30 December 2010


I fooled around with some code a year ago to remove people* from photographs and video (which I suppose could be extended to removing, duplicating and adding them back in) so the whole time I watched this my mind was cranking away with "How? How? How? How? How?"

* Not "remove people" like Stalinistically airbrushing them out of photos. I mean remove all people -- all moving objects really -- from a frame. Removing them is actually the most obvious effect.  I also played around with other numeric manipulations to create effects inspired by Jim Campbell's photographic light box pieces.

Via Rob Beschizza

29 December 2010

"The Beauty of Pixar"

I'm just getting back from an (indulgently lazy) trip to the in-laws for Christmas, and I still don't feel like blogging.

Here's an awesome highlight video collecting 500 shots from Pixar's 11 movies, via The Daily What.

[Edited: The Vimeo version I embedded seems to be broken, so here's a YouTube version]

It was created by Leandro “Copperfield” Braga.  Huzzah to him.

(1) Braga has some sharp editing skills.

(2) Whoever is responsible for those individual shots (does Pixar have someone in a DP role? I forget) is earning their money. If I was a cinematographer I would rather be working in animation, because your "camera" can go places and move in ways that a real world camera never could.

22 December 2010

Nescis, mi fili, quantilla sapientia regitur mundus.

["Know, my son, with how little wisdom the world is ruled." — Julius III ]
EconLog | David Henderson | John Papola on Behavioral Economics

Here is the most succinct criticism I have heard of many of the public-policy views of those who embrace behavioral economics:
Why in the world do behavioral economists who study our flaws and irrational quirks advocate centralized power in the hands of a small group of flawed overlords? If people are irrational, so are government regulators, only they have corrupting monopoly power.
Well said.

Papola, by the way, is the fellow who teamed up with Russ Roberts to bring us the Hayek v Keynes rap battle.

~ ~ ~

Some words to consider on for those who use behavioral econ to advocate for further paternalism:

Experience should teach us to be most on our guard to protect liberty when the Government’s purposes are beneficent. Men born to freedom are naturally alert to repel invasion of their liberty by evil-minded rulers. The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.
— Louis Brandeis (Olmstead v. United States, 277 U.S. 479 (1928))

The theory behind representative government is that superior men—or at all events, men not inferior to the average in ability and integrity—are chosen to manage the public business, and that they carry on this work with reasonable intelligence and honesty. There is little support for that theory in the known facts...
— HL Mencken

The government consists of a gang of men exactly like you and me. They have, taking one with another, no special talent for the business of government; they have only a talent for getting and holding office.
— H. L. Mencken

Any model that treats government and its citizens as if the former are wise, mature adults while the latter are underdeveloped children is strongly elitist.
— Arnold Kling

Once the principle is admitted that it is the duty of government to protect the individual against his own foolishness, no serious objections can be advanced against further encroachments.
— Ludvig von Mises

Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence . . . . Let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitutions.
— Thomas Jefferson

There is danger from all men. The only maxim of a free government ought to be to trust no man living with power to endanger the public liberty.
— John Adams

21 December 2010

Same evidence, opposing conclusions.

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Questions Asked and Answered

Jonathan Chait asks:
Wilkinson is a libertarian. He thinks that regulation of business is generally perverted into the opposite of its intended effect. Okay, fine. Why would he expect that anybody who's left of center might agree with him?
I can't speak for WIll, of course, but I think that a lot of libertarians may have gotten that impression because when they're not advocating for new rules, progressives spend a lot of time complaining that rich people and companies are twisting, bending, or breaking . . . hell, folding, spindling, and mutilating . . . all the old rules in order to unjustly enrich themselves. If you google "Corporate loopholes" or "Citizens United' you can maybe understand how we could have gotten this misimpression.
To summarize: progressives are bullish on more regulation because established interested have perverted existing regulation.

Libertarians are bearish on more regulation ... because established interested have demonstrated they can pervert existing regulation.

Pirate Radio's "Get Off of My Cloud" Deleted Scene

This needs to be seen more.

Rhys Ifans is more Mick Jagger than Mick Jagger is.

That seated high leg kick at ~2:10 is my new favorite thing.

Have you seen Pirate Radio (aka The Boat That Rocked)? You should. Weird ending, but it's a ton of fun. Killer soundtrack (obvi) and a cast that's a who's who of Brits with a bonus serving of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Plus it's got good libertarianism and sea steading flavor.

Thoughts on Hanushek's study of teacher value study

Greg Mankiw's Blog: The Value of Good Teachers

From Eric Hanushek:
A teacher one standard deviation above the mean effectiveness annually generates marginal gains of over $400,000 in present value of student future earnings with a class size of 20 and proportionately higher with larger class sizes. Alternatively, replacing the bottom 5-8 percent of teachers with average teachers could move the U.S. near the top of international math and science rankings with a present value of $100 trillion."
There is a lot of dislike in the educational establishment for programs like Teach for America and Alliance for Catholic Education, much of which is justified and some of which I think is bitterness insiders always feel for those who bypass credentialist regimes.

Some of what frustrates me about such discussions is that it is too often framed as "Are these untrained college kids good teachers?" where goodness is measured on some absolute scale and not "How good are they compared to the marginal teacher?" Are they better than the alternatives -- the credentialed person who is displaced or leaving the position vacant?

If the bottom 5-8% of teachers are as bad as Hanushek says then it becomes a little more likely that a slightly above average college graduate without training is better at the margin.

(Although I suppose that is only true if the hiring process of the school for the "regular" teachers is somewhat efficient.  If they hire completely randomly then the TFA or ACE kid is as likely to be displacing one of the over performing teachers as an under performing one, which makes TFA & ACE worse.  But if that's the case, we have a lot bigger problems than TFA and ACE.)

~ ~ ~

Adam Ozmiek is right on:
There are really two important claims here. I think progressives tend to be very pleased with claims like the first one, which is that teachers have a very high value. You can find similar results in the work of Raj Chetty, which suggests that good kindergarten teachers are worth $320,000. If this is true then the marginal benefit of teaching skill -or quality, if you want to think of it that way- is far below the marginal cost, and therefore we should increase wages to draw more talented teachers.

However, the second claim is just as important and is suggested by, although not a necessary condition of, the first: if good teachers are very valuable, then bad teachers are very costly. This means we should be willing to pay more for good teachers, but it also increases the benefit of getting rid of bad teachers and ensuring we have a system that can do that. After all, every dollar spent on a bad teacher has the high opportunity cost of good teachers.
I would tweak the end of each of those paragraphs a bit. Rather than increasing wages to draw more talented teachers, I would shift the focus to increasing pay for talented teachers. How we determine who is talented is of course a thorny issue.

I would also expand on the last sentence of the latter 'graph. The cost of bad teachers is not only the opportunity cost of their salaries, but the opportunity cost of the man-hours students must spend with them. I would put more stress on that than the salaries. Those are hours students do not get back, and since the number of hours you spend in primary and secondary education is fixed, you're directly displacing hours spent with good or even average teachers.

~ ~ ~

I don't feel like searching for the research now, but I recall seeing that once you get class size under a certain threshold (in the upper 20's I believe) the impact of class size is near negligible. I conclude from this that you might not only be better off firing the bottom 5% of teachers and replacing them with a teacher with an average expected value, but you may also be better off firing them and not replacing them at all. 100 teachers -- including 5 from the far left tail of the distribution -- with 20 kids each may very well be worse than 95 teachers with 21 kids each.

It's a hypothesis worth investigating anyway.

~ ~ ~

Contrast Hanushek's observation with two bullet points from my Waiting for Superman review:
• I posted a couple of weeks ago this stat from the movie, which remains shocking:
About one of 57 medical doctors and one of 97 lawyers loses his or her license annually for malpractice. In contrast, only one in 2,500 unionized, public school teachers with tenure gets fired each year.
• A similar stat also stood out. I don't recall the exact figures, but of the several hundred school districts in Illinois, only 60 or so have ever attempted to fire a single tenured teacher, and of those only half have succeeded. That is absurd. There is no organization in the world that can hire tens of thousands of people without making a mistake and ending up with someone who is not right for the job. You can't run an organization if you assume that once someone has made the decision to hire X, that decision can never be revisited or reevaluated.
Those bottom five to eight percent are not being culled despite their destructivity.

~ ~ ~

Hanushek has been interviewed by Russ Roberts for EconTalk several times. He is worth listening to.

20 December 2010

Another benefit of studying CS...

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Paragraphs about prosopagnosia
Face space also explains why the favorite trick of editorial cartoonists works so well. By exaggerating features on a politician's face -- Bush's eyebrows, Obama's ears -- cartoonists push it farther away from the center of face space, to places where it has less competition from other faces we have stored in our memory. As a result, we recognize people from hand-drawn caricatures as quickly as from photographs -- and sometimes even more quickly.
That is Carl Zimmer, from the January/February 2011 issue of Discover, not yet on-line. Here is a short piece on how to draw caricatures."
... you learn to grok abstract spaces pretty well. Feature spaces, parameters spaces, face spaces, Boolean hypercubes, etc. are pretty useful things to be able to conceptualize.

For instance, I find it useful to think about political ideology not on a typical left-right spectrum (which I think is actually worse than useless) nor even on the two-dimensional Nolan Chart-type space (which is often useful) but in a higher dimensional space.  I don't want to go into detail now, but in that space the question, for instance, of whether Obama is a socialist is about as relevant as asking whether Dave Granlund draws Obama's ears as "large" (e.g.).  What is interesting is where Obama is in ideologyspace relative to where we would put the region marked "socialism" and the region populated by median American voters, just like we would consider where Granlund's Obama is in facespace relative to an average face and to Prince Charles, Lou Holtz, Dopey the Dwarf, and a bloodhound.

(This isn't unique to CS of course. I imagine physics and operations research and other disciplines would give you good familiarity with high dim abstract spaces as well.)

That Discover article seems pretty interesting. I'll have to keep my eyes out for it.

Caricature algorithms would be a cool project idea for someone taking a graphics course. Probably publishable too. AFAIK there's interest in more "aesthetic" types of graphics research, like good rendering algorithms for things like stippling, and a caricature system would probably still have enough math in it to make it seem serious.

17 December 2010

Stuff my wife says

SB7: What's a "Detroit-style pizza?"

Mrs SB7: It's a pizza topped with bullets and served with a side of crippling depression.

Damian Nenow & Platige Image's "Paths of Hate" Trailer

Another cool video by way of Planetary Folklore. This is some eye popping vector rendering.

A friend of mine did a vector-rendered animation of prop plane for one of his projects in our undergrad Visual Effects class. I got a kick out of thinking of that and watching this to see what a real set of pros could do.

15 December 2010

Wedding Planning

Tyler Cowen provides some typically Cowenian advice for planning weddings. Some of which, in all honesty, I do not understand.

This was a good point:
1. Non-contractibility is a bigger problem than you think. You can agree on the number of people, and the amount you will spend on flowers, but ex post many questions will pop up at the margin. One of the two persons will care more about the right answer than the other. One party will be more willing to work on the wedding than the other. Contract in advance for a method of disagreement resolution, not just on the details of the wedding. Get ready for the fact that one person cares less about the wedding than the other and realize this is not the same as caring less about the marriage.
That last sentence is equally applicable after the wedding.

Cowen asks for advice from readers. Here is what I put in his comments section:
Weddings are not efficient opportunities to rekindle friendships that have lapsed or become closer with distant relatives. If someone has not played a noticeable roll in your life they do not need to be there. Weddings are not a good time to demonstrate how much you care about anyone other than your new spouse. Making your parents understand this is more difficult than convincing yourselves, in my experience.

If you wish to save money then cross out entire lines from the budget. Don't look for cheaper suppliers, just skip it. If you have food, drink (for most crowds), music, and are wearing clothes which are respectfully presentable then your guests will have a good time. Those that would be upset by a lack of [chair covers/linens which match bridesmaids/voluminous flowers at the ceremony/seven kinds of cheese during cocktails/etc.] are not behaving like good friends or good party guests.

If the bridal party and the bride and groom's parents enjoys themselves at the reception, so will everyone else.

14 December 2010

Will sign books for food

National Post | Melissa Leong | The $4,000 tip jar: David Sedaris on a life spent on tour

As told to Melissa Leong, National Post

A couple of books ago, I put a tip jar on my signing table and I made over $4,000 on my tour. [...]

I told people it was all for me to spend on candy. They were delighted because it’s funny to give money to someone who doesn’t need it. If there had been a beggar outside the bookstore, at the end of the evening, he might have had 75 cents where as at the end of my best evening in Dallas–[ I had] $530 in tips.
I don't think it has anything to do with fun.

Tyler Cowen thinks they are trying to encourage the production of public goods.  I think this is more right, but still wrong.

They are giving back some of their consumer surplus to the producer. It is a way of expressing exactly how much surplus he created for them.

Furthermore a David Sedaris signing or reading provides an experience for people.  They get to go tell people they met him, spoke to him, shook his hand.  That's value above and beyond that of his books.  (Well, it is for some.  I find Sedaris relentlessly depressing.)

The beggar outside has created no value for anyone.

Sedaris is busking, and the beggar is ... begging.  There's a big difference between the two.

Even if the busker's performance is shit, at least the busker is trying to create value for others. Write up a funny sign, tell a story, pick up the trash around you: do something to create for other people.

~ ~ ~ ~

I think we are in a weird place when we consider donations to the homeless shelter and donations to the city opera to be legally equivalent as charitable donations.  It's a distinction that a lot of people have noted, obviously, but I'm still not satisfied that we've put our finger on exactly what the difference(s) is/are.

Sedaris' tips have helped me get closer to pinning down that difference, I think.

The donation to the opera, or to your favorite author, or podcast, or whatnot is more like a gift to a friend.  It says "thanks for being in my life; my life and the rest of society is better with you doing what you do."

The donation to the charity is not like that.  It says "I am sorry you have to be a part of society in the manner you are, please accept this money so that you no longer play that role world."

13 December 2010

Posner & Notre Dame

I was hard on ND in the last post, so let me brush off something from the drafts folder that gives me a chance to be a little more positive:
ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | More Posner Sloppiness re Catholicism

Finally, it's worth pondering whether Posner's sloppiness reflects an underlying hostility. [...] Posner dismissed the public square as a forum for social deliberation because it is tainted by religion: “Since so many Americans . . . are religious, and religious belief is a showstopper so far as public debate in our society is concerned, it is doubtful that deliberation over fundamental political goals and values is feasible outside our leading universities, the ethos of which is secular.”(Law, Pragmatism, and Democracy at 137)
If I had to give a one sentence mission for Notre Dame it would be "Be a counter example to Richard Posner's view expressed above."

Which is to say: Deliberate about everything. Explore every question. Be rigorous. Leave nothing to dogma or tradition or authority. Offer a vigorous apologia for the Church when you think it is right; freely criticize it when you think it is wrong. Address questions better than anyone else, secular or not.

I think Notre Dame can do that if they want to.

Curious Statistics: Catholic Colleges

I got an unsolicited email a few days ago through the Cardinal Newman Society from the former Bishop of Scranton, Joseph Martino. It lead with the following:
Did you know that nearly 1-in-8 Catholics will leave the Faith while attending a Catholic college?
I'm not entirely sure what the point of this is.

I assume he means if you sent 200 Catholic youths to nominally Catholic schools, only 175 of them would still consider themselves Catholics when they are graduated.

The puzzling part is that I have no idea how many people who considered themselves Catholic at 18 still consider themselves Catholics at 22 overall. That's a big transition period, where many people form their own identities and move away from the identity they were born and raised into.

If I sent 200 Catholics to secular, or Protestant schools, how many would be Catholic when they finished? If I sent 200 into the workforce, or into the military, how many would be Catholic in four years?

If the answer to those questions are "less than 175" then I'd imagine we should be pretty pleased with Catholic universities for sustaining faith better than other life experiences.

If, on the other hand, the answers to those questions are "more than 175" perhaps people need to reevaluate the value of Catholic colleges.  Martino seems to be saying in the rest of his letter that too many Catholic schools are insufficiently Catholic, and that's what's driving youths away from the Church. But I've got an alternative hypothesis (that my ND friends probably won't like): seeing the Church from up close for four years makes some people want less to do with it.  That's what happened to me.  I spent four years at Notre Dame getting an up close look at mendacious priests and decided they didn't have anything to say worth listening to.*

[Let's take religion out of the picture for a second.  What if you sent 100 kids interested in comic books away to a summer camp to learn about being comics creators.  If those kids came back and only 80 of them were still interested in being being comics creators, what would you conclude?  Martino would, I imagine, conclude the camp was insufficiently devoted to comics, and that it should double down and be more hard-core about everything comics related.  I might conclude, in contrast, that expectations brushed up against a bit of reality, and some of those kids concluded that they were not as interested in a life as a comic book creator as they originally thought.

Now maybe the Martino hypothesis is correct.  Maybe those 20 kids wanted all comics, all the time and were disappointed they didn't get it.  But maybe he's wrong.  My point is that only knowing 4-out-of-5 kids still consider themselves future comic book creators can't by itself lead us to the conclusion that the camp ought to amp up the comics focus.]

My experiences with Notre Dame drove me further from the Church not through a deficit of religion but through a surfeit of it. The institutionality of universities combined with the institutionality of Catholicism to magnify all the worst aspects of the Church. I did not see the positive aspects of my religion present through my school's officialdom. I did not see love and charity and forgiveness and community. I saw bureaucracy and hierarchy and rules.  I saw a lot of priests who were immature, hypocritical, or arrogant.  I saw in the Church, if not in my fellow Catholics, things I did not wish to associate myself with, and people that I do not trust to help me find my way through life.

* I think there is a lot of wisdom accumulated by Catholic thinkers through the years.  But I'm not getting any of that wisdom from the leaders ("leaders") the Church has now.  At least not the ones I've been in personal contact with.

PS One of Martino's six recommendations for how this "crisis" can be avoided is "promoting Eucharistic Adoration on campuses." Really? Does he really think 19 year olds are distancing themselves from Rome because of the lack of superstitious rituals? Smells and Bells are not going to put butts back in pews.

PPS Know that I don't throw around "superstitious" lightly in this context.

PPPS Martino also laments that some Catholic schools now have mixed-sex dorms.  Maybe he's right to, and maybe he isn't.  I happened to like Notre Dame's single sex dorms a lot.  But I think this, and cultural issues like it that Martino mentions, are curious things to single out in the frame of Catholics leaving the Church while at school.

It seems to me if you're the average person who is likely to get upset about co-educational living arrangements, you're also relatively less likely to leave the Church.  You're "the base" in political terms.  More contemporary or secular or liberal policies (or however it is you describe them) seem likely to appeal to the "moderates" who are also most likely to bolt the flock.

Maybe I have my correlations wrong.  I just don't know (based on any facts presented in this email) whether those students who leave the Church do so because they find Catholic schools too secular or too religious, and that seems a little too important of a question for Martino to beg.

We don't need more college. We need better.

(And included in that is we need better students.  Some of this is on their shoulders too.)
EconLog | Arnold Kling | College Education at the Margin

Richard Vedder writes,
approximately 60 percent of the increase in the number of college graduates from 1992 to 2008 worked in jobs that the BLS considers relatively low skilled--occupations where many participants have only high school diplomas and often even less.
This reinforces my suspicion that if one does the calculation at the relevant margin, adding to the pool of college graduates will not raise productivity or wages.

I hasten to add that this is a highly controversial issue. [...]
There's an understatement.

Katherine Mangu-Ward has more on this.

Two of my lab mates are grading the final exam for the undergrad course my adviser taught this semester. The level of innumeracy among these kids is astounding.

[I was going to tell some stories, but I don't really know where the line is regarding student privacy since I'm not actually an instructor for the course.  I don't even want to speak in generalities.

I'll just leave it that these kids are students at our state's "flagship" university and they are flat out unprepared for anything numeric. Excuse me if I don't think sending more Marylanders to college is the appropriate objective to be optimizing for, especially if the justification is preparing people for "21st century jobs."]

PS One of the answers given on this exam was a copy of the old "elephant in the way."  It was a really great cartoon of an elephant, but it made no sense in context since there wasn't a moving object to block.

Red Light Camera Incentives

Reason: Hit & Run | Radley Balko | Red Light Cameras Working as Intended: They're Making Money.

Nashville's News Channel 5 posts this headline:
Red Light Cameras Cut Down on Crashes
It's referring to an article in the Clarksville Leaf Chronicle with this headline:
Red light cameras working in Clarksville, police chief says
But look at the actual numbers and it's not at all clear that the cameras are "working," at least if you believe "working" to mean "making the roads safer." What's clear is that local authorities want to give the impression that the cameras are preventing accidents, even if the numbers don't bear that out. The police chief focuses on side-impact collisions, which fell from 72 in 2008 to 64 in 2009 after the cameras were installed. That's a modest drop, and it wasn't consistent across the city. For example, one intersection had four side-impact collisions in 2008, five in 2009, and has seen 11 already this year.

In fact, overall collisions are up at the intersections where Clarksville has installed red light cameras (a result we've seen nearly everywhere they've been installed). The city just chooses to ignore rear-impact collisions when evaluating the cameras. Those collisions increased from 138 in 2008, to 173 in 2009, to 169 through October of this year.
Balko goes on to describe the really perverse incentives for the company which operates these cameras.  Anybody who can think two steps ahead ought to be able to see the ill-effects such an agreement between the city and the camera operator would cause. Apparently that's too much for Clarksville though.

(I was going to just going to link this article in the sidebar and let it rest at that, but I was about eighteen inches away from one of these rear-impact crashes at a camera equipped intersection on the way to work this morning.*  The rearward vehicle managed to bleed off enough speed so that no one was injured, luckily.  This intersection is typically a gong show of box-blocking and other dickery, so I'm already grumpy with how it's been designed and managed.

* Okay, my faithful motorized conveyance Betsy** was about eighteen inches away.  I was personally further away than that since this happened in the lane to my right.

** Yes, I name my cars.  And I refer to her in the feminine.)

The issue is that Redflex, the operator, gets a cut of every ticket issued through their cameras, and also gets to decide which intersections to place cameras at.  So if a camera works and red light running decreases, they lose revenue.  Their incentive is to place cameras where they won't affect driving habits.

How to fix this is an interesting game theoretic problem, and one I wish I had thought of a couple of weeks ago, when I was still auditing a game theory course.   The obvious solution is to have a fixed monthly payment for each camera, but then Redflex would put the cameras where few people run red lights so they don't have to do as much processing.  I suppose the next step would be to arrange a payment based on the decrease in the amount of red light running, but I'm not sure exactly what that would be.  Perhaps a payment per citation, with the amount of each payment increasing proportional to the overall reduction in red-light running.  I'm not sure off the top of my head how to balance out the coefficients of that formula to produce the desired outcome though.  On second thought maybe you want a per-camera fee coupled with bonuses for decreases in red-light running.

It's difficult to design this because it depends on what Redflex believes about their cameras.  If they think they actually work, they'll respond one way to a given set of incentives.  But if they they think red light running is mostly exogenous to their system, they'll respond a different way.

All of this is rather moot, since the city still has an incentive for people to keep running red lights to keep their revenue up.  I'd sidestep that by doing something like this speed camera test program which dumps the revenue from fines into a lottery pool for which non-speeding drivers are eligible.  Anyone with a clean driving record for the year could be entered for either cash prizes, or having their vehicle registration fee waved, or such.  Maybe you get the city's incentives further aligned by letting them keep a larger share of the revenue out of the prize pot as collisions decrease.

Law Testing

Let a Thousand Nations Bloom | Mike Gibson | Law Profs: We Need FDA-Style Approval for Laws

The FDA and its randomized trials have killed people. But never mind. The Boston Globe writes:
As Donald Green of Yale says, “We test pharmaceuticals because there are billions of dollars at stake, and lives.” The same, he argues, is true of our laws, yet we don’t subject them to the same scrutiny. “In some ways the question is, how badly do we want to know?”
Still, I like the spirit of the idea. One such trial over a fifty year period was Hong Kong versus the rest of China. We still have people who deny this obvious outcome and who, like the Boston Globe, rely on sentimental quackery and fairness-based homeopathy. The Globe expands its story on randomized law trials out of this paper:
In a paper to be published in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review this spring, Yale professors Ayres and Yair Listokin and George Washington University law professor Michael Abramowicz advocate the systematic introduction of randomized trials throughout government — in legislatures and administrative agencies, at the state and federal level. They suggest that trials be “self-executing,” in that policies would be automatically enacted based on their results (though lawmakers would be able to overrule this default).
Not really “self-executing” if it can be overridden by vested interests, is it? Besides, the authors don’t even subject their own policy proposal to the same test–let’s suggest a “randomized” trial comparing countries who have FDA-style law approval with those that don’t.
(1) I like the idea of laws judged by effects, and not intentions.  I like it a whole lot.

(2) I have no confidence this scheme would actually work.

(2a) Won't the results of these tests be pretty likely to be ignored, as TJIC notes the results of RomneyCare were ignored?

(2b) We already have conclusive evidence that things like ethanol subsidies are terrible, and that result is ignored.

(2c) The FDA's decisions are already politicized. Why wouldn't the Law Testing Body's results be similarly skewed?

(2d) I don't think this is a problem amenable to technocratic solutions.

(3) Isn't this supposed to be what federalism is for? "Laboratories of democracy," and all that?  I know it doesn't do that anymore but wouldn't reverting to less centralized governance be simpler and as effective as a LawFDA? Instead with every new reform we get more homogenization across the country.

(4) How will the parameters of the trial be set? Who will choose who sets the parameters?

(4a) What will the length of a trial be? What will stop legislators from gaming the trial length, say by writing laws with front-loaded benefits and delayed costs, similar to ObamaCare gaming the CBO's ten year horizon?

(5) Will this cause even more regime uncertainty?  People would have to worry first about whether new legislation passes, and then about whether it will pass certain (likely murky) tests, and then again whether the test results are over ridden.

(5a) If the test period lasts long enough to bridge a congressional election you will give two different congresses a crack at approving or disapproving each law.

(6) Tangent: medical device companies find the FDA not only bad, but more burdensome and less effective than the equivalent regulatory apparatus in Europe.  Rule: if your bureaucracy is more bureaucratic than the EU's you have a significant problem.

Velocitas Eradico

My father alerted me to the Navy testing out their kinetic projectile rail gun project. Above is the video from their 33 megajoule, mach 8 test.

12 December 2010

Tax Deal Analogy

Special Lady Friend was surprised I was not more excited about the tax deal reached last week.

I think Mike Munger captures why I was not enthusiastic very well:
Kids Prefer Cheese | Mungowitz | Why Borrowing Money is NOT the Same as 'Free"

Consider three offers to sell a car.

A. You can buy this car for $10,000
B. You can buy this car for a 60% discount, or $4,000
C. You can buy this car for $4,000 down, and finance $6,000

My claim was that the Republican tax cuts pretended to offer us deal B (big free discount), but in fact offered us deal C (borrow part of price). Deal B is WAY better than Deal C, but it was fake. If someone offered you B, but your contract said C, that would be fraud.
I'm pretty indifferent between deal A and deal C at this point.

Of course the tax deal we got was not just a deferment of payment, it was also coupled with an increase in the purchase price (in the form of the various spending originally coupled with it, and the porky new Ethanol subsidies, etc. that Reid is tacking on).

Steven Landsburg also has good thoughts on this deal.

See also Mungowitz's coblogger Angus on why the payroll tax cuts do not imperil Social Security in particular.

11 December 2010

Desperate Housewives in Saudi Arabia

Reason: Hit & Run | Michael C. Moynihan | Latest Wikileaks Revelation: American Diplomats Years Behind Reason Magazine

Back in 2002 and 2003, former Reason editor Charles Paul Freund was arguing that it was pop culture, not heavy-handed propaganda, that would ultimately promote liberalization in the Arab world. If you haven’t read Freund’s brilliant essay “In Praise of Vulgarity,” do so right now (and his equally fantastic essay on the liberating power of Arab pop videos). And now we discover, according to cables revealed by Wikileaks, that it took American diplomats in the Middle East years to figure out what Reason readers long knew. From The Guardian:
Satellite broadcasts of the US TV shows Desperate Housewives and Late Show With David Letterman are doing more to persuade Saudi youth to reject violent jihad than hundreds of millions of dollars of US government propaganda, informants have told the American embassy in Jeddah.

Broadcast uncensored and with Arabic subtitles alongside sitcoms such as Friends on Saudi Arabia's MBC 4 channel, the shows are being allowed as part of the kingdom's "war of ideas" against extremist elements. According to a secret cable titled "David Letterman: Agent of Influence", they have been proving more effective than Washington's main propaganda tool, the US-funded al-Hurra TV news channel….
Good for Reason.  But aren't they, and American diplomats, also behind In The Beginning ... Was The Command Line?

Hrmmm. I just re-read parts of In The Beginning and I think the point Stephenson makes in it about the effect of "low-brow" culture on radicalism is actually orthogonal to the one above. Somehow I took the message The Guardian and Freund discusses away from In The Beginning even though it doesn't seem to explicitly be there. So... read In The Beginning if you haven't, for lots of reasons unrelated to this whole Saudi culture war business.

P Kroog vs The Broken Window Fallacy

I know I harp about Bastiat's "That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen" all the time, but this is a story that — judging from how often supposedly informed people demonstrate ignorance of it — can not be told enough.


PS Don't come back at me with that "multiplier" nonsense. You can't get rich by wasting things.

Our Boys (and Girls) in Blue

DCist | Catherine Finn | Ex-MPD Officer Gets Jail Time for Excessive Force
Wow! An MPD officer being held to account for thuggery? Maybe I should dial up my respect for the MPD by a smidge.
Former MPD police officer Kisha Coley was sentenced to 6 days in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of assault. In March, Coley got into an argument while making an arrest with a man she was arresting and struck him with her baton.
Six days? You're shitting me.  Crank that dial the other way hard.

Another report about Coley:
Washington Post: The Crime Scene | Mary Pat Flaherty | Ex-D.C. officer jailed for excessive force

Coley, 36, will spend this weekend and next in jail after pleading guilty to two counts of assault ...
Six days spread out over two weekends?
... after hitting a man with her baton during an early morning arrest in which she ordered the man to move away from the entry to a laundromat in the 3500 block of Georgia Avenue NW. The man moved on but came back to argue with Coley and threatened to report her to a supervisor, according to documents filed with her plea.
How DARE he threaten to make her face responsibility for her actions.
The officer hit the man on the head and later, on his hands, after a second officer had the suspect detained against the back of a police cruiser, court records show.
Not just thuggery, but cowardly thuggery.

10 December 2010

FAA shits the bed

NPR | AP | FAA: Key Data Missing On 119,000 Aircraft In U.S.

The Federal Aviation Administration is missing key information on who owns one-third of the 357,000 private and commercial aircraft in the U.S. — a gap the agency fears could be exploited by terrorists and drug traffickers. [...]

About 119,000 of the aircraft on the U.S. registry have "questionable registration" because of missing forms, invalid addresses, unreported sales or other paperwork problems, according to the FAA. In many cases, the FAA cannot say who owns a plane or even whether it is still flying or has been junked.
Oh you have got to be shitting me. Those jackwagons in the TSA are herding and scanning and groping all of us passengers to prevent us from overpowering the locked-in-the-armored-cabin flight crew of an airliner and meanwhile ... MEANWHILE THE FAA HAS LOST TRACK OF ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND ENTIRE AIRCRAFT?!
Next year, the FAA will begin canceling the registration certificates of all 357,000 aircraft and require owners to register anew, a move that is causing grumbling among airlines, banks and leasing companies. Notices went out to the first batch of aircraft owners last month.
Typical. Regulators screw the pooch; regulated have to spend time and money correcting their mistakes.

Is any attention ever given to how many man hours in the private sector have to be sacrificed to jump through these sorts of hoops? Ever?
The U.S. registry includes 16,000 aircraft that were sold but never updated with the names of the new owners, and more than 14,000 aircraft that have had their registrations revoked but may still be flying because the FAA has not canceled their N-numbers.
At this point I have no patience for anything other than name calling. F***wits. I'm out.

(Hat tip to Special Lady Friend)

09 December 2010

Lego Antikythera

Via one of my labmates:

Abstaining from eating pork (except at dinner, lunch, breakfast, afternoon snack time, midnight snack time, picnics, brunches, buffets, feasts, barbecues, tailgates and other occasions when pork is being served)

Reason: Hit & Run | Katherine Mangu-Ward | When We Said We Were Going to Ban Earmarks, You Didn't Think We Were Going to Ban Earmarks, Did You?

When congressional Republicans backed a two-year earmark moratorium in a wave of post-election enthusiasm, apparently they didn't understand that banning earmarks would entail not having any more earmarks. Now—after failing to drag Democrats into their porkless hell—they're freaking out.
After agreeing to kill earmarks, some of the most conservative GOP lawmakers are already starting to ask themselves: What have we done?...

So some Republicans are discussing exemptions to the earmark ban, allowing transportation, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and water projects....
Jesus wept. A month has gone by and they're already weaseling out of their "promise."

And by the way, the Corps of Engineers is entirely run through earmarks. (Okay, not entirely: just 85%) It's about as far from an independent, apolitical entity as you get in Washington: Congress and the President specificy exactly where they go and what they do there.

The next most earmarky organization is the Bureau of Reclamation, which is responsible for the many of the "water projects" mentioned above. 73% of their budget is earmarked.

Transportation projects are only a sixth earmark-funded (as of three years ago).  Of course transportation projects are also the poster children of earmark spending.  (Bridge to Nowhere? Murtha Airport?)

So what those "some Republicans" are saying is "let's not have any earmarks, except for the places where we have LOTS OF EARMARKS."

(Image from the WSJ)

Here's another 'graph from the Politico story that Mangu-Ward quoted above:
Conservatives like [Tenn. Rep. Phil] Roe, Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann and Iowa Rep. Steve King are among those trying to figure out a longer-term, sustainable way to get money back to projects in their districts.
What the F does that even mean? How is there possibly a "sustainable" way to take money from people who live far away from you and funnel it back to your neighbors? Words mean things. The only way you could "sustainably" do that is to only bleed taxpayers a little bit at a time so they don't object too vociferously. It's the sustainability of a vampire sucking some blood but leaving its victim alive to heal, so the cycle of leaching can continue. Putting "sustainable" in front of something doesn't magically make it good and desirable.

There are other members quoted as saying that this "has gone too far" and will lead to "unintended consequences," which can only lead me to conclude that the intended, desired consequence of banning earmarks was to look good, and the unintended, "step too far" consequence is actually having to follow through on that promise and reduce their own power and spending.

PS  Can someone tell me who decided to pass over Jeff Flake to put Hal "Prince of Pork" Rogers in charge of the House Appropriations Cmte? Seriously, who the hell put this slimy porker in charge? And where are the grown ups?

~ ~ ~ ~

Edited to add (10 Dec 2010) Randal O'Toole discusses transportation earmarks:
1. Earmarks are relatively new. The federal government has been handing out transportation money for at least 80 years, but there were virtually no earmarks in transportation bills before 1982. Somehow, transportation managed to work without earmarks for at least 50 years.

2. Earmarks are, almost by definition, a waste of money. Since the feds give money to the states only after the states write plans determining that the money will be spent as effectively as possible, earmarks are only needed if the member of Congress who puts in the earmark wants the state to build something that the state thinks isn’t worthwhile. Some 80 percent of earmarks are for projects that are not on state priority lists; the other 20 percent didn’t have to be earmarked.

Another comic for the lab door

Today's SMBC is full of truth:

Seriously, this is true.

When people ask me why the research I've chosen for my dissertation topic is important to do, I tell them there are three reasons. The first one is the George Mallory Rationale: because it's there. The next two reasons I give are actual justifications, but in my heart I do it because we bloody well can.

08 December 2010


Inception came out on DVD Tuesday.  I had meant to post about it when it came out in theaters because I really like it, but it slipped by.  And now I've missed the mark again, albeit by only scant dozens of hours.

So... go out and see it if you haven't.  It's really good.  Lot's of Dick and Ballard and Borges stuff going on.  Cerebral and exciting at the same time.  Yay!

But all the things I like about it aren't as fun to write about as the problems I had with it, so here comes the criticism.

(Here be monsters spoilers.)

Problem One: The dream worlds aren't very dreamy.

We get a train barelling down a city street, the zero gee hotel, a moving staircase in the fire escape, and that Rubik's Cube trickery of Paris folding up.  Now those thigns were pretty cool (especially the second and forth) but that's pretty much the limit of the dreaminess; everything else is business as usual.

I don't know about you, but my dreams are weird.  Like deeply, deeply strange.  Like Morpheus only comes to visit me when he's hanging out with Raoul Duke and Dr Gonzo. That's what I expect out of a dream movie.

This is sort of a bogus criticism, I'll admit.  It's Nolan's movie, and if he wants to depict a dreamworld that's pretty much the same as reality, that's his business.  I think that clashes with some of what we're told in the exposition, but whatever... his movie, his world.

No small part of my dissatisfaction is because the trailer depicted lots of weird dream world reality-doesn't-apply-here business, and that's not really what the movie delivered. Just one more reason not to like the guys who cut trailers (or the marketing people telling them how to cut trailers).

Problem Two: Too much telling, not enough showing.

The dialog makes a big deal about how the team needs an architect — literally an architect of buildings, not just a word for a high-level designer — to build these dream worlds. The worlds need to be like mazes, so much so that their architect actually has to design pencil-and-paper mazes to get her job. They're closed loops, we're told. Windy and twisting and confusing and limited but apparently all-encompassing and endless at the same time.  Hell, even the marketing for the film played off of mazes.

We never see ANY of that supposedly labyrinthine setting on screen. Besides the aforementioned staircase switcheroo, the environments they're playing in could be the sets to any movie.

If they hadn't kept talking about the maze-ness of it, I never would have suspected that's what the environments were supposed to be like.  That's a serious flaw for an artistic work in a visual medium.

There's one point in the climactic battle when someone (I forget the details) makes the tough decision to use some shortcut through non-Euclidean space that had been architected into the mountain side. The scene is so frenetically shot and our perspective so unestablished that the shortcut is utterly indistinguishable from any other shot of someone going down the mountain.  You shouldn't have to rely on dialog to let me know that's what's going on.

The movie made a big deal about how these environments were not like reality. We are told this repeatedly, in several places of the great swaths of exposition. And we never get to see any of that.

Filmmakers have certain tools available to them that other artists don't. I think a critical measure of a film is how well these tools -- camera and editing and lights and visual effects -- are put to use in the service of a story.

Inception is beautifully conceived and shot and edited, but I think Nolan sort of drops the ball here by not letting us see this dream world he so lavishly and lovingly describes. This might as well have been a book, for all of the dialog we get about the setting and the comparative lack of visuals.

So that's it. Those are the main complaints.

PS Here, by the way, is one thing I would have done to make things more dream-ish.

You know those subconscious guard wraith things that are on the look out for tampering? Take away their faces. For a while at least.

The mind (okay, my mind, because I don't really know how yours works) only fills in details of a dream when needed. Give all of those wraiths blank, featureless faces. Then when they notice something is up, instead of having them do the turn-and-stare thing, their faces get filled in with detail. I think that would have (a) been more dream-like, (b) made good use of the visual tools available in a film, not to mention (c) it would be awesome.

Not a great communicator

Quoting from Obama's recent press conference:
Atomic Nerds | LabRat | First-Class Temperament
Take a tally. Look at what I promised during the campaign. There’s not a single thing that I’ve said that I would do that I have not either done or tried to do.
The only term for this is “blatant lie”, but the horrifying thing is he might actually sincerely believe this to be true.
Would it be too much to point out the sea level hasn’t appreciably gone down?
Oh, both barrels!


I don't have much to say about WikiLeaks itself. I think a lot of my opinion of the situation is summed up nicely by Patrick at Popehat, who said he implicitly believes Assange more than the US government, only because Assange, unlike Uncle Sam, has never personally lied to him.

This is an under-communicated idea though:
Ideas | David Friedman | Concerning WikiLeaks

Listening to discussions of the case, one repeated theme is that there are some things the government should be allowed to keep secret. That is not an unreasonable view, but I do not think it has much to do with the case. If the government had kept its cables secret, they would never have reached WikiLeaks.

The question at this point is whether when the government fails to keep something secret, when it gives access to its secrets to someone who proceeds to pass them on, it is entitled to put the genie back in the bottle by making everyone whom they have been passed on to, at least everyone with the ability to publicize them, shut up.

Legally speaking, the answer is that they are not—as in the case of the Pentagon Papers. I think that's the right answer. If keeping things secret is important, the government should keep them secret, not let them out and then do its best to gag the press in order to keep the general public from learning them. [...]
(1) Practically, there's no putting secrets back in the bottle. None. You mostly look like some combination of weakling and jerk when you try. Maybe the bluster deters leakers in the future. I am not sure what the net effect is.

(2) I think this relates to a lot of the concerns about privacy in general. I see a lot of people bitching about supposed breaches of privacy when the event wasn't private in the first place.

People bitch about employers or land lords checking their credit reports, as if the counterparties to their commercial transactions didn't have as much right to speak about the trade as the consumer does. People bitch about having their very reputations discussed in public, as if their interactions with other people were their property alone. Ditto people wanting there to be no record of their online presence. And again the hue and cry about Google noting WiFi signals as it drove around in public. People were broadcasting their existence over the radio waves into public spaces! It can't possibly be breach of privacy to notice that's happening.  Hell, I don't even have to go that far: many people think taking a picture of the front of their house from a public street is a violation of privacy.

None of those activities are private by definition. Not anymore than getting into a shouting match in the middle of a restaurant after removing your pants.  People are going to notice that, because you're doing it in public.  Activities which involve other people can not be expected to be kept in the privacy bottle.

(3) More relevant to WikiLeaks, I've seen altogether too much of governments claiming their patently public activity is protected by some notion of privacy. Here's Brighton, England claiming its own town council meetings are too private to be posted to YouTube. Oregon claimed two years ago (still does claim?) that the laws of the state of Oregon are copyrighted. FOIA shenanigans are a little different, but along a parallel path.  (NB I did post two security-related bullshit FOIA excuses this morning.)

~ ~ ~ ~

For me the biggest story in the aftermath of WikiLeaks is the beyond-the-rule-of-law behavior of many of our politicians.  Glenn Greenwald has a good rundown of the bullying and posturing and extra-legal behavior.

Assange seems like a jerk to me, and one who is deeply confused and mistaken about how the world works.  But he is running what amounts to a media outfit.  He has been convicted of no crimes.  He hasn't even been charged with crimes.*  In a nation with the rule of law you don't get to call for the punishment of editors who publish things you don't like.

The reaction reminds me of Ken@Popehat discussing the TSA: "over the last century we have gradually accepted the proposition that anything the government tells us it can regulate, it can regulate." Our leaders aren't attempting regulation, they're attempting censorship, and some are even threatening death. And they claim the authority to silence Assange the same way Obama claims the authority to kill Anwar al-Awlaki: it's their authority because they have the authority to proclaim it their authority!  They might as well claim the authority because a strange woman lying in a pond distributed a sword to them.  That would be as legitimate.

Mitch McConnel actually said that if Assange hadn't broken a law, then the correct reaction is to change the law so that Assange's actions become illegal.  THAT'S NOT HOW THE RULE OF LAW WORKS YOU TWIT.

I'm getting worked up and Mrs SB7 is almost done preparing a mouthwatering meatloaf, so I'll leave you with Greenwald's closing:
The face of authoritarianism and tyranny reveals itself with how it responds to those who meaningfully dissent from and effectively challenge its authority: do they act within the law or solely through the use of unconstrained force?
Even if Assange is the worst horse thieving, oath breaking, puppy kicking scumbag to walk the Earth our rulers must stay bound by the rule of law.  We're better than the alternative.  We ought to be, anyone.

* Okay, he has been charged, but not with a crime relevant to leaked diplomatic dispatches.  Frankly, the rape acquisitions seem less credible than those made by Crystal Gail Mangum.

It is a little amusing seeing many of the Leftists who consider themselves allies to Assange lashing out against the two women accusing him of rape. I just find it funny to see people so quickly abandoning their typical behavior as soon as it proves politically expedient. I haven't seen people doing this so obviously since Roman Polanski was arrested.

PS This hillary Clinton speech from January, entitled "Remarks on Internet Freedmom," is just delicious right now. She's really excited about "new tools that enable citizens to exercise their rights of free expression by circumventing politically motivated censorship."

Security Risks: Salt and Stones

Regarding the Salt:
Scheneier on Security | Bruce Schneier | Never Let the Terrorists Know How We're Storing Road Salt

This seems not to be a joke:
The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a lawsuit against the state after it refused to release the construction plans for a barn used to store road salt, on the basis that doing so would be a security risk.
Regarding the Stones:
Ars Technica | Nate Anderson | "Going commando" on the TSA, redux: a kilt-wearer speaks

The TSA told Ars last month that its procedures for dealing with the kilted-and-sporraned traveler were a matter of national security and could not be divulged.
Blue collar public employees have "I'm on break" to avoid working. It looks like their white collar brethern have discovered the utility of "If we told you then the terrorists would win" to avoid the inconvenience of having to answer questions from citizens.

07 December 2010

"Infinity Elephants"

As an inveterate classroom doodler, huzzah to this.

There are many more such doodle-based lessons from the same creator.

BTW Computational Geometry, mentioned briefly above, would make a great class for a school that was serious about teaching math and technology.

"Compromise"; Deficits Are Future Taxes; Grown Ups.

Compromise in Washington means one of two things:

1.  Everyone who disagrees with me needs to shut up and agree to do what I want.
2.  Rather than finding a middle ground we'll both be partially satisfied with, let's both do everything we want!

Last night we got the latter: not moderation, but loads of stuff to please to both poles.

See if Team A wanted a 10% reduction in tax rates and Team B did not, I would consider a reduction of 5% a compromise.  And if Team X wanted twenty more weeks of unemployment benefits and Team Y did not, I would consider ten more weeks a compromise.  I would not consider a 10% reduction in tax rates and twenty more weeks of unemployment bennies a compromise.
KPC | Angus | Dance band on the Titanic

As for "stimulus", well the economy will turn around on its own at some point, perhaps soon, so these cuts may be lucky enough to be enacted at an opportunistic point in time whereby they will get the "credit".
I remember getting advice a long time ago: don't do a rain dance. Do a rain dance every morning.  Then when it eventually rains ... BOOM! it was all you.

(Aside: sounds silly, right?  Well Thomas Friedman has made a pretty good living for four or five years claiming "the next six months" would be the definitive moment in Iraq.)

Washington has been in Perpetual Rain Dance Mode for two years. They need to always be doing something so that when the first derivatives finally turn positive they can point to the most recent action as the definitive cause. It doesn't even matter if cause postdates effect. As long as there is some action in rough vicinity of the turnaround that your partisans will crow about being a cause, you're the savior.
People, the search for grown-ups in government is not going well.
Federalist 51 correctly said that we would never have government by angels or saints, but are adults too much to ask for?

Put This On's tagline is "a web series about dressing like a grown-up."

I think we need a "governing like a grown-up" movement. Motto: "Send out the Clowns"

Ah, hell with it. This is only a few hundred billion of spending, right?  Seriously.  I'm not even that upset about this shenanigan.  (1) I'm jaded by the last few years and think a few hundred billion sounds like small change. (2) It's not really that terrible of a policy platter.  But Jesus wept! are we ever going to have leaders making tough decisions and handing out bad news?  When are we going to say enough is a enough, stop kicking the can down the road, and start fixing shit?

PS This description of the deal from CNN amuses me:
Deficit hawks have been saying that a short-term run-up in debt is acceptable if it is paired with a serious long-term deficit-reduction plan.

The proposed deal skips that last part, though the president has said he and his budget team will closely review the recommendations for debt reduction made last week by his debt panel.
Translation: "We're eating our dessert now, but we pinky swear that we'll eat our veggies next month. This time we really mean it."

How Stuff's Made: Shoe Horns

It's all the kit you would expect for a metal working shop, but being used on horn. Odd.

Filmed at Abbeyhorn's factory in Carnforth, Lancashire, via ACL.

I have zero need for even a modest shoehorn, but those are some handsome objects.

06 December 2010

You couldn't pay me enough to be George Vanderbilt

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | What You Have That George Vanderbilt Didn't

I just returned from the Biltmore, America's largest home. Built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore is a symbol of how good the rich had it during the Gilded Age. I'm sure that most of the other visitors would answer "very good indeed."

But how many would actually want to trade places with George? Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did. For all his riches, he didn't have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us. Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail's pace.

Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered "sudden death from complications following an appendectomy" at the age of 51. (Here's the original NYT obituary). Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it's safe to say that George's Bane wouldn't be fatal today.

Vanderbilt clearly had it better than most of the people in his era. But the world has improved so much that, all things considered, the average American is now better off than this prince of the Gilded Age. I can't be sure, but I bet that George would have agreed. How much do you think he would have paid to live for a single day in your shoes?
Special Lady Friend and I were at the Met in NY after Thanksgiving, and there was a portrait bust of Marcus Aurelius' co-emperor Lucius Verus.  I was reminded that Verus (as well as Aurelius) probably the two most powerful people in their hemisphere, were both killed by the Antonine Plague.  We're not sure what exactly the plague was, but the leading contender, AFAIK, is measles.

Two of the most powerful men history has ever known were killed by what is essentially extinct in the developed world.  That's progress.*

* And that progress has been compressed into the last fifty years, give or take.

PS A commenter to Caplan's post notes that
Babbage (26 December 1791 – 18 October 1871) said that he would give up the remainder of his days to live three days five hundred years hence with a scientific guide to explain the discoveries of the intervening years. I don't think he would be disappointed by the progress of the last 150 years.
Babbge is my man. I wish I had a source for that story though.

Do not wade to further into his comments. There lies sophistry.  The progress Caplan notes is not limited to gadgets and gewgaws.  It's not about iPods and DVDs.  It's about living to see your children reach adulthood.  It's about being able to stay in contact with far flung friends.  It's about being able to get in out of the heat or the cold.  It's about not having to be surrounded by the smell of horseshit. It's about travel and health and communication and education and yes, entertainment as well.  Those are not trivialities.

PPS Coyote Blog covered similar ground several years ago, but subbing out Vanderbilt for Leland Standford Leland Standford's partner at the Central Pacific, Mark Hopkins.

Some DC Stuff

DCist | Aaron Morrissey | Protesters Arrested After Screening 'A Fire In My Belly' Inside National Portrait Gallery

Protests over the removal of David Wojnarowicz's A Fire in My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery began to pick up steam last week, when about 100 people marched from Transformer Gallery, who had displayed the work in its front window, to the Gallery. Now, some are taking the protest into the halls of the Portrait Gallery.

Two D.C. residents -- Mike Blasenstein and Mike Iacovone -- were arrested on Saturday after they stood outside the entrance to the "Hide/Seek" exhibit where Wojnarowicz's piece was originally hosted, and played the video on an iPad attached to Blasenstein's neck. In addition to acting as a human frame, Blasenstein silently handed out fliers explaining the protest and Wojnarowicz's work.
That's fairly clever and fairly ballsy (especially compared to the typical weaksauce candle vigil type protests this has been stirring up) but dudes, you don't have any more authority to decide what is on display at the Smithsonian than I do. This is the converse of protestors flocking to the work they object to and standing shoulder-to-shoulder in from of it so no one can see it.  Those hypothetical protestors don't get to veto the decision to display the work, and you don't get to veto the decision to pull it.

I haven't paid much attention to the mini-brouhaha around "A Fire in My Belly," but my take is that politicians pay the piper when it comes to the Smithsonian, and so it shouldn't be any surprise that politicians are calling some tunes. If you want full artistic/curatorial integrity, don't take coin from the capitol. Expecting politicians not to throw their weight around is like expecting ... something else that doesn't happen.

I don't like it, but we've made our legislators in censors -- in the old sense. I wish they wouldn't take it as their job to supervise public morality, but they do when it comes to diet, exercise, trade, entertainment, sport, employment, ... Why are people surprised they do it to art as well?  I think I'd feel more sympathy with the people upset about this if they gave an indication of being upset about all the other castigation congress takes upon itself to do.
Kriston Capps has more on the arrests over at City Paper's Arts Desk:
Police made Blasenstein and Iacovone sign forms acknowledging that if they ever set foot on Smithsonian property again, they would be arrested. The officers would not give Blasenstein or Iacovone copies of these forms, according to Blasenstein. He said that an MPD officer cited D.C. code (section 22, chapter 33) governing trespassing in banning the two from the Smithsonian for life.
I have disgust for banning people from areas you could never stop them from entering in the first place. (Generally, I dislike unenforceable laws.) ND banned a couple of friends' parents from campus for life for providing alcohol to their 20 year old children, but it's not like they're checking IDs at the border of campus. It's just a very clumsy way of having people on double probation in case they ever act up again, and it generally only deters the well-behaved people you don't have to worry as much about.

~ ~ ~ ~

Unsuck DC Metro | Escalators: Picking Losers

Here's perhaps a little insight into the real reason Metro just can't seem to get their act together with escalators.

According to a source intimately familiar with Metro's escalators, twice a year, Metro maintenance personnel bid on the escalators for which they’ll be responsible. Workers with the most seniority get the first choices. [...]

The source said it’s very common for someone with seniority to bid on escalators they know to be well maintained so they can slide and and not do anything for the six months it's under their "care."

“They can coast for a while,” the source said. “Then when problems start, they can move on,” leaving an ailing escalator under the supervision of someone with less experience.

This way of doing things, the source said, "destroys the incentive" of the younger workers who know that if they do a good job, their escalators will be taken away by someone with more seniority.
All I can muster now is an angry noise. Here it comes. Graaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa!!!!
“There’s a culture in which you don’t really have to perform to keep your job,” they said.
I think I figured that part out as soon as someone said "public sector union."

~ ~ ~ ~

DCist | Catherine Finn | Is Pepco One of the Least Reliable Electric Companies?

According to a Washington Post special report they are. For those who live in the Maryland suburbs this doesn't quite come as a surprise, after sustained outages following the snowstorms in February and thunderstorms in July.

However, the Washington Post article doesn't even factor outages that were due to weather. Pepco customers experienced 70% more outages than big-city customers of other electric companies that took part in one 2009 survey. Once the power went out, Pepco took, on average, twice as long to restore power than other electric companies serving metropolitan areas. In the past few years, Pepco has been cited as one of the least reliable power companies around the country, according to various surveys. [...]

At least Pepco doesn't deny that they are having reliability problems. I've heard a few radio ads from them promising that they're working on the problem, 
When AT&T shits the bed, I get treated to lots of Verizon ads about how much better Verizon's system is. That is comforting. What is not comforting is adds from AT&T promising to get their act together any day now. I want competition, not meek reassurances that someone is claiming to be making as effort.
And they are spending money to make it better: in 2009, just in Maryland, Pepco spent $8.5 million on maintenance of their equipment, and another $6 million on tree maintenance.
Screw off.  I don't care what the inputs to your process are. I want outputs, I want results.

Update:  "Pepco To Raise Rates To Pay For Power Outage Prevention Work." Screw you two times you monopolistic bandits.

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DCist | Andrew Wiseman | Overheard in D.C.: Anarchy in the D.C.

Overheard of the Week

A few Sundays ago at SoHo Coffee in Dupont (P & 22nd Streets):

A guy and girl, both in their early 20s and concentrating on their respective MacBooks, are having a sort of distracted political conversation expressing dissatisfaction with the status quo in D.C.. The guy is wearing a Restoring Sanity t-shirt.

Guy: "But do you really want Obama to lose in 2012?"
Girl, still looking down at her laptop, flippantly responds: "I want Obama to lose in 2012 and be replaced by no one."
At least one other person in this town agrees with me! I'm not alone!

PS This is the sort of line that sets DC apart from many other cities: "Well, the last time I had a drunken debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict..."

Forget Awareness

The Daily What | Frivolous Facebook Meme of the Day

Frivolous Facebook Meme of the Day: Long story short, in case you’re not current on the latest Facebook meme, people all over the world have been changing their profile pics to cartoon characters from their youth to “raise awareness” for violence against children.

I am completely with Urlesque on this one: How is this helping abused children? Folks participating in this meme aren’t doing a thing to raise awareness for actions their friends can take to support this cause, just merely pointing out the fact that children are being abused while letting everyone know they once had a thing for Snarf. Beatification, ho!

Here’s an idea: How about skipping the silliness and plugging an anti-child abuse charity instead? This is a good one. This is another good one. As is this one.

Facebook has the potential to be a powerful catalyst for social change. But these frequent Facebook charity memes are meaningless exercises in futility. People don’t need to be made aware that breast cancer exists or that child abuse is a problem. What they need are real things they can do to support individuals battling these scourges.
The point is not to help, the point is to let other people know you are the kind of person who values helping.  Or at least to avoid having other people accuse you of not wanting to help.  I was actually accused two or three times -- by friends! -- of wanting people to get cancer because I did not choose to wear one of those Lance Armstrong rubber bands on my wrist back in undergrad.

Miscellany for 6 December 2010

Homeland Security Watch | Deirdre Walker | “Do I have the right to refuse this search?”

My former police chief for Montgomery County, MD, on the assinine, unprofessional, ineffective policies of the TSA

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The Sports Economist | Skip Sauer | Fan Finance

A cool idea to keep the Bills in Buffalo: sell "Bills Bonds" which pay below market rate interest as long as the team is kept in the city, so the owner pays a penalty for moving. The best part:
Moreover, this form of subsidy is completely voluntary: the fans who want the team in Buffalo subsidize the team through accepting lower interest payments than in the market, not the general taxpayer, and not the out-of-town visitor who has no interest in the team or sport but gets hit with a hotel or rental car tax.

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Threat Quality Press | Braak | Today In Idiots: People Who Bought the Power Balance Wristband

Braak focuses his wrath on "the morons I just saw on the [Philadelphia] CBS Eyewitness news who didn’t immediately denounce it as bullshit." And they deserve it.

This thing is pure bullshit. It is not a political issue. There is no need to remain neutral. The press' entire reason for existing to to tell the public when someone is pissing on them, not to pretend that "piss" and "rain" and equally valid points of view.

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AutoBlog | Jonathon Ramsey | Video: VW's Fun Theory creates a speed camera lottery

Pay the proceeds of speeding camera fines to motorists who drive the speed limit. Love it.

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Via JamulBlog:

WSJ | John Fund | How to Make Air Travel More Infuriating: If you think TSA is dysfunctional and unpopular now, wait until it unionizes.

You have got to be shitting me.
But if you think TSA is dysfunctional and unpopular now, wait until it unionizes. This month, the Federal Labor Relations Authority ruled that 50,000 TSA personnel will be allowed to vote on whether or not to join a union with full collective bargaining rights. [...] Imagine if every change in procedures had to be cleared with union shop stewards. While it is not easy to fire TSA personnel now, just think how difficult it will be to remove bad employees if they are covered by union job protection agreements
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NYTimes | Ross Douthat | How Partisanship Works

Douthat expands on these three ideas on how partisan hackery manifests:

"It happens gradually rather than swiftly, and on new issues more than old ones."

"It manifests itself in changing emphases as much as in explicit changes in position."

"The arguments change, but the underlying ideology doesn’t."

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Facebook Engineering | Carlos Bueno | The Full Stack, Part I

An excellent primer on software engineering and performance. I agree that you need to know the system top-to-bottom, at least to a decent approximation, to be a good coder.

Learn some computer architecture. Plenty of data structures and algorithms. Don't assume your libraries will handle that stuff for you. (They probably will, but will they handle it well?) Learn some lower level language. By which I mean C, or at least C++. Now go learn more data structures. Seriously, you make the right decisions on your data structures and everything else will fall into place.

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Jacob T Levy | Earmarks

The idea is rapidly spreading that a ban on earmarks doesn't affect spending, since earmarks are a way of distributing what's already been appropriated.

This is just true enough to be clever, and marks the speaker as being more sophisticated than those Tea Party rubes. But it's basically false, for three reasons.

First, it is more expensive to do things inefficiently than to do things efficiently. [...]

Second, bills often emerge out of House-Senate committees with higher appropriations levels that have the express aim of smoothing passage with earmarks. [...]

But third, and most important: the earmarking members of Congress are the same people who set the appropriations level. [...]

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The Economist: Democracy in America | WW | This ain't no banana republic

A thorough planing of Nicolas Kristof regarding inequality and plutocracy in America. (We have the former. We do not have the latter.)

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Jacob Grier on Repeal Day:

Liquidity Preference | Jacob Grier | Sweet 21

Self-recommending. Remember when our rulers actually bothered with quaint things like constitutional amendments when they didn't have the express power to do what they wanted? Those were nice times.

Also note this addendum, about bars in Colorado being prevented from selling beer with an alcohol content which is too low.

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Cato | Gene Healy | Libertarians on the Shrink's Couch

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The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | The Mortgage Deduction Should Be Done Away With--But It Won't

I want us to end the Mortgage Interest Deduction.

I'm putting this here because if I buy a house and pull an about face on this I want someone to find this post and call me out on my shameless 180.

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Lots of good stuff from Popehat recently.

Popehat | Ken | Gropers To Gropees: Shut Up And Take It, Or Hit The Road

A stern and exceptionally written denunciation of the TSA's thuggery.

Popehat | Ken | Jesus May Be the Reason For The Season. However, Jesus Is Not the Reason You Are Shopping At Dick’s.

More against the folks who claim to be against the "War Against Christmas" (got that straight?)
Telling a retailer to say “Jesus” a lot or we won’t shop there doesn’t promote spirituality. It cheapens it. Teaching children that they ought to look for stores that say “Christmas” in their advertisements does not teach kids to be better Christians. It teaches them to be more gullible consumers of advertising. It teaches them to be more secular and less Christian.

Popehat | Ken | A Thought Experiment Regarding Genitals

You can get people to go along with a lot of shit as long as Our Fearless Leaders tell everyone its for their own good.

Popehat | Patrick | “It Is The Oath Which Holds Democracy Together”
Lycurgus of Athens said that. And he was right. [...]

But there is one oath which is routinely disregarded. The oath of office.
We need to start banishing people for breaking their oaths of office. I vote we start with these bullying uniformed hooligans, because there is no way that behavior qualifies as "well and faithfully discharging the duties of the office."

Popehat | Ken | Things Are Going To Start Happening To Us Now!

One more on the TSA. Also well worth it.

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The AI for Pac Man's ghosts:

Game Internals | Chad Birch | Understanding Pac-Man Ghost Behavior

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The Sports Economist | Victor Matheson | Qatar and/or Bust

Today FIFA announced that the 2018 World Cup will be held in Russia, while the 2022 version will be held in Qatar, a country roughly the size of Connecticutt that has never qualified for the tournament and has essentially no existing sports infrastructure. [...]

From an economic sense, I think the bids can easily be summed up thusly: the U.S. bid is how you maximize profits while the Qatar bid is how you maximize the chance of winning the hosting rights if profit is not an issue.

If two bidders are maximizing over two completely different objective functions, there is no reason to believe that the “obvious” winner will come out ahead.

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Schneier on Security | Bruce Schneier | Full Body Scanners: What's Next?

Organizers of National Opt Out Day, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when air travelers were urged to opt out of the full-body scanners at security checkpoints and instead submit to full-body patdowns -- were outfoxed by the TSA. The government pre-empted the protest by turning off the machines in most airports during the Thanksgiving weekend. Everyone went through the metal detectors, just as before.

Now that Thanksgiving is over, the machines are back on and the "enhanced" pat-downs have resumed. [...]

But now, the TSA is in a bind. Regardless of whatever lobbying came before, or whatever former DHS officials had a financial interest in these scanners, the TSA has spent billions on those scanners, claiming they're essential. But because people can opt out, the alternate manual method must be equally effective; otherwise, the terrorists could just opt out. If they make the pat-downs less invasive, it would be the same as admitting the scanners aren't essential.
Schneier also covers why John Pistole is on my 'People Never to Trust' list.

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Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Straight From the Insatiable Statist Playbook

University of Arizona President Robert Shelton absolutely berates the state legislature as a bunch of Neanderthals for slashing his budget:
During this period, we have seen our state appropriation cut by nearly one-quarter, going from approximately $440 million to $340 million.
[...] technically, the legislature did cut his general fund appropriation. But then they gave it back to him, and more, in different budget categories. [...] Greg Patterson tracks down the facts:
[...] So the University of Arizona’s total budget has increased by $135.1 million–over 10%–during the period in which the “malevolent” state leaders have been “slashing” the funding.

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The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Should China Rethink High Speed Rail?

Prices are really useful. But in whole large sectors of the Chinese economy, particularly the banking sector, the government sets those prices. This means huge information loss, and the concomitant possibility that there is a vast misallocation of resources.
One more reason studying CS has complemented my pro-market libertarianism: I spent enough years trying to squeeze extra bits of information out of data that the idea of needlessly discarding data is abhorrent to me.
To get a really catastrophic misallocation of resources, it seems to take a government; corporations can only screw things up on an artisinal scale.

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Washington Examiner | Glenn Harlan Reynolds | Obama presidency turns government up to 11

Any Nigel Tufnel metaphor gets my attention.