31 March 2010

Pictish and Claude Shannon

What was I just saying about Cory Doctorow and Boing Boing being wretched hive of sophistry when it comes to politics and yet delivering cool geekstuff regularly? Because here's another example from the latter category...
Boing Boing | Maggie Koerth-Baker | Pictish art may have actually been written language

How do you tell the difference between art and written language?

Oh, yeah. It's math.
[Rob Lee] and colleagues Philip Jonathan and Pauline Ziman analyzed the engravings, found on the few hundred known Pictish Stones. The researchers used a mathematical process known as Shannon entropy to study the order, direction, randomness and other characteristics of each engraving.

The resulting data was compared with that for numerous written languages, such as Egyptian hieroglyphs, Chinese texts and written Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Ancient Irish, Old Irish and Old Welsh. While the Pictish Stone engravings did not match any of these, they displayed characteristics of writing based on a spoken language.
There is, sadly, not a lot of detail about what specific characteristics make language stand out from decoration.[*]
It's true there isn't a lot of detail in the Discovery article that Koerth-Baker links, but you can read all about it in Lee, Jonathan and Ziman's paper.  It's in press with Proc. R. Soc. A now so it isn't available through the journal, but in the meantime you can get it from Jonathan's website.  (Here's the pdf.)

(* There's not a lot of detail in that Discovery article because the author of the article found the math in the paper "head-spinning."  I don't mean to be a nerd-snob, but there's not much complicated math in there.  The idea of information entropy is a little tough to wrap your mind around at first, but it's not the math that makes it hard.  Groking information entropy is one of those simple-but-powerful ideas that changes the way you see the world.  Entropy is also at the heart of Information Theory, which has got to be one of the most important advances in theoretical science in the 20th century.  This is all a long way of me saying, what do they teach science journalists these days? and more generally, what have school boards and universities done to math education?

Nit-picky digression from my digression: Shannon entropy isn't so much a "mathematical process" as it is a mathematical attribute of an information stream.  This may seem like a small detail, but calling it a process is like calling the mass of a physical object a process.  Words mean things.)

I've only flipped through the paper briefly thus far, but it looks really interesting.  Give it a read.  My very basic summary of the method is that if the symbols in the Pict's carvings are just decorations, as was previously believed, then the order they are arranged in shouldn't matter.  If the pictures of a wolf and a stag are equally likely and they don't mean anything, then you'd expect to see [chariot then wolf] as often as [chariot then stag].

When symbols mean things this doesn't happen.  In English you're much more likely to see [T-H] than [T-S], even though H and S are about as common.  By analyzing the distribution of these bigram frequencies the authors of the paper were able to determine that Pictish carvings had higher information content than random decorations, and further isolate which general type of language Pictish writing belonged to.  Pictish is semasiographic, or a language in which symbols denote individual meanings, rather than sounds.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This is Jim Campbell's portrait of Claude Shannon, inspired by the Nyquist-Shannon Sampling Theorem. That's some fine art geekery.

Three from Cory Doctorow

I part ways with Doctorow on most everything economics or politics, but he does bring cool internet stuff to my attention.

Item 1: Brian Cook's cool Surrealist Snow White, now a prospective design on Threadless.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Item 2: Charles Lavoie's thesis that every New Yorker cartoon can be productively re-captioned with "Christ, what an a**hole!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

In the other bin we've got this post about congressman Chellie Pingree's (D-ME) plan to require all of her constituents who want earmarks to post a video of the request online. This is actually a pretty reasonable politics-related stance as far as Doctorow goes.

My concern is that pretty much all earmarks suffer from a seen-and-unseen problem. You can pick nearly any earmark-funded project in the country, and its supporters will be able to tell you a good tale about why it's worthy. The last thing they need is publicity to sell the project. All the other people in the country who are going to have to pay for that project, and all the things that won't be done because money was funneled to that one use, never get to tell their tale.

I have said before that I would like to require every congressman to record a video every time they vote for a bill to the effect of "I'm Joe Smith, Maryland 1st District, and I voted for HR-1234." Not that that information isn't public record already, but I think it would have a positive impact if they had to confront challengers who could throw these videos in their faces.

Maybe we extend that to every earmark they have put into a bill. In order to keep them from gaming the system by recording messages about supporting funding for "Super-Happy Rainbow-and-Unicorn Funtime Farms" we let the CBO determine what the earmark must be called and what the exact script of the video will be.

There is almost nothing about this story that doesn't anger me

The Agitator | Radley Balko | Federal Judge: Mural Protesting Government Policy Isn’t Protected Political Speech

A federal judge has upheld St. Louis officials’ demands that eminent domain opponent Jim Roos remove the mural pictured here, even though it was put up on on a building Roos owns.
In 2007, the city ordered Roos to take the mural down, saying it violated city sign regulations. City code prohibits any sign larger than 30 square feet in that zoning district; Roos’ mural is more than 360 square feet.

Roos sued to preserve his mural, arguing that it was not a sign, but a piece of art offering a protected political statement.

On Monday, U.S. District Court Henry Edward Autrey rejected that argument, saying the mural — which features the addresses of two affiliated websites –is a “classic example” of the definition of a sign.
So speech can be limited if you direct people on where to seek more information?
“The painting is outside and is used to advertise, identify, direct and attract attention to what petitioners believe is eminent domain abuse. It advertises online addresses for more information,” Autrey wrote. “It attracts attention to the perceived eminent domain abuse.”
Speech is only protected if you refrain from identifying your opinion, and don't attempt to attract people's attention to what you're speaking about?  Speech can be outlawed if the speaker attempts to make himself heard?
Autrey also ruled that the city’s sign ordinance is constitutional because it is “content neutral” — restrictions on signs are based on size and place, not subject.
If Congress placed a blanket ban on all newspapers, regardless of content, that would be okay since it would be "content neutral"?
The prohibition of Roos’ mural, the judge wrote, “relates not to the content of petitioners’ message but, rather, to the method by which they wish to convey it.”
Does anyone really believe that if this was a sign promoting government power the city would be bothering Roos?  If that thing said "Support Public Schools -- Fight Vouchers!" would the city have their tails in a twist?
Autrey found that the city’s desire to maintain aesthetic appeal and not disrupt traffic was sufficient enough to allow for restrictions on the placement of signs.
"Maintain aesthetic appeal"?  Seriously?  Speech can be abrogated because a judge doesn't like how it looks?  Good thing we've got a government of laws and not of men.
Roos was represented by the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Va.-based libertarian advocacy group. Lawyers for the group seized on a clause in the city’s sign code that exempts art, as well as flags and fraternal crests, from the restrictions on signs.

Autrey dismissed the relevance of those exemptions, saying they were “not the ’stuff’ of public debate.”
Freedom of expression exists specifically to protect speech about public debates. There's no point in protecting empty platitudes and pretty crests and things that no one objects to.
“The court’s decision gets it precisely backwards,” Michael Bindas, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, said in a statement. “The Supreme Court has made clear that political speech like Jim’s gets the utmost constitutional protection precisely because it is the stuff of public debate.”

30 March 2010

Health Care Reform Distillation

I think if I had to distill my dislike for the Health Care Reform proposals -- not just the one we actually got, but the entire scope of the Democratic effort of the last year -- it would be that I do not understand why we should ask the healthy to subsidize the sick, or the young to subsidize the old.  That's what all these proposals are about at their core; the rest is implementation details and shell games.

I can understand asking the rich to subsidize the poor.  I may differ with most people on the Left as to how much of that we should be doing, and the particulars of how we should go about it, but in principle I understand why it's desirable.

Health is but one of many things that have a material impact on your well-being.  I'm not sure why we should have people who are well endowed on this one particular dimension of fortune pick up the bill for those less fortunate as measured on this particular dimension.

We don't ask the smart to subsidize the stupid, or the handsome to subsidize the ugly, or the ambitious to subsidize the lackadaisical, or the sociable to subsidize the introverted.  Or more properly, we do ask that of them, but only after taking stock of the affects that all of these dimensions of fortune have had on their circumstances.  When you add it all up, you get down to transfers from the rich to the poor.  I'm not sure why we pull health out and do that moral calculus separately because the result is directing a lot of the young and poor and the healthy and poor to give their resources to the old and wealthy and the infirm and wealthy.

PS See also Nick Gillespie: "Health Care Reform Endgame: Old People Matter More Than Poor People"

Some Californians eager to kill their wine industry.

(Hopefully not that many though.)
Dr Vino | Tyler Colman | Will voters swallow seven buck Chuck?

Could California’s wine excise tax increase 12,600 percent?

If Josie and Kent M. Whitney have their way, it will. According to the Sonoma Valley Sun (via wineopinions), the Secretary of State has cleared their ballot initiative that would raise the excise tax on a regular bottle of wine from four cents to…$5.11.
The Sonoma Valley Sun also notes that "The measure would push the tax on a six-pack of beer from 11¢ to $6.08, and raise the total tax on a 750 ml bottle of distilled spirits from 65 cents to $17.57."

Talk about regressive.  At this point in my life there isn't any Californian wine I buy that would be worth paying an extra $5.11 for.

You can read the Whitney's wowser proposal here. Some interesting tidbits:
  • I'm sure this is common language for ballot initiatives, but the list of "whereas'es" begins with "The People of the State of California find and declare all of the following." what follows is a list of statistics related to the ill-effects of alcohol. In my mind that looks a lot like a government declaration that some statistical measurements are true.

    No government, democratic or otherwise, can impact the truth or falsehood of numeric statements. If the voters of California "found and declared" that one bazillion people died every hour from lack of yummy cheese that wouldn't actually make it true.

  • One of those "wheras'es" is "(k) The last alcoholic beverage tax increase in California was in 1992." This makes it seem like a tax increase is necessary to keep up with inflation. But 12,600%? Come on.

  • Fifteen percent of the funds raised (estimated by the proponents to be .15 * $8 billion = $1.2 billion) is dedicated to "naturopathic treatment and recovery programs for alcohol addiction." In other words, a bankrupt state is directed to spend a billion dollars on hocus pocus.

  • The way I read this, the increased excise tax will apply to alcohol already produced that is in stock at distributors or retailers. I've already said my piece about retroactive tax increases obliterating the point of having Rule of Law.

I, Metro Bus

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | A Census ad on a Metro bus, socialist calculation debate edition

Chug relates to me that he saw the following, plastered on the side of a Metro bus:
If we don't know how many people there are
How will we know how many buses we need?
If you have a photo, please send it along.
I'm giggling a little, but also crying a little bit on the inside.

Arnold Kling on unskilled college grads, geeks vs suits, and the ruling class

Some interesting stuff:
EconLog | Arnold Kling | Friday's Rant

[In The Best and the Brightest] Halberstam describes Senator Joe McCarthy as a serial liar. Before the press could investigate one of his accusations, McCarthy would have made the issue moot by making an even more outrageous charge.

That is how our ruling class operates today. Don Boudreaux reminds us that when the stimulus was sold it was with a promise that 90 percent of the jobs created or saved would be in the private sector. Before anyone can focus on the outlandish claims made for the stimulus, we now have the outlandish claims made for the health bill. No doubt we are about to hear outlandish claims for the financial regulation bill and whatever new initiatives the ruling class wishes to impose on the country.
Kling goes on to lay out a preliminary sketch of his theory of the ruling class:
I've been thinking about the ruling class in terms of the following matrix, which sorts people by college attainment and skill level, giving sample occupations for each category.

not college educatedcollege educated
unskilledmanual laborerpublic school teacher*

* I am not saying that teachers are incompetent. What I would claim is that the preparation that they receive from taking education classes has little or no impact on their classroom effectiveness.
My theory of the ruling class is that it comes from the lower right quadrant. That is, people who are highly educated but lacking in useful skills. If you will, the suits are in the lower-right quadrant and the geeks are in the upper-right quadrant.
Going to have to mull this over. I feel connections between this effort and to the divide between the "literati" and "numerati," to C.P. Snow's "The Two Cultures" lecture,  to status-income disequilibrium, and to the habitual misuse of the word "elite."

Kling followed up a couple fo days later with "The Plight of the Unskilled College Grad:"
I am just beginning to explore the issue of sorting out the economic value of college at the margin, rather than on average. One aspect of this is to distinguish between college graduates with skills and college graduates without skills, with the further distinction between private sector and public sector employment. I suspect that the average salaries of college graduates are boosted by those of skilled college graduates (engineers) and public-sector-employed college graduates (teachers). I wonder what the average salary looks like in the private sector for the unskilled college graduates (communications majors, majors with the word "studies" in them, etc.).
I'd like to see the same data Kling is looking for. I've long been skeptical of the value of a college education to people who drift along in unrigorous fields of study.

Teal and Orange

A really interesting post for moviegoers about how more and more films are color "corrected" to orangify skin tones, and push more of the backgrounds into complementary teal blue hues:
Into the Abyss | Todd Miro | Teal and Orange - Hollywood, Please Stop the Madness

Those of you who watch a lot of Hollywood movies may have noticed a certain trend that has consumed the industry in the last few years. It is one of the most insidious and heinous practices that has ever overwhelmed the industry. Am I talking about the lack of good scripts? Do I speak of the dependency of a few mega-blockbuster hits to save the studios each year, or of the endless sequels and television retreads? No, I am talking about something much more dangerous, much deadlier to the health of cinema.


Miro also mentions a demo of how color correction is done. I haven't gotten to watch it yet, but I'm eager to since the guy doing the tutorial, Stu Maschwitz, was the visual effects superviser on Sin City. Whatever you think of the movie, it had a great look. Perhaps more impressively he was a senior member of the effects team on Red Cliff, which is just so, so gorgeous looking.  It's not quite Hero, but it's close.

As a side note, what do people find so "heinous" about re-makes and blockbusters and sequels and licensed properties?  I'm no more excited about the prospect of seeing a big budget A-Team movie this summer as Miro probably is, but I don't really mind that it exists.  If I don't see it, it won't impact my life. Just let it be.

I find it interesting that people aren't satisfied not consuming cultural output that doesn't interest them.  They actively wish it never existed in the first place.  Personally I'm happy that studios can count on a couple of tent-pole films to rake in profits every summer.  That frees them up to take a couple of fliers on some low budget* stuff as well that I will probably like more.

* relatively speaking

PS I'm also guilty of occasionally wishing that the culture that doesn't fit my tastes didn't exist.  But I'm not proud of that.

PPS I'm reading too much into that into paragraph of Miro's.  I don't mean to single him out, this was just a convenient time to bring up this point.

29 March 2010

Even universities are chasing the dollars

The Sports Economist | Phil Miller | Sweet Lew's Sweet Compensation Package

Major college athletic programs are run in ways that are very similar their professional brethren. They compete in markets for top talent (except that in college, the players can't be paid). They practice price discrimination. For example, colleges routinely give ticket discounts to students, an example of what we economists call third-degree price discrimination. They use two-part tariffs to allocate tickets. In the pros, they use personal seat licenses. In college, they use donations. Both the pros and the colleges employ revenue sharing. The primary difference between the colleges and the pros is that the revenue programs in college, generally football and men's basketball, generate revenue for cross-subsidization of non-revenue programs.

But Phil, you'll say, colleges are non-profit while the professional team owners do what they do for profit. Fair enough, but I'd counter that being a non-profit in terms of tax status only restricts what you do with excess income. It does not restrict your underlying motive. Moreover, colleges try to generate as much revenue as possible. Further, since most of their costs are fixed costs, as in the pros, maximizing revenue is the same as maximizing profits (or minimizing losses).
That's the lead-in to a post about the salaries of college athletic directors. (The Kansas AD got $4.4 million last year. Yowza.)

That latter paragraph reminded me of this quote, which I had totally forgotten was also Miller until I looked it up in my notes:
Being non-profit does not mean that you don't have profits as an objective. All it does is restrict what you can do with earned profits, meaning that they can't be dispersed to shareholders. As I was told at a meeting when I jokingly brought up the fact that my university is a non-profit, I was told by an older gentleman at my table "Oh, we get plenty of profits. We just make sure we spend it all."
One of my Bottom Elephants is that non-profits and for-profit organizations aren't that different.

26 March 2010

Life Amongst America's Only Native Criminal Class

rantings of a random scrub | Consider My Cynicism Warranted

A few days ago I remarked upon the passage of the Healthcare Reform bill:
It passed the House with 219 for, 212 against. They clearly needed Stupak's vote, and I find myself wondering what they really gave him to get it, since the executive order BS is so weak, and he had so much leverage.
Well, guess what headline I saw this afternoon:
After health care vote, Stupak 11 request billions in earmarks
With Stupak himself requesting over $578 million in earmarks, no less. [cough]vote buying[/cough] Some "most ethical congress in history."

We are recessing back from a constitutional republic to a patron-client society.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
[The politician] is willing to embrace any issue, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him. I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy.
— H.L. Mencken


Listen to John Samples "A Plea for Divided Government"

And then consider this extract from Ward & Ward '06:
"In one sense this opposition is a form of conflict, for as we have shown, the different sources had different biases about the best way for [the agent] to act.  However, inherrent in this form of conflict is also the notion of regulation via opponent processes.  In fact, when opposing sources are precisely balanced, the optimization equation is best satisfied.  Thus, disagreement among processing sources within an agent does not necessarily indicate that the agent is in an unstable state of "conflict" that needs resolution of some kind. This disagreement can also reflect the balanced operation of opposing tendencies that leads to an attractor state."
What kind of journal was this in?  Political science?  Public policy?  Political economy?

No, it was in Neural Networks, describing a potential cognitive control mechanism alternative to Botvinick et al's conflict monitoring hypothesis of the Anterior Cingulate Cortex.

So... yes. My science geekery and libertarianism collide once agin.  (Or maybe I'm reading too much into this.  It's been a long week and I want to get out of here.)

Dogs know who their friends are

You know the old one about dogs chasing cars, but not knowing what to do with it if they caught one?

Well now we know the answer:

Via Radley Balko, who describes it as "Dogs revolt in response to continued stonewalling in the Cheye Calvo lawsuit." Nemo nos impune lacessit!

25 March 2010

I love Star Wars as much as the next guy, but how did anybody take Uday Hussein seriously?

Michael Rakowitz discusses his latest show at the Tate Modern, the theme of which is the Hussein regime's ridiculous affinity for Star Wars stylings.  If you wrote a story with an evil dictator who dressed his paramilitary bodyguards up in Darth Vader costumes no one would take you seriously, but when Uday Hussein does it in real life ... well that's just how strange the universe is.

But did he ever accidentally connect to WOPR while he was at it?

Ars Technica | Nate Anderson | FTC claws back robocaller's Porsche, Lexus, and Florida home

If you lived in the US two or three years ago, you probably got the call: "The factory warranty on your car expires soon! We can help!" In fact, you probably got more than one. (I received a dozen or more.) The callers suggested that they were affiliated with car companies or local dealers and that they were offering legitimate extended warranty products; both of these were misrepresentations.

The robocalling was so blatant that it ignored most existing Do Not Call rules and dialed just about everyone in the country—over and over—including 911 operators. Some dialers didn't even bother to use phone number databases, instead just doing brute force dials that began with 111-111-1111 and incrementing by one, then doing it all again after hitting 999-999-9999.

This was not an approach notable for its subtlety, and the massive call volume was basically certain to bring down the wrath of the Federal Trade Commission.

I hope telemarketers are forced to spend all eternity waiting in lines next to people who are having very loud, very vapid conversations on their cellphones in public places.  They deserve each other.

Technical question: why can't I set up a blacklist of phone numbers I don't want to receive calls from the same way I can set up a blacklist of email addresses to ignore? Is there an technical reason this would be difficult, or do phone companies just not bother because they aren't under enough competitive pressure?

Didn't I just say there was nothing quantum dots couldn't do?

Apparently a layer of q-dots on the sensor in a digital camera can boost the proportion of light the sensor captures from 25% CMOS sensors currently get to 95%.  That means you DSLR-quality images with much smaller sensors, and therefor much smaller cameras.

I got that from today's GeekBrief (the quantum dot segment is about half way through):

Totally unrelated, but since I'm posting video podcasts, Monday's Rocketboom was pretty cool:

[Sorry, there was something wonky going on with the video embed there so I removed it. You should still be able to watch at the link above.]


The Vatican has released a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel.  What I would give to experience it like this, empty, without hundreds of other sweaty people jabbering...

Now they need to get on a virtual tour of the Raphaelite Rooms, since those are even more crowded and loud typically.  That would make me a happy dude.

(Via World's Best Ever)

See also Ps 146:3

EconLog | Arnold Kling | If a Libertarian Gave a Sermon for Passover

Moses could have been part of the ruling class in Egypt. He chose freedom instead. Those of us who followed Moses also chose freedom. Freedom brings risks. But we preferred the risks of freedom to the security of bondage.

Do not confuse government with G-d. Government cannot miraculously provide us with manna--or health care. When we look at government, we should not see G-d. We should see Pharoah. Government-worship is Pharoah-worship.

This is a mess I probably shouldn't step into, but I can't help it.

Michael Moynihan excerpted a report from Yahoo news about the largely risible changes that the Texas BOE wants made to the state-wide curriculum guidelines. Most of their demands are pure foolishness, but this line in the Yahoo article stuck out for me:
Meanwhile, the recommendations include an entry listing Confederate General Stonewall Jackson as a role model for effective leadership, and a statement from Confederate President Jefferson Davis accompanying a speech by U.S. President Abraham Lincoln.
Right off the bat let me say I have no idea how these bullet points relate to the Board's desired coverage of the Confederacy or the Civil War more widely. I only have that isolated sentence from the Yahoo summary.

I feel compelled to post about this not because I really care one way or the other whether Texas students learn about Thomas Jonathan Jackson, but because I think it raises interesting questions about whether people's personal lives are relevant when judging their professional accomplishments, and whether we judge someone's mastery of a craft based on the goals they pursued with it.

Let me address the BOE's latter recommendation first. I don't see any prima facie weirdness about wanting statements from both leaders of perhaps the most important event in American history. Maybe this is part of a larger push to legitimize the CSA and equivocate between Lincoln and Davis, but knowing only what I know, I don't see what's wrong with wanting side-by-side coverage of the two of them. Wouldn't it be interesting and educational to have side-by-side statements from Reagan and Gorbachev, or Churchill and Hitler?

Okay, regarding Jackson being an effective leader... he was. Undoubtably. When it came to motivating his men and leading them effectively in battle, he may have been the best leader in the Civil War. He used those skills in furtherance of terrible ends, but he was definitely effective. His Shenandoah Valley campaign was masterful and his flanking maneuver at Chancellorsville was audacity itself.  His men were arguably the most motivated and disciplined of the war, as shown by their stand at First Manassas and their fearsome reputation as "foot cavalry."

Yes, Jackson fought for "the bad guys," but he did so because he considered himself a Virginian first and an American second. Now I happen to think fighting a war just because you were born within certain lines on a map -- be they borders of a state or a national -- rather than because you think the cause is just is a silly thing to do, but I'm in the minority in thinking that now, and would have been even more so then.

Yes, Jackson owned slaves. As far as I can tell he was about the most beneficent slave owner as existed in America, but still, evil institution to be involved in, no doubt about it.  He was guilty of a huge, theistically-derived is-ought error, assuming slavery must be acceptable or God wouldn't have sanctioned it's existence.  On the other hand, several of his slaves specifically requested he purchase them because he was known to be a

Jackson personally participated in an evil institution, and even fought to preserve it, but I don't think that changes his efficacy as a leader.  If being wrapped up in slavery is enough to disqualify you as an effective leader we'd need to wipe Julius Caeser, Muhammad, Temujin, and George Washington from the books as well.

PS Some parting words of Jackson's:

To move swiftly, strike vigorously, and secure all the fruits of victory, is the secret of successful war.

You have to admit that's fine advice for more than just warfare, whatever you think of the man and the cause he fought for.

24 March 2010

Don't hate the player...

AP | NFL player and Congressional candidate Jon Runyan uses donkeys for tax break

MOUNT LAUREL — Congressional candidate Jon Runyan has taken advantage of a property tax break in New Jersey by selling firewood and grazing donkeys.

The veteran NFL lineman is retiring to seek the Republican nomination for a 3rd District House seat, held by first-term Democrat John Adler.

Runyan owns a 20-acre spread in Mount Laurel and, on the 5 acres around his house, his tax bill last year was $57,000. On the other 15 acres, it was just $468 because he gets a break for registering it as farmland.

Tax records show he uses five acres for four donkeys and 15 for timber. Last year, he harvested seven cords, selling them for $810.
Hahahahaha. I love it. Way to game the system.

This, by the way, is Reason #164,728 we ought to have a simpler tax code.  However, as long as we're stuck with the byzantine monstrosity we've got I fully support people looking out for their interests and responding to the incentives the law creates.  I find it silly that something completely legal like this is considered dangerous to Runyan's campaign, but people scoff when you suggest that an incumbent like Charlie Rangel ought to lose his seat for blatantly illegal funny business on his taxes.

FYI This is apparently a pretty typical thing for NJ property owners to do. The Philly Inquirer names a handful of other NJ politicians who have done the same.

(Via Future Mrs SB7)

PS Big Ol' Jon Runyan started in 208 consecutive NFL games. Two hundred and eight.

PPS — edited to add 25 Mar 10 — Rangel distributed a glossy booklet of tax advice to his constituents a couple of days ago. You couldn't make that shit up. Like Tom Clancy said, "The difference between fiction and reality is that fiction has to make sense."

23 March 2010


I've wanted to post something about buying glasses since seeing a snippet in the March GQ about Warby Parker.  They've got a pretty cool concept: they ship you five sets of frames of your choosing, you try them on to see how they work with your face, and then send them all back.  Then they send you your favorite pair with your Rx lenses in them.  For $95 that's a pretty good deal.  The obvious problem with ordering glasses online is that you can't try them on, and Warby has nicely side-stepped that.

I have a better one solution though: Zenni Optical.  Their frames start at $8.  You could order 10 or 12 pairs for the price of one from Warby and throw out all the ones that don't fit.

I've ordered five pairs so far.  The first was too small for me.  I seriously underestimated how much larger a pair of aviators needed to be than my everyday glasses.  The next four pairs are wonderful.  I've got two regular pairs and two sunglasses.  Any frame can be outfitted with tinted lenses for an extra $4.95.

Having extra pairs of glasses to choose from depending on my mood is something I've looked forward to doing when I had money to burn.  With specs this cheap I'm getting on that train now.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I feel a little odd posting this since it isn't really my bag to talk about cool retail deals I've found.  But when it comes to making recommendations on tv, movies, etc. I use the rule that I'll put my rec on the blog when I've fruitfully recommended something to more than two friends on separate occasions, so maybe I should be doing the same for other products and services.  All the people I've told about Zenni have been impressed, including, yesterday, my adviser.  (Always a good feeling to be able to share good information with him, even if finding a good place to buy glasses is slightly easier to do than understanding the dynamics of echo state networks, and other info that flows from him to me.)

Secondly, I'm floored by how much cheaper these are, at no apparent loss of quality, than similar specs made locally.  AFAIK Zenni grinds their lenses and assembles the glasses in Taiwan, and reveling in the glories of international trade and a how rich specialization and trade make us is more in my wheelhouse, so I think this fits on SB7.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PS Have you ever drafted something to post and never got around to polishing it up, only to be beat to the punch by someone else?  Well that happened here.  Via Put This On, here's a very similar post to mine from Tommy at Thighs Bigger Than Your Head.  I feel a little bad about publishing my post since his is probably superior, but Tommy happened to pick out one of the frames I bought as one of his favorites, so they're both going up.   (The $12.95 Wayfarer look-alikes.)  I also like Tommy's characterization of Zenni as the thrift store of online glasses shopping:
I liken Zenni to a thrift store because you can find really cool stuff there for extremely cheap but you need to root through a lot of garbage first. Zenni has many many frames and most are pretty insane (wacky patterns, colors, and unconventional frame shapes). Most are not for me but hey, if you find something quirky that works for you, excellent. The website is also pretty terribly designed but that's part of the fun!

Shiny Things

I've read a lot of pieces online in the last several years about how diamond engagement rings are inherrently worthless, and advising people not to buy into that particular tradition. Frankly, I sort of agree with them: a diamond is just a shiny bit of 12C, and it would be a lot easier world to live in if the DeBeers marketing team hadn't thought this whole engagement ring scheme up a century ago.

What confuses me is that I never hear the people who object to diamond engagement rings objecting to jewelry more broadly. Is there any "inherent value" to pearl earrings or a silver necklace? For many people a diamond engagement ring is treated as a barrier to entering the next stage of a relationship, but gifts of jewelry in general are pretty much a prerequisite for maintaining a relationship over long periods of time for those same people.

For that matter, shouldn't the anti-diamond-ring people take the position that any aesthetic adornment is just as frivolous? What's the inherent value of the art prints I have on my wall, or the ties in my closet?

I used to be in the diamond-rings-are-silly camp until I saw how much pleasure it brings Special Lady Friend. The worth of an engagement ring isn't in what you can do with it, or make out of it, or any other utility calculation. It's in the happiness the receiver takes in it. Gifts aren't important because the giver likes them, they're valuable because the receiver likes them. Maybe women everywhere are being silly by deriving joy from these shiny bits of carbon, but if we dug a little deeper I think we'd find we do a whole litany of things for no better reason than "it makes me happy (even if I can't defend that happiness rigorously)."

Would it be nice if we lived in a society that was more rational about diamond rings and all the rest? Absolutely. But we don't. There are many, many, many things I wish we were more rational about. Diamonds are way down the priority list of those things.

Another curious inconsistency: I find it interesting that lots of people trumpet on about how diamonds have no "inherent" value, and simultaneously it is widely believed that the only worthwhile currency is gold.* One of these two camps has got to be wrong, don't they? Gold only has value because other people want it. Surely that's just as good an argument for diamonds, right?

Yes, gold has various properties that make it a good candidate if you need some commodity to back a currency: it doesn't degrade, it's easy to assay, etc. But at the heart of the matter is that it's shiny and other people want it. That's it.

* Yes, I realize the trading price of diamonds is driven up by the De Beers cartel, and that both gold and diamonds actually have various minor manufacturing uses. But if we remove both of those issues from the world with a magic wand gold and diamonds would trade at lower prices, but the general opinions of whether they had "inherent" value would be the same.

(I got on this topic because of a post by Conor Friedersdorf at The American Scene, though it isn't really a direct response to that. Friedersdorf is in the generally anti-diamond camp, though much more civil about it than most are.)

22 March 2010

Weirdest Vending Machines

From Fast company, the weirdest vending machines in the world.  (Via Valet.)

Sadly the list does not include the autonomous, mobile vending machine robots that TJIC so desperately wants, which dispense viagra, weedletters of marque and firearms.


When I found my institute of higher learning our mascot will be Dogface Wellington IV.

I'm going to go put a hat on, just so I can tip it graciously to Raynor for coming up with such awesomeness.

I had imagined I would name my school Hume University (or perhaps Hoffer University -- the jury's still out), and call the athletic teams The Highlanders.  I guess that's not totally inconsistent with having a dapper and rakish dog roaming the sidelines as well.  After all, the USNA teams are typically called "The Midshipman," but they bring Bill the Goat to games, not to mention dressing a golf cart up like a battleship.  Perhaps if we outfitted Wellie in a nice district check rather than the Chesterfield he's rocking above and gave him a cognomen of "The Tweed Terrier" then we could work with the Highlander theme.

Netflix processing center

A year old now, but still cool:

I'm a sucker for operations management and logistics, so Netflix is quite studly in my eyes.  It's impressive that they have enough control over their stock to have so little of it sitting on the shelf at any one time.  I'd love to know what percentage of their discs are in circulation at once.

Compare their well-honed process to someplace like Borders, who I'm currently mad at for a variety of reasons.  The following isn't why, but it's a short example of how much less efficient they are than Netflix.

I was trying to use up a Borders gift certificate I got and I found an item I wanted that was out of stock in their warehouses.  (Not that they tell you that online really, but I'll get to that.)  Several of their local stores were listed as having that item "probably on the shelf."  I submitted requests to the stores to check the shelves and hold it for me if it was there.  They all reported back that they were sorry, but they didn't have it in stock after all.

A couple of observations:

(1) The email they send you informing you of this doesn't list the store location the notice is coming from, so it's difficult to go down the list of nearby stores, placing requests one at a time until you find a store that has it in stock.

(2) After confirming that their inventory count is out of date, they don't update the back-end to their website, so it's still listed as "probably on the shelf."  I understand that there are ins and outs of their inventory system I am not privy to, but it seems like that is a useful feature to implement.

(3)  At least according to the people I talked to, they will not allow you to purchase an item online and then pick it up in the store, nor will they transfer it from a local store to the one nearest you.  So even if they have tons of what you want in their retail locations, their website is useless to you.

This really becomes a problem when you order something, as I initially did, that is listed as being on back order and ready to ship in "one to two weeks."  When, two months later, the item still has not been re-stocked in the warehouse, it should be possible to inform a retail store that does have that item that Customer X has paid for SKU Y, and will be in to pick it up shortly.  Instead what follows is an ordeal of cancelations, refunds, adjustments, and eventually starting all over trying to find the item in stores.

There's more to my Borders frustration, but I've not got the patience for it, and I'm sure you couldn't care less.  Suffice it to say I'm not shopping there anymore.  (Not that I ever did, excepting gift cards.)

Thanks, 20th Century People.

I self medicate with Rock. It's better for my liver than bourbon, but worse for up-tight people stopped next to me at red lights.


I don't think I'll ever understand how some people are able to notice ridiculous state behavior and remain statists.  Exhibit A is Cory Doctorow.  Half the posts the guy writes are about some government or other mucking something up, and the other half are about how we need a government to step in and fix our problems.*  That's cognitive dissonance I'm never going to be able to understand.

* Check out his most recent post on Britain's "War on Youth" for a good example of the former.
Something like 90% of urban England has a curfew for young people, giving police (and fake "citizen cops") the power to send kids home after dark for any reason, if, in their judgement, the kids are apt to be disturbing "real" people. Many stores and restaurants have signs on the door that say "no more than two kids at one time" (imagine if it said "No more than two Jews" or "No more than two blacks"). And there's a kind of para-law called the Anti-Social Behaviour Order that gives courts the power to invent laws for people (mostly kids) who face complaints about their behaviour (the accused aren't allowed to rebut the evidence against them).

19 March 2010

Tab Clearing: Come for the jibber-jabber about small press comics, stay for the ranting about government!

Via Jeffrey Ellis, C. Coville's Cracked.com article on "6 Subtle Ways The News Media Disguises Bullshit As Fact." Understanding this should be required to get a high school diploma.

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Via Jeff Holland comes the news that the sixth and final volume of Scott Pilgrim will be released on 20 July 2010. Booyah. (Yeah, this news deserves a late-90's era Stuart Scott catch-phrase used un-ironically.  That's how good it is.)  Unfortunately this sucker isn't on Amazon or Heavy Ink for pre-order yet.  Forget the "-yah," that part only gets a "boo."

Edgar Wright's Scott Pilgrim movie will be released on 13 August, so you have less than a month to get your hands on a copy and read up.  BTW the first poster for the movie was released a couple of days ago.  I love the tag line:  "An epic of epic epicness."

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Spike Jonze's latest short I'm Here is now available online in its entirety. I'm a big Jonze fan, and the trailer looks interesting. I haven't gotten a chance to watch the whole thing though, because Absolut, who's sponsoring it, is capping the number of viewings per day.

That's beyond weird. In fact it's the opposite of what you want to do with internet video. Am I missing something, or is Absolut being foolish? They've got a terrible, Flash-ified, brochure-wear website for the film, so I'm guessing they're not entirely on the ball on this one.

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The Globe has some cool pictures from the construction of the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai. The British pavilion is called "The Seed Cathedral." Tell me that isn't straight out of The Diamond Age.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Jacob Grier | Yes, tobacco taxes really do kill business

A sad story out of Utah where new tobacco taxes are causing at least one tobacco shop, which has been in business since the 1940s, to close its doors. The increased taxes would be bad enough, but the kicker is that they don’t apply just to new stock. Retailers will have to apply the higher rate to all of the inventory they own, even though they purchased it at the old tax rate. In the case of Jeanie’s Smoke Shop that will add up to about $125,000 due in July. Unable to sell their inventory or raise that much cash by then, they’ll be closing their doors instead. Read the full story here.
The entire point of the Rule of Law is to let the governed know what the rules of the game are, allowing them to make decisions and know in advance what the legal consequences will be. No more guessing games about how whether the chieftain likes you, or the judge is having a bad day, or if the sheep entrails will point in the right direction.

When laws are too long,* when they are too vague,** and especially when they apply retroactively, they defeat the entire purpose of having codified laws in the first place.

* In 2006 Congress passed 7,332 pages of legislation, and the Federal register was 78,724 pages long.
** I'm looking at you, honest services fraud.

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Ken gives a good example of private corporations != free market advocatesin this case, the IIPA industry group making noises about restrictions on open-source software

What worries me about groups like the IIPA, the RIAA, the MPAA, etc. is that they give their members a great way to offload the bad rap they would get if they were out there fighting for technical and legislative restrictions on consumers' freedoms themselves.  The MPAA gets to go about advocating ridiculous programs and people rightly despise them for it, but that leaves Sony, WB, Disney, Fox, et al. unsullied.

As a big supporter of the free-market, and a believer that reputation is critical to it's efficiency, this is less than good.  I'm not sure what the work around it is.  I don't think "raising awareness" is going to do much.  Things like the Bad Guy Sticker greasemonkey script are a nice step, but hardly an answer.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Also at Popehat, Ezra points to findings about a species of functionally immortal jellyfish. Just one more reason that invertebrates, especially the squishy ones, give me the willies.

Dora and I feel the same way about jellyfish.

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Wired takes a look at some new, web-based sitcoms produced on lean budgets.  I think tv production is going to bifurcate in the future in the same way that movie production has in the last decade or so.  There will be a handful of big-budget productions (including more mini- and limited-series) and there will be plenty of on-the-cheap indies.  In my mind that's a neutral to very good development.  (Why?  Short answer: more total shows made, leading to more quirky, niche products and a lower proportion of median consumer, LCD stuff.  That's the hope, anyway.)

Coincidentally (?), Rob Long's latest Martini Shot episode was about the move to more low-budget tv production in Hollywood.

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Victor Matheson at The Sports Economist on the hand-waving-bordering-on-fraudulence that constitutes accounting practices at collegiate athletic departments:
In an article today on CNN.com, the normally quite sharp Chris Isidore, a senior writer for CNNMoney, perpetuates one of the most enduring myths in sports economics: that college sports teams generate significant profits for their host institutions.

The article shows the individual revenues, expenses, profits, and margins for essentially all NCAA Division I men's basketball teams and finds that across the 340+ D1 institutions in the country, basketball made a profit of nearly $280 million last year. As noted by Isidore, "it's clear that men's basketball is a major source of funding for many colleges, and that profits are still far more common than losses for the major teams in March Madness." It's a nice story. It's also 100% wrong.
Click through for an examination of how schools juke the stats.

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Some high lights from the most recent Economist:

Electric sports cars.  (Read here or listen below.)

Personal animosity among tech CEOs.  (Read here or listen below.)

Quantum-dots for lighting.  (Is there anything q-dots can't do?  If it was possible to have a crush on a class of molecular structures, they'd be right up there on my list between Jeff Bridges and Chuck Klosterman.)

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Jim Harper gives mixed reviews for the Obama administration for transparency on the Cato Daily podcast .  I really like the idea of each agency providing data streams at consistent locations (e.g. "agency.gov/opendata").  I'm more confused by Obama's utter failure to keep his sunlight-before-signing  promise.  By Harper's count, Obama is 7 for 143, or under 5%.  Are there really that many bills that are so urgent, either in actuality or from a political standpoint, that he can't wait five days before signing it?  Sure, you get a big, controversial bill plunked down on your desk, and you sign it forthwith.  I don't respect that, but I understand it.  But signing >95% of bills quickly tells me he just doesn't give a damn about that promise.

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Megan McArdle | Democrats Want to Buy Now, Pay Later With Health Care?

But this I am confident of: they're not going to "pass this bill and then fix it," [...]

If we pass this thing, no American politician, left or right, is going to cut any of these programs, or raise the broad-based taxes necessary to pay for them, without any compensating goodies to offer the public . . . until the crisis is almost upon us. I can think of no situation, other than impending crisis, in which such a thing has been done--and usually, as with Social Security, they have done just little enough to kick the problem down the road. The idea that you pass a program of dubious sustainability because you can always make it sustainable later, seems borderline insane. I can't think of a single major entitlement that has become more sustainable over time. Why is this one supposed to be different?
[My emph.] See also her previous post on Arizona cutting back on Medicaid and ending its SCHIP program, and what happens when Washington ends up holding the States' portions of the bills for these programs.  And also Arnold Kling on the dangerous precedent of treating medicare-cuts-to-be-realized-later as if they were actual revenue sources.

As mentioned here previously, I find failing to get the fiscal house in order with regards to medicare, social security, state budgets, etc before making a massive expansion to be utterly irresponsible.  I once knew a girl who had a devil of a time being responsible enough to take care of her puppy but was pretty sure she was responsible enough to have a baby. That's who Congress reminds me of.

Let's end Friday with the best pun of the year.

From Chillsville, USA, which features pictures of animals chilling:

"This is the Mayor’s slacker brother Joseph. He’s into nature and reggae. Like the Mayor, he’s a Himalayan bear. This is just himalayan there. (Thanks Jups)."

I refuse to be embarrassed about how much I laughed at that pun.  I refuse.

Craig Ferguson on Twilight and America

In the post-Conan world, Craig Ferguson is handily the best host on late night tv.

Via Occasional Superheroine

18 March 2010


From Regretsy, the "Baby Love Fertility Doily Crystal Healing." Jesus wept.

What the hell is it with people and crystals? Yeah, cool, inorganic chemicals which self-organize. That's pretty neat, in it's way. I don't understand where the mysterious bogon particles come in which transmit magical babymaking juju and all sorts of other bippity-boppity-boo.


Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Good sentences
"We originally wrote this article in Word, but then we converted it to Latex to make it look more like science."
The link is here [PDF]. It is the best analysis of zombification I have seen to date. For the pointer I thank John Chilton.
LaTeX is indeed The Look of Science. The learning curve is pretty painful, but man is it ever worth it.

I will never really trust reports I read that were prepped with Word, or fully embrace co-authors who compose their papers in Word. (I'm looking at you, psychologists and medical types.)  That's a path of weakness.

To a lesser extent I still look down my nose on people whose charts are prepared in Excel.  It's ever so slightly harder to take those seriously.

Okay, that's enough geeky word processing snobbery for me today. Seriously, read that zombie paper though. I started laughing when I read the co-author and kept right on going.

17 March 2010

DNA databases

The NY Times ran an op/ed today by Michael Seringhaus about a proposal to create a DNA database of everyone in the country. It revolves around the idea that current databases, which includes those arrested for in addition to those accused of crimes, is racially unbalanced. That's not a can of worms I want to get into, but this is:
"Obviously, the more individuals profiled in the database, the more likely a crime-scene sample can be identified"
That's not self-evidently true. Expanding the size of the database can only make it easier to find the correct match if the perpetrator was not in the original, smaller database. If you add a bunch of people to the database who never commit crimes all you are doing is adding lots of hay and no needles to the stack you're searching in. Remember that while more data generally leads to better conclusions, more imbalanced data leads to worse conclusions. If the proportion of criminals from the set of people not in the database currently is lower than the proportion of criminals in the database, then expanding it may actually make finding a match more difficult.

The other thing to remember is that there are two very different tasks when it comes to DNA matching, or any other kind of biometric analysis.  One is the verification problem: This guy says he's John Smith. Does this guy's sample match the one on file which is from John Smith: yes or no? That's a fairly easy problem to solve, and we're quite good at it.

The other is the identification problem: We have a sample. Which of the many samples on file does it best match? That's what needs to be done when a DNA sample (or a fingerprint, etc.) is recovered from a crime scene. This task is much more difficult, we are not as good at it, and it becomes more difficult the more people are in the DB.

(NB If you already have a primary suspect, or a very short list of suspects, then your task upon recovering a DNA sample from the crime scene shifts from the identification to the verification problem. But you need the suspects first.)

It's been a long time since I've studied the DNA modality specifically, and I'm not familiar with the markers used in the Codis DB, so I'm not sure exactly what the state-of-the-art is for the identification task with DNA. Rest assured though that is much, much harder than it looks on CSI.

I also want to point out this line:
A universal record would be a strong deterrent to first-time offenders — after all, any DNA sample left behind would be a smoking gun for the police — and would enable the police to more quickly apprehend repeat criminals.
I confess to not understanding the latter part of that assertion. How could adding a bunch of people to the database who haven't committed crimes help apprehend people who have committed crimes?

As to the former part of the assertion, you wouldn't have a smoking gun — you'd have a battery of smoking guns, all but one of which would be pointing in the wrong direction. Sure, if there's only one DNA sample at the scene not belonging to the victim that's a great lead. But what about all the other people who may have left DNA behind at the crime scene? They're all going to get ID'ed in the database too. I'd be interested in knowing how many crimes leave behind only one DNA sample, and in how many of those the sample belonged to the perpetrator.

(Via Ron Bailey)

Food Stamp Response

Gerry Mak, one of the subjects of the Salon piece I ranted about earlier today, has written a number of responses to the piece, including a reasonably-voiced comment on my post which I can only assume is part of an effort on his part to track down negative links to the original piece.  (I'm always sort of humbled when people notice my blog at all, even when it's to disagree with me.)

The response posted at Salon I think is drivel (for various reasons I won't waste time with), but these two responses are worth considering:  one and two.  Based on the latter two pieces, I am heartened that Mak has done things like moving to a less expensive city, something I wish more people would be willing to do, and making efforts to stretch the food he purchases.

For these reasons I will give Mr Mak some benefit of doubt I did not previously extend to him: it is entirely possible that the author of the original Salon piece, Jennifer Bleyer, made him out to be a much bigger jerk than he really is, either intentionally or not on her part.

I still maintain, however, that you do not say things like "I need this" when you really mean "I prefer this to the alternative (and I want someone else to pay for it)."

Shark Biplane

Remember yesterday when I asked the universe for more visual art by film directors?

"Beat" Takeshi Kitano delivers:

Hehehe. Check out some other pieces from his new show here.  We need more art with wit and irreverence, and less that's trying to Make A Statement.

I don't know a ton of Kitano's work, but his 2003 revival of Zatôichi is a gem, and I liked Brother, his first and only American-made film, though it left a lot of his fans rather dissatisfied. And of course, there's Takeshi's Castle, the basis for the camp classic re-edit Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.

(Via Kempt)

Transparent Pathos -and- The Bums Will Always Lose!

It really bugs me when people — especially politicians, of course — throw the word "families" in where it isn't needed to make things seem more sympathetic.  It's never just about helping working people, it's got to be about helping working families.  It's not about helping people prepare for the 21st century, it's about helping families prepare.

Substituting in families isn't inaccurate per se, but it's such a naked attempt to manipulate pathos that it makes my skin bristle.  Today's example comes from the USDA's Food Stamps page:
"SNAP helps low-income people and families..."
That "families" is so superfluous.  It's like the DOT saying "This program regulates the emissions of cars and red cars..."

Why am I poking around the food stamps page? Because of this jackass:

(Via Michael Moynihan)  That's Gerry Mak, and he is happy that the rest of the American taxpayers and I are paying for his organic rabbit from Whole Foods. Mak, an aspiring artist of some sort, is on food stamps because he's "sort of a foodie, and [he's] not going to do the 'living off ramen' thing."

As someone who's done the "living off ramen" thing: F*** YOU!

This guy isn't in danger of going hungry, he just wants more expensive food. And he wants other people to pay for it. He is deeply, deeply confused about what "need" means, stating that food stamps "feels like a necessity right now" and that "Here I am, this educated person who went to art school, and there are a lot of people who need them more. But then I realized, I need them, too."  No. No you do not, you lollygagging, layabout, malingering, deadbeat, wastrel thief!

Mak doesn't not need that money, he wants it.  Gerry Mak feels entitled to other people's money.  You know what I had for lunch today?  RAMEN!  And I splurged on the ramen that's 75 cents a pack, instead of the 5-for-a-dollar kind.  That was a nice treat.  But heaven for-f***ing-fend that I not pitch in to supply Gerry Mak with organic asparagus.

And do you know what the icing on the taxpayer-funded cake is, Dear Readers?  Good food isn't expensive, especially if you have time on your hands to prepare it, like a childless, unemployed artist tends to have.  Many of the best dishes in the world are former peasant foods.

Rarely do I find myself agreeing with The Other Jeffrey Lebowski, but in this case: "My advice is to do what your parents did; get a job, sir. The bums will always lose!"

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Edited to add (18 Mar): In the comments Ben Beatrice seems very slightly miffed that I did not attribute the above photo to him or a company he is associated with, Tacos Avant Garde. I can't quite make out what the situation is because I can't find a source for the image Moynihan used through TinEye nor make sense of the Tacos Avant Garde website, but I don't want anyone upset about lack of attribution.

For the record, while I think I make a good faith effort to link to the sources of materials posted here, photographic and otherwise, it is not my general habit to include photo credits when the webpage I got the photo from is clearly identified and linked to. I don't pretend to have produced the images my self, and I figure that if people want to know who did they can follow the links, and if the don't care who did then posting a footnote with that information won't matter. That said, I wish Blogger had the capability to easily add caption to photos, as that would make this kind of thing much easier.

Eminently Sensible

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | Jeremy Clarkson on not letting tails wag dogs

I am increasingly persuaded that Jeremy Clarkson is the most sensible person in public life.
Hear, hear.
Take, for example, his recent column on the way legislators and regulators allow "the behaviour of one man" to skew "the concept of everyday life for everyone else."
As we know, one man once got on one plane in a pair of exploding hiking boots and as a result everyone else in the entire world is now forced to strip naked at airports and hand over their toiletries to a man in a high-visibility jacket. ...

Last month a Birmingham couple pleaded guilty to starving their supposedly home-schooled daughter to death. Now, of course, there are calls for parents who choose to educate their children at home to be monitored on an hourly basis by people from the “care” industry, and possibly to have their toiletries confiscated. ....

We seem to have lost sight of the fact that throughout history 90% of people have behaved quite normally 90% of the time. Agatha Christie, for instance, was home-schooled and at no point was she forced to eat breadcrumbs from her neighbour’s bird table.

Of course, at the extremes, you have 5% who are goodie-goodies and who become vicars, and 5% who build exploding hiking shoes and starve their children to death.

It’s this oddball 5% that is targeted by the tidal wave of legislation. But making it more difficult to teach your children at home will not stop kids being mistreated.

It just changes the pattern of everyday life for everyone else. This is what drives me mad.

We now think it’s normal behaviour to take off our clothes at an airport. But it isn’t. Nor is it normal to stand outside in the rain to have a cigarette or to do 30mph on a dual carriageway when it’s the middle of the night and everyone else is in bed. It’s stupid.

And last week the stupidity made yet another lunge into the fabric of society with the news that government ministers were considering new laws that would force everyone to take a test before they were allowed to keep a dog.

No, really. Because one dog once ate one child, some hopeless little twerp from the department of dogs had to think of something sincere to say on the steps of the coroner’s court. Inevitably, they will have argued that the current law is “not fit for purpose”, whatever that means, and that “steps must be taken to ensure this never happens again”.

The steps being considered mean that every dog owner in the land will have to fit their pet with a microchip so that its whereabouts can be determined from dog-spotting spy-in-the-sky drones, and that before being allowed to take delivery of a puppy, people will have to sit an exam similar to the driving theory test. The cost could reach £60, and on top of this you will need compulsory third-party insurance in case your spaniel eats the milkman. ...

What good did all the airport legislation achieve? None. It simply means that you and I now must get to the airport six years before the plane is due to leave and arrive at the other end with yellow teeth, smelly armpits and no nail file. Did it prevent a chap from getting on board with exploding underpants? No, it did not.

Happily, however, I have a solution to the problem, a way that normal human behaviour can be preserved. It’s simple. We must start to accept that 5% of the population at any given time is bonkers. There are no steps to be taken to stamp this out and no lessons to be learnt when a man with a beard boards a plane with an exploding dog.

Government officials who are questioned on the steps of coroner’s courts must be reminded of this before they speak. So that instead of saying the current law is “not fit for purpose” and that something must be done, they familiarise themselves with an expression that sums up the situation rather better: “Shit happens.”
Apologies for the long quotation, but I find it worthwhile.  We must respond to terrorism, freak accidents, health scares and moral panic attacks the same way we respond to school yard bullies: refuse to be intimidated.

By the way, that's Jeremy Clarkson of Top Gear fame.  Not to belittle automotive journalism or Clarkson's other endeavors, but the Sunday morning stuffed shirts should be hanging their heads in embarrassment that a gearhead like Clarkson gives more level-headed advice than they do.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Side note:  I should not be surprised to learn that Clarkson is largely responsible for Isambard Kingdom Brunel's stunning showing (finishing 2nd!) on the 2002 BBC poll of Greatest Britons.

For those of you who do not revere the the great engineers of history, Brunel is undoubtably one of the superstars of the Industrial Revolution.

My hat is off to Sydney Padua, who drew created the depiction of the sideburn-wearing, cigar-chomping Brunel to the left.  Well done.