31 March 2009

On the F Bomb and Other Touchy Labels

Yesterday David Henderson excerpted a bit from the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics describing the difference between fascist and socialist control of the economy:
Where socialism sought totalitarian control of a society's economic processes through direct state operation of the means of production, fascism sought that control indirectly, through domination of nominally private owners. Where socialism nationalized property explicitly, fascism did so implicitly, by requiring owners to use their property in the "national interest"--that is, as the autocratic authority conceived it. (Nevertheless, a few industries were operated by the state.) Where socialism abolished all market relations outright, fascism left the appearance of market relations while planning all economic activities. Where socialism abolished money and prices, fascism controlled the monetary system and set all prices and wages politically. In doing all this, fascism denatured the marketplace. Entrepreneurship was abolished. State ministries, rather than consumers, determined what was produced and under what conditions.
Today, Megan McArdle roundly condemned Henderson:
How is this helpful? Has clarifying the distinction between fascism and socialism really added to most peoples' understanding of what the Obama administration is doing? All this does is drag the specter of Hitler into the conversation. And the problem with Hitler was not his industrial policy--I mean, okay, fine, Hitler's industrial policy bad, right, but I could forgive him for that, you know? The thing that really bothers me about Hitler was the genocide.
Sure, if you're going to know one thing about fascism, you ought to know about the genocide. But is it too much to ask that people know more than one thing about fascism?

There's a lot more to understand about both Fascism and genocide than "fascism entails genocide." For starters, fascism is a not sufficient condition for genocide: Italian (i.e. original) fascists spent most of their history without any animosity towards Jews; their vile Manifesto of Race was due in large part to pressure from Berlin, not as a function of their fascism alone. Nor is fascism a necessary condition for genocide. The world has also suffered communist genocides, socialist genocides, monarchical genocides, religiously motivated genocides, politically motivated genocides, nationalist motivated genocides, authoritarian genocides of all stripes and flavors, even — uncomfortable truth — democratic genocides.

(Here are two news items just from the last 24 hours related to this: (1) The trial of Kaing Khek Iev, aka Duch, is set to begin for the deaths of ~16,000 people in Phnom Penh in the 1970's. (2) In what they headline "Echoes of the '30's in Caracas," the Jerusalem Post ran a story about officially sanctioned antisemitic rhetoric in Venezula, including head-scratchers such as "Zionism is Nazism.")

[Note: I'm very reluctant to post this. In fact I wrote this post this morning and have been sitting on it ever since, because it's not wise to be hasty when it comes to talking about something as emotional as fascism, especially on the internet. Also, I've had other things to do.

Let me make myself very clear: I am not defending fascism. I am not defending fascism. I am not defending fascism. I only think it is worth knowing about fascism beyond the genocide, because it is valuable to know your enemy. There is no teacher but the enemy. I wish I didn't need to make this disclaimer since it should be abundantly obvious, but there it is.]

I fully understand that "fascism" and "Nazism" and to a slightly lesser extent, "communism" have deep visceral impact, and that using those words can lead some less rational, less measured, less intelligent commenters to jump to absurdities like "ZOMG!! Obama is going to impose a Five Year Plan and march us off to Siberia!!!!" or "Bu$h is turning Blackwater into a private army so he can stage a coup and establish Theocracy!!1!"

Nevertheless, we can't frame the terms of our discussion with the chief concern of making sure the trolls won't fly off the rails. We can't expect Henderson or anyone else to refrain from discussing these things or using these labels just because a bunch of troglodytes can't understand that we use the extremes of the political spectrum as reference points to define where we are in the middle and which direction we're trending.

All of this hullabaloo about Henderson's level-headed post is why I try and use "Statism" when possible. It's both free from the immaterial left/right dichotomy that "fascism" and "communism" are wrapped up in, and it doesn't drag you into inane arguments about genocide. (I'd use "dirigism(e)" as well if I knew how to refer to adherents of that philosophy. Dirigismists? Dirigists?) If you're looking for a more specific label for the prevailing winds of the last year, Arnold Kling has taken to using "Progressive Corporatism" which I think is deserving of wider use.

Finally, I'll direct you to Will Wilkinson's recent post, "Are We Flirting with Fascism?" Like usual, Wilkinson has his head screwed on straight about this one.

More data! And faster!

Above the fold | Free exchange | Economist.com:

Everyone's favourite backward looking indicator, the Case-Shiller home price index, is out today. Here it is almost April, and potential new homebuyers thinking of entering the market get a dose of cold water poured over the heads in the form of the January data release. The talk today will centre on how three months ago, as the economic crisis was still intensifying, home prices nationally fell a record 19% year-on-year. Really, the large lag on this data is highly problematic in time of crisis.
Amen. I don't know nearly enough about how this data is collected, but assuming it would actually speed things up, this is something I wouldn't mind the government throwing money at. What's the bottleneck here? Theoretically, could we hire a hundred people to work in shifts and push these reports out the door in ten days?

Of course I need to confess a bias. As someone who works in AI and Machine Learning and Data Mining I want more data for everything. Everything. I want to be buried in terabytes of XML and CSV and ARFF. I want great rivers of data to flow forth, broad and swift, nourishing the land with their machine-readable, computable goodness.

"Bottom fatigue" and an off-hand comment on calculus

Bottom fatigue | Free exchange | Economist.com

The Wall Street correspondent and I joked yesterday that everyone now suffers from bottom fatigue. Journalists, investors, and pretty much everyone else are just plain tired of looking at ominous statistics and expecting the worst. It seems like we’ve called bottom because we can’t take it anymore. If animal spirits can inflate prices, can they also establish a floor?
Yes? I hope so anyway.

The post linked above also has this:
Absolutely every piece of bad news today—for example the Case-Schiller index decline in January—is somehow a green shoot (everyone’s new favourite expression). If the second derivative is not turning positive the sixth one is.
Yeah, analysts may be grasping for whatever good (or not-bad) news they can find, even if it means reporting on higher order derivatives than they've ever cared about before. Okay.

I wanted to point this line out because I've posted before about the value of high school calculus. One of the chief benefits I believe is the ability to grok differentiation enough that you can intuit the meaning of up to third derivatives. Unfortunately I'd have to ballpark the proportion of American adults that can do that at no more than 2%.

A Grad School Spring Haiku

Moral is bolstered
By funding agency checks
Cherry blossoms bloom

(And yes, the cherry blossoms are actually starting to bloom this week, so that last line isn't just a pseudo-Eastern throw away.)

The fruits of a random walk through Wikipedia

Reduplication - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

In Turkish, a word can be reduplicated while replacing the initial consonants (not being m, and possibly missing) with m. The effect is that the meaning of the original word is broadened. For example, tabak means 'plate(s)', and tabak mabak then means 'plates, dishes and such'. This can be applied not only to nouns but to all kinds of words, as in yeşil meşil meaning 'green, greenish, whatever'
Turkish sounds like a cool language to me. (Only two irregular verbs!) The way they endlessly concatenate on suffixes also seems like something anyone who knows Java or Ruby could get used to working with.

This reduplication trick would be a particularly cool feature to import into English. I'm going to have to consult with my Turkish-speaking labmate about making this happen somehow.

We've already imported what is apparently called shm-reduplication from Yiddish,* and that's not nearly as useful as this Turkish thing.

(* That has a name? Linguists must have too much time and/or funding on their hands.)

29 March 2009

Trade, wine, cab drivers, etc.

Don Boudreaux had a good post this weekend in support of free trade. The gist of the argument is that the US is a giant free trade zone comprising 400,000,000 people on 10,000,000 square kilometers and there's no legitimate reason to allow me to trade freely with someone in Seattle but not someone in Vancouver. The existence of a political artifact called a "border" shouldn't have any bearing on the morality of two people exchanging things with each other.

In the interests of precision though, I have to disagree with this point:
No special space-specific burdens are placed on my and my family's ability to trade with other Americans; no extra tariff or restriction applies to our exchanges with an Alaskan or with a Floridian simply because we do not live in those states.
That's true of most exchanges of goods (the notable exception for in my mind is wine*), but it's much less true for exchanging services out of state. I don't believe, for instance, Boudreaux could hire a Maryland or DC cab company to drive him from his GMU office (in Virginia) to Reagan National Airport (also in Virginia). I'm not sure what reciprocal arrangements Virginia has exactly, but I think Boudreaux would also be limited from hiring many out of state lawyers. Ditto out of state barbers and exterminators and a number of building trades and for that matter probably most occupations which require a state license.

(* I'd say wine may be the most glaring exception to the 50-states-as-free-trade-zone situation. Sure, there aren't tariffs per se, but there are very strict limits on the transportation and distribution of wine from and to certain states. Our Puritan-inspired, rent-seeking monstrosity of a three tiered alcohol distribution system complicates the matter, but to a first degree approximation it is fair to say I am prohibited as an individual Maryland resident from purchasing wine directly from Californian producers. This makes me a sad and potentially wrathful blogger.)

I understand services are partially defined by the observation that they can't be outsourced. At least until we get some really wicked robot technology we won't be outsourcing our cab driving or barbering to far off lands.** This becomes a lot less of a rule when you live right on the border of multiple jurisdictions, as Boudreaux does. Since 29% of the American workforce is required to hold some sort of license from a government agency, this could actually have pretty restricting effects on free interstate trade, at least in metro areas that straddle multiple states. Here's a Reason report on occupational licensing, and two of their blog posts on licensing professional wrestlers and interior designers. Apparently my fair home of Maryland ("The Erstwhile Free State") requires fortune tellers to be licensed.

(** I think we'll have the first well within my lifetime; I doubt my grandchildren will live to see the second, barring some truly remarkable breakthroughs by Aubrey de Grey and the rest of the methusalists.)

PS: Boudreaux also posted a follow-up of sorts about what (real) liberalism means to him. It's also very recommended. I'll probably end up cribbing some notions from it the next time I get in an argument with an anti-free-trader who has trouble with the idea that I don't support free trade despite the effects on people but because of the effects on people.

27 March 2009

A whiskey history lesson

Jeffrey Morgenthaler, a Bartender and a Scholar, reports on "Protestant vs. Catholic Whiskey."
The truth of the matter is, the age-old faux-pas of ordering Bushmills for fear of supporting English aggression and offending the Republic of Ireland is about as Irish as corned beef - which is to say, not very Irish at all but rather Irish-American (Sorry, kids, corned beef is a Jewish invention).

Jameson was pretty much founded in 1780 when John Jameson - a Scottish guy - purchased the Bow Street Distillery, which at the time was one of the biggest distilleries in Ireland. Now, it’s important to note that the Scottish Reformation occurred in 1560, so odds are in favor of the founder of the Jameson distillery, being Scottish, was a damn Protestant.

Bushmills, on the other hand, was officially licensed in 1608 by King James I (of Bible fame) and despite of its location deep in the heart of Protestant country (and this next bit is straight from my local Bushmills rep, so take it or leave it) has a Catholic as a master distiller.

[...] But none of it means much, anyway: both distilleries are owned by huge international entities: Jameson by French liquor conglomerate Pernod-Ricard, and Bushmills by the English firm Diageo.
Score one for the Scots!

Bonus Whisk(e)y Link: Bloomberg on Japanese whiskey production, via Jacob Grier.

26 March 2009


I've been distracted from blogging recently, partially because I've been grappling with thesis topics and partially because I've been expending my blogo-juice on a message board with some former college roommates debating the implications of Obama's Notre Dame commencement speech (and to a lesser extent, AIG bonuses). I hope to gather my Obama-ND thoughts into a post in the next 48 hours. (Though I've noticed a disturbing trend that whenever I mention a forthcoming post it tends to fail to materialize.)

Until such a time as that post comes to pass I would like to direct you to this keen bit of sagacity by LabRat at Atomic Nerds. I think I agree with every bit of this manifesto, so it's tempting just to quote the entire thing. I'll rein myself in and just pick out this one point, since it's probably the broadest in scope:
There is no such thing as freedom without responsibility, or responsibility without freedom. You must take them both together or not at all, and if you think you can get away with it otherwise, someone has sold you an illusion and the bill will be coming due shortly. There is only one natural right: to do as you will. There is only one natural duty: to accept the consequences. The rest of society is a negotiation from this starting point, from contract law right on up to the death penalty.
Seriously go read the whole piece. I'm impressed by it enough that I'm taking this opportunity to add Atomic Nerds to the blogroll. I've really been enjoying them recently, but this seals the deal.

25 March 2009

When the logic comes Crumblin' Down

Now I love Mellencamp. The guy can write songs and he can put on a show. There are few better soundtracks when you're driving around in the summer than a Mellencamp mix tape. But the Cougar really needs to stick to music.

This HuffPo jeremiad on "The State of the Music Business" is just such a tangle of tortured logic that I'm not even sure where to start. If I had to pick one problem though, I'd say he's hung up on the idea that musicians ought to be able to both make lots of money and create whatever music they want. He can't get past the idea that just because he thinks activity X is worth $Y, that doesn't mean you're entitled to $Y for doing X. If people won't pay Y for X then it isn't them that's out of whack, it's you.

Mellencamp makes a mistake common amongst anti-capitalists by putting the needs of the producers above the needs of consumers. He complains that "artists are of secondary importance." To quote Don Boudreaux, "producers exist to satisfy consumers; production is the means and consumption is the end." If you want to make music to satisfy your own creative impulses that's great, just don't demand to also make a living doing it. If your music isn't satisfying consumers you can't blame them for liking the wrong things, or for buying the wrong things, and you can't blame your middlemen for selling them the wrong things.

Pretty much anything with a business rationale behind it was a mistake, from Mellencamp's point of view. Radio stations switching formats to capture more listeners was them abandoning artists, not them providing more listeners with the music they wanted. Weighting radio stations in large markets more than those in small markets when compiling rankings is somehow undemocratic to him. He actually says the 1.2 M residents of Oklahoma City should count for the same as the 9 M residents of Chicago. To Mellencamp, the CD was "just another con, a get-rich-quick scheme, a monumental hoax perpetrated on the music consuming public." Sure, record companies managed to convince everyone to go out and re-buy what they already had on vinyl, but is he seriously suggesting the 90's would have been better without the CD? Do you remember the Walkman? Because I do, and I don't miss it.

I could literally find something to object to in every paragraph of this piece. I'd recommend you go read it, but only if you're in the mood for mental self-flagellation.

Housing Crisis: Second Triumvirate Edition

Listening to the History of Rome Podcast I was surprised to learn that the proscription lists drawn up by Octavianus, Lepidus and Marc Antony, which called for the execution of 2,500 of their political enemies and the seizure of their property, sparked to a housing crisis in 43 BC. The triumvirs were in control of an army of 100,000 men with which to attack the combined forces of Brutus and Cassius, but had no money to pay them. They turned to proscription, but seized and attempted to sell so many estates that they flooded the market, raising only a fraction of what they intended. Like anyone not familiar with Econ 101, they attempted to fix the problem by seizing and selling more estates. This still didn't work, so they levied taxes on Italian residents for the first time. Not the neatest analog to the current situation, but I still don't expect to hear the words "housing crisis" when listening to ancient history.

So, nihil novum sub sole, I suppose.

A Principled Man

A toast to Mr Jack DeSantis, formerly of AIG Financial Products, for his bold and forthright resignation letter. We should all endeavor to prohibit the dishonest and craven from dictating the terms of our lives, as Mr DeSantis has now done. Bravo, sir.

(Via Mike Munger)

PS McArdle has more on this, and on the top people in AIG's French subsidiary moving on.

23 March 2009

Low Tech e-Voting Fraud

A month ago I wrote about how we need to forget e-voting security and work on voting security in general:
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.
Yesterday Jon Stokes posted this story on Ars Technica's Law and Disorder blog:
Kentucky e-voting fraud manipulated voters, not machines

Six people have been indicted in a Kentucky scandal that involves rigging an election by manipulating vote totals in electronic voting machines. But the folks allegedly behind the scam relied not on high-tech hacking skills, but on old-fashioned southern charm.

This past Friday brought news of a handful of indictments of elections officials in Kentucky who are alleged to have rigged elections in 2002, 2004, and 2006 by changing votes in electronic voting machines. The group of five officials (plus one non-official) is charged with a list of crimes including manipulating the vote totals in electronic voting machines, certifying elections that they knew to be rigged, and arranging for votes to be sold. Remarkably, the vote manipulation technique here was essentially an exploit of a simple UI design flaw, and involved no computer skills at all on the part of the alleged perpetrators.

Most of the charges outlined in the indictment [PDF] are for old-school, non-electronic crimes like racketeering, extortion, mail fraud, and so on. But even the e-voting part, believe it or not, was incredibly low-tech and didn't involve any of the well-known exploits documented for the ES&S iVotronic machines that were used.

I hate to say I told you so, but sometimes events leave me no choice.

Security systems are only as strong as the weakest link. In this case the attackers just convinced voters that they were done and their ballots had been cast when they really hadn't, which allowed the attackers to go back and change the votes in a way that no audit would uncover.

I still remember my old Operating Systems professor telling us that it doesn't matter how good your encryption is or how strong your passwords are or any of that if a sys admin leaves a terminal running on a machine in his (unlocked) office when he steps out for a cup of coffee. What happened in Kentucky is a version of that. Design the best voting console you want, but if you're dealing with crooked election officials (in this case two of them, plus a circuit judge and the county clerk) it won't matter much. Attacks by trusted insiders are the most insidious and most dangerous.

Two Reflections on the Status of Beer

Beer and Civic Life | Front Porch Republic

The news is dreadful: According to the Census, since 2006 we have been living in a republic where, for the first time in the history of the republic, Americans drink more bottled water than we drank beer.

Why is this important? It’s important because beer is a socially oriented beverage, and bottled water is a privately oriented one.

There’s a reason that beer commercials tend to include lots of people hanging out in a room together, and bottled water commercials tend to include lone individuals climbing things and running around by themselves, usually on a beach at sunrise - even though they are not being chased.
Very interesting thesis.

(Via Skipper.)

Porch Dog | Beer Friday: Real Men and Beer

Maxim says in its first set of beers “the macros” that “beer geeks need not apply” the following beers, “the macros” are for real men. Really? REALLY? The Macros? Beers specifically aimed at the lowest common denominator palette, beers made lighter and thinner and paler and with less alcohol are somehow for manly men where honest-to-God real beers are dismissed as effete? I don’t get it.

[...] It’s mind boggling. Dark beers, beers with yeast in them, beers with inordinate amounts of hops, beers with thick bodies, beers with robust flavors of nuts, beers that ran syrupy-thick, those have historically been the manly man beers. They are the beers from whence we get the manly man mythos. Those were the beers of miners and loggers and revolutionaries. Those were the beers of blacksmiths and linemen and highwaymen. Those were the beers of farmers and steel workers. Those were the beers of men who wanted to get drunk to forget their 18 hour workdays, who trudged to and from work in the dark.
Amen. I've never understood how lighter, weaker beers were supposed to be more masculine. There will always be room in my fridge for High Life. But there will also be room for Yeungling Lager and Dogfish Head IPA and McEwan's Scotch Ale. Different times calls for different beverages, and to hell with what anybody thinks about how that relates to my masculinity.

(And while we're at it I'm going to keep on putting water in my whisky because I think it can bring out the flavors better. Deal with it.)

20 March 2009

Obama to speak at Notre Dame Commencement

Obama to speak at ND Commencement

This is going to make the perennial debates that rage on the ND/SMC Observer's Opinion page about hosting the Vagina Monologues look like a tickle fight at a fourth grade slumber party.

For those of you who didn't spend four years reading the Observer before chemistry lectures or over lunch, I'll say that four days out of five there is at least one column or letter or editorial about "what it means for Notre Dame to be a Catholic university." (Whenever the Vagina Monologues or an abortion protest or something rolls around the proportion of items pontificating about the nature of Catholic universities rises to 100% for a period of weeks.) What never fails to rankle me is that every one of these people -- every single one -- knows for sure, beyond a doubt, exactly what a "Catholic university" ought to be like.

Personally I'll take the Dave Brubeck performance we got at the '06 commencement over a speech from Dear Leader every day of the week and twice on Sundays. The rest of our ceremony ranged from nap-inducing (an address by Mary McAleese, President of Ireland) to outright insulting (the valedictory address by some self-righteous, conceited twit or another). But Brubeck was pure magic.

(Via Kathryn Jean Lopez, whose post on The Corner would fit in nicely on the Opinion page of the Observer. To put a little context around Lopez's commentary about Obama's stance on birth control, Notre Dame still does not allow condoms to be sold on campus. Take that for what you will.)

PS Brubeck, by the way, converted to Roman Catholicism at the age of 60. He appeared at our commencement to receive the Laetare Medal, given annually since 1883 to an American Catholic layperson "whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the church and enriched the heritage of humanity."

19 March 2009

Tab Clearing

To: Unilever Home and Personal Care

Don’t put Q-Tips in your ears. Why? Because it isn’t safe? People do it anyway. You know it and I know it. They jam your product in there because it is an insane, intense pleasure. They can touch a part of themselves that is never touched, and there is no feeling quite like it. It is one of the small joys of my day, and you should be selling that.

I send out application after application, looking for work in the marketing departments of big companies, and I don’t have the right degree. I don’t have enough experience. And then I sit in front of the TV and holy shit every commercial is so bland and toothless and ineffective. If these commercials are the product of those degrees and that experience, then I hope to fuck I never acquire them.
(1) I love Q-tipping my ears. It's the highlight of my grooming procedure. (2) I have the same feeling about marketing when I watch TV. Especially when furniture store ads come on. I know car dealerships get a lot of heat, but I nominate furniture stores for worst advertising. (3) Go read the conclusion of this post. It's priceless and true.

(Via Brian Dunbar)

I'm with Peter Suderman in not wanting to get wrapped up in watching Kings because it's ratings were so abysmal that it'll likely be canceled in weeks. That observation sparks this:
The formal constraints of television are familiar, but they’re awfully strange when you think about them: 42 minutes divided into five acts (and a teaser) aired once a week, with somewhere between a dozen and twenty-four episodes a year. As TV moves to the web, no doubt these formal constraints — along with many of the rest of the medium’s habits — will be discarded. What we’ll see, I hope, will be something familiar, but unbound, far more than even HBO can manage, by all the traditional constraints of network TV. Will such changes make room for interesting concepts like Kings and Dollhouse? I don’t know, but hopefully it will expand and reform the medium in such a way that viewers won’t so often find themselves quitting on shows before they even start watching.
I made similar noises a couple of weeks ago.

Here's a NY Times piece about people, in this case particularly artists, grabbing up cheap ($2,000 and under) houses in Detroit. Falling prices facilitating assets getting reallocated to more productive uses? I'm all for it. I thought this passage was a little strange though:
So what did $1,900 buy? The run-down bungalow had already been stripped of its appliances and wiring by the city’s voracious scrappers. But for Mitch that only added to its appeal, because he now had the opportunity to renovate it with solar heating, solar electricity and low-cost, high-efficiency appliances.
How does not having any wires make it easier to add solar heating or the rest? Assuming you need all new wiring does the old stuff impede the installation of the new stuff? You always have the opportunity to add that stuff. At worst you would have to pay someone to haul the old appliances out, but since they're being stolen as is it shouldn't be hard to get someone to remove them for free. At best having a stripped out house makes it no worse if you already planned to replace everything, but there's no way it gives you added opportunities, is there? This sounds like a pretty bald rationalization on Mitch's part.

Anyway, I like the idea of artists in particular setting up shop there. It's always struck me as a bit of a vanity for artists to cluster in New York. The arguments as I understand them are that it helps to be close to the dealers and that the concentration of other artists in inspiring. I can understand the first, though I think it's a little belied by the fact that Santa Fe is the third largest center of art dealing in the country and produces art in far lower proportions. As to the second it seems to me like setting up shop in the exurbs and taking weekly trips into the city to stay in touch ought to be more efficient. In any event I confess to not knowing nearly enough about the system to say for sure, but it seems to me to be a good thing that artists are setting up camps in cheaper places like Detroit.

Mankiw on Leno vs the Free Market:
1. Comedian Jay Leno takes his show to Michigan to help "not just the autoworkers -- anybody out of work in Detroit."

2. He gives away tickets for free.

3. Someone tries to sell his ticket on eBay.

4. Mr Leno objects.

So I wonder: If a person down on his luck prefers the cash to the opportunity to watch Leno live, why would Leno object? Is it altruism that is really motivating Leno here? Is he really sure that the unemployed person in Detroit would be better off with an evening of laughs than $800 in his pocket? Or does Leno want to play to a live audience of unemployed workers so he will seem altruistic to his television audience?
Leno's a twit. Eleanor Holmes Norton (and several other congresscritters) got themselves in a tizzy back in January because people were doing the same thing with Inauguration tickets they won for free in lotteries.

You can only allocate resources through markets, lotteries, queuing or fiat. Do not whine about people using markets unless you are prepared to defend one of the others as a superior choice in either efficiency or morality. I think it would be very tough to make that case in the matter of the ticket give-aways.

I neglected to mention Dr Manhattan's giant blue tender bits in my Watchmen pseudo-review, but this Comic Critics comic pretty much covers it.

Undergraduate Computer Science enrollment is up for the first time since the dot-com crash. I knew it was down, but I'm surprised it actually fell by more than half from the 2000 peak. I'm also surprised how few other CS PhD students there are. Around 2,000 doctorates are awarded every year in CS. There's a lot of computing work to be done this century, and that's not a lot of minds to be doing it.

For comparison, about 50,000 people will be graduated from law school this spring.

Speaking of graduate education, Free Exchange has a good bit on the role of quantitative study in business school. I concur that it's all too possible (and likely) to get an MBA without gaining reasonable quantitative knowledge. (Where I likely define "reasonable" much differently than most B-students.)

My anecdotal evidence is a doctoral seminar in UMD's business school I'm taking currently. Like me, the prof has a CS background, but he's introducing almost no technical content into the course because he's afraid, by his own admission, that he'll leave the students with a business background (mostly marketing, as it were) behind. The class is overfull with smart people who consciously signed up for a technical class taught by a guy with a CS doctorate. If they're not going to get technical content here I'm not sure where they will.

I wish just one of my papers could start with an abstract this snappy:
If challenged to do so, relatively few Americans could probably find North and South Dakota on a map, let alone correctly name, spell, and pronounce the capitals of the two states. Nor would they be able to recall anything interesting about the Dakotas, whose main tourist attractions, besides Mount Rushmore, are a drug store, a civic arena festooned in corn, and a peace garden. Although one of the Dakotas bills itself as “The Land of Infinite Variety,” its sociocultural diversity consists primarily of different synods of Lutherans who engage in endless disputation with one another because they are so similar. Dakotans prefer their food bland—they consider ketchup daringly spicy—and their politicians low-key. When they encounter something new, they call it “different,” which they rarely mean as a compliment, and they wait for it to go away—which, because there is so little to hold it in the Dakotas, it probably will do. They keep their opinions to themselves (a typical Dakotan being the fellow from Sioux Falls who loved his wife so much that he almost told her), and they do not like it when people make a fuss about themselves or anything else. Thus, when South Dakotans perceived the previously popular Senator George McGovern as having gotten too big for his britches by seeking the presidency in 1972, they saw to it that he would fail to carry his home state, and three decades later they voted long-time Senator Tom Daschle out of office as soon as he repeated McGovern's mistake of seeing a president whenever he gazed into a mirror.
Reminds me of Downtown Owl.

(Via Unacoder)

I swear I've had this conversation at least twice before. It's very funny, but it's also 0ne more example of why we need to teach kids probability and some statistics in school instead of trig.

I forgot to congratulate Jeff Atwood not only on having a new child, but on displaying the geekery to title the blog post announcing the birth "Spawned a new process." Oh, and his boy's first tweet is priceless.

I also like the two quotes Atwood references. The first is the slightly insane Richard Stallman:
It doesn't take special talents to reproduce -- even plants can do it. On the other hand, contributing to a program like Emacs takes real skill. That is really something to be proud of.

It helps more people, too.
The second is Dave Eggers, regarding his younger brother though it's equally applicable to offspring:
His brain is my laboratory, my depository. Into it I can stuff the books I choose, the television shows, the movies, my opinion about elected officials, historical events, neighbors, passersby. He is my twenty-four-hour classroom, my captive audience, forced to ingest everything I deem worthwhile. He is a lucky, lucky boy! And no one can stop me. He is mine, and you cannot stop me, cannot stop us. Try to stop us, you pu**y! You can't stop us from singing, and you can't stop us from making fart sounds, from putting our hands out the window to test the aerodynamics of different hand formations, from wiping the contents of our noses under the front of our seats.

We cannot be stopped from looking with pity upon all the world's sorry inhabitants, they unblessed by our charms, unchallenged by our trials, unscarred and thus weak, gelatinous. You cannot stop me from telling Toph to make comments about and faces at the people in the next lane.

It's unfair. The matchups, Us. v. Them (or you) are unfair. We are dangerous. We are daring and immortal. Fog whips up from under the cliffs and billows over the highway. Blue breaks from beyond the fog and sun suddenly screams from the blue.

Coyote, in a long list of the things required to open a business in Alabama, mentions this:
4. Registered with the state for a business privilege tax number (Nothing sets me off faster than when I get the pious “doing business in our state is a privilege” spiel from a state. What an awful theory of government and individual rights that statement represents!)
Amen. I really despise redefining legal activities as privileges. I meant to post this story from Alex Massie last fall, in which he mentions that going to a bar or pub in Aberdeen is now a privilege, and in exchange for being allowed to enter a drinking establishment you must submit to taking a drug test.

I mentioned the expanding scope of officially granted privileges in the context of school discipline last month.

Megan McArdle talks about "shovel-ready" projects being ... well not really ready for shovels at all. She's talking about local projects, but let me relate a federal anecdote that may shed some light on what an utter gong show this stimulification is going to be.

Last I knew about half of the $800 billion dollars of the package is going to federal agencies, and a great deal of that will be flowing through the GSA, whose job it is to lease office space, procure supplies, provide transportation, etc to other agencies. Needless to say GSA is looking at a huge swell of activity coming down the pipeline.

Back when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act was just a glimmer on the horizon GSA saw what was coming as decided to draft a letter to all their clients (ie federal agencies) that they were working hard to prepare for the spike in activity and they would be ready and able to handle all their stimulus-related needs when the legislation was eventually passed. (They arent actually ready for this huge surge, but never you mind.) This was before Obama was even inaugurated, over two months ago. When the ARRA was passed in mid February they still hadn't finalized the language in that letter. Now another month has gone by, and that letter still hasn't been finalized and mailed out.

How long to you think it will take anyone to actually do some stimulating if it takes them two months to write a letter claiming to be ready to stimulate things?

18 March 2009

At least you'll have something snappy to interview in

In a Super Bowl ad a month and a half ago Hyundai debuted a program that would guarantee they would buy back a new car from you if you lost your job in the next year. Last I heard it was so successful that GM was considering offering a similar program.

Now Jos A Bank clothiers is offering their own Pink Slip Special, promising to refund the price of a new suit in the event you get fired. You get to keep the suit, though they cap the amount of the refund at $199. (This seems low, but they're making it a tie in to a sale of suits marked down to $199, so it's fairly reasonable.)

I thought it was interesting that the self-employed can present a bankruptcy petition in lieu of termination papers. Seems a little more extreme than getting fired, but I'm not sure what a more comporable proof would be in that case. They don't want to wait until next year for the refunds, so tax statements aren't a good option.

17 March 2009

Sentences to ponder: cloning edition

Cloning is not Replication | The Distributed Republic

People act as if genetic clones are something mysterious. They're not; I have one already [an identical twin]. And if every time people replaced the word 'clone' with 'identical twin', we'd have much more sensible discussions on these topics.
Well said.


I saw the Watchmen movie this weekend and I think the best word to sum it up is "yawn." There are any number of reviews already out there, so I'll just mention a few things.

I've said before I'm a sucker for good art direction/production design (whatever you want to call it) and I think the Watchmen did have that in spades. It was also interesting to see how they translated Dave Gibbons' panels onto the screen. (Almost too faithfully, actually). Say what you will about Zack Snyder's style, but he can turn a still image into a moving image very, very well. The opening credits are proof enough of this, but there are a lot of shots, like Ozymadias' floor lamp attack, that are fine example as well.

So, pretty pictures. The soundtrack gets a big ole WTF from me. It seemed exceedingly film school student project. "Hallelujah" during the big sex scene? That's the best you've got? Unless you're making a film about music (Almost Famous) or cultural zeitgeist (Forrest Gump) or both (Dazed and Confused) you should be limited to a single self-conscious hit on the soundtrack (perhaps not including whatever plays over the end credits). So whenever we get a Red Rocket 7 movie, then we can break out all the semi-ironic, wink-wink-nudge-nudge, OMG-I-love-this-song! tunes.

Acting: Billy Crudup as Dr Manhattan was good, as was Jackie Earle Haley as Rorshack if you can put aside the gravel voice ramped up to 11. Jeffrey Dean Morgan was okay, but didn't get a lot of screen time, and Carla Gugino was too hidden behind intentionally awful make-up for me to draw an opinion. Everyone else was pretty miserable. Malin Ackerman is foxy, but she was out and out terrible. I'm also not big on bangs, so ever her foxiness was much less redeeming than it could have been.

I said above that Snyder is good at turning comic book panels into film, but he's got to learn there are limits. There are some things you can do, indeed have to do, when you're working with a 2" x 3" panel and only a few dozen color choices to work with. When you take art decisions that make sense in those circumstances and try to apply them to the big screen you get drastically different results, so things like close-ups of compound fractures and purple power suits just don't play that well anymore. I think I figured that out with the 1990 release of Dick Tracy. Does Snyder not realize that what is iconic visual shorthand on a comics page does not translate to the screen nearly as well? Or his just that enraptured with Gibbons' art that he can't see that different circumstances call for different artistic decisions?

My biggest complaint was the pacing. It's a long film (2 hours and 42 minutes), and it really drags. You don't even get done with all the character back story stuff until about 15 minutes before the climax. There's so much back-story stuff shoved into frequent digressions in the middle that you start to forget what the actual story of the film is. A half hour or more goes by before you get back to the matter of "Who killed The Comedian and why?" which is the whole point of the narrative.

I do have to defend the movie, and the source material, from one complaint I've seen and heard in a lot of reviews. I'm tired of hearing people say the characters are derivative. In a way they are, but that's kind of the point. Moore is vivisecting superhero comic books, laying all their tropes out on the table, and then putting them back together into something new. Because of this many of the components, most obviously the characters, are familiar to us. This is exactly as it should be if the goal is to examine superhero comics by creating a superhero comic.*

(* See Peter Suderman's post at The American Scene for more on this. Suderman nominates Unforgiven, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Last Action Hero, and Scream as films attempting similar goals with their own genres. I'd concur with the first and fourth, the third I haven't seen and the second I saw and really liked but I didn't pick up on the deconstruction.)

As a result of all this we've got the billionaire with lots of gadgets and tech (Nite Owl; Batman, Booster Gold), the superman (Dr Manhattan; Superman, Green Lantern (sort of)), the super intelligent guy (Ozymandias; Mr Fantastic, Batman (sort of)), the fedora'ed and trench-coated detective (Rorshack; The Question, Mr A, The Phantom, The Spirit, The Shadow), the acrobatic femme fatale (Silk Specter; Black Canary, Catwoman, Batgirl), the tough guy super-soldier (The Comedian; The Peacemaker, Nick Fury, The Punisher (sort of)). It's obviously more complicated that, with each character in the Watchmen embodying several common themes. Rorshack is driven by the same childhood exposure to crime as Batman, but it's Nite Owl who has the nocturnal flying animal theme and reliance on his wit and gadgets as Batman. Dr Manhattan has the powers of Superman but the scientist-caught-in-an-experiment origin story of the Fantastic Four, The Swamp Thing and The Hulk.

Another common complaint I hear is that the non-Dr Manhattan superheroes shouldn't have been able to fight like they did in the movie. This is partially correct. I think Snyder's desire for adrenaline-soaked fight scenes lead to a digression from the book, where those characters were skilled fighters, but normal people nonetheless. But even that is a theme common in comic that Moore exposes to the light. In a world with Dr Manhattan (or Superman) what need is there for decidedly human brawlers like The Comedian (or Batman)? What parity can possibly exist between the alien-power-ring-wielding Green Lantern and billionaire-playboy-with-a-Robin-Hood-complex Green Arrow? None. There's no reason to team them up, but they were for a decade or so. This is the kind of unspoken assumption of comics that Moore tries to bring out into the open. It doesn't seem appropriate to fault him for presenting regular folk try to keep up with an übermensch.

Finally, I think the novelty of a work like Watchmen is hard to see when you're looking back almost a quarter of a century. What was new then is commonplace now.** Watchmen, along with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, also published in 1986, are really responsible for the "grim and gritty" tone that is still dominating comics today. In some way's last summer's The Dark Knight (no relation to Miller's book) is the film world finally catching up to Moore and Miller back in '86.

(** I think the clearest example of this is 1988's Die Hard, which I think is the progenitor of the modern action movie. Despite this, unless you know where it fits in the time line you're likely to think it's just another action movie. It so successfully redefined the field that all of its novelty seems typical in hindsight.)

Besides the overall tone there are some more specific ways that Watchmen was innovative. It was the first superhero book which revolved around the questions like "Who are these heroes and why do we trust them? What makes a grown man dress up in their underpants and a cape and spend the night stalking purse snatchers?" There were plenty of earlier books that tried to address "real world" issues like drug addiction and racism, but they all took for granted that people with superpowers are going to want to put on funny clothes to either fight crime, or in the case of super villains, create crime.

Finally there are some more minor details worth mentioning regarding Watchmen's innovation. It was, again with DKR, one of two books first marketed as a "graphic novel," a trend which has completely reshaped the industry. It was (probably) the first comic to list the title vertically along the side, significant because this makes it appropriate for direct-market comic book stores which display issues on shelves, but nonviable in wire spinner racks in drug stores and groceries, where most comics were sold up to this point. It was also unique in not listing the creators' names on the cover and it was highly unusual to eschew illustrations of the characters on the cover. (see Todd Klein's write-up about the Watchmen logo for more.)

Okay I've already written way more about a movie I didn't like than I intended too, especially since an ill-timed browser crash forced me to recreate the last few paragraphs. That's all I've got for the night.

16 March 2009

How do you say "vade retro satana" in Hebrew?

Atomic Nerds | I Got My Wish- Sort Of

Way back in the earlier days of the blog, I expressed my wish for a demon-fighting rabbi. My logic then was, I believe, sound: books and movies are already chockablock with Catholics of varying degrees of toughness that more or less stand in as the forces of Good against Evil, and they are mostly Catholic apparently because Catholics get uniforms and they have the most atmospheric churches. It’s not as if there are no Protestant demoninations that believe in demons and witchcraft, but unfortunately for them they mostly get to be the bad guys in “religion gone wrong” movies. This is what happens when you build pug-ugly churches and have bad hair and no cool outfits.
[emph mine] Ha! Say what you will about the Church, but they've got style.

They've also got plenty of symbols, which come in handy when you're trying to make one-and-half inch square line drawings easily recognizable, and lots of esoteric traditions and half-forgotten artifacts and all manner of shadowy sundries skulking in the past, which are really nice when you're trying to draw an episodic story out over some dozens of issues.

The only Jewish demon-fighter that comes to mind is Julien Saunière of Rex Mundi, a book about a 20th Century Hermetic/Gnostic/Catharist heresy complete with French Fascists. But Saunière doesn't really count since he's fighting more of a wizard than a demon. And frankly, Dr Saunière's faith is only relevant because it gives the antagonist another reason not to like him. So, yeah, Rex Mundi is a good book but doesn't really fit what LabRat is looking for, but it's highly under-appreciated, so I take any chance I can to plug it.

12 March 2009


Peter Suderman concludes that Lex Luthor can't save the economy after seeing this:

I love that Jon Ham has so much fun doing things that aren't Brooding Madison Avenue Man of Mystery. On 30 Rock he just looked like he was enjoying himself.

'More of the same' would not be my first choice.

Jesse Walker discusses Obama's plan to have kids in school longer, whether that means more hours per day or more days per year.

I don't think this is the worst idea out there, but I don't see how it helps that much either. Imagine, instead of extending the day or the school year, we added a 13th grade to the end of high school. I'd think that the kids who already benefit from their educations would learn a little more, but the ones who we've failed to make literate or numerate or rational or intellectually curious in their first 13 years wouldn't suddenly be pushed over the hump with another year of the same thing that hasn't worked for them already.

Are there that many people at the margin that would benefit from X extra hours of the same instruction, whether you add it a little each day, a little each year or all in one extra year? Maybe there are. It's a semi-empirical question. (Walker points to some data that says the results are decidedly mixed.) I don't know that much about pedagogy, but I think it would make sense to look into some changes besides "more of the same."

I'd also say there's a ton of waste in the calendar as is. After you subtract time for testing and exams, holidays, lost time at the shoulders of holidays, assemblies, field trips, half days where nothing gets done because classes are too short and attention is elsewhere, etc. you get maybe 120 days of instruction out of a 180 day school calendar. You could add another month to the calendar at no cost by being rigorous and cutting that non-instructional time in school in half. (I had one math teacher who gave us a test every week. I think it was Wednesdays. He burnt through 20% of the school year just giving us tests. And he wasn't even the most wasteful teacher I had. I can not discuss in polite company the absurdity of Mrs Baez's Spanish classes.) Of course that puts the burden on teachers and administrators to be very disciplined. Who's going to step up to the plate and say "no, my students will not be missing class to go listen to an assembly about traditional Peruvian drumming*" or "no, you can not put Spartacus on for the entire week before Christmas break and call it 'teaching Latin.'" I'm not sure where the incentive to do that is going to come from in a public school.

* We actually had one of those in high school. Hour and a half long. I'm not making this up.

Walker also asks at the end of his post:
Cliché query: Does anyone actually find it compelling to hear the phrase "21st century" appended to any word the speaker wants to stress, as though there were some sort of sea change on December 31, 2000?
Absolutely not. I'm curious to see how long into the century politicians and commentators will be able use that crutch.

"Wanking in Three Colors"

Go read Patrick's epic (and epically named) "Perceptions Of Gender, Class, And The Other: The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory, And The Curious Case Of A Milwaukee Mom And Her Evisceration At The Hands Of Milwaukee’s Best" at Popehat. Many worthwhile points to be had there, but it's all sparked by opinions of this:

That's Ellsworth Kelly's "Red, Yellow, Blue II." Like Patrick I'm not very impressed by it. (I happen to like flickr user .michael.newman.'s photo of it, reproduced above, much more. Which gives me an idea: some enterprising artist should paint canvases for the sole purpose of photographing people in front of them, or perhaps photographing the canvases in interesting locations. Use the paintings as settings and props, essentially. Go ahead, steel that pitch, as they say.)

Kelly is one of those artists, like Yves Klein, who leaves me cold 99% of the time but still comes up with the occasional jewel. For instance, I love Kelly's "Spectrum Colors Arranged by Chance II:"

(FYI Klein's "Anthropometrie (ANT 130)" strikes my fancy, but the best I can say about the bulk of his work is "that's neat.")

In any event, criticism of Kelly's triptych isn't really the point of Patrick's post, but here's what he has to say about it:
It’s a collection of three rectangular panels rendered in the primary colors, used by the artist to say that he has stripped art of all context and form, making a statement about being and nothingness and the meaninglessness of art. The work allows people who believe they know a lot to project what they wish to say upon it, and to receive nods of agreement from the like-minded. It’s hipster irony from the 60s, an ape’s tribute to the legacy of Jackson Pollack. If it were aural rather than visual, its challenge to the beholder would not be that of a Lou Reed or Albert Ayler, but of John Lennon’s “Revolution No. 9.”

It’s bad art, wanking in three colors, and it doesn’t even get the colors right. Green, not yellow, is in fact a primary color as received by the human eye. Had Kelly chosen green for the middle panel, he would have created transgressive art of a low satiric sort, lampooning the optic ignorance of the aesthetes who fawned over him while he created the Red, Yellow, Blue series. Had Kelly chosen indigo, international orange, and royal blue, he would created something genuinely dangerous. If Kelly had painted his rectangles in cyan, yellow, and magenta, he’d have made real art, anticipating the work of giants, Roy Lichtenstein, Leiji Yatsumoto, and Keith Haring.
I love the bit about not even getting the colors right.* I'm reminded of a Brice Marden exhibition I saw a couple of years ago at SFMOMA. There were these series of great big canvases with repetitious curves in all the colors of the rainbow. Except indigo. Some of the accompanying material quoted the artist to the effect of (and I'm working from deep memory here) "I chose to leave out indigo because I do not believe in indigo. I am not sure what indigo means and so I don't think of it as a real color." I read that and immediately walked out of the gallery. Here's a guy whose entire oeuvre is based around color theory and he wants to deny the existence of indigo, as if wishing it made it so.

[New shit has come to light, as they say, and so it behooves me to withdraw my criticisms of Mr Marden's opinions of indigo. I am suitably embarrassed. Please see the comments for details. As abashed as I am by this, I still defend my decision to have walked out of the exhibition. There was too much other good stuff to see to waste time on work that left me uninspired.]

* I'm not as sure as Patrick that Kelly does in fact have the "wrong" colors. The choice of "primary" colors is pretty much arbitrary, although in practice you want three that are sufficiently distant in chromaticity space (or a similar measure, I suppose). Red, yellow and blue are a standard choice. RGB and CMY are obviously also defaults, but the Lumiere brothers once patented a photographic process that used violet, orange and green. So I wouldn't say Kelly is "wrong" so much as "boring," or "predictable."

11 March 2009

The (ferromagnetic) wheels are not in motion

About nine months ago my Western Digital external hard drive bit the dust, and bit it hard. WD replaced it at no cost since it was still within the year-long warranty, but very significant amounts of time were still wasted trying to recover every last byte I could from it. (This took a good long while, because the damage was due to an excess of corrupted sectors rather than a problem with the drive as a whole, so damage was acute but widely scattered. There was no way to know which files had been corrupted until you tried, individually, to copy them off the drive.)

I woke up this morning to determine that the replacement has now died. Replacements only have a 90 day warranty, so now in addition to the hassle of trying to salvage what I can from the wreckage, I'm out a fair bit of coin to replace it. Needless to say, I will not be replacing it with another WD product.

And I have no idea what is causing the problem. I treated these drives gently. They were lightly used, handled carefully, kept cool. They were slightly different models, so it wasn't just a badly manufactured batch. Maybe the FAT32 formatting on one of the partitions didn't play as nicely as I had thought with the Mac I primarily used the drive with?

In addition to depriving me of money and data this has also thrown my mojo all out of whack for the day. And I needed some damn mojo today. The Dude had things to do.


10 March 2009

Brand Name Me

Marginal Revolution | Markets in everything, if this works it will change the world edition

Cut a deal with anyone, using a website to record the terms and conduct the negotiations.

For instance perhaps (ha) you can convince your wife to turn down the thermostat in the house in return for taking out the recycling bin every Monday. Or, more promisingly, maybe I can promise to Bryan Caplan that I won't make fun of his naive realism in return for his eating Pho with us twice a year. This site gives you a handy written record of the agreement.
I think Cowen is right that this could change everything, but with the caveat that it needs to be tied very closely to your identity. What I'm envisioning is that someone sees your Facebook profile and can tell that you've defaulted (or your counterparty has claimed you've defaulted) on X% of agreements. Ditto someone considering buying a used car from you or giving you a job can tell how often you've defaulted on past agreements.

By aggregating, storing and broadcasting your reputation to people you've never met this could really change the world. It would do for people what brand names do for firms: give them the ability to trade on intangibles like trustworthiness and benevolence.

A related service would be one that could track predictions. Various groups have tried this with campaign promises at least since 1992, but it doesn't seem to have taken off. I'd like to see an internet-based system that could track the predictions of politicians and columnists and everyone else.

Predictions: Most people aren't very good at them.

Porch Dog had a good post a couple of days ago about the consistent failure of our seers and sybils to make any sense of DJIA fluctuations, and a general lack of accountability for anyone who makes their living off of making predictions.

I think Porchy's making a very good point, but he may be conflating a little bit between the guys who are ceaselessly prognosticating in newspapers and magazines and the guys who are actually out there making trades. Certainly there's a lot of overlap, but the first group doesn't even need to attempt to accurately predict the future (or even describe the present). They just need eyeballs. (I gave up reading those kind of articles a while ago, so I'm not so sure how extensive the overlap between ink-stained prognosticators and in-the-trenches traders is. Perhaps it's much wider than I think, in which case my point is mostly academic.)

The other thing I'll add is that there are a lot of traders that actually did a good job and made money for their firms. Their argument for bonuses is that without their revenue the situation would have been even worse, so they deserve some lucre. Maybe you buy this argument, maybe you don't, but I don't think it's as superficially absurd as a lot of populists would have us believe when they declaim "fat cat bankers who lost trillions getting their big bonuses." * A lot of people miss the fact that the guys who screwed the pooch are not coincident with the guys getting the bonuses, they just work for the same people. And the guys they both work for aren't necessarily the ones hauling in the fat bonuses even in the good times. Like a lot of companies the sales force (which is what the traders really are) often banks more than the executives.

Regardless of those petty details, I think there's a powerful need to hold people more accountable for their predictions. Financial analysts and politicians, which Porch Dog also brings to task certainly need to be held to account. I'd also throw urban planners and futurists** and self-help gurus and preachers and teachers and a whole host of others into the same category.

* I'm not saying Porchy falls into this camp, but there are may who do.
** Hate that word

For kicks, here's some excerpts from Anatole Kaletsky's final column of the last three years. NB Mr Kaletsky is the Principal Economic Commentator and Associate Editor of The Times, a former Newspaper Commenter of the Year, and a two-time Specialist Writer of the Year. (Via Alex Massie.)
"Each year, in my last Economic View before Christmas, I try to shed some light on economic events of the previous 12 months by comparing what has actually happened with expectations published here in early January. This year, even more than usual, reading back through January's predictions has been a shock. Almost all have turned out to be wrong". Anatole Kaletsky, The Times, 18/12/06.

"My last article of every year looks back on the predictions I made in early January to shed some light on the economic and financial events of the previous 12 months. This tends to be a humbling experience, and this year it is even more so than usual." Anatole Kaletsky, The Times, 31/12/07.

"In the last Economic View every year, I look back at what I predicted in early January, to try to shed some light on the events of the previous 12 months. This is nearly always a humbling experience. .. This year, however, the routinely humbling experience has turned into a ritual humiliation. How else can I describe the public confession that I am now compelled to make: I hereby confess that on or about 14 January 2008, acting of my own free will, not under the influence of any drug and aware of the consequences of my actions, I wrote the following statements in the Times: 'The global credit crisis, far from taking a turn for the worse, is now almost over' and 'There will be no US recession' and 'Stock markets around the world will rise in 2008'... I must apologise to anyone misled by my analysis." Anatole Kaletsky, The Times, 29/12/08.
Mr Massie concludes: "Journalists, of course, are very fond of demanding accountability from their subjects but, quite conveniently if also naturally, reject any suggestion that they be held to such standards themselves. I can't, off hand, think of a pundit fired for being wrong all the time." Amen.

Woot Thoughts

Is Woot counter-cyclical?

On the one hand it offers stuff on deep discount, and it should probably be finding some good deals from its suppliers who are looking to shed inventory. On the other hand it probably relies heavily on impulse purchases and the stuff it sells aren't exactly consumer staples. My instincts are that the latter outweighs the former for them.

To consider some more minor factors, It doesn't have hardly any inventory of it's own, or much in the way of labor costs, so it's probably running a pretty tight ship. This seems good, but it also might not have much fat to trim if it needed to. That would be less good. On yet another hand (I think I'm up to five now) Woot can change it's inventory rapidly to respond to what it finds people are still buying a recession; they're probably pretty agile in that sense. (Should I be expecting more Ayn Rand offerings from Woot?)

Hrrrm. I fear I know neither enough about business generally or Woot's operations specifically to do anything past conjecturing.

News from my back yard: Extra Irony Edition

My Way News - 16 arrested in fight at nonviolence concert:

SILVER SPRING, Md. (AP) - Montgomery County police say 16 people were arrested after a fight broke out during a concert held to promote nonviolence and to remember a Silver Spring teen killed last year.

The free Stop the Violence youth concert was held Saturday night on Ellsworth Street in downtown Silver Spring in memory of 14-year-old Montgomery Blair High School student Tai Lam, who was shot to death in November.

Police say fighting broke out near the stage toward the end of the concert and at least one person resisted arrest. Police say 16 adults and juveniles were arrested for offenses such as assault and disorderly conduct.

That, dear readers, is why I chose not to go to Blair in a nutshell.

This reminds me of the company softball game I played in once against some firm that did "conflict resolution." They were the dirtiest, most competitive, most violent, most savage team I have ever seen in a non-contact sport. A close runner up was Ted Kennedy's office, but they were violent in a semi-jovial, drunken buffoonish way. No kidding. Ted Kennedy's people were pickled drunk at five in the afternoon on a weekday. Personally I'm totally cool with that (drinks taste better when the sun is up), so I only point it out because I thought it was delicious that a drunken buffoon would willingly surrounded himself with a team of drunken buffoons. It's all too screenplay-ish to be believed.

(The non-violent fight story is via Matt Johnson, who also had a good post today about Montgomery County (which encompasses Silver Spring) deciding to spend another $750,000 in an emergency "special appropriation" to double the budget for a new equestrian center. This is despite already running a $520 million deficit. Great priorities, you thieving bastards.)

09 March 2009

Twitter Thoughts, Part Deux

In reply to this morning's post on Twitter being "too big to succeed" Patrick says:
The trick is to cull. Fortunately twitter doesn't let you see the @ replies of those you follow to those you don't, and that tends to cut back on the chaff.
Indeed, it is all about the cull. I've heard Twitter has comparatively good tools and protocols for eliminating some of the noise in the system, but not being a Twitter user I can't comment. The particular rule Patrick describes seems like a clever one for keeping the noise low. However, in the long run I fear that some characteristics of social networks like homophily and and the tendency to seek closure will degrade the effectiveness of this particular feature. [1]

I think the key to the long-term usefulness of social network tools is minimizing the social awkwardness that results from winnowing. I'm not nearly familiar enough with Twitter to know how well it alleviates this problem. My suspicion is that it does it well enough that it will last longer than previous generations of social networks, but that it doesn't do it well enough to outrun the signal-to-noise problem indefinitely. Furthermore, I suspect that each succeeding generation of social network tool will become better at this, and so each generation will survive longer than the last. Perhaps after a few iterations of this we'll strike upon something that works in perpetuity.

What needs to happen if we're going to have a social network tool that really lasts is for the designers to realize that this may be the biggest challenge they face long term. I think that most of them probably think getting the maximum number of people signed up is the goal, and in the short term it is. But this goal causes them to run in the opposite direction they need for long term stability, because they think that getting the Pepsi marketing team on board, or having people connect with their dog walker or junior high crush is a success when really that's just nails in the coffin.

I can't stress enough that designers of social network tools need to tackle the signal-to-noise problem in every decision they make. Even the choice, for instance, of Facebook calling your neighbors in the social network "friends," the creation of a link "friending" and unlinking "defriending" (colloquially, at least) makes unlinking or turning down a request very awkward. You can't just cull a link; you are now declaring someone is not your friend. This makes it quite a bit more personal. Twitter seems to have side stepped that particular problem, but I'm reluctant to conclude that they're sidestepped it so completely so as to avoid collapsing under their own weight eventually.

[1] See, for instance, Newman, Barabási and Watts, The Structure and Dynamics of Networks, 2006.

PS: This is not really pertinent to this discussion, but it has to do with social networks and their place in society, so I'll point out that Facebook is being sued, along with several users and their parents, for facilitating online bullying or some such. You should not be surprised to hear that I think this is complete BS. Kids can be cruel, but Facebook is no more responsible for the cruelty of it's users than Chuck E Cheese is responsible for hosting birthday parties that someone feels bad about not being invited to. I know I'm hardly the first person to say this, but we need to stop teaching kids that adults will redress all their grievances and start teaching them that the world can be a cruel, cold place in which their feelings sometimes get violently stomped on. The kind of kids who grow up thinking that Daddy or Mommy or the Principal or the Judge can make Billy stop calling them names are the very same people who grow up to be unemployable buggy whip manufacturers who demand bailouts when the house they financed with a cash-out option-ARM and built on a flood plain gets wiped out by Tropical Storm Zevon.

This is the hairy man who caused the Sun to shine again for me.

I've been meaning to post this Hit & Run piece about New Zealand courts declaring that the haka is intellectual property under control of tribal groups for several reasons.

(1) I think the idea of "owning" a dance is a bit silly. Dances should fall into the same categories as recipes: they're so easy to make subtle alterations that it's difficult to establish exactly whether someone is using yours or their own interpretation. Furthermore, like recipes, the real value is in the instantiation or performance, not necessarily in the description of the steps.

(2) This is a dance created just shy of two centuries ago. Does IP never expire in New Zealand?

(3) I don't like the idea of groups being given rights to anything, because groups can't hold responsibility for anything. Responsibility only rests on individual shoulders, and so rights should only be held by individuals. This is why we've got the hackish legal fiction of corporations.

(4) It seems the reasoning behind the decision is to allow the Maori more "control" over their cultural heritage, which is cool I guess. But what do you do if an individual Maori who wants to use the dance in a way that the tribal council doesn't approve of? You haven't shifted control of the dance to the Maori in general, you've shifted control of it to a very specific governing body. Anyone who thinks the decisions and incentives of the governing body are always going to align with the group they're nominally supposed be representing has never been to a PTA meeting.

(5) This gives me a tremendous excuse to post cool videos:

(Subject line is a translated bit of the haka performed by the All Blacks.)

Eat well, shit strongly, and you shall have no fear of death.

You Are Why I Cannot Eat Good Things | Popehat

You, you sniveling worms, with your relentless insistence on safety, absence of risk, and your belief that if the government only had more power, over everything, somehow you would not die.

Well you are going to die, and you deserve it, because you elected a government that drafts bills like the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2009, or as Radley Balko called it via twitter, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of Food.

[...] the FSMA requires all “food establishments,” which means anyone selling or storing food of any type for transmission to third parties via the act of commerce, to register with a new Food Safety Administration, to keep copious records of sales and shipment by lot and label, to subject themselves to at least annual inspections by FSA inspectors, and to provide detailed handling instructions for safe processing of food. That may work for Nabisco and the people who supply McDonald’s, but it’s probably not going to work at, for instance, the farmer’s market I visit without fail every weekend beginning in late March. The place is infested with hippies and rustic sorts who couldn’t fill out a spreadsheet and can’t afford legal advice on how to farm, but know a thing or two about growing good peppers.

Nor are the more detailed recordkeeping and lab testing requirements, and the monthly inspections, to be required of farmers’ markets which offer delicacies such as bacon or cheese, both of which I purchase at my own farmers’ market because I trust the farmers involved, and because I won’t give up absolutely fresh tomatoes even if I’m not assured they were audited by the government.

It’s also unlikely to work for importers of certain delicacy foods which aren’t made in America (the bill requires food makers overseas to adhere to bacterial testing standards equal to those mandated by the FSA) such as mortadella ham and certain cheeses. Those may no longer be imported.

I hereby join the legion of "blogging cranks" vocally opposed to this travesty of of the democratic process. I've put up with a lot of shit form Congress, but if they screw with my supply of sweet corn, or local tomatoes, or imported soppressata they will have gone too far. I've registered for the draft, I've paid my taxes, but there are certain indignities that I will not abide.

Quantum superpositioning of high brow and low brow

Enjoy bridges being demolished and a Rossini aria at the same time!

This may be the single best thing the Virgina Department of Transportation has ever created. (Anyone else see the Wilson Bridge going down and think "Yeah! How do you like me now, you POS?")

(Via bng bng)

Is Twitter Too Big to Succeed?

Conor Friedersdorf asks "Is Twitter too big to succeed?" I'm inclined to say yes. Or if not, it will be.

I don't want to get into too much detail, but the trend in past social networks is that they grow in popularity to a point at which the chaff outweighs the wheat. At that point people find it too hard to keep track of those they actually care about amidst all the updates from friends-of-friends-of-that-guy-you-once-sat-behind-in-History about whether last night's Dancing with the Stars was any good and they abandon the network in favor an upstart with a better signal-to-noise. Maybe Twitter will be different, but lacking evidence to the contrary I'm not sure why we'd assume it would be.

If you don't believe me I'm sure one of Jenn Golbeck's papers will back me up, I just don't have time to figure out which one.

On Federal Research Funding

Will Wilkinson has good thoughts on government investments in technology. Here's a bit of summary:
I do want to distinguish between government spending on the development of particular technologies and government financing of basic scientific research. I’m convinced that a lot of valuable basic research would not be conducted without state subsidies, and that much of this research is the basis for later technological innovation that leads to increased growth. So here’s one area where I think well-conceived government spending can pay its way by boosting growth. Despite ample motivation to be persuaded, I’ve remained unpersuaded by most libertarian arguments to the effect that scientific research without obviously marketable future applications would be sufficiently funded. There is a lot of waste, and some truly objectionable politicization, in government grant-making. But my sense is that, on the whole, much of American science policy is a good deal.

However, I get skeptical pretty quickly as we move downstream toward engineering and the development of technological applications of science. Here’s where I see government subsidies responsible for a huge amount of misallocated human and financial capital. People who think that we will tend to do better rather than worse when the government tries to pick winners in technology really do bear the burden of proof here and should stop simply assuming that landing a man on the moon has made us better rather than worse off.
I'm of largely the same opinion.

I do want to point out that government is sill not immune to the forces that make funding of theoretical work unappealing. For instance, in computer science, federal money accounts for about 80% of research funding. This varies in different fields, with systems and graphics, for instance, getting a little more industry money, to theory, where there is comparatively little industry funding. This shouldn't be surprising, since it's a pretty well accepted storyline that businesses want to invest in things they can more easily productize.

But what it doesn't tell you is that there is still very, very little federal funding for CS theory. Just like business want to report to their shareholders that they've invested in research that will directly improve the bottom line, federal funding officers want to report to their bosses, who want to report to their (political appointee) bosses, who want to report to congress, that the have invested in research with very tangible benefits. Nobody, whether they're from GE or the NSF really wants to report back to their boss that they're funded a proof of a lower bound for Klee's measurement problem in high dimensions. On the other hand, plenty of people — public and private — would love to report that they had developed a more accurate way of targeting radiation therapy.*

This is one of the reasons NASA continues to have a share of the research funding budget so far out of whack with the rest of the scientific community. They can point to rockets going up into the air and tell congresscritters "See that? That's what you get when you give us money." What's a theoretician supposed to do in the face of that?**

This is not to say that government shouldn't fund science. I'm only pointing out that the equilibrium is for government funding to go to less theoretical work, just as it is for private funding. We can't just turn over a train load of money to the NSF, NIH, DOE and NASA (the major science funding agencies) and expect we'll get theoretical science that business would have neglected.

* Lest the latter problem seem unrelated to the former, I note that it is also a problem of computational geometry.

** The simple answer is that they do what they've been doing since the Cold War began -- claim their work has defense applications. Eventually that turned into shoehoring your work in medical applications, and now it's security or environmental applications that will grease the wheels for you. No matter what the patina is we're wasting valuable intellectual effort by forcing very smart people into concocting strained relations between the work they want to do and the applications the establishment wants done.