Saturday, April 26, 2014

The real Amazon drones

I found this story through the Huffington Post:
At least five days a week, Myron Ballard races around Washington, D.C., with a cargo van full of Amazon Prime packages. A career delivery driver with 20 years behind the wheel, Ballard typically gets paid $1.50 for each address he visits. If he delivers 150 Amazon boxes -- a fairly routine number -- he can pull in $225. Not bad for a day's work.
That is, until he starts tallying up all his out-of-pocket costs. Ballard works for an Amazon contractor called LaserShip. He's technically an "independent contractor," not an employee, meaning all of the costs stemming from the deliveries fall on him rather than on LaserShip or Amazon.
Ballard had to purchase the cargo van he drives for work. He doesn't get reimbursed for the wear and tear he puts on it; for the gasoline he pours into it on a near-daily basis; for the auto insurance he needs to carry; or for the parking tickets he inevitably racks up downtown. He doesn't even get reimbursed for the LaserShip uniform he's obliged to purchase and wear.
At the end of the day, much of that $225 has vanished.
"It's like they want us to be employees, but they don't want to pay for it," said Ballard, 45.
Anyone who shops regularly online, particularly with Amazon, has to marvel at how quickly and cheaply packages arrive on the doorstep these days. Many of the millions of Amazon Prime members -- including this reporter -- may have noticed, however, that not all packages are ferried by workers wearing the familiar UPS, FedEx or U.S. Postal Service uniforms. Instead, they’re sometimes handled by smaller companies like LaserShip, with drivers working on contract and out of their own vehicles.
Delivery drivers are the real Amazon drones -- workers who hustle to feed our growing demand for next-day or same-day delivery from online retailers. And as the e-commerce industry continues to grow, the drivers classified as independent contractors are the ones feeling the squeeze.
These particular drivers work under a system that shifts the costs associated with employment away from the company and onto the worker. In this arrangement, a busted transmission can be the difference between putting food on the table and being out of a job. That's partly why the service is so cheap for retailers, and, ultimately, for customers as well.
For starters, a delivery company using independent contractors avoids paying payroll or unemployment taxes on its drivers, as well as workers' compensation insurance -- nevermind basic workplace benefits like health coverage and a 401(k). Such companies also aren't obliged to pay workers overtime under federal law, meaning no time and a half when the delivery day stretches into a 12-hour shift. And since they pay drivers on a per-delivery basis, they don't owe them anything for non-delivery work, like loading the van at the warehouse before hitting the road, a task that can take up to two hours.
The arrangement also makes it virtually impossible for the drivers to unionize since they're non-employees.
"The biggest savings for the employers, and the reason they're so devoted to the business plan, is the workers’ comp and the tax stuff. It's really lucrative," said Catherine Ruckelshaus, a lawyer with the National Employment Law Project, a worker advocacy group. "The work is all dictated by the employer, and they're not investing anything in [the driver's] business."
The arrangement appears essential to the bottom line of LaserShip, a once-small "last mile" courier company founded in 1986 and based in Vienna, Va., that's grown right along with the e-commerce boom. Although as a privately held company LaserShip doesn't disclose its size or revenue, it now handles deliveries for Amazon and others in areas stretching from New England down to Florida. Without the elaborate and costly distribution network of, say, UPS, a courier company like LaserShip is well-positioned to perform fast, cheap deliveries in dense areas like Washington.
The story is fairly long, and especially illuminating on how companies are exploiting the independent contractor clause.  LaserShip has expanded their service area into New Hampshire, Rhode Island, West Virginia, and Delaware for driver deliveries, while at the same time, forcing drivers to accept new contracts which reduced their pay by around 10 percent.  LaserShip also extracts fees from driver's earnings through a $6 "administrative" fee, a $23 weekly "insurance" fee that is separate from drivers own auto insurance costs, and a $22.50 weekly fee to "lease" LaserShip's hand-held computers for scanning boxes for delivery.  According to the Huffington Post, "over the course of a year, a driver could pay as much as $1,170 for the privilege of renting a piece of equipment that the company requires him or her to use."  This doesn't even include the costs for vehicles, gas and maintenance that drivers need to spend for working their profession.

According to the Huffington Post:
A driver like Ballard can gross $60,000 a year if he's willing to work 80-hour weeks, but expenses will drive that haul down closer to $40,000. Then he takes a big tax hit come springtime, having had no withholdings throughout the year. He also gets no health coverage or paid time off through the job, and his pay fluctuates from week to week.

Despite his two decades in the field, Ballard said he now earns significantly less than he used to in a previous job with UPS. According to the job survey site Glassdoor.com, hourly UPS drivers earn an average of about $55,000 per year, and salaried drivers make $70,000 with benefits.
One current LaserShip driver, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing his contract with the company, said that when his vehicle recently broke down while delivering Amazon packages, he invested in a used van to make sure he kept his route. In addition to leveraging $7,000 of his own savings and credit, he took out a loan facilitated by LaserShip. The principal plus interest were deducted directly from his paychecks, which were reviewed by HuffPost.
After taking on debt in order to keep his job, the man was asked to accept a lower per-delivery pay, he said.
"That's part of their pitch: 'You're investing in your company,'" the driver said. "I thought I was investing. But now I'm facing a pay cut."
The problem is that companies have forced extreme cost cutting, reduced pay and incentives on the backs of drivers.  With LaserShip, there is no guarantee on the delivery routs or number of packages drivers are expected to deliver.  There is no job security for the drivers, and LaserShip can terminate the contract if a driver refuses to accept lower pay.  LaserShip is forcing the drivers to pay the cost of company equipment, such as the hand-held computers as "leases," and extracting profit from administrative and insurance fees.  In other words, LaserShip has discovered a loophole in misclassifying drivers as independent contractors, rather than employees, as a means to reduce costs and save money.  With the extremely tight labor market, and companies continued demand for increasing productivity in doing more with less, it is not surprising that companies like LaserShip can find contractor drivers to work for them at slave wages.   As the drivers are independent contractors, and not employees, there may be a diffusion of opinion and potential single voice to represent the interests of such contractors, or even to unionize.  But that change may be coming--at least in the courtroom.  According to the Huffington Post, a judge has approved a class-action settlement where LaserShip is required to pay $800,000 to drivers in Massachusetts due to this missclassifying of the drivers as independent contractors, giving them minimum wage and overtime protections. 

The problem doesn't just stop with LaserShip.  There is also a WalMartization effect taking place here.   According to the Huffington Post article, delivery companies are forced to relentlessly cut costs in order to maintain contracts with Amazon.com, and if they can't perform the work at the price Amazon demands, then Amazon will terminate the contract with the delivery service:
That's what a LaserShip co-founder, Farhang Aryan, suggested in a deposition related to the Massachusetts lawsuit. Aryan said an increase of 5 percent in what the company asks of its customers like Amazon could get it "terminated" from its contracts.
"I know of situations [where] a customer says, 'If you do not increase the rates, I will give you [an] additional year of contract, and if you want to do any increases, this has to go to a bidding process,'" he said.
William Deschenes, a former Lasership manager, noted in his deposition that Amazon is now LaserShip's largest customer by any measure. According to Deschenes' testimony, Amazon expects that 98.5 percent of its deliveries arrive on time, and LaserShip drivers are measured under a rubric known as "deficiencies per million opportunities," or DPMOs, i.e., failed deliveries. Drivers told HuffPost that LaserShip management informed them they could lose their work through Amazon if the drivers can't keep their DPMO levels down.
It isn't clear how large or small a piece of Amazon's delivery operation LaserShip handles, or how much the retailer relies upon companies using contractors and their personal vehicles. Amazon didn't respond to interview requests.
One of the plaintiffs in the Massachusetts lawsuit, Milton Sanchez, testified that LaserShip management suddenly cut his pay. He alleged that it was customary for drivers to be pressured "under duress" to sign new contracts lowering their own rate.
"At the beginning we were making a decent pay," Sanchez testified. "And then they started cutting, cutting. … They couldn't make money with the client, so they make money with us. That's the way I see it." Asked about the various costs that drivers are forced to swallow, Sanchez said, "You break it down, and I'll start crying."
 If what LaserShip's co-founder Aryan suggested is true, then even Amazon is complicity guilty in the abuses of independent contractors.  Amazon is forcing relentless cost-cutting of delivery service contracts on LaserShip, which forces more pay cuts and fees on its drivers, who end up performing the deliveries for almost no pay.  Again, it is do more with less, but only now it is Amazon that is forcing LaserShip to do more deliveries with less cost.  It is a system that can't sustain itself--sooner or later, the system will end up crashing.  If a driver for LaserShip is forced to sign contracts for less pay to LaserShip than last year, due to Amazon's insistence on reducing LaserShip's delivery rates for shipping Amazon's packages, then that particular driver is not going to be purchasing products through Amazon.  We have a reduction in demand for Amazon's products, and a need for delivery services through LaserShip.  This is a demand problem here.  If companies do not want to pay workers for labor, the workers are not going to purchase company products. 

Saturday Morning Cartoons--Superman Meets My Little Pony

 I saw this browsing through YouTube, and it is just brilliant.  Created by an animator named ToucanLDM, the Man of Steel is transported to My Little Pony's world, where he meets those cute, wide-eyed, talking ponies, and battles against both General Zod and evil ponies from taking over the My Little Pony kingdom. 


Saturday Morning Cartoons--Superman Meets My Little Pony:

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Barbie is dying!

I found this Huffington Post story:
* First-qtr net loss $0.03/share vs $0.11 profit year earlier

* First-qtr adjusted profit $0.01/share vs est. $0.09

* Sales fall 5 pct to $946.2 mln vs est. $952.9 mln

* Shares fall as much as 3 pct (Adds details, analysts comments; updates shares)

April 17 (Reuters) - Mattel Inc, the world's largest toymaker, reported its first quarterly net loss in nearly five years due to a double-digit fall in sales of its iconic Barbie dolls, sending the company's shares down as much as 3 percent in early trading.

Mattel's worldwide sales fell 5 percent to $946.2 million in the quarter ended March 31 due to lower demand for its key toy brands.

Sales of Barbie dolls fell 14 percent, while those of Fisher-Price line aimed at infants and preschoolers declined 6 percent.

Mattel has looked to newer products to boost sales as children increasingly opt for electronic games and other gaming activities over traditional toys that are decades old.

Barbie made her debut in 1959, distinguishing herself in the mass market for dolls with her fashion model-like figure.

"(Barbie is) still a $1.2 billion business. It is still very meaningful for Mattel and it is very hard to grow a $1 billion business," Morningstar analyst Jaime Katz told Reuters.
I don't know yet if Barbie is dying. I have a niece in sixth grade, and she was never into playing with Barbie--she wanted to play with My Little Pony, Littlest Pet Shop, and Leggos--Harry Potter Leggos first, and now Star Wars.  Competition in the toy market is intense,  with a range of themed toys competing for children's interests.  Even the toy doll market is competitive, with the wholesome Barbie going up against the semi-slutty Bratz Dolls, and the gothic Monster High Dolls--which are owned by Mattel!  It appears to me that there are more toy choices out there for girls than just Barbie. 

The Huffington Post story does give this interesting detail:
Mattel's gross sales declined 10 percent in the all-important holiday quarter as shoppers spent less on discretionary items such as toys, especially the action figures and preschool toys that represent the largest categories for Mattel and rival Hasbro Inc.
So the parents of children have a choice in spending their stagnating wages on either food or toys, which are they going to spend their money on?

NASA discovers first Earth-size planet inhabiting Goldilock's Zone

This story is just totally cool:

Using NASA's Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the "habitable zone" -- the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.

The artist's concept depicts Kepler-186f , the first validated Earth-size planet to orbit a distant star in the habitable zone. [Click link below for more.]
Image Credit: 
NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech
While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth.
"The discovery of Kepler-186f is a significant step toward finding worlds like our planet Earth," said Paul Hertz, NASA's Astrophysics Division director at the agency's headquarters in Washington. "Future NASA missions, like the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and the James Webb Space Telescope, will discover the nearest rocky exoplanets and determine their composition and atmospheric conditions, continuing humankind's quest to find truly Earth-like worlds."
Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not. Previous research, however, suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.
"We know of just one planet where life exists -- Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth," said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA's Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper published today in the journal Science. "Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward."

The diagram compares the planets of our inner solar system to Kepler-186, a five-planet star system about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The five planets of Kepler-186 orbit an M dwarf, a star that is is half the size and mass of the sun. [Click link below for more.]
Image Credit: 
NASA Ames/SETI Institute/JPL-Caltech
Kepler-186f resides in the Kepler-186 system, about 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. The system is also home to four companion planets, which orbit a star half the size and mass of our sun. The star is classified as an M dwarf, or red dwarf, a class of stars that makes up 70 percent of the stars in the Milky Way galaxy.
 It was only a matter of time before the scientific instruments, imagination, and new means to discover such small, rocky, planets were to take place.  Now that we've discovered our first, Earth-like planet, I'm excited to hear when more will be discovered, or the discovery of liquid water on such planets, or even an oxygen atmosphere.  Then we can truly say that we are no longer alone in the universe.  Life exists on this neighboring star!

We just need to build one of these to to pay a visit:

Download Star Trek Enterprise into White Noise.  whitenoisemarket.com

Saturday Morning Cartoons--Superman "Volcano"


For this morning's Saturday Morning Cartoons, I'm posting 1942's Superman cartoon, Volcano.  From YouTube:

Chelsea Clinton is pregnant

I found this story through Americablog, which reported that former president Bill Clinton's daughter Chelsea Clinton is now pregnant.  And it appears that the famous Clinton First Couple, Bill and Hillary, are excited about being grandparents.

Okay.  Ho-hum.  Congratulations to Chelsea, and all the other young women who have discovered they will be expecting a package from the stork. Chelsea Clinton is married to investment banker Marc Mezvinsky. To me, this is a non-story. 

But then I went over to Talking Points Memo, and found two interesting stories.  The first is this story, where New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin speculates that Chelsea Clinton's pregnancy will become a "game changer" for the 2016 presidential election, and Hillary Clinton's presidential ambitions on MSNBC's Morning Joe program.  Sorkin believes that Hillary Clinton's grandmother status will result in a "softening effect" on Hillary's political image for the 2016 presidential election--even though MSNBC reported a Fox News poll showing Hillary's approval ratings remained unchanged after the pregnancy was announced:
Following a discussion about Hillary Clinton's poll numbers, the New York Times financial columnist eagerly turned the panel's attention to the real story.
"Can we talk about the human drama that is Grandma Clinton?" Sorkin asked, referring to Chelsea Clinton's announcement that she's pregnant.
"I don't want to be cynical and I'm not suggesting anyone's having a baby for election purposes, but —" Sorkin added before being drowned out by the panel's collective groans.
And with that, Sorkin had lost the room, despite his best efforts to salvage his argument. He insisted that the pregnancy was a game changer for Hillary Clinton.
"It's gonna change the dynamic of the campaign," he said.
How exactly?
"It's a softening, there's a compassion thing," Sorkin explained. "You don't think that over the next two years on the campaign trail this is gonna be part of the narrative? Come on. That's interesting."
The other panelists did not find his observation interesting.

Here is the video via Morning Joe:



I then saw a second story on Talking Points Memo, reporting Newsmax conservative host Steve Malzberg speculating that Chelsea Clinton's pregnancy was designed as a "prop" for Hillary Clinton's upcoming 2016 presidential run:
Hillary Clinton shoe-throwing truthers, meet Hillary Clinton baby-truthers.

Newsmax host Steve Malzberg on Thursday speculated that Chelsea Clinton's pregnancy was no accident, and that Hillary Clinton's grandchild would arrive just in time to serve as a "prop" for a widely expected 2016 presidential run.
"Now pardon the skeptic in me," Malzberg said. "Oh I can see Media Matters, I can see everybody going crazy on me now. Malzberg thinks this was a staged, planned pregnancy?"
"Well, now I'm not saying, when I say staged I have to believe she's pregnant, if she says she's pregnant," he continued. "I don't mean that they're making up she's pregnant. But what great timing! I mean purely accidental, purely an act of nature, purely just left up to God."
"And God answered Hillary Clinton's prayers and she's going to have the prop of being a new grandma while she runs for president," he added. "It just warms the heart, it brings a tear to my eye. It really does."
And here is the video:

 

 Looks like the crazies are really coming out to speculate on how a young woman's pregnancy will affect the outcome of a presidential election, that is still two years away!  It is complete madness here!  I could care less if a presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, became an expecting grandparent before or during a presidential campaign.  Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin became a grandmother a year before being picked as the GOP vice presidential candidate for 2012.  Did Sarah Palin's grandmother status affect my opinion of her as a political candidate?  Not really.  Although the story of Palin's grandmother status did raise a social issue of unwed teen pregnancy.

Personally, I'm going for CNN's take on the political impact of Chelsea's pregnancy for 2016--Chill Out and Shut Up!





Saturday, April 12, 2014

Florida GOP legislature bans teen interns from floor during abortion debate

I found this Gawker story through Daily Kos.  Even I'm a little surprised at it.  From Gawker.com:
During discussion of controversial issues on abortion and fetuses Wednesday, Republican leaders of Florida's Legislature sent all of the House's teenage pages out of the chamber, and they weren't allowed back in until debate opened on the next issue: guns.
The unusual "precaution" was noted by members of the Capitol press corps who attended the House session yesterday. The Legislature is considering a bill that would effectively ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, as well as a "crimes against the unborn" measure to put stiffer penalties on criminals who assault pregnant women leading to the death of their fetus.
The House pages and messengers, who have served the state's legislators since at least 1865, are all students who spend a week running errands for lawmakers and learning the business of state government. But Wednesday they were led off the floor, presumably so they couldn't be tainted by that business of government.
Okay, first thing I'm going to comment on is that these Florida teenage pages probably know more about what is going on inside a woman's body than the Republican legislators could ever imagine--or even dream about!  Are the Republican lawmakers so afraid of having young teens learning such words as "uterus" and "vaginas" in the government halls?  Do Republican lawmakers even say the words "uterus," and "vaginas?"  What is even more ironic is how they teenage pages were banned from the chambers during the abortion debate, but then it was okay to let them in during the gun debate! 

Talk about crazy incompetence....

Saturday Morning Cartoons: A Corny Concerto

For this morning's Saturday Morning Cartoons, it is time to get Merrie with Merrie Melodies "A Corney Concerto."  The cartoon is a parody of Walt Disney's 1940 feature film Fantasia, in which the Disney film sets eight animation sequences to classical music.  Directed by Bob Clampett, and released in September, 1943, A Corney Concerto sets up two stories to Johann Strauss' waltzes, Tales from the Vienna Woods, and the Blue Danube.  The film was voted #47 of the 50 Greatest Cartoons of All Time by animation professionals.

From YouTube:  A Corney Concerto:



Saturday, April 05, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons--Happy Harmonies "To Spring!"

 After the week of rain we had here in the Bay Area (and we probably need more rain), the sun is out and Spring is here.  I found this MGM cartoon series Happy Harmonies short cartoon, To Spring!  Happy Harmonies was a series of 36 cartoons, produced by Hugh Harman and Rudolf Ising, from 1934 to 1938.  They were distributed by Metro Goldwyn-Mayer.

Harman and Ising started their animation work with Disney in the early 1920s, however, they dreamed of opening their own animation studio.  The pair created and trademarked an animation character named Bosko in 1928, hoping to capitalize on the new technology of motion pictures with synchronized sound with animation.   After a short stint at Universal, working on the Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons,  Harman and Ising created their pilot animation short, Bosko, The Talk-Ink Kid, which emphasized synchronized dialog and speech in animation over music.  Warner Brothers Leon Schlesinger saw the pilot film, and signed the pair to produce cartoons for Warner Brother's new Looney Tunes cartoon series, making Bosko one of Warner's first animation stars. 

In 1933, Harman and Ising left Warner Brothers over budget disputes, taking their trademarked Bosko character with them.  In 1934, they found work at MGM in creating both a new series of Bosko short films, and the Happy Harmonies animation series.  Harman and Ising worked on the Happy Harmonies, until the series went over-budget in 1937 and MGM fired them.  MGM then went on to build their own in-house animation studio, headed by Fred Quimby.

Harman and Ising would continue to work as animation freelancers, selling short films to both Disney's Silly Symphony series, and to Quimby at MGM.  In 1938, Harman created Peace on Earth, an anti-war morality tale which was nominated for an Academy Award.  In 1940, Ising would win the Oscar for his short film The Milky Way, becoming the first non-Disney animation film to win an Academy Award.  While both Harman and Ising attempted to create memorable cartoon characters in their later years, they were unsuccessful.  Where Harman and Ising's work especially shines is in the refined, quality of their cartoons, and their refusal to skimp on such quality to the producers who wanted cheaper budgeted cartoons.  You can view that commitment to quality in To Spring, as the elves wake up and start mining the colors that would grow into the green grass and colorful flowers.  But will Spring ever be able to release itself from the blowing snow and winds of Old Man Winter?  Will the colorful pumps of Spring coldly crash down in that final winter's storm?  Will the black-bearded elf ever get his pair of blue pants on?

From YouTube:  Happy Harmonies, "To Spring!"




Thursday, April 03, 2014

UPS fires 250 workers after they protest against a long-time co-worker's firing

I'm not sure how to respond to this NewYork Daily News story, via Think Progress.   From the New York Daily News:
UPS has delivered a special message to 250 of its Queens drivers: You’re fired!
The Atlanta-based company is booting 250 of its unionized drivers from its Maspeth facility because they walked off the job for 90 minutes Feb. 26 to protest the dismissal of a long-time employee, UPS told the Daily News.
Twenty employees were terminated Monday after their shifts — and the remaining 230 notified that they’ll be canned as soon as replacements are trained, a company spokesman said.
“They just called me in ... (and) said, ‘Effective immediately, you are no longer on the payroll,’” said Steve Curcio, 41, a 20-year employee earning $32 an hour.
The mass firing has enraged Tim Sylvester, head of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 804, especially since the company gets some lucrative perks from the city.
Apparently UPS decided to fire a 24-year employee and union activist, Jairo Reyes.  The NY Daily News story does not provide details on why Reyes was fired by UPS.   After Reyes was fired, 250 unionized UPS workers staged an impromptu strike for 90 minutes, in protest of the firing.  UPS escalated in firing those 250 workers.  ThnkProgress is reporting that Reyes was fired over a "complicated saga" regarding hours that senior UPS workers can hold.

The rest of the story is about the city of New York trying to get UPS and the workers into negotiations, due to the fact that UPS has a $43 million city contract to provide delivery services to city and state government agencies, and that UPS participates in a special city program to reduce and expedite parking ticket fines and payments to the city.  Some New York City officials are now wondering whether to threaten UPS in negotiating with the workers, or cancelling these contracts.

I don't want to get into the details on Reyes' dispute with UPS, or whether UPS was justified in its firing of Reyes.  But I will say that UPS has a public relations disaster on their hands.  Do the UPS managers even watch the news stories regarding the labor strikes by fast food workers demanding living wages?  Or the McDonald's workers suing several stores in three states over wage thefts?  Or the stories of WalMart paying their employees so little that they employees are forced to apply for government food stamps?  Let alone, WalMart's own wage theft issues.  Like it or not, there is a battle growing between big Corporate America and their employees.  The employees have watched their own jobs being outsourced, wages stagnate, working conditions deteriorate, pensions and retirement eviscerated, and the endless demands of Corporate America to "do more with less," while not receiving any benefits for their increased productivity.  On the other side is Corporate America, with ever-growing productivity gains, increasing profits, and soaring multimillion paychecks and golden parachutes to their CEOs.  UPS may have been justified in their firing of Reyes, and the 250 employees who went on strike to support Reyes.  However, in this larger narrative, UPS is looking like the cold, uncaring corporation whose only interest is to screw their employees--UPS can always remove higher paying, experienced older workers for cheap, minimum wage scabs and make more profit due to reduced labor costs. 

UPS is projecting itself as being the "bad guy" in this story--rightly or wrongly. 

Supreme Court kills overall limits on individual political campaign donations

This is from the Los Angeles Times:

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court struck another major blow against long-standing restrictions on campaign money Wednesday, freeing wealthy donors to each give a total of $3.6 million this year to the slate of candidates running for Congress.
Rejecting the restriction as a violation of free speech, the 5-4 ruling struck down a Watergate-era limit that Congress wrote to prevent a single donor from writing a large check to buy influence on Capitol Hill. It was the latest sign that the court's conservative majority intends to continue dismantling funding limits created over the last four decades.
Under those limits, donors could give up to $5,200 to any individual candidate for Congress per election cycle, and no more than $123,200 to all candidates and political party committees put together.
Acting on an appeal from the Republican National Committee, the high court left the individual candidate limits intact but declared the overall limit unconstitutional.
As a result, individuals will be able to give the individual maximum to every candidate for Congress, either directly or through contributions to a political party. That in effect raises the new maximum that can be given to candidates and party committees during a two-year election cycle to $3.6 million.
We now have the very best political system that money can buy.  If you have $3.6 million dollars, you can give to every candidate and through both political parties to make sure that your political viewpoints are heard above everyone else.  Toss in the practically unlimited corporate campaign contributions of Citizens United,  and you can pretty much purchase your own congress-critter.  It seems like we're moving away from a one man / one vote, to a $1 / one vote.  What choice is there between corporate and ultra-rich sponsored Candidate A, and corporate and ultra-rich sponsored Candidate B, when both candidates have pretty much the same political opinion on business regulations, environmental regulations, labor, wages, and economic issues?  When both candidates support big business and the ultra-rich? 

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Saturday Morning Cartoons--South Park parodies Monty Python's "Dead Parrot" sketch

I found this over at Americablog, and it is just fricking brilliant!  Seems like the creators of South Park created a parody of Monty Python's famous Dead Parrot sketch--one of the best of the series. 

From YouTube:

 

And here is the original Monty Python's Dead Parrot sketch:



I'd like to see how South Park parodies other Monty Python sketches, such as the Spanish Inquisition, or Spam, or even the Upperclass Twit of the Year Games.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Supreme Court hears arguments in Hobby Lobby case for corporation's religious rights

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, where Hobby Lobby is challenging the Affordable Care Act's insurance coverage for birth control is violating the religious beliefs of the owners of Hobby Lobby, and that the company should be exempt from this birth control requirement.  This is from CBS News.com:
Two privately-held, for-profit companies -- Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. and Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. -- are suing the United States government over a provision in the Affordable Care Act that requires large employers to offer their workers comprehensive health coverage, including contraception, or pay a fine. Hobby Lobby's owners, David and Barbara Green of Oklahoma, say they have strong objections based in their Christian faith to providing health care coverage for certain types of contraception. The Pennsylvania-based Hahn family, the Mennonite owners of Conestoga Wood Specialties, have the same complaint.

For Christian conservatives, the cases represent the threat of government overreach.
"This case will decide whether a family gives up their religious freedom when they open a family business," Lori Windham, a senior counsel for the Becket Fund, which is representing Hobby Lobby, told CBS News. "The question here is whether the Green family can be forced to do something that violates their deeply held religious conviction as a consequence of the new health care law."
Reproductive rights advocates, meanwhile, consider the notion that some businesses could pick and choose which contraception methods to cover "out of touch [and] out of line," Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro Choice America, told reporters.
Contraception is "integral with our economic security and our ability to hold jobs for our lifetime," Hogue said. "We've had enough of this idea our reproductive health is somehow separate from our economic well being... Our bodies are not our bosses' business."
The two cases, however, have implications that go well beyond the so-called "wars" on women or religion. If Hobby Lobby and Conestoga prevail, it would prompt "a fundamental shift in the understanding of the First Amendment," David Gans, the civil rights director for the Constitutional Accountability Center, told CBS News.
That shift in thinking could open the floodgates for unprecedented protections for corporations that some say amount to a license to discriminate. The ramifications could be felt nationwide, in states that are enacting laws to shield businesses from regulations that may violate their "religious beliefs." Gov. Jan Brewer, R-Ariz., last month vetoed one such bill, which would have allowed Arizona businesses to refuse to serve gays on religious grounds. A number of other states across the country have been considering similar legislation.
The ramifications could theoretically go further than that. U.S. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli argued in a brief to the court that siding with Hobby Lobby "would entitle commercial employers with religious objections to opt out of virtually every statute protecting their employees" -- such as laws that ban gender discrimination, minimum wage and overtime laws, the collection of Social Security taxes, or mandated health coverage for vaccinations.
This case certainly worries me.  The big question I would have to ask is, who defines a corporation's religious belief?  Hobby Lobby is a privately held company,  so I can see the Green family's religious argument against providing birth control.  But who defines a publicly-held corporation's religious belief?  The CEO?  The Board of Directors?  The shareholders?  Will such religious beliefs have to be placed up for a shareholder vote on the next shareholder meeting?  How does such religious beliefs in God, Satan, Original Sin, birth control, relate towards selling of shoes by Nike Corporation?  Wait--Jesus Christ wore shoes.  How does religious beliefs relate towards the selling of  iPhones and iPads by Apple Computer Corporation?

There have been a lot of arguments that I've read criticizing Hobby Lobby, and their arguments for corporate religious beliefs--Talking Points Memo, Huffington Post, Daily Kos has multiple postings on their site, and Americablog has four postings.  What worries me is that if the Supremes rule in favor of Hobby Lobby, then we may see that floodgate of corporate protections on taxes, discrimination, exemption on regulations on everything--all based on religious beliefs.  Corporations only believe in one God--and that is the God of Money!  They will say anything and do anything they can to accumulate even more of their God. 

And one more thing, the Supreme Court will rule 5-4 in favor of Hobby Lobby, with Justice Kennedy being the swing vote.  Because corporations are people too, my friend.

Jack Daniels faces Tennessee "Whiskey Rebellion"

I found this story through the Yahoo Food Section, with the source story from the Wall Street Journal.  Starting with the Yahoo Food Story:
There’s a whiskey brawl going on! Not the typical post-drink brawl, but a brouhaha that was born before the whiskey even made it to the people. Let us elucidate the details.
Jack Daniel’s Whiskey: Whiskey made (1) in Tennessee (2) from at least 51% corn, (3) filtered through maple charcoal and (4) aged in new, charred oak barrels.
Tennessee Whiskey: Whiskey made (1) in Tennessee (2) from at least 51% corn, (3) filtered through maple charcoal and (4) aged in new, charred oak barrels.
See the similarity there? That’s because Jack Daniel’s—or rather, Brown-Forman Corp., the company that owns Jack Daniel’s—urged Tennessee lawmakers to require anything labeled “Tennessee Whiskey” to fit that bill. (The bill that Jack Daniel’s fits.) This is important because that “Tennessee Whiskey” label sells bottles—it’s part of why the American liquor business is booming—and without, it, the Other Guys have less of a chance in the marketplace.
Tennessee Whiskey, According to the Other Guys: Whiskey made (1) in Tennessee (2) from at least 51% corn, (3) filtered through something (maybe?) and (4) aged in some kind of barrel. This is what both small Tennessee distilleries and Diageo, the company that owns top-selling George Dickel “Tennessee whiskey,” want—looser terms—so that they can experiment with grains and woods and use family recipes, if they have them.
"If you don’t want to use new barrels or charcoal filtering, you can’t call it ‘Tennessee Whiskey.’ You can call it ‘whiskey from Tennessee’ or ‘whiskey made in Tennessee’ or any other combination,” Phil Lynch, a Brown-Forman spokesman, told Yahoo Finance.
You just have to love this ridiculous fight going on here.  Jack Daniels used the Tennessee state government to pass legislation requiring any whiskey labeled "Tennessee Whiskey" to be produced according to Jack Daniels' requirements.  Jack Daniels wants to use the term "Tennessee Whiskey" for themselves as a marketing term, and shut the rest of the distillers out.  According to the Wall Street Journal, Jack Daniels sells about 90 percent of Tennessee's whiskey, with Diageo PLC's George Dickel's Tennessee Whiskey in a distant second place.  There are also some small craft distillers in Tennessee that want to experiment in creating specialty whiskies, and are complaining about the stringent requirements and short supply of new wood barrels.  Ironically, Jack Daniels makes its own, oak barrels.  Legislators in Nashville are planning to debate the possible rule changes and amendments to roll back some of these requirements.

In one sense, I can see what Jack Daniels is doing for "Tennessee Whiskey," in imposing regulations for the term is similar to such regulations for terms of  "Scotch," and "Champagne."  Unfortunately, I would say that they've gone a little too far in imposing their production requirements for the term.  Jack Daniels covets the therm "Tennessee Whiskey," as it is prominently displayed in their label.  Now that competitor distilleries are coming into Tennessee to produce their own whiskeys, Jack Daniels is fighting to maintain their own monopolistic market share.  And one way is to keep the "Tennessee Whiskey" term for themselves. 

It is rather ironic, because Jack Daniels is okay--but it is not the best tasting whiskey out there.  To me, it is good as a mixing drink, but I would prefer the more subtle tastes of micro-brewed whiskies or bourbons.  To me, Makers Mark is a better tasting whiskey than Jack Daniels--and Maker's Mark is supposedly an inferior bourbon.  According to the WS Journal:
Brown-Forman—which is based in Kentucky (And maker of Jack Daniels)—is casting the debate in near-apocalyptic terms, saying in a news release Friday that Tennessee Whiskey was "under attack."
It accused Diageo of trying to undermine the designation by watering down regulations that would "dramatically diminish the quality and integrity'' of Tennessee Whiskey and make it inferior to bourbon.
Bourbon, the most famous type of American whiskey, is made with a recipe similar to Jack Daniel's. Under longstanding federal regulations, any whiskey labeled "bourbon'' must be distilled in the U.S. using at least 51% corn and aged in new oak barrels that have been charred. Unlike Tennessee Whiskey, bourbon doesn't require maple charcoal filtering. It can also be made in any state, although more than 90% of bourbon is produced in Kentucky.
There is no federal regulation governing the term "Tennessee Whiskey.''
(....)
Part of what makes bourbon and Tennessee Whiskey unique is the substitution of barley and other grains with corn, typically making them sweeter than other whiskies such as Scotch. Brown-Forman says new barrels are another important difference, delivering unique flavor and turning the spirit orange-brown without caramel coloring. Charcoal filtering produces a smoother sip, it says.
To me, the best-tasting whiskey would have to be a single malt Scotch.  And there are a wide variety of single malt scotches out there, with so many different flavors, aromas, and subtleties.  Unfortunately, single malt scotches have gone up in price.  So I've switched over to the next best thing in bourbon.  Go into a BevMo store, you'll find a number of interesting bourbons--each with their own subtleties in their distillation and production process.  Half the fun is trying out different bottles of scotches and bourbons and comparing them to each other.  Apparently Jack Daniels is saying that watering down the regulations would '"dramatically diminish the quality and integrity'' of Tennessee Whiskey and make it inferior to bourbon.'  I've tasted unique bourbons in Makers Mark, Knob Creek, Elijah Craig, Woodford Reserve (Which is OWNED by Brown-Forman), Rock Hill Farms, and a few others that have a better taste and complexity than Jack Daniels.  There are plenty of whiskies and bourbons that are superior to Jack Daniels.

The term "Tennessee Whiskey" is not under a "near-apocalyptic" attack.  Jack Daniels use of the term "Tennessee Whiskey" is.