31 July 2009

The Natural Delight

WSJ | Real Time Economics | Sorry, Bud: Natty Light Isn’t Just for College Anymore

Heineken sales sank 18% from the previous year in grocery, convenience and drug stores during the two-week period ended July 5, followed by Budweiser at 14%. Corona Extra sales dropped 11%, while Miller Lite declined 9% and Bud Light fell 7%. Coors Light sales held up better, falling less than 1% from a year ago.

Meanwhile, sales of “subpremium” beers including Busch, Natural Light and Keystone posted “substantial gains”, according to Ad Age, which didn’t provide the specifics.

It’s a sign that despite the cheap, frat-party image of those brands (and debatable taste), consumers are focused on one thing right now: the bottom line.
The only thing debatable about their taste is whether they have any.

Ha! I jest. Natty, as terrible as it is, will always have a fond place in my heart. It was the go-to party beer at ND, the foundation upon which all other drinking was laid. It was universal; I'm not sure I was ever at a party that did not have at least some Natty. Debts were payable in Natty. Special Lady Friend even dressed up as a can of Natty for Halloween. (I was a PBR. We matched. It was precious.) Natty was the fuel for all late-night bad decisions. We brought it to the shower with us, we threw ping pong balls into it, we poured it on our girlfriends' heads.* It arrived by the pallet for dorm parties, it arrived by the barrel for house parties. It nurtured us, and sometimes it punished us. Natural Delight, here's to you.

(A big tip 'o the hat to Degs for that link. Photo from the personal collection of J.A.H.)

* Well, not so much "we" for that last part. Just one dude. He knows who he is.

It's times like these that I think Democracy is a very dark joke.

The more I think about it, the more this car scrapping nonsense gets under my skin. It's got at least six different features that crop up in all sorts of stupid schemes, all rolled into one.
  1. A transfer from tax payers generally to favored interests, in this case auto manufacturers and dealers.
  2. Populist handouts of other people's money.
  3. Sweeping costs under the rug, both
    • Monetary costs, so that people notice the check they get from the dealer but fail to notice the bill they (or their children) will get in the future, and
    • Environmental costs, because people fail to notice pollution for Midwestern assembly lines but notice pollution from the tailpipe in the car in front of them
  4. Simplistic modeling of the costs and benefits, such that things like the actual mileage that the to-be-scrapped car will travel is ignored, an improvement in fuel efficiency from 4.0mpg is declared to be as advantageous as a bump of 9.9mpg, not to mention ignoring the costs of building the new car.
  5. We've known you can't get wealthier, in the aggregate, by destroying things since 1850. What's the point of learning, of making new arguments, of proving points, of intellectual progress, if people keep on making the same knucklehead errors generation after generation?
Wrap all that up into one program and all I can think of is that the planners behind it must be either very stupid or think that I am very stupid. I'm not sure which of those possibilities bothers me more.

30 July 2009

Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas

‘Clunkers’ Auto Rebate Plan So Popular That It’s Broke | NYTimes.com

WASHINGTON — After an unanticipated level of response from car shoppers seeking new auto discounts under the “cash for clunkers” program, the government was reported Thursday evening to have exhausted the funds available, leaving unclear whether further applications would be accepted.
I think an alternate headline for this article would be "‘Clunkers’ Auto Rebate Plan So Poorly Thought Out That It’s Broke."
The sudden depletion of the fund was a surprise.


Congress evidently did not anticipate that the money would fly out the door so fast; it said that applications would be accepted until Nov. 1 or the money ran out.
Really, Congressman? You're giving away taxpayers' money and you expect people not to want it? Really? In that case I have a lovely bridge to sell you.
The program had two goals: aiding the ailing car industry and improving fuel economy in the fleet on the road.
So it's a naked transfer from the populace generally to a few politically favored groups, with Bootlegger-and-Baptist window dressing of environmentalism? I'm shocked to find this much honesty in a NY Times article.

Let's forget the supposed environmental benefit right here and now. Two gets you twenty that the CO2 impact of producing a new car from scratch vastly outweighs the benefits of improving average fleet efficiency. What do you think assembly lines and machine tools run on? Pixie dust and gnome farts?

First reuse, then recycle. I had that drummed into my little second grade noggin by the Save-the-Bay crowd, and now, in the name of saving Mother Earth, our Wise and Fearless Leaders are getting is ass backwards.

Here's Mike Munger on car scrapping programs in Germany and the US:
Government is dominated by organized interest groups, out for profit. That's it, that's all you need to know. Everything else is just eyewash. The buy back program is a payoff to the car companies, and labor groups. It has nothing to do with the environment, except when it comes to selling the program to you saps who pay the bills.
You can not create wealth by destroying wealth. You can not make society better off by taking things which are worth something and smashing them. You can not improve our collective lot by breaking shit. Yes, I need to say it three times because we have known this since at least EIGHTEEN FIFTY and it still isn't sinking in.

And if that isn't enough, the German car scrapping has been a total hash-up. Not only do we have very reliable, generalized knowledge about the foolishness of breaking things in order to make ourselves richer, we have specific, contemporary evidence of car-scrapping schemes being a preposterous folly ... and we do it anyway.

When we arrive at this unexpected conclusion: "Society loses the value of things which are uselessly destroyed;" and we must assent to a maxim which will make the hair of protectionists stand on end—To break, to spoil, to waste, is not to encourage national labour; or, more briefly, "destruction is not profit."
I am sorry to disturb these ingenious calculations, as far as their spirit has been introduced into our legislation; but I beg him to begin them again, by taking into the account
that which is not seen, and placing it alongside of that which is seen.

—Frédéric Bastiat, "That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen"

"I'm a free born man of the USA"

dispatches from TJICistan | who do you think you are to talk like that?:

Pepin Tuma, 33, was walking with two friends along Washington’s hip U Street corridor… “It seems like police have a tendency to act overly aggressively when they’re being pushed around,” Tuma recalled saying.

Then the group noticed five or six police cruisers surrounding two cars in an apparent traffic stop on the other side of the street. It seemed to Tuma that was more cops than necessary.

“That’s why I hate the police,” Tuma said … in a loud sing-song voice, he then chanted, “I hate the police, I hate the police.”

One officer reacted strongly to Tuma’s song. “Who do you think you are to think you can talk to a police officer like that?” the police officer said…

Tuma said he responded, “…It’s not illegal to express my opinion walking down the street.”

…the officer pushed Tuma against an electric utility box, continuing to ask who he thought he was …

“I didn’t curse,” Tuma said. “I asked, am I being arrested? Why am I a being arrested?”

Within minutes, the officer had cuffed Tuma. The charge: disorderly conduct...
The correct answer to “who do you think you are to think that you can express an opinion?” is “An American."
Cue up The Pogues and "The Body of an American"

Fare thee well, going away,
There's nothing left to say.
Farewell to New York City, boys,
To Boston and PA.
He took them out,
With a well-aimed clout.
He was often heard to say,
"I'm a free born man of the USA"

I'll raise a glass to Pepin Tuma, and to the day when the Metropolitan Police Department is gone and forgotten. May God speed the coming of that glorious day.

Horses in streams

A Steady Hand on the Tiller | Porch Dog:

I hate, hate this type of analysis from Ezra Klein yesterday on whether Obama should reappoint Ben Bernanke to chair the federal reserve:

Bernanke probably should be reappointed… because this is a precarious moment for the Federal Reserve in general, and it’s best to keep a steady hand on the tiller.

This was the Bush 2004 mantra. People all around me, even liberals, were telling me “You don’t change a horse midstream.”


My riposte to "You don't change horses in midstream" is always "You do if the horse is swimming the wrong way."

Extremely Belated Movie Reviews

[I'm not even sure if any of these are out in theaters any more, but when the DVDs come out I recommend all of them. I'm looking forward to District 9, which comes out in 2 weeks. Hopefully I'll have a more timely review of that.]

Star Trek — Very good movie, very bad science fiction.

First of all, I have to give them credit for striking a fine balance between making a movie that was fun and exciting for Star Trek novices and one that acknowledged the lengthy legacy of the series. For instance, there were more than a few lines that were explicit references to previous Star Trek movies, but they were worked in so seamlessly that you would not recognize them as being significant unless you were a fan. Lesser creative teams would have shoe-horned them in more obviously, and it would have been fun for fanboys and jarring for everybody else.

Secondly, I thought it looked great with the exception of a truly preposterous number of lens flares. I heard J.J.Abrams give an interview in which he admitted they went way over board with this, so points for honest self-critique there. I agree with Bryan Caplan that the future looks too much like the present: 300 years into the future, and nothing much is different, except we've got spaceships and floating motor cycles. The implied rate of growth is tiny, but Star Trek has always been pretty economically illiterate.

My big gripe is all the coincidences. I'm willing to suspend disbelief for some sci-fi. You want huge space ships and FTL drives and teleportation and time travel? Okay. Done deal. But there's no way I'm going to swallow Kirk's cadet-to-acting-captain promotion, or really the total lack of junior officers generally. There's no way I'm going to believe Spock is going to maroon someone in an escape pod on a desolate planet rather than putting them in the brig. And by the way, that desolate planet happens to have our one conspicuously missing main character AND Leonard Nemoy on it! No way. If you want permission to fake the big stuff you need to make the small stuff realistic, otherwise the whole conceit of science fiction falls apart.

The instant promotion thing really took me out of it because I kept being remind of David Feintuch's Midshipman's Hope, which is about a middy on a year-long voyage inter-stellar voyage rising to command through a combination of freak accidents, alien encounters and horrific melanoma. It gets it right: if you want me to believe the jibber-jabber about warp drives and giant, vacuum hardened amoeba, then it's imperative that you treat the little stuff believably. On this score, Feintuch does, and Abrams doesn't.

Up — Wow. So very, very good. Not like previous Pixar movies: more adult, more emotional. I'm always seduced by Pixar's visuals, because, (a) I'm a sucker for good CGI and (b) they're amazing. They're so good it's easy to overlook the fact that Pixar's true strength is great story. They craft these scripts for years, literally several years, and it shows. They have turned out more consistently good narratives than any studio, ever.

Up has the best montage I can remember seeing. When's the last time you were brought to tears in the first reel of a film? I'll tell you when: never. One wordless montage in Up and the theater is all dusty within 20 minutes. It makes Bambi's mother's death seem like a cheap, melodramatic ploy.

The only thing that bothered me about Up was the villain. I don't want to give too much away, so I'll just say that he could have returned in triumph even without the thing he was looking for. I suppose he was supposed to be monotonically single-minded about that particular goal, so it's not a huge issue, but it was still a little annoying. Oh, and Russell really kept reminding me of Doofus Drake, Huey, Dewey and Louie's Junior Woodchuck friend from DuckTales.

The animation was as good as ever. We keep getting better and better with things like subsurface scattering, but doing realistic humans is going to be a problem deep into the foreseeable future, so get used to human characters modeled like this. (It's no coincidence Pixar started out with movies about plastic toys and chitinous bugs: those are much easier materials to shade.) I think they did a great job of creating character models that look real and cartoonish at the same time, which is exactly how you need to play it. Had they used to same level of detail they used in Geri's Game I think it would have been much harder to relate to the characters, so I'm glad they dialed it back a lot. (In fairness to Geri's Game, the point of the short was to demonstrate sub-d modeling for character and cloth animation, and it was a huge advance, but the combination of more realistic modeling with comparatively less realistic shading makes for some prohibitive dissonance in a feature-length film.)

The Hangover — Can't remember the last time I laughed so much in a theater. I've seen funnier movies, but never at the theater. Laughter was tempered with equal parts gasping "oh no ... OH NO! that just happened, didn't it?" I really appreciate the way it cuts right from pre-party toast to the aftermath. Lesser film makers would have been tempted to include a little montage there of funny shenanigans, and the movie would have suffered for it. they reached a nice compromise by including stills from the night itself as the credits roll, which are definitely worth watching, especially for the Carrot Top cameo and the ... thing ... in the elevator.

I don't really have much more to say, besides that Rachel Harris' character was such an over-the-top bitch that I was a little distracted for a few minutes after each of her scenes by how much I hated her.

28 July 2009

Do as I say, not as I do

Dispatches from TJICistan | live simply, so that others may simply live

Noted leftist Thomas Friedman has a modest house:

Should I be annoyed at the hypocrisy of pro-solar Friedman having naught but composite tar and gravel shingles on his roof, or should I be happy, because at least more utility isn’t being destroyed by putting on an uneconomic hair shirt?
I remember when that house was built. They tore down three (four?) already massive residences to make room for it. I didn't realize it was Friedman's at the time (or maybe it wasn't until later).

On a personal note, the first time I got drunk I was about 400 feet away from this house.

View Larger Map

Villa Friedman is that white-ish complex just to the left of center. See the kidney-shaped pool due east? That's the scene of the crime. Bacardi Limón all night long.

I never touched that stuff again. [Shudders in disgust]

24 July 2009

The Theology of Chalion

I just finished the audiobook version of Lois McMaster Bujold's The Curse of Chalion. It's a sort of medieval adventure story set in a world inspired by a version of 15th Century Spain. I quite liked it.

Our main character is a minor nobleman who is betrayed and sold into slavery. The book starts after he's rescued and he's trying to put his life back together, to find gainful employment, and most of all to maintain a low profile. Of course he gets sucked into political intrigue before to long, and the story is off and running.

Along the way we also get some very interesting stuff about theology and metaphysics and free will and fate and self-sacrifice. Bujold sets up a "Quinterian" religion in her world, with four gods (Father, Son, Mother & Daughter) for the four seasons as well as The Bastard, who is in charge of "things out of season" — misfits, misfortunes, coincidences and so on.

Anyway, a key ingredient of the metaphysics of this world is that gods can only influence events if people are willing to let them. You have to invite a god to work through you in order for them to have any degree of control over the world. It sets up a nice little conflict where the gods are powerful deities, but still powerless at the same time. The theology isn't just a chance for Bujold to do some superfluous world building. Our main character has to consult with various priests and holy men (and I very much like that Bujold recognizes they aren't the same thing) on matters of theology in order to understand what is happening around him. Overall it makes for a nice mix of ideas and swashbuckling action.

The business about gods needing mortals' permission to influence the world made me think of this John Stossel column from a week or so ago. (Yes, even when I'm thinking about fantasy novels I'm still thinking about libertarianism. That's who I am.)

John Stossel's Take | "Powerful GM"

I confess: I don’t write everything that I say on TV. I write almost everything, but when I anchor, another writer often does a first draft.

Tonight on 20/20, we report on GM. The writer suggested I begin: "it was once the most powerful company in the world…"

GM was indeed the most "profitable," or "biggest"—that I get. But powerful? Why do people think about business that way? GM has/had no armies with which it can invade other companies. It had no power for force anyone to work there. It couldn’t force anyone to buy GM cars.

Your average two-bit government bureaucrat has more "power." He can send people with guns to take your money (tax collection). He can lock you up, seize your property, tell you what you cannot do on your property, summon you to court, and so on. Government has the monopoly on power.
GM was powerful in the same way Bujold's gods are powerful: only when people voluntarily agree to cooperate with them.

Stossel continues
Business, to survive, must be a supplicant: it must work hard to please its customers, constantly adapt to meet their changing tastes, beg them to even visit the showroom to consider a purchase.
This reminds me of the deities in another fantasy book, Neil Gaiman's American Gods, about a battle between the gods of the old world — Odin, Ishtar, Anubis, ... — and gods of contemporary America — television, credit cards, etc. In Gaiman's book gods only exist so long as people believe in them and remember them and continue to worship them.

Anyway, I strenuously recommend American Gods, and recommend Curse of Chalion, though with less vigor.

This is entirely unrelated, but since I'll probably never get a better opportunity to quote Bujold...

When you can’t do something truly useful, you tend to vent the pent up energy in something useless but available, like snappy dressing.
— Lois McMaster Bujold

Tab Clearing

Fourth Circuit rules Maryland liquor regulations violate federal antitrust law

The US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Wednesday that Maryland alcohol price regulations violate federal antitrust laws. The court upheld their previous ruling [opinion, PDF] from 2001 that state pricing schemes for liquor and wine wholesalers restrain trade and constitute horizontal price fixing under the Sherman Antitrust Act [materials]. The regulations required wholesalers to disclose and lock-in prices at a fixed date every month and restricted them from offering volume discounts to retailers.

Our brains are rewarded by sugar-laden food, even if we can't taste the sugar. They are not easily fooled by sugar substitutes.

The scientists at Duke came up with a clever paradigm for isolating this more indirect rewarding pathway: they studied mice without a functional TRPM5 channel, which is essential for detecting sweetness. As a result, these mutant mice showed no immediate preference for sugar water.

But here comes the cool part of the experiment. The scientists then allowed the mice to spend some time with the sugar water and normal water. After a few hours, it became clear that the mutant mice greatly preferred the sugar water, even though they couldn't taste the sugar. (A control experiment with sucralose, an artificial sweetener, demonstrated that the rats were responding to the caloric intake, not the sweet taste.)

Finally, the scientists measured dopamine levels (via in vivo microdialysis) in the nucleus accumbens (a brain area that processes rewards) in the mutant mice and normal mice.* While normal mice exhibited an increase in dopamine in response to both fake sugar and real sugar - the reward was the sweet taste - the mutant mice only demonstrated a dopaminergic spike when consuming genuine sugar water.

Verizon MiFi - a cellular device that creates a bubble of WiFi wherever you take it. The pricing plans are pretty weak ($40/month for 250MB, $60/month for 5GB), but other than that this is awesome. I've been waiting for a device like this since, oh, 2001? Put one of these together with a new camera & microphone enabled iPod Touch and some VOIP, and you've got yourself an iPhone on the Verizon network. (Still no GPS functionality though, which is a bummer. I think I may miss that feature on my iPod Tough more often than the internet connection.)

Teen Burns, Stomps American Flag

A teen claimed she was "making a statement" when she lit an American flag on fire with a cigarette lighter and then stomped on it in the middle of traffic, according to police.


She was charged with desecrating a flag and disturbing the peace. However, the last time we checked burning a flag was still legal in the United States, so that charge probably wouldn't hold up if pursued.
Is too much to expect that people only get arrested and charged with things which are actually ... you know ... illegal? This is up there with all that "It's illegal to take pictures of a shopping mall/playground/street light/cop car/train station" bullshit.

Re: The Gates Arrest.

I don't know what actually happened (none of us do), and I haven't wasted much time reading about this brouhaha, but here's my take. I'm almost sure Gates over-reacted. At the very least he probably realized that this incident could quadruple his next book advance. (Yes, I'm aware that's pretty cynical, even for me. Oh well.) Dude needed to cool out. The cop was, after all, trying to protect his own home for him.

I'm equally sure that his over-reaction doesn't matter. There's just no way you should be arrested for this kind of incident in your own home, but people are all the time. Police need to learn that they do not need to "win" every interaction with every citizen they come across. When the police himself is a necessary condition to the disturbance, the police officer needs to be smart enough to withdraw. Oh, and under no circumstances should an officer refuse to give out his name and badge number, which this guy apparently did.

Gates got arrested for "Contempt of Cop." Does this kind of bullshit happen more to blacks than whites? Yeah, probably. But the problem isn't that it happens more to A than B, it's that it happens at all.

Side note: Just like all stories of where cops have been accused of doing something wrong, there's a certain subset of people saying "we need to cut the police some slack, after all they're putting theirs lives on the line to protect us." It's more dangerous being a fisherman, or a logger, or a roofer, or a cabbie, or a pizza delivery guy. No one ever says "we need to cut that fisherman some slack, after all he's putting his life on the line to bring us delicious North Atlantic cod." A dangerous occupation is not a free pass to abuse authority.

The LA Times offers up some blogfodder with "61 Essential Postmodern Reads." Like all such lists, I think it's destined to leave out a lot of good stuff and include a lot of bunk, but it's interesting none-the-less. I think postmodern criticism and the general academic pomo worldview are bullshit on toast, but postmodern fiction can be fun when it doesn't take itself too seriously.

My major complaint with the list is that it's more of a list of meta-fiction than anything else. Maybe that would have made a better title. It also suffers from that perennial flaw of lists where the editors just can't resist putting something shockingly anachronistic on their like Hamlet. I guess it kind of does fit the criteria -- if there are really any criteria -- but it feels like one of those "best of sci-fi" lists that's all William Gibson and Robert Heinlein and then Frankenstein pops up out of nowhere to lend some gravitas. And besides, how are you going to include Hamlet and not Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead?

Anyway, I'd add The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte, Baudolino by Umberto Eco, and The Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavic. (Warning about The Club Dumas: Roman Polanski made a really bad semi-adaptation of it called The Ninth Gate that was very, very loosely based on the book. Do not be turned off by the film version.) Baudolino is more readable and understandable and fun than the other books of Eco's I've read.

I'm happy they included Maus; it's always nice to see some comics on the book lists. Your average comic is probably more likely to be meta-textual than your average piece of fiction, too. Promethea comes to mind as having that in spades, though I've only read the first volume and didn't particularly enjoy it. Fables has some meta as well, it's spin-off title Jack of Fables has much more, with the recent "Great Fables Crossover" being a good example. (These aren't the best examples of meta-fictional comics, but I never miss an opportunity to recommend Fables, even if it has been noticeably weaker since the war ended in issue 75.)

Oh, and I f***ing loathe Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. The title story is good enough, and I confess I like the conceit, but the rest of it is unmitigated, self-indulgent, thrice-distilled crap.
In the short story, "Good Form," the narrator makes a distinction between "story truth" and "happening truth." O'Brien feels that the idea of creating a story that is technically false yet truthfully portrays war, as opposed to just stating the facts and creating no emotion in the reader, is the correct way to clear his conscience.
If you can't evoke emotion and stay true to facts at the same time then the problem isn't the facts, it's your writing. Write a novel, or write non-fiction, but spare me the James Frey/Michael Moore/Margaret Seltzer it's truer that the real truth shit.

Two astounding pieces of craftiness come to my attention from TJIC.

Bear cubs are perhaps the only animals cuter than puppies. (I can type that because my faithful companion Gus is not around right now. I would be deeply embarrassed to disparage canines in front of him.)

Via Literal Bears I'm Jealous Of, who also has this bear chilling out in a hammock. Let me repeat that: a bear in a hammock!

And I had a hammock just like that growing up. Man, hammocks are the best. I don't think I've been in one since Spring Break '06. Sad.

Finally, these dudes are like a LaBatt ad waiting to happen:

Some zippy one-liners from Angus at Kids Prefer Cheese:
1. Hillary Clinton, [pwnded] by North Korea: “We cannot but regard Mrs. Clinton as a funny lady, as she likes to utter such rhetoric, unaware of the elementary etiquette in the international community,” the North Korean statement said. “Sometimes she looks like a primary schoolgirl and sometimes a pensioner going shopping.”
4. President O by [pwnded] his party's congressional delegations: No health care bill vote before the recess. Don't you all think "recess" is a perfect term for Congressional breaks?
Recess. Ha!

Narcissism and Social Networking Web Sites
Buffardi, Laura E. and Campbell, W. Keith

Narcissism predicted (a) higher levels of social activity in the online community and (b) more self-promoting content in several aspects of the social networking Web pages.


(No, not really.)

Via Jacob Grier, the chemistry of cocktail shaking. How does ice at 0°C get a drink down to -20°C when shaken? Read to find out. Science and booze — two of my favorite things.

Chemistry was my worst subject by far in college, so I admit to not following the explanation entirely. The bit about most of the cooling coming from the enthalpy of fusion of ice makes me wonder if maybe those granite or steel lumps I keep seeing mentioned (the ones you keep in your freezer and then put in your drinks to cool them yet not water them down) would be that effective.

Jorge Cham's PhD Comics presents "Nature vs Science, Part 1"

(Click to embiggen)

23 July 2009

Non semper erit aestas

Via TJIC, here's another good story on Harvard's financial implosion. I continue to be overwhelmed with epicaricacy by the misfortune of "Reykjavik on the Charles."

There have been plenty of stories before about Harvard's endowment cratering, but this one also goes into depth about their other mismanagement, including huge building sprees financed by debt instead of fund-raising, truly massive unfunded expansions financial aid, and worst of all coming to rely on a billion dollars a year in disbursements from the endowment to cover operating expenses, which is about a third of their budget.

What also stands out in the piece is the degree to which everyone claims it's not their fault. These people could give the Sun King's courtiers a run for their money in buck-passing. There isn't a single person who comes out of this looking good. (Except perhaps Michael Smith, Dean of Arts and Sciences, who looks like a humble computer engineering professor who got bumped up to administration and just wants to go back to his research papers and lectures.)

Everyone also seems to say that "people" knew various parts of the Harvard strategy were going to end poorly, but no one can ever say who knew this or when they said it or what they did to change things.

Oh, and there's the part detailing how everyone shat on the people at Harvard Management Company for being greedy and having huge salaries, and then when they jumped ship to hedge funds cursed them all for a lack of loyalty. Maybe they were being greedy and paying themselves too much, but what did you expect them to do when it's clear they aren't welcome around campus anymore?

Look to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise ... it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.
Proverbs 6:6,8

File under 'S' for 'Sub sole nihil novi est'

Jonathan Turley | Democrats Denounce Obama for Bush-Like Signing Statement That He Is Not Bound By Federal Legislation

Four House Democrats have finally stepped forward to denounce the Bush-like policies of President Obama, particularly his recent signing statement proclaiming that he is not bound by federal legislation. The letter was signed by Reps. David Obey of Wisconsin, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee; Barney Frank of Massachusetts, chairman of the House Financial Services Committee; and subcommittee chairs Reps. Nita Lowey and Gregory Meeks of New York. The letter breaks from the lockstep loyalty shown Obama despite his adoption of many of Bush’s most controversial positions.
Good for them. I mean, Barney Frank is still an embarrassment to the Republic, but still, it's about time.
The four democrats expressed how they were “surprised” and “chagrined” by Obama’s declaration in June that he does not have to comply with provisions in a war spending bill restricting $106 million aid provided to the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
"Surprised?" Chumps.

This signing statement followed a similar signing statement declaring that he was not bound by limitations in the $410 billion omnibus spending bill. The signing statement on that bill occurred two days after Obama promised to depart from the abuses of signing statements by Bush.

Two days? That's some whiplash-inducing turnaround right there. Or can you only call it a turnaround if someone actually meant what they said in the first place? At this point isn't it just lying?

Just to keep a rough score, here is the top ten list of Obama’s rollback on civil liberties and constitutional principles:

1. Issued signing statements asserting that he is not subject to the limitations set by Congress (despite his campaign promises opposing such statements);

2. Opposed any investigation into the torture program (here) and alleged war crimes of the Bush Administration;

3. Opposed any investigation into the unlawful surveillance program;

4. Preserved the surveillance programs of the Bush Administration;

5. Withheld photographs of the abuse of detainees to prevent “embarrassment” to the nation as well as White House logs;

6. Promised CIA employees that they will not be investigated or prosecuted for any crimes that they allegedly committed as part of the torture and surveillance programs;

7. Asserted that, even if acquitted in court, he would retain the right to hold detainees indefinitely and will preserve the Bush tribunal system;

8. Delayed his own deadline for a report on the future for Guantanamo Bay and detainees and opposed the right of detainees to challenge their confinement;

9. Asserted executive privilege arguments in court that go beyond prior Bush claims; and

10. Secure the dismissal of dozens of civil liberties lawsuits designed to uncover unlawful conduct and deprivation of privacy rights.

I'm sure loving all this transparency in Washington

$18 Million to Redesign Recovery.gov:

Reminiscent of the no-bid, cost-plus contracts awarded in the Bush administration to defense contractors, ABC News reported last night the Obama Administration awarded a 5 year $18 million contract to Smartronix, a Maryland-based IT firm with connections to House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, for the redesign of Recovery.gov.

Launched in February to track the expenditures of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Recovery.gov was to be the pinnacle of web-enabled transparency, according to President Barack Obama."


FedSpending.org, launched in October 2006 with a meager three-year $334,272 grant from the Sunlight Foundation, is a voluminous online database of all federal grants and contracts. And, unlike Recovery.gov, the website monitors the entire federal budget, and does so at a fraction of the projected cost of Recovery.gov.

Of course, the revelation that the private sector outperforms the federal government is not new. Recovery.org, a project of Onvia, monitors the flow of recovery funds from the federal government to private businesses in real-time, unlike its overpriced government counterpart which reports spending 100 days after-the-fact, thereby enabling wasteful or fraudulent spending.


Assuming, however, that the White House got a bargain on Recovery.gov’s redesign, the public is still, largely, in the dark on both how and where that $18 million will be spent, which, in and of itself, is comically ironic when one considers the intended aim of the website, that is, to provide information to the public to monitor stimulus spending.

Assuming, as the generous people we are, again that the White House got a bargain on Recovery.gov’s redesign and now that Smartronix will make the rebuilding process open and transparent, there is still the troubling issue of why. Why was Smartronix awarded the contract?

The Washington Examiner’s David Freddoso notes an important political connection between the Maryland-based firm and Congressman Hoyer as a potential explanation. Smartronix’s President and Vice President have together given $19,000 to Hoyer’s campaign coffers since 1999, according to FEC reports.

You scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours make sure you get a $18 million contract to redesign a government website.


Is this a pretty trivial amount of money? Yeah, sure. But when you make your whole shtick about openness and accountability and then you pull dubious shenanigans paying for a tool whose entire purpose is to aid openness and accountability, and the tool sucks at it anyway, I'm going to call you out.

Same thing with this whole business about not releasng the mid-year budget review until after the summer recess. Maybe it's because his house just isn't in order and these things often fall behind in the first year of an administration. Maybe it's because the Barackstar knows the news will be grim enough to hurt health care legislation in Congress. Maybe a little of both. But potentially legitimate excuses ring pretty empty in my ears when I've been hearing for 18 months about how we're going to get a Brand New Day of transparency and change.

Let's not even get started on the shattered "sunlight before signing" thing. That's just sloppy, and frankly, a little rude.

There's one hole in every revolution, large or small. And it's one word long — people.
Spider Jerusalem

Póg mo thóin, Yalies

Future Mrs South Bend 7 (a fellow ND alum) pointed me towards this graphy goodness:
Yahoo! Finance | Do Elite Colleges Produce the Best-Paid Graduates?

(Click to embiggen)

The statistical analysis used for most of this study is a bit simplistic, but whatever, I'll take it.

Go Irish.

22 July 2009

Tiger: Very Undude

My friend Picc points me to this Rick Reilly column:
Rick Reilly - Tiger Woods needs to clean up his act - ESPN:

The man is 33 years old, married, the father of two. He is paid nearly $100 million a year to be the representative for some monstrously huge companies, from Nike to Accenture. He is the world's most famous and beloved athlete.

And yet he spent most of his two days at Turnberry last week doing the Turn and Bury. He'd hit a bad shot, turn and bury his club into the ground in a fit. It was two days of Tiger Tantrums -- slamming his club, throwing his club and cursing his club. In front of a worldwide audience.


Look, in every other case, I think Tiger Woods has been an A-plus role model. Never shows up in the back of a squad car with a black eye. Never gets busted in a sleazy motel with three "freelance models." Never gets so much as a parking ticket. But this punk act on the golf course has got to stop. If it were my son, I'd tell him the same thing: "Either behave or get off the course."


Golf is a gentlemen's game. Stomping and swearing and carrying on like a Beverly Hills tennis brat might fly in the NBA or in baseball or in football, where less is expected, but golf demands manners. It's your honor. Is my mark in your way? No, I had 6, not 5. Golfers call penalties on themselves. We are our own police. Tiger, police yourself.
I'm usually skeptical of the "you need to be a better role model" arguments. You should behave like a gentleman not because impressionable youths are watching but because you are a gentleman. Nonetheless, I think Reilly is right that Tiger needs to shape up.

I like Tiger. I'm glad he's successful. I think he's a class act -- off the course. But like my buddy Kaup said in reaction to this column, he's filthy rich, he plays only when he wants, he has a smoking hot wife (and two kids), and everyone in the world likes him. Yet he's still acting "like the golfing Gods have somehow cheated him" whenever he misses a putt.

Someone needs to tell the guy to grow up. If shanking one into the trees is the worst thing that happens to him on any given day then he's doing alright.

Other Tiger Notes:
  • A study from Kellogg economist Jen Brown concluded that other golfers shoot on average one stroke worse in tournaments in which Tiger plays.

  • Coincidence watch: both Tiger Woods and Tom Brady are married to models with twin sisters. Twins, Basil. Twins.

17 July 2009


Ezra Klein | "It Is What's Known in Business as the Invisible Government Scaffolding of the Free Market"

The real information in that clip from Thursday's 'Daily Show'? Jon Stewart -- or someone in his office -- read Matt Taibbi's blog post explaining the basis for the $3.4 billion Goldman Sachs made during the second quarter. And so should you. That basis, after all, is your money. And it's not just Goldman. J.P. Morgan made $2.7 billion in profits. Bank of America -- remember when it almost collapsed? -- reported $2.4 billion.

You should, of course, be celebrating. We're back to 'normal.' It's a recessionary normal, but a form of normal nonetheless. The only problem is that it feels like hell. No one wants a normal where Wall Street took hundreds of billions in emergency taxpayer dollars and went back to pocketing billions for themselves. And it's not just the billions we gave them but the trillions they took: The crash was in no small part their fault. But though the rest of us remain trapped in recession, they're back to triumphant quarterly reports.
This is a Goldilocks worldview: banks are bad for loosing too much money; banks are bad for making too much money; banks should be recording profits that are juuust riiiight.

Look, you can't bolster the health of the financial system without bolstering the health of financial institutions. The entire point of last fall's bailout was to make banks profitable and hence stable again. I didn't really like it then, and I don't like it now, but that was the whole point. Almost everyone in the mainstream on both sides of the aisle (including both McCain and Obama) were yelling themselves hoarse about how we needed more bailout Right This Minute. And now everyone who can carry a pitchfork or a torch is freaking out about banks bouncing back strong. Bullshit. This was exactly the goal of the bailout.

Don't take my word for it:
The Economist | Free Exchange | More Goldman madness

Sorry, what tax revenue has been pilfered? As of June, the Congressional Budget Office estimated that the cost of TARP assistance to financial institutions would only be around $70 billion or so. If we're focused on Goldman specifically, the direct cost is just about nothing. Mr Taibbi points to the AIG assistance and the fact that AIG basically paid out its obligations to Goldman Sachs in full and says that barring that payout, Goldman would have folded. Not likely; Goldman was completely hedged against AIG.


And yes, there are billions in profits, but that was the idea all along. As Matt Yglesias reminds us, the plan has long been to prop up banks with guarantees and limited assistance and let them earn their way to recapitalisation. Why? Because if failing banks were instead seized by the government, debtholders would have to be paid off to the tune of hundreds of billions of dollars to avoid a systemic meltdown. And Congress was simply not about to pony up hundreds of billions of dollars for yet another bank bail-out. So this is what happened instead. The government created the conditions under which banks might be highly profitable so that capital cushions could be rebuilt. Things appear to be working like a charm.
Klein continues:
Economic policy these days is like the old hypothetical where you had to decide whether you'd crush the skull of a little girl if it would save a preschool full of children. It's good that the economy didn't collapse. But the way we went about saving it sure doesn't feel good, and the welfare kings on Wall Street aren't doing much to make it feel better.
I don't like how this mess feels either, but then again, I try not to make these kind of decisions based on how things feel. Choosing based on feelings is fine if you're deciding on a new pair of shoes, but for weightier matters I prefer a method more like: P(financial system collapse) * Cost(financial system collapse) > Cost(financial bailout)?

A related point: Klein asserts that money has been taken from the "working class," and Matt Taibbi claims it has been taken from the "middle class." Not so. Money was taken from tax revenue generally, which is, of course, mostly derived from upper income brackets. We can argue about who the bailouts benefit most. I happen to think that everybody benefits from a working financial system in the same way that everyone benefits from a working interstate freight system, with obviously the most direct benefits accruing to bankers and truckers, respectively. This is important especially if you think the total utility to society of a bailout is less than the cost of the bailout. I think there's a very high probability that the cost of the bailout, especially factoring in moral hazard, outweighs the benefit. But be that as it may, it's disingenuous to nakedly assert that this particular spending is laid disproportionately on the backs of a particular class or tax bracket.

Klein goes on to tie his rant into support for the current Congressional health care reforms. Executive summary: "we wasted poor people's money on your grand, foolish gesture, so now let's waste rich people's money on my grand, foolish gesture." In addition to the assumption that the bailouts cost lower income people more, he also implicitly asserts (as does Matt Yglesias) that the group of higher-income people to be taxed surtaxed for health care reform are entirely coincident with the group of higher-income people work in the financial industry and are benefiting from bailouts.

NASA again

dispatches from TJICistan | one way to save 23 cents


WASHINGTON—NASA could put a man on the moon but didn’t have the sense to keep the original video of the live TV transmission.

In an embarrassing acknowledgment, the space agency said Thursday that it must have erased the Apollo 11 moon footage years ago so that it could reuse the videotape.

I’ve got an idea - let’s put government employees in charge of healthcare!

Nafzger said a huge search that began three years ago for the old moon tapes led to the “inescapable conclusion” that 45 tapes of Apollo 11 video were erased and reused. His report on that will come out in a few weeks.

The original videos beamed to Earth were stored on giant reels of tape that each contained 15 minutes of video, along with other data from the moon. In the 1970s and ’80s, NASA had a shortage of the tapes, so it erased about 200,000 of them and reused them.

45 out of 45 copies were all taped over.

I want to respond to some comments I've gotten about my recent Mars post, and expand what has turned into a recent spate of space-related posts (amateur rocketry, scuttling the ISS). Unfortunately I'm out of town doing some family type things with Special Lady Friend, so I'm not confident in the internet connection or my amount of free time. In lieu of that I bring this sterling example of NASA's wisdom, thrift, and efficiency. Enjoy.

16 July 2009

Wilkinson on Inequality

Will Wilkinson on Inequality, Arnold Kling | EconLog | Library of Economics and Liberty:

As part of a long, interesting essay, He writes [pdf],
You can see leveling in quality across the price scale in almost every kind of consumer good.19 At the turn of the 20th century, only the mega-rich had refrigerators or cars. But refrigerators are now all but universal in the United States, even while refrigerator inequality continues to grow. The Sub-Zero PRO 48, which the manufacturer calls 'a monument to food preservation,' costs about $11,000, compared with a paltry $350 for the IKEA Energisk B18 W. The lived difference, however, is rather smaller than that between having fresh meat and milk and having none...
I think that the main issue with inequality is not the gap between the rich and the poor. It is the gap between the earnings of top business leaders and the salaries of academics and journalists.
I think both Wilkinson and Kling are right. (Assuming I'm interpreting Kling correctly. I read him to be saying that that is the reason inequality is such a commonly discussed metric.)

To further Kling's point, it's not just the gap in incomes between business leaders and academics & journalists, it's that academics and journalists are insulated as a matter of (self-defined) professional ethics from having their compensation determined by what they actually produce for consumers. Most businesses profit because they fulfill desires of consumers. They need to give people what they desire in order to make money. Both academics and journalists take it as a matter of pride that they produce what they want, and not what other people want them to produce. (Ditto artists and to a great extent, teachers.)

I think this is why it seems so common amongst academics and journalists to think that commerce is crass, that corporations only benefit themselves, that businesses are somehow taking something away from their communities or putting one over on their customers. Academics and journalists don't recognize businesses as making money by engaging in mutual beneficial, voluntary trades because that's not how the academics and journalists make their money. (They do, to a degree, but they're insulated by several layers. The editorial wing of a newspaper is firewalled away from the business office; professors choose what classes to teach without regard to the profitability of their universities.)

Here's more from Wilkinson:
There is little evidence that high levels of income inequality lead down a slippery slope to the destruction of democracy and rule by the rich. The unequal political voice of the poor can be addressed only through policies that actually work to fight poverty and improve education. Income inequality is a dangerous distraction from the real problems: poverty, lack of economic opportunity, and systemic injustice.
I think the question of opportunity is the real issue, and that inequality is a sideshow.



BUZZ ALDRIN: Time to go to Mars. We could have a colony on Mars for what the “stimulus” package cost. And it would have provided more stimulus, too . . .
We could have had a 40 foot tall gold statue of Chernobog doing the tango with Mammon for what the "stimulus" package cost too, and it would be about as useful as a colony on Mars.

No, really. What good does a colony on Mars do us? Three possibilities:

(1) We learn something, either once we get there or as we figure out how to get there. Okay, sure. But why is this particular bit of acquired scientific knowledge better value than any of the other million things we could be studying? We already have all the funding we need for studying cancer, genetics, energy, computation, ...? Going to Mars is going to maximize new knowledge per dollar spent?

(2) We set up some kind of economically viable activity like mining. It's going to cost, at best, a hundred thousand dollars per pound to send things to Mars, and a hundred thousand more per pound to bring them back. Is there any commodity worth that price? If so, does Alcoa or BHP Billiton know about it, because they ought to hop on that wagon. Have we already exploited all the easier-to-reach mineral deposits on or under Earth (including those under oceans)? On this I cast my lot with Bruce Sterling:
I'll believe in people settling Mars at about the same time I see people setting the Gobi Desert. The Gobi Desert is about a thousand times as hospitable as Mars and five hundred times cheaper and easier to reach. Nobody ever writes "Gobi Desert Opera" because, well, it's just kind of plonkingly obvious that there's no good reason to go there and live. It's ugly, it's inhospitable and there's no way to make it pay. Mars is just the same, really. We just romanticize it because it's so hard to reach.

On the other hand, there might really be some way to make living in the Gobi Desert pay. And if that were the case, and you really had communities making a nice cheerful go of daily life on arid, freezing, barren rock and sand, then a cultural transfer to Mars might make a certain sense.
If we can't live under the Bay of Bengal or on the North Sea or in the Gobi why would we bother with the orders-of-magnitude-harder conditions on Mars?

(3) We want to show off. This is the real reason people want to go to Mars: to plant a flag there and show the rest of the world that we have deep pockets and a Big Swinging D. It's a crass "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair," lacking any practical application. I prefer the days when we used to carve the sneering visages of our fearless leaders into mountain sides for this purpose.

(Via TJIC)

15 July 2009

Galt's Gulch is the new Bat Cave

Popehat | Elliot McGucken, Pepperdine business professor and noted game desinger, patents system of choice and consequence in videogames:

Jesus and Friedrich Hayek will descend from Heaven, routing the atheists with gold-plated .45 revolvers of love.
I smell a comic book pitch in that snark!

Eleanor Holmes Norton: Reason Number Two that DC should not be a state.

(In case it isn't obvious, here's Reason Number One.)
In Which An Old Suspicion Is Confirmed | Popehat:
"[T]he GAO’s probe included such troubling findings as a report that 73 percent of FPS contract guards lacked valid [X-ray and metal detector] certifications and a report that one security guard allowed a baby to pass through an X-ray machine — breaches in security he said make the country vulnerable to terrorist attack. Lieberman said the guard, who was later fired, filed a lawsuit and won after FPS could not provide sufficient proof that he had been properly trained. The GAO report found that a vast majority of security guards received no X-ray or metal detection training at all.
And they get no training in anything else. Federal security employees, Senators such as Joe Lieberman are shocked! Shocked! SHOCKED!!! to find, are all but picked off welfare lines, given a gun and a badge, and told to look busy in case Jesus comes. Or Joe Lieberman, as the case may be.

And it’s an old problem, older than you might think. While the annoyance of entering a federal building has only increased since 2001, the massive federal security apparatus, told to look busy but not trained in how to be busy, dates back to the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building attack by Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols.

Fifteen years later, it’s still easy to waltz through a federal building carrying explosivs. But your cell phone will be impounded. Why it’s almost as though Congress, and the bureaucrats who serve them, cared more about the appearance of safety in federal buildings than the reality. As though they were trying desperately to look busy.
I know this is (week) old news now, but I wanted to tell a little story. The day this report was released, the brass of the GSA appeared before Eleanor Holmes Norton's Subcommittee on Economic Development, Public Buildings and Emergency Management.

[Two pieces of background you should know: (1) The General Services Administration is sort of the real estate management wing of the federal government, responsible for most public buildings, and (2) the Federal Protective Service, which is responsible for securing most federal buildings, used to be part of the GSA, but was folded into the Department of Homeland Security back in 2002. The GSA no more controls the FPS than it does the Air Force.]

While questioning GSA muckety-mucks, Norton was shocked -- Shocked! -- that security at federal buildings was so lax. She demanded that they order FPS to step it up. The GSA people responded that FPS was a division of DHS now, and therefor not under their command. Norton continued to demand that they do something about FPS. They continued to aver that this is not how the federal bureaucracy works, they can't just overhaul any old agency. Norton was not convinced, and because she's a Congresswoman sitting in a big important chair, she had the ability to remain unconvinced. That's one of the nice perqs of being a congressman: you get to be right, and the fabric of reality and nature of logic gets to be wrong.

This alone is pretty typical (feigned or actual) ignore in the service of political posturing, but the next bit really puts the cherry on. Norton proceeded to complain that when visitors -- good American, taxpaying visitors -- come to do homage to our righteous country in Our Nation's Capital, they can't even get in the door to federal buildings to use the bathrooms without going through a security check! How can we possibly demand that our fine citizens, who have little children who sometimes need to take a bit of a wee, look elsewhere for public toilets? Haven't their taxes gone to pay for these buildings? Shouldn't they have a right to enter unfettered? Can't we just let them in to use the facilities?

Yes, yes. E.H.Norton wants to both step up security on federal buildings and make it more difficult to get in without bypassing security, and to let tourists get in while bypassing security. The contradiction in these goals did not appear to register to her. I imagine she is only slightly less confused than these reliable castle guards:

Attn J. Mellencamp: more singing, less pontificating

Saturday Free Speech Roundup | Popehat:

Item the First: John Cougar Mellencamp is a censorious twit:
"I don’t think people fought and gave their lives so that some guy can sit in his bedroom and be mean. I don’t think that’s what freedom of speech is,” he continued. “Freedom of speech is really about assembly — for us to collectively have an idea. We want to get our point of view out so we can assemble and I can appoint you to be the spokesman. That’s freedom of speech — to be able to collectively speak for a sector of people. But somehow it’s turned into ‘I can be an asshole whenever I feel like, say whatever I like, be disrespectful to people and not be courteous.’ It’s not good for our society. Not being courteous is not really freedom of speech. …"
This is not the first time that Johnny Cougar's idiocy has come to the attention of South Bend 7. Please see this previous post detailing the fit he pitched about the music industry just not being fair anymore!

Mellencamp specifically has his knickers in a bunch now about comments on blogs and YouTube videos, which he thinks shouldn't be legal because they're just so rude -- not at all like things when he was growing up! Somehow this relates to him not using a cell phone. But he likes text messages. I'm as unclear as you may be about how this is relevant, but the steel trap mind of The Cougar thinks it is.

Isn't the real reason the First Amendment has any force not that people agree on the value of freedom of speech but rather that they disagree on who they want to shut up? Is religious freedom a product of agreement on the value of religious freedom or is it a product of disagreement on who is going to hell?
—Alex Taborrok

14 July 2009

Diversity of Definitions of 'Diversity'

NB: I meant to publish this two months ago when JimPanzee wrote this original post at Porch Dog about the diversity of Supreme Court nominees. At the time, we did not know who the nomination would be. Now that Sotomayor's hearings are in swing, he has another post about diversity on the bench, namely, it is difficult to argue simultaneously that her ethnicity is important but her Catholicism is not, and vice versa.

Porch Dog has some very good comments on Supreme Court justice selections. I think the most important point is that people who want the next justice to be "representative of the diversity of America" dodge the question of which of the numerous dimensions of diversity they care about:*
Souter and the Pre-Replacement Squabbling | Porch Dog:

Nobody seems to care what percentage of justices are rural or urban, how many have been divorced, how many have served time in jail or smoked weed. Nobody seems to care which religions are represented on the bench or how many are first generation college graduates. Nobody seems to care how many southerners or northeasterners or westerners are represented, nor how many have served in the armed forces or worked as a waiter/waitress before law school.

There’s a lot of demographic concerns that aren’t even addressed by the complainers.
Very true.

You could also ask how many are single (none, I believe), how many were raised by single or divorced parents (ditto?), how many have any training in science and technology (again, none, I believe), and how many have expertise in foreign or historic legal systems (no idea). I'd also like to know how many have held jobs outside of the legal profession (just Stevens?), specifically how many have tried to run or help run a non-law firm business (almost certainly none), and whether anyone has worked in law enforcement (ditto).

I understand that if you're the kind of person who rises to such heights in your chosen profession you probably dove right in when you were young and didn't spend time traveling the world and running a retail outlet and serving in the merchant marines. To a certain extent it's unreasonable to ask for your best jurists to also have wracked up a bunch of other qualifications, but it's still worth asking what else they've done, if only to remind ourselves what our viziers are like. (Answer: they're homogeneous, and I don't mean just in terms of class or race.)

Here's Paul Campos on the current justices:
Every single one of them was a federal appellate court judge at the time he or she was nominated to join the court. None has held elective office. Only the retiring Souter has presided over a trial, and only the 89-year-old John Paul Stevens has served in the military.

Their education is even more uniform than their careers. Six attended Harvard Law School, while two others graduated from Yale. [...]

The career path to get on the court has become astonishingly narrow. Go to Harvard or Yale Law School, clerk for a Supreme Court justice, work for one of a handful of elite law firms, become a law professor at a top school or rotate into a fancy government position, then get appointed to a federal appellate court and wait for your name to be called.
Contrast that to the Warren Court (again, quoting Campos):
Chief Justice Earl Warren had been a three-term governor of California. Hugo Black and Sherman Minton had served in the Senate. Harold Burton was a former mayor of Cleveland. Stanley Reed had been in the Kentucky legislature, and was appointed by FDR to run the Reconstruction Finance Corporation at the height of the Great Depression. William Douglas was chairman of the Securities & Exchange Commission. Tom Clark had been a Texas district attorney.

Even the most academic member of the court, former Harvard Law professor Felix Frankfurter, had been deeply involved in nuts-and-bolts Progressive era and New Deal politics for decades.

The educational backgrounds of the justices were as varied as their careers. They graduated from state law schools all across the country, including Indiana, Alabama, Texas, and California. (Reed never even received a law degree.) Most of them served in the military, and three saw combat during World War I.
One of the things I've always liked about the Roman Republic is that patricians were expected to be able to fill magisterial roles of all types: lawyers, accountants, logisticians, warriors, judges, mayors, civil engineers. A man on the rise would oversee some infrastructure construction, govern a settlement in the provinces, subdue a barbarian tribe, and so on with a new job every couple of years as he worked up the ladder. I don't necessarily want Scalia to be able to lay out a highway, or Bernanke to be able to organize grain shipments, or -- Lord forbid! -- Pelosi to be able to command an anti-piracy fleet, but I still find it admirable how much a Roman of the leadership classes was expected to be able to do. We expect our judges to be career judges, and our legislators to be career legislators, and so on.

I have no idea whether all the different backgrounds of former justices helped them to reach better decisions or not, but it's certainly worth asking ourselves about diversity of career paths whilst we get all bent up about diversity of ethnicity and religion.

* I'm putting that in quotes not to scare people or sneer, but because I think the issue of what aspects of diversity you care about is so important to the matter that when you ignore that issue phrases like representative of the diversity of America don't convey any information anymore.

Further evidence of the space program's bogosity

bdunbar: America kicks ass - in spite of, not because of, the government

Ladies and Gentlemen: Life in the the United States of America, 2009.
Wired News: You and your son built your rocket in your garage with your own cash?

Paul Breed: Correct. It’s basically been a father-son effort, and we’ve done 98 percent of the work ourselves. We got some help from local rocket fans, and hired someone with help with the FAA regulations.
Two guys and a few interested amateurs can design and build, in a garage, a rocket that will reach outer space. With pocket money. For fun.

But in order to deal with the government ... ah that's where your brighter-than-average engineer duo must hire a specialist.
Amen. (Although that interview was in 2007, it's still accurate.)

Here's more from our intrepid engineers:
Wired News: Tell me more about why you are doing this challenge.
Paul Breed: I wanted to prove a couple of guys in a garage could do something significant that didn’t require a $100 billion from NASA.

Wired News: What’s wrong with current space technologies?
Paul Breed: We are still launching stuff into space in disposable artillery. If you rode on a jumbo jet from L.A. to London and at the end of the flight, the scrapped the jumbo jet, very few people could afford to fly to London.

The other problem is that the whole NASA structure has become a jobs program, not a development program. Clearly there are commercial launchers out there that could do the job, but if the government went that route, it wouldn’t keep the 100,000 people at NASA employed. This is a congressional jobs program that has nothing to do with space access and space exploration. … The whole structure is not conducive to developing things.

Wired News: How does the indie model work better?
Paul Breed: Look at [rocketry team] Armadillo. Try something that doesn’t work, fix it and then try it again next weekend. We aren’t talking about a test every four years; we are talking about a test every four days. It may look crude by aerospace standards, but they hold the record for the longest hovering vehicle, beating the Japanese Space Agency and NASA. And it’s a group of eight or 10 guys from Texas working on a budget that wouldn’t pay the coffee bill for Johnson Space Center for a year. I don’t think you can ever underestimate the power of motivated, small entrepreneurial groups. … One of the jokes going around is that when NASA returns to the moon, some small space company will fly CNN there to film it.
One thing that's absolutely critical to innovation is rapid testing and turnaround on the next iteration. You can not advance without that.

The Several Californias?

The Volokh Conspiracy | Ilya Somin | Should California Be Broken Up?

By now, almost everyone agrees that California government is seriously dysfunctional. The state suffers from a grave fiscal crisis, extraordinarily high taxation (which, however, is still not enough to finance the state's exorbitant spending), overregulation, and numerous other problems. "Governator" Arnold Schwarzenegger has been no more able to curb these tendencies than his much-reviled Democratic predecessor, Gray Davis. Steven Greenhut suggests that California's problems are structural, not merely the result of bad decisions by individual politicians. He argues that the Golden State's people would be better off if it was broken up into three or four separate smaller states.
Somin's support for partitioning CA rests mostly on making it easier for people to vote with their feet against the state's bad policies. Not a bad idea.

I'd like to add that it would actually make things better for everyone, both within California and without, when it comes time to vote for a President. In order to maximize everyone's power when voting* you want electoral college-like districts to be of equal sizes to to support each candidate as evenly as possible. There's no just and stable way to accomplish the latter, but the former would be pretty easy to do. You wouldn't need to necessarily partition California in order to break up it's 55 electoral votes into more modestly sized blocks, but it wouldn't hurt.

* Where we'll take power to be loosely defined as "the chances of having your own vote be the one that determines the winner of an election." See Math Against Tyranny by Will Hively, based upon the work of physicist Alan Natapoff, for details.

(Via TJIC)

13 July 2009

"Hubristic UI"

Mencius Moldbug has the best critique of Wolfram|Alpha I've yet seen, focusing on what he calls their "hubristic user interface." The powerful thing about W|A is that it can query a pretty impressive collection of customized databases and make some interesting comparisons between them. But the weak point is that in order to query this system it needs to interpret the natural language search that users provide it. It's not very good at this.

More distressingly, as a labmate and I discovered a couple of weeks ago, there is no way to bypass this interface. The text you type in the search bar must be translated to a machine-readable command at some point. W|A provides a little box at the top of every result called "Input interpretation" which appears to be that translation of the natural language input. (Sometimes W|A also provides an interpretation in Mathematica's built-in language.) Unfortunately, these interpretations are pretty useless. Most glaringly, W|A tends to choke completely if you enter it's own "input interpretation" back into the search box. (Imagine for a minute you hire a translator to convert your English into Farsi, but he can't understand a Farsi sentence that he gave you himself.) This is a really counter-intuitive way to design W|A, and it limits the ability of people to bypass the weak NLP component and access the strong database component with an easier to understand and more powerful command line-like interface.

(BTW: Anyone who doesn't intuitively understand why I'm dismayed by Wolfram undermining the command line interface of their own tool is commended to go read Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning was the Command Line, which is a wonderful and accessible account of the history of operating systems. And it's free.)

The Debt Car

Things that don't surprise me at all

Kids Prefer Cheese: Economists Make Prediction, Prediction is Correct!:
How Smart Are the Smart Guys? A Unique View from Hedge Fund Stock Holdings

John Griffin & Jin Xu, Review of Financial Studies, July 2009, Pages 2531-2570

Abstract: Compared to mutual funds, hedge funds prefer smaller, opaque value securities, and have higher turnover and more active share bets. Decomposing returns into three components, we find that hedge funds are better than mutual funds at stock picking by only 1.32% per year on a value-weighted basis, and this result is insignificant on an equal-weighted basis or with price-to-sales benchmarks. Hedge funds exhibit no ability to time sectors or pick better stock styles. Surprisingly, we find only weak evidence of differential ability between hedge funds. Overall, our study raises serious questions about the perceived superior skill of hedge fund managers.


Luck versus Skill in the Cross Section of Mutual Fund Alpha Estimates

Eugene Fama & Kenneth Frenchm University of Chicago Working Paper, March 2009

Abstract: The aggregate portfolio of U.S. equity mutual funds is close to the market
portfolio, but the high costs of active management show up intact as lower returns to investors. Bootstrap simulations produce no evidence that any managers have enough skill to cover the costs they impose on investors. If we add back costs, there is some evidence of inferior and superior performance (non-zero true alpha) in the extreme tails of the cross section of mutual fund alpha estimates. The evidence for performance is, however, weak, especially for successful funds, and we cannot reject the hypothesis that no fund managers have skill that enhances expected returns.
Since both of these results are PRECISELY what economists would predict, I expect to hear a little credit from you nay-sayers.

What I don't understand is why universities wasted so much money on high-priced investment advisers. Hell, I could have lost 20% or more of Duke's endowment, and done it for HALF the cost.
I probably could have done as well as Notre Dame's management team, and all I'd want is for them to forgive the student loan debt I owe them.