27 February 2009

We Are Living in the Future: Part II

Hit & Run | Friday Fun Food: Senate Gets Hot Dog Machines

It has been a big week in the U.S. Senate. Yesterday, the World's Greatest Deliberative Body passed a bill granting voting rights to the District of Columbia. Today, it got hot dog vending machines.

dog in a boxI hit up the newly installed machine in the Hart Senate Office Building to try out this miracle of modern vending science. Since it was the machine's first day, a technician from LHD Vending Systems was there buying a few dogs on house (err, House?) for interested passers-by. No word on whether accepting a $2 dog violates ethics rules for Senate staff. Beware the wrath of the guardian of integrity, the two-headed monster known as McCain-Feingold!

hot dogI went for the $2.50 all-beef Kunzler dog. The machine has a glass window in the front, you can see your hot dog get plucked from the refrigerated section, cooked (with "infrared," according to Alex Cifuentes, the helpful on-scene technician/spokesman), deposited in a warmed bun, and delivered though a sliding door. The dog is delivered naked, but condiments are supplied.

Is there nothing we can't accomplish?

(Notre Dame people: who's nostalgic for quarter dogs right now? Me.)

Forget e-voting security and work on voting security

Ars Technica | E-voting security fixes will get us nowhere without stats

The recent American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting included a session entitled 'Science for Public Confidence in Election Fairness and Accuracy' and, as might be expected, computer science made a significant appearance. Ed Felten of Princeton, whose work in the area we've covered extensively, spoke and emphasized the limits of what computer science can do, and how the ultimate goal should be to ensure that electronic voting systems are verifiable and auditable. Of course, that raises the question of what you do with the auditing information, which is where Arlene Ash, a biostatistician at Boston University's School of Medicine, came in. It turns out that we already have excellent statistical tools for detecting problematic patterns of voting—the legal system just chooses to ignore them.
Amen. The problems with e-voting are really problems with voting in general, no matter the technology used. I've been trying to get people to understand that the biggest problems with electronic voting are only tangentially related to its electronic-ness since 2000. Obviously I think e-voting consoles should produce an audit trail, but we already do such a miserable job of auditing elections using paper ballots that it's not going to be much of an improvement to overall voting security. For instance, the recount results in the Franken/Coleman election are for all intents statistically impossible. There is no way to accept the hypothesis that that is an honest and authentic process. And it's being done with paper ballots. But the legal system rejects those statistical arguments out of some bizarre innumerate Luddism. With that degree of fraud and inaccuracy already extant in the process I just don't see why people get so bent out of shape about the possibility of further inaccuracy from e-voting.

We have a saying in Computer Science, "garbage in, garbage out." If you feed bad data into a good process you're going to get bad results. Most of the people in a tizzy about e-voting are guilty of the opposite flaw. They're insisting on feeding good data into a bad process and are expecting good results.
Until that problem [of simultaneously anonymizing and encrypting ballots] is solved, many states are opting for optical scan voting or printing voter verifiable receipts, which can allow a post-election audit to identify significant problems.
How does that make any sense? They're unsatisfied with the encryption of electronic ballots, so they're using paper ballots and receipts which aren't encrypted at all? And optical scan ballots also rely on computers to count them. Shifting from electronic vote casting to electronic vote counting is hardly a way to address concerns about electronic voting security.
But running these audits raises a whole new series of issues, some of which are less a technical challenge than a matter of how carefully we want to listen to what an rigorous analysis of a vote tells us.
We don't want to listen to a rigorous analysis of our elections. We don't even want our elections to be secure. We want our elections to feel secure. Just like all other security matters people are more concerned with the feel-goodery that comes from the appearance of security than they are with actual security.

For instance, no matter how you cast your actual ballot, chances are you are voting electronically and you don't know it. That's because ballots in most districts have been being counted by computers since the 80s. And they're just as error prone as vote-casting machines. (E.g. Humbolt County's loss of 197 ballots from their optical scanning system last November.) No one has ever worried about computer error with those counting units, but people started to freak out when we began putting the computers in front of them personally. It made them feel vulnerable in a way that optical scan ballots and computers hidden away in the back never did.

For that matter poll workers and election officials are still the most common point of failure for securing elections. It doesn't really matter if voting is done digitally, or on paper, or by throwing wooden chits into ceremonial urns. If the people running the show are corruptible (and they are much more often than you probably want to think) then all the security in the world doesn't matter. As long as dead people and house pets are being registered to vote, as long as absentee ballots get "lost in the mail" far more often for one party than other,* as long as new boxes of ballots are "discovered" during recounts that deviate suspiciously from prior distributions then it's a fool's errand to get all twisted up about the security of the ballot-casting consoles.

* Thanks, Maryland Board of Elections circa 2004.

Not pony tails or cotton tails but Duck Tales, oo-oo!

I also love Duck Tales and hate inflation, so I will take a cue from Randal McElroy and also post this educational gem from the days of my youth:

Oh Duck Tales, how I miss you. Scrooge, Donald and their nephews Huey, Dewie and Louie get credit for introducing me to comics. I had a stack of Donald Duck and Uncle $crooge floppies I must have read fifty times each. I think my favorite at the time was Don Rosa's Return to Plain Awful.

Truly my friends, we are living in the future.

Observe the awesome majesty of the Make Me a Sandwich Robot:

(Please refer to this XKCD comic for background reading. And if you don't find that hysterical, please refer to this wikipedia article for deep background reading.)

(Via Makezine)

Another comics thought

Collected Comics Library | Something to ponder

The next time you find yourself at a big box bookstore ask yourself: why so much Manga and so few comic book collected editions?

Sure Manga is hot, but with the advent of blockbuster movies like Dark Knight Iron Man and even Watchmen, why isn’t there more Comic Books on the shelves?
I've wondered this myself often enough. Specifically, I wonder it whenever I have to go to Borders or Barnes and Noble to use up a gift card from a relative who does not appreciate how phenomenally much worse it is shopping at either of those establishments than at Amazon.

What also makes me wonder every time I'm in this position is why they find it so impossibly difficult to keep their puny comics shelves organized. The manga is always in immaculate order, even with all the gruby 7th graders pulling them off the shelves all the time to camp out on the floor of the aisle and read them in situ. Is it really that difficult to reduce the entropy of the (domestic) comics section below that of a well-shuffled deck of cards?

Comics sans CMY?

Occasional Superheroine | If Comics Don't Change, They "Could Be Dead In 18 Months"

Faraci basically believes that 'the new depression may be the best thing that ever happened to comics.' He predicts the death of the 'superhero,' and gladly welcomes it. He accuses the mainstream comic companies of catering too much to the hardcore fans -- especially by pushing said superhero genre -- and not doing enough to encourage readers outside the 'clique.' And he feels that the 22-page floppy format, with its relatively hefty $4.00 price tag, is too much for people to pay for in this economy."
I've been reading these "this is the end of comics publishing as we know it" things since I started reading comics about four years ago. I know the trope predates that by a large margin, though I can't speak to it personally. Faraci is sort of right, is almost definitely exaggerating his case and anyway this gives me an opportunity to bring something up I've been thinking about for a while.

A $4 floppy is a pretty miserable value for my entertainment dollar. (I can rent a DVD on Netflix for a touch over $1 and buy a used novel on Amazon for maybe $5. These will keep me entertained for between 6 and 30 times as long as a single issue. And I haven't even considered the library yet.) I'm surprised publishers haven't taken what seems like an obvious cost-cutting step to me and printed more black and white books. Are customers really that opposed to them? Are they more opposed to a black and white book than to paying $4 an issue? I'm certainly not.

I don't really have comics reading friends, so I'm out of the loop on this one. All I've got to go from is my experiences, and I love black and white. Here's a list of books I've recently read or recently bought and am eagerly anticipating getting into, as well as some perennial favorites:
  • Zot!: The Complete Black and White Collection — goes without saying this is B&W, and that doesn't hold it back at all.
  • Scud the Disposable Assassin: The Whole Shebang — also B&W and it looks great
  • Madman Gargantua — the coloring on this is great, but the writer/artist, Mike Alred, is color blind and relies on his wife to do all the coloring. She does a great job, but I'm not so sure this would suffer that much without color.
  • Empowered — all in B&W; looks just like it should
  • Queen and Country — ditto
  • Walking Dead — already in B&W and it sells like mad
  • Scott Pilgrim — ditto
  • Northlanders, House of Mystery, Fables, Proof, DMZ — these are all in color and are probably better that way, but I don't think any would significantly suffer for lack of color. Proof and DMZ probably have inking styles least conducive to B&W, and the subject matter of Fables lends itself to color well.
  • Hellboy and BPRD — An interesting case. I (and others) love the way there's a consistent Hellboyish quality to the coloring even when Mignola isn't doingthe art. That pulls the whole series together. But I've seen his art without colors and it's still gorgeous. His linework stands out even more without color, so I'd be happy to read without color.
  • Sandman — This would have really suffered without color
  • Y: The Last Man — The coloring was very flat, which suited the art and the story, but it could have been told just as well in B&W.
So I'm all for more black and white books if it means holding the price down. Among the moderately-sized publishers and up, Oni Press seems to me to be the one leaning most heavily on black and white books. I'd be interested in knowing if that was a conscious decision on their part and how they feel about being in that position.

26 February 2009

Tax rates

Greg Mankiw | Tax Rates of the Rich and Poor

From a recent CBO report, here are effective tax rates (total taxes divided by total income) for 2005, the most recent year available:

Lowest quintile: 4.3 percent
Second quintile: 9.9 percent
Middle quintile: 14.2 percent
Fourth quintile: 17.4 percent
Percentiles 81-90: 20.3 percent
Percentiles 91-95: 22.4 percent
Percentiles 96-99: 25.7 percent
Percentiles 99.0-99.5: 29.7 percent
Percentiles 99.5-99.9: 31.2 percent
Percentiles 99.9-99.99: 32.1 percent
Top 0.01 Percentile: 31.5 percent

N.B.: These figures include all federal taxes, not just income taxes.
I meant to blog this when Mankiw first posted them back in early January. This time he adds this postscript:
That is, even before the Obama tax hikes, the rich face average tax rates more than twice those of the middle class, and about seven times those of the lowest quintile. These data do not tell you the optimal degree of tax progressivity, but they do describe the starting point from which policy is working.
I get his point, but there is no such thing as "the optimal degree of tax progessivity." You could potentially optimize tax rates for maximum revenue generation. You could optimize rates for maximum growth. Maybe you could optimize for a couple of other macro statistics. Beyond that the "optimal" tax rates are really just a nice way of saying "this is how I want tax rates to look." At that point you're just making aesthetic decisions.

Just reiterating the notion that Michael West and Steven Hayne are loathsome human beings

A week ago today I re-posted a story from Radley Balko about Mississippi forensic experts Michael West and Steven Hayne mauling the body of a two year old girl in order to falsify evidence against the man accused of her murder. Balko's story is complete with damning video evidence of West battering young Haley Oliveaux's remains with a plaster cast of the defendant's teeth, in effect creating from whole cloth the only physical evidence linking Jimmie Duncan to the crime. Because of their manufactured evidence Duncan is now on Death Row. There is, quite simply, no doubt that both "experts" are guilty as sin itself. (NB This is far from the first time these men have come under suspicion of illegal conduct. Balko has admirably covered their misconduct repeatedly in the past. This is, however, the first time such irrefutable evidence of their lies has come to light.)

I'm bringing this up again for three reasons.

The first is that the story has gotten essentially no play in the mainstream press since Balko broke it. Some hope that when it runs in the print edition of Reason (this week? next?) it will get some action. I'm not so optimistic.

This brings us to the second reason to mention it again, which is that it needs more publicity.

Finally, I think this story almost perfectly illustrates how I feel about the death penalty. Coincidentally, the night before Balko posted this story my friend Skipper* asked me how I felt about capital punishment. I told him that I think some people do monstrous enough things that they deserve to die and in that case I don't have a problem if they die at the hands of another man. I know this isn't merciful or charitable or me, but that's how I feel. In practice though, I just don't have any faith in the state to figure out who those people who may deserve to die are and then to go about the business of executing them in a halfway reasonable way. On net that leaves me (mildly) opposed to capital punishment.

I think West and Hayne have acted in such a consistently craven and fiendish way that they are prime candidates for execution. At the same time though the greatest part of their crime is that they conspired to send an innocent man to his death. So while West and Hayne are examples of why the death penalty may be proper, Jimmie Duncan is an even stronger example of why it should be shunned.

* Mentioned a few days ago in re: this fake-but-awesome album cover.

25 February 2009

Somewhere in the world a giant anthropomorphic caterpillar sheds a single tear.

Jacob Grier | The death of VA hookah bars:

One of the issues that was overlooked in Virginia’s smoking ban debate was its impact on hookah bars. [...]

Middle Eastern hookah bars are one of Northern Virginia’s hidden treasures, a unique cultural experience thriving in the suburbs. The small lounges feature delicious mint tea, water pipes with flavored tobacco, music, and special lighting at night. Given how few of them exist, it’s unlikely anyone working in them objects too strenuously to the smoky environment. Yet because Governor Tim Kaine thinks he knows better than the employees what’s best for them, they will soon no longer have a choice in the matter — or likely any job at all.
This makes me a sad blogger.

Hookahs lend texture and rhythm to a conversation. They fill up gaps, they inject pauses. They give you time to think. Hookahs promote introspection and camaraderie at the same time.

I was introduced to hookahs growing up in the DC suburbs. When you're too old to hang out at the mall or the movie theater and too young for bars, hookah bars are a great option. Every other weekend or so junior and senior year we'd head down to Shalimar Restaurant on M St (or Prince Cafe, if Shalimar was too crowded). Good times.

Hookah smoking got to be popular enough in my school that some friends and I actually went into business building them out of plumbing supplies for sale to our classmates. Not a bad business, to tell you the truth. Hookah's were a nice thing to have around at a house party because it was something the drinking and non-drinking attendees could bond over.

I ended up getting a professionally-produced model to take off to college with me. Sure, you get some weird looks setting up a hookah on the quad at a school like Notre Dame. (Most of the people walking by didn't even know what lacrosse was, and that's only from Canada. I hardly expected them to be familiar with the water pipe traditions of Southwest Asia.) So yes, you get some hairy eyeballs, but it's also a great excuse to hang outside and meet some people.

I still enjoy the hookah today. I'd recommend them to any other grad students out there interested in (legal) chemically-aided relaxation. Well, I'd recommend them to anybody, but I'm thinking students might enjoy the fact that you can take an hour off after dinner to smoke a bowl of shisha and still be clear headed enough afterwards to hit the books for a while before bed. I don't know about you, but I'm not on my A-game after unwinding with a couple of martinis.

In conclusion: Well done, Virginia. You've taken something nice and ruined it with your petty insistence that everybody in your state adopt an identical risk profile with respect to second-hand smoke. Great job treating all your citizens like adults. Keep up the good work.

24 February 2009

something about healthcare

Ezra Klein | Obama's Health Care Plan Expects an Individual Mandate:

One of those details [of this evening's Presidential budget address] is 'universal' health care coverage.

That word is important: The Obama campaign's health care plan was not a universal health care plan. It was close to it. It subsidized coverage for millions of Americans and strengthened the employer-based system. The goal, as Obama described it, was to make coverage 'affordable' and 'available' to all Americans.

But it did not make coverage universal. Affordability can be achieved through subsidies. But without a mandate for individuals to purchase coverage or for the government to give it to them, there was no mechanism for universal coverage. It could get close, but estimates were that around 15 million Americans would remain uninsured. As Jon Cohn wrote at the time, 'without a mandate, a substantial portion of Americans [will] remain uninsured.'"
I've always found it interesting that the policy debate centers around health care "coverage." The emphasis is not on actually keeping people healthy, or even seeing that people get health care, but on seeing that they are included in some sort of health-care payment system. (I refuse to call it insurance because any system that pays for foreseeable events like annual check-ups is not insurance to me.) Sure, these three things are all related, but I think the emphasis on coverage tells us something.

Oh, and this:
Affordability can be achieved through subsidies.
No. It can not. All subsidies can do is shift the costs off of consumers' shoulders and onto other people's. It doesn't actually change the societal costs of anything, nor does it change the fact that we, in the aggregate, want to consume more health-related goods and services than we want to pay for. Unless you address that all you've got is a big shell game.

Album cover redux

Here's the album cover my buddy Skipper cooked up using Porch Dog's rules:

We both want to buy our albums even knowing they're not real. So now that we've done the hard work, does anyone out there want to record a couple of dozen songs to put behind these guys?

"Port by another name" Contest

Attention loyal readers! (All dozen of you or so.) One week ago I posted this:
I had heard that US wineries can no longer use European geonyms like Champagne or Chianti in their branding, but I'd not heard that Californian vintner Peltier Station had come up with such a geeky work-around. They've named their new Port (a word now on the proscribed list, which can be found here) "USB" and are letting technological word association do the rest. Bravo. I love the logo design too.

Tyler "Dr. Vino" Colman is holding a contest for the best replacement for "port" on US labels. I nominated "Not Starboard" for a specific brand (tagline: "Not just any ______ in a storm."), or "starboard" for a generic term. Head over to Dr Vino and enter your suggestions. Or leave a comment seconding mine. (Yeah, I want that prize.)
Now "Not Starboard" is one of the finalists!* If you love me and wish to reward me for all of the thankless hours I spend toiling on this blog, then please go vote in Dr. Vino's poll to pick the winner. I ask for very little, but I am asking now: support your intrepid blogger pal.

Voting is open through Friday, and I'm not sure if you can vote once per day or just once per IP address.

* In retrospect I wish I had been clearer in the comments that just "starboard" would be the preferred generic name.

The bums will always lose!!

Patrick at Popehat points to a hilarious video of the end of the NYU stand off.
Highlights include the NYU cameraman shouting, “You may not use brutality, you are on camera!” to security personnel as they are walking away from him (and later turn a camera on him), his patronizing question, “We are engaged in a process of democratic consensus. Do you understand what that means?”, references to non-existent TASERs as “Devices of force! Devices of force!” and his explanation that his oppressors probably drink “corporate water.”

I also quited enjoyed his calling every piece of technology in sight a “MacBook” as though it never occurred to him that some electronic devices aren’t made by Apple.
Personally I love how their "barricade" was gently pushed aside by a couple of mild-mannered administrators. I made more robust barricades out of couch cushions when I was six. Oh, and I love how the fool running the camera keeps talking about "using consensus" as if consensus was a tool like a wrench or a MIG welder. Hell, I love all of it.

Things like this just make me so optimistic because with an age cohort populated by knuckleheads like this, how can I help but make it to the top?

Seriously, watch this video.

King Knut, please call your office...

... and explain to the Illinois State Senate that neither the tides nor the waves nor the motion and status of the celestial orbs is under their purview.
Hit & Run: Illinois Senate Legislates Status of Pluto; Who Will Claim Uranus?

Idiot retards in the Illinois state Senate have decreed that Pluto, downsized from planetary status in 2006 after 66 years playing with the big boys, is still one of the Big Nine. Why? Its discoverer is from the Land of Lincoln:
Like some sort of rulers of the universe, state lawmakers are considering restoring little Pluto's planetary status, casting aside the scientific community's 2006 decision downgrading the distant ice ball.

An Illinois Senate committee on Thursday unanimously supported planet Pluto and declaring March 13 "Pluto Day..." The push for a state decree on Pluto comes from state Sen. Gary Dahl, a Republican whose downstate district includes Streator, birthplace of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh. Dahl told colleagues Pluto is important to the local community, which considers the vote to downgrade Pluto to "dwarf" planet was unfair...
Unfair? Unfair? What does that even mean?! Qouth TJIC:
"The word 'fair' means nothing more than 'what I think should happen.'"

Alright, I'm in too.

Okay, all the cool bloggers are doing it...
I am aware of all internet traditions : Porch Dog


go to wikipedia, go to a random article. that is your band name.

go to random quotes and the last few words of the last quote on the first page is your album title.

go to flickr and explore the last seven days. the third picture is your album cover.
Here's mine:

The image is courtesy of flickr user dinamarie, the title is from a Ryƍkan poem, and the band name refers to a digital logic gate. (How apropos for me.) I love the result. I'd definitely buy this album if I, you know, still bought albums.

As a side note, I've always loved how The Hold Steady's first album name formed a complete sentence: "The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me." I'd totally do that if I was in a band (and had any musical talent whatsoever.) Currently I'm leaning towards "The Charge Is Big In Europe" or "Fixed Point Gets It Going" for my fantasy band name and album.

Watchmen jitters

It's a comic book about pop culture as viewed through a comic book, so I didn't see the point of making a movie. But I saw the trailer, and it looked phenomenal.

— Joss Whedon, in the March 2009 Wired
I feel exactly the same way. I was very nervous about it, but the trailer won me over. Now I'm nervous again:
Peter Suderman: Is Zack Snyder's Watchmen a Failure?

I’m becoming increasingly worried. I’d always had worries about Snyder, who managed to make the should’ve-been-awesome 300 and turn it into something ridiculous at best, and more often than not, unbearable. But everything I’d seen and heard until recently had me tentatively excited. Now, the first clips have started popping up online, and they’re dull, flat, and unengaging. The one action scene we see appears to be a student film by a some raver who just saw The Matrix for the first time. And this review at Hollywood Elsewhere pretty much confirms everything I’d worried about, calling the film a “staggering failure.”

I haven’t seen it yet, so I’m still rooting for it to succeed, of course, if only because Alan Moore’s original graphic novel is legitimately one of the best graphic novels ever, and one of the more ambitious and rewarding pieces of pop art in the last thirty years — and it deserves better.
That's the rub: if the movie fails it not only reflects poorly on the fine piece of work that is the graphic novel, but it reflects poorly on the entire medium of comics because Watchmen is such an exemplar of the field.

I don't think those clips were as terrible as Suderman does, but they were ... uninspired? I also like 300 more than Suderman. It was vapid in the extreme, but the art direction gave it an aesthetic that makes it worth watching, almost a painterliness. (By which I mean it's distinctly not animation or CG, but it's so completely affected it's no longer photographic either.) Of course prettiness is not nearly enough to carry a movie like Watchmen.

I like a lot of movies (300, the Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions, The Fountain, the latest Hellboy, etc.) that are admittedly fairly bad, or at least not very good, just because I think they're pretty. More than being pretty though, they have their own distinct style which permeates the entire movie. There's a consistency and totality to their aesthetics that I can really get into. If you were to take a single frame of an establishing shot of, say, an outdoor cafe from 99% of movies, you wouldn't be able to tell if that frame was from any of a hundred comedies or romances or even spy films or action flicks. They all look the same. But take a frame from something like Hero (which is both beautiful and a fantastic movie), and every single one screams "I am from a wuxia film; I am from Hero!" I love that.

If you're also into watching movies because they're pretty I'd recommend off the top of my head Hero, Curse of the Golden Flower, Akira Kurosawa's Dreams, and Koyaanisqatsi. They're all good movies, but they're also all gorgeous. Sit down with a hookah and a bottle of wine for that last one and you can let your mind flow right out of your ears.

23 February 2009

In which I outsource comments on the Oscars to The American Scene

First, Matt Feeney:
For a long time, the Oscars have lived within a self-aggrandizing self-contradiction, in which “best” is unofficially hedged up and down with considerations of commercial success and a kind of Oscar-approved moral grandiosity, to the point that nobody thinks the “best” films and performances are actually the best and the whole conversation deteriorates into horse-picking that is implicitly cynical and also besotted with both the celeb-spectacle and the presumption of the awards’ cultural importance. I.e. the awards wouldn’t be so worthy of the emphasis placed upon them if it wasn’t pretended that they award true merit, but if they really did award true merit, they wouldn’t take up the cultural space that they do.
And second, Peter Suderman:
The half-calculated, half-panicked seesawing between self-important Art and anxious populism means that the Oscars aren’t really an indicator of quality anymore, but rather an indicator of Oscarness. Oscarness does, admittedly, overlap with quality (see last year’s awards), but it is not the same thing.
The Oscars have already forsaken any opportunity to be about pure artistic merit, and because the gilded self-congratulation of Oscarness, along with the Oscar-gaming it encourages, is producing diminishing returns both at the Nielsens and at the box-office, they badly need another angle.
I think they've hit on how I feel. Oscarness is neither about populism nor art, nor about balancing between them, but something entirely orthogonal to either.

On a similar note, Peter Travers was noticeably despondent in his pre-Oscars videocast that the Oscars were entirely unmoored from the actual best performances and achievements.

If you really want to know which movies were good last year, then check out Scene Unseen's "2008 Year in Review" episode, of Filmspotting's 2009 Oscar picks. I may not agree with them on the particulars, but they have great discussions about the matter.

Quote of the Day

Kids Prefer Cheese: Nicely put, Governor.....:

"Christmas is the time when kids tell Santa what they want and adults pay for it.
Deficits are when adults tell government what they want and their kids pay for it."

— Richard Lamm, Governor of Colorado, 1975-1987
Screw it. Make that Quote of the Generation.

On the Peregrinations of Suburban Washingtonian Youth

The Agitator: D.C.’s Wealth Boom Expected To Get Boomier

I wrote a column last month about how Washington, D.C. is not only largely escaping the recession, the D.C. metro area has become the wealthiest region in the country—a troubling development, given that the largest employer and chief industry here is government.

Business Week reports that it’s only going to get worse.

In fact, Moody’s Economy.com estimates that metro Washington’s economy will actually grow 2.5% from mid-2008 through mid-2010. New York’s economy is expected to shrink 4.2%…

Washington is getting a boost from government spending to fight the recession and fix the financial system, as well as the ongoing expenses of fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and promoting homeland security. While President Barack Obama pointedly left Washington for Denver to sign the $787 billion stimulus package on Feb. 17, locals expect the metro area to garner a big share of the dollars.

I'm really interested to see how this plays out. I was surprised at my five year high school reunion a couple of years ago how many of my classmates (all from the Maryland suburbs of DC) were moving to New York. I'd say they were only barely outnumbered by people staying in DC. If Business Week is right, a lot of them should be flocking back here soon. Of course a lot of my mates were going to New York because that's what they thought sophisticated adults like them were supposed to do, not in an attempt to strike it rich. I wonder if those who are there to bask in the New Yorkishness will be more or less likely to come back to the District as things sour in Gotham.

Tangentially, I was also surprised that the only other city that a lot of my classmates were settling in was San Francisco, and that was a very, very distance third. Personally, I'd take San Francisco over New York any day. My classmates went to school all over the country, and best I could tell the only three cities they want to live in after school are NY, SF and DC. Not a single Chicago, or Boston, or LA, or Phoenix, or Miami, or San Diego, or Denver, or ...

(I'm excluding a couple of people teaching English in Korea and a couple who are living wherever the Pentagon tells them to live.)


dispatches from TJICistan: how Massport rolls


The state agency that runs Logan International Airport has responded to plummeting revenues at its garages by raising the parking fees it charges, even while keeping its 75-member garage staff at full strength and awarding one of its unions a 7.5 percent pay increase

One certainly wouldn’t want to scale back labor costs when revenue declines by 6%… no, far better to increase labor costs by 7.5% and use monopoly powers to increase the take from the working public!
This has bugs me every time I see another state with another plan to levy some extra taxes ("user fees," "surcharges," whatever) on some niche to try and weather the recession. (See, for instance, the previous post on Oregon's brewing tax.) First of all, no one ever proposes raising taxes on the population generally, it's always taxes on those guys over there, those guys you probably don't like who make beer or tobacco or run bars or banks or drive cars or drink wine or eat imported cheese. They rely on all the bakers and candlestick makers to say "Yeah, go stick the brewer with the bill! I'm not a brewer, what do I care?"

Secondly it puts a pretty stark contrast to the difference between how I make a budget and how governments make budgets. I — and I suspect most financially solvent people — make a budget by figuring out how much money I expect to make first. Only then do I figure out how much I'm going to spend. Governments seem to operate in reverse: figure out what you want to spend money on, then figure out how much you're going to make. Of course in their case "figure out how much you're going to make" is really "figure out how much you're going to take and who you'll be taking it from." It just seems crazy to me to treat revenue as the dependent variable.

I understand a recession is not the time to be cutting spending programs like unemployment benefits. Maybe you're a Keynesian and you think government needs to keep it's spending high across the board to boost demand. We can have a discussion about whether things like employing parking attendants in lots with falling usage are good stimulus. What gets me is that there's this unspoken expectation that the State never has to tighten it's belt. Martin O'Malley recently said Maryland's new budget was "painfully lean" because they had to level-fund a lot of programs. I'm losing money hand over fist and he's pissy because he doesn't get to boost spending on as many things as he'd like.

Beer and taxes

(Something that slipped through my fingers when I was putting together yesterday's round up.)

Porch Dog has good thoughts on Oregon raising it's beer tax 1800%. My quick reactions are:
(1) This is a shame because Oregon has such a great brewing culture. There is really fantastic availability of craft beers there, and the legislature is essentially telling people "no, no, don't drink our local stuff, drink cheaper out-of-state brew instead." Crazy. Absolutely crazy.

(2) The new tax rate is pulled out of thin air. There's no logical way to go from $3/barrel to $49 in one swoop, especially when $49 is 50% higher than the next highest rate in the nation.

(3) This is pretty blatant confiscatory taxation. There's no justification for that particular rate other than "you have $49 per barrel that we want, and we think we can get it from you." The Oregon legislature doesn't think beer is imposing $49/barrel of negative externality, nor does it need the sum of this money for beer or alcohol realted programs. It just thinks it's found a ready source of dollars to pitch into their money hole.
Point #2 is something I've been meaning to complain about for a long time, because it's one of those minor but irritating things about legislators: they pull numbers out of their butts. In computer programming we call numbers present without justification "magic numbers." In science generally you have to either pick from a small set of "typical" numbers (need a parameter between 0 and 1? Default choice is 1/2.) or you have to make an explicit disclaimer to the effect of "this value was arrived at without a full investigation of the parameter space, but preliminary experiments yielded promising results." Similarly it seems like businessmen have to explicitly say "this is our discount rate, this is our depreciation rate, etc. which gives us this expected present value, blah blah blah." (I'm obviously more familiar with the parlance of us eggheads than those business folk in their fancy suits.)

Bureaucrats seem to have at least a patina of rigor, but legislators and executives just pluck numbers from the ether. It's much more about what they can convince their colleagues and constituents sounds good than about what makes sense. I shouldn't expect any different, but dammit, I'm a numbers guy and once you start playing fast and lose with numbers I get cranky.

I know the CBO and the CRS (and probably others) are being more rigorous, but I can't help but feel that gets completely ignored between their reports and actual legislation. Is there some way to turn over these kind of numerical matters to groups like the CBO to inject a little bit of logic into the process? That would probably open up a whole other can of worms...

This is probably the reason I can't get too excited about Pigovian taxes. They're great in theory and if we lived in even a slightly more technocratic society like Singapore I'd be all for them. Unfortunately I know in America they're going to devolve much more into what congresscritters think sounds good than rather than an accurate way to price externalities. Too bad.

Update: Via Jacob Grier, I see that Idaho is also looking to raise its beer and wines tax by 346% to $0.52/gal and $1.52/gal respectively. Why 346% ?!

22 February 2009

Round Up

Some miscellaneous stuff from the past week or so I never got around to blogging.
The Principal of Convenience, Bryan Caplan | EconLog

Eliezer beautifully articulates the moral outrage I felt from the age of 3 to 18:
Another example would be the principal who, faced with two children who were caught fighting on the playground, sternly says: "It doesn't matter who started the fight, it only matters who ends it." Of course it matters who started the fight. The principal may not have access to good information about this critical fact, but if so, he should say so, not dismiss the importance of who threw the first punch. Let a parent try punching the principal, and we'll see how far "It doesn't matter who started it" gets in front of a judge. But to adults it is just inconvenient that children fight, and it matters not at all to their convenience which child started it, it is only convenient that the fight end as rapidly as possible.
I felt the same way. I'm disinclined to trust anyone who didn't see through this particular BS by age 10 or so.

I mentioned off-hand on Friday that people and organizations need to get on the RSS train. I'm pleasantly shocked to find out the Feds will be requiring agencies to provide feeds of all stimulus-related spending. It's not often the State surprises me by being either tech-forward or open, so whoever added this clause into the bill deserves some applause.

Some European scientists are putting together a big push to study and advocate more stringent controls of light pollution. I don't particularly like having the quadrant in the night sky in the direction of DC be a perpetual grayish pink glow, but really? This is one of those things that reminds me how preposterously rich and educated our society has become when we have financial and mental resources to spend on studying how to make it darker at night!

Mike Munger points out that according to IRS publication 525, you must report as income any money received as bribes, kickbacks, or stolen property. I guess this is just so criminals can also be slapped with tax evasion charges on top of everything else, but how silly would you have felt writing up the requirement that people must report all illegal bribes on their 1040?

Randal McElroy presents a strategy for libertarian proselytizing:
1. Be likeable.*
2. Take this characteristic to bars, where you drink booze and talk to people.
3. Don't get into too many political arguments. Wait for other people to relate to you in other ways and then let those people bring them up. Don't hammer points home. Just act slightly astounded when people say ridiculous things, reluctantly offer the abstract of your Invincible Super Winner Argument**, and let them decide if they want to hear the rest.
4. If at all possible, consider trying to have sex with some of those people (according to your and their preferences). You should take this step seriously, even to the exclusion of offering your libertarian arguments.
5. Remember I'm offering you this plan because I'm one of you and I'm looking out for you and for the team.
Sounds like a good plan for any political alignment, especially if your arguments tend towards the overly intellectual. Personally, I have been using this approach on the Future Mrs South Bend Seven for years. My goal is to bring her around to the light before any offspring enter the scene, so that they may be raised in a fine, freedom-loving household, unsullied by the latent liberalism of their maternal ancestry. (F.M.S.B.7 has long suspected that this is my devious plan, so I'm hoping she isn't reading this now. If she is ...ummm... Hi Honey!)

Personally I think a good strategy is to familiarize yourself with little anecdotes of the-State-gone-awry that can be found in places like the front section of Reason and numerous blogs. They're easy to slip into a conversation and they pack an emotional punch that more brainy, from-first-principles arguments never can. I don't like arguing from anecdote if you're actually trying to prove a point, but realistically you'll convince more acquaintances, and do so far less caustically, by telling them about the eight year old with Asperger's who was arrested for not removing her hooded sweatshirt then you will by laying out an executive summary of The Constitution of Liberty. Even if you don't really bring people around to your point of view you're at least countering the ever-present "we're from the government; we're here to help you" message.

Speaking of schools over-reacting to a ridiculous degree and involving the fuzz in matters of petty school discipline, Rad Geek has this:

In Wauwatosa, Wisconsin (a suburb of Milwaukee), a 14 year old girl was detained by the police at her high school, interrogated, searched by a male police officer, arrested for disorderly conduct, then body-searched by a female police officer, in order to find a cell phone that it turns out she was hiding in her pants. The charge is that she was sending text messages in class after the teacher told her to stop, and then hid her phone from the teacher when the teacher tried to confiscate it.

Oh my God! Quick, call the cops, before somebody gets hurt!


Please note that in the view of School Resource Officer Jeffrey S. Griffin, disrupting class by silently sending text messages, or disobeying a teacher’s requests in the classroom and then lying about it to try and cover it up, is not a pedagogical matter; it’s a police matter, and in fact a criminal offense for which you can be forcibly detained, hauled off, arrested, and fined up to $5,000.
My theory is that goals #1 and 2 of a school system are that students show up and obey. Learning is a distant third.

In happier matters, Jacob Grier has a run down of cocktails to order that an average bartender in a average bar will be able to make. The Dark and Stormy is one of my favorite stand-bys. (Previously recommended to SB7 readers here.) The original, Hemingway-esque daiquiri recipe of light rum, lime juice and sugar is also a great one for the warmer weather, and I've been trying to work the Manhattan into the line up more often as well. Anyone who occasionally finds themselves bellying up to the bar unsure of what they want should check out this list.

Bruce Schneier has a particularly explicit example of advertising playing on people's fear. I happen to think most advertising relies on fear (and most politics as well), but this is really blatant. Especially since, as Schneier points out, they conflate identity theft (which people are terrified of) with check washing (which most people have never heard of). I feel like identity theft is being used more an more as the go-to bogeyman for the middle class.

Here's a really mindbending video effect they're calling "data moshing." (A bit generic of a name, in my opinion.) It's exploiting artifacts in video compression caused by missing keyframes. You get fabulously complex effects from the devilishly simple change of intentionally ignoring the keyframes. If I had seen this back in 2003 when I had a thing for abstract video I would have flipped.

Finally, some fantastic facial hair humor from the inspired webcomic Thinkin' Lincoln.

20 February 2009

Keynes, Cars, Fresh Starts

Dead, Unproductive Investments | Coyote Blog

I understand that you Keynsians think that there are under-employed assets in the country, and that you think the government can redeploy prvate [sic] investment capital to more productive use.

Ignoring the individual liberties issues assosiated [sic] with this approach, as well as the fact it has never worked in the past, answer me this: How are we going to turn around the economy by forcing capital to flow to the assets, industries, and management teams that have proven themselves to be the least productive?
A very good question, and one I doubt you could get a convincing answer to from the "auto task force."

I think this gets to the matter that Obama et al. are using Keynesian talking points to add an air of intellectual respectability to whatever it is they wanted to do anyway. I'll listen to Keynesian arguments about stimulus, but there's no way I'm going to be convinced that chucking more money at GM and Chrysler is a good idea. (In fairness, Bush did more or less the same thing, dressing up anything he wanted in the language of free markets. And he got the ball rolling on bailing out Detroit. He didn't have the political capital to do otherwise, but that's really no excuse.)

Coyote continues:
We send money preferentially to the industry (autos) that has been showing some of the worst returns on capital in the entire country, and in particular to the company (GM) that has performed the worst in the industry. If we really wanted to create auto jobs, wouldn’t we send the money to the company that has historically invested money the most productively? It would be as if venture capitalists were about to complete their 27th round of financing to keep Pets.com afloat. I have been in a company that eventually failed and couldn’t get new financing. At the time we were trying to convince the investors that they should give us just one more round, one more chance to prove the thing out. In retrospect, I am embarrased they funded us as long as they did. They should have pulled the plug way earlier. Investors have a saying “your first loss is your best loss.”

And don’t even get me started on housing. A deader, less productive investment asset can’t possibly be identified. A million bucks spent on a house produces 30 jobs for 6 months. A million bucks spent on a factory expansion produces 30 jobs indefinitely. For years, Democrats have hammered the Republicans over the jobless recovery of this decade, which in fact has shown a fairly unique jobs profile. I wonder how much of this could be traced to the myriad incentives that were put in place to pour our available capital into these dead assets? And now, with the bailout and the new mortgage bailout, the government is investing even more money to prop up the value of these non-productive investments.
I'm not sure there is an American auto company which has invested productively in the last couple of decades, which leads me to a crazy plan: use all this money to found a few brand new car companies. Go out and find the smartest automotive and mechanical and industrial engineers and designers and market researchers money can buy, and set them up with a stack of cash. Let them buy up all the unproductive assets that Chrysler and GM are just sitting on. Require that a certain percentage of this new management have worked outside of the auto industry for X years, and another percentage have worked for a foreign auto company for Y years. If we're absolutely committed to having a domestic automotive industry then I think it makes more sense to wipe the slate clean and start over. We're already sitting on a huge stockpile of vehicles so it really wouldn't matter if they didn't have new models coming off the line for a couple of years.

That was an off-the-cuff idea, but now that I think about it, it addresses an earlier post Coyote had about the auto industry, specifically that "management" is much more complex than just the CEO and VPs and other suits:
A corporation has physical plant (like factories) and workers of various skill levels who have productive potential. These physical and human assets are overlaid with what we generally shortcut as "management" but which includes not just the actual humans currently managing the company but the organization approach, the culture, the management processes, its systems, the traditions, its contracts, its unions, the intellectual property, etc. etc. In fact, by calling all this summed together "management", we falsely create the impression that it can easily be changed out, by firing the overpaid bums and getting new smarter guys.
My new plan to create four or five new car companies from the ground up deals with this problem nicely, I think. I said earlier that I thought the car companies are doomed because they aren't attracting intelligent, innovative engineers to work for them. What better time to tempt a smart, hungry, young engineers into the automotive industry than in the midst of a recession? If we're already throwing money at the problem, why not throw it at talented people?


Today's Onion News Network headline: "Norway returns to pillage-based economy."

My first reaction: Hey, we're already doing that in Ameri ... oh, they mean pillaging other countries and not their own citizens! I get it now.


Sorry about the test posts, to anyone who reads via RSS feed. (And you really should. I'm shocked how many young, technological people I know who either don't use feed readers or even don't know what RSS does. Older people, you're still encouraged to use a feed reader, but you also get a pass on adoption of new tech. Seriously, business people: RSS will be as fundamental for your communication needs as email inside of a decade. You might not believe me, but then again no one though email was going to be a big deal 15 years ago. For that matter conventional wisdom used to be that executives would never use computers because they couldn't be bothered to learn to type. That was only in the 80s. Okay, techno-proselytizing over.)

What happened is that I just realized that sometimes the titles of my posts on the front page or monthly archive pages would link to the permanent, individual archive page for that post, and sometimes they would link to whatever webpage or blogpost I was linking to in the post. Most of my posts originate through the "Send to ... Blogger" button on my Google toolbar, which pops up a new window for me to edit the new post in, and fills in either a link to the page I was looking at, or a quote if I've highlighted text on it. I've just figured out that when I hit the "Publish" button directly from that window, the resulting post's title will link to the page I was looking at when I hit the "Send to..." button. But when I save the post for later and then publish it the title will be a link to the permanent archive page for that post.

This is the kind of inconsistency I just can't abide, so I guess I'll be saving and then publishing all my posts from now on. I don't think there's an easy way for me to go back and change the links that have already been created, which just makes me all shivery with discomfort knowing they're going to stay discordant forever. Any Blogger users out there have a tip for me?

I suppose this is also a reminder I really ought to think about moving up to the big leagues and switching to Word Press. Hrrrm. Like I have time for that.

The two test posts I used to figure this out are now de-published. I included the following links in them to make them not-entirely worthless, which I'll archive here, since they're worth checking out.

Test Post 1:
Well, since you're here, check out this "disturbingly prophetic" Onion News Network video, via Mike Munger.
Test Post 2:
While you're here though, a DC Examiner story about a little-known bit of the attempted stimulus act which puts agency Inspectors General under some added political control. No good.

19 February 2009

Long drop. Short rope.

Video Shows Mississippi’s “Bite Mark Expert” Michael West Using a Dental Mold to Create Bite Marks on a Corpse; Implicates Steven Hayne

Short summary: Several months ago, I was able to obtain a pretty shocking video of one of Dr. Michael West’s infamous post-mortem “bite mark examinations.” This particular exam was performed on a 23-month-old Louisiana girl named Haley Oliveaux. As with most cases, Dr. Steven Hayne performed the initial examination on Oliveaux, claimed to have seen bite marks no other doctors saw, then called in West to perform his quackery bite mark analysis. West claimed to have traced the bite marks to Jimmie Duncan, the boyfriend of Oliveaux’s mother, and the man police suspected of murdering the girl. Duncan was convicted of capital murder, and has spent the last 10 years on death row.

The smoking gun video damns West and Hayne in two ways. First, as it opens, West is performing his initial examination. The video clearly shows that when the body of Haley Oliveaux was handed over to West and Hayne, her face was free of any abrasions or bite marks. Her cheek is clean.

The second portion of the video, taken the following day, then shows a striking abrasion. That abrasion could only have been inflicted by someone in Hayne’s office. The video also shows that Hayne must have been lying when he testified at trial that he found bite marks on the Oliveaux’s cheek, then called West in to do an analysis. The first portion of the video, taken after Hayne’s initial exam, shows no such bite marks.

The more obvious thing the video shows is Michael West repeatedly jamming, scraping, and pushing a mold of Jimmie Duncan’s teeth into Haley Oliveaux’s body, actions experts to whom I’ve shown the video say amount to criminal evidence tampering. The excerpt posted at Reason is only 30 seconds long. But the full video spans 24 minutes, during which West uses the mold to desecrate Oliveaux’s body at least 50 times.

The results of West’s “analysis” were then used to help convict Jimmie Duncan of raping and murdering Haley Oliveaux.

Hang them.

(Radley Balko's full story is here; apologies for excerpting his full post above.)

The Politics of Non-Falsifiability

From Obama's 9 Feb press conference:
Greg Mankiw's Blog: "Create or Save"
Question: [...] How can the American people gauge whether or not your programs are working? Can they — should they be looking at the metric of the stock market, home foreclosures, unemployment? What metric should they use? When? And how will they know if it's working, or whether or not we need to go to a plan B?

Answer: I think my initial measure of success is creating or saving 4 million jobs. That's bottom line No. 1, because if people are working, then they've got enough confidence to make purchases, to make investments. Businesses start seeing that consumers are out there with a little more confidence, and they start making investments, which means they start hiring workers. So step No. 1, job creation.
The expression "create or save," which has been used regularly by the President and his economic team, is an act of political genius. You can measure how many jobs are created between two points in time. But there is no way to measure how many jobs are saved. Even if things get much, much worse, the President can say that there would have been 4 million fewer jobs without the stimulus.
Amen, amen, a thousand times amen. As long as there are four million people somewhere in America with jobs then Obama meets his goal. How do people not see through this blatant hand-waving? He was explicitly asked "How do we know you're right?" and he responded with a measure by which he can't possibly be judged wrong!

This "saving" business reminds me of the busy-body that ran the local MADD chapter when I was growing up. She repeatedly claimed, in all seriousness and without a hint of irony, to have personally saved the lives of 5000 students since she started. To reach this absurd figure she added up every person who went to one of our high school's proms and assumed they would have all died in drunk driving accidents if she was not there to set them on the straight and narrow path of temperance. I asked her once if her 100% mortality rate for prom attendance might be a little on the high end. (This wasn't Chamberlain, Maine, after all). She responded indignantly that drunk driving was a very serious matter and that she was a very serious person who cared very seriously about her very serious mission, and how dare I question her about the 5000 lives she's saved unless I actually wanted my friends to be plucked from this mortal coil in the prime of their youth. (Rational debate was obviously not her ball of wax.)

Conclusion: claiming to save jobs or lives is of dubious statistical worth.

PS If any of you out there still have the budgets to purchase "carbon offsets" you need to ask yourself how the firm you're buying them from can accurately count up all the combustion they didn't do. They get to play the same fast-and-lose trick of Obama and my MADD woman by counting up things that didn't happen.

18 February 2009

Air Superiority

Good article in the Atlantic about the future of American air power as we transition (or not?) from the F-15 to the F-22. This was a pretty outstanding excerpt:
American pilots haven’t shot down many enemy jets in modern times, because few nations have dared rise to the challenge of trying to fight them. The F‑15, the backbone of America’s air power for more than a quarter century, may just be the most successful weapon in history. It is certainly the most successful fighter jet. In combat, its kill ratio over more than 30 years is 107 to zero. Zero. In three decades of flying, no F‑15 has ever been shot down by an enemy plane—and that includes F‑15s flown by air forces other than America’s. Rival fighters rarely test those odds.
107-0. Wow.

Good article, but I would quibble with this:
Today the average age of the F‑15s in use is 24 years, which in the world of modern electronics means they were born several geological ages ago. When the F‑15 started flying missions, Jimmy Carter was president and the Cold War was shaping geopolitics. Most Americans didn’t own a home computer. People were still buying music on vinyl albums and cassette tapes. The first F‑15s had roughly the computer capability of the video game Pong. If anything, the pace of innovation is even faster in the military than in the civilian world.
Maybe true in general, but the F-22 is built on top of the ancient VAX architecture, developed in the 70's at DEC. DEC no longer exists, and Compaq, who bought them, no longer even builds or services VAX machinery. While the F-22 airframe is a huge advancement, it's digital system is still a relic of the Carter era. In this particular respect military innovation is lags a few generations behind civilian technology.

(Via James Forsyth)

NEA vs JP Getty: Ten rounds, no holds barred.

Fifty million reasons that a 'victory' is a defeat - Modern Art Notes

How small is the NEA's $145 million annual appropriation? The National Gallery of Art and the Kennedy Center receive more federal dollars through the normal federal budgeting process than the NEA does. The NEA is supposed the be the primary arts protagonist for the American people, yet a single arts philanthropy, the J. Paul Getty Trust, spent 50 percent more than the NEA did in the Getty's most recently reported year. (Imagine if one charitable foundation spent more than the federal government does on environmental research. It would rightly be a national embarrassment.)
Really? Why should I be embarrassed that a group of citizens voluntarily chose to donate more to the arts than citizens as a whole were forced to through taxes and the vagaries of federal budgeting?

Private citizens spend more than the federal government on food, and clothing, and shelter, and landscaping, and caring for pets, and wine, and film, and hair care and pretty much everything else we are interested in. The things it's best for the government to outspend the private sector on are extremely limited. Specifically they're limited to those areas which are subject to free-ridership or collective action problems. Since I think art has a public good component to it I don't entirely begrudge government spending on it, but there's absolutely no reason to set up a horse race between public and private spending on the arts. (Ditto scientific research of any kind.)

Sidenote:* This is just one example of how much of this "crisis" spending is bound to become a permanent part of the budget. Notice how Tyler Green's post doesn't address at all IMO doesn't focus on how the $50 million boost in the NEA budget that came in the attempted stimulus act is related to actually stimulating the economy. (Beyond "there exist arts institutions who would like to not be tightening their belts right now." This is true of any employer who is cutting back, so I don't see this as a reason to earmark millions for arts institutions specifically.)

This is money that's just being treated as a regular boost to the agency's bottom line and is not related to the recession at all. Given that outlook, how do you think people are going to react when the crises is over and the stimulus checks stop coming? Are they going to say "thanks for the one-time boost" or bitch about how their budgets are being cut? I'll lay dollars to donuts we hear nothing but bitching when this extra spending is supposed to expire.

I should make clear that I have no idea if the above actually will be Green's reaction, but I have a suspicion it will be the reaction of a majority of the arts community — and that of every other constituency to receive a bump in budgets during the recession. If a group is of the opinion that their cause deserves more money regardless of the business cycle and they get more money at the bottom they're not going to easily give that money up when we get back to the top.

* This section has been edited in response to a comment below from Mr Green. As I said in the comments, I do not seem to see eye-to-eye with Green on federal arts appropriations, but he does run an excellent art blog. Modern Art Notes is good reading.

It's a bird! No, it's a plane! No, it's a bird...

Jacob Sullum — Creating Jobs or Making Work?:

The beauty of Obama's dual argument is that he can say the stimulus package is all about putting Americans back to work and then, when challenged on the question of whether this is an efficient way to do that, he can say all the work needs to be done anyway. Conversely, when challenged on the question of whether all these projects are really worth the money being spent on them, he can cite the jobs they 'create or save' as a backup justification.
(See the rest of Sullum's post for more detail.)

I really despise this kind of rhetorical forking maneuver. I mean I really find it abhorrently dishonest. It let's people get away with an infinite regression of justifications so that they never have to face up and meet a counter argument head-on.

My favorite example is social security, which is neither a welfare program nor a retirement plan but sometimes it's both simultaneously, except when it's exclusively one or the other, in which case it's neither. SS pays out returns to most people that would be illegal for a private retirement account. That's okay because it needs that money to help poor people. But the payroll tax that funds SS is very regressive, harming poor people. But it has to be that way because it's a savings plan. But the returns it pays out as a savings plan are ridiculously low. But that's okay because it helps poor people, ad infinitum.

A lot of "green" initiatives are justified the same way, with people going round and round about whether they're justified expenses to save the environment or efficiency improvements which will pay for themselves. Whenever you rebut one justification they trot out the other, and if you rebut that too they circle back around to the beginning.

On the right a similar tactic is often used to justify the war on drug users or clamping down on immigration. You can usually recognize this when people fall back on "But it's the law, and we have to enforce it." What typically comes next is that you say the law should be changed, and they say you can't change the law for whatever moral reason they already stated and you already rebutted.

Good money after bad

Car cheques | Free exchange | Economist.com:

TODAY, roughly two months after receiving a $4 billion loan from the government, Chrysler reported its plan for a return to profitability. It's a two part plan, based on the press reports: 1) keep doing what they've been doing, and 2) ask for more government money.
The company, which received $4 billion from the government in December to help it avoid bankruptcy, originally planned to seek $3 billion in April. It now says the vehicle market has deteriorated so dramatically that a total of $9 billion is needed.

But the plan does not call for more plant closings, and only three of the company’s models, which were not immediately named, will be discontinued.
These shameless thieves ought to be strung up right next to their congressional enablers.

If by some combination of massive federal graft and pixie dust Chrysler and GM survive then I will never, as long as I may live, purchase one of their products. In fact I may just make it a hobby to go to their dealerships and pretend to be interested in buying one of their vehicles, just to waste some of their time.

17 February 2009

The string theorists think they're so tough with their 11 dimensions.

Note to self: Do not use the phrase "just imagine you're moving around on a 35 dimensional hypercube" when trying to explain something to psychologists and linguists. That does not seem to be a mental model they are comfortable with.

(A bitstring of length d corresponds to a vertex of a unit hypercube in d dimensions. Flipping a bit in the string corresponds to moving along an edge to an adjacent vertex. Now if I only had 35 dimensional paper I could make some positively killer figures for my next paper.)

Bonus fun fact I just learned: The 4-cube is also known as the "regular octachoron." Octachoron is my new word of the day.

Sentence of the Morning

Ron Hart — Hey, what happened to all that hope?

Americans fall into two distinct categories today: those who remember how devastating the policies of Jimmy Carter were, and those who are about to find out.

(Via Nick Gillespie)

Not Starboard

I had heard that US wineries can no longer use European geonyms like Champagne or Chianti in their branding, but I'd not heard that Californian vintner Peltier Station had come up with such a geeky work-around. They've named their new Port (a word now on the proscribed list, which can be found here) "USB" and are letting technological word association do the rest. Bravo. I love the logo design too.

Tyler "Dr. Vino" Colman is holding a contest for the best replacement for "port" on US labels. I nominated "Not Starboard" for a specific brand (tagline: "Not just any ______ in a storm."), or "starboard" for a generic term. Head over to Dr Vino and enter your suggestions. Or leave a comment seconding mine. (Yeah, I want that prize.)

16 February 2009

Letters of Marque: Road Warrior Edition

TJIC calls for Letters of Marque and Reprisal to be issued in order to enforce traffic laws on the fuzz, since their compatriots obviously aren't watching the watchmen.

I've thought for a while that developing a privateer system for traffic enforcement would be a natural move for insurance companies. Insurance companies could deputize their customers to be on the look out for dangerous driving. They would issue drivers some device, or perhaps some software to run on their cellphone or on the on-board computer, which would allow drivers to flag another driver who is changing lanes erratically or going 15 under in the left lane while talking on their cellphone. This would dock the other driver's reputation, and if enough of these demerits are issued it would effect their insurance rates. It's casting a much wider net than just relying on traffic tickets. Of course there would need to be sharing of this data between insurance companies.

The problem is that some people would try to abuse the system by issuing citations to people whose bumper stickers they disagree with, etc. Maybe to fight this you could correlate the accusation made by a "privateer" with accelerometer data from a black box on the accused's car. If people make too many unwarranted accusations they could either have their letters of marque revoked or face penalties on their own insurance policy.

One charger to rule them all

Cory Doctorow: European Commission demands a single, standard phone charger

The European Commission is getting ready to force all mobile phone companies to use a single connector on their chargers, in order to eliminate the mountains of e-waste generated by switching chargers every time you switch phones. Transformer bricks with esoteric connectors are the most common form of electronic crap I see on street-vendors' blankets around the world (at least a hundred of them yesterday on Brick Lane in London, and literally thousands and thousands of them in Mumbai's Chor Bazaar), and given that they all put out nearly the same voltage and amperage, it really does seem like pure waste.

Many of my devices seem to be converging on a mini-USB, which I love, since it means that when I travel abroad, the only adapter I need is my laptop and its USB ports.
Doctorow would be outraged if the government decided to a choose a winner and only allow one type of laptop or one type of email client, but here it's just fine.

I suppose it never occurred to Doctorow that maybe the EC won't choose a mini-USB standard. Maybe they'll invent some new, inferior coupling out of whole cloth and force him to use that? Perhaps one designed by a European corporation instead of a superior technology from a Japanese firm, as happened in the US with catalytic converters.

This is no just a problem with Doctorow's leftist politics, but also a common problem that crops up with environmentalism. Popular environmentalism encourages a kind of myopia. The focus here isn't on reducing waste, or even reducing electronic waste, but on reducing waste of a very specific type. It's similar to San Francisco's utterly failed ban on plastic shopping bags. They chose to focus on one tiny, tiny corner of the problem space rather than address landfill usage or litter broadly because it's easier to romanticize and it gets better press.

If Doctorow and the EC wanted to actually help the environment they could just levy a Pigovian tax on phone chargers, thus eliminating the need to pick a winner, or better yet levy the tax on electronic devices generally since there's no reason to believe phone chargers are any worse for the environment than old phones or irons or alarm clocks. But that's no fun for the EC since it makes explicit the cost of their policies and doesn't let them get their jollies by dictating to people how they must do one more thing.

Finally, isn't the fact that these phone chargers are being sold at markets around the world mild evidence that they aren't that wasteful?

15 February 2009

Break out the eggnog, tomorrow is Emergency Christmas.

I will now defend the Hodgman Plan with a devastating gambit I picked up from Hank Paulson and Barack Obama:

(1) We have to do something!
(2) This is something!
(3) Therefore we have to do this!

(Via Jacob Grier)

14 February 2009

Information scarcity

Funding Journalism | The Media | The American Scene

TAS’s newest contributor, Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry, writes:
It also shows something that an outlet like The Economist shows: print media that offer true value for money can be profitable, and even very profitable, and remain so for the foreseeable future.
Let’s be even more blunt about what it takes to survive in the media world: You have to have information no one else has. That information has to be information that people need or want.
Amen. This is the reason the Wall Street Journal can get a million people to pay for online access but the Washington Post or LA Times will never be able to come close to that. Most newspapers' online operations were doomed because they couldn't come to grips with the fact that 99 times out of 100 they had all the same information as the other newspapers.

13 February 2009

Fear cuts both ways

I know it's a little late to be commenting on a post from 4 days ago, but since the attempted stimulus bill is (probably) being voted on this afternoon, I thought I'd try and slip this in under the wire.

Jeremy's post at Porch Dog on the matter rubs me the wrong way. The thesis, best I can tell, is that opponents of the attempted stimulus are relying on fear-mongering:
[This is] the same thing the Bush Administration pulled for eight years…telling the populous that if we do (or don’t do) this thing (whatever that may be), then the world will end. Remember folks, these are the ones that told us to get plastic and duct tape ourselves into our homes.
Though I fall in with the anti-attempted stimulus crowd, I concede that many of us (particularly congress critters) have ramped up the rhetoric much too high. This will be a colossal waste of money, but it won't destroy American capitalism forever. So yes, anti-stimulus advocates drastically overstate their case. But look at what Jeremy led off his post with:
The economy is on its way down the most horrific black diamond slope anyone has ever dreamed up and right now it is doing it blind-folded and on one ski.
We can debate whether this is the worst recession (ever!) or not. I happen to think it isn't. But how is claiming we're on a horrific nose-dive so serious that we should try "just about anything" not also playing on people's fears? The pro-stimulus attempt crowd are just as guilty of using fear to drum up support. (Don't take my word for it. Jacob Sullum did a pretty thorough job comparing Bush's rhetoric for the PATRIOT Act and Obama's for the "American Reinvestment and Recovery Act.")

I wish people would just accept that both political poles prey on emotion to affect opinion. If you really don't think this is the case then tell me how Paulson's We need to spend $700B right now to avert total crisis! is any different than Obama et al's We need to spend $1T right now to avert total crisis! It's been exactly the same tune since September, no matter who's leading the orchestra.

A couple of other minor points: To use Jeremy's numbers, the stimulus attempt is support by somewhere between 37% and 63% of Americans. I don't understand how opposition to it translates into "the establishment" thwarting the will of the people for change. First of all, does a (fairly narrow) majority of American voters supporting Obama in November mean that America necessarily supports his proposals now? Secondly, does the POTUS, both houses of Congress, the Treasury Department, etc. not count as part of "the establishment?" Are the Republicans permanently "the establishment," even when out of power, and the Democrats are the plucky outsiders fighting the power, even when they control both houses and the presidency?

Finally, I don't put any stock in the "but the GOP didn't mind spending oodles on things they favor like tax cuts and wars." Saying the other guys got to waste money so our guys should too is a bit puerile. It's only a step removed from two wrongs making a right, which while being quite satisfying, isn't the best of philosophies. Further I don't have any love lost for the Republicans, so the fact that they're opportunistic and unprincipled is never going to convince me that the Democratic plan is a good one. It's a good observation to make if we're trying to judge the character of Republican legislators (and such judgments will be most unfavorable), but these ad hominem statements don't tell me anything about the desirability of the stimulus attempt.

Both parties are wasteful, both of them try to invoke fear, and both suffer from a poverty of scruples. Let's put all that aside when we're trying to figure out if pitching a trillion dollars into the breach is going to do any good.

Before I sign off I do want to give Jeremy credit for acknowledging that he may be being a bit histrionic. Half the fun of political blogging is being excessive just to get it out off your system. Lord knows Jeremy's co-blogger at Porch Dog has caught me doing that multiple times. So I'm sorry if I'm taking his post too seriously, but I've seen lots of other people make the same objectionable statements without any indications of self-awareness and I figured this was a good opportunity to confront them.