30 January 2010

The shadow of the state is wide, and growing

SI | AP | Justice Dept.: Obama administration may take action on BCS

Several lawmakers and many critics want the BCS to switch to a playoff system, rather than the ratings system it uses to determine the teams that play in the championship game.

"The administration shares your belief that the current lack of a college football national championship playoff with respect to the highest division of college football ... raises important questions affecting millions of fans, colleges and universities, players and other interested parties," [Assistant Attorney General Ronald ] Weich wrote.

Weich made note of the fact that President Barack Obama, before he was sworn in, had stated his preference for a playoff system. In 2008, Obama said he was going to "to throw my weight around a little bit" to nudge college football toward a playoff system, a point that Hatch stressed when he urged Obama last fall to ask the department to investigate the BCS.

Weich said that other options include encouraging the NCAA to take control of the college football postseason; asking a governmental or non-governmental commission to review the costs, benefits and feasibility of a playoff system; and legislative efforts aimed at prompting a switch to a playoff system.
Jesus wept.

Can somebody remind me when we inserted "Congress shall have the power to regulate amateur sporting events" into the Constitution?

Because obviously Congress and the DOJ don't have enough other issues to worry about. Everything else is so under control that tinkering with college football is next on the agenda.

Look, universities have, for better or worse, decided to contract themselves into athletic conferences. Six of these conferences, plus Notre Dame, have contracted themselves into an arrangement to play some games after the regular season is concluded. They call one of these games the "BCS Championship Game." That's their decision. This doesn't stop anyone else form playing any other games they want, or referring to them as the "Real Football Championship" or "Authentic College Football Championship." Sure, there's no guarantee people will take such claims seriously, but no organization ever gets to force their customers to take them seriously. You want a college football playoff? Be my guest. I'd love to see it. Find a handful of teams and set up a tournament with whatever rules you want. Go for it. No one wants to do that unless they can also get the government to strong arm the competition out of the way first.

People always tell me "but college sports is a Big Business!" — I can always tell they're capitalizing the B's for added sinister inflection — "We ought to treat it like any other business and regulate it." Okay. Let's do that. Let's apply the same labor standards that all other businesses comply with to college athletics. We're going to need to start paying the workers (athletes), and allowing them to seek the best contracts they can, retain managers and agents, perhaps even unionize, negotiate the terms of merchandise with their names and likeness, etc. Seriously, let's do that.

I love amateur athletics, which is why I wouldn't mind if we swept away the veneer that college football at the top levels is some sort of extracurricular activity for scholar athletes. It's a job, but instead of salaries players work for tuition, room & board, access to facilities and coaches, media exposure, and the shot at a college diploma. Come to grips with that and then we can talk DOJ control over the post-season. (Although I'm still going to claim that schools should be able to contract up any type of post-season arrangement they want.)

29 January 2010

One Tom Selleck post was not enough

Look at Tom Selleck. Look at how awesome he is. Look at how he is neither ashamed of his robust pectoral follicle output, nor of the fact that he is using a regular phone handset as if it is a wireless phone. What a dude.

You know what your afternoon is missing?

Tom Selleck and sandwiches, frolicking near waterfalls.

Yes, there's an entire blog of such masterpieces. Do you think Vint Cerf had any idea the internet would deliver such wonders to us when he was working on TCP/IP?

I trace my respect and admiration for good mustachios and thick chest pelt back to the Magnum, P.I. phase that my mother went through when she was pregnant with me.

Of course my respect and admiration for good sandwiches needs no explanation, since sandwiches are so self-evidently awesome. Explaining why I like them would be like explaining why people like Good more than Evil.

The Third & The Seventh

This has been making the rounds for a couple of weeks now, but I never got around to posting it. The entire thing is computer generated, but that's not the impressive thing. The impressive thing is that the entire thing, excepting some of the score, was created by one man, Alex Roman. I don't even need to say how beautiful it is.

I think this may be why the CGI in Avatar, while fantastic, didn't viscerally impress me much. Photorealism is very nearly a solved problem in graphics, especially when you have the resources of WETA.

I feel like people seeking more-and-more photoreal CGI are like 19th century artists seeking more and more realism in their painting after the invention of photography. I'd like to see directors and visual effects supervisors turn to a more painterly and expressive mode for the CGI in their films soon. With people like Alex Roman breathing down their necks, they better be ready to offer me something more than realism.

Via Planetary Folklore.

NB Roman has kindly posted a torrent for a full-res version of his film.

* Okay, I'm being a little too harsh on Avatar's visual effects. They did a great job, especially in marrying the VFX to live actors. I think I was partially unimpressed because I found the 3D distracting. Still, I want the graphics and digital art communities to stop looking to straight f.64-style photography for inspiration and towards painting and sculpture instead.

Health Care Reforms

A couple of weeks ago my leftish friend JC asked the non-leftists in our group of college friends what they thought health reform out to entail. My hat's off to him for approaching this like something that reasonable people can disagree about. I'm a little tired of hearing that I must oppose the current reform package because I hate poor people and want them to die.

Before I reproduce my response, with some minor notations added, I want to say I reject the notion that anyone opposed to this or any other reform package on any issue has a responsibility to propose their own measures. If you think a legislative actions is going to do more harm than good it is perfectly acceptable to reject it without putting an alternative in place. Saying otherwise is succumbing to the "Hurry up and DO SOMETHING!" hysteria that constantly sweeps Capitol Hill. It's perfectly okay to say "I do not know what the solution is, but this is not it."

Nevertheless, I happen to have various ideas about what should be done instead of the wounded behemoth that is congress seems to be hurrying to forget. Many of these range from politically unlikely to nearly impossible, but what's the fun in being on the fringes of the political landscape if you have to stick to political reality?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I absolutely think something needs to be done, but I think the current [now former?] plan is much more likely to make things worse than better. I won't go into why, but the short answer is that all the cost savings boil down to "we promise we'll figure out a way to cut costs later, really." You need to do that before you throw millions more people into an entitlement program, not after. Especially given Congress' track record with Medicare cost savings specifically, and really any government procurement program ever.

What would I like to see? I think the most important thing is decoupling insurance from employment. There's no more reason that we should have a system that favors employer-provided insurance than employer-provided college funds or employer-provided mortgages. It's a historical accident, and it needs to go. This would increase competition between insurers and make them more responsive to customers because they would be responsible to you and not your HR rep. You would probably need some new tax deduction for personal health care expenditures in order to balance both the financial or popularity scales.

[An accountant friend rightly pointed out that this would involve all sorts of frictions and elasticities and stickiness and various other economic terms borrowed from physics. I agree, but I think it's a bitter medicine we still need.]

In a similar vein, I'd like for people to be able to shop for insurance out of state. This also increases competition and provides more choice to consumers in terms of what they want their insurance plan to cover. It makes it harder for lobbyist groups to pressure state governments into mandating that all insurance cover whatever treatment they represent. For instance I believe all insurance plans in NJ must cover pregnancies, even if you're a single man or a post-menopausal woman. I believe detox and substance abuse coverage are required in MD, even if you're a teetotaler. This lobbying pressure from trade groups and patient groups ratchets the minimum level of insurance ever upward, and with it costs.

I think we need insurance that is actually insurance — that is, it covers unexpected, serious problems for which you can't plan. I don't see why an annual physical should be covered by insurance. I don't know how to convince people to buy such high-deductible insurance, but it is illegal or effectively so in many states. At the least, it needs to be made available for anyone to purchase.

[There was some back-and-forth over whether more GP care leads to cost savings from preventive care, and if so whether it should be incentivized by masking it's cost through including such visits in insurance. I'm less convinced on the answer to the former question is "yes" than most are, and pretty well sure the answer to the second part is "no." Of course if people want to buy insurance which covers all aspects of their medical care they can be my guest, but I don't see why I should be forced to.]

We need to remove barriers to innovation in medical business practices. For example, either Walmart or CVS tried to open up a series of low-cost, walk-in clinics in their pharmacies in Massachusetts, I believe. The idea was they could handle routine ailments and refer anything possibly complicated to a full-fledged practice. They were shut down before they even got off the ground. I don't know if that particular model is the answer, but we need people trying things besides individual and small doctor's practices, and large comprehensive hospitals. We've changed the way we supply almost everything else to consumers over the last 75 years, but that's stayed pretty much the same.

[I was informed that such clinics are now, or perhaps recently were, operating in Minnesota at some Target locations, and that they seem to be popular.]

Finally, I would like to clear the way for a lot of routine procedures to be done by non-doctors. I don't know whether this means RAs or physicians assistants or pharmacists or some new class of practitioner altogether, but the training of a lot of doctors is rather wasted on slapping a splint on a sprained wrist, etc. I've got to go see my PCP Thursday to get a referral to a dermatologist. It's rather obvious I have a rash on my arm (f*ckin' a man, I got a rash). I don't see why ten minutes of this guy's time needs to be taken up to verify that. I'd love for [two friends in med school] to weigh in on this, but my take is that proposals like this get read by the AMA as "you want to replace doctors and make them superfluous" when I really want to free them up to do more important things.

[I am further told that hospitals have been shifting more of the work-load to non-MDs, but that this trend has not happened in off-premise practices yet.]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I didn't mention tort reform because all my friends on all sides of this debate, even our larval-stage lawyer buddy, agreed that was needed.

There was some talk later about a public program which would act as "re-insurance," kicking in if people had spent over some threshold on health care for chronic or catastrophic conditions. I think this is pretty good idea, and I wish I had mentioned it. It alleviates fears that people have of going broke staying alive. It polls well, even when you tell people how much it would cost in tax burden. It's roughly similar to the way we treat other needs like food and housing, though the mechanism is different. It maintains personal incentives to make good cost/benefit decisions. You wouldn't have to meddle with the actual business apparatus of the health care system.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PS Edited to add — For my records, Peter Suderman on a exchange today (29 Jan) between Obama and Paul Ryan about the latter's health care proposals:
Indeed, not only did [Obama] make almost no effort to incorporate opposition ideas into his legislation, he wasn't willing to recognize the existence of legitimate opposing ideas at all. Instead, he chose to caricature his opponents as having "no solutions." That's not true now. It wasn't true then. But Obama's approach to most policy and political debates has been to reiterate the notion that his way was not simply the best way, but the only way—or at least the only legitimate, acceptable, reasonable way. His conversation today with Rep. Ryan, I think, is a tacit admission that that's just not the case.

Stormy, a Boastwain

Speaking of boatswains, here's a jollier post than the last...

An admirable amateur effort, to be sure.

Aw hell, how about a couple more shanties to get us in a working mood this morning?

(Here's a traditional rendition of Haul Away Joe by the Clancy Brothers, more suitable if you plan on raising any sheet this morning.)

Boatswain, a Dog

A couple of friends and acquaintances have lost dogs recently, so I thought I'd post this epitaph which Lord Byron wrote for one of his dogs. Special Lady Friend sent it to me when Gus died last fall.

JC and Patrick, my thoughts are still with you are your departed pups.

Near this spot
Are deposited the Remains of one
Who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
And all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This Praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
If inscribed over human ashes,
Is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog

Vaccine PSA

I'm going to quote the following Ron Bailey post in full, because I think this is a story that ought to be spread far and wide. Hysterias and panics spread like brushfires through the stream of public discourse, but the debunkings and corrections and retractions never get mentioned.

Plus I find the innumerate, anti-scientific non-vaccinating folks particularly unpalatable, freeloading as they do on the rest of our herd immunity.
Reason | Hit & Run | Ronald Bailey | Researcher Who Sparked the Vaccine/Autism Scare "Acted Unethically"

As I reported a while back, in the past few years the percentage of American children who receive childhood vaccinations has been dropping, and educated, well-off parents are leading the retreat. What has spooked them? Parents fear that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine may trigger autism, a neurological disorder that typically appears before a child reaches the age of three.

The MMR/autism hypothesis took off in 1998 with the publication of a study of 12 autistic children by Canadian gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield’s study found traces of the measles virus in the guts of children he tested. He concluded that the virus derived from the MMR vaccination, and suggested that it caused inflammation possibly related to the children’s neuropsychiatric dysfunction.

Since then study after study has debunked Wakefield's research. The Bad Astronomy blog over at Discover magazine reports:
...the UK’s General Medical Council has found that Andrew Wakefield — the founder of the modern antivaccination movement — acted "dishonestly and irresponsibly" when doing the research that led him to conclude that vaccinations were linked with autism. This is being reported everywhere, including the BBC, Sky News, the Yorkshire Evening Post, and more.

The GMC (the independent body of medical regulators in the UK, rather like the AMA in the US) didn’t investigate whether his claims were correct or not — and let’s be very clear, his claims have been shown beyond any doubt to be totally wrong — only whether he acted ethically in his research. What they found is that his research (involving spinal taps of children) was against the children’s clinical interest, that Wakefield was unqualified to perform the test, and that he had no ethical approval to do them.

Wow. Again, let’s be clear: that’s a whole lot of ethical damnation from the UK’s leading medical board.

Not to pile on here, but I was rather surprised that they didn’t mention the claims — supported by a lot of evidence — that on top of all that unethical behavior, he may have faked his results, too. There’s also no mention of his grave conflict of interest– at the time he published his paper slamming vaccines and which started the antivax craze, he was developing an alternative to vaccinations, so he had a very large monetary incentive to make the public distrust vaccines.
Hurray! Let's hope this ruling gets as wide a distribution as possible so that more children will receive vaccinations. Still no word on what sanctions Wakefield might suffer.

Kudos to Steve Skutnik.

28 January 2010

Monotonically increasing budgets

Veronique de Rugy has more grizzly numbers on Obama's sham budget freeze.

A snippet I had not yet heard: the portion of the budget he wants to freeze grew 24% in the last year. That's on top of a 53% increase in that portion over the Bush years, so it's being locked in after nearly doubling. And that assumes, of course, that Congress plays along with this freeze, and that Obama finds some other way to fund all the goodies and give-aways and pane et circenses he pitched yesterday.

Another disagreement on campaign finance

In all the brouhaha about Citizens United as well as comments like Obama's reference to "lobbying and horse trading" derailing his health care legislation, I get the feeling from a lot of liberals that lobbying is something that is done to congressmen, rather than something they actively participate in. In order for special interests to "buy off" congressmen, congressmen need to be selling.

I think this is just one more point where I depart from the liberals concerned with campaign finance reform. Throw it onto the list of underlying issues that keep me from even having a productive discussion with such reformists.

Liberals tend to hold the bribe-giver as somehow more reprehensible, as in some way 'corrupting' the taker. In that way they deny the free will and the responsibility of each individual for his own actions.

— Murray Rothbard

Heart-warming story of the evening

From Special Lady Friend:
AP | Monika Scislowska | Dog drifts 75 miles on ice, rescued in Baltic Sea

WARSAW, Poland – A frightened, shivering dog was rescued after floating at least 75 miles (120 kilometers) on an ice floe down Poland's Vistula River and into the Baltic Sea, officials said Thursday.

Now his saviors just have to figure out who really owns him. [...]

The thick-furred male dog was found adrift Monday 15 miles (24 kilometers) out in the Baltic Sea by the crew of the Baltica, a Polish ship of ocean scientists carrying out research. [...]

Too weak to shake off the frigid water, Baltic was dried and wrapped in blankets. After he warmed up, he was massaged, fed and soon got on his feet to seek company, Drgas said. [...]

Once in port, the brown-and-black mongrel was taken to a veterinarian, who found him in surprisingly good condition and estimated his age at around 5 or 6 years old. Veterinarian Aleksandra Lawniczak said the 44-pound (20-kilogram) dog was clearly frightened but in strikingly good shape and had suffered no frostbite.

A dog with thick fur and a layer of fat can survive such cold conditions for as long as eight days if it has water to drink, Lawniczak said.

She described Baltic as a friendly dog who was clearly well treated before getting lost.

Wosachlo said the research team is prepared to adopt Baltic if his original owner is never found.

Reich; Salinger

Wikipedia | Wilhelm Reich

He tried to reconcile Marxism and [Freudian] psychoanalysis...
So, he worked on the two most over-rated intellectual trends of the 20th century? What a guy. Why not just combine the four humors with Lamarkian evolution? He couldn't fit phlogiston or luminiferous aether into the mix?
He said he had discovered a primordial cosmic energy, which he said others called God, and which he called "orgone." He built "orgone energy accumulators" that his patients sat inside to harness the reputed health benefits, leading to newspaper stories about "sex boxes" that cured cancer.
Oh. Looks like Reich was a step ahead of my snark on the aether front.

And what brings me to the page of the illustrious crank Dr Reich? Apparently J.D. Salinger was a big believer in orgone boxes. I always knew he was a crackpot. Other gems from Salinger's obit: he drank his own urine and was "obsessed" with homeopathy. Charming.

The best thing to come out of Salinger's life was his fictional self in W.P. Kinsella's Shoeless Joe.

Modern Portmanteaux

The Ragbag | Raynor | misc portmanteaux deux
  • femine: (feminine + famine) a dearth of females (cf. sausage party)

  • bar-b-coup: (barbecue + coup) to override your vegetarian friend’s crappy suggestion to meet up at a nasty falafel joint and instead reroute the party to a bitching bbq spot.
Click through for several more offerings.


As someone working on biologically-inspired AI, I found this Garry Kasparov article about computing and chess very interesting. His main thesis is that while scientists have vastly increased the ability of computer chess programs in the last several decades, they're no closer to getting a computer to play chess in the same way humans play chess.

I also found this bit interesting, since my earlier work was on decision making ensembles, or finding ways to get relatively weak decision making algorithms to combine in a stronger single prediction engine:
In 2005, the online chess-playing site Playchess.com hosted what it called a "freestyle" chess tournament in which anyone could compete in teams with other players or computers. Normally, "anti-cheating" algorithms are employed by online sites to prevent, or at least discourage, players from cheating with computer assistance. (I wonder if these detection algorithms, which employ diagnostic analysis of moves and calculate probabilities, are any less "intelligent" than the playing programs they detect.)

Lured by the substantial prize money, several groups of strong grandmasters working with several computers at the same time entered the competition. At first, the results seemed predictable. The teams of human plus machine dominated even the strongest computers. The chess machine Hydra, which is a chess-specific supercomputer like Deep Blue, was no match for a strong human player using a relatively weak laptop. Human strategic guidance combined with the tactical acuity of a computer was overwhelming.

The surprise came at the conclusion of the event. The winner was revealed to be not a grandmaster with a state-of-the-art PC but a pair of amateur American chess players using three computers at the same time. Their skill at manipulating and "coaching" their computers to look very deeply into positions effectively counteracted the superior chess understanding of their grandmaster opponents and the greater computational power of other participants. Weak human + machine + better process was superior to a strong computer alone and, more remarkably, superior to a strong human + machine + inferior process.

27 January 2010

I have insightful things to say about the SotU Address

Haha, just kidding. I'm not a big enough glutton for punishment to assail my mind with that prevaricating drivel. Even a quite liberal friend of mine only watched so he could play an Obama Rhetoric Drinking Game.

I watched The Brothers Bloom instead. I recommend it. It probably earned a place in my Top 10 of 2009. It was interesting to see how director Rian Johnson adapted from the very low-budget indie Brick to the Hollywood-esque indie, with a budget of about 4,200% of his previous effort. His films have a great look to them. Rather than the film itself feeling stylized like, say, Tim Burton, the entire world seems stylized in Johnson's films. Very intriguing.

Pumping the breaks on Haggis

I joined many others several days ago in rejoicing over the news that American bans on the importation of haggis were being lifted.

Not so fast, reports the Beeb:
BBC News | Stephen Mulvey | US not ready to lift ban on Scottish haggis

But just as Burns Night was getting under way in the US, and reaching its climax in the UK, an e-mail came through from the US Department of Agriculture, quashing the good news.

"Recently, several news articles have incorrectly stated that the US will be relaxing or lifting its ban on Scottish haggis," a spokeswoman wrote.

A review of the ban on beef and lamb products was under way, she said, but there was no specific time frame for its completion. [...]

But there appears to be another problem for the most traditional haggis producers - since 1971 the US has banned food made with sheep's lung. [...]

Haggis producer Fraser MacGregor of Cockburn's in Dingwall says, "If it hasn't got lamb's lung, it isn't haggis." It makes up 10 to 15% of the entire recipe, he says.

So to open the path for Transatlantic trade in true haggis, two rules will have to be changed, and as far as the BBC has been able to determine, only one is currently even being reviewed.
[Frowny face.]

Welp, only one thing to do now: return to Scotland for some straight-from-the-source haggis! Who's coming with me?
Even supposing the US were to lift all haggis trade barriers, it's not clear how big a hit the dish would be with US consumers. The New York Times once wrote that it had "an august reputation for repulsiveness".

"They don't have the same culture of eating offal," points out Jo Macsween.

"In Europe there is respect for the whole animal and nothing should be wasted, in America it's more prime cuts, fillet and sirloin."

When Americans try it, she says, they invariably love it and cannot understand their government's import ban.
I see Macsween's point, Americans definitely don't like offal as much. But with the wave of artisanal charcuterie going around, I think the time might be right for haggis in America. Plus there's more and more people in the cosmopolitan/bohemian camp where it's gauche to look down your nose on sweetbreads or tripe.

A side note on the "respect for the whole animal and nothing should be wasted" thing. That's a polite way of saying "people were too poor and meat too expensive to throw any away." It's not some sort of spiritual, one-with-nature thing, it's just waste not want not butchering. I happen to like food with peasant roots (which is why I tend to like Italian much more than French cooking) but I like it because it tastes good, it's cheap and it's easy to make, not because of some respect-the-animal gaian philosophy.

Haiku Economics

I support more haiku at all parts of public life. Judicial decisions should be rendered in haiku. Award ceremony acceptances speeches ought to be limited to haiku. Presidential debates should have haiku duel formats. The public address systems in airports ought to deliver only 17 syllables at a time.

Russ Roberts gets us started with a Hayekian haiku, or what he calls a "hayeku"
Why do we pretend
That “mandatory” spending
Is mandatory?
Something to ponder during the State of the Union.

26 January 2010

Obama's semi-budget freeze

On the one hand, hurray for not spending more. On the other hand, as Matt Welch points out, this is actually backpedaling from the "net spending cut" Obama repeatedly promised as a campaigner. On the gripping hand -- Amdahl's Law Strikes Again! Non-defense discretionary spending is a sliver of federal spending. This is a bit like getting your own finances in order by reining in the spending you do on the first three and a half days every month but doing whatever you want after that.

TJIC has the details:
Dispatches from TJICistan | bull !@#$ and nonsense

WASHINGTON – Under mounting pressure to rein in mammoth budget deficits, President Obama will propose in his State of the Union address a three-year freeze on federal funding
The freeze would take effect in October and limit the overall budget for agencies other than the military, veterans affairs, homeland security, and certain international programs to $447 billion a year
So the US federal budget is $3.5 trillion dollars a year, and Obama’s proposing to take 12% of that and say “the items in this 12% can’t grow”.

Although the freeze would shave no more than $15 billion off next year’s budget – barely denting a deficit projected to exceed $1 trillion for the third year in a row – White House officials said it could save significantly more during the next decade.
So the budget is $3,500 billion … and this will “shave” (which is to say “fail to grow”) the budget by $15 billion.

That’s 0.4%.

We’re supposed to fall for this crap?

Meanwhile, the deficit is $1,170 billion.

So his “cuts” (again, that word is a lie – it’s just a failure to grow ) amounts to nothing.

There are 305 million people in the US.

All of them rest on the work of just 140 million employed people.

Obama’s adding $8.5 k of debt per employed person per year.

…and he wants applause ?

"A police officer willing to cheat is more dangerous than a two-bit drug peddler."

Washington Post | Gene Weingarten | On the jury, Gene Weingarten didn't believe the D.C. police's eyes

As a juror, I was skeptical. As a citizen, I was angry. For one thing, I was mad about the whole case -- the bewildering amount of police time and taxpayer money spent on prosecuting one guy for selling $10 worth of narcotics. But as a juror, I felt it was not my business to object to that. I would have been willing to convict a defendant despite those misgivings.

The police testimony was another matter. As witnesses, the officers had been supremely self-assured, even cocky; clearly, they'd been through this hundreds of times. As they passed the jury before and after testimony, they greeted us winningly. One of them winked at us, almost imperceptibly. Their testimony was clear, concise, professional and, in my view, dishonest.

I believe they feel themselves to be warriors fighting the good fight against bad people who have the system stacked in their favor. I believe they knew they had the right guy and were willing to cheat a little to assure a conviction.

I believe they had the right guy, too. But the willingness to cheat, I think, is a poisonous corruption of a system designed to protect the innocent at the risk of occasionally letting the guilty walk free. It's a good system, fundamental to freedom. I think a police officer willing to cheat is more dangerous than a two-bit drug peddler.

In his charge to the jury, the judge made it clear that if we found the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt -- which I had -- it was our duty to convict. I was prepared to defy these instructions and acquit, in the interest of a greater good. There is actually a term for this: "jury nullification." I was going to nullify.
[Emph. mine.]

I'll never forget something an inmate at the Michigan City Indiana State Prison told me: "99% of the guys in here are as guilty as they come. And 99% of the guys in here were thoroughly screwed by the justice system."

I don't think you can even begin to understand American law enforcement until you recognize both sides of that coin.

(Via Radley Balko)

Pun of the morning

WSJ | Sara Murray | In Washington, a Lesson In Bureaucracy Comes in Every Bag: Tax on Paper, Plastic Sacks Puzzles Stores; Does Edible Body Frosting Count as Food?

The Washington, D.C., bag tax seemed simple enough: Beginning Jan. 1, grocery stores in the district would charge five cents a bag, plastic or paper. The goal was to cut down on waste and raise money to clean up the polluted Anacostia River.

But nearly a month into the program, it's turning out that government is having trouble legislating its way out of a plastic bag.

25 January 2010

Hayek vs. Keynes: Fear the Boom and Bust

I hear that you have to surrender your free-market blogger bona fides if you don't post this Russ Roberts-created music video:

As transparent as a leather boot

Reason | Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | The New Transparency

Presidential adviser David Axelrod, discussing health care legislation on ABC's This Week yesterday: "People will never know what's in that bill until we pass it."
It's a new day in Washington, folks.

The Great Chieftan o' the Puddin' Race!

The Guardian | Severin Carrell | US to lift 21-year ban on haggis: Burns' night boost for famous Scottish dish that fell victim to BSE fears

Smuggled and bootlegged, it has been the cause of transatlantic tensions for more than two decades. But after 21 years in exile, the haggis is to be allowed back into the United States.

The "great chieftan o' the puddin-race" was one of earliest casualties of the BSE crisis of the 1980s-90s, banned on health grounds by the US authorities in 1989 because they feared its main ingredient ‑ minced sheep offal ‑ could prove lethal.
A toast to the immortal Haggis!

What great news for Burns Night.

Haggis is delightful. It's not entirely unlike a highly-seasoned, more delicate version of corned beef hash, which most people don't seem to have a problem with. And the ingredients of your average sausage are just as unsavory as those for haggis, so I'm not sure what all the fuss is about.

I join Angus in perplexity at banning a sheep product because of Mad Cow fears. As the Guardian article mentions, this causes some in the US to try making haggis out of beef, which was both awful and a silly response to a bovine disease scare.

Obama's politics as usual

Talking Points Memo | Christina Bellantoni | Obama: 'We've Run Into Buzz Saw' On Health Care

Here's the key bit from Obama's prepared text:
Now, we've gotten pretty far down the road, but I have to admit, we've run into a bit of a buzz saw along the way. The long process of getting things done runs headlong into the special interests, their armies of lobbyists, and partisan politics aimed at exploiting fears instead of getting things done. And the longer it's taken, the uglier the process has looked.
Obama is fond, overly fond in fact, of saying that his opponents are forcing a false choice. That's what he's doing the here.

"Exploiting fears" is not an alternative of "getting things done." One is a method, the other is a goal. Republicans are not Sinestro. They don't seek fear for it's own sake. We can entertain debates about whether they employ fear as a tactic (and whether they do so more than Democrats, or anyone else selling anything), but they only do so in the service of accomplishing their own agenda. They just happen to want different things done than Obama does.

Obama knows this, and it's disingenious of him to insinuate that he's the only one with goals and his opponents are just mean people playing dirty for no particular reason besides spite.

No matter how much you think your political opponents are big jerks, they actually have different ideas about whether policies are going to be helpful or detrimental, and they have different ideas about what should be done. Painting your opponents as acting only in malevolence rather than having legitimate differences of opinion is polarizing and destructive, and hardly the bright new day Obama promised for Washington.

PS Do the "special interests" Obama decries include the ones he caved to, like the AFL-CIO and Nebraskans?

PPS Cartoon by Mike Flugennock.


Distributed Republic | Scalping_Elmo | How I shook hands with the theocratic statist-right
Two of every three Massachusettsians either didn’t want what Brown, Coakley and Kennedy were offering, or weren’t asked.

If that happened in Iran or Venezuela, the US State Department would strain its public relations muscles pumping out press releases on the significance of the “massive election boycott” or the “general voter strike” and asserting that “the people” had spoken clearly in rejection of the the regimes which rule them.

Since it happened in America, we’re expected to go along with the pretense that a “majority” sent Scott Brown to Washington. But no such majority for Brown exists. He was the choice of fewer than one in five of his fellow citizens, and more than three in five appear to have either been disenfranchised or to have rejected the notion that they require representation in, or consider themselves in any way bound by the edicts of, the US Senate.

- Thomas Knapp at C4SS
I am part of the REAL silent majority. The non-voting, alienated persons who simply want to be left alone.
Worth keeping in mind next November.

I don't feel like crunching the numbers, but has there ever been a US President to have >50% of citizens vote for him? Is there a head of government in another country who has (honestly) achieved this?

24 January 2010

The best way to help poor people around the world

Hire them.
Washington Post | Michael Clemens | To help Haiti's earthquake victims, change U.S. immigration laws

Haiti already gets close to $2 billion per year — about a third of its income — in cash remittances from its citizens living abroad. That's nearly 100 times as much as generous Americans have donated to Haiti via their cellphones. And unlike foreign aid, remittances go directly to families.
By the way, you can hire poor foreign workers indirectly, without them having to relocate here. Just buy non-American made products.

Yes, I realize many of you think the American working man deserves our support. I agree. I just think that workers on the far side of arbitrary lines on the globe also deserve our support.

23 January 2010

The Law of Beards

I propose a new law of facial hair:
If your chosen style of whiskers did not exist at least 100 years ago, shave.
Stick to the classics, people.

22 January 2010

Sanchez on corporate political speech

Unsurprisingly, Julian Sanchez manages to say what I am thinking much more eloquently.
Why is it that so many people who clearly do think books and magazines and talk radio shows enjoy unambiguous constitutional protection, despite being corporate funded or operated, are simultaneously absolutely sure that paid broadcast spots are in an utterly different category? If one is above all concerned with exacerbating the translation of economic inequality into political inequality, it seems rather odd. In effect, it means you only get to use your corporate money to get your agenda on the airwaves if (like GE or Time Warner) you’re big enough to buy them wholesale. But that’s OK, because you can pump money into all those other means of trying to influence voters; it’s just broadcast advertising that’s out. So I’d like to flip the reductio question around and ask: Given that people seem to mostly agree that all this other stuff constitutes protected political speech, why do so many people have such a different attitude about paid ads?

In other news, Hugo Chavez remains firmly off the deep end

PressTV | Chavez says US 'weapon' caused Haiti quake

Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez Wednesday accused the United States of causing the destruction in Haiti by testing a 'tectonic weapon' to induce the catastrophic earthquake that hit the country last week.

President Chavez said the US was "playing God" by testing devices capable of creating eco-type catastrophes, the Spanish newspaper ABC quoted him as saying. [...]

Chavez said the killer earthquake followed a test of "weapon of earthquakes" just offshore from Haiti. He did not elaborate on the source of his claim.
How does anybody take this dope seriously? It's like he's living in a James Bond movie, and a bad 1980s one at that.

PS This, isn't really related but since we're on the topic of thuggish Latin American Marxists, but Nick Gillespie has a new critique of murderer Che Guevara.

I suppose the issue of the day is campaign finance.

I almost have difficulty mustering up the energy to comment on this, because I think the people who get in a tizzy about campaign finance reform are too alien for me to deal with. We just have such differing assumptions about the issue that we're coming at it from too far apart to make it worth my while defending yesterday's Citizens United decision.

Here's a partial list of underlying notions where me and the average campaign finance worrier differ:
  • I don't think people are as easily swayed by advertising, whether for politicians or products, as most do.

  • I think the impact of money in elections is generally overstated. The value of the marginal dollar spent doesn't sway many voters. (See, for instance, Levitt 1994.)

  • Like Gordon Tullock, I'm surprised there is so little money in politics. With all of the economics activity Congress has control over, I'd expect people to invest more in lobbying and campaigning.

  • I think it's silly to try and limit the supply of campaign spending, but not the demand for it. Remove some of the government's power over our lives and especially our economic activity, and people will have less reason to want to influence elections. (Remember your P.J.O'Rourke: "When buying and selling are controlled by legislation, the first things to be bought and sold are legislators.")

  • I think it's naive to support plans which give elected officials more control over who can effectively run against them.

  • I think it's inconsistent to allow people to assemble, and allow people to speak, but not allow people to speak when assembled.

  • I don't think there's any meaningful difference between for-profit corporations and any other collection of individuals.

  • I think lots of organizations (trade unions, the Bar Assoc.) including many corporation (GE, Goldman, the NY Times) already have tremendous influence over government. If anything, allowing spending by corporations will reduce the inequality of influence.

  • I think "Congress shall make no law..." means exactly that. If you want to do things differently amend the Constitution.

  • I don't have data, but I'd be shocked if a dollar of pork-barrel spending didn't have a much larger impact on elections than a dollar of campaign contributions. Money for pork projects is both distortionary and is taken from us by force to benefit incumbents. It is preposterous to get out of whack about campaign funding before doing something about pork spending.
Put all that together and the perpetual hue and cry about campaign finance looks like a tempest in a tea kettle to me.

Until I can find common ground with pro-campaign finance reform supporters on most of those points, I don't think there's much benefit in considering the issue.


WSJ | Candace Jackson | How Art Affects the Brain: A new exhibit explores science and aesthetics

At an exhibit opening this weekend at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, visitors will be asked to wear 3-D glasses and walk around with clipboards and pencils while looking at images of sculptures.

"Beauty and the Brain: A Neural Approach to Aesthetics," enlists the public as participants in a Johns Hopkins University study that looks at why the human brain is attracted to artwork.

Museum-goers will look at 3-D printouts of altered versions of sculptures by abstract artist Jean Arp. One of his works, "The Woman of Delos" (1959), will also be on display at the Walters. While looking at computer-altered versions of the sculptures—some skinnier, others more rotund—participants will be asked which they are most attracted to, and which they like the least.

Organizers say they hope to shed a scientific light on some of the ideas that philosophers have discussed for centuries. One of those is that there's a unique way that the brain activates when we view compelling artwork, something philosophers have called the "aesthetic emotion," says Gary Vikan, director of the Walters and curator of the show.
That's awesome. I'd love to see this done with near infrared spectroscopy in addition to clip boards, but that's a whole extra complication.

I may have to stop in at the Walters on the way to Philadelphia one of these days.


Remember the old "snake" style games where you had to run around a screen eating things without running into your own tail? Here's a cool new take on that, but the game board is on four faces of a cube.


EconLog | Arnold Kling | Market Failure

As a high school AP teacher, I have had to suffer through "audits" by the College Board. My students' scores on the AP are not part of the audit. Even if a student gets a perfect score on the AP, that student cannot be said to have taken an AP course unless I passed the audit. Now that I have passed the audit, however, no matter how many of my students fail the AP, my course will count as an AP course as certified by the College Board. Credentialism at its best.
I signed up for the AP English Language exam my senior year despite not having taken the corresponding class in an attempt to avoid Freshman Composition at ND. My high school English department, by reputation one of the best at the school and the county, tried furiously to have me blocked from taking the test. This was, of course, entirely outside of their jurisdiction; any student can sign up for any exam they wish. When this failed, the AP Language teacher tried to have me marked absent from the classes I would miss while taking the exam, even though all the other students were excused. Apparently she even tried to get the county superintendent to intercede on her behalf.

I was told by one of her fellow teachers that she viewed it as a no-win for her. If I did poorly, it would bring down the school's average score on the test, which would reflect badly on her. If I did well, she would be revealed as semi-superfluous, which would reflect badly on her. They had built up this whole mythology that the huge amounts of busy work required in the AP English classes were the only ways to insure you got a good score, when it was really the educational equivalent of a rain dance.

Anyway, go read the rest of Kling's post. I'm not so sure I buy his thesis of market failure as blocked innovation, but he still has interesting things to say.

PS For the record, my results did end up reflecting poorly on that teacher. I won't say why.

21 January 2010

Paper Art

Web Designer Depot has images of 13 artists who work primarily in paper. Not ink or paint on paper, just paper. Here are three of my favorites:

Top to bottom, that's Peter Callesen, Jen Stark and Bovey Lee. There are all kinds of others things shown, including carved books, mathematical abstractions and portrait busts.

I heard a story about how Stark got started with her technique a while ago. If I remember correctly, she was going to study in Paris for a semester and there was no room in her bag for a bunch of art supplies. When she got to France, she couldn't afford to get a lot of supplies there on a limited budget, especially since she wouldn't be able to bring them home. So she grabbed the cheapest thing she could find in the art shop, which was a pad of colored construction paper. That turned into one of the stacked-up cut-out numbers shown.

The Perfect Wife

The Trad posted some scans of a feature from a 1986 issue of M Magzine describing the "Perfect Wife." Some of the bullet points are funny, some are dated, and many are both. (I particularly like the injunction that the perfect wife "discourages her husband from taking up jogging.") Many of them are actually quite good advice, and a great majority of these could equally well describe the Perfect Husband.

I feel sorry for my friends MW and RW. I used to quite like their fiancées, but one is a lawyer and the other is a banker. According to M this nearly dooms them to marital imperfection, these being the second and third worst careers for perfect wives after interior decorator. Sorry, fellas.

Anyway, the best part is The Trad's punchline for this post, in which he describes his perfect wife with this picture and the following epigram:

My Idea of the Perfect Wife - A gal who'll keep the Bullshit to a minimum.

Is that a sausage in your shorts, or are you just...?

WSJ | Ben Worthen | Bringing Home the Bacon Gets Tougher in the Age of Terror

Pants Bomber Causes Grief for Chefs Who Smuggle Salumi Into America
I have successfully smugled salumi into America. True story.

It was a real dastardly caper. A few years ago coming back from Italy my mother and I had a cache of sopressata in a ziplock bag in our luggage. When we got the customs form my mother actually checked "yes" to the "Do you have any meat products from abroad?" and "Have you been to a farm, ranch or other agricultural facility?" questions.

When we landed the customs agent took our card, asked us if we had a nice trip, and waved us through.

I think I have a future in smuggling, with a brazen scheme like that.

Some of the ways chefs "smuggle" their meats are funny though.
Creminelli Fine Meats in Springville, Utah, owes its existence to salumiere Christiano Creminelli's ability to sneak cured meats he made past security in 2006. Mr. Creminelli was living in Italy at the time. He brought his tartufo, a salami made with truffles, and sopressata, which is cured with garlic-infused wine, to the U.S. to show potential business partners. On subsequent trips, Mr. Creminelli would hide some sausages deep in his bag and leave others on top of his belongings for officials to find.
What a criminal-mastermind! I tell you, there's no putting one over on those DHS people.

(Via Jacob Grier)

20 January 2010

Wheels in motion for Walking Dead TV show

iFanboy | Conor Kilpatrick | AMC Greenlights Walking Dead Pilot

As you may or may not already know, AMC has officially greenlit a pilot for Walking Dead.

What does that mean? Well it means that Frank Darabont has been given the go ahead to shoot and deliver a pilot episode to AMC for series consideration. Does it mean we will definitely get a Walking Dead series from the network that brings us two of the best dramas on TV -- Mad Men and Breaking Bad? No, it doesn't. All it means at this point is that they are going to make a pilot and if it doesn't get picked up for series we might not even ever see it. So let's cross our fingers.
Huzzah! Walking Dead is a great series, as I have mentioned several times here. Most recently when I advised you to read it instead of watching The Road, I believe.

By the way, Breaking Bad may be the most under-rated show on television right now. I'd put it toe-to-toe with Mad Men any day, and I don't know of a single person who watches it.

Alternative Health Care Reforms

Ezra Klein | The other health-care reform option

Medicare buy-in between 50 and 65. Medicaid expands up to 200 percent of poverty with the federal government funding the whole of the expansion. Revenue comes from a surtax on the wealthy.

And that's it. No cost controls. No delivery-system reforms. Nothing that makes the bill long or complex or unfamiliar.
Regarding the Medicare buy-in: why? I understand that there are people between 50 and 65 who do not currently have health insurance, but that's true of any subset of the population. What makes these people special that we need to include them in a system designed specifically for retirees who can not get insurance as an employment benefit? Why not include 49 year olds without insurance, or 33 year olds, or 21 year olds?

I understand politically why you want to set an arbitrary age threshold for including people in Medicare, but logically how does that make sense? What makes it rational to let a 55 year old buy in to Medicare but not me? If the goal is to get 100% of the population on a government-controlled health care provisioning system then this gets you incrementally closer to that goal, but if the goal is to help people who can't afford health care to be able to afford health care, this is an arbitrary and indefensible thing to do.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Mean McArdle presents another simple plan which (perhaps predictably) I like much more than Klein's. You can read about it here; the essence is that the government acts as a back-stop insurer and covers medical costs in excess of 20% of your income.

My friends and I have been going back and forth about alternate proposals all day. Maybe I'll clean up what I told them I'd like to see and post it here.

I do think it is important for conservatives that they come up with some alternate plan (and for more than just health care) and soon. The Dems rode a wave of anti-Republican backlash for the last three years; now the Republicans are riding that same wave in the other direction. It won't last. They need some initiatives of their own. Yeah, I know there are some out there, like Paul Ryan's, but the leadership isn't pushing them. I also know they won't actually pass now, but the Red Team can't let the Blue Team keep painting them as mere obstructionists without their own ideas.

Epic bad choice of metaphor

I know we're a day late for this to matter, but man is did my ("my") Congressman put his foot in his mouth with this one:
"Why would you hand the keys to the car back to the same guys whose policies drove the economy into the ditch and then walked away from the scene of the accident?"
That's Chris Van Hollen, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, meaning to help Coakley win Teddy Kennedy's seat, and running right off the road into a ditch called Chappaquiddick.
(From Ann Althouse)


That little fellow on the right is Milo. I'm not sure who his friend is.

This is a great example of one of the many things I love about dogs: no matter what breed they are, and what size or shape, they all act about the same. Milo has no idea he's outsized by about 4 or 5 times his own body weight, and he doesn't care. To him, it's just two dogs playing some tug-of-war.

I'm not saying different breeds and different dogs don't have their own personalities, but they've all got basic dog behavior: they like tug-of-war, and like to pounce on tennis balls, and get curious when someone new comes into the house, and like getting scratched on the head. I love that despite their huge physical variations, they're still so obviously instances of the same abstract class when it comes to behavior.


Twitter | Shitmydadsays

"No, I'm not a pessimist. At some point the world shits on everybody. Pretending it ain't shit makes you an idiot, not an optimist."

19 January 2010

My, how the wheel turns

353 days ago:
South Bend 7 | Blog Hiatus Round-up

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

Yeah, safe to say the "Will the GOP ever recover?" meme is deader than Chokeley's senatorial ambitions.

Paging Ruy Teixeira, John Judis, Alan Abramowitz, et al: when can we expect papers retracting your "Premanent Liberal Majority" theses? Soon? Yes?

There's chaos in the halls of Capitol Hill, legislators are soiling their undies, and the circus hasn't even gotten to town yet. What more could a libertarian want from a special election?

It's all about the Jaunty Angles

Clever video from Michael Alden on how to wear your hat, via Put This On.

"Cocooned in the opprobrious privacy of smoke"

Great story on Waiter Rant about the unsocial treatment he got while enjoying a cigar -- outside -- in Manhattan. I especially like his updated take on the old "pretend to be crazy so people don't bother you" ploy.
Waiter Rant | The Privacy of Smoke

Another woman walks by and breaks into a paroxysm of exaggerated coughing. I ignore her. She coughs some more. I just look at her and smile.

“Those things will kill you,” she says.

“Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior?” I ask.


“Would you like to pray with me?

The woman rushes off in terror.
BTW, the proper response to the passive aggressive wife who hisses "you're a jerk" as she walks away is to tell her "that may be true, but at least I'm enough of a gentleman to keep my low opinion of you to myself."

(Via Jacob Grier)

Good Morning Massachusetts

(Click to enlarge.)

That's the InTrade chart for MA.SPEC.SENATE.DEM, a proposition bet that Coakley will win tomorrow. At the beginning of the year this was trading above 90, indicating the betters thought she had a better than 90% chance of winning. As I'm writing this, the latest trade was 24.0, indicating a 24% chance of her winning. This weekend alone she's crashed from a 2:1 favorite to a 3:1 dog. I don't know the first thing about her opponent, but this is such a glorious train wreck of self-destruction. Yes, I would love to see this health care package derailed, and I'd love to see more gridlock in Washington, but mostly I'm just eager to witness the circus that could result if she loses.

Oh yeah, and she tried her best to let a cop who raped and tortured his two year old niece off the hook. I don't care for that. I'd strongly prefer people like that be as far away from the reins of power — and as far away from me — as possible.

18 January 2010

Stadium Thuggery

Via Radley Balko, some apparent police thuggery at Charger's Stadium:

Like Balko, I only know what's in the video, but judging from my own experiences with stadium security, my default judgement is for the fan. If the other Chargers fans are upset about a boisterous Jets fan being removed, I'd wager he wasn't doing anything wrong.

Does anyone else find it a little Brazil-esque that refusing to walk out under your own power after being handcuffed is itself something that the police will arrest you for? I have no idea what the legal consequences are, but from a moral perspective if I'm being wrongly arrested I want some of those wide-assed cops in that videos to have to bust their butts lifting me up and carrying me. I'm not doing those jerks any favors by walking.

Note at the end how the Chargers fan who is calmly questioning the cops is threatened with ejection, and may be escorted out. (I can't tell why he leaves.)

Haitian Construction

Dispatches from TJICistan | TJIC | Haitian construction codes

There’s been much made of the fact that Haitian buildings collapsed willy nilly, because of some combination of inadequate building codes and inadequate enforcement of building codes. [...]

Haiti has a GDP of $1,300 per person. As it turns out, about 40% of this is basically welfare from the rest of the world, but that is neither here nor there for the current argument. So, anyway, each Haitian is producing somewhere between $700 and $1,300 of value each year … and likely eating 90% of that as food. The surplus that might possibly be generated in a given year is perhaps $100 or so per person.

This is the cold equation of building safety: there is no way that Haitians can possibly build earthquake proof buildings on 30 cents per day. I don’t care if the building code was five times stricter, or if there were roving gangs of armed building code enforcers – the buildings in Haiti are going to be made out of scrap metal, home-made cinder blocks, and substandard concrete.
This is a point that needs to be made more often.

It also underscores the idea that if you want to lessen the impact of future disasters, the thing to do is to get people in developing countries as rich as possible as fast as possible.

Political Theater

DCist | Kriston Capps | Begun These Drone Wars Have

ABC7 reports that anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan and U.S. Rep. Cynthia McKinney rallied yesterday with demonstrators outside the White House to protest the War in Iraq outside the CIA to protest the use of Predator drones in Pakistan. Around 70 protesters joined Sheehan outside CIA HQ in Virginia, and half of them then marched out to McLean for a throwback protest near former Vice President Dick Cheney's house. It should be noted that Cheney no longer has any authority over the deployment of drones anywhere (I think). Nor is the deployment of drones strictly within the purview of the spooks, according to Wired. And further, their use has been endorsed and expanded by the Obama administration -- the current resident of the White House. I'm just saying. The permanent protest culture in Washington could use to update their intel. Possibly their look as well.

17 January 2010

A video for your Day of Rest

Via Randomscrub:

Attention Readers in Massachusetts

I believe there are actually quite a few of you, at least in relation to my modest overall readership.*

Please take a minute and read Patrick's summary of Martha Coakley's career as a prosecutor. It is a portrait of a shamelessly unprincipled woman who repeatedly showed herself to be willing to punish innocent people in order to aggrandize herself and advance her own career. You would be better off with no senator at all than this woman.

Please do not inflict her ego on the rest of us.

(* Unexpectedly, Boston College and MIT are the schools which generate the second and third most traffic for me, after ND.)

16 January 2010

Wine Labels

Dr Vino | Tyler Colman | What do you want on a back label?

Yesterday’s post sparked a discussion about which words and/or information you really would like to have on a back label. While everyone can agree that pabulum (ahem, “handcrafted“) should end up in the dump bucket rather than the back label, what would you like to see?

A site reader sent in the above photo from New Zealand, which blends tech specs with some yadda yadda. Another small importer/distributor commented that half the people he asked actually wanted tasting notes on the back label. Do you want grape varieties on the back when place names only appear on the front? Even though about a quarter of wine consumers feel “overwhelmed” by wine, there’s still a strong case that, pace Mies van der Rohe, more is indeed more when it comes to useful information on the prime real estate of back labels.
I am firmly in the "more info, please" camp. In fact, I think the label Colman pictures, reproduced above, is wonderful. Why not tasting notes plus statistics are both helpful. And I like the "contains X standard drinks" thing that is required on British (and most European?) drink labels. Not sure I was it mandated, but I find it useful.

Colman's post also reminds me to add "hand-crafted" to the list of adjectives I ignore in food descriptions, right after "artisanal" and "sustainable." I like all of those things, they're just thrown around willy-nilly and have lost their semantic value.

A note about that sulfites warning, by the way. I have been told at several wineries that "contains sulfites" warning is required by law, even though grape juice contains higher concentrations of sulfites and is not required to contain a warning. That's our helpful and rational technocrats at work, folks.

Haiti as Arrakis; Haiti as a "Diamond Age" Phyle

Financial Times | Harvey Morris & Andrew Jack | World races to help Haitian survivors

“Money is worth nothing right now; water is the currency,” one foreign aid worker told Reuters.
Via Tyler Cowen. I'm not trying to be glib or anything, I just think it's worth pointing out that "money" is whatever people are willing to exchange.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Cowen's co-blogger Alex Tabarrok also has makes a good observation about Haiti now being a good candidate to try Paul Romer's "charter city" approach. I agree. It's drastic, and at first glance it seems unsavory to try something that seems so experimental in a disaster area, but it it is one good way of dealing with the fact that, as Cowen said yesterday, "the country of Haiti, as we knew it, probably does not exist any more."

15 January 2010

Brilliant travel tip

Barking up the Wrong Tree | Eric Barker | How to guarantee your luggage won't be lost or stolen next time you fly

Most of the time travelers are on the short-end of TSA regulations. In this instance, however, you can use travel rules to your advantage. If you're traveling with equipment you would prefer it locked up and watched more closely than your run of the mill luggage, you can pack a firearm with the equipment or luggage. [...]
A "weapons" is defined as a rifle, shotgun, pistol, airgun, and STARTER PISTOL. Yes, starter pistols - those little guns that fire blanks at track and swim meets - are considered weapons...and do NOT have to be registered in any state in the United States.

I have a starter pistol for all my cases. All I have to do upon check-in is tell the airline ticket agent that I have a weapon to declare...I'm given a little card to sign, the card is put in the case, the case is given to a TSA official who takes my key and locks the case, and gives my key back to me.

That's the procedure. The case is extra-tracked...TSA does not want to lose a weapons case. This reduces the chance of the case being lost to virtually zero.
Genius. That's working the system.

Amazon sells starter pistols for as little as $54.

(Via Tyler Cowen)

Jersey Shore Jr

From my buddy Skipper:

(Because not all my blogging can be angry tirades about legislative mockeries and NY Times hacks.)

14 January 2010

The Krugman Method

NY Times | Paul Krugman | Learning From Europe

Europe’s economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe — official economic statistics or your own lying eyes — the eyes have it.
No, you blathering tit, you do not get to ignore statistics when they conflict with your own perceptions. "What's that, Mr Copernicus? Your numbers say the Earth goes around the sun? Well that's not what my eyes tell me!" Jesus, Krugam claims to be a scientist and he falls back on "the eyes have it." What rubbish.

Later in the column Krugman even says "people tend to see what they want to see." Exactly! So why would you tell people to go to Europe and look around for themselves? Perhaps even the Great Paul Krugman only saw what he wanted to see.

And yeah, I've been to London. I lived there for a couple of months. I've spent a month or so in Italy too. And my eyes say I'd rather be in America. That's why you don't just get to shove your fingers in your ears and yell "lalalalalalala I think this one's better!" Because I can stick MY fingers in MY ears and yell "I like THAT ONE better!" That's why we try to resolve disputes with facts and numbers and not personal impressions from our vacation snap shots.

True, you can go back and forth with stats too. Krugman presents some figures; plenty of other bloggers have presented contradictory ones. They'll probably never agree. But no one is ever going to come to a conclusion if a legitimate way of advancing your argument is say "Well I've been to Rome, and I thought it was just delightful!"

~ ~ ~

Here's why Krugman's argument is bogus specifically. Have you been to London? What were your impressions? Now compare that to all of America.

Okay, where did you go in London? Covent Garden? St. James? Soho? Westminster? The City?

Oh, you didn't go to North Peckham, or Newham, or Hackney? You went to the rich areas of the most prosperous city in the country, and not, I don't know, Liverpool, or Leicester, or Middlesbrough? No, you've never been to those places, have you?

Well several million people live there, and no offense to them, but they're not quite as charming as the tourist districts in London. I don't think they'd look too kindly on some rich American spending a vacation watching the Changing of the Guard and taking in a show on Haymarket and concluding he knows about their country and their life.

So you're prepared to pass judgement on an entire nation, maybe even an entire continent, on the basis of your first-person experiences in the attractive, rich, culturally-endowed epicenter of a country? No, of course not. That doesn't sound quite as sensible as Krugman made it seem, does it?

This is no different than the insufferable bore that thinks Anacostia must be just like Georgetown because once he took his family to DC and they walked all the way down the National Mall. Wait, wait, where does Krugman live? New York, right? Well I happen to be a f*cking expert on New York because I've been there for several days! Now I can use the Patented Krugman Method and draw all sorts of conclusions about what the entire city must be like based on a few tourist destinations and a cab ride or two.

Edited to add: Here is just one example of numbers contrary to those given by Krugman, with some good charts, at Super Economy. I add this as much for my record keeping as much as I do to convince anyone Krugman is a hack. Don Boudreaux also has links on this matter.

Trade Unionism: Take it out back and shoot it.

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Special Deal for Labor Unions in Health Care Bill

The labor unions have been fighting the Senate health care bill for some time now--specifically, the provision that levies high taxes on "Cadillac" plans that exceed certain maximums. That was expected to be a sticking point in the negotiations between the Senate and the House, but as Samuel Johnson once said, "the prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully." With the potential loss of their 60 vote majority lurking ahead, they can't dawdle on the details; it's time to haul in their lente and festina like hell.

And so it looks like they may have reached a deal sooner than otherwise expected: unions get a special two-year exclusion from the tax.

Presumably, the unions plan to go back and get their exclusion extended every few years. Otherwise, the deal doesn't make much sense.
Rope! Torches! Pitchforks!

This kind of special treatment is exactly where the non-objectionable idea of collective bargaining meets reality and thus becomes a monstrosity. In theory I have no objection to some people getting together and deciding to negotiate the terms of their employment as a group. If they want to contract with each other to do that, who am I to object?

As soon as the State gets involved and starts handing that select group power, me and them part ways though. They can force other people in their place of employment to work under the conditions they find acceptable. They can mandate that fellow employees turn over part of their salaries to the union. They can use those funds for nakedly political ends, typically without the approval of their members. They get all sorts of special treatment from the government, who in turn often exempt themselves from the requirements most employers have to negotiate with unions. I, for instance, am prohibited by law by the State of Maryland from unionizing.

Trade unionism is based on a lie. There is no such thing as "the management." Those are other employees of a corporation. A corporation is just a fictional convenience to bind together the actions and interests of the various people who have invested in it. In a modern world with widespread investment accounts (including union pensions funds!) that means pretty much everyone owns some slice of some company somewhere. What is claimed to be a tool for helping the weak employees stand against the powerful management ends up being a weapon used by the relatively powerful unionized employees against comparatively weak non-unionized ones. Sophistry and illusion, fellows. Sophistry and illusion. That's all Trade Unionism is.

Meanwhile, here's Obama and the Congressional Democrats talking a big game about standing up to special interests, like politicians always do, but — surprise, surprise! — when the shit gets tough they're rolling over, and cutting deals, and buying off support from their buddieswith our money. And there's Rich Trumka and the rest of the union bosses ready to oblige them, spouting off about solidarity and working people hanging together, and meanwhile sticking anyone not carrying a card with a check so their boys can get a sweet deal. Well screw that noise. That's triple-distilled bullshit. Even though they'll never hear me, it is the duty of every free man to pitch a fit when people pull stunts like this. Everyone involved in this ludicrous scheme can get bent.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And now bills were passed, not only for national objects but for individual cases, and laws were most numerous when the commonwealth was most corrupt.

— Tacitus, Annals, Book III, 27

(Okay, so this case isn't the best analog of what Tacitus was reporting on. A better example would be Tanith Belbin, granted citizenship by a special act of Congress in order to get her onto the US Olympic Team in 2006. But the point remains: the more specific your laws become, with carve-outs and exemptions and special treatment for certain professions, or states, or classes, the more corrupt your society will be. We've only known that for 1900 years or so.)