24 December 2008

Merry Christmas

Welp, I'm off for a week or so. I doubt I'll have an internet connection where my travels take me, and Blogger has no offline feature, so I'll be silent until 2009 unless I happen upon some serendipitous free wifi. In the meantime, here's some music to drive all the saccharine canned stuff that's been playing in the malls since November right out of your heads.

Jackson Browne and the Chieftains, "The Rebel Jesus"



The Pogues and Christy MacColl, "Fairytale of New York"

The Spirit

"The Spirit" opens tomorrow, and I want to let everyone know that I think it looks horrible before it does. I usually don't like to criticize a movie before it opens, but my disappointment is based more on artistic direction than plot (so far, at least) so I feel like I'm on solid ground.

Some background for those unfamiliar with The Spirit: The Spirit is a masked crime fighter who always reminded me of The Shadow, but without the mystic zen mind control skills. Basically he's a vigilante operating with the tacit approval of the chief of police. The whole thing had a kind of whimsical air to it, including some comical romantic entanglements, among those a femme fatalle or two as well as the chief's daughter.

What you need to know is that The Spirit was created, written and drawn by Will Eisner, the godfather of comics, in 1940. Eisner is a very important figure in American comics, so much so that the medium's top awards are called the Eisners. Among other achievements, Eisner created what is widely considered to be the first graphic novel (A Contract with God), and the first academic treatise on comics as a full-fledged artistic form (Comics and Sequential Art). Suffice it to say that Eisner had an artistic vision; he was, as cinephiles say, an auteur.

Since Eisner's original vision for The Spirit there have been a couple of mostly forgettable new offerings, but we'll go ahead and forget about all of those until 2007, when Darwyn Cooke and J. Bone began a new ongoing series of Spirit stories. Both Cooke and Bone are also auteurs in their own right, and their rebirth of The Spirit was both immensely stylish and evocative of the original. (Cooke, and to a slightly lesser degree, Bone, do fantastic brush work for their inks which simultaneously creates motion and action while being very bold and firm. As someone who likes good strong inks in his comics, I appreciate them a great deal.)

So that leaves us with two laudable and respectable visions for the The Spirit already floating around the ether being beautiful when Frank Miller decides he's going to direct his very first film ever and that it's going to be a re-imagining of The Spirit. Why? Now 99% of the world is going to associate The Spirit with this confused muddle of shadows instead of either of the two previous, wonderful versions. I feel the same way about Miller's movie as I do about those prudes that ran around putting plaster fig leaves over naked statues fiddly bits. It's taking something beautiful and making it ugly for nothing. Of all the things Miller could do (and hell, he's still got whole volumes of his own Sin City stories he could be putting on celluloid) why does he pick territory that's already got some respectable artistic banners planted on it? He might as well have cut his directing chops on Casablanca II: The Return of Rick!

You know how upset everyone was when Spielberg and Lucas ruined their childhoods by making a bad fourth Indiana Jones film? Imagine how people would feel if some newbie director had decided that he was going to make Indy IV his first movie, and he did it using nothing but consumer-grade camcorders and costumes scavenged from neighbors' closets. That's how I feel about Miller pulling this new version of the Spirit out of his fundament. Have some respect for those who went before you.

I get it, Miller's got his own artistic vision. (Which revolves almost entirely around high contrast.) Sometimes it works. Some of that Sin City stuff is pretty cool. He certainly knows how to use negative spaces to define shapes better than anyone else drawing comics. But (A) not everything that works on a paper a few inches wide works on a screen many feet wide, (B) it can be done well on film (see the gorgeous Renaissance) but Miller didn't manage to do it, and (C) why use that vision to redefine something that's already been so well executed by others?

We've gone from this (Eisner and Cooke, respectively):




... to this:

23 December 2008

I am more worried about the flakiness of the spanikopita crust than I am about politics

... at least when it comes to my wedding.

I'm interested in anything dealing with the inadequacy of conventional notions of left/right party affiliation, and Bryan Caplan serves up some good insight here, concluding with:
That's an interesting story. But when I was watching the movie Rachel Getting Married, I started thinking: Which wedding would be more awkward? A wedding where the groom's and bride's families differ sharply in left-right ideology? Or a wedding where the groom's and bride's families differ sharply in education? That seems like a pretty good measure of social distance. And while I'm not sure, it seems like the mixed-education wedding would be more awkward than the mixed-ideology wedding.
I agree. When I was on the phone with The Future Mrs South Bend 7's father right after we got engaged he said something along the lines of "You realize you're marrying into an entire family of Democrats, right?" I mentioned that Uncle Giraffe* -- also a libertarian -- seems to have survived the last two years after marrying into the family, though I also made a mental note to clothe any future offspring in F.A. Hayek onesies before bringing them to visit their grandparents. Anyway, we had a very brief chuckle about political differences and moved on. Of all the things to be worried about with the wedding, ideology doesn't even make it on the radar.




* Uncle Giraffe's real name is Dave, but you try explaining that to a precocious six year old girl after she decides to re-christen me "Uncle Dave" and him "Uncle Giraffe." Also note that Giraffe/Real Dave is probably a few inches under mean height for an American male. Go figure.

A Self-Righteous and Out of Proportion Rant Brought on by Deluge

So as some viewers of cable news and all residents of the SW quadrant of Montgomery County MD know, a big frickin water main broke this morning, stranding motorists in the middle of the briefly-ironically-named River Road. (That's it at the top of the post.) The main was 66 inches in diamter, and people had to be rescued by helicopter. For more details I refer you to the Associated Press.

The result was that Casa de SB7 has been sans water since this AM, as was pretty much everywhere else inside the Beltway from the river to the temple. (About a quarter of the county, for you people from not-here.) Local schools were closed early throughout the county, even the sections that still had ample water, as were county libraries.

Now I love to rag on the MCPL in the frequent events in which they inconvenience me, and this is one of the them. I'm trying to head out of town and need new reading and listening material for many hours of mind-numbing driving, flying, and family time. Now I will not get them. Grrrrr. Every other place of business I frequented put an out of order sign on the restroom and went about their pre-holiday business. But not the library. Nope. Those public servants were too busy looking for an excuse to pack up early and hit the road. Even the county liquor store was open, and those guys are hardly bastions of responsibility and service. At least they're actually dependent on revenue from paying customers, even if they can extract outrageous rents from them.

Attention Montgomery County Public Libraries: I have a message from you courtesy of Her Majesty's Government circa 1939


(In my defense my mood is not being helped by being unable to brush my teeth, make coffee, take a shower, or do my laundry. But still: screw you, MCPL.)

18 December 2008

Legacy Admissions. To the Senate.

The Volokh Conspiracy - Caroline Kennedy:

December 16, 2008

Jerry MacArthur Hultin

President, Polytechnic Institute of New York

Dear Pres. Hultin:

I am writing to inform you that I have decided to offer myself for consideration for the Chaired Professorship in Physics and Chemistry at your distinguished institution. As you are no doubt aware, my father, Benjamin Post (1911-1994), held this position for many years (when the institution was known as 'Brooklyn Polytechnic,' or more familiarly, 'Brooklyn Poly') and was an important part of the x-ray crystallography unit that helped establish Poly's pre-eminence in that field. Though I have chosen a different career path up to this point, I believe that, for many reasons I would be happy to discuss with you in person, the time is now ripe for me to ascend to the position that has been waiting for me, and I for it, all these years. I look forward to working with you and your colleagues as we embark down this new road together.

Sincerely yours,

David G. Post
HA! I love it.

The Thin Blue Lie

The Thin Blue Line Between Us And The Possible Wasps | Popehat

The Appeal to Guilt is especially popular when the topic is law enforcement. When cops harass people for wearing turbans or shoot your dogs in a botched drug raid or devote public resources to making young men pull their pants up, we’re told that we have to cut them some slack, because they are all that stands between us and mere anarchy, and they are putting their life on the line for us. So shut up.

Cops do have very stressful jobs. And their jobs are dangerous — compared to, say, mine. But rhetoric aside, they simply are not the most dangerous jobs around. They’re less dangerous than fishing, logging, roofing, or driving for a living, for instance. Now, nobody has asked me to show deference to roofers. Nobody feels an obligation to Please Come Again or buy more big gulps from the guy at the Kwiki-Mart when he asks just because he’s got an unpleasant chance of getting shot by some hype. But of course, roofers and Kiwki-mart clerks are not the instruments of enforcing social order and compliance with government demands. No roofer is going to shoot your dog with a nail gun when he comes to roof your house instead of your neighbor’s house because he got the address wrong. Plus, we don’t have dozens of prime-time shows mythologizing the work of roofers and Kwiki-mart clerks.

A very good point, and one of the many reasons I don't feel any extra deference to cops.*

If you're a Good man and you do Good things, you have my respect, and to hell with what your business card says your occupation is. And if you start doing Bad things then I don't care if you're Marshal Goddamn Dillon himself and you're all that stands between me and a chaotic nightmare of anarchic bedlam which would make Malaclypse the Younger shit himself in fear. Your badge isn't going to stop me from wanting you to take a long drop on a short rope when you do something like this.



* I may outwardly show deference to cops when it suits me, but that's because they've got most of the guns and all the gavels on their side. There's a big difference between prudence and respect. Like they say in Ethiopia, when the lord passes the wise peasant bows deeply and silently farts.

(Via TJIC)

17 December 2008

Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum.

Bryan Caplan makes a good point about the old adage, "He who desires peace should prepare for war."
Who's going to say, "If Kim Jong Il wants peace, he'd better pour more money into his nuclear weapons program"? But it's also a serious point. Even the hard-line American hawk thinks that if Kim Jong Il really wants peace, he should just back down and disarm.

When you think about it, the prudential value of peace is one of the most amazing features of the modern world. Stop scaring people in other countries, and they'll leave you alone. In the Middle Ages, if one princeling unilterally disarmed, he'd probably be invaded before he could say, "Doh!" But when Russia disarmed after the Cold War ended, in contrast, not even North Korea saw a golden opportunity to attack.

Is preparing for peace always the best path to peace? No. But especially in the modern work [sic], it works more often than you'd think. And if you retort, "Yes, but that's only true for our enemies," consider: How many of your enemies would admit that they would be safer if only they were weaker? In all likelihood, they'd pant, "You'd like that, wouldn't you?! As soon as we lower our guard, you'll slit our throats!"
Three comments:

(1) The adage is only applicable if you think your (potential) adversary will act rationally. The whole point is that you make such overwhelming preparations that he realizes combat is futile. If you think your opponent isn't rational enough to make that decision (and no one has ever accused Kim Jong Il of being rational) then the whole thing falls apart. Caplan is big on the gap between people's irrationality and the rationality usually ascribed to them in models, so I hope he'd agree with me on this.

(2) It seems you get peace if two sides are either very equally matched, or one side is very much stronger and maintains non-belligerent intentions. If these are the equilibria then it makes sense to try and keep someone like North Korea, who is currently no where near our level and who never will be equally matched from rising into some middle ground where they might be outmatched but able to put up a fight.

(3) The whole of Vegetius' original adage is
Therefore, he who wishes peace, should prepare war; he who desires victory, should carefully train his soldiers; he who wants favorable results, should fight relying on skill, not on chance.
I'd argue that the adage has broken down in the second half of the 20th Century because what it means to gain victory has changed so dramatically. Between nuclear weapons, televised war and widespread civilian outrage at even limited casualties, "favorable results" have to be wildly redefined. The Iraq War has claimed a few thousand American and allied lives over the course of five+ years. While this is a few thousand more than I would like it's still a remarkably bloodless affair when viewed historically.* I'm going to venture a guess that what Americans widely view as an utter failure would be pretty impressive to Vegetius. That's not to say that we ought to adopt Roman attitudes about casualties, but rather we should think twice before applying or critiquing the advice of someone who had such divergent opinions about the meaning of "war," "peace," "victory" and "defeat."

PS I think a telling example of the American public's (un)willingness to accept casualties is the Mrkonjic Grad incident of 1995 in which Scott O'Grady was shot down in Serbian territory. If memory serves, the Clinton administration was sharply criticized at the time for failing to provide adequate electronic warfare measures to neutralize the missiles which downed O'Grady's F-16. I doubt Vegetius could have foreseen a situation in which a leader would be criticized for lackluster preparations because of the potential capture or death of a single serviceman. Such is the media environment and culture in which we now wage wars.


* Someone out there might be thinking "What about all the Iraqi casualties? This isn't bloodless for them!"
That only proves my point that times have changed since Vegetius. Can you imagine many people in the 4th Century being concerned about enemy casualties, except insofar as excessive deaths may make it difficult for the conquered to pay indemnification, tribute or taxes after the war is won?

16 December 2008

Mondrianic Cartography


Strange Maps presents this De Stijl-inspired map of the city of Leyden, by designer Jos Agasi. His site is in Dutch, but there are a few more neat maps of the city. I'd love to see something like the above for DC.

For reference, here's Google Maps on Leyden:

I really want to make a "Crimson Tide" reference, but I've got nothing.

Speaking of ingenious businessmen with debatable morality, check out this neo-Nemo drug runner who built custom submarines to smuggle cocaine:
But law enforcement officers here have dubbed him "Captain Nemo," after the dark genius of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." They say the 45-year-old has designed and built as many as 20 fiberglass submarines, strange vessels with the look of sea creatures, for drug traffickers to haul cocaine from this area of southern Colombia to Central America and Mexico.

[...]

"He had a marvelous criminal vision," Colombian navy Capt. Luis German Borrero said. "He introduced innovations such as a bow that produced very little wake, a conning tower that rises only a foot above the water and a valve system that enables the crew to scuttle the sub in 10 minutes. He is very ingenious."

[...]

Administrative Security officials allege that Portocarrero helped invent "semi-submersibles," as the narco-vessels are called, because they don't dive and resurface like true submarines, but cruise just below the surface.

Portocarrero's craft are difficult for counter-narcotics officials to detect on the open seas because their tiny wake creates a negligible radar "footprint." Also, authorities say, the exhaust is released through tubing below the surface, frustrating patrol aircraft's heat-sensing equipment.
Really impressive stuff. I've got to hand it to him, he's clever.

And while we're on the subject of smuggling narcotics, can we stop and take note of the fact that Han Solo was a drug runner? Does it strike anyone an incongruous that a hero of one of the most beloved and moralistic tales of the latter decades of the 20th Century was a bootlegger? I'm all for it, personally, but it tends to go unmentioned, so there it is.

15 December 2008

Holiday Scheduling

Tyler Cowen asks:
Why is the new Springsteen album, Working on a Dream, coming out on January 27? Christmas is the big selling season. Wouldn't lots of people want to buy this album for the holidays? Moreover, albums that debut early in the year are less likely to make the end of the year "best of the year" lists since they are soon forgotten.
His commenters suggest that maybe Springsteen is just different. He has enough cache with enough loyal fans that his records get bought no matter when they come out. Sounds reasonable; they don't call him "The Boss" for nothing. Nonetheless I'm always a little uneasy with explanations that amount to "this is just an exception, live with it." It's too pre-Enlightenment for my tastes.

I've noticed the same thing with my Netflix queue. Of the movies I'm waiting for DVDs releases of there are 9 that have or are coming out in the month before Christmas (including three on the 21st,* which seems a little late to get much holiday purchasing in), and 13 that come out in the month after Christmas. That's a lot of missed opportunity there as well. I seem to remember Januaries past being something of a wasteland for new releases since everything got pushed out between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Is something different this year, or is this a coincidence?

My totally uninformed guess is that some companies are trying to cash in on people using up gift cards to Best Buy etc. that they received as gifts to buy movies and music post-Christmas.



* These three happen to be Burn After Reading, American Teen and Hamlet 2, which are my three most anticipated DVDs of the quarter. Another coincidence?



That's light reading for a mentat

Speaking of things that are making the blogo-rounds, here's Ford's contract with the UAW:




I weep when I think of all the mental cycles that go into producing, interpreting, maintaining and servicing a 2215 page leviathan like this. Think of all the other, more productive things that could have been created with all that mental effort.

When people start out programming computers they're usually impressed by sheer length of code. Given enough time most people (those with any sense of style, that is) realize that there are two reasons why a program may be long. It's either dealing with a very difficult problem with very many tiny cases that need handling, or it's poorly organized dreck that could be written very elegantly in no more than a dozen pages. The latter is the case 99% of the time. (And in most of these cases a dozen pages is still considered hopelessly wordy by any Lisp aficionados you may happen to meet.) I suspect the same is true of regulations and contracts. Maybe, just maybe, there's 2215 pages of information in that contract. But every instinct I have is telling me that it's four plus reams of self-contradictory, overspecified-yet-vague, Byzantine word vomit. It probably even has GOTO statements. Ewwww.

You can't Swoopo an honest John.

There's been some more hullaballoo on the blogs about this Jeff Atwood post concerning Swoopo:
I was fascinated to discover the auction hybrid site swoopo.com (previously known as telebid.com). It's a strange combination of eBay, woot, and slot machine. Here's how it works:
  • You purchase bids in pre-packaged blocks of at least 30. Each bid costs you 75 cents, with no volume discount.
  • Each bid raises the purchase price by 15 cents and increases the auction time by 15 seconds.
  • Once the auction ends, you pay the final price.
I just watched an 8GB Apple iPod Touch sell on swoopo for $187.65. The final price means a total of 1,251 bids were placed for this item, costing bidders a grand total of $938.25.

So that $229 item ultimately sold for $1,125.90.
He concludes with
In short, swoopo is about as close to pure, distilled evil in a business plan as I've ever seen. [...] My admiration stops short of sites that prey on the weak and the uneducated.
Now I really like Atwood. I'd highly recommend the Stack Overflow podcast he co-hosts with Joel Spolsky. Especially for someone like me who spends his time in rather theoretical corners of Computer Science it's nice to be reminded that there are people out there actually engineering productive software rather than just ginning up neat models held together by bailing wire, chewing gum, and shell scripts.

But back to the case of Swoopo. I disagree entirely with Atwood about the morality of Swoopo's model. (Though let it be said that the WarGames reference is much appreciated.)

(I'm not informed enough to judge wether this is illegal or not, though I guess it soon will be after enough congressmen start getting calls to Do Something! Frankly I find its legality rather irrelevant. If Swoopo is immoral then we should dislike it whether it's legal or not. If it's illegal but moral or amoral then we should instead disparage whatever laws forbid it.)

First of all I believe that not only are a fool and his money easily parted, but that a fool should be parted with his money early and often, that he may learn to cease being a fool. Pain is a gift and moral hazard and all that. This is why I voted in favor of Maryland's slots referendum last month. If you can't realize that you're throwing your money away playing slots or the lottery then I have no problem with you loosing money. In fact I think there's no way you can condemn Swoopo and not also condemn the lottery without resorting to the old bumper sticker adage "Don't steal; the government hates competition."

Now, is Swoopo preying on the weak or uneducated? If they were marketing this to children or the senile or mentally infirm I would have as big a problem with them as Atwood does. Lacking evidence to the contrary I'm going to assume that their customers are normal adults. Normal adults who ought to be able to make their own decisions about matters like this, and whom I am disinclined to save from their own follies.

As to their education, all that's required to see how bad of an idea participating in a Swoopo auction is is to multiply the number of bids you made by $.75 and add the purchase price. One multiplication and one addition. Any adult ought to be able to handle that, even the ones who went to DC public schools. (Ooooh! Zing!) It's all right there to be seen; the fact that Atwood could accurately summarize it in three bullet points means it can't be that tough to grasp. Cable companies do far more to obfuscate their customer's costs.

Are the participants weak willed? Yes, probably. They trick themselves into thinking they're getting a great deal. But that's pretty much how most marketing works: tricking people into thinking they're getting a better deal than they are. Every Year End Sale flier that's coming into my mailbox this week is preying on people's irrational fears of missing a great deal or inability to realize that it's not worth spending an extra $15 to qualify for the "10% off (with purchase of $50 or more)" sale. Every time someone rationalizes that they may have spent an extra $100 but it was marked down from $300 so really they saved $200, they're being weak willed.

In all good cons the victim must be complicit in their own downfall. Swoopo is no different. People participate because they think the deals are too good to be true and they are. Of all the people I can feel sorry for Swoopo users are way, way at the bottom of the list.

13 December 2008

Art, Life, Imitations, What Have You

PHD Comics: A not-entirely-fictional letter from a University President:


In my case that isn't very fictional at all.  I just got that email earlier this week.  This is another time I wish PhD wasn't so damn accurate.

Here at the University of Maryland faculty and postdocs are being furloughed as well, though us grad students are exempt. It's unclear what furloughing a grad student would actually mean though, since our actual hours worked are entirely unrelated to the number of hours specified in our appointment letters.  "Well, the conference deadline is Friday, but I'm furloughed, so I guess I won't write up that paper."  No, that's never going to happen.

So in summary, way to go, State of Maryland! Your budget has turned into a complete hash-up, and you're sticking us with part of the tab. Thanks.

Thoughts on home computing resources and infrastructure

Occasional Superheroine: DVDs Unreliable For Long-Term Backup?

I was just thinking about this yesterday. I wonder how long it will be until there's a market for home RAID boxes? I mean a wide market, beyond geeks, like there is for CD burners or DVRs.

My generation is compiling a lot of digital photos that need somewhere safe to live. My guess is that when digital video cameras become convenient, cheap(er) and produce higher quality output (or are integrated onto phones in a quality way) people will start to see the need for high volume at-home digital storage. If it wasn't for CSS and similar DRM built into DVDs and DVRs I think we'd have this already.

Ideally this is a good use for "cloud computing" (or whatever the trendy name for it is this month) but I think a lot of people, myself included, might feel better having their own physical copy. Maybe there's a market for banks to give people safe deposit boxes which include a few terabytes of dedicated storage?  People might feel better about being able to go see their own drives sitting in a safe place than they do about trusting Amazon to keep their files in one of their warehouses.  This would also solve the latent danger of keeping your originals and backups in the same building that presents itself if you rely on a hard drive at home.

In related thoughts, I was wondering when houses will be designed and built with computing in mind.  Ethernet wiring in the walls, maybe a little niche for a home server carved out in the same way that spaces are purposefully left for refrigerators and washing machines.  Perhaps such a niche could have a dedicated A/C vent or exhaust fan or something, as well as outlets on their own circuit.  I assume there must have been a period when electricity was first available residentially that owners were responsible for adding wiring to their homes rather than having it be "included" like the plumbing.  I wonder how long that period lasted.  We seem to be in a similar phase now, where computing and data are not yet treated as core utilities and have to be tacked on after the fact.  (For most people they really aren't core utilities yet, but they will be eventually.)  The infrastructure of our homes seems to have incorporated central air conditioning — the most recent wide-spread change in home construction? — more rapidly than it is incorporating computing resources. 

12 December 2008

Why do we even bother?

Day saved | Free exchange | Economist.com

I DIDN'T think Mr Paulson would let a carmaker fail outright, not after the Lehman Brothers thing:

The U.S. Treasury said it is willing to provide financing to American automakers after the Senate yesterday failed to approve a rescue for the beleaguered companies.

“Because Congress failed to act, we will stand ready to prevent an imminent failure until Congress reconvenes and acts to address the long-term viability of the industry,” Treasury spokeswoman Brookly McLaughlin said in an e-mailed statement.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said earlier today in a statement that the Bush administration is considering using some of the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program to keep the auto companies afloat.

So Congress essentially wasted its time these past few weeks. Brilliant.

I'm all for Congress wasting more time, but remind me again what we have a legislature for. Why did everybody just jump through all these hoops of convincing congressmen to support this if they were going to turn around and seek a thumbs-up from Hank Paulson? Does this strike anybody else as distasteful and unjust?

Before all the Big Three Bailout Boosters get excited that their baby might be resuscitated they ought to think about how they'd feel if Democrats in congress explicitly denied funds to, let's say, Goldman Sachs, but then the administration gave them fistfuls of dollars anyway. Where are all the people on the left that spent the last 8 years complaining about Bush's crony capitalism? If Paulson approves a bailout for Detroit and you support it then you're no longer allowed to complain about Bear Stearns or Haliburton with a straight face ever again.

For that matter where are all the people on all sides who have been going on and on about transparency? The Senate says "no" but Hank Paulson's teacup says "yes" and we're trusting the damn teacup. Isn't democracy grand?

10 December 2008

He finds their lack of faith ... disturbing



(Via Unacoder)

A Duet of Fail

Two great stories courtesy of Random Scrub:

(#1) "Illegal Logging"
Check out this story about a small group of illegal loggers in Poland:
GREEN campaigners called police after discovering an illegal logging site in a nature reserve – only to find the culprits were a gang of beavers.

Environmentalists found 20 neatly stacked tree trunks and others marked with notches for felling at a beauty-spot in Subkowy, northern Poland.

But when officers followed a trail left by a tree which had been dragged away, they found a beaver dam right across the river, as reported by the Austrian Times.

A police spokesman said: "The campaigners are feeling pretty stupid. There's nothing more natural than a beaver."

(#2) "I hear the bandit folded under pressure..."
This is hilarious:

A group of cops in New Jersey looked like turkeys Thanksgiving night after an hourlong standoff at a bank with an armed "bandit" that turned out to be a life-size cardboard cutout of a man.

Some 30 officers surrounded a PNC Bank branch in Montgomery Township after alarms at the branch went off at 8:40 p.m.

Officers looked through a window and reported seeing a person crouching inside.

The cops proceeded to evacuate a nearby housing complex, stop traffic on an adjourning highway and try to negotiate with the cardboard crook through a bullhorn.

At about 10 p.m. a SWAT team stormed inside - only to emerge red-faced after they realized the "crook" they were trying to nab was made of cardboard.

Seriously, what's next? A Window Czar?

... A Broken Window Czar? A Department of Under Appreciated Economic Parables?

Have you heard about the case of Republic Windows and Doors? If not, I refer you to McQ to get caught up:
Republic Windows and Doors lays off 250 people last week and closes its doors. They get 3 days notice and they end up not getting already-earned vacation time and severance pay. Why? Because Republic Windows and Doors doesn't have the money.

So they stage a sit-in and it attracts politicians like flies to, uh, bees to honey. Naturally the bad guy in all of this ends up being a bank. You see, the bank, which had extended a credit line to the company saw that the company was circling the drain and pulled the credit line figuring it would never see any of the money again as the company was obviously failing. Unfortunately, for the workers that is, the line was pulled before what amounts to about $3,500 per worker could be paid.

The bad guy is Bank of America and the reason it is the bad guy is this:
As part of government bailout efforts for the struggling banking industry, Bank of America has received $15 billion, and is expected to receive an additional $10 billion. That fact left many workers here seething.

“Taxpayers would like to see that bailout money go toward saving jobs, not saving C.E.O.’s,” said Leah Fried, an organizer for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America. “This is outrageous.”
Of course the irony of the situation is that BoA got a fairly heavy lecture about making bad loans from the very same politicians (Dick Durbin) who are now saying that it should make a loan it knows it won't get back to salve the workers who are protesting. It promised to not make these sorts of loans in the future as a condition of the bailout. So, following good business practices, which would have avoided this mess had they done so before the bailout, they're now being told they should revert to the bad business practices they previously engaged in and throw good money after bad.
What's galling to me on a more basic level (besides disgraced and corrupt-even-for-Illinois Democratic Governor Blagojevich calling for the state to stop doing business with B of A) is that the money everyone wants B of A to give to R W&D has to come out of somebody's pocket. Maybe B of A fires some people so that Republic workers get their severance. Maybe they just don't hire people. Maybe the losses get spread around to the millions of B of A shareholders, including anyone whose pension plan or mutual fund is an investor. Maybe the taxpayers get left on the hook. Maybe some combination of these. Seriously, who the hell are we to say that the (admittedly unfortunate) workers at Republic are more worthy of those dollars than whoever they're being taken from? And how can we say that without even knowing who will be made to suffer in their stead?

Obviously these people castigating B of A have not read 'What is Seen and What is Not Seen.' How ironic is it that there's a prime example of the Broken Window Fallacy going on at a company that makes windows? It's almost too delicious for words.




Appendix: This Peter Dreier article at Huffington Post is just daft, but I need to pick out this one quote from the president of the union of the agitating workers:

"The workers want Bank of America to keep the plant open and the workers employed," said UE President Carl Rosen. "There is always a demand for windows and doors. But with Barack Obama's stimulus proposal, there will be even greater demand for the products made by Republic's workers. It doesn't make sense to close this plant when the need is so obvious."

"There is always a demand for windows and doors." Doesn't the fact that Republic couldn't turn a profit making windows and doors seem to tell us that there is not always a demand for windows and doors? Not enough demand to keep them in business, at least. Sure, somebody somewhere is going to need a window or a door, but why does that mean we actually want this particular company to meet that need? How is does this sentence convey any useful information at all? People are always going to want haircuts too. That doesn't mean somebody is obligated to pay me to shear people's noggins. Seriously, if the need for windows and doors is so bloody obvious then why don't the workers start making some windows and doors instead of just occupying the facility? Let them try to find some customers and turn a profit and then report back about how obvious the need for windows and doors is.

Look, what the management of Republic did may have been illegal, and it may have violated contracts, and it was definitely indecorous. But what does that have to do with Bank of America? There is no logic to having a bankrupt company's lender pay to keep them going. No more so than asking their paper supplier to front the money. The only reasoning which supports making B of A foot the bill for this is that they're the closest entity with deep pockets. They have money, therefore they should be made to surrender it to someone with a more sympathetic story. It's piracy politics.

American Aedile

(1) Obama decides he needs to boost the number of farmers in America, as well as tamper with lots of other aspects of agricultural. (Tamper with them more than the government already does, that is.)

(2) Nick Gillespie explains why this is dumb.

(3) Radley Balko echoes Gillespie's judgment, before getting...
A comment so wrong (and unfortunately, so common), that it deserves a main page refutation:
If there is one aspect of the economy which maybe should be tinkered with it’s farming. There is not much harm in having a perpetual oversupply of food than otherwise would have happened in a free market, but the consequences of the inevitable shortages created by a market economy are pretty grave. It’s one thing if there are too few cars made to meet the demand, but a food supply shortage is too gruesome.
This notion that there are some parts of society that are too important to be left to the market naively assumes that whatever the market’s alleged shortcomings, the government will do better.

To believe this, you have to believe that bunch of government bureaucrats and politicians are capable of orchestrating a food delivery system for 300 million people—the same bureaucrats and politicians who never meet a budget, are subject to the whims of politics and the pull of special interests (why do we subsidize corn, but not fruit? cotton, but not tomatoes?), and who are incentivized to fail (government programs that fail get more funding!).

What free markets do really, really well is distribute what people need (and want). What markets don’t always do so well is allocate what a few self-appointed experts think everyone needs.

(http://www.theagitator.com/2008/12/09/comment-of-the-day-4/)
He goes on further. It's worth a read.

I want to add two things. The first is from the Antiplanner, who points out that a Soviet grocery store in the 1980's only managed to have about a dozen items in stock at any given time, and to purchase one of these you needed to stand in three separate queues, one to order, one to pay and one to pick up. In contrast an American grocery store of the same period, even those in very small towns, carried tens of thousands of items in stock at once. So tell me again who's better at getting food to the people?

The second has to do with the one sentence Balko left out of the comment he rebuts:
There certainly would be temporary shortages if the food production was a free market subject to boom and bust cycles.
Really? What's the one basic commodity that we've had a shortage of in our lifetime? If you answered "gasoline" then you win. Through the numerous boom and bust cycles in the oil industry, when were the two times that there was no gas to be had? If you answered "when those knuckleheads Nixon and Carter decided they were smart enough to fiddle around with gasoline distribution because they were too ignorant to have picked up 'I, Pencil' to say nothing of 'The Use of Knowledge in Society' thereby causing them to reach the erroneous and dangerous conclusions that they were smart enough to direct the dispensation of petroleum products throughout America" then you win again. Game over.

09 December 2008

Stand back. They're going to try Science.

Remember when I said that technology is the best way to help the unprivileged?

Malaria vaccine may be available in 2012

If this stuff works it will do orders of magnitude more good than every UN Pan-Global Intergenerational Development and Sustainable Emerging Fair-Trade Disadvantaged Post-Colonial Victimhood Conference ever conceived.


(Subject line)

Having driven a Honda and 2 Toyotas...

...it now looks like I'm going to become a Big Three customer whether I like it or not. And I won't even get a car out of the deal. Fist.

From the Angry Economist (click to enlarge):



I told someone a year or so back that given the choice between identical domestic and foreign cars I would choose the foreign model hands down. They're both offering me the same feature set for the same price, but the domestic car had to pay off absurd union benefits so they must have cut something out somewhere. Maybe they cut down the marketing budget, or their management was more efficient, but there's a good chance that there's lower quality, less reliable construction and parts in their vehicle as well and I don't want any of that so it's foreign cars for me.

I still stand by that decision, but now I will gladly pay more for a comparable foreign car just out of spite. Ford, GM and Chrysler can not expect to spend generations making poor product and poorer decisions and then demand a bite out of my paycheck to save themselves. As a reward for their incompetence and rapacity I will never buy a car from any of them ever. Deal with that.

08 December 2008

The Atlas of True Names


Following up from last week's posts on geonymics, take a look at the Atlas of True Names. A group of etymologists relabeled a map of the world with the original meanings of the place names. So, for instance Oxford remains Oxford (being a place on the Thames that could be forded by Oxen), while — as any Wayne's World fan could tell you — Milwaukee would get relabeled "The Good Land."

(Via Strange Maps)

05 December 2008

Sometimes you eat the bar, and sometimes, well, he eats you.

The NY Times weighs in on another of my favorite drinks, the White Russian.

Happy Repeal Day!

Freedom and Whisky gang together
— Robert Burns

Happy Repeal Day, America. Alcoholic drink and Freedom are both powerful, subtle and beautiful things which have my deep respect and admiration, so of course, I celebrate. Even putting all alcohol-related concerns aside I'm particularly proud of the 21st Amendment because it represents America slapping its collective forehead and exclaiming "Hey, remember that thing we did 13 years ago? The moralistic crusade that has been viciously backfiring on us? That was really dumb. Let's undo it." If only we bucked the weight of institutional inertia more often. (I'm looking at you, mohair subsidy.)

Master bartender Jeffery Morganthaler has a good round up of Repeal Day links for your perusal.

Here are a few events around the country to celebrate, and here are some more for DC folk. (If I weren't headed out of town I'd probably be starting things off at Paul's liquor store for their free Friday night tasting — this week is champagne — and then head to RFD. But that's moot.)

If you're feeling more academic, head over to CATO for a "Policy Forum" and reception. Here's a little preview: Radley Balko discussing historical prohibition of alcohol and the current prohibition of other intoxicants.

04 December 2008

Romp of the Snow Puppy


(Via Radley Balko)

Using corruption to justify corruption

Speaking about presidents appointing their buddies to important or exotic ambassadorships, Matthew Yglesias writes:
I had always just thought of this is a kind of casual, widely accepted corruption. But recently I did learn the official story as to why this is good practice, namely that an important political supporter or a friend of the president is likely to have a much easier time of getting access to the Oval Office than any mere foreign service officer would. Thus, it’s arguably better for the host country to have a political appointee than a career FSO. Therefore, this practice helps build good-will and so forth.

Not sure I buy that, or even that the person who explained it to me buys it, but that’s the story.
I don't buy that either. I can see how it adds up to a queer sort of pragmatism, but really it's just defending corruption by invoking the existence of prior corruption. Well, not corruption exactly, but dereliction.

This story only adds up if you posit that the President will ignore the needs of career foreign servants in favor of his old chums. You need to assume that presidents fill their appointment books based on whom they'd most enjoy talking to, rather than whom their duties most require them to talk to. This might be an accurate assumption but nonetheless it's a pretty sad assessment of our political establishment and an even sadder assessment of the state of discourse that people feel the need to drum up these lame excuses for what is pretty evidently simple patronage politics.

Imagine if we started using this system of appointments to choose military officers. Would it make any sense for a general's old college roommate (without military experience, mind you) to be given command of a brigade because we're pretty certain the general will return his phone calls more promptly than he would those of a career officer? Didn't Gaius Marius prove fairly conclusively that this was a dumb way to run an army 2100 years ago? Why do we feel any better about using such a system for the diplomatic corps?

(Via Alex Massie)


An unrelated thought vaguely about ambassadorships: I've always thought that "Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary" was one of the cooler titles on the books. It just has such panache. "Apostolic Nuncio" has a pretty nice ring to it as well.

03 December 2008

What's in a name? (continued)

For the record, and since there's been yet more blogospheric brouhaha on the subject, I wasn't trying to weigh in one way or another on the Mumbai/Bombay thing. Individually I think almost all of these geonymic arguments are needless tussling, with the exception of a few select situations like the R.O.C./Taiwan/Chinese Taipei debate which have more immediate and potentially dramatic diplomatic consequences.

For the most part though I just think it's fascinating how inconsistent our naming choices are when contrasted with how much people get their undies in a twist over those same naming choices.

When I was in school there was much to do about changing references from Peking to Beijing and making sure the capital of Mexico was Ciudad de Mexico and not Mexico City, all of which was understandable to an extent. In contrast I never ran into anyone who wanted to relabel all the maps with Florence and Venice and Prague and Moscow to instead say Firenze and Venezia and Praha and Moskva. I suppose Europeans just don't have authentic ethnicities.

Just today I ran across an article which went out of its way to point out that the Colosseum is more properly known as the "Amphitheater Flavio." I would have accepted "Flavian Amphitheatre" (English), "Amphitheatrum Flavium" (Latin) or "Anfiteatro Flavio" (Italian). If you're making a point to include a "more authentic" name then don't mix and match languages. If you can't keep those kinds of things straight then just use whatever name is the most common to your readers. At least that's consistent.

02 December 2008

Things I did not know this morning: 'What's in a name?' edition

Christopher Hitchens writes
When Salman Rushdie wrote, in The Moor's Last Sigh in 1995, that 'those who hated India, those who sought to ruin it, would need to ruin Bombay,' he was alluding to the Hindu chauvinists who had tried to exert their own monopoly in the city and who had forcibly renamed it—after a Hindu goddess—Mumbai. We all now collude with this, in the same way that most newspapers and TV stations do the Burmese junta's work for it by using the fake name Myanmar. (Bombay's hospital and stock exchange, both targets of terrorists, are still called by their right name by most people, just as Bollywood retains its 'B.')
Hitchens points to another Slate article which explains:
When did Bombay become Mumbai?

Officially, in 1995. That year, the right-wing Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won elections in the state of Maharashtra and presided over a coalition that took control of the state assembly. After the election, the party announced that the port city had been renamed after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, the city's patron deity. Federal agencies, local businesses, and newspapers were ordered to adopt the change.

I actually wondered about this when I titled yesterday's post "Mumbai," but wasn't in the mood to look into it. Now, as they say, I've learned something.

I've always thought the connotations of demo- and geonymics to be pretty interesting stuff.

I had a history teacher in high school that would become mightily offended if students dared to use what she thought of as the ignorant, Eurocentric name Genghis Khan, preferring, at various times, Cengiz Han, Jenghis Khan, or Chinggis Qan. I was never clear why a Turkic name for a Mongolian leader was less imperialist or more proper than an English one, especially since the class was being taught in English. I was even less clear why, if she was going through all the trouble to achieve "authenticity", she would want to pick from amongst terms that are actually titles instead of using Tem├╝jin, which is the fellow's actual name.

I actually had this very argument with her at one point. Like all people over a certain age do when trapped in a logical corner by those decades younger she resorted to "because I said so." This woman, by the way, put very much worth in her membership in a generation which was "radical" and "challenged authority." Eventually I gave up arguing and simply began correcting her every time she used an English name in place of a more authentic one. "Cristoforo Columbo," I would point out helpfully. "Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili," I would interject. Because I said so, indeed.

01 December 2008

It's National Bloody Mary Day!

Happy 'Bloody' Birthday Mary - New York Post

Today is apparently 75th birthday of one of my favorite cocktails, the Bloody Mary. I will have to make one up to celebrate when I get home.

The aforementioned Everyday Drinking heartily endorses the drink, though Amis makes his with a teaspoon of ketchup, presumably for the sweetness. I'll pass on that, but I do have some preferences of my own.

I prefer my Bloody Mary's to be meaty rather than spicy, though admittedly spice is critical to a certain degree. To that end, one must use plenty of Worcestershire. Celery salt is good, but I prefer Old Bay for my saltiness, being as I am a faithful son of Maryland. I also like to to substitute a carrot stick for the celery garnish, celery being a largely vacuous bit of vegetable matter. Olives are also a good garnish. I also like to use lime juice in place of the lemon most recipes call for, although half of each is also an option.

I suppose this gives me most of the information I need to codify my recipe, a task I've never undertaken before:
  • 2 oz vodka
  • 6 oz tomato juice
  • 3/4 oz Worcestershire sauce
  • 1/4 oz of lime juice
  • 3 drops of Tabasco sauce
  • 4 dashes of Old Bay
  • Pepper to taste
Shake all ingredients and serve over ice in a Collins glass. Garnish with cocktail olives and carrot sticks.

Optional seasonings I appreciate include ginger, horseradish, olive brine and bacon salt. Of these, a touch of olive brine is particularly commended. Other liquid ingredients may include a small bit of beef broth, red wine or (chilled) dark tea, though extreme care must be taken to ensure that these ingredients compliment rather than overpower the bedrock of tomato flavor. Virtually anything can be used as a garnish. Particular SB7 favorites are crab claws and shrimp which play nicely off of the Old Bay note. Cucumber spears are also appreciated as a garnish. I've heard of people using strips of bacon, though I've (lamentably) never tried this myself.

Drink Up

Via Alex Massie, Roger Scruton reviews Everyday Drinking: The Distilled Kingsley Amis, which I'm thoroughly enjoying right now. I highly, highly recommend it. It's one of the few books that I plan on buying having already read a library copy.

Interspersed throughout the text Amis provides "General Principles," which are always enlightening. Consider General Principle 2:
Any drink traditionally accompanied by a bit of fruit or vegetable is worth trying with a spot of the juice thrown in as well.
Or General Principle 3:
It is more important that a cold drink should be as cold as possible than that it should be as concentrated as possible.
This last was a chief complaint of mine during college. Three ice cubes in a 16 oz solo cup aren't going to do it. A drink is more palatable with half as much mixer and added ice than it is weak but warm. Which brings me to advice for dastardly deans of students: if you want to stop your students from drinking remove the ice machines from dorms.

Also provided at the conclusion of chapters are valuable quotes such as
Wine cheers the sad, revives the old, inspires the yong, makes weariness forget his toil, and fear her danger, opens a new world when this, the present, palls.
— Lord Byron

The dipsomaniac and the abstainer are not only both mistaken, but they both make the same mistake. They both regard wine as a drug and not as a drink.
— GK Chesterton
The volume is composed of three books Amis previously wrote. The first (originally published as On Drink) is advice for drinkers, including recipes, a diet that does not require you to cut down on drink consumption, and tips for throwing a party on a shoestring budget. The second section is a collection of newspaper columns on various drinks, while the third is a collection of quizzes, the answers to which are a good compendium of drink trivia, including the origin of the word rum. (From "rumbullion," meaning a great commotion or uproar, perhaps with brawling involved.)

The second chapter of the first section leads off with:
One infallible mark of your true drink-man is that he reads everything on the subject that comes his way, from full-dress books to those tiny recipe-leaflets the makers tend to hang round the necks of their bottles.
That describes me pretty well, and if you recognize shades of yourself in the description I would commend you to seek out Everyday Drinking with celerity, as it will make a great Repeal Day gift.