anniversary of Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s founder). The New York Times points out in an article with a lot of technical detail, that the North’s detonations generate shock waves that register around the globe. Mount Mantap is the only active nuclear testing site in the world.   China is reportedly exerting a lot of pressure on North Korea (Kim Jong-un), trying to dissuade him from going ahead and escalating the tensions further.   ‘If China does not take care of it, the USA will’ declared President Trump.   But surely, analysts say, that cannot mean a pre-emptive attack on the nuclear facilities in North Korea.   And South Korea would have to sign off on any military action, given that Seoul is just across the border.

Wednesday/ active or passive fund management?

The Wall Street Journal reports that new data show that 82% of actively managed U.S. mutual funds trailed their respective benchmarks, even over 15 years (previous studies were for shorter time periods).  ‘The debate over whether passive management is as good or better than active management is a long-running and contentious one, but it has heated up in recent years. Active managers’ struggles to beat the market over recent years amid a long-term bull market in stocks have resulted in fee pressure, fund closings, business overhauls and mergers.
Investors have spoken with their wallets, turning to index-tracking funds in droves. Some $1.2 trillion has been withdrawn from actively managed U.S. stock funds since the start of 2007 through March, according to Morningstar Inc. Nearly the same amount, $1.1 trillion, has moved into passive U.S. stock funds over the same period’.

I see in the comments section that some readers say that this analysis is too simple. It ignores risk, and that one index fund does not make for a diversified portfolio.

Tuesday/ in the lion’s den

On Tuesday, Trump spokesman Sean Spicer condemned the Syria attack with chemical weapons (of last week) in a press briefing in the White House by saying ‘not even Adolf Hitler had sunk so far as to use chemical weapons against his own population’.  This is such a historically incorrect claim, that journalists in the room threw him a lifeline (‘What did you mean by that?’), but his muddled response only ended up making matters worse.

By the end of Tuesday he had to issue a written clarification, and had to correct that clarification twice, as well.   And finally, he went on live television one more time, and apologize.  As one cable news commentator said : at least the apology was unconditional.  Not one of those apologies that start with ‘If I offended anyone, I apologize .. ‘.

‘Sean Spicer in the lion’s den’, says this report on the web site of German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung.  And the caption asks: Trump’s spokesperson – the hardest job in Washington? (I would say so, yes).

Monday/ let us ‘re-accommodate’ you ..

United Airlines got extensive and extremely bad press today, for the brutal way they treated a passenger on a Chicago to Louisville flight on Sunday.  The passenger was a doctor that had already boarded, and refused to give up his seat voluntarily (for a United Airlines employee); the doctor said he had patients to see the next morning.

The Chicago Airport Police came on board, and soon violently dragged him off the airplane. The passenger suffered injuries to his face in the process.  The other passengers were just shocked. Some had recorded it and posted the incident on Facebook and Twitter.  Adding insult to injury, the United Airlines CEO issued a cold-blooded ‘apology’ on Monday : “I apologize for having to re-accommodate these customers”.   Right.  As a Twitter user noted : United made a business decision that that doctor’s humanity was worth less than $800. Make them pay for that.   Said another tweet : ‘After what your goons did to a passenger on #flight3411, I will never fly with United again. There is NO excuse’.   

(Tue 4/11/2017):  from Thatcher A. Stone writing on CNN.com:  Flying for vacation travel or work on a modern US carrier’s plane can be enjoyable and pleasant. Just do what you are told by the crew. And, to fulfill their part of the bargain, airlines need to follow the rules and treat passengers who get bumped fairly.
If United had taken a senior gate agent and brought him onto the airplane and said to the doctor, “here is our written policy about denied boarding. I know you are in a seat, but you are mistaken that we can’t remove you. But guess what? You will get refunded whatever you paid if we can get you to your destination within an hour and if it takes longer you could get up to 400 percent.”
He would likely have gotten up and gotten off the plane in a second.

Sunday/ Amazon construction update

The city of Seattle had a decent Sunday (with sun!), and I used the opportunity to go check out the progress on the Amazon biospheres.   There is also a third Amazon tower building for which construction had started in the fall of 2016, with its completion scheduled for some time in 2018.

The three biospheres all have complete outer shells, but there is still work needed on the inside. What must surely be the city’s smallest dog park, is in the lower right of the picture : an enclosure barely bigger than my sitting room. Just behind the white containers on the left of the picture, is the foundation of Amazon Tower III, slated for completion in 2018.

Here is an artistic rendering of the three Amazon Towers. From left to right : Amazon I is the set of buildings with the red & green; Amazon II is the blue one to the right of the biospheres, and Tower III is the one on the far right, still under construction (37 floors). © Magnusson Klemencic Associates

This is the view on the north-facing side of Amazon II. There is an Amazon Go grocery concept store* on the far corner (where the yellow paneling ends) – but the store is not yet open to the public. *There are no check-out lines. The store uses technology to detect when a shopper takes an item from the shelf, and then syncs the data to the shopper’s smart phone.