31 October 2008

Callooh, Callay: Today was a good day

(1) Attended the Phillies' World Series victory parade with Special Lady Friend.

(2) Had some delicious lunch at Reading Terminal Market.

(3) Went to the Rodin Museum and took in some art.

(4) Got engaged.

That's right folks, that shiny little thing now lives on the left ring finger of the most wonderful girl in the world. Huzzah!

(PS This is so saccharine, but I feel entitled to something like that today. Deal with it.  And what kind of blogger would I be if I didn't share gratuitous details of my life with the Internet?)

Radnor's only Zen/Randian Jack 'O Lantern?

[Click to enlarge]

Yeah, that's The Question.

(Disclaimer: I was originally going for Rorschach, but this is the first time I've carved a pumpkin since I was about 12, so I got a little nervous about the possibility of carving out blots on his face and having the whole thing fall apart on me.)

30 October 2008

Damn you for not doing things that I didn't want you to do in the first place!

I will admit to indulging in no small amount of schadenfreude directed at failing financiers, even though (or perhaps especially because?) their suffering is causing no small amount of harm to myself, my friends and my family. But I'm sensing a lot of desire to crush would-be masters of the universe beneath the iron heel of The People, and that doesn't make a lot of sense to me.

I've seen a lot of remarks from the less introspective segments of the commentariat to the effect of "Those greedy Wall Street people! Their mistakes are hurting regular Americans. We should make them pay for their hubris! Bankrupt them! Arrest them! Off to the labor camps!"*

Besides being so very French Revolution, what irks me is that these comments mostly come from the same sorts of people who didn't like Wall Street when it was flying high. Now they like it even less now that it's in the dumps. Which is it, Goldilocks? You don't want Wall Street to be very successful, but you don't want it to be unsuccessful. Is there some invisible sweet spot of mild success that only you can see?

There are multitudes of people who insisted, and continue to insist, that finance somehow isn't real work and doesn't really contribute to society; that it's some kind of shell game where people from Wall Street wearing slick suits con people from Main Street wearing blue jeans out of money. I don't see how you can reconcile this with a desire to punish Wall Street now that they've crashed and burned. You can't claim that financial voodoo is bad when it's going on, but also bad when it isn't going on. I just don't understand the logic behind a decision matrix that looks like this:
Bankers are succeeding ---> soak the rich!
Bankers are failing ---> soak the rich!
(At the very least you should have the honesty to admit that you don't care what's going on in the world, you just don't like wealthy people and want them to suffer.)

If Wall Street contributed nothing to society then the fall of Wall Street should be a good thing. If the fall of Wall Street is a bad thing then whatever it is that they used to do, but are no longer doing now, must have been a good thing. A lot of people are running around screaming about how terrible Wall Street is for failing to provide services which they were just terrible for providing a year ago. Whatever financial activities America is now dearly missing (and they're usually left unspecified in these sorts of rants) must have been pretty good for America back when they were actually happening, otherwise we wouldn't be missing them so.

[NB: If this post seems a little ...un-nuanced... then that's only because most of the anti-Wall Street diatribes I read are even more absolutist. I'm not trying to justify an unequivocal defense of financiers, and I understand that some middle ground is possible between a nation where finance was the single largest sector of the economy, and one with almost no profitable financial companies. But the people running about with torches and pitchforks don't seem too eager to find middle ground, so I feel justified in ignoring it. I feel like most of the people who make these arguments would defend themselves with something along the lines of "I was only complaining about the bad parts of the financial sector, but now even the good parts are gone." (A) Few op-ed or blog criticisms of Wall Street were ever considerate enough to accurately identify what the bad parts were supposed to be, and (B) this is a little like complaining to everyone who will listen about how awful your job is, but then being angry when you get fired. Sometimes you have to take the good with the bad, or take nothing at all.]

* e.g. "[Senator] Tester said people 'want to see the executives that drove Wall Street into the ground in orange suits picking up cans along the side of the road.'" (via)

Religion without God is still religion

In a recent episode of his video podcast At the Movies, Peter Travers said about Religulous: "[Maher] takes on not just anybody's religion, but all people's religion. This movie is anti-everything."

Really? He even takes on the God that Failed? Doubt it.

In other Religulous notes, I heard on Filmspotting that a Vatican scientist and a theologian give Maher a run for his money, especially compared to the nitwits he interviews in the rest of the film. I applaud him for not editing those segments out, but a more honest — if perhaps less humorous — thing to do would have been to interview exclusively people like that. That's the movie I want to see. (Perhaps hosted by a fraternal tag team of Christopher and Peter Hitchens?)

This delay brought to you by the letter 'Fire'

Two days ago I expressed extreme skepticism about the Washington Metro's knuckle-headed new security plans mostly on the basis of the plan being ill conceived for any city. I failed to mention that I am especially doubtful that WMATA in particular can keep me safe. (Or perform most other basic functions, for that matter.)

Further support for my "WMATA is run by slack-jawed screw-ups" theory came last night. When trying to get downtown to meet a friend my train sat on the tracks for about 30 minutes at Tenleytown. This delay, by itself, is not so unique. It's annoying, but I've come to expect such things. When I got home I saw this in my feed reader, informing me that the delays were due to a fire on the tracks at the Woodley Park station. This is a bigger sign of mismanagement, but sadly it isn't all that surprising either. (WMATA, like many government agencies, essentially does not budget for maintenance. They operate under the assumption that when it's time to overhaul systems they can go around, hat in hand, and demand more transit funding. No one will turn them away if they claim it's to improve passenger safety.*)

What really bugs me is that for the half hour that I'm sitting on the tracks, unknowingly waiting for a fire to be dealt with, the driver kept getting on the intercom to tell people that the delay is so that they can "re-balance the schedule" or "adjust the arrival intervals" or something like that. Even if their notoriously incorrect Passenger Information Display system was half right, I knew at the time that this was bull. But when I heard about the fire I realized this guy either had no idea what he was doing and just made things up, or someone at WMATA made a conscious decision to lie to passengers about their error. Either way it doesn't make me feel very confident that their little screening procedures are going to keep me that safe.

* This is a gross simplification, but I maintain it is still more true than not.

Morning Dose of Wisdom II: The Wisdom Returns

Following on from yesterday's bit about the unintended consequences of state power, here's Herbert Spencer in The Man Versus the State:
The incident is recalled to me on contemplating the ideas of the so-called "practical" politician, into whose mind there enters no thought of such a thing as political momentum, still less of a political momentum which, instead of diminishing or remaining constant, increases. The theory on which he daily proceeds is that the change caused by his measure will stop where he intends it to stop. He contemplates intently the things his act will achieve, but thinks little of the remoter issues of the movement his act sets up, and still less its collateral issues.
(Via Don Boudreaux)

I also like the following line of Spencer's:
The evils produced by compulsory charity are now proposed to be met by compulsory insurance.
And this passage is a keeper as well:
The extension of this policy, causing extension of corresponding ideas, fosters everywhere the tacit assumption that Government should step in whenever anything is not going right. "Surely you would not have this misery continue!" exclaims someone, if you hint a demurrer to much that is now being said and done. Observe what is implied by this exclamation. It takes for granted, first, that all suffering ought to be prevented, which is not true: much of the suffering is curative, and prevention of it is prevention of a remedy. In the second place, it takes for granted that every evil can be removed: the truth being that, with the existing defects of human nature, many evils can only be thrust out of one place or form into another place or form—often being increased by the change. The exclamation also implies the unhesitating belief, here especially concerning us, that evils of all kinds should be dealt with by the State. There does not occur the inquiry whether there are at work other agencies capable of dealing with evils, and whether the evils in question may not be among those which are best dealt with by these other agencies. And obviously, the more numerous governmental interventions become, the more confirmed does this habit of thought grow, and the more loud and perpetual the demands for intervention.

29 October 2008

This blogger is still not concerned about the titanic implosion of the newspaper industry

Coyote blog warns us not to get to cherry about the death spiral that newspaper are in. While I appreciate the forbearance he displays, I must admit to maintaining a more sanguine attitude. I've read some variation on this story plenty of times in the last few years. ("Blogs are good for commentary, but we still need paid journalists to break new stories.") I think the problem is that it conflates newspapers with journalism. Saying that without the major newspapers we wouldn't have any more original journalism is like claiming without live theater we wouldn't have any more dramatic acting. Newspapers are just the currently most popular way of organizing journalism, and apparently it's not a very effective way.

Even in the absence of an industrial organization called "a daily newspaper" people will still want news. They may not want it on large wads of newsprint once a morning, but they want it. Other people will still want to provide them with news, often in written form. Whether it gets printed out on a big bundle of broadsheets six or seven days a week shouldn't be the concern. Just because the dominant way of connecting these people with each other is no longer viable does not mean that the trade between the groups will dry up.

Maybe we won't be getting news through a major conglomerate owning multiple dailies serving large metropolitan areas anymore, but there will still be some form of written reporting. Maybe printed news will become fragmented and hyper-localized. Maybe it will move online, or go to print less often (like the Christian Science Monitor just announced it would do). Maybe the hard-hitting, investigative journalism that everyone fears we'll lose — do we really have it now? — will find a home in weekly or monthly magazines. Maybe podcasts will take up some of the burden. Maybe the adoption of devices like the Kindle will be able to make daily news subscriptions profitable again. Maybe newspapers will be rescued by non-profits. (If the NY Metropolitan Opera could raise $128M this year, perhaps people would donate to keep a non-profit NY Times afloat.) Maybe newspapers will become the minor leagues of cable and magazine journalism, with more profitable organizations subsidizing stables of young journalists as they hone their skills. Maybe journalists will operate independently, without going through a central hub for publication at all, and hire editorially services as needed through contractors. Maybe, like TJIC suggests, reporting will just be a young man's game that you dabble in for a year or two after college, earning low salary but gathering "life experience."* I have no idea how it will shake out, but I'm confident that it will somehow.

Finally, I'd like to challenge the conventional wisdom that blogs are great at commentary but poor at actual news coverage. I think this is mostly true for political news, which might be the most important to the health of the republic, or some platitude to that effect, but generally untrue elsewhere. I think there are plenty of good blogs doing 'original' journalism in other fields like technology, art, sports, entertainment, comics, food, and travel. So when we say we need newspapers to provide us with original reporting, let's be clear: we really mean original political reporting.

* The kids these days, they love the "life experiences."

Morning dose of wisdom

... courtesy of Matt Welch, writing in the Los Angeles Times:
The Mission Viejo ordinance is a timely reminder of a perennial rule about governance: Whatever tool is used by government to pursue a goal you cherish will inevitably be deployed in a cause or manner you abhor. There are, as far as I'm aware, no exceptions.
Hear, hear!

Welch provides but a few examples:
So, Bill Clinton sidesteps the United Nations to launch a war against a country (Serbia) that poses no threat to the U.S. (good, if you supported it), but then George Bush turns around and uses that lowered bar to invade Iraq (bad, even though it was on much firmer international/legal footing than the Kosovo intervention). Labor favors secret ballots for union elections to thwart intimidation and pressure tactics (good), then labor favors abolishing secret ballots for union elections to, uh, thwart intimidation and pressure tactics (good?). Richard Nixon, in an act of vengeance against the Washington Post (bad), helps create the newspaper/TV station cross-ownership ban, which former Nixon-haters eventually embrace as a last stand for "people of color, the working class and rural citizens" (good perfect).
Call it the Proliferation Postulate: Once you create a new tool for the state to wield it is only a matter of time before it falls into the "wrong" hands.

28 October 2008

Yves Klein: The Carnival Period

Okay, enough of this serious stuff. Here's some Cyanide & Happiness:

Contemporary art jokes! Ha!

Oregon Health Plan != Private Insurance Company

NB: I initially wrote this late last night and hit "publish" instead of "save," accidentally releasing it into the wilds of the internet. I took it down when I realized my error this morning because it needed some editing in the harsh light of day, but not before it was linked a couple of times. (People actually read this! Wheeee!) Sorry for any confusion caused by the disappearing act.

It had been my intention to clean this post up rather a lot and take a somewhat less vitriolic tone, but since this has already been made public in it's immature form, I think I need to keep editing rather minimal. I guess that teaches me a lesson about blogging while sleepy.

In this post I discuss the case of Barbara Wagner, who got some really raw treatment from her state-provided medical insurance plan. I emphasize the state-provided part because ABC only mentions it obliquely in their article, continuing to refer to the Oregon Health Plan as an "insurance company." Many of the commenters to the site took this story of state failure as a prime opportunity to complain about private insurance and advocate for socialized medicine. Yeah, it doesn't make any sense to me either.

Because I get a little hot headed below, allow me to calmly state now my opinion that our current medical funding system is a terrible mess and needs lots of work. Neither fully privatizing or fully socializing it is the solution, and neither will save us from the nightmarish bureaucracy that Wagner's story is an example of. It is my position that the results from a more market-based system, while clearly sub-optimal, will still be better than the sub-optimal results from a more state-based system — but both will be very far from perfect. I am not trying to defend any particular health care plan or offer any solutions here though. That's a discussion that I'm willing to have with reasonable people. However, the use by many commenters of an anecdote about a state failure to complain about private failure is just too absurd for me to let pass at this point, so let the ridicule begin.

Here's one choice example, from cab_codespring:
It is chilling that so many of my fellow americans [sic] here are so cold hearted about their countrymen. I think you should watch "Sicko", [sic] I think every american [sic] should. I suppose there are a lot of people like them in europe etc. that have universal health care. [Like whom? Americans?] Lets just hope theat [sic] there aren't enough of you miserable selfish pigs to stop us from getting civilized health care. The bottom line is health care shoud [sic] never be for profit, for profit health insurance companies should be illegal, and only doctors should be making life or death medical decisions about care. BTW, of all the things you fear about universal health care, just try and find a significant number of examples, and dissatisifed [sic] people in those countries. They are miles ahead of us in every way. AND their taxes are not outrageous. You are just gobbling down the pap the lobbyist [sic] against it (paid by big corporations) are feeding you. Wise up. Could be YOU or your child or your parent next.
Well I can find one person who's dissatisfied with government-run health care. Her name is Barbara Wagner, and she's the subject of the article that has gotten cab_codespring in such a tizzy. Or we can go ask Paul Krugman about finding dissatisfied socialized health care "customers." Let me know how that works out for you.

Here's a doozy of a non sequitur from Hege123l:
I don't want a for profit company making life and death choices for me. Government healthcare seems to work fine for government workers, the military and our politicans... [sic]
Yeah, it just hasn't worked so well for Ms Wagner. Do these people even read the stories they comment on?

Here's another comment from the cleverly pseudonymed SlickCheney (oh! the satire!)
Healthcare has become a commodity. Healthy working people who have money are insurance companies favorite customers. That is all you are to an insurance company. Their goal is to make money off of your healthcare. Not to provide you with lifesaving services. Insurance companies absolutely adore you when your making your [sic] monthly payments, but as soon as you become sick or ill, well, then you are liability to them. Don't you get it people? Insurance companies only like you when they are benefiting from your policy.
Since we've already established that private insurance companies aren't responsible for this, let's revise SlickCheney's contribution to fit the story:
Healthcare has become something people want without paying for. People who have money and vote are politician's favorite people. That is all you are to a politician. Their goal is to make money off of your votes and taxes. Not to provide you with lifesaving services. Politicians absolutely adore you when you're getting them elected and giving them money, but as soon as you stop helping them, they stop helping you. Don't you get it people? Politicians only like you when they are benefiting from you.
And here's a great idea from sidewinder007:
Here is what we do, each and every one of us write a letter to our health insurance company and state that instead of paying the $200 a month premium, we will send $5. There is no price on a human life, this is absolutely absurd.
Well apparently there is a price and it's $5. The results of this "plan" will be that the insurance companies will shut down to seek greener pastures in other industries, leaving us to pay for medical care out of pocket. I'm assuming that's not what sidewinder007 has in mind though. How immature do you have to be to expect that you'll just pay whatever the hell you want and people will continue providing you with goods and services? Sidewinder007 also inadvertently reveals one of the benefits of private health care. If you don't like the service you're getting you stop paying and terminate your relationship with your provider.* If you try that with nationalized health care you get arrested for tax evasion.

(* I can already hear people thinking "But what if I've been paying my premiums for years and then I get sick and they deny treatments?" They're right, that's deplorable. But what do you do if you've been paying into a socialized system for years through your taxes and then get denied treatments by the government? Move to another country? Good luck getting your new homeland to cover your expenses. New Zealand won't even let you immigrate if they suspect you might cost their national health system too much money because your BMI is over the limit. I can't imagine how quickly they'd bar the gates if you told them you were moving just to get them to pay for an existing condition that your previous government wouldn't pay for.)

Tashibelle weighs in with this:
The real villain here is the drug company that charges $4,000 for a medication that has only a small chance of extending this patient's life - not the state who has to answer to taxpayers about every penny they spend and must set criteria to justify spending money - this medication did not meet the set criteria.
Lacking any evidence to the contrary, I'm going to assume that tashibelle has absolutely no clue what Tarceva ought to cost. Neither do I. I know nothing about how long it took to develop, how hard it is to synthesize or what the demand is. Neither does tashibelle. But (s)he probably sees a bottle of tylenol that costs $8, thinks pills are pills, and why the hell should some cost $8 and some cost $4000? Who the hell is she to tell me one price is immoral? What's the right price then, genius? $17? $230? People need to stop pulling these qualitative judgements out of their fundaments and acting like they're moral imperatives from on high.

Ramoth_the_Queen contributes this feel-goodery:
Poverty, healthcare and homelessness are moral issues and we need to be a moral country. For too long we have been self absorbed and self centered and that isn't the America we used to know. Money shouldn't be an issue when someone wants to live even for an hour longer.
Money isn't an issue? For an hour? Are we back in Fairy Land where there is no scarcity and no trade-offs? Would we extend someone's life for an hour at the cost of one trillion dollars? (Money isn't an issue after all...) What if that trillion could have extended a thousand lives by a decade instead? We spend another trillion? What if that trillion could have taught a million children to read? Spend another trillion? What if that billion could have put a roof over the heads of ten thousand people?

Reading deep into the ABC article we discover this is the case with Ms Wagner. The Oregon Health Plan has a prioritized list for how they use their finite funds. Disease prevention is up near the top, and presumably high-cost, low-effectiveness lung cancer drugs for lifelong smokers are near the bottom. This is a cold calculus to play at, but there's not much way around it when you're asking someone else to foot the bills for you.

It's an ugly fact, but scarcity exists. We can't have everything we want. And we can't get it with wishes and dreams and hugs and warm fuzzy feelings. Them's the breaks.
The business that makes it their choice and not the choice of the individual needs to be done away with.
Does Ramoth extend this same conclusion to governments that make it their choice and not the choice of the individual? We are, after all, talking about the State of Oregon here. Or is it okay for them to restrict choices because they know better than the rest of us? And how about a business owner's choice of price point for the goods and services that he is making available? Is this not an individual choice worthy of our deference?
First do no harm is all the doctors need to know.
The second thing they need to know is that the they may be required to work for nothing. We'll just pay them whatever we want, since it's all about our choice and they don't get a say. If this sounds preposterous then why is it any more reasonable to legislate limits on an insurance or pharmaceutical company's revenue? Once you start dictating what the fruits of labor are worth for some people why not do so to everyone?
Indviduals [sic] should have the right to choose for themselves how they want to end their lives as well as if they want to save their life. It's their body, its their choice.
Their body, their choice, but we get to pick up the tab. Lots of rights, no responsibilities. Sounds fair.

According to Ramoth we can shutter the FDA now. Why should they get to decide what drugs I put in my body? It's my body and it should be my choice.

Asymetric Information: Menu Edition

Why is it that menus always list the price of food and wine, but rarely do so for other beverages? I even see a lot of happy hour adverts on bar web sites or on tables in restaurants that say things like "all cocktails $2 off" without telling you what the $2 is being taken off of. Anyone know why hiding the prices of (non-wine) drinks is common?

Insurance companies that aren't actually companies

This story of a cancer patient in Oregon being denied an expensive treatment is making the rounds. A friend was recently denied some medical coverage (though luckily nothing of this dire sort) so this has been on my mind today.

A couple of things to note:
  • The 64 year old patient has lung cancer as a result of her smoking until 2005. This is not noted until the 11th paragraph of the ABC story.

  • The "insurance company" that is callously rejecting her $4,000/month treatment (which is expected to increase her life to six months from four) is RUN BY THE STATE OF OREGON. This is only hinted at on page two of the story.
This is not some robber baron putting the squeeze on an innocent grandma. Was Barbara Wagner treated in a most undignified way? Certainly. Is this a cold and calculating way to view a human life? Again, certainly. Yes, our health care funding system is a complete mess, but putting the state in charge is far from a solution. Despite all the crowing in the article and comments section* about "the insurance companies" this is exactly the sort of treatment you can expect from a government agency or a private corporation. We're not going to put the feds in charge and suddenly get treated like precious little snowflakes.
"The problem with the Oregon [Health Plan] is it sounds like administrators, not physicians, are making treatment decisions," [Dr Jonathan Groner] said.
If your complaint about private insurance companies is that they're too bureaucratic (and that's a very valid complaint), why would you want to hand the reins over to the government? Is there some fairy government somewhere run be benevolent gnomes which is not characterized by waste, inefficiency, and red tape? How much pixie dust do I need to get to this magical land of amiable administrators and munificent mandarins? Is it true they also have heaps of delicious bacon which doesn't make you fat?

* From the small sample of the comments I managed to read before being overwhelmed with the execrable level of logic on display, I'd estimate that about 90% of the commenters used this story as an excuse to criticize the "obscene profits" of insurance companies. They might as well post those same complaints after a story about a cat being rescued from a tree because neither story has anything at all to do with insurance companies or their profit margins. They're really so abysmally bad that I have to devote another post to chronicling them. (Note: I accidentally published the "sequel" to this post earlier this morning before publishing this one. I've taken it down for now so I can clean it up and will likely re-post it in the afternoon.)

PS: Freakonomics Blog also choose to elide the fact the Oregon Health plan, which they simply refer to as an "insurance company," is state run.

The Security Theatre Players welcome the Washington Metro

There is some hooplah around the libertarian blogosphere (1, 2) about the DC Metro's decision to conduct random bag searches.
Metro officials announced today that they will begin randomly inspecting backpacks, gym bags and any other containers that riders carry with them onto the bus and rail system, in an effort to deter possible terrorist attacks.


In the searches, transit police will choose a random number ahead of time, such as 17. Then they will ask every 17th rider step aside and have his or her bags searched before boarding a bus or entering a rail station.
Not true. Since the screenings are being conducted at the turnstiles, which are inside the stations, no one will be prevented from entering the station, which is the real problem I ahve with this plan. Just like airport security protects us (or "protects us") against bombs on planes, it does nothing to protect us from bombs detonated in the crowded security staging areas. In the Metro instance there's no reason to wait until you're on a train to set off your explosive. Any crowded area, including crowded areas before screening occurs, will do just as well.

Hell, you don't even need an explosive. I've always thought a couple of gun men providing raking fire from the top or bottom of a long escalator like Bethesda's would be an incredibly cost effective terrorist tactic.* A thousand commuters and tourists are completely enfiladed with nowhere to hide for a couple of hundred feet.

Also, Metro Transit Police is going to do this at every bus stop along a route? Every single one? Because if they don't then there's no point whatsoever. A terrorist will just notice the bag check at one stop and walk down the line to where bags aren't being checked.

So congratulations to the WMATA. You've decided to inconvenience 1.2 million people a day, without making the system as a whole any safer. Well done.

* When bored I commonly think how I would attack the area I'm in. It's a fun hobby, though perhaps I watched Red Dawn too many times as a child.

Also note this:
The announcement comes as the transit system faces an increase in robberies, thefts from vehicles at Metro parking lots and assaults on bus operators.
These screenings will do nothing to stop this type of crime. Of course the incentives for beaucrats are to spend millions to look as if they are guarding against the remote possibility of something really bad, rather than spend half as much to actually alleviate current problems. We've managed to redefine "security" as "anti-terrorist security" and we all suffer for it.
If transit police find illegal items such as drugs, the item will be seized and the person will be arrested. But Metro officials today emphasized that the purpose of the search is not focused on drugs or contraband.
That's the same bill of good we were sold about "border" checkpoints, and those have been used almost exclusively for drug offenses. (I use "border" loosely, since they're authorized within 100 miles of the US border by US v Martinez-Fuerte. This includes the entirety of Florida, Delaware, New Jersey, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, Michigan, Hawaii, all but one county of Maryland, every major city on the West Coast, most of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina, and big chunks of many more states. Here's a map for your reference. About two thirds of the US lives within the "border" region.)

And here's this, from DCist:
Anyone who refuses to have their bags searched, however, will be allowed to leave with their belongings — they just won't be allowed to enter the Metro system at the point of search. [...] Metro is installing signs outside station entrances informing riders of the potential of searches.
They'll tell people before they enter the station that they'll be searched once inside, giving terrorists the chance to just keep walking and bomb another day. And if anyone refuses search they can just turn around and leave. Obviously, this is the right thing to do from a 4th amendment perspective (what little of it is left anyway) but it also means this does nothing to catch terrorists. It will just drive them to other targets or force them to wait — possibly for entire days! — to strike.

Things the change in my pocket can buy


(Via Free Exchange)

27 October 2008

Oil, football and a demagogue's huevos

I have nothing substantiative to add to recent discussions about the precipitous declines in the price of oil. However, I would like to take this opportunity to recommend H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights.* In addition to being one of the best books ever written about sports, it also has a good deal of coverage about life in a town so intertwined with commodity prices. It really gets the point home that there isn't some "true" or "right" price for oil (or anything else). If I remember correctly there's also some decent coverage of the S&L failure, which might also be timely to re-read.

The only other thing I've got to say about oil is that this has got to be putting Hugo Chavez's stones in the vice, which makes me oh so pleased. I'm actually happier about that than I am to be saving myself $1.20/gal.

* The only version of the book that Amazon sells is a tie-in to the TV show. As good as the show is (and it really is quite excellent) this sort of makes me sad. Tie-in editions always look cheap to me. Especially since the cover to the older trade paper edition I have (reproduced above very similar to the one reproduced above) is one of the more memorable and well designed covers on my shelf. Can anybody who played high school football look at that photo and not get a little dusty?

Update: It looks like Chavez's agates are already getting the firm squeeze. Forbes estimates he needs $102.68/gal to break even, and West Texas Intermediate is currently trading at $61.30. Ouch.

Mankiw splits a double header

Part I

Greg Mankiw lists "Engaging in data mining" as a common sin among economists.

Damn it, Mankiw, no. Data mining is an academic discipline, not a dirty word. Like all disciplines, it can be misapplied. How would he feel if I said "Have you been engaging in [sneer] macroeconomics?!"

What I assume he really means is "Have you been running scores of multivariate regressions and latching onto any statistically significant results, regardless of what your domain knowledge tells you ought to be important?" That is bad. But that does not invalidate all the great results you can get when you properly apply the techniques of data mining. I think Mankiw knows this, as does Robert Shiller, who I have also caught in this inexcusable slander, which makes it all the more annoying that they use such sloppy and mildly insulting language.

Part II

Here Mankiw redeems himself with a great breakdown of his returns to work under McCain and Obama's tax plans.
  • He calculates his incentive to work as being 62% lower under Obama's plan compared to McCain's. (If he earned $1 today and passed it on to his children in 35 years he estimates he would be giving them $28 without any taxes. Under McCain's plan that is reduced to $4.81 and under Obama's it goes down to $1.85.

  • This is a good example of how taxes add up quickly. A couple of percent for payroll taxes, a couple more for capital gains and pretty soon he's looking at a 93% marginal tax rate. (And that's before any of this money is actually spent.) That's one good reason to support a single unified federal tax, be it a VAT, or a "fair tax" or what have you. Of course, that's "transparency" that no one on the hill is actually interested in because the plebs might begin to realize how much is being hoovered out of their wallets.

24 October 2008

Will Hunting, is that you?

Mysteries: Was Palin's $150,000 Even Actually Spent on Clothes?

Consider also the $4,902.45 charge at Atelier New York, a high-end men’s store, presumably for Ms. Palin’s husband, Todd, the famous First Dude.

Karlo Steel, an owner there, said he had gone through the store’s receipts for September, twice, and found no sales that matched that amount, nor any combination of sales that added up to the total."
Really, Karlo Steel? You solved the subset sum problem?

(Via The DCeiver.)

23 October 2008

Lean Cuisine

A Minor Tragedy Strikes My Schedule

7.00 tonight at Politics and Prose, John Hodgman appears to promote More Information Than You Require.

7.30 tonight at Cole Fieldhouse (UMD), Lewis Black appears to do some comedy.

How cruel the universe is to prevent me from being in two places at once.

Libertarian geeks

I've had multiple conversations about why libertarianism seems to be relatively popular amongst geeks. Rather than re-hashing my arguments,* let me present a quote I recently found regarding the UNIX design philosophy, which I also cleave to:
UNIX was not designed to stop its users from doing stupid things, as that would also stop them from doing clever things.
– Doug Gwyn
Apply to current arguments about (de)regulation as you see fit, as well as to broader discussions of the nanny state and freedom vs control.

* My opponents usually present one or both of these positions: "Geeks tend to be relatively wealthy, so advocating for free markets is just selfishness," and "Geeks tend to be attracted to intellectual, often overly thought out theories that work better on paper than in practice." I've spent enough time countering these in person that I do not have the patience to do so in writing at the current juncture.

Hoi polloi majors

Via Tyler Cowen:

A much higher percentage of students were very satisfied with the economics major at schools with unrestricted-entry business programs as compared with schools with a restricted-entry business program. This is logical because many students at restricted-entry business program schools may have taken the economics major as an alternative to the business program as an alternative to the business program they could not get into, and therefore would not be as satisfied because it is not the track they would have chosen ideally…

This data suggests that the presence of an unrestricted-entry business program has a positive impact on the satisfaction levels of economics majors. When such programs exist, the economics major is not forced to balance both the goals of students who would rather be in business programs with the goals of students who would study economics either way; therefore the economics major can more easily suit all of its students’ demands.

Jacob Grier reports that this mirrors his experience at Vandy.

I'd dearly like to see the same study for Computer Science, comparing the attitudes of CS students when IT/MIS and software engineering programs are available. Notre Dame had an MIS program while I was there (though I think they were phasing it out or maybe turning it into a minor, I don't remember which). I think this shunted some people into the business program who were just looking to make money in technology but weren't really interested in computation in an intellectual sense.*

On the other hand there was no software engineering program, or minor, or focus, or anything. So there were still a lot of people in Computer Science that wanted to be software developers and were disgruntled at having to take anything remotely theoretical. Even being required to use C was too much for them, because they didn't think "real" developers used C anymore. Luckily for me the first semester was taught in Lisp, so a lot of them got washed out quickly.

* I feel a little bad saying this because I have one friend (who I'm pretty sure doesn't read this blog) who was in the MIS program and is both smart and intellectually curious. But I'm going to let it stand because the one MIS course I took was populated by myself, one other capable CS student, and about 28 zombies and remedial screw-ups who were either required to take one technology credit for their management degrees or were actually majoring in MIS only because they thought it was going to be nice to put it on their CV. These were people who were baffled by what HTML meant (as in what the actual acronym stood for, not what it was or how it worked, which is still pretty simple) three quarters of the way through a class on technologies for internet commerce. If I interrupted a Poli Sci course on the Cold War three months in and asked what "USSR" meant, I'd hope to be laughed out of the room. Obviously, this MIS course was not peopled by the best and brightest Mendoza College of Business had to offer.**

** That footnote was longer than the rest of my post (excluding quotations) combined. Just thought I'd mention that.

22 October 2008

A Dynamic Duo of Friedman Podcasts

I've really enjoyed two recent podcasts featuring father/son commentators David D and Patri Friedman.

David Friedman was on Colin Marshal's Marketplace of Ideas discussing some topics from his book Future Imperfect. Rare is the futurist* that is neither selling doom and gloom nor a gung-ho everything-will-be-better-tomorrow cheerleader. Of particular note: his acknowledgment that "hack" and "hacker" are not bad words (a pet peeve of mine), and his support of liberal eugenics. He is generally skeptical of fears that giving parents the ability to pre-select some genetic traits for their children will result in a world of boring and perhaps dangerous uniformity. He gives a number of reasons, but I would add that people already go to extreme lengths to stand out as well as to fit in. It seems odd that a society composed of millions of people who all think that they're precious, delicate snowflakes would freely choose to have children of one (or a few) types. There may be other arguments against liberal eugenics, but the everyone-will-be-blond-and-boring one doesn't hold water.

One other good point he made was that, barring the collapse of civilization, controversial technologies will be developed somewhere by someone (assuming they are possible). We can not just stick our heads in the ground re: GM crops, vat-grown organs, stem cells, AI, neural interfaces, nanomachines, etc. Outlawing their development here will only delay their advent and ensure that we'll be behind the curve, not stop them from being. We need to come to grip with the idea that technology will advance whether we like it or not.

Patri Friedman was on Russ Roberts' Econtalk last week discussing the Seasteading Institute, which endeavors to increase human freedom by creating new nations on the high seas. I'll leave it to him to explain and defend the idea in full. It does sound admittedly crazy, but the nugget of insight is that to increase freedom in existing societies we** would need to convince a significant portion of the population to agree with us. This is a sociological challenge that we've made little progress on in the last century despite the efforts of many capable people. In order to establish new communities on the ocean we only need to confront technological challenges, and humanity has proven much more adept at tackling engineering problems than ideological ones.

If nothing else, you must give the Seasteading Institute credit for a clever tag line:

Mark Twain, 1800's: "Buy land. They've stopped making it."
The Seasteading Institute, 2008: "Production Resuming."

Both podcasts are recommended, both these episodes particularly and in general. And both Friedmans are also recommended. Patri's blogs can be found here. David's latest book can be read here and his blog can be found here. If you have to choose a contemporary commentator named Friedman, make it one of these two and not Thomas L. Friedman (unrelated).

* NB I don't like this word.
** "We" used loosely here.

Further evidence that the mind is a subtle and deeply strange thing

I have just awoken from a dream of startling complexity, duration, and eccentricity, even for me. This is everything I can remember.

I was working at some sort of university/monastery doing some kind of IT work for an art museum they ran. The museum was co-located with an indoor discus training facility, where I was previously employed on a research project to develop new materials and techniques for padding gymnasium floors to somehow improve the indoor discus experience. The museum/discus facility looked a lot like Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, although the rest of the setting looked more like the buildings of Princeton plunked down on the campus of a summer camp I went to back in elementary school.

There was also caravan of Buddhist pilgrims transporting a mystical flute while being chased by horse-mounted park rangers of some kind. (That part was reminiscent of Warriors of Heaven and Earth, which I haven't seen in years.) The park rangers may have been Uruk-hai, I was never clear on that. It was my responsibility to read one page of a book once a day and thereby make sure the park rangers never caught up to them, but if anybody else heard me read it, they would be transported out to the wilderness with the caravan the next time I read the book, whether they were around then or not.

Now we come to the weird part. The computer system I was responsible for also controlled the physical layout of main building I was working and living in. For instance using mkdir to create a new directory also created a new room, a soft link to another directory would create a door which take you to the corresponding room. (The main residential hallway was called /users, the trash chute was /dev/null, and so on) The building itself worked hard to resolve conflicts in Euclidean space and keep everything in order. Everyone else seemed to have developed a sense for finding their way around effortlessly even though the building rearranged itself with alarming alacrity. Furthermore there were only certain areas where you could access the computer system controlling the house, so you had to hustle around inspecting the physical changes and then go back to a work area to get control of things. It was very reminiscent of Myst, although I was the only person I talked to in my dream that had ever heard of Myst or computer games in general. If you were really good you didn't need a terminal at all any more, and you could just invoke commands out loud. It had a very Snowcrash vibe, but instead of VR you were actually controlling the world, sort of like a techno version of the Wizard of Earthsea. (Actually the whole facility reminded me, in-dream, of the labyrinths of the Nameless Ones from The Tombs of Atuan.)

And my best friend's old high school girlfriend was there and had an extensive collection of paperweights shaped like guns. Security guards smashed them all, so I had to spend some time soldiering them back together for her, which I chose to do sitting outside on a window sill very much like the one in an apartment I once stayed in in London. And my boss was my high school physics teachers, and his boss was the chair of my undergrad department, and the security guard who did all the smashing was my JV football coach, and the guy in charge of the discus floor research team was Kurt Russel, except he was still sort of in character as Herb Brooks from Miracle.

Oh, there was also a capture the flag tournament ongoing, and I was consistently running late for team practice. And I insisted on wearing a scarf while we played even thought it was nice out.

Update: I just remembered the part where Special Lady Friend's best friend left some things in her car while it was parked in front of my house, at which point they were stolen by a kid who lives across the street from me. I went to find the kid, and he turned up at a house party down the block with a bunch of guys I knew from high school, and Turtle from Entourage. Then the cops showed up and asked me to file a noise complaint because I was a neighbor of this mid-afternoon party, but they had problems with their citation-writing devices, so they took everyone's shoes instead. Anyway, I couldn't get the stolen goods back from the kid from across the street, so I took a bag full of skateboards from him instead. Then I went back to my house and helped the friend unpack a teddy bear collection from the trunk of her car. The end.

21 October 2008

Statism, compounded.

dispatches from TJICistan » Studebaker, television

Folks on the right are all atizzy that an Obama presidency and a Democratic senate and house are going to be a “tipping point”, at which Our Progressive Government will begin buying votes from 51% of the voters with the money from 10% of the voters.

(a) that’s already been happening for 80 years

(b) 99 times out of 100 that you think it’s the end of the world, it’s not really the end of the world.


We somehow survived FDR, and I suspect that Obama is too naive and scattered to do evil on the same scale that FDR did. Also, there are cracks in the MSM informational firewall.

We’ll survive this, and it’s not like there’s a limited government candidate in the race anyway - our choices are between two statists.

I think this is largely right, though I do need to remind myself more regularly that all is not lost. I will survive the next administration (and the next, and the next) relatively unencumbered by whatever statist claptrap the POTUS throws my way.*


(1) A divided government, even when divided between two parties each of which I find generally abhorrent on most issues, is still preferable as it tends to promote entropy in Washington. I like the idea of keeping them too busy bickering with each other to bother me. This is only slightly effective, but few liberty-promoting schemes do any better.

(2) I won't notice most of the hardships resulting from future administrations largely because the losses will be invisible to us all. Some back-of-the-envelope calculations are telling me that if new policies result in a half percentage point drop in annual growth it will cost us over 25% of our wealth 50 years down the line. That means my grandchildren will miss out on the opportunity to grow up in a society with a quarter more stuff. More money certainly, but also more education, more medicine, more leisure, more art, more hobbies, more travel.

That in turn pushes all the myriad wonders of the future further down the line. Microorganisms that eat CO2 and shit diesel fuel that we might have had in 40 years we now won't have for 50. A cure for cancer will be an extra decade away. Ditto space travel, vat-grown replacement organs, autopilot cars, strong AI and convincing VR. That's lost time that can never be recovered.

No one will ever know how much richer the world could have been if only President Windbag hadn't imposed his Grand Five Year War on Very Bad Things and Glorious Cultural Rebirth of Green Co-Prosperity Revolution thereby costing us all a little sliver of (inexorably compounding) growth.

Yes, I will continue to live a happy life regardless of the machinations of our political overlords. But everything they do which cuts into our society's ability to grow takes a big slice of prosperity right out of the hands of my grandchildren.

* I think the two exceptions to this is are nationalization of the health care system and reactivation of the draft. Both have the opportunity to harm me in irreversible, mostly unavoidable ways. I think we're far more likely to end up with the former than the latter, and more likely yet with Obama laying his haloed head down to rest in the White House.

20 October 2008

Rock the Vote / Rock the Votive

Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help.
Psalms 146:3

When men stop believing in God they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.
— G.K. Chesterton

(Via Mark Steyn)

17 October 2008

At least one of the two can get you out of Detroit

The median home price in Detroit is now (substantially) less than value of my car:

Driven down by sales of foreclosed homes, median sale prices fell 34% in metro Detroit in September compared with a year ago, dipping below $10,000 in the city of Detroit.

The median price on a house or condo sold in Detroit last month plummeted 57%, to $9,250, from $21,250 a year ago, according to figures released Monday by Realcomp, a multiple listing service based in Farmington Hills.
My car, BTW, is a Honda. So that's just a big old F you to Detroit two times.

(Though my car was built in America, so Bruce Springsteen and anyone else out there clinging to romantic nationalist notions of American industrial prowess can take a deep breath. Americans still build a ton of cars, we just don't put an American corporation's sigil on the hood.)

(Via Felix Salmon)

Two Cartoons

(From Four Block World)

(From Q&O)

16 October 2008

Two (Belated) Thoughts on the Nobel Prizes

(1) There was some hullabaloo about Horace Engdahl, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy (which conducts the literature judging), disparaging American authors:
Europe still is the center of the literary world ... the US is too isolated, too insular. They don't translate enough and don't really participate in the big dialogue of literature.
Fine. I'd much rather have a society which produces winners in Chemistry and Economics than Literature, if for no other reason than the world is sorely needing more knowledge of Chemistry and Economics, but has already amassed a stockpile of wonderful writing sufficient to last anyone a lifetime.*

(2) Regarding Paul Krugman, it should come as no surprise that the Nobel Committee chose someone of liberal disposition,** especially if they were going to choose an American. This has caused consternation across swaths of the less intellectual portion of the right wing, but should not be distressing to anyone capable of separating the eminent worth of his scientific contributions from his largely deranged commentary. I've used the example before, but Noam Chomsky is a first rate scientist and an execrable political advocate. This is okay. I put Krugman in a similar category. I am interested to see how Krugman's commentary evolves now that he can't blame everything on Bush et al. Jon Stewart and Rolling Stone will be in similar positions. Something tells me Krugman will adapt much more smoothly than Stewart, who will adapt more smoothly than RS.

* Caveat to head off the complaints of my Literature-inclined friends: I am not seeking to disparage the study of literature or the production thereof. They are both fine and noble pursuits, and achievements in each are very much worth recognizing and lauding. But society has already produced enough reading material for me to keep very much busy for many lifetimes, whereas further advances in medicine/physiology, physics, chemistry and economics produce a more immediate and substantive impact on my life. Furthermore many successful authors have public attention heaped on them whether they win a Nobel or not, while this is pretty much the only public recognition a physiologist/physicist/chemist is likely to get. And the literature prize is still far, far more respectable in my book than the glorified cheerleading of the Peace Prize, so take heart.

** See, for instance, the favoring of Pablo Neruda over Jorge Luis Borges. Borges was too cozy with Pinochet for the Academy's tastes, but Neruda's love poems to Stalin didn't give them pause at all. Sartre's Marxism and fondness for terrorism were similarly overlooked by the Academy.

Break out the axes. Or the hatchets. The really, really small hatchets.

From the Bethesda Gazette yesterday:
County honing budget ax

Montgomery County department directors are scurrying this week to trim their budgets by up to 2.5 percent
2.5% does not require an ax. Maybe a pairing knife, or a safety razor, or perhaps some nail clippers.

They expect a budget shortfall of $250 million, so they're looking to shrink spending by $50 million. I call that being short by 80%, while County Council president Michael Knapp (D-Germantown) calls it "too ambitious."

Many departments are only being trimmed by 1%. Yes siree, that's some real belt tightening in these dire times.

I'm also informed that Montgomery County is not alone in facing this grim budgetary threat:
budget constraints have led to Howard County cutting its local cable channel
I'm sure all three viewers will be heartbroken.

15 October 2008

Dog Blogging

Blogging has been light because news cycles have been dominated of late by either nauseatingly banal or disheartening campaign updates or nauseatingly distressful or tumultuous financial developments. Neither has inspired me to confront a stretching-into-four-days sinus infection, which has flushed my cognitive space with mental ballistic gel, into which thoughts enter but grind to a halting stasis almost immediately, never to mature into full-fledged Ideas. Perhaps not curiously, the same infection has pumped a decidedly less metaphorical gel-like substance into my actual head. Topping it all off I have witnessed two consecutive Red Sox losses at the hands of Tampa Bay which can only be described as woeful. I would have preferred that the entire line-up on the Rays come to my house to personally poke my puffy nasal passages with sharpened sticks than watch the previous 18 innings of the ALCS.

So as much as I would like to say something witty and insightful about some recent turn of events, I will instead let my faithful companion Gus earn his keep and post pictures of him instead.

14 October 2008

Question(s) of the Day

Courtesy of Jacob Grier:
"Who are you, mysterious woman who drinks a car bomb so daintily? Are you single?"

PS In a completely non-related post, Grier talks about apartment hunting as an occasional smoker in Portland OR, where many buildings have banned smoking anywhere outdoors in order to qualify for environmental certifications of dubious-at-best scientific validity. As a fellow occasional smoker I can sympathize; his post is well worth a read. He concludes with:
If the [US Green Building Council] has so little respect for scientific validity when it comes to smoking, it makes one wonder about the entire checklist. Is it guided by respectable science or by political correctness?
Which is exactly the thought I had when I drove by NIH last week and noticed the multitude of flags proudly proclaiming the entire campus is now tobacco free so that they can build a "reputation as a beacon of enlightened health policy," facts be damned.

09 October 2008

I have seen the future...

... and it has monkeys: Monkeys work in Japanese restaurant

Dispatches from Notre Dame Stadium: SWAT Edition

There's one thing I can guarantee you don't need in Notre Dame Stadium's student section: South Bend SWAT police. (Despite the frosty beverage he's holding, he actually is on the job, keeping the young punks in line protecting and serving .)

I know he isn't all suited up and ready for some door busting and dog shooting, but is this really the best use of a (supposedly) highly trained law enforcement professional's skills? South Bend doesn't have anything more important to be doing with its firepower? And ND doesn't feel the need to tell SBPD "Thanks, but I think our semi-retired ushers can handle things. The services of the paramilitary arm of the police are just a wee bit overkill."

More on the Notre Dame/South Bend law enforcement atmosphere here, here, here, and here.

(Photo taken during last week's Stanford game by Special Lady Friend.)

The Latest in Cheeseburger Innovations

The Hamburger Fatty Melt. Yeah, it's a burger with grilled cheese sandwiches replacing the bun. I did not think there was this much room left in the basic hamburger paradigm for innovation, but this is genius. My hat is off to you, Mr Hamburger Fatty Melt Inventor.

08 October 2008

Netflix vs The Library

In August Netflix was unable to ship new DVDs to customers for a couple of days. They responded to the service outage by upgrading everyone's subscription for the next month. This cost them about $6.5 million.

For the past few weeks my county library has been unable to process hold requests. I haven't gotten any of the books I've been waiting for. The sum total of their response has been to display this message:
Due to delivery difficulties, some customers may experience a delay in receiving holds and transfers. We apologize for the inconvenience, and are making every effort to correct this situation. B. Parker Hamilton, Director
Sorry, B. Parker Hamilton. That heartfelt message isn't getting Liar's Poker or Downtown Owl, or any of the other half dozen items I'm waiting on, into my hot little hands any faster. This failure on the part of MCPL will not cost them, or Mr B. Parker Hamilton, one red cent.

Before anyone out there pitches another fit about market failures and how recent events disprove the long-term viability of capitalism they are kindly invited to first call B. Parker Hamilton and tell him to get me my bloody books.

07 October 2008

Weekend Round-up

Blogging has been light because I've been in a mad scramble to firm up a research plan and lock down some long-term funding. This seems like a good time to try and lock down a paycheck for the next three years. Anyway, the weekend:

Taste of Bethesda. Delicious, as always. Hours of wandering around the street eating. And trying not to trip on babies. (I could do without all the babies. Why are you people bringing your one-year-old children to a street festival? Do you really have an overwhelming need to expose them to seafood étouffée?) Highlight of the day: probably the steak sandwich from Divino. Maintaining the high through-put of steaks required to feed that many people is difficult (Notre Dame Knights of Columbus, testify) and yet Divino managed to produce exceptionally tender and well seasoned sandwiches.

Small Press Expo. My very first comic book convention. I went mostly because it was close by* and to see the Bryan Lee O'Malley panel, since I'm not a huge indie guy. (I'm not a huge big-two guy either. I think I need someone to throw a "Medium Press Expo" for me to fit in.) It was a pretty good time. O'Malley was entertaining but a little bit flustered during the Q&A, and he couldn't really comment about what projects are coming up for him. He seems as unenthusiastic about the Scott Pilgrim movie as I am, despite Edgar Wright directing. Scott Pilgrim is one of those books that really relies on the comics medium; I don't see it being translated into film well. I did pick up a neat Scott Pilgrim poster, and another print by Mr Oblivious. Unfortunately I somehow missed David Malki of the superb webcomic Wondermark. I would have liked to pick up some of his prints for my office. DCist has some pictures from the convention floor.

I hurried home afterwards to catch ND 28, Stanford 21. Boo-yah. Clausen continues to look strong. Our TEs continue to be threats. Kuntz' interception was a picture-perfect read on that screen pass. Run blocking, after showing much improvement in the 2nd half against Purdue, was again lackluster. Focus slipped in the final quarter, but we pulled out a win. All-in-all I wasn't that impressed, but I'm pleasantly surprised to be sitting on a 4-1 record at this point, after expecting something more like 2-3 to start the season.

* SPX continues to bill itself as being in Bethesda, which it decidedly is not. It used to be, but this year it's in Rockville. I continue to deny that such a place as "North Bethesda" exists. The Census Bureau can kiss my pale, pimply butt.

03 October 2008

Misc. ND Notes

A friend passed on an interesting tidbit about the 702 Colfax raid from a couple of weeks ago:
There is an interview “out there” [on local TV news] with an Excise officer in which he explains that because they didn’t find any underage drinkers on their city-wide sweep of the bars (I can testify that there was such a sweep because I was escorted out of the Backer in the middle of ‘Africa’ – hhhhh), they basically said to each other, “Let’s go find a house party.” And that they did.
This reveals the police to be hunters more than keepers of the peace. Having failed to discover people breaking the law (which one would think would be a good thing) they didn't want to go back to the office empty handed, so they had to wrangle up some lawbreakers somewhere. Needless to say, I do not like law enforcement focused on filling quotas.

My friend also points out that the mugshots resulting from the raid are available here. There are some familiar faces amongst the crowd for me. My own (first) brush with underage drinking violation is the seminal factor in my turn towards libertarianism. I can only hope my friends' legal hassles are as enlightening for them as mine was for me.

My buddy also mentioned that ND had nothing to do with this raid — it was an Indiana Excise Police operation all the way. To be clear, I don't hold ND responsible for the raid (or directly responsible for increased police activity at tailgates, also in the news recently). But I do think Notre Dame, as well as most colleges, most schools, and most police departments, accept or encourage the kind of police attitude that leads to these raids. I think there is a culture of authority and control that permeates most academic administrations, and almost every police department. We live in a society that chooses to accept the expenditure of large sums of money on armed agents trawling for kids with beers. I assure you that the state of Indiana and the city of South Bend have much better things to be doing with their money, as undoubtedly do the tax payers from whom the money was taken. To the extent that our culture accepts this farce I do blame Notre Dame, as well as thousands of other well-meaning but in my opinion misguided organizations that help make it possible either through active encouragement or passive acceptance.

Enough of me casting aspersions towards my alma mater. Here's some pro-ND stuff to balance the scales:
  • Here are two good magazine articles, the first is an interview with Ted Hesburgh in the WSJ, and the second is about Scott Malpass in Fortune. Of all Hesburgh's many accomplishments I'm perhaps most jealous that he got to fly in an SR-71 twice. And Malpass, well let's just say he's good at turning some money into more money.

  • ND is #9 on Princeton Review's best campus food list. Really? Way to go, D-Hall crew. (Yeah Durf, I'm looking at you.)

  • I got the watch a replay of the ND/Purdue game on MASN (having missed the second half for some Wedding Reception goodness) and can testify that we took control in the 3rd quarter. Congrats to the O-Line. That was some of the best run blocking I've seen out of us in a long, long time.

Addendum: To anyone who thinks I'm making a bit of a stretch claiming that the same excessive aggression permeates the Indiana Excise Police (and police generally) and the Notre Dame administration (and universities generally) I refer you to this Notre Dame Stadium usher newsletter from last week's game, in which the staff of two sections are criticized for not finding enough drinkers. That's the exact same fill-your-quota attitude that lead Excise to raid 702 after coming up empty handed at bars. (Via Blue-Gray Sky, which has a good round-up of related posts.) Good luck to everyone attending tomorrow's game.

More on tailgating

Day Three of my mini-exploration of alcohol enforcement in South Bend brings us to this ND Nation post, which is right on. I want to say something about the first comment though:
One nit and it disturbs me a little.

"Do I have a problem with officers of the law skulking about waiting for an underage person to touch a beer? Yes, I do."

So, it's ok to break the law as long as Law Enforcement is "skulking"?

I respect your personal views on this matter but where is the line that breaking the law is a bad thing, even when LE is "skulking"?
As I said in the comments, I assume this particular anonymous commenter has never broken the speed limit. Because the law is the law after all, and breaking it is a Bad Thing.

The drinking age, like the speed limit, has no moral content. That is, there is no moral reason I should be allowed to drink on my 21st birthday but not a minute before. If you think there is then you must conclude that there is some kind of metaphysical change that occurs on midnight before my birthday, somehow transforming me into a more responsible and honorable drinker. Otherwise I ought to be able to drink an hour before midnight, or a day, or a month, because I'm the same person I will be once the clock strikes twelve. The American drinking age of 21 can't be any more morally just than 18 or 23 or 35. Twenty one is just an arbitrary number capriciously chosen and imbued with the power of legislation; there is simply no way to arrive at 21 from first principles or empirical evidence.

So, if the drinking age itself is devoid of moral content, then we must conclude that drinking underage is not immoral. We are forced to put it in the same category as speeding: it's wrong because the people with the guns and badges and rule books tell us it's wrong.

There are behaviors associated with (but not synonymous to) underage drinking that are immoral because they put the drinker, and more importantly others, at undue risk. I contend that any drinking requiring the police to skulk in order to discover it is not one of those risky behaviors and is not worthy of being criminalized. The purpose of underage drinking laws is to stop the subset of drinking which is dangerous. But since the same behavior is just as dangerous when the perpetrator is of legal age then we should want the police to step in to stop that as well. If police notice someone causing trouble age should not be a factor. Likewise if the police see people not causing trouble, age should not be a factor.

Of course this requires the police to show discretion and refrain from treating the people they are supposed to be protecting as merely an opportunity to flex their authority and rack up another citation to add to the tally. Discretion, unfortunately, is not a strong suit of those tasked with enforcing rules, especially alcohol related rules.

Examining the rest of the comment thread we see the defenses of police behavior falling into two categories. The first is the "if you don't want to get caught don't break the rules" / "if people got punished they had it coming" type. I reject this circular reasoning. You can not justify the existence and enforcement of a law simply because it is a law. Furthermore anyone making this argument immediately identifies themselves as someone who has never been near the receiving end of law enforcement. That is a privilege we are not all fortunate enough to have, though it is often quickly dispelled by a brush with business end of the justice system.

The second type of defense is the "I personally hate having to be near drunkards that causes disturbances, so gung-ho excise police!" I don't like having to deal with drunken disturbances either, but I reach the opposite conclusion. My dislike of liquor-induced tomfoolery is exactly why I would like the police to stop hassling people who aren't causing problems. They have better things to be doing, namely focusing on those who are causing problems. If you're bothered by drunkards then you should be especially upset that police spend time dealing with the mild-mannered kid having a pregame beer with his parents.

02 October 2008

Klosterman on Baseball

We're now fully in the thick of football season, I got to watch the Sox beat the Angels last night to start the playoffs, and Chuck Klosterman's first novel* is out now, so it seems like a good time to mention Klosterman's mini-column in the September Esquire about baseball and why it consistently captures audience attention when by all rights it's fairly boring for casual fans to watch compared to other sports.
Baseball has — by far — the best scoring system in all of sport. It makes uninteresting contests exciting, because it a) doesn't have a concept of time and b) distributes runs in unorthodox increments.


Imagine a 3-0 game in the bottom of the ninth inning: The leading team is clearly in control. But if the leadoff hitter gets a bloop single, the pressure immediately reverts to the pitcher -- now, if the next guy gets on base, the game has the potential to be reinvented with one swing. The fact that you can instantly score a variable number of runs (in a game in which scoring is rare) keeps baseball fascinating. That's why we care about the drama, even when it isn't there.
I think he's on to something. Football and baseball are my two favorite sports, but they do handle the end of the game completely differently. I've never liked the way the endgame in football effectively starts in the fourth quarter (or even late third) if you're down by 10 or more. There's no way around it, but it still feels a bit fatalistic when you have 25% of the game left to play. On the other hand the Sox were up 4-1 going into the 9th, and the game still could have been only a couple of bad pitches away from a loss.

I think there's another more important aspect to baseball that can account for its interest, and that's it's discreteness and decomposability.** True, a football game is 60 or 70 individual battles, each with 11 one-on-one duels, but that's very hard to appreciate as a spectator. Especially with contemporary TV productions focusing exclusively on the ball carrier and offering very few replays. Football, and even more so sports with running clocks like hockey and soccer, are these big, swirling ballets of activity. Baseball has very clearly demarcated subunits to a game so that each discrete contest is readily observable. There's a winner to each inning, each at bat, each pitch. It can capture your attention because you can focus on one little piece at a time.

Maybe this is why it takes football coaches and players a dozen runs through a game film to decipher the individual components, but tomorrow's starting pitcher can chart a game in real time while sitting in the dug out. It's also what makes baseball so ammenable to statistical analysis. Baseball is sort of the classical Newtonian physics of sports: observable, decomposable, subject to closed form solutions. Football has a bit more chaotic, quantum flair to it.

* Here's the AV Club's review of Downtown Owl.
** I have a sneaking suspicion this is true of cricket as well, but I admit I don't understand the game well enough to know.