30 April 2008

Sandwiches

I can not express how much I like sandwiches. You can put pretty much any meal that is not pasta or soup between some bread, and it will be better as a sandwich. And even soup is up for debate, since a bread bowl is about four fifths of the way to being a sandwich made of soup. Making sandwiches is the one and only thing that got me through the dining hall. (Well, chicken nugget day helped too. And they always made a surprisingly passable pork curry. But I digress.) Sandwiches are truly one of mankind's finest inventions. I regularly reschedule my meals based on the quantity of fresh rolls I have in the kitchen.

So I was happy to find out that Esquire's "Best Sandwiches in America" article from a month or so back is online. It's mostly descriptions of sandwiches found around the country, but they also include some specialty recipes. The two best looking were the Italian breakfast sandwich, and the chicken parm with sausage. (Wouldn't most meals sound even better with an "and sausage" tacked on the end?) Key take-away from the breakfast sandwich: fry up the soppressata first, and then cook the rest of the ingredients in the drippings from that. Who's happy I learned that trick? Not my arteries.

The May issue had some extra reader recommendations, including one doosy from Roy's Place in Gaithersburg that I will be taking a trip to try out soon. (From Roy's website: "All customers are restricted to 93 mugs of beer and 47 cocktails at a sitting.") Anyway, Roy's featured sandwich is the "Lassie's Double Revenge" — two knockwurst, bacon, baked beans, fried onions, and provolone, broiled, then served on a hard roll. Bonus points for creative use of baked beans.

I have to plug my favorite sandwich in the area, the Italian coldcut sub from Vace's. (Warning: obnoxious sound on website.) Unoriginal, yes, but prime ingredients and home-made bread go a long, long way. Vace's also does an excellent Sicilian-style pizza, with the cheese below the sauce where it belongs, as well as home-made pastas. Even DCist sweats their pizza. And yes, the onion pizza is the tits.

Philly Mike's, in addition to making one of the better cheesesteaks to be had more than 100 miles from Philadelphia, used to make an astounding turkey salad sandwich. Alas, the delicious treat has been absent from their menu for many long years.

Education and Credentialism

The Economist on the financial rewards of education credentials: College education: the change we've been waiting for. Two statements stood out:
"A university degree may not always signal skills the labour market rewards."
True. I think a degree is more likely to signal attributes that employers value, but not necessarily skills and only rarely actual knowledge. That is, a degree is still a great way to signal "I am serious about my future and I can show up on time, act semi-responsibly and make sacrifices" but it does not say "I can do things that will add value to your organization" as strongly.
"In order for more people to benefit from education, be it completing high school or post secondary education, schools need to supply students with the skills the market rewards."
Yes for secondary schools, no for post-secondary. Colleges do not supply students with skills like a lunch lady ladling out Chicken Surprise. Students may choose to pursue different educational domains for their own reasons. If they want to improve their job market prospects, they'll pick classes accordingly. If they do not want their "college experience" to be anything resembling pre-career training, then they'll sign up for some extra Postmodern Nihilist Poetry classes. If they want to pick a major because some department never offers any classes before noon, that's cool too.

Those are all fine choices, but if a student's course of study does not prepare them for anything more challenging than answering the phones, that's on their head too. I don't want to hear any more of this "hey I have a piece of parchment with my name on it in fancy letters, where's my $50K starting salary offer?" Sorry, you do not always get to choose both personal development and lots of money.

And I think it would be a big mistake to think that universities can start "supplying" more lucrative educations to students who don't want them. You end up funneling people into a field they're not really interested in, and then dampening the requirements in order to keep them there, and in the end you've got the educational equivalent of Soviet prison brigades: high on head count, but an absence of ability.

It happened about a decade ago in Computer Science. Universities (and students) thought you could get rich in software, so they churned out thousands of half-assed Java developers, and called them "Computer Science graduates," despite the fact that scant few of them could tell you how to delete a node from a linked list if it would save the lives of a million puppies. You end up with credentials, but not education.

29 April 2008

The 8-Year Old Me Would Have Loved This

Really, shredding cars and a giant freighter accident, all in one!



Mazda has decided to shred 4700 new cars because they were trapped for weeks on a freighter which had listed almost all the way onto it's side. Check out the shot near the end with the giant pile of car mulch.

I gather that Mazda was afraid that the chassis would have been weakened from laying on their sides for so long, and they were no longer confident in their crash worthiness. Or more properly, they were no longer confident that a jury wouldn't conclude that they were not crash worthy, and slam them with a big consumer safety payout.

Here's a long story about it from March's Wired, and a link to a Boing Boing story, where I found the video above. This is also a good time to make an observation about Boing Boing: If a story has anything at all to do with politics, economics or business, then the majority of commenters will conclude that whatever is wrong is the result of a Vast Right Wing Conspiracy led by Dick Cheney and his Robber Baron Brigade, and backed by the Grand Army of Bitter Christian Hillbillies.* The comment thread on this one is pretty mild, but there's a preponderance of "OMG! Big Business is SO wasteful! Corporations are the worstest!" Of course, if any of these vehicles ever got onto the streets and someone in them was hurt, the very same commenters would be screaming about how greedy Mazda is for selling cars that could have been defective and putting people's lives at risk to for the sake of the bottom line. There's pretty much nothing Mazda could have done without three quarters of the BB commentariat excoriating them for the very act of being a corporation. So as much as I love Boing Boing (and really, they are generally quite great) that's why I pretty much only bother to click through to their site when they're writing about something like steampunk or retro Nintendo games.



* Pick one or more of the following to blame for whatever goes wrong in a Boing Boing story: George Bush (and cronies thereof), Jesus (and believers therein), Adam Smith (and the rationally self-interested), or Bill Gates (and proprietary software creators).

27 April 2008

Hodgman on Elitism



I've never heard so much condescension packed into the phrase "blended whiskey."

26 April 2008

Liquor Advice

At finer liquor stores — and I define "finer" as "does not stock a large selection of Mad Dogs"* — the help should be able to offer some assistance in selecting wines. This is as it should be. But I've never heard of anyone talking about a merchant offering people help in selecting liquor. It seems assumed that you sort of have your brands, and you stick to them, and so you know more or less what you want when you walk into the store.

I can only recall even overhearing a conversation between employee and patron about liquor selection once. And add to that the fact that a lot of places keep a good chunk of their stock behind the counter, making it a lot harder to browse, and it makes for a very different dynamic. I'm not saying places won't be helpful about choosing some booze, but I've heard multiple people extol the importance of a helpful staff in selecting wines, and never heard anybody mention it in regards to spirits.

I think next time I'm at my favorite liquor store* I will have to inquire about this, needing as I do a recommendation for an affordable American whiskey. I hear Woodford Reserve is a good option.

By the way, my nearest liquor store always shows up on my credit card as "Maryland Farm Supply." That's got to be convenient for anyone from the Ag school buying their sauce with Daddy's credit card.

* This qualifies as a "large selection of Mad Dogs"
** Paul's at 5205 Wisconsin Ave NW (just before you hit the border on our right if you're heading out of town). Always helpful staff and good sales.

Compare and Contrast

The Agitator » Why Not Just Shoot a Couple of People? That’ll Work, Too
The city’s new police commissioner, William Fitchet, says members of the department’s Street Crime Unit will again don black, military-style uniforms as part of his strategy to deal with youth violence.
...
Sgt. John Delaney told a city council hearing Wednesday that the stark uniforms send a message to criminals that officers are serious about making arrests. Delaney said a sense of “fear” has been missing for the past few years.
Cf:
The purpose of the justice system is to protect the public, not to keep them in line.
— Megan McArdle
Whose world would you rather live in?

Well, it doesn't matter, because you're stuck in Delaney's world. And he has all the guns. Sucker. Now get back in line and shut up before you get shot.

25 April 2008

Wonderlost Playlist

C.B. Cebulski's Wonderlost #2 came out last week. It's a selection of embarrassing stories from his youth with very excellent black and white art by a half dozen or so different people. I like the writing because all the stories are the kinds of things that, if something like them didn't happen to you, they at least happened to a buddy of yours. I like the art because it shatters the theory that autobiographical, slice-of-life books must have intentionally repulsive art to show how serious they are.

At the end Cebulski included a playlist of recommended listening, which is a pretty marvelous sound track for all these stories set in the 80's. This is my new power ballad playlist. It kind of makes me want to drive around my home town with my windows open and then drink Beasts in someone's basement before heading to Tastee Diner at 3am with 12 people in one guy's Trooper and order a grilled ham and cheese sandwich with french fries and gravy and get thrown out my the ex-con manager for spilling ketchup.* Not that that ever happened.
  1. I Remember You - Skid Row
  2. Coming Home - Cinderella
  3. Dance the Night Away - Van Halen
  4. Heaven - Bryan Adams
  5. Against All Odds - Phil Collins
  6. Runaway - Bon Jovi
  7. Pour Some Sugar On Me - Def Leppard
  8. Roll with the Changes - REO Speedwagon
  9. Over the Hills and Far Away - Led Zeppelin
  10. Just Like Honey - The Jesus & Mary Chain
  11. Only The Young - Journey
  12. Who Can It Be Now - Men at Work
  13. Every Rose Has Its Thorn - Poison
  14. The Flame - Cheap Trick
  15. Pride - U2
  16. Authority Song - John Cougar Mellencamp
  17. Southern Cross - CSN
  18. Never Say Goodbye - Bon Jovi
  19. Take Me Home - Phil Collins

* I really don't know what to make of the fact that 80's music makes me nostalgic for high school, since I wasn't born until shortly after Mondale got his hat handed to him. I think I need to sit down with Chuck Klosterman** and a case of beer and unravel the meta-nostalgia and self-referential constructed memories and simulacra of American youth experience that I'm dealing with here.

** Chuck Klosterman, if you ever dig 500 pages deep into your own Google hits and come across this, please contact me. I need your help. If it makes any difference, I was always a Larry Bird fan too.

Rums!

This month's GQ features the "Dark and Stormy," a delicious rum highball, and one of my favorites for the spring. Let it be known that I prefer the name "Rum Buck," which is slightly less pretentious and very much less maritime.

Rum Buck / Dark and Stormy
  • 1 part dark rum
  • 4 parts ginger ale
  • lime juice
  • lime wedge to garnish
GQ recommends some fancy pants all natural ginger ale, which I'm sure is excellent. I am equally sure that I will not find it at the local Shopper's Food Warehouse. So when the regular plebeian ginger ale I drink gets too sweet, I make the switch over to the a rum version of the Presbyterian. It's less sugary and allows the flavor of the rum to show through more clearly.

Rum Presbyterian
  • 1 part rum
  • 2 parts ginger ale
  • 2 parts soda water
  • lime garnish optional
Update: Liquor Snob endorses the Dark and Stormy, with a pointer to Jeff Morganthaler's bar tending blog.

Collectivist Error

Arnold Kling and Brandon Berg both have posts this morning about the problem of applying collectivist thinking to income statistics. Kling points out that income percentiles are not real people. They fail to account for people moving between income groups throughout time (your place in the income hierarchy is as much a factor of where you are in your career time-line as what pseudo-Marxists socioeconomic status group you're supposedly in). They also completely ignore immigration. And counting income by household rather than by person is a logistical convenience, but a statistical non sequitur. Using income percentiles for comparison across time is pretty much worthless.

Berg makes similar comments about analysis of educational attainment groups, making the point that people with high school diplomas are not the same sort of people who only had high school diplomas in the 70's. More people who would not have gone to college in 1978 are going now, lifting them out of the HS-only pool. Those people are not uniformly sampled from the entire range of HS-only graduates. Similarly people who would not have completed high school in '78 are getting diplomas now, likewise, they are not a random sample. You simply can not make the comparison.

This kind of collectivist analysis is inexcusably sloppy. There is no meaningful entity called "high school graduates" or "the middle quintile;" there are only people. Individuals are the only salient entity to consider. Some of those individuals may have certain attributes ("homeowner," "borrower," "Mormon," "tall"), but what is important is what happens to them as individuals. The statistical behavior over time of some abstract agglomeration is meaningless to me if there are not only different people in the group over time, but different kinds of people. These reports tells me more about how you kept your statistics than they do about the actual humans you claim to be informing me of.

I file this in the same category as failing to adjust for inflation. ("Well that was called "a dollar" and this is called "a dollar" so I'm going to assume they're the same thing to avoid having to do any semi-messy quantitative work.) It is intellectually irresponsible to present such arguments without a big, bold disclaimer that says "I know this may be entirely meaningless, but I can't find any better figures to work from." In fact, it may be irresponsible even then.

Update: Russ Roberts links to one of his earlier posts about the meaninglessness of comparing income averages, calling this problem "a massive structural flaw."

24 April 2008

Then They Came for Our Bacon

Reason.tv - Food Fight

It appears the "I know what's best for you" brigade has struck in LA, just hours after their daring denial of bottles to Boston bars. The video linked above showcases the plight of the plucky hot dog vendors who are prohibited from selling bacon wrapped hot dogs despite intense customer demand.

"They just want the bacon," says one vendor. And who wouldn't? Paul Revere would want bacon on his hot dog. Davy Crockett definitely would want bacon. Probably with extra peppers and sweet relish. George Patton would want bacon. Hell, he would feed bacon dogs to his horse, just because someone told him it would piss of the Russians.

Is anybody getting sick from eating these bacon dogs? We don't know. Do authorities check to see if they are being prepared in a dangerous matter? Nope. The mere existence of a tube of emulsified pork, wrapped in a strip of salted pork is an A#1 threat to the people of LA. Hell, if the Fuzz doesn't put a stop to this right now, all of America could collapse, or ... something. Luckily the plucky LAPD is on hand to protect us from the scourge of pork-on-pork sidewalk food, and wields the power to impose $1000 fines and six months in jail. Do you see me, LA? Do you see me? Because this is me sleeping soundly at night knowing you're on the job. Keep up the good work.

Somebody call Mencken and tell him we're being saved from ourselves again.

First They Come for Our Bottles

Hit & Run: Boston Bans Bottle Service

Licensing Board Chairman Daniel Pokaski says:
If all [bars] can offer their clientele is just swilling down alcohol, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in the business.
Because obviously Pokaski knows what clientele want out of bars better than the clientele do themselves.

This is a great place where I could apply a suitably modified "but I don't smoke, so this makes bars better for me" argument that I hear so much when discussing smoking bans. To generalize wildly, people who patronize bottle services are relentless d-bags. I would prefer not to be in the same bars as them, so this new regulation should be good for me. I should support it, because it makes my life superficially better. But I will not, because I am not a filthy Statist.

What's that, H.L. Mencken? You have something to add?
A policeman is a charlatan who offers, in return for obedience, to protect [a man] (a) from his superiors, (b) from his equals, and (c) from himself. This last service, under democracy, is commonly the most esteemed of them all. In the United States, at least theoretically, it is the only thing that keeps ice-wagon drivers, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, insurance collectors and other such human camels from smoking opium, ruining themselves in the night clubs, and going to Palm Beach with Follies girls... Here, though the common man is deceived, he starts from a sound premise: to wit, that liberty is something too hot for his hands — or, as Nietzsche put it, too cold for his spine.
Thank you, H.L. Mencken, for unloading some of your patented, commercial-grade, high-test wisdom upon us. Please come again soon.

A podcast you should listen to: EconTalk

EconTalk is run by GMU econ prof Russ Roberts, who also blogs on Cafe Hayek. It's mostly interviews with other professors, authors, etc on a wide range of topics. A new episode is posted every Monday, and each is approximately an hour long. It's regularly at the top of my listening for the week.

You can access the entire archive online. Shortly after I started listening I went back and downloaded pretty much the entire archive. They've also created a category of listener favorites, which is a good place to start.

Another good place to get started is the sports category. There is good coverage of salary caps, revenue sharing, public financing of stadiums, ticket scalping, etc. Brian Lewis, author of Moneyball, had a good episode, and Skip Sauer, of The Sports Economist, had a couple good ones as well.

Some other episodes I remember liking especially are:
  • John Bogle, founder of Vanguard and inventor of index funds.
  • Bruce Yandle, of Clemson, on his "Bootleggers and Baptists" theory. Yandle sounds pretty much like Robert Duvall in "Thank You For Smoking," but once you get past that this is a great theory. The gist is that policies are always presented for altruistic reasons, but behind the scenes someone is benefiting directly, and it's often someone you would think would be ideologically opposed to the policy. The name comes from the observation that the people who benefit most from keeping a county dry are the people who are selling liquor illegally anyway.
  • Mike Munger, of Duke's poly sci department, on recycling and its general futility and wastefulness. Munger's interviews are usually very good and he features prominently in the favorite's section.
  • Brian Caplan, of GMU and EconLog, on his book "The Myth of the Rational Voter."
  • Alvin Rabushka, of Stanford's Hoover Institute, on the flat tax. I don't think the flat tax per se is a good idea, but a lot of the criticisms of it are equally applicable to most tax simplification schemes, and Rabushka gives good counter arguments to them.


23 April 2008

A blog you should read: Blanktop Chronicles

Really, you should. It's a blog written by a dispatcher at an Arlington VA cab company, with transcripts of the crazier calls he gets. Go read it now. I would point you towards favorite posts, but it's really hard to go wrong. I guess this one from Talk Like a Pirate Day is as good as any, plus it features pirates. Posts are relatively infrequent, but it is worth reading through the entire archive. You will not be disappointed.

iFanboy & Scott McCloud

The latest iFanboy video podcast is about Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics," a treatise on comics/"sequential art" which takes the form of a comic book. Needless to say, it's very meta.

Anyway, "Understanding Comics" is great. If you read comics, you should read this. If you have any interest in reading comics, you should read this. If you are at least open to arguments as to why you should be interested in reading comics you should read this. If you're into film, you should read this read this. (How would you make a film with a frame rate of 1 fps? Because that would be pretty much like comics with sound.)

The best analogy really is like taking your first film class, which is hinted at in the podcast, but they never really discuss. You think you understand movies well enough before, but afterwards you understand why they work (or don't work) the way they do, why the filmmakers made the decisions they did. You can see the film from the other side of the camera, as it were. "Understanding Comics" is the same way.

At some point in the 60's, if memory serves, people sort of woke up and said "hmmmm, this 'film' thing, it's sort of an artform, isn't it?" Whenever most of the culture wakes up to the fact that comics is also an art form, every essay to that effect will include a line that says something like "Scott McCloud already knew all of this in 1992."

McCloud has also written "Reinventing Comics" and "Making Comics," which are also recommended. They are, respectively, speculations about the future of comics in relation to digital technology, and a discussion of the behind the scene artistic decisions being made by comics creators.

From the Pleasantly Surprised Files

...in which I am shockingly in agreement with Barney Frank:
To those who say that the government should not be encouraging the smoking of marijuana, my response is that I completely agree. But it is a great mistake to divide all human activity into two categories: those that are criminally prohibited, and those that are encouraged. In a free society, there must be a very considerable zone of activity between those two poles in which people are allowed to make their own choices as long as they are not impinging on the rights, freedom, or property of others.
That is probably the smartest thing Frank has said in his entire career.* It was said in regards to a marijuana decriminalization bill he is co-sponsoring with Ron Paul and three other members.

It is to the great detriment of our society that whenever something bad happens, ranging from things tragic to matters slightly annoying, people always chime in with "there ought to be a law."

(HT: Hit & Run)

* I am admittedly no expert on the career of B. Frank, but hypothesizing that the number of insightful comments varies inversely with time spent in politics, I feel fairly confident in this assessment.


UPDATE:
"When your response to everything that is wrong with the world is to say, 'there ought to be a law,' you are saying that you hold freedom very cheap."
— Thomas Sowell

22 April 2008

Smoke on the Water



Traditional Japanese version of Smoke on the Water. Mesmerizing. But don't they know any Blue Öyster Cult?

Web Standards and Martians

Joel Spolsky posted a good essay about a month ago about web standards, which I just came across as it emerged from the bottom end of my feed reader. This is always a subject dear to me, having learned web programming for the first time as a high school student in '99, and spending about 90% of my development time switching back and forth between IE and NN trying to convince both of them at the same time that when I put a value of 15 pixels into some script, I did not mean "sort of 15 pixels, give or take, if you're in the right mood" but 15 actual real, live pixels, exactly, in all their non-probabilistic glory. (Of course is was the at the same time bit that was always the killer.) And it was problems like this that had everyone telling me, "Oh no, Java Script is never going anywhere, dHTML has no future, forget all that stuff." And then AJAX came along, and I said "AHA! I knew it! This stuff is good for something!" but by that time I had forgotten all that stuff anyway, and now I am bitter about cross-browser interoperability, which is a state I do not hope to ever emerge from, as long as I may live.

Anyway, the essay is very accessible to the non-technical. Plus anyone who can wrap web standards in with Martians and Platonic philosophy, as well and references to Trostky and Joe Arpaio, is okay in my book:
The web standards camp seems kind of Trotskyist. You’d think they’re the left wing, but if you happened to make a website that claims to conform to web standards but doesn’t, the idealists turn into Joe Arpaio, America’s Toughest Sheriff. “YOU MADE A MISTAKE AND YOUR WEBSITE SHOULD BREAK. I don’t care if 80% of your websites stop working. I’ll put you all in jail, where you will wear pink pajamas and eat 15 cent sandwiches and work on a chain gang. And I don’t care if the whole county is in jail. The law is the law.”

Shvarts Fisking

Good commentary of the Yale "art abortionist's" statement here.
Shvarts writes with the obscurantist condescension of the expensively ill-educated. This is the prose that appears on the walls of our museum exhibits: rancid with jargon, evasive with meaning, bursting with self-confidence.
"obscurantist condescension of the expensively ill-educated" is a phrase I will need to use.

(Doesn't "Shvarts Fisking" sound like a little Scandinavian village? Perhaps one widely renowned for the excellent quality of its hand-carved wooden toothbrush holders. I imagine they have lively town meetings to argue about the elderberry harvest, and before school each day all the little children gather around in their enormously fluffy sweaters to sing songs about the welfare state and modern furniture.)

21 April 2008

Dougie Ten-by-Ten


Study: Nearly 80 Percent Of Roommates Got So Drunk Last Night

"I drank like ... forty beers!"

(Actually, I think I'm mixing up Doug 10 x 10 and Prospy Andrew, but whatever.)

"All I need is a Programmer"

CodeClimber addresses a rather rude request from a businessman-friend of his. In short, this guy wanted him to write some software for a business venture, but was shocked — shocked! — to find out that compensation would be in order. There's good analysis identifying three underlying assumptions that might lead that suit to ask a trained professional for free services. (And for a commercial enterprise, no less! It's not like he as asking the guy to set up a website for the local girl scout troop, he wanted to profit off the free labor of a "friend.")

I've gotten a similar proposal. And to make matters worse, the suit had the gall to specify which particular technologies should be used to build his system. Predictably, said choices were easily a decade out of date and hopelessly ill-informed. I don't just mean they were bad choices, some of them were actually impossible. (Oh yes, the suit was a faculty member at the Mendoza College of Business. I offer that detail without comment or judgment.)

To business people seeking to manage technical people, I offer this warning: There is a good chance you do not understand technology as well as you think you do. This is okay, but please act accordingly.* For starters, go read some of Paul Graham's essays. Here are some business-related ones:

Great Hackers

Revenge of the Nerds
Return of Mac
Hiring is Obsolete
What Business Can Learn From Open Source
Microsoft is Dead

(Some are a little dated. Not that they're wrong, but they are referring to conditions as they existed a little while back. Just note the date at the top and you'll be fine.)


* To be perfectly fair, most technical people also understand little of business. I think, however, that most people realize this, and so comparatively less damage is done as a result.

Adventures in TSA Screening

McArdle recounts Coyote's story about the TSA not realizing there is a difference between ounces and liquid ounces. About 75% of the commenters think Coyote is a prick, and there was semi-wide-spread support for executing him for not quietly toeing the line as defined by an airport screener. Besides reinforcing my idea that finding worthwhile comments on political blog's comments thread is like finding a sea slug with a firm grasp of Kolmogorov complexity theory, it also brought to mind at least five defenses of hassling a TSA employee.

One: Yes, complaining to a congressman is also a good idea (granting that they ever actually hear your complaint). But complaining to the peon in front of you still has utility. In the three jobs I've had in which interacting with customers was involved, all of my bosses would try to resolve customer complaints. But all three of them moved a lot faster when I complained that something was sub-optimal, and that was usually the result of me getting grief about said sub-optimality from the customers first. That way you keep your customers and employees happy, and get the benefit of using your employees' knowledge of the situation as an added filter to general complaints. They know fairly well what is feasible, what is a common problem vs. what one customer is a stickler for, etc. Complaining to low-level grunts should be effective -- it's not my fault if TSA fails to listen to complaints from their screeners.

Two: The screeners are participating in an activity that, if not immoral per se, is at least arbitrary, wasteful, fraudulent, and dangerous. As people specifically tasked with enforcing a policy, I hold them responsible for the nature of that policy. I put exactly no weight in the "I'm just following orders" defense, whether we're talking about mass executions or questionable speeding tickets. Humans are gifted with reason and conscience. The fact that you accept a paycheck under the condition to ignore both does not protect you from criticism.

Three: The screener in question was very obviously stupid enough to give that Spinaltap-esque response, and that alone should open him up to grief. Additionally, being unaware of the the very policies you are tasked with enforcing is disrespectable. The fact that the bureaucrats who crafted the policy in question are also sloth-brained mental midgets is detestable but not mitigating. The fact that a minimum wage drone can not tell the different between weight and volume is neither surprising nor comforting, and is likely "an indictment of our educational institutions in general? I put it to you, Greg - isn't this an indictment of our entire American society?"

Four: If there was a different airport security agency I could patronize, I would gladly do so and leave the TSA and their employees alone. But since I am stuck dealing with a monolithic entity like TSA, they are left to deal with whatever bile I have generated during my forced interactions with them.

Five: Some people think it is better for the ill-informed drone to be overly cautious and take away any quantity of toothpaste that may potentially kill thousands. Fine. But it is better yet not to have preposterous policies that require the confiscation of 3.001 ounces of toothpaste in the first place, and if we do, to have policies that make sense in light of basic high school science lessons about the differences between weight and volume.

Six: In this specific instance, Coyote inquired about the interpretation of a vague rule. He then pointed out that the rule, as explained to him by the TSA employee, did not apply in these circumstances. When the TSA-bot replied with "But I'm as dumb as a sack and half of hammers,"* Coyote let the matter go and went on his way. It's not like he stood there holding up the line and raising hell, and from his account, he handled the matter calmly and without belligerence.



* Loose translation.

17 April 2008

Elizabeth Báthory Goes to Yale

I don't even want to describe how horrid this is, so follow this link if you haven't eaten recently. Yale Student Engages in Shocking Self-Induced Abortion Art Display
"Shvarts said she did not intend the project to have 'shock value' or to generate controversy."
Bullshit. I'm not sure which is more disturbing: that she might have thought this would not have been controversial, or that she knew it would be controversial and went ahead with it anyway. Even putting aside the anti-abortion set she is still throwing a big "F--- You" to every woman who either can not conceive or has had a miscarriage. That includes some people in my immediate family, and I don't like it when people insult my family. So to Aliza Shvarts, I hope somebody throws you down a tall flight of steps. How's that for a DIY abortion? We could video it and call it performance art.

I'm all for the "Fear No Art" thing, but even that attitude depends on what you define Art to be. Personally, I'm tired of defining anything created by human endeavor as "art." This Yale thing is 100% socio-political PR stunt, and 0% art. It uses scandal as a substitute for actual thought and effort. All we're left with is this high-concept mental nullity. This kind of thing could be just as effectively conveyed with a two sentence statement pinned to a gallery wall. "What if I took a shit on a kitten in a canvas tote bag to show how the human-centric world view has led to subjugation of house pets around the world?" That would work just about as well as actually shitting on a kitten in a tote bag. The actual "work of art" is entirely superfluous; everything we need to know about Shvarts' piece can be adequately summarized by the phrase "Cream of baby soup smeared on box."*

UPDATE: So all this never happened. Shvarts' artwork was actually a "performance piece" which consisted of press releases etc. relating to the non-existent dead fetus installation. Which, to me at least, seems to eerily echo the above final paragraph. It seems Shvarts implicitly agrees with my conjecture that describing an art stunt is equally useful to actually carrying it out.


* Yes, this is a gruesome phrase for me to use. But we are talking about something grisly and lurid and hideous, so excuse me for matching my language to its referent.

16 April 2008

My New Favorite Sport

The Grilled Cheese Invitational. And yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. They have different categories and everything. And detailed rules. Because this isn't 'Nam. This is sandwich making.

Now I tend to make most of my grilled cheeses with the cheapest, least cheese-like processed single serving yellow slices I can find, but every once in a while it's good to mix it up with a couple of strips of bacon. Or if I'm feeling particularly jaunty, switch over to swiss cheese and toss in a slice of tomato. Mmmmmm...

Zero Tollerance for Childhood Innocence

First-Grader Labeled a Sexual Harasser:
"According to the state's Department of Education, 166 elementary students were suspended in Maryland last year for sexual harassment, including three preschoolers, 16 kindergartners and 22 first-graders."
Preschoolers? I wasn't aware it was even possible to be suspended from preschool. I am actively embarrassed on behalf of the rest of Maryland.
"While a school's priority is to keep kids safe, critics argue the 'zero-tolerance' policies can mean zero discretion."
Actually, that's exactly what zero tolerance means. That's like the article suggesting "Critics argue mandatory minimum sentencing means sentences will always be at least a certain minimum length." The "critics'" argument is tautologically true, and the reporter is treating it like some kind of radical supposition. If that's what it takes to be a reporter, I could do this all day.
"While the sun can contribute to skin cancer, scientists argue that 'the sun' could be necessary to life on Earth."

"While beheadings have historically been used to punish criminals, critics argue that 'removing somebody's head' often leads to their death."
It is metaphysically impossible to couple discretion and a ZT policy, because the exercising of discretion by necessity engenders some toleration. It is the height of disingenuousness to defend a ZT policy and then try and reassure people by saying "Oh, but we'll exercise some discretion. Things won't get out of hand. We'll only invoke the policy when we need to." The entire point of a zero tolerance policy is that it is always in effect. When you introduce discretion then what you're left with is a range of possible responses, one of which happens to be quite harsh. Which is usually not called "zero tolerance" but "a normal disciplinary policy." This is obviously inferior from the point of view of administrators because (a) it forces them to actually make a decision, and then to take responsibility for the same, and (b) it lacks a snappy name.

Update: This is the future of ZT policies.
Update II: And here's a recent story about an eight year old being suspended for sniffing a marker. Got to curb that drug use, even if it isn't dangerous at all. I was once disciplined for having Advil in my possession on school grounds. I had a friend who was suspended for cough drop possession. Those Ricola's are a real gateway drug, you know.

15 April 2008

The Jane Galt Tax Plan

Every year on this day Megan McArdle presents the Jane Galt Tax Plan, and every year she is right to do so. (Scroll down a bit for the actual plan and justification.) Obviously it's politically untenable, but nevertheless it's interesting in a "what would you do if you could start from scratch?" kind of way.

Her first point, I believe, is the most immediately valuable:
1. Get rid of all our poverty programs, except those aimed at the disabled, and temporary unemployment assistance, and institute the negative income tax. That is to say, the system should be continuously progressive, from a steep negative rate of up to 100% on very low earners, gradually declining until it zeroes out around $28,000 a year, and then rising gradually until it maxes out around 35% on the top brackets.

Essentially, the tax rate should be everywhere differentiable, and that differential should be non-negative and continuous, even if the tax rate itself is negative.* Beyond "it's easy to calculate," which is sort of a joke in the context of tax preparation, I don't see an reason for tax rates to be piecewise linear. The tax system is already complex, it's not like walking someone through calculating an exponential function is going to make it that much more difficult.**

Furthermore it's egregiously stupid that so many benefits are essentially Heaviside functions. The best thing you can say for the current method is that it's nice for politicians to be able to succinctly say "Make less than $15K? Then you will get a $300 benefit for day care. Hooray for day care! I care about the people!" But having those benefits be so dichotomized and sound-bite ready is great for the politician, while having them phase in and out is best for the recipients (and non-recipients, actually). Not surprisingly, we have built a system which is best for the politicians.

For anyone worried about things McArdle mentions like getting rid of the mortgage deduction, check out Russ Roberts' EconTalk podcast with Alvin Rabushka concerning the flat tax, where they address a lot of those concerns. Regarding mortgages specifically, they mention Australia, Canada and New Zealand, none of which have one, and all of which have comparable home ownership rates as the US. That said, the "eliminate all deductions" part of the plan is the least appealing to me, since it seems to be the one part which is the most motivated by political reality. In context of the rest of the plan, it makes sense, but if we are building a tax code up from a blank slate in — frankly — a fantasy world, I'm not sure deductions would be so problematic. You'd want to broadly define them, and keep them to a minimum. But I suppose making sure they stay minimal next year is the real concern, so it's probably best to leave them out altogether in the first place.


* This bit is troubling me, since I really mean "everywhere" in this context to be $0 to wherever the top rate finally kicks in, not $0 to $infinity.
** And now I'm not sure whether you'd want an exponential function which you just cap at 35%, or a sigmoidal function that asymptotically approaches 35%. Racked with doubt as I may be about this problem, I am leaving it as an exercise to the reader.

Apples, Machine Parts, Sadness & sqrt(2)

I never thought I'd be linking to the Nation in anything even resembling positive terms, but this is a good article about the state of the English professoriate. I especially like the point that departments are requesting faculty candidates have specialties in pretty much anything at all that isn't literature:
"Asian American literature, cultural theory, or visual/performance studies"; "literature of the immigrant experience, environmental writing/ecocriticism, literature and technology, and material culture"; "visual culture; cultural studies and theory; writing and writing across the curriculum; ethnicity, gender and sexuality studies." The items on these lists are not just different things — apples and oranges — they're different kinds of things, incommensurate categories flailing about in unrelated directions — apples, machine parts, sadness, the square root of two.
My familiarity with contemporary English department curricula is limited to the experience of peers and idly browsing course catalogs while waiting for lecture to begin. However, it's long seemed to me that English has turned into a catch all for any type of cultural criticism that can vaguely be linked by redefining anything containing any hint of narrative or expository message as "a text" and then moving on from there with whatever agenda the professor desires.

For example, my Special Lady Friend is studying for her MA in English and is currently slogging through a class on abortion. This, in and of itself, is peachy. I'm sure there's plenty of fine literature relating to abortion. But the majority of her readings have been court cases, pamphlets from family planning clinics and disgusting web sites of anti-abortion groups. (By this I mean they are disgusting in a visceral, nausea-inducing, over blown zombie movie special effects sort of way, though often but not necessarily also in an ideological way.) That all may make up a fine syllabus for some Miscellaneous Studies* class, but it doesn't really seem like English to me. Have actual books been so thoroughly studied that we are now forced to turn to court rulings to find extra "text" in need of analysis? I can only see this happening if one of two conditions hold. Either the department is beholden to its professors in such a way that they can teach anything they please, or it is so desperate to retain students that it offers this double distilled bullshit, thinking that The Youth want something "edgy" and "relevant" and this is the best they could come up with.

* Digression: If you must use the word "studies" when declaring your field, it is insufficiently rigorous. In fact, you probably could not smell rigor on a still day from where you are standing. The recipe for baking your department is 1000 parts trendy and 0 parts rigor. Your whole field of endeavor is unlikely to survive the next demographic shift. Good luck explaining to your grandchildren what it is you did all your life.

14 April 2008

Amy Lin

Far too much seriousness regarding the dire consequences of dancing in public of late, so I'll spawn off a little light-hearted material before buckling down to work for the night.

Amy Lin, on of my four favorite contemporary artists, has a new show this month at the Art League gallery at the Torpedo Factory. I believe it runs all month, but I am not sure; I hope to get to it next week.

I really love the way the forms she creates are very organic, but the dots she uses to construct them are so regimented and ordered. Good contrast there. Also love that she is willing to leave almost the entire canvas blank, just leaving the background alone to be a background. And not only does she make beautiful artifacts, she's an engineer specializing in computational modeling. That's really hot.

Pictured at right is "Persuassion," my current favorite of hers, although that does swap fairly often. See her website for lots and lots more images, as well as some good articles.

We'll Always Have Public Mockery

Jim Manzi thinks anyone upset about Oberwetter's arrest is only seeing half the picture (Don’t Disperse Me Bro). I generally like Manzi, and as this is the only opposing view I've seen on this matter that rises to a high enough level be worth engaging with, I offer limited commendations.*

Limited because, while Manzi does make valid points, you could apply this argument to any instance of police excess: "Well, having the police behave properly would just be expensive and hard and require effort, so let's just live with some extra thuggery by the boys in blue." This is enough to disqualify it as usable advice in my mind.

One further thing Manzi fails to consider is that the public pillorying of the police, the very act of pointing out the absurdity of the situation, may just have some small chance of keeping them in line in the future, or at least retarding their growing excesses. That public commentary has no trade-offs. There is no reason not to point out how farcical this situation is. So while I can kind of see his point that "well, shucks, there's just nothing we can do that won't make things worse," that is not a reason to stop bitching about this behavior. Because there is always one thing we can do in these situations, and that is mock people in public.

Note however, that neither I nor any of the people I've linked to (as far as I know) actually called for any concrete changes that might have the associated trade-offs Manzi notes. The furthest I would go towards a call to action is "Attention Police: pull your collective heads out of your collectives rectums, abandon your presumption of unending deference from the citizenry you are meant to be serving, and exercise at least some judgment and humility at some point in your career." I fail to see how meeting all three of those goals would result in serious negative trade-offs.

I guess where I fail to see eye-to-eye with the "You Libertarians are taking this too seriously" set is that many of them think this is some kind of procedural argument about how many people constitute a "gathering." Or what the OED and/or relevant criminal codes define as "disruptive behavior." Or whether the night watchmen can reasonably be expected to know that definition.* Or whether the Park Police made appropriate risk assessments as to whether this oddball rogue dancer constituted a "clear and present threat."** Or where the burden should lie in regards to securing prior authorization from the Powers That Be for a public assembly. None of that is the issue. First of all, Oberwetter was not arrested as a consequence of her "disruptive behavior," for any reasonable value of "disruptive behavior." The dancing may have predicated this situation, but she was arrested for having the temerity to question the motivations and prerogatives of a State official. This whole situation has nothing to do with what is or is not suspicious or disruptive and everything to do with whether citizens must obey, unquestioningly and immediately, the orders handed down from the State's hired guns. When some blue-shirted, jack-booted thug tells me to get lost, am I supposed to vacate the premises with a smile on my lips and bounce in my step, or may I first ask "Why?"

If you don't see anything wrong with this situation, consider how you would feel if it was a score of people you agreed with getting the ole heave-ho from a public place. What if, instead of the Jefferson Memorial, this was an MLK memorial? Or Stonewall Jackson's tomb? What if it wasn't people dancing, but kneeling down and silently praying? Or dressed in pirate garb and eating pasta in reverence to the Flying Spaghetti Monster? What if it wasn't libertarians, but Firefighters? Or Marines? Or Maoists? Or Muslims? Maybe you'd be cool with all of those people being told to pack it up for doing something that was just too weird, oh and getting arrested along the way. If so, I commend your consistency, but I doubt you actually exist.

And for the record, no, I do not think this is even close to the most egregious example of police misconduct. There is much, much worse. Please see Radley Balko for much more. And no, I am not only writing about this incident because it's a clean-cut white girl getting busted. I am writing about it because it happened the weekend I relaunched this place, because it is geographically proximate, because police misconduct involving puppycide is a lot harder to be cheeky about, and because of the ludicrousness of being arrested for questioning the police at the Jefferson Memorial. "This is a monument to Liberty and Freedom, so shut up and act like everyone else!" Seriously, file this right under "There's no fighting in the War Room!"

Update: Further evidence that Manzi's theory is mistaken comes to us from Merry Olde via Alex Massie. Apparently Liverpool Street Station has survived a live-Rickrolling (flash-ricking? rick-mobbing?) and no one was arrested for dancing. So I guess it is possible to have a police force that does not resort to detaining people at the first sign of incongruous behavior in public.

* Yes, they can.
** How many terrorist attacks have been immediately preceded by the attackers slowly and — it must be said — awkwardly grooving away? None. That's how many. How about attacks have been preceded by dancing of any kind? None. Timothy McVeigh did not dance in Oklhamoa City. Seamus Costello never took a quick break to jig before blowing something up. Guy Fawkes was not caught under Parliament waltzing. Not everything unusual is an imminent threat to America, Apple Pie and Baseball. Relax.

Free the Jefferson 1

More information and videos about Brooke Oberwetter, the Jefferson One, here. Watch those low-rent thugs get their panties all in a bunch. You can almost hear them petulantly screaming "Respect my authoritah!" And ask yourself which was more disorderly, the dancing, or the arrest? It's like responding to a noise complaint by throwing a rock concert. At Altamont.


Bring me rope.

Stationary Bandits and Their Mobile Victims

Alex Tabarrok recently linked to an infuriating story about cities (in this case, Dallas) with red light cameras intentionally reducing the yellow light increment in order to generate more fines. Never mind that longer yellow lights are the best way to reduce traffic accidents at intersections. No, they wouldn't want to sacrifice revenue for safety. Only evil pharmaceutical companies ever do that. Governments are here to save us.

I honestly feel like I've heard this story before from somewhere in Virginia,* but I'm not sure whether it just sounds familiar because at this point, I expect all politicians and bureaucrats to act like petty thieves. Stationary bandits, I tell you, the lot of them.

Long drop. Short rope.

* I think I'm recalling some local Poobahs over-riding their own traffic engineers speed limits to increase ticket revenue in that way. They may have been ignoring science in order to grab more cash, but at least that wasn't causing their own citizens' deaths. Probably.

13 April 2008

Whatever happened to a long walk and a short plank?

I've already got a post about monkeys, and now I've got pirates. Bainbridge reports that the Royal Navy has been advised that while patrolling the Gulf of Aden they are not to arrest pirates because the brigands could claim asylum in the UK, but not to drop pirates off back in Somalia because the punishment there (beheading) would be a violation of their civil rights, and Her Majesty's Fleet could then be held responsible for aiding in said abridgment of rights by the Somali authorities. Somebody rouse the ghost of Jack Aubrey and tell him the Navy is now in the business of protecting pirates.

Now all I'm missing is hobos and I'll be plowing through the Official Internet Meme List at a good clip. Unless I listen to Cat & Girl, and then I need to find stories about sailors (this sort of counts already?), pageant contestants, Basques, Baba Yaga, Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Yale Men.

When you rule by fear...

...laughter is the most frightening sound in the world.
--The Day the Clowns Cried


Last night a score of Jefferson fans went down to the Mall at midnight to commemorate the man's birthday with some silent (ie iPod & headphone-backed) dancing. When the police told them to knock it off and get lost, one person asked why. She was promptly handcuffed and arrested for having the temerity to question a police officer's commands. See Julian Sanchez & Radley Balko's* takes on the incident for details.

What really discourages me is not the idea that you can be arrested for something that is so obviously not a crime. Nor is it that you can be arrested for inquiring about police orders. (See the Dude's Self-Imposed Stadium Exile of 2005). What's sad is that I live in a society where so many people think this isn't a problem. See Megan McArdle's comment thread for evidence.

Update:

*From whom the above photo comes. Also, it's a shame you can't see Jefferson's statue's face in the photo, because it would probably look something like the title page of the second issue of Watchmen — that is, weeping.

12 April 2008

An Open Letter

I sent the following letter to the ND Observer in responsive to this missive decrying collegiate alcohol consumption. I am less than optimistic that the editors will find it sufficiently edifying to see the light of day from the pages of their precious broadsheet, and so in the manner of the irrepressible Don Boudreaux's Market Correction, I will post it here and thus illuminate the world.
In the spirit of Daniel Cerrone's letter of 4 April, "Rethinking alcohol consumption," I have the following request to make of your readers:

Please make all the same decisions concerning your recreational activities, including especially the choice of altered mental states, that I have made. If you decide to spend your evenings differently than I do, I will complain in a most vociferous manner to a local newspaper, whilst hiding behind a thin veneer of religion, and in the process not only alienate many of the people whose behavior I wish to alter, but also make all believers look like sermonizing pricks. Such a correspondence will look something like this:

"Waaaaaaaaaahhhh! People don't live the way I want to live! Waaaaaaaaaaahhhhhh!"

I may also insert some personal slice-of-life effects to demonstrate what a cultured, sophisticated and reasonable chap I am.

After all, by attending the same university as someone else, you have surrendered all cognitive liberties, and entered a realm in which I have a complete metaphysical right not to be annoyed, put off, or otherwise impinged upon by any of the thousands of other people I live in close proximity with. Alter your behavior forthwith, or face the wrath of my petty, whiny letters.

New Beginnings

South Bend Seven returns. And what better way to celebrate than with a monkey riding a motorbike? Go, Ampersand, go!

(I hope you're happy now Skipper. I hope you're happy.)