31 January 2009

Blog Hiatus Round-up

[The following are a grab bag of things from the last week or so that occurred during my blog hiatus, in no particular order.]

Ron Bailey points out that Slate is timidly discovering that Genetic Engineering might actually be good for the environment! Gee, ya think? As someone who cares about (1) Science, (2) feeding people, and (3) the general health of the planet, I think it's absolutely gobsmacking that the environmental movement has lined up against GE. On the other hand, it gives me a retort every time someone complains about stem cell research and how "conservatives hate science." Both liberals and conservatives obstruct science when it suits them.

Oh, speaking of misguided environmentalism, Bailey also points out that forests around the world are regrowing thanks to economic progress and property rights. I'd venture that over half of my K-5 science education was about saving the rainforests. (Another 25% was saving the Chesapeake.) At no point did anyone suggest that people might be made too rich to want to spend their time mucking about clearing tress and ploughing under them.

In other news, The Bacon Explosion! This has been making the rounds of the blogoland at a furious pace, but I can't pass it up. Essentially it's a torpedo-shaped meat dish consisting of bacon, wrapped in sausage, wrapped in bacon. Special Lady Friend actually thought of a way to incorporate more pork product in this beast: eat it using a fork and knife whittled down from the bones of ribs you've already eaten. Genius!

Jim Manzi makes a David Hume joke, which is strictly awesome. (For more on Hume, one of my favorite philosophers, see this great Marketplace of Ideas podcast featuring Simon Blackburn, whose own book, Think, is also recommended by SB7.) Manzi follows up with a post about financing video cameras at Best Buy, which is also worth a read.

Another philosophy joke:

Fellow Marylander Michael Steele is now the RNC chairman. I admittedly don't know much about him, but he always seemed to be a classy guy when he was our Lt Gov. He's no libertarian, but he's about as libertarian as you can expect from an RNC Chairman, so I'm pretty pleased. For example, he's said he doesn't support a federal law banning gay marriage and that the matter should be left to the states. (Point, Steele.) On the other hand he's said that if elected RNC chair he would support such a law. (Boo. However, I think you pretty much have to say that to even have a chance of being elected, sort of like how you need to own and gun and go to church and tell people you're not a huge fan of Darwin. Most regrettable, but true.) On the gripping hand, he's also said that the whole matter is way down at the bottom of the list of important issues. (Again, point Steele.) I think one of the GOP's biggest problems is that they've tried to make a huge issue out of gay marriage when most of the population just doesn't care that much. Even if you moderately oppose gay marriage the GOP just comes across looking spiteful and bitter about the whole thing. Ditto immigration. They've got to unhitch from those wagons if they want to make it over the pass.

For the record, here's James Forsyth's take on Steele.

Oh, and can everyone please stop writing these breathless "Will the GOP ever recover?" articles? And stop writing blog posts claiming that this map shows the GOP is doomed:

Fewer voters have self-identified with the GOP than the Democrats for the vast majority of the last 50 years. In many ways, the 1994-2006 run that the Republicans had was an aberration and not some new state of nature. Please have some historical perspective when considering the future of political affiliation in America.

This is not appropriate for work or polite company, but I've had it in my head since inauguration, so you all can deal with it. (And hey, if it was published on Reason's blog, it can't be all bad.)

Brian Dunbar offers a great backhanded complement to Barack Obama — He's no Jimmy Carter:
Conservation ...
The capital flew into a bit of a tizzy when, on his first full day in the White House, President Obama was photographed in the Oval Office without his suit jacket. There was, however, a logical explanation: Mr. Obama, who hates the cold, had cranked up the thermostat.'

“He’s from Hawaii, O.K.?” said Mr. Obama’s senior adviser, David Axelrod, who occupies the small but strategically located office next door to his boss. “He likes it warm. You could grow orchids in there.”
... it's for the rest of us.

I myself don't give a rip what a person does with their thermostat - if you pay for it, crank that puppy. But if you're gonna try to scold me into wearing a sweater
"We can't drive our SUVs and eat as much as we want and keep our homes on 72 degrees at all times . . . and then just expect that other countries are going to say OK,"
and then going home and strolling around in shirt sleeves .. well that's lame. And in this case I suspect I'm paying to heat that drafty old barn on Pennsylvania Avenue.

At least there is this: Jimmy Carter turned down the thermostat and wore a sweater. President Obama, in this respect, is no Jimmy Carter.
While we're on the topic, let me say this for the benefit of people like me sharing office space with those from more tropic climates: you can warm yourself up by turning up the heat or wearing warmer clothes. Past a certain point I can' cool down by wearing fewer clothes, but only by turning down the heat. If we turn the thermostat down you can always put on a sweater and warm up. If you insist on turning the thermostat up, my only recourse is to take off my shirt when I get to work. I'm sure nobody wants that.

My Colombian and Vietnamese labmates do not seem to recognize this principle, nor did my Puerto Rican roommate, or (curiously) my Ligurian Grandmother.

The Slate article I linked above about how "Conservatives hate science" is foolish, but it did include this demoralizing snippet:
When asked in 2007 to name scientific "role models," the results were dismal. Forty-four percent of Americans couldn't come up with a name at all, and among those few who did, their top answers were either not scientists or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Albert Einstein.
Gah! The full results are just as disheartening, especially when you consider that people claimed to be more knowledgable about science than about sports, movies or celebrities. They know not what they do not know.

Here's a short but interesting interview with Bishop Paul Hinder, OFM Cap, the head of the Vicariate Apostolic of Arabia (comprising Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and Yemen). An excerpt:
Your “clientele” consists of foreign workers who live for the most part in poor conditions in work camps: Catholics from the Philippines or India or Sri Lanka. Are you allowed to hold mass in these camps?

Officially, I am not allowed, even if it is occasionally tolerated. In most Arab countries, we are only permitted to hold mass in places that have been put at our disposition by the government. It has become standard practice to propose camps, mosques, athletic fields, and cinemas. But there are no churches or temples, even though non-Muslims are often the majority in the camps. For many foreign workers, that is a problem, since most do not have enough money to be able to afford transportation to a service elsewhere. For me it is incomprehensible that precisely those who place so much emphasis on faith in God, and who criticize the West for becoming unreligious, render it difficult for others to hold religious services.

26 January 2009

Most Apropos Headline of the Month...

The award goes to Coyote Blog for "Frederic Bastiat, Please Call Your Office"
The owner of a glass company accused of a $132,000 scheme to smash Scottsdale school bus windows and profit from the repairs has been indicted.


Investigators claim Vollberg paid Scott Sloan $5,000 to find a person to knock out the glass, and then paid Mike Olivares $15,000 in April 2007 to break out the front windshields of 70 school buses in a Scottsdale bus yard.

Vollberg, whose company was a subcontractor for the school district, charged the district $134,000 to repair the windshields.
Arrested for acting on the broken windows fallacy! If only we could do the same with the Congressional authors of the stimulus bill.
Amen!  I mean, how often do fables and hypotheticals and metaphors actually come true?

So blogging has been a little light for the past few days.  I've been locked in mortal combat recently with the Platonic allegory of Science, trying to wrest truth and insight from her steely grip. Such work is exhausting (or as exhausting as any work can be which requires one to only move their fingers and a wrists).  At any rate it's time consuming.

I've also decided that this is an appropriate time to disconnect from politics and world affairs for a week or so, that I might refill my tanks of blogo-juice and prevent my latent misanthropy from becoming too strongly bolstered by the frequent reminders of the Long Defeat with which the world currently conspires to present to me.  So I'll be taking the opportunity of the next couple of days to do some house keeping around the SB7 homestead, maybe polish up and push out a few posts that have been lingering overlong as drafts, and try to land a few blows against Lady Science if the opportunity presents.  If this week's posts seem disconnected you all know why.


23 January 2009

Mahmut Aygun RIP

From the Telegraph:
The man who invented the doner kebab has died

Mahmut Aygun, was suffering from cancer and died in Berlin at the age of 87.

Known as the 'kebab king' he was born in Turkey and moved to Germany at the age of 16 to open a snack stall. He invented the doner kebab nearly 40 years ago.

Kebab meat, consisiting [sic] of roast lamb and spices, had traditionally been served with rice but in a moment of inspiration Mr Aygun saw that the future lay in putting the meat inside a pitta [sic] bread.
I would like to take today's lunch hour to pass the morning of a sandwich pioneer. Surely a contribution to sandwich technology and technique is a contribution to all mankind.(Via Alex Massie, at his new home at the Spectator.)

GA Joke

Today's XKCD:

That one's going up on the door of the lab first thing in the morning.

22 January 2009

Infrastructure, for real this time

Here's Gary Becker (via Greg Mankiw):
Some of this infrastructure spending may be very worthwhile-I return to this issue a bit later- but however merited, it is difficult to believe that they would provide much of a stimulus to the economy. Expansion of the health sector, for example, will add jobs to this sector, but it will do this mainly by drawing people into the health care sector who are presently employed in jobs outside this sector. This is because unemployment rates among health care workers are quite low, and most of the unemployed who had worked in construction, finance, or manufacturing are unlikely to qualify as health care workers without considerable additional training. This same conclusion applies to spending on expanding broadband, to make the energy used greener, to encourage new technologies and more research, and to improve teaching.
That point isn't being made enough. Labor was much more homogeneous during the Great Depression than it is now. Luckily your humble narrator has a (partial) solution: hire a few thousand of those out of work financial employees to teach economics and personal finance to high school students. It's a large pool of out of jobless workers and pairs them up with a job they are at least semi-qualified for. They can't be any less qualified than the uninformed social studies teachers who usually seem to get thrust into econ classes. Maybe if we teach enough kiddies that cash-out, negative amortizing ARMs are a dangerous thing to play with then we won't get into this mess again next generation.

Becker also has this to say:
Putting new infrastructure spending in depressed areas like Detroit might have a big stimulating effect since infrastructure building projects in these areas can utilize some of the considerable unemployed resources there. However, many of these areas are also declining because they have been producing goods and services that are not in great demand, and will not be in demand in the future. Therefore, the overall value added by improving their roads and other infrastructure is likely to be a lot less than if the new infrastructure were located in growing areas that might have relatively little unemployment, but do have great demand for more roads, schools, and other types of long-term infrastructure.
Any guess whether the Stimulus Junta will lean towards putting things where they'll add value or where they'll get the biggest political swing?

One of the things that's always struck me as being particularly Rust Beltish about South Bend is that the streets downtown are just too broad. Some are six lanes wide, all going one way. It's like someone laid down this heavyweight asphalt skeleton expecting a booming industrial town to grow in around it but the town is permanently stuck three weight classes down.

21 January 2009

Monumental Infrastructure

4-Block World: To Get America Moving Again The Choice Is Clear

That's my kind of stimulus! If you're going to do useless, almost entirely symbolic things* then you might as well go big.

* "Overall, only $26 billion out of $274 billion in infrastructure spending would be delivered into the economy by the Sept. 30 end of the budget year, just 7 percent. Just one in seven dollars of a huge $18.5 billion investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy programs would be spent within a year and a half." (link)

“Better two cell phones than a fish in your zipper.”

This has been floating around the blogosphere for a few days, but it's so good that I need to post a link to Matt Taibbi's review of Thomas Friedman's Hot, Flat and Crowded. Taibbi beats up on not only Hot, Flat and Crowded, but pretty much destroys Friedman's entire M.O. It's not only accurate, it's also very funny, and it has graphs! (Titles of graphs: "Size of Valerie Bertinelli's Ass vs. Happiness," "American Pork Belly Prices vs. What Australians Think about Midgets," "Number of One Eyed Retarded Flies in the State of North Carolina vs. Likelihood of Nuclear Combat in the Indian Subcontinent")

I feel relieved because I've been plagued, since the 1999 publishing of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, with the suspicion that I'm the only one in the world who realizes that everything Friedman's ever written is built on spurious correlations plastered over with terrible metaphors. Now I know for sure I'm not alone.

I'll also point you towards Taibbi's previous sortie against Friedman, as well as David Rees' excellent comic about Friedman. (It really wouldn't surprise me if Friedman pretended to be on the Charlie Rose show at all times.) Here's Rees' comic (click to enlarge):

(Via 3quarksdaily)

PS Here's Joel Spolsky on Friedman's general M.O., though the particular impetus of that post was actually Malcolm Gladwell's latest offering.

Facebook Misanthropes

Facebook Made a Misanthrope of Me | Culture | The American Scene

Matt Frost makes some good points about Facebook and along the way produces one of the best phrases of the year, describing Facebook as "a breeder reactor of solipsistic fatuity."

Like Frost, Facebook for me has reached the point where any news about actual friends is completely obscured by the witless ramblings of minor acquaintances. As a result I log in perhaps once every other week, usually for about 90 seconds.

I took a course on social network analysis with Jen Golbeck a couple of years ago. She had a theory about social network websites that they all eventually stagnate and collapse under the weight of the social flotsam and jetsam they generate. The obvious solution for people is to de-list all the 2nd and 3rd string "friends" they have, but because that's so awkward people will just leave their accounts to whither and start over on a new system with a new, more selective group of friends. Eventually that new list grows bloated and unmanageable, and the cycle repeats.

I'm not sure (nor, do I think, was she) that this cycle is bound to continue forever, especially since Facebook and MySpace are in many respects more mature and less novel than their predecessors.* Nonetheless the weight of even my moderately sized "friend" list has made the service pretty much useless for me.

* More mature technologically and as social artifacts, not more mature in terms of their content.

20 January 2009

The Awkwardness of Apparently Entangled Opinions

MLK, BHO, and Moral Progress

Now, I’m cynical about the romantic personality cult around Barack Obama because I am cynical about the romantic personality cult around the American presidency, which, because it is contemptible and stupid, demands cynicism. I think I’m not being cynical about liberal democratic politics when I concede that it is a very advanced, civilized, and relatively peaceful form of organized coalitional agression. But I’m definitely not cynical about what Barack Obama’s election means in light of the “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” I’m admiring, I’m proud, of that.

Because I intend to be pretty hard on Obama, the politician, and his starry-eyed, mush-headed followers, I think it’s important to note that it’s not only possible, but morally recommended, to assume a posture that ought to be comfortable, but is in fact culturally awkward. One should both recognize in Obama a real symbol of morally meaningful cultural change and attack the romance of democracy and the cult of the presidency — because that is the direction of further moral progress.

I've found it extremely awkward the last few weeks every time someone asks me what my plans are for inauguration. (And yes, the question is almost always what my plans are, not if I have plans, because there is a presupposition that I must be doing something to celebrate this Brand New Day.) I've resorted to just telling people I need to catch up on work and don't want to deal with the crowds because if I try to explain that I find the entire event overly theatrical and pompous and absurd they look at me disdainfully and barely manage to conceal their view that I must be an angry racist.

It's simply impossible to get people to believe that contempt for of the office of the presidency does not mean I am contemptuous of Barack Obama the man, or his achievement vis-a-vis race. There's just no convincing people that inaugurations in general do not interest me. No matter how fervently you tell people that "No, really, no matter who was elected I would not be interested" all they hear is "I don't want to celebrate {because/even though} he's black."

I find it hard enough to get people to accept that I just don't like pomp and spectacle generally,* even when it's not paired with something as distasteful as colossal amounts of power being wielded by one man. As I mentioned in a previous post, I've lived inside the Beltway for a quarter of a century and never once been to or considered going to an inauguration. I don't watch the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. I don't watch the half time show at the Superbowl. I spent a summer in London and never once went to the changing of the guard. I've never bothered to watch American Idol or the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was incensed enough when John Jenkins spent half a million dollars to throw himself a week's worth of parties and ceremonies when he was inaugurated as the president of the University of Notre Dame. Spectacle is not my thing. Crowds of people are not my thing. Celebrating the state is especially not my thing. Please, please, just accept the fact that I'm not interested in the inauguration, I did not go, I did not watch, and I did not care. It's just a ceremony. It has nothing to do with how I feel about racism, America, historical legacy, god, man, life, the universe or everything.

* Actually I confess to liking it as long as it's in Britain or the Vatican or somewhere far away and historic. In that way it's kind of like farming and nuclear missile submarines: I'm happy they exist in the world, but I don't want any part of them personally and I'd prefer it if they were not near my home.

Words for inaugural party goers

Put not your faith in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no salvation.
Psalm 146:3

He will take the tenth of your flocks; and ye shall be his servants.
And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king whom ye shall have chosen you; and the Lord will not answer you in that day.
1 Samuel 8:17-18

Words for our new administration

O you who turn the wheel and look to windward,
Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you.

T.S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Respice post te! Hominem te esse memento.
(Look behind you! Remember that you are but a man.)

Tertullian, Apologeticus

19 January 2009


You express a great deal of anxiety over our willingness to break laws. This is certainly a legitimate concern. Since we so diligently urge people to obey the Supreme Court's decision of 1954 outlawing segregation in the public schools, it is rather strange and paradoxical to find us consciously breaking laws. One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer is found in the fact that there are two types of laws: There are just and there are unjust laws. I would agree with Saint Augustine that "An unjust law is no law at all."

— Martin Luther King, Jr, "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

18 January 2009

An Obamista figures out exactly why I'm not excited this weekend

The D.C. Universe: The Concert

It finally hit me when I was watching the concert by the Lincoln Memorial today. We didn't elect a new president in Barack Obama. We crowned a new king. Possibly even anointed a new god. I have never seen people act like this before. I can't imagine it lasting, given that things are probably going to get worse before they get better, and Obama, rightly or wrongly, will be blamed for some of that. But for now, the devotion people on the Mall had for him bordered on the cult-like.
And that's from someone who supported the guy. It's also precisely why I don't care about the inauguration. The last thing we need after the previous eight years is a supreme leader with an uncritical, credulous, cult-like following.

I've lived inside the Beltway for 25 years and never once considered going to an inauguration. I'm not starting now.

Put not your faith in playoffs

Here's the Economist on the screwy results in both college and professional football post seasons this year:
Football? More like flukeball | Free exchange | Economist.com

The situation is quite different from, say, the English Premier League, in which relegation forces clubs to compete throughout the season. And the question of a champion is rather clearer, as well. At the conclusion of a balanced season, in which all clubs play all other clubs twice, the side with the best record is named the winner. Fair, simple, satisfying. And wholly beyond the grasp of American football league officials.
I think the single fact that people overlook when comparing football postseasons to soccer or baseball or basketball is that you can only play one football game a week. It's completely spurious to compare football to a system in which you play every competitor twice since there's just no way to play even close to that many games in a season. It would be just as meaningful for me to say that football teams ought to play eighteen possessions four days in a row, because it seems to work just fine for golfers.

This reminds me that it always bugs me when people say that we need to get rid of the BCS because "everyone else uses playoffs, so why can't college football?" First of all, college football championships were a mess long before the BCS (e.g. 1993, forever remembered by Notre Dame fans as "Notre Dame 31, National Champions 24"). More to the point, everyone else doesn't use playoffs. As mentioned, golf doesn't. Track doesn't. Tennis doesn't. To the best of my knowledge no form of auto racing does. Nor cricket, nor rugby. Because of the aforementioned one-game-per-week restriction you'd be limited to eight teams in the playoffs, at which point you just shift the argument from "which ten teams go to which bowl games?" to "which eight teams make the playoffs, and where are they seeded?" Just look at the NFL results from this year. Playoffs haven't helped them avoid situations like the 11-5 Patriots beating the 9-7 Cardinals by 40 points in the regular season, and the Pats not making the playoffs while the Cardinals go to the Super Bowl.

This is all just my convoluted way of saying that maybe things would be marginally simpler with playoffs instead of the BCS, but it's hardly a cure-all, and it's hardly something I want the Barackstar to be meddling with.

17 January 2009

Why the American auto industry is over

Not because of things like this, though it's a pretty clear indication:
Crossing Wall Street :: December 10, 2008 Stat of the Day

In 2007, Toyota sold 9.37 million vehicles.
In 2007, General Motors sold 9.37 million vehicles.
In 2007, Toyota made $17.1 billion.
In 2007, General Motors lost $38.7 billion.

(Source: Mises Blog)
I think the American auto industry doesn't have a future because I can't think of a single smart person I've met who has expressed an interest in working for one of the Big Three, or frankly, in the auto industry as a whole. The closest I can think of is one guy who works for Rolls Royce plc. on power plant turbines, and that isn't even in the same ballpark since they split from the auto manufacturer in 1973. I got an engineering degree in Indiana. I had legions of classmates from Michigan and Indiana and Ohio. You'd think I would have met one guy who was itching to design cars. Nope. Lots of bio- and petro-chem engineering, nano-scale devices and materials, some aeronautical, some electronics and IC. That stuff attracted smart people. Automotive, not at all.

I can see an uncharitable reader saying something like "Oh, look at this guy who doesn't care about the auto industry because none of his friends work in it." That's not what I'm getting at. Plenty of fine folk work for car companies. I wish them all well.* That doesn't mean they're going to be paving the way into the future. Progress comes through new ideas, and new ideas come from clever people. If an industry can't attract clever people it will not innovate, and if it does not innovate it will whither.

In case you think I'm just being curmudgeonly about all of these bailouts because the money is flowing out of my pockets and into industries that don't effect me (which would be perfectly justifiable if it were true), please refer to Inside Higher Ed and the Computing Research Association. I have an big financial interest in both higher education and computing research, and both are supposed to do pretty well from all of this bailing and stimulating and such. Nonetheless I still think it's a rotten idea.

* Actually, tens of thousands of them made really bad decisions and are trying to pull their hides out of the fire by conspiring with the government to steal money from me. They can all go screw themselves. The rest of them I wish well.

PS While we're on the subject of automotive innovation, I don't mean electric cars. Lead-acid batteries are as old or older than the internal combustion engines people are trying to replace (150 years). That's not innovative, it's boring. This is clever:
East Liberty, Ohio -- One recent morning, the Honda Motor Co. plant here churned out 120 Civic compacts. Then the production line came to a halt and workers in white uniforms swept in to install new hand-like parts on the giant gray robots that weld steel into the cars' frames.

About five minutes later, the line roared back to life, and the robots began zapping together a longer, taller vehicle, the CR-V crossover.


Ford will spend at least $75 million to overhaul a sport-utility-vehicle plant in Michigan to make small cars, and the work will take 13 months. General Motors Corp. is retooling its Lordstown, Ohio, plant to produce a new model at a cost of $350 million.
Tech like that could eliminate the need to tie up all that capital in fleets sitting on dealership lots. That's just on the manufacturing side. On the actual vehicles I want to see sensor suites, and automated piloting, and vehicle-to-vehicle coordination, and communication with control infrastructure on roads, and heads-up-displays and all kinds of other goodies. I probably won't see any of this stuff for a very long time because there aren't enough smart people who have any desire to go work for car companies.

15 January 2009


Glenn Reynolds - When Cops "Forget"

According to Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority [in Herring v. United States], 'When police mistakes leading to an unlawful search are the result of isolated negligence attenuated from the search, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements, the exclusionary rule does not apply.'

You can see their reasoning. Herring's a bad guy. Why punish the police by letting a guilty man go free when they just made a simple mistake?

Except that the rest of us enjoy no such immunity. If you're a citizen who, say, accidentally carries a gun into a designated 'gun-free' zone, the Supreme Court will not say that you can escape punishment because your action was 'the result of isolated negligence.' For citizens, there's no 'I forgot' defense.

Likewise, police are given a pass, under the doctrine of 'good faith immunity,' from having to understand the intricacies of suspects' constitutional rights: A right must be clearly established before an officer is liable for violating it, apparently on the theory that constitutional law is just too confusing for police.

But ordinary citizens are expected to comply with the tens of thousands of pages of federal criminal laws and regulations (and more at the state level) and are told that "ignorance of the law is no excuse" - and this is true even in cases where the prosecution's theory of criminality is a novel one.
Look, this is a very simple matter. We can either hold our rulers and "public servants" to a higher standard or a lower one. Justices Roberts, Kennedy, Alito, Scalia and Thomas decided yesterday that it's going to be a lower standard. Shame on them.

The same goes for Geithner and Rangel and all the other apparatchiks that claim they just made an "honest mistake" on their taxes. Screw them. You and I don't get to use the it was an honest mistake defense when we get caught in that kind of deceit. We're held to a higher standard than the guys who are making the rules. How lovely.

I don't really care if Geithner cheated on his taxes, but I do care that I'm being sold this line about it being just a big misunderstanding. I'd prefer Obama stand up and say "Yeah, my guy tried to pull a fast one, and he got caught. However, I think he'd do a better job than anyone else I can find, so let's just let it slide." That, of course, would be far, far to honest for this town.

Dice Wars

Dice Wars is my latest online distraction. It's essentially a very pared down version of Risk which you can play through in about 10 minutes. (Or about 90 seconds, if you get wiped out early.) Very simple, very addictive. It can be a little frustrating since (like Risk) you can't move your forces unless they're attacking and (unlike Risk) your "reinforcements" are placed randomly. Put together these can make it really tough to concentrate your forces where you want them. Play through a couple of games to get a feel for the rhythm of it. You might get your hat handed to you for a while, but when you win your first game you'll feel like Ender Wiggin himself. My advice is to play aggressively early and conservatively late.

(Here's a write-up on Dice Wars on Jay is Games, through which I came across the game in the first place.)

Star Wars: Retold

14 January 2009

Big Brass Ones

Via Seutonius at FreedomandShit.org, we have this Blago gem. (WARNING: wear some headphones if you're at work.)

13 January 2009


Looking for a fun way to celebrate next Tuesday? The incomparable Mike Munger has some particularly poetic and festive plans. And hey, at least he won't have to fight the herds on the Metro to get to his event...

Washington's Wealth Boom

Here's Radley Blako's latest column: Washington's Wealth Boom
The new top three [richest per-household counties] are now Loudon County, Virginia; Fairfax County, Virginia; and Howard County, Maryland. All three are suburbs or exurbs of Washington, D.C. In 2000, 14 of the 100 richest counties were in the Washington, D.C., area. In 2007, it was nine of the richest 20.

The problem is that, save for the tech corridor in D.C.'s Virginia exurbs, the Washington Metro area doesn't actually produce anything. Washington doesn't create wealth, it just moves it around — redistributes it. As government grows and takes control of more and more of the private economy — either through spending, regulation, or taxes — more and more wealth that's created elsewhere comes to Washington to be devoured.
This is a good piece, and I agree with his thesis on the whole. I'm not one to defend the growth of leviathan, but Balko did leave something out here, specifically that the Washington region also produces a huge amount of scientific and medical knowledge. NIH and Naval Medical are both in suburban Montgomery County, and both attract herds of highly skilled, highly educated and highly compensated people. There's also a legion of biomedical companies along the 270 corridor which have spun off from NIH, doing good, wholesome private sector work.

Note specifically that highly educated bit. My hometown, Bethesda — in Montgomery County, and the home of NIH and Naval Medical — is, or was in 2002 at least, the most highly educated city in the country. Half of residents over 25 had a post-grad degree. I think we would all be a little bit shocked if they had managed to earn those degrees and couldn't rake in some money afterwards.

Taking the DC metro region at large we find that:
Of the 231 counties with populations of 250,000 or more surveyed by the ACS, three of the four with the highest percentages of college graduates were in the Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, D.C.-Va.-Md.-W. Va., metro area: Howard County (58.2 percent) and Montgomery County (56.3 percent) in Maryland and Fairfax County (55.9 percent) in Virginia.
Generally speaking we should probably be happy that the there is a large financial return on education. Granted, a lot of these very educated people are using their law degrees to weasel their employers into favorable regulatory environments, but a lot of them are also using their pharmaceutical chemistry degrees to design new medicines.

(Sidenote: my neighbor was one of the project leaders designing Adderall and she's now embroiled in some patent dispute, for which all of her lab notebooks as well as pretty much all scribblings and notes from the relevant period have been subpoenaed. Her response has been to cease taking written notes completely. She says its a pain, but it's worth it so she won't have to deal with this again. Thanks justice system, for making scientists less productive.)

Oh, and we should also note that the Dulles tech corridor in Virginia which Balko exempts from his criticism grew out of the Operations Research companies like RAND Corp that sprang up in Tyson's Corner following WWII to advise the Pentagon.* So while that area eventually turned into a hub of internet activity (UUNet and AOL were prime examples) and now has a lot of biomed, telecom and aerospace activity, it originated as a group of government hangers-on.

* Paul Ceruzzi wrote a book called Internet Alley: High Technology in Tysons Corner, 1945-2005, which seemed pretty interesting based on this interview with Chris Gondek on the MIT Press Podcast. I haven't read it, but it looks interesting as an examination of both one facet of the tech industry as well as the Washington suburbs in general.

I realize that my counter-example to Balko's thesis is still tax-payer funded, and as such isn't the strongest argument. I have as a slew of problems with the way science research is funded in America, both philosophically and as someone on the receiving end of it. But I think there's a clear distinction between NIH and NSF on one hand, and the other government agencies like Labor or Agriculture on the other. There's a huge positive externality associated with increased world knowledge so there's some justification for subsidizing research. Not to mention my neo-Platonic belief that adding to the stock of knowledge is a Good in itself. Furthermore, at least most of the DC area residents getting rich off of Uncle Sam's science policy are actually doing science, and not through lobbying to change that policy.

Finally, I have one more small quibble with this statement of Balko's:
The Cato Institute's Chris Edwards estimates that in 2005, the average federal employee made $106,579 per year including benefits, about twice as much as the average person makes in the private sector. Federal wage are also rising at about twice the rate they are in the private sector.
One thing you have to keep in mind is that during the Clinton administration a lot of federal jobs were offloaded onto contractors so that he could claim he had "shrunk the size of government." (Of course he meant head count only, not cost, but who's going to going to argue with the Boy from Hope?) My semi-informed understanding is that a lot of these easy-to-contract-out jobs were lower paying clerical and unskilled office positions, which would really throw off the average wages when compared to the private sector since you're disproportionately cutting out people from the bottom tiers. Most agencies don't hire their own broom-pushers either, so they don't tend to have menial jobs on the books to drive the average wage down either. Again, this is just a guess, but I'll run it by someone who would know and make a note if I'm wildly off-base.

12 January 2009

Agnostic Debugging

One of the perverse pitfalls of doing computing research in emergent systems is that it is devilishly difficult to know if your system isn't working because your model is bad or because you just haven't programmed it correctly.

If you're writing a ray tracer you can run it and see it either trace rays or not. But when I run some of my neural networks I can't tell if they're spitting out gibberish because I made a mistake or because the model they're using is rubbish.* So that leaves me sitting here, left eyelid twitching, trying to figure out if my oscillating, temporally asynchronous Hopfield network doesn't work, or just isn't working yet.

* Or the third, and sometimes even more frustrating possibility: the models are good but you haven't staked out a claim to the right section of parameter space yet. Curses.

11 January 2009

'Fear the turtle,' indeed.

Opinion: Hospital Scrubs' Deadly Mess - WSJ.com

At the University of Maryland, 65% of medical personnel confess they change their lab coat less than once a week, though they know it's contaminated. Fifteen percent admit they change it less than once a month. Superbugs such as staph can live on these polyester coats for up to 56 days.
I'm so proud to be a UMD student right now

(Via TJIC)

09 January 2009

SEC Fisking

TJIC has a really excellent fisking of an article about "Miss Toasty Pants Government Official" (aka Meaghan Cheung, the SEC mandarin who dropped the ball on catching Madoff). I recognize that catching him was not the easiest of jobs (see this Peter van Doren interview on the Cato Daily podcast, for instance), but she obviously screwed the pooch on this one. Her teary "I'm just a victim too" routine is shameful, and TJIC does an excellent job in calling her out on it.

There's one tangential part of his rant that I want to discuss a little more but I need to consult some material at home first, so more on this is forthcoming.

Update: Woops. I forgot to include the link to TJIC's actual post.

Suspicious Vans

A buddy pointed me towards SuspciousVans.com, which is exactly what it's high concept name says it is. Pictured above is the "Lying in Wait Van."

08 January 2009

Some technical infrastructure I'd like to see

There's been a lot of talk about digitizing all of our medical records, including Obama's big address today. I've got a different idea: electronic hair cut records.

Every time you leave a barbershop or hair salon someone takes some head shots which you can access online. Maybe have the ability to make some annotation about which parts stick out from behind your ears funny, or tend to curl in the wrong direction in certain weather conditions. You could add your own pictures in between cuts to record what you like or don't like. Then when you go back in for your next cut your barber/stylist can pull up images from your last several cuts to get an idea about how to cut it this time. And think about how much easier it would be to get your hair cut if you were on the road.

Such a system would not only let America lead the the world in the cutting-edge* field of techno-cosmetology, but will also generate 1.2 million new "Clairol-collar" jobs.**

Joking aside, I would actually really like to see someone develop this technology. I would gladly pay an extra dollar per cut at a place that subscribed to this kind of service.

* Ha!
** Obama is making up job numbers out of whole cloth, so why can't I?

Nudge nudge

"Better to be ruled by your own folly than another's wisdom."

I have a feeling I'm going to be reminded of that proverb a lot now that Cass Sunstein is riding into town as Obama chief regulatory czar commissar. Sunstein is the guy who gave us "libertarian paternalism," which Will Wilkinson accurately termed a "linguistic miscarriage." I encourage everyone to read Wilkinson's take down of Sunstein (and co-author Richard Thaler) here.

For a good example of how even well-intentioned "nudges" of regulation often backfire, check out this story about how the minimum payments required by law on credit cards — designed to protect consumers from racking up too much in the way of interest payments — actually lower the average payment and cost consumers more money.
Mr Stewart presented 413 people with mock credit-card bills of £435.76 (about $650) that were identical—except that only half mentioned a minimum payment of £5.42. Participants were asked how much they would pay.

Among those inclined to pay the bill in full, the presence of the minimum payment hardly made any difference. However, those who wanted to pay just part of it handed over 43% less on average when presented with a minimum payment. In the real world, this would roughly double interest charges.

Economists will be interested in the results. Behavioural economists advocate “nudging” people in the right direction by subtly altering the choices that they are presented with. The insistence on minimum payments is a variation on this theme. Supposedly, those confronted by minimum-payment requirements should pay at least that much. In fact Mr Stewart’s work suggests that people who would have paid a lot, paid less. In economics, as in life, nudging needs to be done carefully.
(Emphasis mine.)

I've already been using the above aphorism on people who use the current economic debacle as evidence that allowing people to further privatize their retirement savings would be disastrous. Arnold Kling actually corrects my notion, noting that the choice isn't between my folly and an expert's wisdom, but between my folly and an expert's folly. He rightly predicts that his (and likely my) losses from the market will be dwarfed by our losses to taxes to bail out other people from their own losses.

They're all winners!

TJIC notes that 21% of US adults are "highly literate," and 21% of adults are "functionally illiterate," and wisely counsels that there is nothing to be concerned about there despite cries to the contrary. Literacy, like most achievements, is something which allows some to rise to the top, and others to sink to the bottom, and if we assume (reasonably) that the aspect of intelligence linked to literacy is normally distributed, we'd expect each tail to be roughly equally sized.

This made me think of a story in yesterday's Bethesda Gazette that I wanted to blog anyway. The story involves White and Asian students passing the testing threshold for "Gifted & Talented" status more often in Montgomery County than Black and Hispanic students. The racial angle is predictable and boring to me, but what stood out was that 41% of all students were labeled as "gifted."

If 4 in 10 of your students are advanced it doesn't really mean anything to be advanced anymore, does it? Especially since you can guess that 4 in 10 of the students would also be on the lower tail, leaving only 20% of kids in the "normal" camp. If everyone's a winner, then winning doesn't mean anything anymore.

Would it ever occur to these people that maybe they should plot out every child's test scores and just take those over two standard deviations? (Or one? Or three?) Something like that would be too logically un-impugnable, and would take power away from the mandarins to redefine "gifted" in order to suit their own purposes.

There are two proposed solutions given to the (non-)problem of racial disparity, neither of which make much sense. One is "for all students to take accelerated classes," in which case they become definitionally not accelerated anymore and you leave the brightest to languish in boring classes designed for the median (or worse) student. The other is to let kids take the test multiple times, under the theory that if you don't qualify the first time, you might do better the second or third of forth time around. This is a naked attempt to define away the problem rather than actually deal with educating children.

Instead of providing actual services to students who might benefit from increased rigor, administrators are more concerned with making sure their racial tallies don't rock the boat and keeping every parent who insists that Junior is really very bright gets mollified by putting Junior in a "special" class. They're more concerned with shuffling around their deck chairs than actually educating smart students.

Two stories from my days in MCPS to illustrate their lack of focus when it comes to advanced instruction:

(1) When I was in high school, "AP" classes were the advanced ones, "Honors" classes were the standard level, and "Regular" classes were remedial. As far as I knew this served the triple purposes of keeping parents of average students satisfied by putting them in "Honors" classes, letting those same students brag about their advanced standing on college applications, and letting more teachers claim to be teaching advanced classes, placating their egos. There's nothing particularly wrong with this beyond some mild dishonesty, but it always reminded me of the theater concession stands that sell medium, large and jumbo drinks instead of small, medium and large to make you think you're getting more coke for your dollar.

(2) For a good long time now MCPS has run a highly competitive International Baccalaureate program at Richard Montgomery High School. There were ~100 slots for every incoming 9th grade class, chosen from ~10,000 ninth graders in the county. It is a very strong program with very smart people. In the late 90s parents at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School decided that their little preciouses shouldn't miss out on the luster of an IB education just because they didn't make the cut, and petitioned to have an IB program at BCC. Now I'm all for more people preparing for and taking the IB exams if they want to, but know that the BCC program wasn't selective. Any student from BCC could opt to sign up for the IB classes. Because the talent pool was only as big as BCC (a smallish high school for Montgomery County), instead of being winnowed out from the entire county, achievement and hence recognition of BCC's open program lagged behind RM's selective program. This was totally unacceptable to BCC parents, teachers and administrators, who demanded that the two programs be considered equal. Every BCC parent I talked to insisted that their program was every bit as good as RM's and their students every bit as bright. They wanted the same funding, the same PR, the same college admission rates as RM, despite the obvious difference in the programs. They couldn't admit that maybe, just maybe, their kids weren't as smart as the top 1% of students in the entire county.

Perhaps things have changed at BCC in the last five years — though I doubt it — but I know the belief that every single child is uniquely intelligent and particularly smart (especially ours!) is alive and well in Montgomery County. What else can you conclude from 41% gifted rates?

The Spitzer Robotics Team part 2

I totally forgot to mention it when discussing disgraced ex-Governor Elliot's Spitzer completely out-of-touch plan to use the stimulus package make robotics teams as common and popular as football teams, but a local high school actually tried something like that back in my day.

When I was in high school the coach ("coach") of the Rockville High School quiz show team, whom I competed against regularly, convinced his principal to let the team buy letter jackets for its members. They decided that since they had "team" in their name they deserved the same recognition as the football team, the baseball team, etc. They wore the jackets to every competition. None of their classmates took them seriously. None of their competitors took them seriously either. They actually fielded a pretty good team, but everyone recognized the jackets at a naked attempt to literally dress up something unpopular in a more favorable costume.

You can't just declare something to be popular (intelligence, sobriety, and abstinence all come to mind) and expect kids to agree with you.

07 January 2009

Tilt/Shift Video

I mentioned tilt/shift photography previously, in which the plane of the film in the camera is not parallel to the plane of the lens. It makes everything photographed look like it's a miniature. I've always wondered what tilt/shift video would look like, and now I know thanks to Keith Loutit:

You kind find more of Loutit's work on Vimeo. I really like this one, though it isn't the best exemplar of tilt/shift because the wild lighting makes it tough to see the whole scene at once:

(Via 3qd)


The Obama stimulus package should be spent on transformative investments, not bridges and roads. - By Eliot Spitzer - Slate Magazine

(1) Why does anybody care about what Spitzer thinks about anything other than mediocre looking prostitutes? How did he even get a column? For that matter, why isn't that scumbag in jail or dangling on the end of rope?

(1b) Apparently I care enough to respond to his latest Slate offering, so, ummm... let's ignore point #1.

(2) This is so wrong:
The New Deal probably didn't pull us out of the Depression; World War II did that.
Well, he's right that the New Deal didn't do nearly as much good as FDR boosters and every public school history textbook like to claim. But WWII did jackall to help. (Please see, for instance, Robert Higgs on the Great Depression.) There is no way that taking a significant portion of your production and blowing it up and/or sinking it into an ocean is going to benefit people at large. How do people doublethink their way into believing that the cost of the Iraq War is horrid but the cost of WWII was the best thing to happen to the 20th Century American economy? Making things and then destroying them is about as likely to benefit the economy as making burnt offerings of slaughtered oxen is to benefit the harvest.

(3) Try not the think of SkyNet:
Provide funding for robotics teams at every school. If you ever want to see intellectual competition in the arena that matters today—technological wizardry—visit the robotics competitions that now exist in some schools. Make these competitions as universal as football. Make it cool to design the next cutting-edge video game or iPod.
As the only alumnus of Whitman High School to have served admirably on the football, track, math and quiz bowl teams (in the same year), please trust me when I say there is no chance that this will ever happen. Geekery will never, ever, be as cool as the ritualized pseudo-combat of football to American adolescents. And even if it could it will not become so because of a federal stimulus package! "Hey everybody, the Department of Education says that building robots is sexy! Let's go hang out with nerds!" I wish it would happen. Hell, I wish it had already happened in 1998 so I could have gotten in on some of that action. I'm not holding my breath.

On a side note, I have little respect for these robotics competitions. Apologies if you're into that thing, but I talked to one of the top contenders in the Florida state competition over Christmas and he couldn't tell the difference between Linux and LinkSys. That's not me trying to come up with a clever way to say that he didn't know what he was talking about, like "he couldn't find his butt with both hands and a flashlight." I mean he litterally thought that "LinkSys" was the proper name of "Linux" and "Linux" was just a sloppy way of pronouncing it. That's a far cry from "technological wizardry." Admittedly my sample size is small (i.e. one), but I never let that stand in the way of drawing wildly overgeneralized conclusions which enable me to tell people a story about an encounter with an arrogant quasi-cousin.

(4) Here's another of Spitzer's stellar stimulus ideas:
Second, the most significant hurdle to beginning the shift to nongasoline-based cars is the lack of an infrastructure to distribute the alternative energy, whether it is electricity—plug-in hybrids—or natural gas or even hydrogen. Once that infrastructure is there, it is said, consumers will be able to opt for the new technology. If that is so, let us build that infrastructure now.
How can you first admit you have no idea what the next fuel technology will be, and then immediately call for taxpayers to spend billions of dollars instantiating that technology? How?

(5) Here's his wrap-up on a stimlus package:
Long term, the most important investments are not on the easy list of "off the shelf" projects.
In order to be effective stimulus can't come years from now. It has to happen now or not at all. Otherwise it isn't stimulus, it's just spending. Expecting to implement your stimulus "long term" is like expecting to cut off a gangrenous limb next year. Of course actually helping the economy isn't a concern of Spitzer's. He's really interested in the "transformative investments we really need" to "redefine the social contract." If there's one guy I want re-writing the foundational principals and expectations governing civil society it's an upstanding guy like Spitzer. How does abusing authority, cheating on your wife and banging whores fit into the social contract, Elliot?

06 January 2009

Funny if it wasn't 99% true

Apple Introduces Revolutionary New Laptop With No Keyboard

The one thing that galls me above all else Apple-related — and I say this as an occasional Apple customer, though not a particularly satisfied one — is that they consistently elevate form over function. One mouse button? In 2008? Really? F You. And here's an idea for you: instead of making all your customers buy covers and cases and shields for every product why don't you start making them out of materials that don't scratch when put into contact with anything more abrasive than an infant's butt cheek? Just a thought.


My holiday traveling caused me to undergo my longest deprivation of internet access since, I believe, 1998, but now I'm back. I spent my time pretending to be enthralled by semi-distant relatives who I honestly just don't enjoy the company of in New Jersey, eating and looking at art in Chicago, and catching up with friends in Chicago, Philadelphia and Baltimore. Now I am safely ensconced back in Maryland, and after some post-traveling decompressing and on-again-off-again power outages courtesy of poorly managed PEPCO equipment upgrades, and I am ready to resume blogging. I'm sure my audience of dozens rejoices heartily.

Events on my break include some smart ass but well deserved comments directed to TSA "security" personnel at O'Hare (which I must assume is causally if not karmically unrelated to the TSA ripping all four zipper pulls off of my suitcase while checking to see if any of my dirty undies were actually bombs); a great brunch at Puck's at the MCA; an exhibition of Italian Renaissance drawings at the Art Institute; steaks at the Chicago Chop House (warning: website has music embedded); some delightful cocktails at the Drake Hotel; a fine meal at a Mexican restaurant whose name escapes me which consisted entirely of a very fine and very Zen pairing of melted cheese covered in ground meat and meat covered in melted cheese; and some New Year's festivities which were simultaneously a derailed gong show and the most well oiled New Year's celebration of my mostly-adult life. Yes, most of my vacation revolved around where and when I would be eating and drinking. There is no shame in that: embrace it.

Both of the MCA and AIC exhibits deserve further comments, which will be forthcoming. For now, the three martinis I made while getting my massive volume of laundry in order are catching up to me, so I'm going to rack out. Hello, goodbye, whatever.