30 November 2008


I'm not trying to be disrespectful of the victims of last week's attack, but let's all take a moment and recognize the fact that the attackers performed very well. These guys were good, and we need to learn lessons from this. Here's what I see:

(1) They did not rely on explosives.

Too much of our security is concentrated on detecting bombs. I believe there was one car bomb used, but most of the damage done was by gunfire, with some grenades as well. Guns are cheaper, easier to conceal, more reliable, etc. Sadly, I saw this coming.

(2) They attacked lightly defended targets.

We keep pouring more money and effort in making it harder and harder to attack airplanes.* There is no longer much point in trying to attack an airplane when you could be attacking the undefended luggage carousel at the airport, or a post office, or amusement park, or hotel, or theater, or ticket booth, or shopping mall, or bus stop, or taxi stand, or ...

(3) They attacked multiple targets at once.

Much easier to do when you do not need to build relatively complicated bombs and have your choice of thousands of lightly defended or undefended targets. Whenever something goes wrong every different police agency (which in a city like DC is upwards of a dozen**) rushes to the scene. Throw in all the fire and rescue services and you've got an uncoordinated snarl of independent agencies. Force them to respond to multiple sites accross the city and you can throw them into complete disarray. If I was planning an attack like this I'd start the day with some fires and major traffic accidents and other events that don't look like terrorism just to put emergency responders on their heels and force them to react to the "real" attack after they've already been scattered out in the field.

(4) They attacked the emergency response system itself.

In this case, a hospital. Again, this causes disruption out of proportion to the damage done.

(5) They used the initial attacks as bait to draw out more targets.
Mumbai's counter-terrorism chief and a couple of his deputies were targeted and killed when they responded to one of the scenes. This tactic was described well in Jonathan Hickman's Nightly News, in which terrorists would shoot somebody knowing that news crews would quickly arrive on the scene, at which point they would be attacked. The news crews were the real targets all along, the original victims were just bait.

If we ever did manage to secure every place where people congregate terrorists could always manufacture their own targets by (for example) staging a car crash. The nearly inevitable crowd of onlookers becomes an undefended target.

* Actually we're even worse. We only defend planes from the time they reach the gate for boarding until they land at their destination and passengers disembark. They're almost entirely undefended overnight, for instance. Many of the cleaning and catering personnel are not screened, and the planes don't even have locks on the doors to secure them when they're on the tarmac overnight. We go to extreme lengths to secure planes sometimes, and the concourses of airports, but not planes or airports in general.

** The Metropolitan Police Department [spits on floor], the Federal Protective Service, the Amtrak Police, the Metro Transit Police, the FBI Police, the US Capitol Police, the Park Police, the Secret Service, the US Mint Police, the Supreme Court Police, the US Marshall Service, the Pentagon Force Protection Agency, the Naval District of Washington Police, the DC Housing Authority Police, the Smithsonian Institution Office of Protection Services, the National Zoological Park Police (!) and various police and security forces at universities including Georgetown, AU, GWU, Howard, UDC and CUA. Venturing into the suburbs you would run into the forces of two states, half a dozen counties and uncounted municipalities, which would double the current count at least.

26 November 2008

The Color of Automagic

The Angry Economist: Local is not automagically better

A bias in favor of the local is similar to a bias in favor of purple. If you want to buy mostly purple-colored products, fine, go ahead. Feel free. I won't stop you. But don't try to claim that purple products will make me a better person, make my community better, cure aids, and create world peace. They just won't. There's nothing magic about the color purple. Nor is there about local trade. It's just an irrational preference that requires sacrifice on your part, not a favorable attribute.
Well put.

I feel the same way about the Slow Food movement. If that's what you like, great. I agree that that food really does taste better etc. than the common alternative. I sympathize with the whole motivation of enjoying the process of creating and consuming your meals, rather than just treating them as a pit stop. Just recognize that these are personal, almost aesthetic decisions. Just like buying local, or eating local, there's nothing about slow food that is objectively better, and certainly nothing that is going to rescue society and save the world.

You can throw into the same category the well-intentioned "I only buy handmade gifts" thing* that crops up this time of year. If you think the receiver would prefer a hand knit sweater to a (mass printed) book, then that's a sweet thought. But there's nothing particular noble or moral about it beyond buying someone something they would like. At best, this movement is thoroughly specious. At worst, it contributes to destructive, arrogant Luddism like this:
Every item you make or purchase from a small-scale independent artist or crafter strikes a small blow to the forces of mass production.
Attention neo-Luddites: Mass production created the modern age. All of it. Mass production has lifted (and is lifting) humanity out of the poverty it has spent the entire rest of history mucking about in. Henry Ford has improved more lives by several orders of magnitude than Mother Teresa would have in a dozen lifetimes. If you aren't freezing to death, or starving to death, or spending your time trying to squeeze a few extra calories out of tiny plot of uncooperative soil, then there's a damn good chance you have mass production to thank.

It is the height of egotistical, bourgeois arrogance to think that since the Patrick Batemans of the world have too much stuff already we ought to just shut down the factories. Forget about all the people in the world who haven't got enough clothing, or books, or furniture, or cookware, or farm equipment, or anything else we mass produce. Striking a blow against "the forces of mass production" is ever so much more important than making sure some poor schmuck in Ulan Bator can get enough affordable, mass produced clothing to last the winter. Stick it to the man, you self-centered counter-reactionary zombies.

I'm willing to hear arguments about whether the capital for mass production should be directed by private or state action, and to arguments about how the benefits of mass production ought to be distributed, but there is no denying that the productive capacity achieved through a combination of capital accumulation, skill and technology is a massive net benefit for humanity.

* They need a catchier name.

Electric lighting is no great boon to anyone who has money enough to buy a sufficient number of candles and to pay servants to attend them. It is the cheap cloth, the cheap cotton and rayon fabric, boots, motorcars and so on that are the typical achievements of capitalist production, and not as a rule improvements that would mean much to a rich man. Queen Elizabeth owned silk stockings. The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.
— Joseph Schumpeter, 1942

24 November 2008

Religion & Politics Amuse Bouche*

Alan Jacobs has a short, thoughtful post at The American Scene about some religion-meets-politics stuff that I want to point out. I drafted up some ideas on this general theme last week but got sidetracked before I could finalize and edit them, so consider this an appetizer for a meatier post to come.

* What's the mental equivalent of an amuse bouche? An amuse cerveau? Anyone know any French and care to help me out?

22 November 2008


Shameful: Syracuse 24, Notre Dame 23. The best plays of the day for the Irish were made by the punt and punt return teams. That should tell you all you need to know about this abomination of football.

I've had it with Weis. I've been sympathetic, I've given him the benefit of the doubt, I've defended him in arguments, but now that's it. Get rid of him. We showed no signs of being prepared for the game, either intellectually or emotionally. It's as if everyone involved woke up this morning, slapped their foreheads and said "Gee whiz! We've got a game today! I hope I've got clean socks to wear. Mommmmmm...where are my socks?!"

And the play calling... I've seen more aggressive adjustments being made in high school spring passing league games. They were stacking 8, 9, 10 men in the box and still we wouldn't check out of inside runs.  Blocking schemes were poor, routes were poor, time management was poor.  Bunch of lollygaggers, lollygagging around the field.

On a brighter note: If you need something to take your mind off this debacle, check out Sammy Hagar enthusiastically holding forth on tequila: part 1, part 2. I love his idea of replacing the lime in a tequila shot with grapefruit.  If I worked for Weis, Swarbrick, or the alumni relations department I would be pounding back the sauce right now because there is about to be a rampaging horde of angry fans storming the gates.

PS:  Blue Gray Sky says it all well, including advice for Swarbrick (good plans, but I don't think it will calm anybody down) and some very depressing numbers, including the number of teams ranked above us that we've beaten in the last two years:  1.

21 November 2008

Good Point

From Tyler Cowen:
The Dow is up 6.5 percent. And Tim Geithner will be Treasury Secretary. That's the two pieces of good news. The bad news is that the market is up because of a political appointment. That's really very bad news, especially since the other logical candidates for the post were extremely competent.
As long as one appointment has the power to swing so much wealth around no campaign finance reform has any hope of success.

Littoral Length

Our future Leader in Chief had the following to say about AGW:
Few challenges facing America—and the world—are more urgent than combating climate change. The science is beyond dispute and the facts are clear. Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking. We've seen record drought, spreading famine, and storms that are growing stronger with each passing hurricane season.
I don't want to debate climate science. It's boring, there are too many people hissing about such things on the internet for me to be able to contribute much, and said hissing almost always misses the point. But I will debate geometry and geography. That's eccentric and fun.
Sea levels are rising. Coastlines are shrinking.
Assuming arguendo sea levels are rising at measurable amounts, what relation does that have to coastlines shrinking? I contend there is none. We would have to have complex knowledge of the topography of land within some delta of the sea level to conclude whether the elevation isopleth at sea level is longer or shorter than the isopleth at sea level + 1cm, the sea level + 2cm, etc. Perhaps if you assume that all isopleths have the same fractal dimensionality then you can infer that high sea levels are congruent with shrinking coastlines, but this seems like a big assumption to me.

This is still putting aside the fact that the actual length of a coastline is not measurable because you run into scaling problems inherent to fractal shapes like coastlines. I would direct Mr Obama to Gödel, Escher, Bach for a full discussion. That is some real science non-fiction right there, not like this journalistic claptrap like Outliers.*

* I want to explicitly exempt James Gleick from my "don't read pop-science written by journalists" rule of thumb.  Perhaps it's because he writes more historically, almost like the biography of an idea, rather than these high-concept extended trend pieces that are so much in vogue.

20 November 2008


All the cool kids are reporting their results from Typealyzer, which runs blogs through a Myers-Briggs test. SB7, apparently, falls into:
ISTP - The Mechanics

The independent and problem-solving type. They are especially attuned to the demands of the moment are masters of responding to challenges that arise spontaneously. They generelly [sic] prefer to think things out for themselves and often avoid inter-personal conflicts.
The Mechanics enjoy working together with other independent and highly skilled people and often like seek fun and action both in their work and personal life. They enjoy adventure and risk such as in driving race cars or working as policemen and firefighters.
I'm not sure I really agree with this assessment, but it does put me in the company of Alex Massie and Andrew Sullivan and Megan McArdle, so I guess I'll take it.

The Sex Pistols were right...

...schools are prisons.
why.i.hate.dc: Kids These Days:

For the record, Anacostia High looks like a godd[---] penitentiary.
That's because Anacostia High is a penitentiary. Chances are good your local school is as well, though maybe not to the extent that they need 17 police officers to insure that classes are dismissed in an orderly fashion. Schools do not exist primarily to educate children, they exist to keep them occupied and out of trouble. They do not ask you to learn, they ask you to show up and obey. I am not exaggerating.

Of the following three possibilities, which is the least likely to cause you to fail in an average public school?
  1. You show up and do the work, but break a lot of rules.

  2. You turn in decent work and follow the rules, but rarely bother to show up.

  3. You show up and follow the rules, but never do any classwork.
In my opinion #3 is far more likely to see you get a diploma than the other options. The one things you can get away with not doing is classwork, which I think we can agree is an antecedent to learning for almost everybody. This leads me to conclude that attendance and obedience trump learning in the goals of the school system.

If you don't believe me, ask Paul Graham.

And by the way, Why I Hate DC's post is good. Go read it. We fully concur about the value of the Metropolitan Police Department. I happen to find them about as useful as 120 grit toilet paper.

Two Thoughts on Sports (Mostly)

(1) Spurred by my beloved Red Sox trading Coco Crisp for reliever Ramon Ramirez, I got to thinking about the nature of relief pitchers. Specifically, why is there a differentiation between starters and relievers? Why couldn't a team expect to have three guys who each pitch three innings a night and then have them work again on two or three days rest rather than a starter who you hope goes for 6 or 7 innings and then take four days rest. I'm not sure exactly how the numbers would break down, but you get the idea -- make everybody pitch somewhere in between what a starter and a reliever now does. I think my system would give a club more flexibility to deal with injuries and would force opposing batters to face a new pitcher every for (almost) every plate appearance.

I know having starters and relievers is just the way it works and different guys have different pitching styles which suit the role they're in but to what degree did they develop the pitching style of a starter or a reliever just because the world of baseball expects them to fit one mold or the other? If I went to Australia and started to teach a bunch of kids who had never seen baseball to pitch, could I develop them into a bullpen of guys that fit my model, or is there something objectively better about the current system?

I'm interested that baseball seems so impervious to innovation. I'm not saying that's bad. After all, baseball has been the one constant through all the years. New offensive models sweep through the NFL every decade or so, but the last big change to come to baseball was arguably moneyball, and that was a change in the front office rather than on the field. I'd like to see a manager try a radical new system of some sort, just to shake things up.

(2) Reading Chuck Klosterman's first novel Downtown Owl made me realize something about playing high school football: I can't remember how it sounds. I can remember coaches yelling and refs whistling and audibles being called (mostly coaches yelling, though) but I can't remember the sounds during the actual play. Pads smashing, players grunting, etc., all that stuff must have happened, I just have no memory of it, and I think I never did. I think my mind was busy enough trying to just play the game that it did not bother to listen, or to form long-term memories of sounds? Is that even possible?

Anyway, I'm about halfway through Downtown Owl and really enjoying it. I was a little worried because Klosterman's primary weapon is analyzing the subtext of really innocuous, seemingly banal things like the casting of Saved By The Bell and I didn't see how that would translate into fiction, but he seems to have done it. I just finished one chapter in which he blatantly throws up his hands and says "This is the subtext of the conversation these two characters are having" by formatting the entire chapter like this:
What she said: "Foo..."
What she hoped to imply: Bar...

What he said: "Baz..."
What he hoped she would infer: Qux...
It sounds lame, but he pulls it off really well. E.g.:
What she said: What kind of play was it? I used to watch the Packers with my dad. Was it a flea-flicker? I love flea-flickers. If I were a football coach, my team would run a lot of flea-flickers. The flea-flicker would be the key to our offense.

What she was attempting to convey through means that made no sense: By espousing an exaggerated affinity for a specific NFL gadget play, I am displaying an awareness of how football is played (which is central to the conversation we are presently conducting) along with a willingness to watch football on television (in case that quality is important to you when looking for a romantic partner). However, by playfully claiming that I would employ said ludicrous gadget play all the time (were I somehow an NFL offensive coordinator), I am indicating that I'm still a girl in the traditional, conventional sense and no threat to you masculinity. It's win-win.
I think I've actually had something eerily similar to that exchange, though not necessarily about the flea-flicker or even football, a couple of dozen times. ("I'm not girly like those other girls! But I'm still feminine! Tee-hee-hee!" (The girls who were better at this always threw in a pixie-ish, tinkling giggle at some point, although maybe this is another case of things I don't really remember hearing but am pretty sure must have happened.))

My only complaint so far is that I'm 140 pages in an there hasn't been a footnote yet. I can usually count on Klosterman to give me some footnotes. He has used an above average number of parenthetical phrases, which I also appreciate as branching structures, so it's not a total loss. The lack of an actual driving plot does not bother me at all. I'm content to just go along for the ride and listen to Klosterman describe the lives of these characters who are simultaneously very relatable and nothing like people I have ever met.

I would rather invest my money in 'Serenity by Jan'

Brian Dunbar raises a great point about the Detroit bailout: If you wouldn't do this with your money, why would you do it with everyone's money?
The test of any idea is 'would I do it with my money'. Because that is what is really going on here.

I'm being asked to loan a whole bunch of money to three businesses that are over-extended, are saddled with a lot of debt and obligations their competitors don't have, who have made some bad choices in the past and find themselves in a bit of a pickle.

They've got three months to work up a plan to make efficient cars and market them. Because, I guess, up to this point the boys in Marketing have been playing Hearts in the break room. God only knows what the engineers have been doing instead of their jobs, all this time.

Then they submit this plan for approval to a guy who has never worked for a for-profit company and whose business experience is nil.

And if this guy says 'yes' then I will loan these folks more money. How much more is not specified .. and the spokesman for the plan gets kinda shifty-eyed and starts talking about a bunch of hoo-ha when I ask how much.
(See his post for an exchange with Barney Frank that will ... what's the oppose of inspire confidence?)

Frankly I wouldn't even give them the money as a charitable donation, to say nothing of investing it with them. There are millions of people in this country, and billions in this world, who are worse off and more deserving than UAW members, et al. Really, why would we spend billions to help this particular set of people? Are they comparatively any worse off that the people getting laid off by DHL or Verizon or Yahoo? Are they comparatively worse off than the schizophrenic guy who's never been able to hold down a job in the first play because he's convinced his sofa will try and burn his house down if he doesn't sing it lullabies once an hour? Is there any reason besides voting power that we should be concerned about this group of people in particular?

Dunbar is making a point about prudence, but there's a similar question that can be raised about morality: things do not become more moral if you and your neighbors hire somebody else to do them for you. Before supporting any policy ask yourself if you would feel comfortable doing it yourself. If you would not personally grab an illegal immigrant and march them back across the border then why is it okay to hire a sheriff who will do it for you? If you would not personally skim money off your neighbor's paycheck to pay for your health insurance why is it okay to hire a tax collector to do so on your behalf? If you would not take marijuana away from a cancer patient, why ... oh you get the point by now.

PS I can already hear a particular friend wondering if I can reconcile that last paragraph with a conversation we had yesterday. I believe I can, yes, but let's not get into this again until we can sit down over
some beers.

Monkeys on Segways are part of your complete balanced breakfast.

WTF AA.com?

I just signed up for an account with American Airlines and their system would not let me choose a password with punctuation in it — numbers and letters only. What kind of website requires comparatively weaker passwords? And what kind of computer system is capable of storing strings, but only those without common ASCII punctuation symbols? Maybe some kind of legacy system that used to be based on telephone keypads? That's all I can think of and it's a pretty weak excuse in 2008. If they cant even except accept decent passwords how do they expect to run a successful airline? Oh wait, they aren't.

19 November 2008

Anecdotes != Arguments

Anecdotes - Joel on Software:

This review [of Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers] captures what's been driving me crazy over the last year... an unbelievable proliferation of anecdotes disguised as science, self-professed experts writing about things they actually know nothing about, and amusing stories disguised as metaphors for how the world works. Whether it's Thomas Friedman, who, it seems, cannot go a whole week without inventing a new fruit-based metaphor explaining everything about the entire modern world, all based on some random jibberish he misunderstood from a taxi driver in Kuala Lumpur, or Malcolm Gladwell with his weak theories on tipping points, crazy incorrect theories on first impressions, or utterly lunatic theories on experts, it all becomes insanely popular simply because the stories are fun and interesting and everybody wants to hear a good story. Spare me.
Preach on!

Let's all keep this in mind whenever we see a big table full of hard bound quasi-scientific journalism with catchy titles.

But please, let's also keep it in mind when politicians trot out Graeme Frost, or Joe the Plumber, or Frank the Imminently Laid-off UAW Member from Dearborn who Has Three Kids and a Cute Puppy and Who Loves Baseball and Apple Pie and Who Calls His Mother Every Sunday.* These might all be fine people, but their stories don't really tell us about anything at all besides them.

* Coming soon to a 60 Minutes near you.

Update: Here's Tyler Cowen's review of Outliers.

18 November 2008

If you abandon one solution you must choose a replacement.

We live in a world of scarcity. More people want things than can have them. Get used to it. The best way to fix this is to produce more stuff, since we don't seem to be able to stop wanting things. In the meantime there are four basic ways of deciding who gets what:
(1) Price mechanisms.

(2) Random lottery.

(3) Queuing.

(4) Dictatorial fiat.
There are no other options that I can think of.* This is another fact we have to deal with. You can say that all of these are in a sense "unfair," which is just one more reason "fairness" is relatively meaningless. People willing to spend money prefer (1); the apathetic prefer (2); the time-rich prefer (3); those in power and the well-connected prefer (4). They all, of course, tend to think their method is the most fair.

The most common in our society is (1). Liberals (and sometimes conservatives as well) like to complain about using prices to allocate resources because it shifts the balance towards those with money, which seems dirty to many people. This can be a valid complaint, but it means that if we are to abandon market pricing we must adopt one of the other solutions. The challenge for those who do not like market-based allocation is not to show that it is bad, but to show that it is worse than the other options for resource allocation.

Speaking of which, Nick Gillespie has a post on Hit & Run today about Cincinnati's use of queuing to determine who gets into magnet schools. It is, quite predictably, a miserable failure. Also predictably, it still benefits the relatively wealthy, because they have the option of spending time waiting in line when they could be working. My home county used to (and may still) run a number of magnet-like programs which used a lottery method. They were also a travesty. They ended up filling these supposedly selective programs with students who weren't any more capable or interested than the average student. The federal government, of course, is currently pursuing allocation by fiat to the tune of several trillion dollars, and there's simply no way you'll convince me that that's either efficient or just.

I tend to like (1) because I think it's the best at encouraging people to create more things, thus alleviating scarcity. I admit though that pricing is not always the optimal method. However, I am no longer interested in hearing condemnations of markets unless they are accompanied by an explanation of why lottery or queuing or fiat are more appropriate for the circumstance.**

* Contests and feats of skill might be an alternative, but in anything more complicated or subjective than, say, the discus throw, the necessity of judging puts you back in the territory of allocation by fiat. You've just pushed the problem back a step from "You get the goodies because I say so" to "You get the goodies because you won the contest and you won the contest because I say so." A contest (or application process, as we tend to call them) may be more or less objective, but at some point the winners win because either the guy who wrote the rules, or the guy who interprets the rules, or both, says they win.

** Identifications of inefficiencies and constructive criticisms of how to make a market run more smoothly are always welcome but please don't tell me that it just isn't fair! unless you're prepared to defend the viability of another option. Such complaints will ignored dash nine.

Update: An anonymous commenter made me realize that I did not make clear the extent of "dictatorial fiat." By this I don't just mean a plutocrat or prince or poobah deciding who gets what, but any situation in which a person (or people) controls a resource and decides what to do with it themselves. I would include under this banner a CEO allocating budget to departments of their firm, a child handing out invitations to their birthday party, and parents distributing belongings to their children through a will (although perhaps the executor or court system might step in and impose their own fiats as well). That caveat brings me to another point, which is that these systems can be mixed together, although I think in most cases one mode prevails. You may have most items of a batch sold off at market, but some given away to friends, or you may need to wait in line for the chance to enter a lottery.

Two Thoughts on Facebook

(1) It's going to be really sad when people in my generation get divorced and have to change their Facebook status from "married" to ... whatever the option in the pulldown box is.

(2) One of my friend's pages has two quotes in her "Favorite Quotations" section: one from Obama and one from Reagan. I have very little idea what to make of that, especially knowing her. I would have expected something more along the lines of Toby Keith and Khaled Hosseini, not that they make less strange bedfellows.

17 November 2008

Passage of the Day: Hometown Edition

My view is that when politicians succeed in becoming the top dogs in this [machismo] manner, you get a situation like Communist China or Montgomery County, Maryland. There, it is quite possible to make a fortune on a business, but it is essential to have the right political connections and to align your business with the agenda of the Party that is in charge.

Arnold Kling
Exhibit A: Barwood Taxi, who employs Monopolistic Maneuver #1, "Conspire to get the local authorities to limit the number of potential competitors and pretend this is in the consumers' best interests."

16 November 2008

The Inevitable Death Spiral of the Big Three, Explained in One Chart

(Via Carpe Diem)

NB Those numbers for Toyota, Honda and Nissan are for manufacturers in America. Americans make lots of cars affordably that people actually want to buy, they just don't put the nameplates of American corporations on them when they're done. I find it slightly ironic that liberals bemoaning the state of American auto manufacturing are actually upset about the health of American manufacturing companies, not Americans who manufacture things. Who, exactly, are the corporatists and the crony capitalists? Who wants to put the people first?

13 November 2008

As a general rule of thumb....

... treaties ought not outweigh the people signing them.
A trade summit? | Free exchange | Economist.com:

The paper version of the last WTO deal in 1994 weighed about 100 kilos.
I've said it before, and I'm saying it again: A "free trade" deal that weighs 220 pounds is not a free trade deal at all, it's just a deal.

Barracco Obama, Il Messia, Redontore del Mondo

Via Alex Massie: Obama! The Opera! Here's the dramatis personae:
L’Obama, ossia L’Avvento del Messia
Opera in Tre Atti


Barracco Obama, Il Messia, Redentore del Mondo (Tenore Miracoloso)
Santa Micaela della Revoluzione, sua sposa (Soprano Amaro)
Giovanni Maccheno, Senatore, Avversario dello Obama (Basso Buffo)
Sara Palino, Governatrice del Alaska e Reginetta di Bellezza
    (Coloratura Buffa)
Guglielmo Priapo, Ex-Presidente (Tenore Mentitore)
Hillaria, sua Sposa, altra Avversaria dello Obama (Soprano Ambizioso)
Elena Tomasso, una strega (Contralto Venenoso)
Giuseppe Bideno, “Piedimbocca” (Tenore Buffo)
Il Spirito di Giorgio Secondo, L‘Abominazione (Baritono Cattivo)
Il Spirito di Ruscio Limbago, Bocca Grande (Basso Noioso)
Jeremia Ritto, un uomo pazzo, pastore dello Obama (Basso Demagogico)
Guglielmo Ayers, terroristo Americano, amico dello Obama
    (Tenore Anarchico)
Un Sempliciotto (Tenore Profetica)

Il Popolo, La Media Elite, Il Mondo, Il Congresso, Terroristi.
Guglielmo Priapo! Sara Palino, "Reginetta di Bellezza!" Jeremia Ritto, "Basso Demagogico!" What a cast of characters.

If a scientist falls in the woods and no referees are there to hear it, does it effect my citation count?

Discussing some Greenpeace shenanigans, Ronald Bailey astutely points out that "This is classic case of 'science by press release.' The 'study' may be valid, but it has not been 'published' nor has it been peer-reviewed."

I'm a firm believer that the path to a prosperous, healthy and happy future is going to be paved by science, if for no other reason than because technology changes and human nature does not appear to. I doubt we will wake up a couple generations hence to discover that after millennia of goading and prodding by reformers of all stripes man is suddenly a kind and loving beast, hard working, caring, stable, peaceful and joyous. But we may wake up one day to hear that cancer and infectious diseases have been cured. We've tried advancing human prosperity by getting everybody to play nicely with one another through better philosophy and brotherly love. It's a noble goal, and I wish everyone pursuing it luck.* But it isn't working quickly enough for my tastes. On the other hand we've only just started down the road of scientific advancement, for all practical purposes, yesterday morning. Let's try and give it a shot. This, in a nutshell, is why I get pissy when people stand in the way of beneficial things like GM crops that have the very real potential of rescuing vast swaths of humanity from the deprivations of starvation and poverty.**

Let's put that general world view aside for a moment. Let's even forget about the particular study Bailey was talking about. There's a simple lesson that more journalists need to understand. Most undergrads in science or engineering programs learn it early, but maybe j-schools don't cover it: Scientific reports that have not been published in peer reviewed publications NEVER HAPPENED. The results just do not exist until at least a portion of your peer community agrees that they are plausible. As someone who struggles regularly with the capriciousness of the review process I often sincerely wish this was not the case, but it is. If it isn't reviewed by at least a partially objective referee it is no more reliable than what your Uncle Larry swears he heard from a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy who's son-in-law is a big shot with his very own lab coat.

Most journalists would not print a story if I sent them a press release claiming that I have just completed a study showing that Al Franken has been embezzling millions of dollars of campaign funds they would never run a story on it, and rightly so, because that's just unverified suppositions. But when it comes to Science they'll print any old thing that vaguely fits into a convenient narrative they think they can sell. Of two press releases on un-reviewed studies, "Wal-Mart shown to decrease poverty rates in small towns" and "Driving SUVs linked to bone cancer in infants," which one is more likely to get uncritically copied into an article? This is unethical and sloppy and only adds to the heaps of disrespect I have for the journalistic apparatus.

* Really, I do. My hat is off to the people who are fighting that fight.

** "But we just don't fully understand they effects yet!" cry the critics. Fine, but that's a non-falsifiable argument. No matter what we find out you can always claim we just don't know enough yet. We could spend the next thousand years studying genetic engineering and people could still claim we don't know what risks are yet to be discovered. If you have concrete objections that's fine but don't keep trying to tell me that there is some unidentified bogeyman lurking in the technological shadows.

12 November 2008

Top Secret Office Knick-Knacks

I had a meeting yesterday with some funding people and one of them recounted working on some projects for [an intelligence agency]. They gave him all sorts of gear with their logo on it (pens, hats, yo-yos, ...) which he was allowed and encouraged to take home with him. However, he was still prohibited from telling his wife who was issuing his paychecks.

Who thought this was a good policy? Are there that many people out there not working for a Three Letter Agency who somehow still have reams of agency stationary? Are there that many spouses that aren't going to connect the dots between "I can't tell you who I work for" and "Honey, have you seen my CIA/NSA/NRO/DIA/NGA boxer shorts?"

(Unrelated: Shouldn't English require the use of an extra question mark at the end of the last sentence, outside of the quotation? If English was a programming language it would require an extra "?" at the end since the existing one is nested in a sub-expression of the whole sentence. The one that's there now refers back to "Have you seen my..." so there's no mark to correspond to the "Are there that many..." interrogative.)

Yeah, my furniture have names.

(Furniture have names? Has names? Whatever...)

McArdle and her commenters provide fertilizer for today's vintage of my mind grapes:
I just assembled a pair of boxes from Ikea for putting paperwork in. Like all Ikea products, they are superficially fetching, nearly impossible to assemble correctly without taking them apart at least once, and too flimsy to survive more than one household move. My life's ambition is to never again put together an Ikea product. I have not yet reached that halcyon plane of existence, and perhaps never will. And so I am doomed to ask myself the same question every time I pull out one of those wordless instruction manuals: how did nature, or nature's God, manage to produce an entire nation full of industrious people who assess the value of their own time at $0?
(1) Is putting together Ikea furniture really that difficult? Surveying my apartment I have one dozen pieces of Ikeaware. I've probably assembled another dozen or so in my lifetime. I've put one shelf on one bookcase backwards, exposing a bit of unadorned particleboard but causing no structural flaws. Other than that there were no errors. Everything has survived moving just fine. I suppose there must be people out there that have trouble with assembly, but I just have a hard time believing it's that hard. (Actually, I would lay even money that my father would have trouble with Ikea. Sorry, Dad, but there it is. That's just not your strong suit.) Pwho People who struggle with furniture assembly probably did not get enough Legos from their parents. Which brings me to ...

(1a) Ikea is sort of like adult Legos. They're both Scandinavian, they both trademarked their names in all caps (screw it, I'm not adopting that convention), their product lines are both defined by the required assembly, both come with wordless instruction manuals with iconic line drawings, both sets of products can be easily re-purposed to other uses, each company first started selling it's most popular line within a year of each other* and the thrill of putting them together can be as satisfying as using them, at least to the artifactually inclined like myself. Even Special Lady Friend, who is not at all a maker, loves to assemble Ikea goods, so it's not just engineers.

* Ikea first sold furniture in 1948, Lego first sold plastic bricks in '49.

(2) Most people do value their leisure time too cheaply, but you don't have to value it at $0 to buy at Ikea. I could have probably gotten a similar entertainment center to my Ikea model at another store for $50 more and saved myself 15 minutes of assembly. Is my time worth $12.50/hr? Maybe, maybe not. (Okay, I'm a grad student, so the answer is "not.") But we're within the realm of possibility here whereas $0 is just a bad estimate. [ How embarrassing. This is what happens when I blog while falling asleep.] I feel confident that my time is worth more than $0 but less than the $200/hr that I saved.

(2b) A lot of commenters jumped in to say that since most people can't work overtime arbitrarily they can't monetize their leisure time in the short run, so it really is worth $0. This is spurious. All that proves is that an extra hour of your labor is not worth $X/hr to your employer. It says nothing about what it is worth to you. To take time out of your leisure period and assemble furniture you must not do something else which may be working for overtime wages but is probably watching TV. If you think this TV time you are spending on Ikea construction has no utility to you because you can't get your boss to pay for it then I will come to your house and pay you $1/hr to do nothing. You must stay awake and sit blindfolded and quiet, with no conversation, no music, no reading, no TV. If you refuse the offer then your time must be worth more than $1 regardless of whether you can get your employer to compensate you for it.

(3) Writes Dave, "I hate, hate, hate, hate IKEA and all it stands for." What does Ikea stand for? Really? What is the semantic connotation of Ikea? I guess you could say it "stands for" low priced home furnishings, but does carving out a market niche result in deeper philosophical significance? In that case, does Netflix "stand for" agoraphobic cinephilia? Maybe the Chuck Klostermans or PJ ORourkes or David Brooks or Tom Friedmans of the world can enlighten me to the metaphorical significance of Ikea? Maybe I'm missing something. I get the feeling though, Ikea only stands for something in the way that the Washington Monument is a testament to enduring power of the dead white patriarchy's infatuation with their phalli — that is, only in the mind of liberal arts undergrads who are trying too hard to come up with paper topics.

Update: Maybe Dave is referring to this convoluted, and frankly kind of funny, corporate structure of Ikea in which their revenue is channeled around the world through various holding companies and then into a non-profit in order to screw with the tax man? I think that's not what he had in mind, but it is worth reading. If you had told me Blackwater or Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton or U2 was set up this way I wouldn't be surprised. But sweet, seemingly progressive, environmentally-friendly Ikea? The world's largest charitable organization got so big by owning a furniture store and exists largely as a tax shelter? Ingvar Kamprad has got to have big brass ones if he set up such a Bond villain-esque scheme.

Update II: Kampard was a Nazi. Maybe this is what Dave refers to? (It certainly bolsters my Kampard-as-Bond-villain thesis. (Yes, I have Bond on the mind. I've already got my Quantum of Solace tickets for the weekend.)) Even so, does this change the semantics of the company he founded? I'm inclined to say no, mostly because that way I can avoid having to also conclude that America currently "stands for" slavery because it's founders once did. The United States, like Ikea, may be tainted by the association, but does this change the current philosophical nature of their existence? Does Dave mean that Ikea symbolizes all companies founded by Nazis? Did Ikea have some sort of BMW-like involvement whereby they used slave labor to build cheap coffee tables?

11 November 2008

Oh please, dear? For your information, the Supreme Court has roundly rejected prior restraint!

Q&O on Dissent: The Highest Form of Patriotism

I almost don't want to write about this since it comes perilously close to being a defense of a utter jacka-- and I have better things to think about. Let's get this out of the way first: the guy being arrested as an immature prick who was out to attract a spotlight by stepping on other people's toes. I have a soft spot for harmless troublemakers, but this guy is just crass, and worse, he's boring. This was not gleeful mayhem, it was just petty provocation.

But look, even the Illinois Nazis get to have their parade, and they get their police protection. Dale Franks rightly points out that these cops weren't Democratic henchman looking to stifle speech, they were just taking the path of least resistance. It's easier to arrest the guy and get him out of the way than have to worry about what happens when someone in the crowd takes a swing at him. However, doing something because it's the easiest way out is hardly a resounding defense. They aren't doing what's right, they're doing what's easy. That's what 99% of cops do; that's what 99% of people do. Everyone try and remember that if someone you happen to agree with gets dragged away at the next demonstration.

A memo to the Obama supporters there: It never looks good to cheer when your political opponents get arrested. I'm not saying I would have kept a perfectly cool head in the moment, but hollering and chanting the name of Fearless Leader while the opposition gets handcuffed is very creepy. There are marginal voters who will get tired of that really quickly and you're going to want them to still have the warm fuzzies for your guy in 24.

This is behavior (both by the crowd and the obnoxious shirt guy) that is more suited to callow and drunken sports fans than to citizens of an esteemed republic. I think this is what happens when you use politics to express your identity rather than to select policies you think are beneficial. Pretty soon you end up with voters who have more in common with drunken Eagles fans throwing batteries at Santa Claus than they do with Lucius Tarquinius Collatinus or Lucius Junius Brutus.

* Subject line. For the legal eagles out there: I don't really give a snake's tit if that was actually prior restraint. Neither did Walter Sobchak. Roll with it.

10 November 2008

Insubordinate finger

I think my left pinky is being passive aggressive. For the last three months, about 25% of the time I type my first name it will come out with the first 2 letters both capitalized. I've not changed my keyboard, its position, or my typing style, but this annoying new habit has just cropped up suddenly. I must have sent a half dozen emails where it looks like I'm not sure about how to capitalize my own name.

A brief rebuttal to Mr Gore's most recent sermon


The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

— Adam Smith, Wealth of Nations

PS: I was going to let the good professor Smith do my talking for me, but I just can not let the opportunity pass to give this thing a good fisking. Stay tuned...

What's yours is his

We have been guided by a Republican administration who believes in the simplistic notion that people who have wealth are entitled to keep it and they have an antipathy towards the means of redistributing wealth and they may be able to sustain it for a while but it doesn’t work in the long run.

— Jim Moran (D-VA)
I want to slap Jim Moran in the head with a library-bound copy of The Ethics of Liberty. I predict it would make a satisfyingly hollow, dead thump, much like striking a watermelon or one of the larger gourds.

Fun fact about Jim Moran: He believes in the simplistic notion that people who have pants are entitled to keep them and harbors an antipathy towards redistribution of trousers. When we are done battering Mr Moran about the noggin with enlightening tomes, please feel free to abscond with his britches. Perhaps this will teach him that keeping your own slacks obviously can not work in the long run.

A statesman is the criminal who works with phrases instead of with the burglar’s jimmy.
— Joseph Schumpeter, in his personal diary

The war against illegal plunder has been fought since the beginning of the world. But how is... legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime. Then abolish this law without delay... If such a law is not abolished immediately it will spread, multiply and develop into a system.
— Frederic Bastiat

No greater change nor any greater evil could be introduced into society than this: to convert the law into an instrument of plunder.
— Frederic Bastiat, The Law 2.35

A people averse to the institution of private property is without the first elements of freedom.
— Lord Acton

You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich. You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
— Abraham Lincoln [Ed: Really? Might actually be William J.H. Boetcker. I have both in my notes.]

A government with the policy to rob Peter to pay Paul can be assured of the support of Paul.
— George Bernard Shaw

08 November 2008

Sentence of the Day

It is not too much of a simplification to note that America is divided into two groups of persons: those who believe in their bones that what goes on in Washington is largely a serious quest by serious people to tackle serious problems seriously, and those who understand that what goes on in Washington is largely theater scripted so that the actors and actresses appear at first glance to be 'public servants' but in fact care for nothing nearly as much as maximizing their power and satisfying their megalomania."

Don Boudreaux, "Theater of the Absurd"

07 November 2008

Everything you need to know about the American electorate

From this week's Overheard in D.C.:
On the Red line at Cleveland Park on Election Day:

Mid 20s guy to his friend: I'm so excited for today. I woke up this morning with a political boner!
Guy in response: I know! I nearly crapped myself with excitement this morning!
Girl, eavesdropping: You two are gross.
Guy 1: You must be voting for McCain...
This just makes me ineffably doleful in so, so many different ways.

Sentence of the Day

One of the reasons that I am worried about the economy is that I am seeing such a high ratio of sweeping proposals to hard facts.

Arnold Kling

Successful drug use

Head over to the Agitator, where Radley Balko is compiling a list of successful people known to have used marijuana.

Drug policy is a situation where the cure is worse than the condition. Getting caught and punished for marijuana use is far more harmful than using in the first place.

Of all the names on the list the most galling are of course politicians (including three presidents in a row now) who enforce the very same federal laws that, if they had been caught when they broke them, would have prohibited them from holding office and thereby enforcing these very same laws. "I smoked and got away with it and turned out fine," they tell us. "But you, we just can't trust you to smoke up without derailing your life. Better to toss you into the gaping maws of the justice system before you do something that could stop you from achieving."

Prediction: You know how we look back now at (alcohol) prohibition and think it was a supremely bad idea? That's exactly how people are going to look at 20th Century American drug policy a couple of generations out.

05 November 2008

This seems like a healthy idea


1. Stop talking about politics for a moment or two.

2. Post a reasonably-sized picture of something pleasant, such as an adorable kitten, or a fluffy white cloud, or a bottle of booze. Something that has NOTHING TO DO WITH POLITICS.

3. Include these instructions, and share the love.

Bonus video addition:

04 November 2008


So I did end up at the polling place since there was zero line and plenty of parking.  As mentioned, my main motivation was to vote on a couple of referenda, which I did.  I ended up casting my presidential vote for Barr, because as I feared there was no abstain, and my last forlorn hope for this election is that neither candidate receives a majority of the popular vote, continuing the streak that has run through the last 4 elections. There was no way for me to guarantee that I added one vote to denominator of all votes cast without voting for someone, so it had to be Barr. I also voted for whoever the LP put up against Van Hollen, though again that is nothing more than symbolic. There were also two judges running unopposed.  I voted NO for each, though I doubt it will do any good.  For all other questions I chose write ins, selecting only those individuals who are already deceased.  I believe my final slate of candidates was Richard Feynman, Sol LeWitt, F.A. Hayek, Robert Nozick and William F. Buckley, Jr.

By the way, if you're one of the people I heard fretting about electronic voting: get over it.  You've probably been voting electronically since the 80s and haven't even known it.  Those paper ballots you felt so comfortable with were counted by computers, and those machines weren't much more reliable than the touch screen ones you may have seen today.  Are they notoriously ill-secured?  Yes.  Designers could do much, much better.  But most voter fraud is perpetrated by poll workers and other trusted insiders, and such attacks are very difficult to prevent no matter how the physical systems you use are secured.  Don't use technology as a scapegoat when the real problem is fraud generally.

I forgot my endorsements!

I regret I forgot to publish this yesterday.  I need to mobilize the entire South Bend Seven readership (all several dozen of you!) to support the forces of good.

If you're in Maryland's 1st Congressional District, SB7 urges you to support the good Doctor Andy Harris.  I respect people whose political careers come third, after successful jaunts in medicine and teaching.  

And if you're living in North Carolina, go for Mike Munger for governor.  He's another educator (the head of Duke's Poli Sci dept.), and he has the best head of hair in politics.  Seriously, doesn't he look like he could be on the original American Gladiators?  And wouldn't C-SPAN be so much more fun if there was pugil sitck fighting?

And that's all I've got specifically.  For everything else I encourage your default decision to be "throw the bums out."  Like people have been pointing out, the approval rating for Congress as a whole is 15 or 20%, and yet 90-95% of incumbents will retain their seats.  Seriously, throw the bums out.

Rights and duties are not the same

I think one of the more inane arguments for your "civic duty" to vote is that previous generations fought wars/faced down the man/did misc selfless things to ensure that you could. I say this is irrelevant. Previous generations did all sorts of stuff to secure all sorts of rights which we don't feel bad about not exercising. Voting should be no different. People don't go to church just because they feel like the freedom to do so produces a duty to do so. Our forefathers struggled to give us freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures, but people are going to go shuffling, sheeplike, onto the metro because they would rather sacrifice a right than be inconvenienced in their daily commute. We have a right to drink alcohol; that doesn't mean teetotalers are shirking their duties.

Further Election Quotes

Apathy may not be a virtue, but it's a lot better than the activism of the irrational.
— Bryan Caplan (regarding voter turnout)

It's one thing to have one man, one vote; it's quite another to have one man, one obligation to vote. Yet we still hear that it's our "civic duty" to go to the polls. Well, no, actually, it's a civic duty to make ourselves worthy to do so. [...] Get-out-the-vote drives, which can quite correctly be defined as an effort to rally the idiot vote disguised as a noble exercise in democracy.
— Selwyn Duke

Mencken Three Times

Under democracy, one party always devotes its chief energies to trying to prove that the other party is unfit to rule - and both commonly succeed, and are right.

The theory behind representative government is that superior men—or at all events, men not inferior to the average in ability and integrity—are chosen to manage the public business, and that they carry on this work with reasonable intelligence and honesty. There is little support for that theory in the known facts.

[W]hen a candidate for public office faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas, or even of comprehending any save the most elemental—men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. So confronted, the candidate must either bark with the pack or be lost… [A]ll the odds are on the man who is, intrinsically, the most devious and mediocre—the man who can most adeptly disperse the notion that his mind is a virtual vacuum. The Presidency tends, year by year, to go to such men. As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

Your Morning Yeats: Election Edition

"The Great Day"
W.B. Yeats

Hurrah for revolution and more cannon-shot!
A beggar upon horseback lashes a beggar on foot.
Hurrah for revolution and cannon come again!
The beggars have changed places, but the lash goes on.

Election Day Soundtrack

The Who - Won't Get Fooled Again:

The change, it had to come
We knew it all along
We were liberated from the foe, that's all
And the world looks just the same
And history ain't changed
'Cause the banners, they all flown in the last war

Meet the new boss
Same as the old boss

The rest of my election day soundtrack will prominently include:
  • Rush — The Trees: To give the "distributive justice" folks something to think about*

  • Southern Culture on the Skids — King of the Mountain: Because I have as much respect for the porn kingpin in this song as I do for whoever gets elected POTUS

  • Ted Nugent — Stranglehold: Because it drips with misanthropy

  • The Clash — Guns of Brixton: Because some people need to be reminded that even in a democracy, when push comes to shove, the ballot box isn't the final authority

  • Drive-By Truckers — Never Gonna Change: Because "We ain't never gonna change / so shut your mouth and play along" could be the motto of the US Congress

  • John Mellencamp — Authority Song: Because today is another demonstration that authority always wins

  • The B-52's — Love Shack: Because it makes me happy, and despite the putrescent avalanche of bad ideas our next president will likely vomit forth onto the fertile ground of DC, life is pretty good

* Something else for them to think about:
The term "distributive justice" is not a neutral one. Hearing the term "distribution," most people presume that some thing or mechanism uses some principle or criterion to give out a supply of things. Into this process of distributing shares some error may have crept. So it is an open question, at least, whether redistribution should take place; whether we should do again what has already been done once, though poorly.

However, we are not in the position of children who have been given portions of pie by someone who now makes last minute adjustments to rectify careless cutting. There is no central distribution, no person or group entitled to control all the resources, jointly deciding how they are to be doled out. What each person gets, he gets from others who give to him in exchange for something, or as a gift. In a free society, diverse persons control different resources, and new holdings arise out of the voluntary exchanges and actions of persons. There is no more a distributing or distribution of shares than there is a distributing of mates in a society in which persons choose whom they shall marry. The total result is the product of many individual decisions which the different individuals involved are entitled to make.

— Robert Nozick, "Anarchy, State and Utopia"

Woke up election day / Sky's gunpowder and shades of grey

There was all sorts of political stuff I drafted last week but never got polished in time for the election, which is sort of too bad. I'm going to try and get anything actually relevant to today's semi-civilized brouhaha out and let all the more general and/or theoretical stuff ferment with the ol' mind grapes for a while longer.

Let's start off with Free Exchange's lead comment in their Above the Fold post from Monday:
You'll have to excuse us if we're a little edgy today. It's kind of like Christmas Eve, if Christmas only came once every four years, and if sometimes instead of presents you received a beating.
Only sometimes? Sounds nice...

Before you lace up your voting shoes, enjoy ReasonTV's "Rational Ignorance" video:

Seriously though, don't vote. It only encourages them.

Maryland, to the best of my knowledge, does not have an abstain option available on their ballots, so I will probably swing by my polling place, cast votes for a couple of ballot measures, and then head out for some Mongolian barbecue.* If the lines look long I will fulfill my civic duty by arriving at the barbecue place 20 minutes earlier for lunch. (How does this help the republic? you ask. Screw off. I like Mongolian food.) You can be sure that I will be nattily attired tomorrow in my "There's No Government Like No Government" shirt. In place of Obama or McCain campaign pins I will finally bust out the Scott Pilgrim pins I got at SPX. And I'll probably rock my Tony Lama boots, Resitol hat and Justin belt buckle just because I know it mildly freaks out all the effete poll workers of Bethesda who think their community is too genteel for such attire.

* If you're wondering why I don't just stay home all together, it's because I think voting on referenda has more value than voting for officials, and because this way when I get into inevitable arguments with the "voting is your civic duty" crowd in the future they can not accuse me of being lazy.

02 November 2008

Weekend Video Fun

50 impressions in 50 seconds:

Drawing with water (wait for it...):

(Via C.B. Cebulski)