31 July 2008

A Mayor, Some Ganja and Dogs

DCist: 32 Pounds of Marijuana Found in Berwyn Heights Mayor's Home

Way to go, neighborhood immediately to the west of me. Great job electing public officials.

When I moved here I was told by a friend from Berwyn Heights that the police are very zealous about rolling stops because they don't have any real crime to watch out for. Erm. Well. I wonder if this changes things?

Why must they always kill the dogs? Why? Is there a special bonus SWAT team merit badge you get for killing dogs? This is unacceptable to me. As always, Radley Balko points out how utterly unnecessary a SWAT raid was in the first place. That poor decision is what enables the further poor decision to murder two black labs. These SWAT people are like children, who just can't wait to take out their toys and play with them. They should be adults, selecting the best tools for the job. But I guess maturity is a little much to ask from people who carry around high powered weaponry, isn't it?

Bacon Salt!

How was I not aware of this product until now? I could have spent the entire last year living in a bacon-flavored paradise. Instead I have suffered through twelve months of crippling bacon poverty, in which the only time I got to taste bacon is when actually eating bacon. In retrospect that seems so primitive.

Expect a full review of Bacon Salt sometime next week when I have had an opportunity to put this on literally everything I eat.

(Bonus link: XKCD — Stove Ownership)

From the 'Inspector Renault is Shocked!' Files

China reneges and censors internet access:

The issue of free and open reporting of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was called into question yesterday when IOC officials allowed the blocking of "sensitive" websites from media during the Games.

Kevin Gosper, chairman of the IOC's press commission, had previously said that internet access for the the world's media would be "open". Yesterday he was forced to admit that the situation had changed, after the IOC appeared to relent from pressure from the Beijing Organising Committee (BOCOG).

Can anyone say they're surprised by this? Really? Who didn't see this coming a million li away? The PRC limits internet access. An international NGO quietly acquiesces to an authoritarian regime. Color me surprised. In other news, my dog chased a squirrel in the park. Shocking! I certainly never guessed that would have happened under the circumstances.

30 July 2008

Un-aborted Post

I had a nice little narrative thread that tied the following items together by relating them to things that Special Lady Friend said to me before the Bruce concert. I typed it all up before realizing it was stupid and decided to scrap it.  Then I decided that would be wasteful so I'm just going to throw these links out there and let them stand on their own, sans connecting anecdotes and dialog, even though they're days old now.

Item OneBicyclist body-checked by petulant cop:

By the way, the bicyclist was then arrested and held for 26 hours on charges of assault, disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. Yes, the cyclist was the one arrested for assault.

Items Two and Three:  More police puppycide, this time with a side of pepper-sprayed baby.

Item Four: Boys' scores on math tests show more variance than girls.  That is, their mean scores are the same throughout age groups, but there are more boy geniuses and more boy morons.  Few people reporting the study bothered to mention the second half of that, even though that's the important bit.

Item Five:  Which college majors are the most politically correct? I am not surprised by the results. Cowen calls for one sentence explanations.  Here are some good ones from the comments:
  • Fields aiming at the mastery of human minds and meanings are populated with professors who have faith that the minds of others need to be shaped for the greater good.
  • Careers for professors in some fields is driven by surprising your peers, in others by agreeing with your peers.
  • The less your work can be checked, the more you need to follow and enforce norms.
  • Electrons don't care how you feel about them.
  • Objective outputs require objective inputs.
  • Where bias is expensive, PC doesn't last.
  • PC only appears in disciplines with no discipline.

From the Voluntary Obligations File. Again.

Jacob Sullum reports on Seattle's new 20 cent tax on grocery bags and calls out councilman Richard Collins for being a mendacious scoundrel.
"This is a voluntary fee," said Council President Richard Conlin, who worked with Mayor Greg Nickels on the proposal. "No one has to pay it. You only have to pay it if you choose not to use reusable bags."
Can we stop it with this "voluntary tax" nonsense already? If you put your groceries in an unapproved bag, the government forces you to pay the fee, so it's not voluntary. By Conlin's logic, sales tax also is voluntary (you don't have to buy stuff), as are alcohol and tobacco taxes (you don't have to drink or smoke), air travel taxes (you don't have to fly), gas taxes (you don't have to drive), property taxes (you don't have to own a house), and income taxes (you don't have to make money).
I would add that Seattle City Council members should be required to voluntarily wear big red clown shoes wherever they go. Sure, they'll be legally compelled to do it, but it's still voluntary since they don't have to get elected and serve as deceitful schmucks city councilmen.

29 July 2008

Best-of-Seven Series and Presidents

AFF Doublethink Online » Checks and Imbalances: The Problem with Popular Vote Movements

If you think we should ditch the electoral college and let the plurality winner of the popular vote be President then you ought to be willing to give the World Series trophy to whichever team can put up the most runs in 63 innings of baseball.

"The worst enemy of truth and freedom in our society is the compact majority."
— Henrik Ibsen

Aint Nothing But Tired

I am weary from a two night dual bachelor party in DC followed by seeing Bruce in concert up in the Meadowlands on Sunday night. For decorum's sake the bachelor party will be ignored and never again mentioned herein. The concert is a matter of public record, however:

Bruce Springsteen's "Magic Tour" lived up to its name at Giants Stadium last night when the alchemy of the Boss, in Jersey, playing with the E Street Band came together in a perfect balance of fist-pumping, dancing-in-the-aisles rock.

[...] I've never seen Bruce and the band play a bad show either in the city or on the road. Yet as good as those concerts are, there's nothing like seeing him on his home turf.

At this show, the band/fan energy was so intense, the line between who was driving the concert and who was being driven was blurred.

All true. One correction to that article though: they played uninterrupted for well over three hours, not a mere two and a half. Also, Max Weinberg can drum. Very, very well. Everything I've heard about Bruce shows is true: they bring enough energy to rock their own socks off, to say nothing of yours. Very well done.

On the other hand, leaving the venue was a true clusterf--k. Sorry, but there's no other word for it. I'm sure getting out of the Meadowlands always is. The parking structure we were in is better suited as a set for The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari than as a facility for the storing of automobiles. (Just a sample: why would you have two lanes on the ramps leading into the structure, but only one lane leading out? Arrivals are stretched out over a period of hours but departures occur all at once.) The whole thing seems designed by Philip Zimbardo to actively induce hopelessness and rage in motorists. And I already knew the drivers would be arrogant, malicious and spiteful, but I observed one maneuver that can be described as nothing but a four-wheeled rejection of the Social Contract itself. This might have been the most outrageous thing I've ever seen happen on a road that did not involve Marion Berry.

26 July 2008

ND Alum NFL Wrap-up

The Blue-Gray Sky has a run down of recent Notre Dame grads and their prospects as NFL camps start to gear up.

Carlson is still holding out with Seattle. I understand that you want to get the best possible contract you can because management is ruthless and impersonal and you need to look out for numero uno. But I just don't like holding out through the start of camp. It still seems very immature to me. Quit bickering and get to work. Everyone else is there sweating and you're holed up with a lawyer and an agent? Come on.

For the record it really rubs me the wrong way that Brady Quinn is a second stringer and the NFL still puts him in commercials. Earn your stripes you arrogant prima donna. (I know it isn't really his fault, and it isn't really the league's fault, but... grrrrrrrr.)

In non-football news, Samardzija just got called up to the show.

Radley Balko Rocks Out to The Hold Steady?

How good.

Now I can add "good taste in music" to my list of reasons Balko is a premium blogger.

And if you need one more reason to sweat The Hold Steady try this on for size:

If you front a rock band and you're a worse dancer than even I am you must have some serious mojo.

25 July 2008

Count Me In

Positive Liberty vows never to submit to involuntary national servitude and asks others to join in.
I solemnly swear that I will never take part in any involuntary civilian service at the behest of the federal government, regardless of the consequences.
I'm in.
Also — this could be the most important part — refuse to compromise on the terminology. A slave is a slave, even if nice people like Charles Rangel or perhaps Barack Obama are the ones holding the whips.
I will yield no ground, whether grammatical, rhetorical, or lexicographical.
I also find it interesting that whenever you’re running for president, it’s somehow not undignified to ask others to do stuff for you, en masse, unpaid.
A fine point. I think it's not undignified to do so because a political career is entirely devoid of dignity to begin with.* Dignity is, if anything, a liability in this town. We've come to a place in which advocating higher taxes is equated with charity and sending other people off to war is equated with courage. By those standards having other people do work for you must be a sign of your own industriousness and diligence.

* That's not to say the very occasional respectable person doesn't wander into politics, but there's nothing about the seeking and holding of public office that should bring one esteem or honor.

Bruce Wayne and Dick Cheney

Porch Dog does some more thinking about the political ramifications of Nolan's The Dark Knight. I think he (and Matt Yglesias) are pretty much spot on: it's about political themes without being about our specific current political situation vis-a-vis terrorism, surveillance, etc.
I would discourage people from trying to find the exact, real-world fit for the commentary made in The Dark Knight…it’s fantasy….real over the top, adolescent-inspired fantasy. The main character is a ninja that dresses up like a bat. The main bad guy is the lead singer of the Insane Clown Posse. It’s not that comic books can’t offer commentary on the real world, but their ability to offer commentary is constrained by the superhuman nature of their main players.
One quibble: comic books aren't constrained in this respect by the superhuman nature of their main players. Superhero comic books are constrained by the nature of their main players. DMZ has no such limitations. Scalped has no such limitations. Y: The Last man had no such limitations. Ex Machina plays off those limitations and turns them into strengths. I know Porch Dog realizes comics are not synonymous with superheroes but many do not and I am on a mission to stamp out this misconception wherever is festers.

Yglesias also points out that concerns about Batman being a Fascist super-vigilante are overblown in the context of the DC Universe, where he's actually one of the least powerful guys running around in tights beating up bad guys.
You don't look at Batman and say "no man should wield this much power" in a world where Superman can see through walls.
That's why I'd like to get the caped crusader and Green Arrow together. Just two costumed ninja bandit billionaires going about their business. No big deal. I know the traditional set up is liberal Green Arrow and conservative Green Lantern but you have the same power imbalance thing you have with Bats and Superman. I'd much rather see the idealist Green Arrow and pragmatist Batman team up and/or face off more often.

Special Comic-Con Addendum: I have just learned that Kevin Smith, who wrote 15 issues of Green Arrow, will be writing a Batman miniseries featuring a Green Arrow villain, Onomatopoeia. So close to what I wanted, yet not at all the same. (Via io9)

An Almost Really Interesting Chart

That's from the blog for Andrew Gelman et alia's forthcoming book Red State, Blue State, Rich State, Poor State. There are others there broken down into sub categories if you're interested. I say it's almost really interesting because I find the left/right distinction to be largely a false dichotomy. I want to see the same chart recreated in two dimensions. Also it would be good to see the figures for voters scaled by the likelihood of their actually voting, if it is not already. I think that might make the population at large look less centrist.

I don't know much about Gelman's book, but I really don't like the "Red State/Blue State" labels. People treat redness and blueness as if they're some fundamental properties of the states, when they're really just a proxy for urbanization and a couple of other things. States with high degrees of urbanization have been voting Democratic recently. States with low degrees of urbanization have been voting Republican. There's no need to introduce another set of labels that does nothing but allow people to seem irreverent and snarky without offering any extra descriptive power. The authors all have some degree of quantitative backgrounds, so I'm sure they realize red/blue is spurious, but I just wanted to get this out there.

(Via 3 Quarks Daily)

Obama Gets Musty

Matt Welch is a little put off by Obama's declarations in Berlin of all the things we must do right at this very moment. Personally, I'm more repulsed by all of the "musts" that he throws about than his trying to redefine the occasion of his candidacy as being a particularly momentous event for the world. "Must" is irreconcilable with choice and with freedom.
The basic test of freedom is perhaps less in what we are free to do than in what we are free not to do.
— Eric Hoffer
All of those musts he bandies about don't leave us very much room to not do things. To say nothing of all the things his wife wants to not let us not do:
Barack Obama will require you to work. He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation, that you move out of your comfort zones. That you push yourselves to be better. And that you engage. Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed."
I'd love to see a president, any president, try and take my cynicism. He would be met with a return salvo of high explosive cynicism so whithering that all children within five miles of him will instantly stop believing in the Easter bunny. And they will weep. Please, for the children, do not try to take my cynicism.

To top it all off these tactics of making everything seem urgent and imminent and obligatory are just so predictable. This is standard revolutionary rhetoric. Hell, it's standard advertising rhetoric. The ticking time bomb approach doesn't leave the audience any room to doubt or waver. Start believing now or miss out forever. All-in-all this "I wish I was JFK" Berlin speech is just a really slickly presented version of your local car dealership's "Act now! Sale ends soon! Don't miss out on the BIG SAVINGS!!" TV spots.

(See also Welch's previous coverage of Obama's mustiness here.)

McQ weighs in on Gerhard Spörl's column about Obama's quasi President of the World aspirations. Says McQ:
It also points to the fact, that despite the love-fest with Obama at the moment, the primary reason for it isn't necessarily Obama, but the fact he isn't George Bush.

Europe, as Spörl indicates, has no real desire to "yes, we can" any of the topics Obama brought up in his bid to be president of the world. In fact, for the most part, they want nothing to do with his "will we's".
Europe is going to be in for a big surprise when this Not-George-Bush they've been getting all hot under the collar for turns out to be another politician. I predict we'll hear a lot of "I'm Shocked! Shocked! to find out there is hegemony going on here!"

24 July 2008

One Interesting Paragraph and Three Notable Bullet Points

From Kerry Howley:
Wage gaps between observably identical Nigerian workers in the United States and Nigerian workers in Nigeria (same gender, education, work experience, etc) are... considerable. They swamp the wage gaps between men and women in the US. They swamp the gaps between whites and blacks in the US. Actually, they swamp the wage gaps between whites and blacks in the United States in 1855. For several countries, the effect of border restrictions on the wages of workers of equal productivity "is greater than any form of wage discrimination (gender, race, or ethnicity) that has ever been measured." The labor protectionism that keeps poor workers out of rich countries upholds one of the largest remaining price distortions in any global market.
Allow me to repeat that:  "Wage gaps between observably identical Nigerian workers in the United States and Nigerian workers in Nigeria [...] swamp the wage gaps between whites and blacks in the United States in 1855."

Howley pulls out some examples of what this geographic discrimination means for the World's poor:
  • "Simply allowing one member of a Bangladeshi household to work in the US for one month (for a gain of US$835 in present value) brings a larger increase in earnings to that household than a lifetime of microcredit (for a gain of US$683 in present value)."
  • "The cumulative lifetime effect of the anti-sweatshop movement on an Indonesian worker’s earnings could be earned if that person had the chance to work in the US once for a period of about 30 weeks."
  • "An additional year of schooling [in Bolovia] is associated with an annual wage gain of $205. The net present value of a lifetime of such additional payments is about $2250.35 which is about 21% of the annual wage gain to a Bolivian working in the US."
As long as this is true the closed-border crowd will have zero luck keeping people on the other side of the proverbial (or actual) fences.

In related thoughts:  Doesn't Neal Stephenson include temporary foreign worker stints as major social concepts in two or three of his books?  I know our intrepid entrepreneurs relied on such habits in Cryptonomicon, and I think The Diamond Age also embraced it, but that was all post-Nation State, so take it for what you will.  Even though Stephenson tried to remain stoutly apolitical I think he ought to be aware of these numbers.

23 July 2008

Don't take my word for it...

I'm getting tired of detailing the ghastliness of national servitude, so I'm going to call in reinforcements from the history books. Here comes the cavalry:

This is from Hayek's "Individualism and Economic Order"
There is all the difference in the world between treating people equally and attempting to make them equal. While the first is the condition of a free society, the second means as De Tocqueville describes it, 'a new form of servitude.'
Speaking of de Tocqueville:
Democracy extends the sphere of individual freedom, socialism restricts it. Democracy attaches all possible value to each man; socialism makes each man a mere agent, a mere number. Democracy and socialism have nothing in common but one word: equality. But notice the difference: while democracy seeks equality in liberty, socialism seeks equality in restraint and servitude.
But let's not rely on a Frenchman. Perhaps the founding fathers are more your taste:
If ye love...the tranquility of servitude greater than the animating contest for freedom, go home from us in peace. We seek not your counsel, nor your arms. Crouch down and lick the hand that feeds you; May your chains set lightly upon you, and may posterity forget that you were our countrymen.
— Samuel Adams
Or maybe you're an Anglophile:
Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.
— Lord Acton, in "The History of Freedom in Antiquity"
Or we can consult an Austrian:
What impels every man to the utmost exertion in the service of his fellow man… is, in the market not compulsion on the part of gendarmes, hangmen and penal courts, it is self interest.
— Ludwig von Mises, "Human Action"
Or a Scotsman:
It is seldom that liberty of any kind is lost all at once. Slavery has so frightful an aspect to men accustomed to freedom that it must steal in upon them by degrees and must disguise itself in a thousand shapes in order to be received.
— David Hume, in "Of the Liberty of the Press"
Or we can ask a man of science:
Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom.
— Albert Einstein, in "My Later Years"
Or a jurist:
Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the government's purposes are beneficial. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greater dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment of men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.
— Louis Brandeis, in Olmstead v. United States
On second thought, let's go back and consult another scientist:
Instead [government] has a duty to its citizens to maintain their freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.
— Richard Feynman, in "The Uncertainty of Values"
Or we can turn to a man of letters:
In a free society the state does not administer the affairs of men. It administers justice among men who conduct their own affairs.
— Walter Lippman, in "An Enquiry into the Principles of a Good Society"
And of course there's Milton Friedman:
The use of force to achieve equality will destroy the freedom, and the force, introduced for good purposes, will end up in the hands of people who use it to promote their own interests. On the other hand, a society that puts freedom first will, as a happy by-product, end up with both greater freedom and greater equality.
— from "Free to Choose"
Actually, let's dip into the well of wisdom that is Friedman a second time, because this is truly worth remembering:
To the free man, the country is the collection of individuals who compose it, not something over and above them. He is proud of a common heritage and loyal to common traditions. But he regards government as a means, an instrumentality, neither a grantor of favors and gifts, nor a master or god to be blindly worshiped and served. He recognizes no national goal except as it is the consensus of the goals that the citizens severally serve. He recognizes no national purpose except as it is the consensus of the purposes for which the citizens severally strive.
— from "Capitalism and Freedom"

Servitude Nation Rears Its Head, or, Do I really have to bring up compulsory volunteering again?

Apparently I do, because in spite of my most fervent hopes people are still crusading for obligatory "national service." Now there's a whole People's Committee — excuse me, a "grassroots and grass top political campaign"* — calling itself Service Nation, which is dedicated to advancing the cause of mandating "voluntary" community service.

Jim Lindgren has details about this collectivist disaster here, here and here. They're all worth reading, but gird yourself against the despair that may set in when you realize these people are actually serious about this Orwellian scheme.

Here's what Service Nation has to say for itself:
Service Nation will unite leaders from every sector of American society with hundreds of thousands of citizens in a national campaign to call on the next President and Congress to enact a new era of service and citizenship in America.
They may be forgetting one sector of American society: the sector that values liberty. And if they do ever find success there won't be hundreds of thousand of American citizens left to swell their ranks. There will only be American subjects.

And here's an idea for you, Service Nation: why don't you and your hundreds of thousands of citizen buddies just do the damn service yourselves? Probably because it's so much easier to bully politicians into requiring everyone else to do the work, you lazy statist demagogues. Do you not see the horseshit in building "a national grassroots movement" to "inspire widespread public support for a new and transformational National Service Act" which will require people to take up a national cause? You're building a mass movement to agitate for a law which will establish a de jure mass movement for you! Cut out the middleman and do it yourselves! Stop relying on the government to force people to agree with you.

For all their talk of changing society these people seem to have become entirely incapable of imagining a change in society which does not rely on the checkbooks and guns and seals of the State. Let's all turn to Coyote Blog's definition of activism:
Activist: A person who believes so strongly that a problem needs to be remedied that she dedicates substantial time to ... getting other people to fix the problem.
If that doesn't apply now I don't know what does.

I've been over all this nationalist bullshit before. (Twice.) It's a philosophical, political and grammatical calamity. If the self-evidently oxymoronic nature of compulsory volunteering doesn't convince you this is a catastrophe then there's not much more to say. Any way you cut it, it's an awful, terrible, horrible, no good idea. As I said:
I do not like the idea of service to the nation or to the community being equivocated with service to the government or through the government. Putting aside the specifics of which services will count, I don't want the State adjudicating what helps society in general. I don't need Fearless Leader directing brigades of Citizen Junior Workers to enact his Grand Vision. The State already spends enough of my money telling me that they know better than I do how I should be spending the rest of my money and my time. I don't want to put great swaths of extra time at their disposal to start deciding what should be done with it. The less labor, and fruits of labor, central planners have to work with, the better.
Going to the Mat also hits the mark. This plan is entirely antithetical to freedom. There is no way to reconcile the two.

And finally Radley Balko contributes:
Most ominously, one of [Service Nation]'s stated goals is to "[l]aunch a debate about why and how America should become a nation of universal national service by 2020."
Note the absence of the word "if."
For your convenience, I now present an executive summary of people to be mercilessly mocked, unceremoniously stripped of any vestiges of respect and bankrupted of all whuffie for their involvement in this utter embarrassment of anti-freedom crusading:
  • Caroline Kennedy (professional daughter; Obama running dog)
  • Rich Stengel (Managing Editor, Time magazine)
  • Time magazine (activist newsweekly)
  • Charles Rangel (Representative, D-NY)
  • Chris Dodd (Senator, D-CT)
  • Alan Khazei ("social entrepreneur";** idealist leech)
  • Barack Obama (pro-servitude politician; ideological and political ally of Service Nation)
  • John McCain (pro-servitude politician of a different flavor)
  • Alma Powell (wife)
  • Bill Novelli (CEO of AARP)
These people are scoundrels and wastrels of the lowest order. Pay no attention to their words, except that which is sufficient to ridicule them. Do not grace them with your votes, your money, or even with your refined company. Do not buy their products. Do not engage them in conversation. Do not break bread with them. Deprive them of all the soothing enjoyments of polite society. Extend to them no courtesies, for they are enemies of Freedom, and thus of Civilization itself.

* "Grass top." Really? That's got to be the most egregiously asinine coinage of the last decade.

** I take it back. "Social entrepreneur" is even more imbecilic than "grass top" because it disparages the work of productive entrepreneurs (i.e. real entrepreneurs) who create actual value for society. A social entrepreneur is just a pretentious layabout with dreams of social engineering. Seriously, what is with these self-aggrandizing pseudo-intellectual titles? I remember meeting a grown woman back in '98 who un-ironically stated her profession as "Democracy builder." I nearly sprayed my lunch over the table trying to hold in a laugh. I'm not being hyperbolic; some droplets of sauce were unceremoniously ejected from my mouth. I quickly sobered up when I realized (a) she was serious, and (b) Democracy building might just get us into some trouble one day. I'm filing "social entrepreneur" in the same category.

Notes from the Homeland

Two news items yesterday about the Montgomery County government, that wretched hive of scum and villainy under whose watchful eyes I spent my formative years.

Issue One: Fortunetellers are still banned from opening up shop in Montgomery County. I think this is a semi-interesting question for a libertarian. On the one hand, what business is it of mine if someone wants to give a stranger some shekels in exchange for muttered generic platitudes about auras and Aquarius and so forth? On the other hand, the highest purpose of government is protect citizens from force and fraud. Palmistry etc. comes about as close to fraud as makes no difference, best I can see. The answer is: Run the buggers out of town.

Mostly unrelated side note: Does anyone remember Crash Test Dummies? I do, and I still contend they rock. They have a song called "The Psychic" that really shows off the soothing and yet haunting nature of frontman Brad Roberts' vocals. I like that song.

[Update: Did I just use the word "haunting" to describe a vocalist? I'm such a loser. But that dude does have a weird voice, so cut me some slack.]

Issue Two: MoCo now requires all nannies be given written contracts.* Liberal Marc Fisher gets his panties all in a bunch because this is a regulation that actually adversely effects his lifestyle, as opposed to labor regulations that adversely effect all those evil, bad, no good corporations, which he seems to think are just fine. (Also, obvious puns about "Nanny" states are made. Way to go.) He is, however, right about this:
This is a classic MoCo decision to make law as a political statement rather than as a remedy to a burning social need.
Unfortunately he does not seem to realize that this is hardly an isolated example of legislation to remedy mostly non-existent problems. Here's one example from today: Massachusetts moving to outlaw Salvia divinorum even though it isn't actually causing any harm to anyone anywhere.** This is what happens when people get their feathers ruffled and raise a hue and cry that "there ought to be a law!" and start hollering that we must "do something!"

Bonus MoCo link: Here's a 2007 story about the absurdly poorly run county alcohol monopoly. The arrogance of these people knows no bounds.

* Via Red Maryland by way of EconLog
** Via TJIC

22 July 2008

That whole 'teaching' thing? I guess that's part of the job too.

The Education Optimists: Unsure and Underpaid: No Surprises Here
When I landed this very sweet job at Wisconsin, having just graduated from the highly-regarded sociology program at U. Pennsylvania, I arrived and immediately felt as incompetent as I've ever felt in my life. On a daily (hourly) basis I found myself thinking (saying), 'I have NO idea how to do this. I can't do this. I'm terrible at this. I'm going to get fired...' I felt bad for my first class of graduate students, most of whom could tell (as their later evaluations revealed) that I hadn't a clue how to teach. In fact, it was my first class ever, since I spent my time at Penn wisely building the research portfolio that enabled me to get a job at a great school like Wisconsin. I never TA'd, and most certainly never taught a summer course-- I've still never taught in the summer actually-- since I was socialized to understand the importance of grant-writing and publishing, relative to those other potential activities.
I think this is part of the great irony of the Professoriate. You train for the better part of a decade, becoming an expert in your field. You have mastered an arcane set of knowledge, grokking complexities that few other people have even considered. But your expertise is only visible to the world when you do one of three things: teach, write and speak. However at no point in your training have you ever been taught how to do any of those things. The skills you need to actually manifest your knowledge are left entirely up to you to cultivate.

You need a couple of years of study and special degree to be certified to teach third graders how to multiply, but you can be expected to stand in front of a lecture hall full of 22 year olds and tell them all about link mining in relational databases without a shred of teaching experience. I know college students are expected to pick up more of a burden of teaching themselves material that has been presented in class (at least in theory), but something about this arrangement still doesn't add up.

At my department we all take a one credit class that hand-waves at writing, presenting and various career matters (though nothing about teaching). This mostly boiled down to bullet lists of generic advice like "when giving a talk, face the audience and not the projector screen." Gee, thanks. I am now prepared to eloquently communicate the intricacies of the use of Kohonen maps for supervised pattern recognition of rotationally invariant data.

(Via Going to the Mat.)

InformationGain('not fair') == 0.0

It appears there are new numbers available on the tax burdens of various income strata, which confirm my suspicion that Democrats' vociferous bellyaching about "the rich not paying their fair share" is nothing but high octane BS. Various other sources seem to agree.

First of all "fair" is a word that conveys almost no semantic information and does nothing to enhance my understanding. Hearing someone describe something as "fair" or "not fair" does not add a single bit of information to my knowledge of the situation. Calling something unfair is a lazy way of saying "I don't like it but I can't be bothered to explain why." "Fairness" as a philosophical concept is fine, but the labels "fair" and "unfair" are thrown about with such abandon, and have become so unmoored to any meaning or system of determining what is or is not fair, that they are almost pure noise. If you want to make some Rawlsian distribution argument, or invoke something like the max-min fairness algorithm, by all means go ahead and do so. But 99% of the time someone says "it's not fair" all I hear is "Waahhhhhh!! Me no like!"

As I mentioned once before, if you're going to make a qualitative claim like "the rich aren't paying their fair share," then it is incumbent upon you to define what a "fair share" would be. After all, how can you tell me that something is too high or too low if you don't have a way of recognizing what the right level is? You're not Goldilocks. You're not sampling bears' porridge. It's a little more complicated than "This tax burden is too low. This tax burden is too high. But this tax burden is juuuuust right!"

This was made exceptionally clear in a thought experiment presented by Steven Landsburg in The Armchair Economist. (Which is highly recommended, by the way. Far superior to the heavily lauded Freakonomics.) I don't have a copy with me, so I'll attempt to recreate an approximation of it:
Say you've got a town with two citizens, Anne and Bob, and one public service, a well. Anne makes $20K/yr and takes 10 gallons of water a day from the well. Bob makes $50K/yr and takes 7 gallons/day from the well. What taxes should Anne and Bob each pay?
It seems you have three options:
  1. Ignore income and just charge for water consumption. Simple, but runs the risk of being regressive, which most consider "unfair."
  2. Ignore water usage and just tax income. Okay, but what if Anne uses 10000 gallons/day and Bob uses 1 gallon/year because he dug his own well? Where's the "fairness" in making Bob pay for something he doesn't use?
  3. Specify some function which combines income and water usage. Then you have the unenviable task of justifying which function you chose (and the particular coefficients) with some kind of rigorous grounding, otherwise they're just random numbers which are no more inherently fair than any others.
If you can't pinpoint a "fair" tax regime for a nation with two people, one form of income, and one public service, what makes you think you know what will be fair for 300 million people, thousands of forms of income and wealth, millions of forms of consumption, and hundreds of thousands of often unquantifiable government services?

I believe that sooner or later — unless you take a very hard stance like "no taxes at all" or "no private property" — you're going to have to either derive your taxation parameters through empirical models attempting to maximize the economic growth, tax receipts, etc or you're going to have to pull magic numbers out of a hat, or both, since your models will probably need magic numbers of their own. At that point please have the decency to say something like "I pulled this number out of the aether. It is based on nothing more than my opinion that no one should have to pay more than 50% of their income to the taxman. That could have just as easily been 49% or 52% or 13%, but I chose 50% as a base constant of my system." If you can not build a system without introducing arbitrary postulates then you should have the honesty to declare those assumptions openly and recognize them as malleable and morally baseless.

Postscript: Previously wisdom from TJIC: "The word 'fair' means nothing more than 'what I think should happen.'"

21 July 2008

"Guilty Pleasures"

Radley Balko, who I respect immensely, is attempting to get all his blogger friends to announce to the world the five biggest guilty pleasures lurking in their music libraries.* This is a mistake.

When you label something a guilty pleasure all you are telling me is that you like it, but you feel as though this will mark you as someone with bad taste, so you're claiming to only enjoy it in an ironic kind of way. This tells me no more about how you feel about it than just telling me it gives you pleasure. I do not need to know that you know that other people think said object is not worth enjoying. Nor should you let those other opinions taint your enjoyment of, I don't know, "I'm Too Sexy."**

As always, Chuck Klosterman says it well:
The failure of The [Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures] is its never-explained premise, which is that there are certain things we're just supposed to inherently feel shame about. For example, I have no idea why anyone would be embarrassed to like Evel Knievel (page 144); he serves as a metaphor for what a lot of people valued in 1975. He also broke thirty-five bones, went to jail for beating a man with a baseball bat, and consciously named himself Evel. He's not cool in a guilty context; he's cool in every context. [...] And why are gumball machines indicted on page 114? It's not just that I don't harbor guilty feelings about gumball machines; I have no opinion at all about gumball machines (unless I want a gumball; then I'm briefly "pro—gumball machine," I suppose).
What the authors of The Encyclopedia of Guilty Pleasures (and everyone else who uses this term) fail to realize is that the only people who believe in some kind of universal taste—a consensual demarcation between what's artistically good and what's artistically bad—are insecure, uncreative elitists who need to use somebody else's art to validate their own limited worldview. It never matters what you like; what matters is why you like it.
That little bit about uncreative elitists is a little harsh, since 99% of the people who use the term "guilty pleasures" have an intuitive understanding of what a guilty pleasure is supposed to be, and have never given a single thought as to what its relation to actual guilt is or how we label the things we like but feel we shouldn't. But I suppose that's the simultaneously glorious and tragic thing about being Chuck Klosterman: he has directed intense contemplation towards topics that no one else has ever bothered to consider.

* Such projects have come to be called "memes" but I really don't like that label much because these kinds of consciously-directed trend manufacturing projects seem much too teleological to jive with my understanding of memetics, limited though it is. On the other hand I try not to put too much stock in Richard Dawkins, so I really shouldn't be too upset if the meme concept is corrupted.

** "I'm Too Sexy" is a fun song. It makes me grin. There, I said it. Deal with that.

Studying Abroad in America

Give me your tired, your poor...doctoral candidates

That's a short bit from the Economist on the numbers of foreign students in American post-graduate programs, specifically technical programs. Based on my admittedly anecdotal experience, this is completely true. It is rare for me to go in the break room during lunch and hear English being spoken, or to be able to name any of the dishes being eaten with any more specificity than "something involving noodles."

A sidebar concerning the Economist's headline: Find me a non-tired, non-poor doctoral candidate and I'll eat my left boat shoe — the one that needs liberal applications of baby powder daily lest it start to smell like the unrefrigerated hold of a Cambodian shrimp boat.

This sentence seems to be the crux of the matter:
The increasing dominance of Chinese doctoral students does add to the popular perception that America will someday suffer a shortage of scientists and engineers.
(1) Popular perception is nice, but can we get something a little more solid than popular perception to base our opinions on? Some numbers maybe? Or at least expert opinions? I'm too lazy/not interested enough to look for such data myself, so I suppose we'll work with popular perception for now.

(2) A shortage compared to what? Will there actually be technical work lingering in in-baskets and on drawing boards, not being done because there is a dearth of scientists of engineers? Wouldn't this bid up the price of technical labor, drawing more Americans into the field (albeit after a short lag)? Or will this be a relative shortage, in which we still have as many scientists and engineers as we've ever had, but a smaller percentage of the world's total supply? If the latter, is this a big problem for anything other than defense applications, or is it just a national-scale instance of Not Invented Here syndrome?

(3) Will America have a shortage of scientists and engineers, or a shortage of American-born scientists and engineers? As this article points out, most of the grad students coming here from over seas want to stay and work here, so we shouldn't be too concerned about American industry. The same factors that make America a good place to get a doctorate also make it a good place to put your doctorate to work. The US has a tremendous amount of momentum in scientific endeavor. It would take a prodigious number of foreign students returning to their homelands, and forgoing the network externalities, economics of scale and other benefits of setting up shop in the US, to overcome that. And having them study here should make it more likely for them to want to stay, so shouldn't we be encouraging them to come as students, rather than stay in their homelands to study and also stay their to work?

Even assuming this poverty of scientists is a problem, I'm not sure there's much to be done about it. I see two possible courses of action: either restrict foreign students' access to American graduate programs, or try to boost American students' interest in obtaining graduate degrees. The first option retards the global pursuit of knowledge, and a sinking tides drops all boats. Furthermore by making capable students seek opportunities outside the US you hasten a time at which other centers of learning out-pace our own, which I thought was what we were trying to avoid.

The second option sounds nice, but most of the more aggressive schemes I think of are starting to hint at central planning. I don't want to start assuming that I know better than Joe College what he should be studying, or whether grad school or the job market is the best for him upon graduation. (Let me be honest — most of the time I do like to think I know better, but that's a weakness that I would like to avoid basing policy around.) On the other hand the NSF, DOE and DOD already offer grants to people seeking doctorates in science and engineering, so I guess beefing up those programs wouldn't be a qualitative boost of planning. I suppose we could offer more grants or better loan terms or something to people majoring in quantitative fields to increase the number of potential grad students, or boost the grants available to grad students in technical fields directly. Incentives do matter, after all.
American students who do have the skills necessary for a quantitative PhD might also be less likely to pursue graduate work, because these skills are in high demand. A clever graduate with strong quantitative skills can fetch a high salary right out of university. The alternative of seven years of indentured servitude to your adviser probably sounds less appealing to many recent graduates.
The current grant programs available for scientific graduate programs, to a rough approximation, pay about 50% more than what you might make as a TA. (Ballpark $22K/yr as a TA or RA, $30-35K for a very highly competitive grant.) So a truly outstanding, superlative student going on to graduate school can still only expect to make a little less than half what a mediocre student is making going into industry, where a CS or ChemE degree can fetch $55K pretty easily. Sure, maybe you increase your lifetime earning potential with another degree, but that's still asking people to buy into a lot of delayed gratification.

Even my lowest paid friends and classmates, even the ones with communications degrees who are running off copies at think tanks and answering phones at NGOs are making considerably more money than I am in grad school. This is only going to get worse when I'm in my 6th year and I'm making essentially the same salary I did when I first entered the program, and all my friends have been advancing for 6 years. I think if you wanted to set up financial incentives for American students to go on to grad school you'd need to put them on par at least with the lower end of white collar work.

Here's a first step: don't tax student stipends.* If you want to encourage education (and we obviously do, otherwise why would educational expenses be tax-deductible?) why not take it to the next level and not take a bite out of a paycheck I receive as a direct result of obtaining further education? If I spend my money seeking education, that money isn't taxed. But if the State of Maryland (from whence my paycheck comes) spends its money** on my education then that's fair game for taxing? Inconsistent.

And if a doctoral degree does increase either my life-time earning, or the productivity of American industry (or both), then the taxman will get his grubby little hands on the foregone money soon enough.

* I support a simple tax plan with few or no deductions, so I can't put my full weight behind this idea, but political reality being what it is I'm going to take what I can get, when I can get it. If a drastic change in the Federal tax code ever becomes possible I will rescind the recommendation presented here in the name of philosophical honesty.

** "Its money" used here only for convenience, because of course the State has no money of it's own, only that which it has taken from it's productive citizens.

18 July 2008

XKCD for the SLF

Special Lady Friend wants to be mentioned again, and today's xkcd gives me a perfect opportunity. Have fun with those Romantic poets, Lady Friend. [wink. grin.]

Ipsos Custodes

The first Watchmen trailer is officially online. Thoughts:
  • Love the rendering on Dr Manhattan. [Ed: I meant the CGI in the trailer, although I have always really loved the way Gibbons did the shading differently for him than all the other characters.]

  • Nite Owl's vehicle breaching (or just slightly after breaching) looks very wrong to me. The Incredibles had more dynamic liquid effects than that. Likewise the glass shattering during the defenestration of The Comedian looks off somehow, but I can't slow it down enough to figure out why.

  • For reasons I can't express, I just love the look of Dr Manhattan's legs in the background as The Comedian lays waste to Vietnam. It almost reminds me of the Stay Puft Man, except with the power to control the universe at an atomic level, and not made of gelatinized sugar.

  • The crystal palace thing (I forget the real name) on Mars is very well modeled.

  • I also like the general color tone and shading. I think it might get a little dreary and hard to watch throughout a full feature, but it sets the mood well and gives the world some character.
Something about Rorschach's ominous line "The World will look up and shout, 'Save us!' And I'll whisper, 'No.'" made me think of this picture posted by TJIC this morning:

He comments that "Leftists would call this 'hegemony.' I call it 'awesome.'" There's really no arguing with this:
Awesome (adj): inspiring awe.

Awe (n): 1. A mixed emotion of reverence, respect, dread, and wonder inspired by authority, genius, great beauty, sublimity, or might. 2. (archaic) The power to inspire dread.
Tell me with a straight face that staring down the business end of an M1 Abrams would not fill your heart with dread. (And you pants with something even less pleasant.) You know what would scare me the most about this scene? That the crew has casually stashed a cooler on top of their vehicle. Not only will they unload serious Old Testament firepower, but they plan on breaking later for frosty beverages. It's a true badass that can level half a village in the morning and still be ready for a picnic in the afternoon.

But anyway, back to American "hegemony" and Watchmen. I thought a major theme of the book was what happens when the guys who do bad things to the bad guys go away. As much as I may not like the US military gallivanting across the globe to "build democracy" or whatnot, I am very thankful that that's an option. Were we to loose the ability to project that kind of force around the world everybody would need to start asking themselves very quickly who's going to take our place doing bad things to bad people. And I think the answer is that no one will. No one can. We are the biggest dog on the block by such a wide margin it's really as if there are no other dogs in town, just a pack of mildly rambunctious chipmunks. Even with heavy American logistical support there might be three or four countries that could lay down the law half a world away. And without our transportation and supply and communication and intelligence infrastructure that list falls to maybe the UK.

I don't like government sponsored violence, but to be perfectly honest I like the idea that there are big scary men with big scary weapons ready to reign down truly biblical amounts of destruction on people who might try to harm me and my neighbors. It's ugly, but somebody has to be ready to do it.

Finally, it would not surprise me at all if an American president, ten or twelve years from now said (privately at least) exactly what Rorschach does. When trouble is a-brewing in Zimbabwe or Venezuela or Sudan or Bangladesh or Iran and people start yelling "Do Something!" I think we'd be perfectly justified in explaining that the last time we confronted a psychotic despotism with a history of genocide things did not go so well, so we're going to be sitting this one out, thank you very much. You are more than welcome to step up to bat this inning, everyone else.

Maybe this response will be better for the US or the World, and maybe it won't. Though the simplicity and consistency of isolationism has a visceral appeal to me I still have to admit that when he chips are down, I, like everyone else, am a consequentialist, so I really don't know if this Rorschach attitude would be ultimately good or bad. Be that as it may, an argument of "you didn't like our results last time, so clean up the mess yourself" will be very hard for me to fault.

17 July 2008

Yes, there were many jokes made about corsages

By happenstance, I attended last night's Washington International Trade Association Awards Dinner, saccharinely referred to as the "Trade Prom." The main gist of the event was to congratulate US Trade Rep Susan Schwab for being such a damn splendid Trade Rep.

Besides a cheeky discussion on US manufacturing output and public choice theory with someone I later found out was worth nine figures — be sure that my cheekiness would have been dialed back about seven notches had I known that in advance — I had only one substantive observation.

Former member Cal Dooley was acting as MC, and led off the evening with something that filled me with great hope for brevity and flashbacks of Churchill's Harrow commencement address: "Free Trade is good. Protectionism is bad. Now, time for dinner." Alas, these were not the full extent of the night's remarks, as there were a multitude of further comments and heaps of feel-good back-patting left to be done.

Schwab, and a couple of the other speakers, kept mentioning how detailed the free trade agreements they were working on were, how many pages they ran to, and how many years they took to hammer out. One, I believe dealing with the importation of Canadian pine lumber, took 24 years to negotiate. I know relatively little about the content of these agreements, but I feel confident that if it takes a quarter of a century to haggle about, it is not "free trade." Free trade looks more like this:
Us: Can people in our country do business with people in your country, sans silly transnational restrictions?
Them: Sure.
Us: Great.
If a "free trade agreement" is running onto hundreds of pages, then it's not free trade at all, it's managed trade. Perhaps more lightly managed than the previous status quo, but managed nonetheless. All these agreements that Schwab is banging away at in Doha may be freer than previous arrangements, and I fully believe they're progressing in the general direction of free trade, but if you have thousands of stipulations and provisions and conditions, then doesn't veracity demand that you call it "Freer Trade" and not "Free Trade?"

Schwab did make a good point that when negotiating it is difficult to know that the deal is good enough and it's time to sign the papers and be done with it. (Her not-so-veiled answer was that it's time to finish up when the administration is changing. Hard to argue with that, unsubtle as it may be.) This reminded me of Saint Exupéry's maxim that “a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Of course, if we really did follow this advice when constructing trade barriers we wouldn't be so far off from the fanciful "negotiations" I detailed above. Wouldn't that be a fine world?

Actually, here's a second observation. For a room that was filed with very hearty (if still somewhat polite) applause for lines like "Free Trade is good. Protectionism is bad," there were a lot of Obama lapel pins. I don't know if these people were all Goolsbee fans, or if this is just evidence of people projecting their own hopes and dreams onto the blank canvas of the Barackstar's changitude, or if they didn't give a hoot about free trade and were just there for the pheasant and free booze. It probably says a lot about me that I find the third explanation the least distressing of all, by a wide margin.

16 July 2008

Joe College's $40/hr Job

In an earlier post on the specifics of Obama's collegiate community service plan, I wrote:
Obama's specific plan is for $4,000 dollars in tuition credit to college students in exchange for 100 hours of service annually. This is equivalent to the taxpayers of America giving Joe College a $40/hour job to do ... something servicey. Something servicey, moreover, that they have no control over. Much like we've done with health care, we've separated the consumer (the service organization), the producer (Joe College), the decision maker (the Bureau of Community Service) and the guy footing the bill (Tina Q. Taxpayer) as far as possible from one another, and disposed of the best signal we have for efficiently allocating resources. Recipe for disaster, that. Or at minimum, a recipe for profligate waste.

Because Joe College's labor is almost certainly not worth $40/hr (if it was, he would be able to sell it at or above this rate already) this a textbook loss-producing wealth transfer program.
Threat Quality Press left a very good comment that even though the $40 for one hour of service is a loss, this plan will also encourage more people to go to college. Because education increases lifetime earnings this will enhance the productivity of the economy (and the tax base) in the future, so maybe $40/hr pays off in the long run. (At least that's how I read it, forgive me if I'm misinterpreting.) Tallying up the benefits to education in the "pro" column is admittedly a more complete accounting than the comparatively myopic one I presented.

But as long as we're re-evaluating allow me to throw one further item onto the ledger, this time on the con side. While society may benefit by using Suzy Taxpayer's money to send Joe College to school, how would it have benefited by allowing Suzy to spend that money as she saw fit? What's the opportunity cost of the transfer? Would Suzy have invested the money in her home business? Bought a more efficient water heater? More education for her own children? Maybe a complete set of Fraiser DVDs and some new snake skin cowboy boots? I have no idea. I also don't know how much each of those will benefit society in relation to sending Joe to university. And neither does anyone else.

Maybe this schemes gains us $5K/recipient in education and service, but looses us $6K in lowered efficiency from lack of capital accumulation. We have no idea, and even being very generous, I think we need to assume we would loose more than we gained 50% of the time.

When I went off to school my grandfather gave me a piece of advice that his father gave him: treat school like a job. That's exactly what I did, and balanced it with about 20 hours a week between two part-time positions. Do we really want people to spend an extra 3 or 4 hours a week "volunteering?" If our real goal is to get people educated, shouldn't we be giving them these grants in exchange for spending more hours in the library rather than encouraging them to put down the books and go do (largely low-skilled) labor in "the community?"

To endorse this plan you need to think that the royal We has a better idea what Suzy should be doing with her money than she does and that We have a better idea what Joe should be doing with his time than he does.

Perhaps I was hasty in saying this was provably a loss, but upon further analysis I still think the expected value is at most zero. Despite lacking a conclusive argument, I still have a feeling that such muckery with price signals will lead to a demonstrable loss. But efficiency arguments aside, this is a two-fold (money and time) example of the "fatal conceit," and for that reason alone I think it's worth opposing.

15 July 2008

Holding the Reins

I had a brief conversation over the weekend with a fellow who is counting down the days until 20 January, 2009. Given the particulars of the situation I felt it would have been a breach of propriety to argue with him at any length about pinning one's hopes to a new nameplate on the Resolute Desk. (I find such focus on the occupant of the White House while simultaneously ignoring the surrounding incentives and institutions confronted by the Executive short sighted, but felt that further argument would have been unbecoming.) Not wanting to press the matter farther than necessary, I referred him to Gene Healy and proffered my First Libertarian Postulate:
The problem isn't that the wrong guy is holding the reins. The problem is that the reins are hitched to too many horses.

New ND AD Swarbrick

Indianapolis attorney John Swarbrick has been selected as ND's next Athletic Director. I like the idea of grabbing an unconventional candidate, and having someone with what looks to be good negotiating chops. He also seems intimate with the inner machinations of the NCAA, and was apparently a candidate for NCAA president recently.

On the other hand, all the newspaper article Blue Gray Sky quote about his career make a big deal out of the economic development from sporting events and franchises. Since he lists development as one of two main practices, I would hope he knows that such claims are almost all double distilled bullshit.* I will give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is just using the Indy Star to make his job easier. We could use someone who knows how to work the press.

* Off the top of my head, here's a Cato paper about stadium impact, and Coyote's back-of-the-envelope numbers for the 2008 Superbowl. I wish I could find something more formal on the latter on short notice, but all of the mainstream press articles were rife with innumeracy. A couple were internally inconsistent as to how many hotel rooms Glendale even had, so I can not trust the rest of their numbers. Also recommended is The Sports Economist, which has posts on development fairly regularly.

14 July 2008

The Vicious Beast Called Imbalanced Data

This weekend, while watching The Bourne Identity, I was asked if I thought all the CCTVs the Company was using to track down the titular character made society any safer. They don't, and I said so.

When asked to explain why not I said, "Imagine you're looking for the allegorical needle in the metaphorical haystack, and I keep pitching more hay on top. I'm just makes your job that much harder." That's not the perfect analogy,* I know, but I think it's still more correct than not because 99.99% of the video those cameras are capturing do not show anything of use and so only serve to hide the useful information.

I was reminded of this more-hay-on-the-stack problem when I got home this morning and saw that the US "No Fly List" is now estimated at one million names. I see the incentives and risk/reward profiles that lead our esteemed Poobahs to keep adding more and more cameras or making the watch lists longer and longer — from their point of view there's really no reason at for them to not add your name to the list. 

But most people don't really like to admit that kind of thing, because we all want to believe our Poobahs are above such concerns and are tirelessly toiling to make the world a better place, rather than watching their own backs.  So let's put these incentive problems behind us.  Besides, there's a further problem apologists for million-name watch lists (etc.) display, and it's something I'd much rather discuss.

The common problem I refer to is ignoring the class distribution of the data they're compiling. Their thinking seems to be that with more information, they can find more bad guys. Simple: have some clues, catch some bad guys; have lots of clues, catch lots of bad guys.  But they forget that the kind of datasets being used in these contexts are not just large, they are exceedingly imbalanced. If every pitchfork I toss onto your stack contains all hay and no needles the chances of you finding any sewing implements are going to drop pretty quickly.

In these situations, you have two classes of data samples, the positive (dangerous ne'er-do-wells) and the negative (innocent civilians). When I was doing research in data mining a couple of years ago anything with a class distribution of 20:1 or so was considered imbalanced, and was rightly regarded as being much more difficult to work with than regular datasets. In some of these security considerations you might have thousands or millions of civilians per bad guy. Imagine how much more important class imbalance becomes when you've only got something like one dangerous terrorist per 250,000 law abiding citizens. You can't just conclude that more data is going to lead to better predictions.

A similar class distribution effect is also present in another topic du jour, credit scoring. In credit scoring and loan evaluations, you have four types of people with which to train your system: (1) those you lent money to and then paid you back, (2) those you lent money to and then defaulted, (3) those you did not lend to but would have paid you back, and (4) those you did not lend to but would have defaulted. Problem one is that it is impossible to distinguish between groups 3 and 4. Once you reject an applicant you have no way of knowing if you made the right choice. It is impossible to differentiate the true negatives from the false negatives in this situation, and as a result you loose valuable information.

The second problem is class imbalance rearing its head again. By necessity, you are trying to keep the size of group #2 very small. Surely you could build a much stronger system to differentiate the dead beats from the good borrowers if you had 50% of each to study and train from, but the whole point is to reduce the number of dead beats as close to zero as makes no difference. As a result your data is all imbalanced and you have to jump through serious flaming hoops to make things work. And as we are finding out, sometimes it still doesn't work.

Ignore class distributions at your own risk.

For starters, it is not a food analogy, and all truly great analogies are food-related. I once banged out three or four thousand solid words about how the one word which best describes me is "burrito."

Returning from Summer 2008 Nuptial Event #2

Nuptial Event #2 was in South Bend, IN. My findings:
  • Notre Dame is an absolute wedding factory this time of year. Everywhere I turned there were young women in a tizzy of connubial ado. A tizzy, I tell you.

  • Some strings were pulled in order to get the wedding party into the stadium for pictures after the ceremony. The brother of the bride and I snuck up into the locker room and were all giddy like little children at Disney World. As classy as the place is, it still smells faintly like every other locker room in the world, and it's only used seven or eight times a year. Unlike every other locker room in the world, it has these.

  • I have been told for years that I would get along famously with said brother of bride, and for those same number of years I shrugged off those comments. In addition to our stadium sneakings-about we also shut down Oyster Bar the night before, so I can say in retrospect that we did get along famously. That was a spot-on recommendation, though I am only realizing it now.

  • Once again the hors d'œuvre/canapé/antipasti were of significantly higher quality than the meal itself. Said meal was still of fine quality, but was still out performed by its own opening act. I'm not sure whether to be surprised by this or not.

  • Other than one easily replaced mis-sized tuxedo shirt, one pair of left-behind but ultimately supernumerary shoes, and one slightly bent boutonnière, the weekend went off without a hitch for the happy couple. Huzzah.

  • I realized part way through the mass that I had not heard a serious criticism of either bride or groom's character in the ~5 years I have known them, even from people whose criticisms I wouldn't take seriously. This is a good sign, though unfortunately rare.

  • There was a wide variety of digestifs available at the reception. In fact a separate bar was set up for this purpose alone. Yet despite the profusion of after dinner spirits and liqueurs, no dessert wine was being poured. I am admittedly only a part-time admirer of port, and indulge on very rare occasions in vin santo. But are such tastes really so rare as to warrant the complete exclusion of the entire dessert wine category from an otherwise well stocked service? I am curious as to reasons.

  • A mini-highlight of the weekend may have been the celebrant's announcement during the rehearsal that a certain period of the ceremony was "open season for smooching." You would find this considerably funnier if you could hear said presbyter's Old Dominion drawl pointing out kissing opportunities in such incongruous surroundings.

  • A former lab mate offered, unsolicited, some advice: "Always double check your citations." Granted, it had nothing at all to do with marriage, but it still seems like fine advice.

  • On the return, I-70 was brought to a grinding pace by a pair of sluggish ice cream vans. I remain convinced, despite the ministrations of the TSA, that the interstate system is the soft underbelly of American travel.
Now comes a fortnight without matrimony-related activities. It will be a welcome respite.

10 July 2008

Hello World

Greetings to readers arriving from Cafe Hayek and EconLog (and elsewhere). Having two of my favorite bloggers notice this previous post just makes me all giddy. This might be the first thing I've written which has garnered readership that I did not know 90% of personally. Huzzah.

Thank you also for the comments. There were some fine points made which I'd love to respond to, but I am at wedding number two in as many weeks, and the exigencies of matrimonial celebration are numerous and pressing.

09 July 2008

Right in the Kisser

Buzz Aldrin confronted by some asshat conspiracy nut.

God damn right, Buzz Aldrin. God damn right.

"But violence isn't the answer," say the crying hippies and delicate feminine flowers of suburban motherhood.

Bullshit. Nemo me impune lacessit. There is a certain level of rudeness that you should not cross, and beyond which you should put your own health at risk. I would like to live in a society where you are perfectly willing to go up to a person you do not know and have never met and call them a coward and a liar. At the risk of having your teeth knocked out, of course.


More on Voluntary Required Servitude

Some thoughts on the matter from Stephen Bainbridge to be found here:

To paraphrase Jonah, it’s funny that, when the right seeks to use the schools to impose its values, the left screams about brainwashing and propaganda. When the left tries to use the schools to do so, the right thunders about social engineering.

Personally, I think they’re both wrong. The moral argument against the draft has been well established:

The draft is a form of slavery. There is no way around it. Compelling a person to work for the state is involuntary servitude. ... Conscription is slavery, and if it returns, any arguments over whether America is a free country become obsolete. No nation is free when its government seizes not just the products, but the very means, of labor from its young.

Conscripting young people to do public service is just as much a form of slavery as conscripting them to go and fight in a war. Too many people on the left like one; to many people on the right like the other; a plague on both their houses, I say.

He is completely right about the equivalent nature of military and civilian servitude. They are equally repellent, and any thoughts to the contrary are just slapdash ends-justifying-means errors.

However, I disagree with Bainbridge slightly about linking college subsidies to service. Bainbridge thinks that if ROTC counts, so should other programs. I don't feel like getting into it, but I will say that (1) plenty of people who are not me think that ROTC shouldn't have such status, so let's not take ROTC to be axiomatically good, and (2) we have one clearly defined organization (the armed forces) which has special status. I am afraid of the inevitable creep that will come when we open up ROTC-like benefits to the SPCA, then PETA, then Greenpeace, and eventually Moonbeam's Save the Animals Bongo Circle and Starlight Groove-in.

I have not read details lately about McCain's national service plans, although my intuition tells me that his particular vision of "National Greatness" would cook up something truly abhorent. Let's leave that on the table and move on.

Obama's specific plan is for $4,000 dollars in tuition credit to college students in exchange for 100 hours of service annually. This is equivalent to the taxpayers of America giving Joe College a $40/hour job to do ... something servicey. Something servicey, moreover, that they have no control over. Much like we've done with health care, we've separated the consumer (the service organization), the producer (Joe College), the decision maker (the Bureau of Community Service) and the guy footing the bill (Tina Q. Taxpayer) as far as possible from one another, and disposed of the best signal we have for efficiently allocating resources. Recipe for disaster, that. Or at minimum, a recipe for profligate waste.

Because Joe College's labor is almost certainly not worth $40/hr (if it was, he would be able to sell it at or above this rate already) this a textbook loss-producing wealth transfer program. Absolutely textbook. The exact opposite of my supposedly crass and greedy, profit-generating tutoring job, and a yet provable net-loss for society. But a politically popular loss, so onward we charge in the wrong direction, fast as our little ballots can carry us.

Compulsory Voluteering

McQ asks if various plans being floated by our illustrious candidates to require citizens to do volunteer work bother anyone but him. Accepting and ignoring that this is just a rhetorical convenience and not an actual question, allow me to answer in the affirmative. This bothers me a good deal.

First of all, these plans all amount to what Paul Thornton wisely labeled "generational welfare." Such plans are based on requiring service by teenagers or college students, presumably because they're all worthless young punks who wear baggy pants and listen to loud music all day, instead of pulling their weight (uphill both ways) like youngsters did back in the good old days.

I'm still waiting for the plan that requires volunteering* from able bodied retirees as a condition of receiving their social security checks, or requires a few hours a week of service from anyone getting unemployment benefits. This will never happen, of course, because it's clearly those rascally youths — who, by the way, probably need a hair cut and should definitely get off of our lawns — who are best suited for work without pay. Let them make the world a better place. We have better things to be doing.

I went to three different schools with some community service requirements, and there were some common themes amongst all three programs. One common occurrence is that people just found a sympathetic authority figure to sign off on wildly inflated numbers of hours served. This happened for almost everybody, even the people who did orders of magnitude more service than needed, because it's easier to get one person to sign one letter stating that you've put in 50 hours under their watchful eye, then get four different letters from four people each attesting to the 15 hours you actually did with each of them. At one school it was common to see fliers in the hallway promising multiple hours of service credits for less than an hour of time served.

Then when people start to complain about the laxness of enforcement somebody at the top occasionally clamps down and compiles a short list of trusted and verified programs, and decrees that only service to such programs will be accepted. This puts them in the position of having to (getting to?) be the arbiter of what counts as true service to the community and what doesn't. Inevitably squabbles erupt, there are charges of favoritism, classism, sometimes racism, various other -isms, and eventually the system collapses in upon itself under the onslaught of petulant groups wanting free labor in the form of community service, and the bureaucratic overhead of approving a bunch of waivers for non white-listed activities.

Now, it's bad enough when the school principal gets to start deciding that working at the school art fair "counts" but working at the co-located fashion show does not. But do you really want the Department of Community Service deciding what benefits the community and what doesn't? What happens when the Miscellaneous Catholic Order of Abortion Opposition gets approved but Assorted Christians Working for Just War isn't? Or the Suburban String Quartet bake sale is ruled acceptable but the Urban Drum Line raffle isn't? Do you want these kinds of decisions being made by a political appointee? What happens when they make the "wrong" decision?

Which brings us to a wider point, which is that I do not like the idea of service to the nation or to the community being equivocated with service to the government or through the government. Putting aside the specifics of which services will count, I don't want the State adjudicating what helps society in general. I don't need Fearless Leader directing brigades of Citizen Junior Workers to enact his Grand Vision. The State already spends enough of my money telling me that they know better than I do how I should be spending the rest of my money and my time. I don't want to put great swaths of extra time at their disposal to start deciding what should be done with it. The less labor, and fruits of labor, central planners have to work with, the better.

Finally, I can't help but think these plans also feed off the perniciousness of the same anti-profit sentiments discussed by Roberts and Munger on this week's EconTalk. There's a common disposition in a large swaths of society that making a profit on something is greedy, conducting commerce is crass and that if you're making money then someone, somewhere, must be loosing money. This Bobo, zero-sum, anti-Protestant-work-ethic is the second pillar of this drive for national servitude, along with the aforementioned ageism. Put politely, this view is fallacious. Put more directly, I have seen more cogent points of view encapsulated in the Tupperware containers that have been pushed to the back of my fridge and left to fester for weeks.

I tutored a lot in a my senior year of high school. I worked one-on-one with a kid with some learning disabilities on some remedial math, basic study skills, what have you. Tried to help with some socialization problems he was having. That's pretty fine service to the community, you might say. Truly, I was helping the less fortunate, right?

Not so fast. I was making $20 an hour doing all this. (In cash, too! No taxes!) Is that still "community service?" Almost everyone would say no, of course not you capitalist lout, you got paid. Okay, let me put it another way. Was that work making the community a better place? I argue it was. A member of said community was willing to part with some of their wealth in order to see it happen, so to them, I was improving the community. What ever consumer surplus existed in my tutoring transaction is a community service. And since there is no collective democratic consciousness deciding what counts as improvement and what doesn't, and all we have (or should have) are individual decisions and peaceful arrangements between consenting parties, I argue that's as close to serving the community as anything else.

So my advice to all the potential servitors is to forget the volunteering, and get a job, sir. Deliver a paper. Mow a lawn. Paint a house. Sling some fries. Forget about asking what you can do for your country, and start asking what you can do for another individual. Maybe they want to compensate you for it, maybe they don't. That's between you and them, and that kind of individual, private transaction is what really improves society, not "national service" or "community-based experiential learning" or "moon shots" or five year plans. Tell McCain, and Obama, and "the community" they can all go screw.

* We'll ignore for the rest of the post the readily apparent absurdity of involuntary volunteer service, as the inconsistency of the concept should be immediately apparent to the reader. And before anyone begins to object that some plans don't require participation per se, but rather make it a condition of something like a tuition discount, perish the thought. This is no longer volunteer service, it's just routine work for hire, except the pay does not come from the employer and is not given in cash.

NB: I have a second post on this topic here, if interested.