30 June 2010

Two From YouTube: iPhones and Vuvuzelas

(Put some headphones on if you're at the office.  Spicy language in the first one, and obnoxious plastic horns in the second one.)

Wait around for the Ravel in this one. It's worth it.

Latter from Linda Holmes at NPR::Monkey See. Not sure where I first saw the former.

LAPD officers are apparently qualified art critics now

Popehat | Ken | Big Brother Is Watching. And Arresting. And Harassing.

Via Radley Balko I see that yesterday the ACLU released its much-anticipated report on police surveillance of (and interference with) protest activity. Read it and weep, as they say. It has dozens of examples from many states, and includes links to descriptions of each incident.

A few highlights:
LAPD Special Order #11, dated March 5, 2008 includes a list of 65 behaviors LAPD officers “shall” report. The list includes such innocuous, clearly subjective, and First Amendment‐protected activities as, taking measurements, using binoculars, taking pictures or video footage “with no apparent esthetic value,” drawing diagrams, taking notes, and espousing extremist views.
Have these nitwits ever heard of Ed Ruscha? He made a career in LA half a century ago taking straight-ahead photographs of mundane things like gas stations and donut shops and highway overpasses.  That would apparently land him on the LAPD shit list these days.  It looks to me like the LAPD has just unilaterally outlawed street photography as an aesthetic.

Dùn Èideann

Threat Quality Press | Edinburgh

Remains my favorite city around. I had Glenkinchie whiskey today in a pub owned by Sean Connery, though I did not see him. I am assuming that, when Scotland finally becomes independent, they will just make him king. Is that right? Or is he supposed to fight someone for it?

Incidentally, the city smells less like beef stew than it did the last time I was here. I have not settled on whether or not I think this is an improvement.

Edinburgh does have the color of beef stew broth, though I confess I've never noticed a matching aroma.

864 grams of eggs -or- the EU seeks to outlaw discrete measurements

Slashfood | Nichol Nelson | A Scrambled Idea from The European Union

"Pick up a dozen eggs" is familiar supermarket shorthand the world over, but if legislators in the European Union get their way, it might become an outdated expression. In an effort to standardize labeling, the European Parliament wants to stop labeling foods by number. To protect consumers, they say, labels should display weight or volume -- not the number of items in a pack.

Makes sense in theory, but in practice, it goes against years of consumer habits, and English politicians are fighting back. "We know what customers want," UK Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman told the BBC. "They want to buy eggs by the dozen and they should be allowed to -- a point I shall be making clear to our partners in Europe."
Silly Mrs. Spelman. Consumers don't know what they want. We can't possibly let people organize society according to ad hoc voluntary transactions and emergent standards based on citizens' individual and several desires. We need Eurocrats to dictate everything!  EVERYTHING!

(Via Jacob Grier)

Momentum: It's not just a good idea, it's...

... aww screw it.  Y'all know how this one goes.
dispatches from TJICistan | TJICS | idiotic headline of the day

Certain factors tied to running yellow lights

There are factors involved?

And, actually, I intended to just mock the headline, but I’m going to mock the underlying study as well.
The researchers found that drivers of SUVs, pickups, sedans, and vans tended to slow down at yellows more than drivers of heavy trucks. They speculated that vehicle weight may be the explanation, since heavy trucks have more difficulty decelerating rapidly than other vehicles.
Holy crap – are you saying that momentum is involved in a process of braking or accelerating?

Of all the various factors possible, I certainly wouldn’t have expected … physics !
Apologies for lifting the entire post, but this is too good to pass up.  I like that "They speculated..." formulation there in particular.  That may be the least speculative speculation this side of Newton and F=ma.

Remember, the Ohio Department of Transportation actually paid people to study this.  But I suppose Apostle Krugman and the Church of Keynes would have us believe this wasn't money wasted, it was just stimulative.

29 June 2010


I was going to let Robert Byrd's death pass without comment here, but I'm sick of all the people who are apologizing for his Klan membership.

Here are some of the reasons I've been told we're supposed to overlook that when considering his life:

He recanted — Okay, that's nice.  Better than not recanting.  Maybe he even did enough good deeds to make up for the bad ones.  But that doesn't mean the bad stuff didn't happen.  We can and should forgive people their transgressions, but that doesn't mean we pretend they never transgressed in the first place.

Best I can tell Byrd himself never tried to pretend his Klan membership didn't happen.  (Though he did downplay how long he was involved when he was first running for office). I'm not sure why his eulogizers should feel compelled to ignore an issue which the deceased himself did not.

It was a long time ago — So what?  If people do bad shit and then live a long time none of their misdeeds are relevant?  Conversely if you sin and repent but die young people can talk about your problems?

It was a different time and place — Bullshit.  I'll pass this one off to Erica at Whiskey in a Teacup:
In Byrd’s case, I’ve already read some prattle about how you have to view his membership in the KKK through the lens of the time and place where he lived. That’s such a load of steaming bullshit. Throughout history, wherever evil is the norm, there are always dissenters, always good people—and in this case he wasn’t one of them, end of sentence.
It was necessary to get elected — That assumes getting elected is itself necessary. If your career requires you to do evil shit, then maybe you ought to choose a different career. Byrd didn't have to seek power; he wanted to. And he was willing to join the KKK in order to get it.

Let's not forget that even what most people consider the high points of Byrd's life I consider foul misdeeds.  He made a reputation for himself as the biggest stationary bandit in the last half century.  And he was proud of that reputation.  Excuse me if I don't applaud his skill at taking my money home to his friends and neighbors. TJIC does some back-of-the-envelope calculations of Byrd's "legacy":
Rough estimates from around the web show that Byrd stole about $500 million from the citizens of the US and funneled it back to his fiefdom in West Virginia.

The lifetime discretionary spending on a typical American is about $300k (1/4 of the average $1.2 mill lifetime earnings).

Byrd stole and destroyed the lifetime productivity of 1,666 Americans, all to buy the loyalty of sycophants and scumbags, and to plaster his name, like Ozymandias, on various government-built icons around his state.

Think of that: the entire productivity of 1,666 Americans – their entire lives – burned to placate the the personal Moloch of one man’s greed for power and glory.
Finally let's not forget what Alan Bock and Radley Balko said when the last "Giant of the Senate" died:
Alan Bock | Public service or public meddling

What most of the media call public service is all too often simply meddling with peoples' lives, using persuasion or force to make them do things or pay money they would otherwise prefer not to pay. Whether those who define public service as making others do what they want -- quit smoking, exercise more, reduce their carbon footprint -- rather than what those others would really prefer to do are more of a menace than those who simply take our money to buy votes and service their preferred constituencies is a question worth debating, to which I don't have a definitive answer. Both varieties are enemies of human freedom and therefore enemies of human prospering, defined broadly.

~ ~ ~

The Agitator | Radley Balko | Ted Kennedy

I’ve never much bought into the notion that we ought to venerate the dead simply because they’ve died. Nor do I feel the need to reflexively praise politicians for their public service. Ted Kennedy was a lifetime member of the political class. The things he’s being praised and remembered for — his half century in politics, his ability to “get things done” in Washington, his prowess as a legislator (which translates into his ability to use politics, as opposed to civil society, to solve problems), [...] — none of these things are particularly virtuous in my book.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PS Should have posted this chunk from Balko as well:
So if I’m correctly reading the various tributes to Sen. Robert Byrd floating around the web this morning, I’m supposed to celebrate how the man atoned for his bigotry earlier in life by devoting the rest of his life to public service . . . where he used other people’s money to build monuments to himself.

That this could be considered a form of redemption says all you need to know about what the political class considers important.

"A savage critic of flabby ideas"

That's how The Economist euologized one of their long-time editors, Norman Macrae.  He sounds like a real character.  I'm rarely impressed by journalists or interested in biographies, but I'd be interested in reading more about this guy.

You can read what his former paper published about him after his recent death here, or listen to it here.

The Economist :: The unacknowledged giant

The Economist was fortunate that Norman decided to park his formidable intellect at 25 St James’s Street. During his almost 40 years here—23 of them, from 1965 to 1988, as deputy editor—he did more than anyone else to provide the intellectual originality of what he liked to describe as “the world’s favourite viewspaper”. He constantly enlivened editorial meetings with proposals to allow Disneyworld to run the West’s cities or to move the British government from London to York. Roy Jenkins rightly described him as the “epitome of the internal spirit of The Economist”.

He could be a brutal editor and a savage critic of flabby ideas. He altered colleagues’ copy with abandon. But he was greatly liked, generous with his time and amiable in conversation. He was also a loyal company man, never allowing his growing renown to go to his head. He frequently slept in his office, his large frame heaped on the floor, and sweated blood to correct errant facts as well as to expunge creeping heresy. More than anyone else, he made sure that The Economist was not blown off course by the winds of ideological fashion or becalmed in routine reporting.

Cronyism: it's not new.

the ragbag :: raynor ganan :: monopoly men

i was getting a bro-zilian wax yesterday in preparation for the big brazil v. chee-lay soccer match and reading through tudor-era royal charters when i came across a few interesting deets. apparently, the monarch had the power to grant legal monopolies to a group of her cronies. thus, queen elizabeth could—say—give bill gates an exclusive license for making operating systems or allow mark cuban to be the owner of every basketball team in the nba. here are a few of elizabeth’s buddies and the industry in which she granted them a monopoly:
  • flask making · reynold hexton (15 year grant)
  • transporting shreds of woolen cloth · symon farmer (21 year grant)
  • anniseed importing · robert alexander (21 year grant)
  • buying linen rags · john spilman
  • selling felt hats · [name redacted]
  • transporting ashes and old shoes · ede schets (7 year grant)
  • licensing taverns · sir walter raleigh
No wonder the European economy was stagnant for over a thousand years.

A lot of American states would probably be better off with Walter Raleigh issuing liquor licenses rather than the Liquor Control Boards they actually have now.  At least Raleigh appreciated a good time.

28 June 2010

Want to know why a "Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" isn't going to fix anything?

Because these are the consumers who they will aim to protect from themselves:
Overheard in New York | Jesus Wept.

Girl #1: I have a 19.5% rate on my credit card, I don't know what that means.
Girl #2: I thought students didn't need to pay any interest.

--6 Train

Overheard by: DanInTheCity
~ ~ ~ ~ ~

The other obvious reason a "Consumer Financial Protection Bureau" is bound to failure is that it will be consciously aiming to do stupid shit like this:
But the era of free checking is coming to an end: In an forehead-smackingly obvious turn of events, bold action by Congress and regulators to protect the little guy from overdraft fees means many banks are gearing up to switch to charging those same little guys monthly fees instead. Of course, people who have lots of money in their accounts, use a bank credit card, or employ bank-based investment advisers won't pay these fees. [...]

Overdraft fees minimized the losses on the smallest accounts. Now those costs will be spread evenly across people who don't have very much money in the bank.
By all means, let's enact a law which subsidizes the irresponsible at the expense of the poor. Thanks.  This kind of gobbsmackingly foolish "reform" is the best we can hope for from the CFPB.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As long as I'm posting quotes from people who Don't Get It, I might as well post this too:
The Customer is Not Always Right | Health Care(less)

Pharmacy, Greenville, SC, USA
Me: “That will be $43.78, ma’am.”

Customer: “Oh, no it won’t.”

Me: “I’m sorry, did you have insurance? You weren’t in the system. Do you have your card on you?”

Customer: “No, I don’t have insurance. Obama said health care is free.”

Me: “I don’t think that’s how it works, ma’am.”
Incidentally, this is why I wasn't too concerned with protestors who thought ObamaCare was going to stop their Medicare checks from coming, or other nonsense. Most voters, even most of the voters who bother to get off the couch and go to rallies, have no earthly idea what they're talking about. Democracy is grand.

Steal this movie pitch

Roissy | "Suck it up"

It’s been quipped that liberals love humanity but hate humans, while conservatives love humans but hate humanity. I find there to be a lot of truth to this statement. Now, an illuminating quote from a story about Algore’s alleged sexual assault on a masseuse adds credence to the quip’s accuracy:
Finally she got away. Later, she talked to friends, liberals like herself, who advised against telling police. One asked her “to just suck it up; otherwise, the world’s going to be destroyed from global warming.”
Reminds me of Robert Siegel's Big Fan, in which a Giants fan gets beaten by his favorite player and is forced to choose between justice for himself and ruining the season of the team he stakes his personal identity on. In fact it's so similar of a premise that this is begging to be re-written with a politician instead of a wide receiver and a true believer intern instead of a football fan whose hobby is writing rants to read on a late night sports talk radio show.

chimp war

The chimps are shockingly sophisticated.  They've got "move swiftly, strike vigorously and secure the fruits of victory" down pat.

I'd love to know more about how their raiding parties are organized.  How does the party decide whether to attack of withdraw?  Do all adult males in a colony (is that the right word?) participate in raiding?  Do those who do participate gain any benefits from it personally such as mating rights or extra food or prestige?  Who decides when it's time to go out on patrol?

Where the two big American political parties stand.

[I wrote this up and forgot to publish it a couple of weeks ago now. Ooops.]

First up, a manifesto from Mickey Kaus, blogger and unsucessful challenger of Barbara Boxer in last week's CA senate primary. I agree with most of what he has to say, and unsurprisingly disagree with some as well. But it's a good analysis and I give him a lot of credit for well-reasoned heterodoxy.

Second up, the Economist has been considering the Republicans recently. The thrust of this article is that merely opposing things is great when you're the opposition party, but if they want to lead again then they need some real proposal solutions of their own. I agree completely, though loving obstructionism and hating the "Do Something!" atmosphere of Washington as I do I'm more favorable to persistent opposition than they are. Nonetheless, I'd like to see some actual proposals coming from the GOP.

That article is expanded upon by a couple of their correspondents in this conversation. (Below.) Again, I generally agree with the tone here, but there's one big error I think they make, which is conflating the leadership of America's (nominally) conservative party, conservative voters, and conservative intellectuals. Those aren't remotely the same thing.

The political leadership is proposing pretty much nothing. That means that they are hollow, not that American conservatism as an ideology is out of steam. There are good ideas coming from people like Paul Ryan, and from conservative/libertarian think tanks. The fact that Boehner, McConnel et al don't give those ideas any support says more about them than it does about the ideas. Similarly conservative voters are accused of being hypocritical based on the hypocritical stances of the Bush administration and GOP congressmen under Obama.

My thought on the GOP is that their indecision about what the role of the government is is finally coming home to roost. About a decade or so ago I heard someone present the following metaphor. The Dems were like parents who wanted to be their teenage son's best friend, so they bought him a luxury car that they couldn't afford and he didn't deserve and wouldn't be responsible with. The Republicans counter these extravagant offers to the electorate of fancy cars not by explaining why it's a bad idea, but by offering slightly less fancy cars instead. When given a choice between one person who will give you whatever you want, and another who will excoriate you for wanting all this stuff but then give you most of it anyway, you're going to prefer the first choice.

So now the GOP are in this weird position of selling themselves as the party of fiscal responsibility, but also making populist promises not to take away any of the really popular goodies. This was pretty clear with their ObamaCare opposition, which seemed to rest on a ridiculous combination of "this is too expensive and bureaucratic and the government shouldn't be in health care" and "it will screw with your Medicare!" (The Torries seem to have gotten themselves into the same bind by promising to make across the board cuts to the budget except for medical spending.)

27 June 2010

I'm going to file this away for future study under "Insurrection, tactics in case of"

That's being presented as "riot police charge and strike at peaceful protesters." That very well be the case. You know I don't have much faith in or patience for militarized police. But we have no idea what happened before this. For all I know the cops had been telling the protestors to clear out for two hours because citizens want to use the road to go about their business and the activists refused to move along. I have no idea.

You know what makes me optimistic about this video though? The lack of discipline in the riot cops. They charge down the street like a pack of rabid Gauls. It's nice to know that when riot cops advance they scatter about like school children instead of staying in formation, shoulder to shoulder, like trained professionals. That's the kind of thing it may come in handy one day to know.

From the Change Files

That's a picture from 22 Jan 2009. It's the Pres signing an order ("order") to close the Guantanmo Bay prison.
New York Times | Charlie Savage | Closing Guantánamo Fades as a Priority

Washington — Stymied by political opposition and focused on competing priorities, the Obama administration has sidelined efforts to close the Guantánamo prison, making it unlikely that President Obama will fulfill his promise to close it before his term ends in 2013.
The promise was to close the prison by January 2010, so I'd say the ship has fully sailed on that particular pledge. Now we know that not only will he not get this done on time (a time which he dictated, by the way) but he probably won't get it done at all.

This is the shit that really steams my drawers about Obama. I disliked a vast majority of his platform. The few things I did like, such as this, he hasn't come through on. The very few promises I actually wanted him to keep and had some expectation that he would are the ones that he's broken.

By the way,
Slate | Glenn Greenwald | A disgrace of historic proportions

The Miami Herald's Carol Rosenberg reports that, this week, yet another federal judge has ordered the Obama administration to release yet another Guantanamo detainee on the ground that there is no persuasive evidence to justify his detention. The latest detainee to win his habeas hearing, Mohammed Hassen, is a 27-year old Yemeni imprisoned by the U.S. without charges for 8 years, since he was 19 years old. [...]

What's most significant about this is that Hassen is now the 36th detainee who has won his habeas hearing since the Supreme Court in 2008 ruled they have the right to such hearings -- out of 50 whose petitions have been heard. In other words, 72% of Guantanamo detainees who finally were able to obtain just minimal due process (which is what a habeas hearing is) -- after years of being in a cage without charges -- have been found by federal judges to be wrongfully detained. These are people who are part of what the U.S. Government continues to insist are "the worst of the worst" who remain, and whose release is being vehemently contested by the Obama DOJ.
[Emph. orig.] Look, the kind of people held at Gitmo are tricky. They're aren't criminals and the aren't POWs. They're some third category and we don't have a third way of dealing with them. This shit is complicated.

But when you have, best we can tell, three people who are so innocent that the government doesn't even have enough evidence to send them to trial, for every potentially guilty inmate your system is good and goddamned broken.

If a problem is that complicated — and this one isn't an open-and-shut case, though it's several orders of magnitude simpler than financial regulatory reform or HCR — then you don't saunter into 1600 Pennsylvania and before even unpacking your bags announce you'll have it whipped by the end of the year.

(Photo from Saul Loeb, Getty, by way of the LA Times.)


The Agitator | Radley Balko | Quote of the Day
“It’s a great moment. I’m proud to have been here. No one will know until this is actually in place how it works. But we believe we’ve done something that has been needed for a long time. It took a crisis to bring us to the point where we could actually get this job done.”
That’s a “teary” Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), on the financial overhaul bill assembled by leaders in both houses this week. So Dodd, the chair of the committee with jurisdiction over the bill, has no idea how the bill work. Which also means he has no idea if it will work. Which also means he has no idea if the bill will do more harm than good. Nonetheless, he’s certain it was needed, and is proud to have helped make it happen.
Amateur hour.  At least those halfwits with the flavored cigarette law had a goddamn theory about how things were supposed to work after they passed it.  This is nothing but "Something must be done; this is something; therefor we must do this."  Grandstanding stuffed shirt bullshit.

This sentence from the Washington Post description of the Dodd-Frank bill tells me everything I need to know about it:
The legislation puts a lot of faith in the watchful eye of regulators to prevent another financial crisis.
That really means "This time we promise to hire the right people to be turning knobs and pulling switches, and this time we promise they'll be paying attention and make the right decisions instead of the wrong ones." If you want a system — any system — to be robust to failure you can't rely on having just the right people in just the right place at just the right time.

We already had regulators with "watchful eyes" who were supposed to prevent financial crises.  Where were they?  Why didn't the suits pay attention to the warnings from their own geeks?  Why did they bow to pressure from politicians?  Why didn't they stop the ship from hitting the last iceberg?  Unless there are some answers to those questions this bill boils down to "This time will be different, we promise!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PS This is not as useful as you may think it is, indeed it is probably counter-productive if your goal is systemic stability.
In reaching this deal, negotiators adopted a provision that would ban certain forms of proprietary trading and forbid firms from betting against securities they sell to clients.
To understand why, think about what a sports bookie does when making his book.

Overall I think Congress has mistaken stability for rigidity.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PPS All this bullshit in the WaPo article about congressmen working until 5am to hammer this out — spare me.  That's a decent night's work where I come from.  Twenty hours of work?  Chump change.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

PPPS See Tyler Cowen for a breakdown of provisions.  Hard to read due to formatting, but worth it.  He concludes with:
The bottom line: the good parts of the bill aren't nearly as good as they should be, and the bad parts became much better with time. The biggest omissions are simple and tougher restrictions on leverage and reform of the mortgage agencies. Overall consider this a victory for the status quo and you should realize that the underlying problems have not been solved.
(Decapitalized for you convenience.)

This is guy is my new favorite politician in the world

NY Times | Sally McGrane | Icelander’s Campaign Is a Joke, Until He’s Elected

Iceland’s Best Party, founded in December by a comedian, Jon Gnarr, to satirize his country’s political system, ran a campaign that was one big joke. Or was it?

Last month, in the depressed aftermath of the country’s financial collapse, the Best Party emerged as the biggest winner in Reykjavik’s elections, with 34.7 percent of the vote, and Mr. Gnarr — who also promised a classroom of kindergartners he would build a Disneyland at the airport — is now the fourth mayor in four years of a city that is home to more than a third of the island’s 320,000 people.

In his acceptance speech he tried to calm the fears of the other 65.3 percent. “No one has to be afraid of the Best Party,” he said, “because it is the best party. If it wasn’t, it would be called the Worst Party or the Bad Party. We would never work with a party like that.”

With his party having won 6 of the City Council’s 15 seats, Mr. Gnarr needed a coalition partner, but ruled out any party whose members had not seen all five seasons of “The Wire.”
They may be one of the better qualifications for holding political office I've ever heard. The Wire is not only fine, fine choice in television, it also teaches you most of what you need to know about the operation of hierarchic bureaucracies.

(Via Radley Balko)

25 June 2010

Spending up two orders of magnitude, outcomes flat at best.

(Via JamulBlog)

"Engineering Culture Launched Modernity"

Cato Unbound | Jack Goldstone | How an Engineering Culture Launched Modernity

18th century English chemist Joseph Priestley:
Nature, including both its materials and its laws, will be more at our command; men will make their situation in this world abundantly more easy and comfortable, they will prolong their existence in it and grow daily more happy. . . the end will be glorious and paradisiacal beyond that our imaginations can now conceive.
This was a radical departure from the belief of almost all civilizations (including that of the classical and medieval West) that humanity’s golden age lay in the past. Instead the new engineering culture proclaimed that an earthly paradise lay in man’s future, and that it would be brought about by mankind’s own progress in developing and applying new scientific knowledge rather than by divine redemption.
I think human folly will always be with us, so there's no paradise in our future.  But it has also always been with us, so there's certainly no golden age in our past.  If technology can improve our lives and we can simultaneously become no more wicked than we are (which is what I see happening) then things get better over time, though never perfect.

Penn Jillette may be the most honest and rational commentator in the country

Read this interview he gave with Vanity Fair.  The guy has principles and follows them rationally to conclusions, even when they're uncomfortable.  My hat is off to that.

Here's how LabRat describes him:
I’ve often disagreed with Penn, sometimes quite strongly, but he never gives me the impression he’s being an out and out weasel or that he hasn’t thought through his position- and more importantly, that he’s playing that demented team sport that so much of politics has become.
I'd agree with that. I'd also agree that this interview tells us a lot about the interviewer and his particular breed of self-centered, intellectually-vacant Smart People than it does about Jillette.  (E.g. interviewer Eric Spitznagel is shocked that somebody might support evolution and be pro-choice. I think this is a pretty good indicator that Spitznagel doesn't think his opponents have reasoned opinions but just latch onto a specific set of ideas irrationally. Assuming that people who disagree with you about one thing must disagree with you about everything (and vice versa) is a really tribal and poisonous way to view the world.   His surprise that Jillete would want less power if he were to become president demonstrates Spitznagel's own cynicism and the lack of attention he has paid to any political theories or opinions slightly out of the statist orthodoxy.)

Jillette also gives a pretty good defense of the "Principle of Reciprocity" without using that term.  Here are some relevant passages:
PJ: I will forever stick up for Catholics and Christians in general. With a small number of very horrible exceptions, they do play by the rules.

ES: That's a curious sentiment from somebody who's gone out of his way to make fun of religion.

PJ: I do believe that a belief in god is crazy, but that doesn't mean that the people who believe in it are crazy. Those are two different things. Ideas can be stupid and crazy and the people who hold those ideas are not necessarily stupid and crazy. [...]

ES: You defended the Tea Party during a segment on Larry King not long ago, but you also said you don’t agree with them on a lot of things. What things would that be?

PJ: Pretty much everything. (Laughs.) My only point was, when you’re arguing with someone, you shouldn’t pretend to know what’s going on in their heart. To say that the only reason the Tea Party is against the president is because they’re racist, I think that’s unfair.

Too Stupid for Words: Spilled Milk

Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | Not from the Onion: EPA Classifies Milk as Oil

New Environmental Protection Agency regulations treat spilled milk like oil, requiring farmers to build extra storage tanks and form emergency spill plans.

Local farming advocates says it’s ridiculous to regulate a liquid with a small percentage of butter fat the same way as the now-infamous BP oil spill.

“It’s just another, unnecessary over-regulation by the government just lacking any common sense,” said Bill Robb, dairy educator for Michigan State University Extension...

The EPA regulations state that “milk typically contains a percentage of animal fat, which is a non-petroleum oil. Thus, containers storing milk are subject to the Oil Spill Prevention, Control and Countermeasure Program rule when they meet the applicability criteria..."

Seriously, this is not from The Onion.

Do note that the issue is not even regulation of milk spills it's regulation of milk under the oil spill prevention law.
I... I just... gah.

24 June 2010

what wouldn't happen if government was designed by scientists and engineers

(in theory, anyway)
Reason: Hit & Run | Jacob Sullum | Flavored Cigarettes Are Gone, but Teenagers Still Smoke. Go Figure.

You may have noticed that you can no longer buy clove cigarettes in the United States. That's because the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act [...] forbids them to sell cigarettes that have a "characterizing flavor" other than tobacco or menthol. The official aim, as I explained back in 2004, is to protect the youth of America from "candy-flavored cigarettes" that would otherwise lure them into a lifelong tobacco addiction. Which sounds perfectly persuasive to your average "think of the children" knee jerker, except that there is no reason to believe such cigarettes have ever played a significant role in introducing teenagers to smoking. They are not quite as mythical as strawberry-flavored meth. [...]

Last fall FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg claimed "flavored cigarettes are a gateway for many children and young adults to become regular smokers." In the same press release, Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services Howard Koh made an even bolder assertion, implying that the ban will stop all underage smoking:
Flavored cigarettes attract and allure kids into lifetime addiction. FDA's ban on these cigarettes will break that cycle for the more than 3,600 young people who start smoking daily.
The hypothesis is that flavored cigarettes contribute lure youths into smoking, and from there to addiction.  Unlike many other propositions made by politicians, this one is actually measurable and testable.
Siegel, a longtime anti-smoking activist who thinks exempting menthol from the ban shows Congress was not serious, asks Waxman, Hamburg, and Koh to stop making shit up:
It is demonstrably false that flavored cigarettes are a gateway to cigarette smoking, that they contribute significantly to addiction of youths to tobacco, [and] that the tobacco industry uses these flavored cigarettes to hook children...Prior to the implementation of the law...the overall market share of flavored cigarettes among youth smokers was less than 0.1%....The removal of flavored cigarettes from the market by the FDA will have no impact whatsoever on youth smoking.

I challenge Dr. Hamburg, Dr. Koh, and Representative Waxman to name the actual cigarette brands—the brands of candy-flavored cigarettes—that they allege were the source of youth addiction to cigarette smoking just prior to the implementation of the flavored cigarette ban in September 2009 and which are no longer being smoked by large numbers of youths as a result of that ban....If they are unable to name such brands, then clearly their public assertions were false.
Our just and noble leaders ignored Mr Siegel, of course, and pressed ahead with the ban. (You can't let facts get in the way of decision making, after all.) Now we have a nice little experiment on our hand. Congress and the White House are claiming that A is the cause of B, where A = flavored cigarettes and B = underage smoking. We now have less A. If their theory is right we will soon have less of B.  Does anyone want to wager whether we will actually have less B in, say, three years?

I don't think we will.  But more importantly, no one will care whether we do or not three years from now. We will never measure A --> B and use the testing of that hypothesis to refine our understanding and our laws.

We just make guesses about the effects of legal interventions, and then shut our eyes and ears to the world, assuming our predictions were right. Even when we recognize that things turned out differently, we never step back and re-evaluate. Instead we just press on with the next stab in the dark. I find this more than a little bit insane.

Sports Mutation

Richard Epstein's article in Forbes about reforming the rules of soccer has been getting some attention.  I think there are some interesting ideas there.  I like the penalty minutes idea much more than having two-point goals from the field and one-point goals on penalty kicks.

I'm actually pretty pleased with the rules of soccer right now,* but I've been thinking about different ways to play various sports ever since talking about the different cricket formats when I was in St Lucia.

What if baseball was three innings of nine outs each? What if the World Series winner was whoever got more runs in 63 innings, rather than four games out of seven? What if (American) football was three matches of 30 minutes each, and the winner of the game would be whoever won two of the matches?

Like cricket, these new rules wouldn't need to supplant the old ones. You could play both versions of the game simultaneously. There are various versions of poker being played. Various versions of chess too (at least with regards to timing, right?). All sorts of amateur games and sports have tons of variations.  Why not big time ones?

* One exception: there should be no way a referee can call a foul without stating what the foul is and who it's on. I'm looking at you, Koman Coulibaly.

Via Jacob Grier.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ed Felten thinks soccer rules should be left just the way they are in the name of scalability.
So here’s the logic underlying soccer’s rules: the game is supposed to scale down, so that an ordinary youth or recreation-league game can be played under the exact same rules used by the pros. This means that the rules must be designed so that the game can be run by a single referee, without any special equipment such as a scoreboard.
Fair enough. That's a good a reason as any I've heard.

I would counter with cricket.  It's vastly popular even though people don't play by the same set-up as the pros, and many different forms of the game coexist.

I'm not so sure scalability is really such an important thing though. Felten overextends himself in his conclusion:
It’s no accident, I think, that scalable sports such as soccer and baseball/softball are played by many Americans who typically watch non-scalable sports. There’s something satisfying about playing the same game that the pros play. So, my fellow Americans, if you’re going to fix soccer, please keep the game simple enough that the rest of us can still play it.
What are the non-scalable sports that Americans watch? By Felten's own reckoning, football, hockey and basketball. I'd guess that basketball is actually played by more Americans than any other sport. Football and hockey are non scalable, but they're also contact sports. I'd say that's a much bigger reason Americans don't play than the need for more referees and such.

What are the other sports Americans watch a lot of? Car racing. We don't participate in that because it's too expensive and dangerous. Golf. We do plenty of that under pretty much the exact same rules as the pros. Tennis. Also lots of that, with different rules than the pros. I don't see any correlation between the scalability of sport and how much people play.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Ultimately I'm enough of a conservative when it comes to sports* to be happy if the rules stayed pretty much the same.  I guess I'm also a big enough of a supporter of emergent orders to want to see a league somewhere try and make some modifications and let the fans judge how they work, rather than just assuming that all adaptation will be disadvantageous.

( * "The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers; it has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time.")

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Aditi Kinkhabwala and Scott Cacciola argue that the mess of college football that results from the conference and BCS systems should be resolved by adopting a system of relegation and promotion like the English Premier League does.    I've thought that was a good idea for a while.  120 teams is just too many to have in Division 1-A. (Or the "Football Bowl Subdivision," if you insist.)  Kinkhabwala and Cacciola's idea about making 4 regional superconferences is less appealing to me.

23 June 2010

"My Soul is Terrifying..."

Via randomscrub

Laugh so you don't cry.

Sports pushing the limits of technology.

Kempt | R.B. | The Internet Wins Again

On the off-chance you’re feeling contemplative after the U.S.’s mind-blowing stoppage time goal, here’s an extra tidbit to consider. During the close of the game, news sites were clocking 11.2 million visitors per minute, making it the second-highest traffic spike the internet’s ever seen.
Wow. Weird stat.

That was an intensely exciting game. If you weren't watching live this is what you missed after the end of regulation:

(Video via World's Best Ever.)

Quite a day for sports, considering what happened is still happening at Wimbeldon, with a match lasting ten hours already and still not over, after being called for darkness two days in a row. The fifth set is now tied up at 59-59.
Even a courtside electronic scoreboard couldn't keep up, getting stuck at 47-47 when the score had really risen to 48-48 and then eventually going dark entirely.

Yet the pair played on. All the numbers were truly astounding: They played 881 points, 612 in the fifth set. Isner hit 98 aces, Mahut 95 -- both eclipsing the previous high for a match at any tournament, 78.

And this cannot be emphasized enough: They are not finished. No one won. The match will continue, stretching into a third day.

22 June 2010

Worshipping Apollo

Bruce Charlton | Human capability peaked before 1975 and has since declined

I suspect that human capability reached its peak or plateau around 1965-75 – at the time of the Apollo moon landings – and has been declining ever since.

This may sound bizarre or just plain false, but the argument is simple. That landing of men on the moon and bringing them back alive was the supreme achievement of human capability, the most difficult problem ever solved by humans. 40 years ago we could do it – repeatedly – but since then we have *not* been to the moon, and I suggest the real reason we have not been to the moon since 1972 is that we cannot any longer do it. Humans have lost the capability.
That is not even wrong.

First of all, that is entirely subjective.  Why is going to the moon judged to be the supreme achievement?  On what grounds is it more of a pinnacle than splitting the atom or mapping the human genome or cloning a mammal or building a car which can drive autonomously?  Other than the moon being far away and trips there making Bruce Charlton's heart skip a beat, why is that the single most impressive accomplishment?

What's the scale being used here?   Charlton is big on science, so how can this statement be falsified?  How are we measuring the complexity of accomplishments?  Without knowing that then there is no way humans could ever ive up to Apollo.  Charlton can just continue to claim he is not as impressed as he was by Apollo 11.

Secondly, going to the moon is f***ing simple.  Strap enough rocket fuel under some zoomie's ass and you're there.  It's a difficult but straight-forward engineering challenge based on 19th century Newtonian science.  That is old and tired compared to what we can do now.  Here are a few examples of things I find to be higher achievements than putting men on the moon, and these are just a smattering of things in the news in the last few weeks alone. Xian-Min Jin et al just acheived instant transmission of data using quantum entanglement over a distance of ten miles. (See: Discovery News and Nature Photonics.) Ventner et al. created a viable bacterium from an entirely artificial genome. (NB Schulz et al. have been doing even more impressive things though with much less fanfare.) IBM Research has been making waves with Watson, a computer capable of competing with humans in Jeopardy!.
Of course, the standard line is that humans stopped going to the moon only because we no longer *wanted* to go to the moon, or could not afford to, or something…– but I am suggesting that all this is BS, merely excuses for not doing something which we *cannot* do.
What's the evidence for that claim?

There's no reason to go to the moon any more. (If, indeed, there ever was one.) What are you going to do when you get there except feel proud about it? What can you do that a robot couldn't do better and cheaper?
It is as if an eighty year old ex-professional-cyclist was to claim that the reason he had stopped competing in the Tour de France was that he had now had found better ways to spend his time and money. It may be true; but does not disguise the fact that an 80 year old could not compete in international cycling races even if he wanted to. [...]
We don't sacrifice goats to Apollo any more either. Would it be accurate to say we don't do that because we no longer know how? Arnold Kling points out that we don't build stone cathedrals like we used to either. Is it because we don't know how or don't want to? Surely some of our stone-cathedral-building skills have lapsed, but who cares?  We have better things to be doing.

Charlton is treating technical abilities like they're a genetic trait that has passed from our grasp, like an athlete growing old. (Or more like Tolkien treated nobility and honor: our metis has faded away like the glory of Gondor without her King.) It doesn't work like that. Humans of 1961 had no innate capability for getting into orbit. They had to learn how.  We could re-learn whatever we've let lapse, and probably do it better and cheaper to boot.
On the job problem-solving means having the best people doing the most important jobs. For example, if it had not been Neil Armstrong at the controls of the first Apollo 11 lunar lander but had instead been somebody of lesser ability, decisiveness, courage and creativity – the mission would either have failed or aborted.
Actually most of the engineers involved wanted the landing to be automated. The Pentagon vetoed that because they wanted their flyboys to have some extra glory.  Armstrong really shouldn't have been at the controls in the first place.
But since the 1970s there has been a decline in the quality of people in the key jobs in NASA, and elsewhere – because organizations no longer seek to find and use the best people as their ideal but instead try to be ‘diverse’ in various ways (age, sex, race, nationality etc). And also the people in the key jobs are no longer able to decide and command, due to the expansion of committees and the erosion of individual responsibility and autonomy.
NASA doesn't have the best people any more because it doesn't need them. They're off doing more important things. Organizations which do put diversity above achievement (and some do; no idea if NASA is one) inevitably fall behind those that value achievement. If NASA indeed prioritizes diversity or bureaucracy over accomplishment then why judge people based on what NASA can do? Look elsewhere for human achievement.
By 1986, and the Challenger space shuttle disaster, it was clear that humans had declined in capability – since the disaster was fundamentally caused by managers and committees being in control of NASA rather than individual experts. [...]
No, that's evidence that NASA declined in capability, not humanity as a whole. And only if you happen to cherry pick your other point of comparison as Apollo 11 and not, say, Apollo 1.
Since the mid-1970s the rate of progress has declined in physics, biology and the medical sciences – and some of these have arguably gone into reverse, so that the practice of science in some areas has overall gone backwards, valid knowledge has been lost and replaced with phony fashionable triviality and dishonest hype. Some of the biggest areas of science – medical research, molecular biology, neuroscience, epidemiology, climate research – are almost wholly trivial or bogus. This is not compensated by a few islands of progress, eg in computerization and the invention of the internet. Capability must cover all the bases, and depends not on a single advanced area but all-round advancement.
This is so wrong I don't even know where to begin. Physics has stalled (not regressed) a little recently because it is struggling to move into much harder problem areas that are entirely immune to what humans can experience and observe unaided. Biology is advancing by bounds; future historians will divide biology into a pre-genetic period and a post-genetic period we are just starting to explore. Neuroscience has likewise never been more robust. In fact neuroscience didn't even exist when Buzz Aldrin was buzzing, it's been born as a discipline within the time that Charlton thinks we've been fading. Medical research is likewise advancing: Would you rather be in a hospital in 1969 or 2010? Climate research ... that's a whole can of worms I don't want to touch: too politicized, too ideological, too unscientific, but it's not in any way indicative of human capability as a whole. And as a computer scientist I think it's a little insulting to take all of computerization — truly a revolution for Science and the world — and just brush it away as an "island of progress."
The fact is that human no longer do - *can* no longer do many things we used to be able to do: land on the moon, swiftly win wars against weak opposition and then control the defeated nation,
Does this guy know any history? Civilizations have tried and failed to decisively win wars for as long as there have been wars.  How many times did the Romans fight the same people over and over, failing to fully suppress their enemies over a period of generations? There's a reason there were three Samnite wars, four Macedonian wars, three Celtiberian wars, three Mithridatic wars and three Jewish-Roman wars. And I'll let the three Punic wars and three Servile wars pass, not to mention all the ongoing struggles that don't get counted as multiple individual wars but could be, like the Macromanic wars.

Hell, who needs to know history when you can open a newspaper: how long have the Brits been trying to pacify the Irish? Centuries.
secure national borders,
I don't have the patience for listing all of the unsecured national borders in history. I'll just counter that the US also has the longest secure (and undefended) border in the world, and probably in world history.  (Hi, Canada!  How's it going up there?)
discover ‘breakthrough’ medical treatments,
Tell that to all the people working on visual/neural interfaces to cure blindness or targeted reinnervation to provide neural control of prosthetics, just to give two examples I have followed loosely.
prevent crime,
When the hell could we prevent crime, and when did it have to do with our technical prowess?
design and build to a tight deadline,
Nothing is built to deadline anymore?  Furthermore Apollo only got in on deadline because Abe Silverstein had been around the block enough to know that he should take all the estimates his underlings gave him and double them.  They came in on time and relatively on budget because he padded everything so generously.
educate people so they are ready to work before the age of 22,
Nobody is capable of working before 22?  I've been working 20 or 30 hours a week while in school (and more when out of school) since I was 18, and a big chunk of those hours have been spent doing things that were beyond the imagination, not to mention the prowess, of people four decades ago.  A lot more people stay in school later, but that's a sign of success, not failure.  They're purchasing a luxury their parents couldn't have afforded.
block an undersea oil leak...
Again, we've never been able to block a leak under a mile plus of water. This isn't a valid comparison to the past in any way.
50 years ago we would have the smartest, best trained, most experienced and most creative people we could find (given human imperfections) in position to take responsibility, make decisions and act upon them in pursuit of a positive goal.

Now we have dull and docile committee members chosen partly with an eye to affirmative action and to generate positive media coverage, whose major priority is not to do the job but to avoid personal responsibility and prevent side-effects; pestered at every turn by an irresponsible and aggressive media and grandstanding politicians out to score popularity points; all of whom are hemmed-about by regulations such that – whatever they do do, or do not do – they will be in breach of some rule or another.
Who is this "we"? Does "we" mean "a government agency"? Because I guarantee they were staffed by just as many half-assed loosers back in the Good Ole Days as they are now, it's just the faces that have changed. Think about all the incompetent sons-in-law and frat brothers and friends from prep school who got postings because they knew the right people. Think about all the talented women and Jews and Catholics and Africans and so on that got passed over for jobs or educations where they could have helped make progress. Politics and human pettiness is nothing new.
So we should be honest about the fact that human do not anymore fly to the moon because humans cannot anymore fly to the moon.
Again, what evidence that we can't do this vs don't want to waste resources doing so?
Humans have failed to block the leaking oil pipe in the Gulf of Mexico because we nowadays cannot do it (although humans would surely have solved the problem 40 years ago, but in ways we can no longer imagine since then the experts were both smarter and more creative than we are now, and these experts would then have been in a position to do the needful).
What would possibly lead him to think we could have blocked this well in 1970? The Deepwater Horizon was operating in 8000ft of water, the deepest a rig could get in 1970 was on the shallow side of 1000ft. Why would someone drilling in 1970 be equipped to plug a hole three orders of magnitude deeper than they were operating in?
There has been a significant decline in human capability. And there is no sign yet of reversal in this decline, although reversal and recovery is indeed possible.

But do no believe any excuses for failure to do something. Doing something is the only proof that something can indeed be done.
Doing something is proof, but so is having done something. I'm not actively tying my shoes right now, but that doesn't mean I lack proof of being able to tie shoelaces.
Only when regular and successful lunar flights resume can we legitimately claim to have achieved approximately equal capability to that which humans possesed 40 years ago.
This is nothing but fetishization of the Apollo program coupled with a very severe case of Back in the Good Ole Days. The entire post boils down to "back in the golden ages we did this one thing I think was so damn impressive and now we don't do it anymore and somehow it's the fault of all these things that I hate anyway and if we could only do this one thing then all our problems would be solved because we would be super like we were back then when everything was great." Cranky, myopic bullshit on stilts.

Hastings to Open 127 Comic Stores Nationwide in US

iFanboy | Josh Flanagan | Hastings to Open 127 Comic Stores Nationwide in US

The news broke on Bleeding Cool today that entertainment chain Hastings, will launch 127 direct market comic shops throughout the US. By adding an expanded comics section to 127 of their existing 147 stores, they're set to be the largest buyers of comic books in retail. That's a big deal, and presents them with a huge amount of power in what will ultimately be sold and published. [...]

I'll admit, this is a weird move. The direct market is in a bit of flux. With digital as an impending competitor, I feel like everyone is holding their collective breath. Granted, this move will make it easier for some readers who weren't served by a local store, but I've never heard of the chain.
I thought it was weird at first as well since so many existing retailers are struggling, but now I think it makes a lot of sense. They are probably betting that there are enough potential customers out there who like comics enough to buy a few, but not enough to make a trip to a specific store to do so on a regular basis.  This seems like a fairly good bet to me.

I think if this Hastings experiment works and Marvel/DC are smart they're going to have to respond by simplifying their line-ups.  If someone gets interested in (say) Iron Man and walks into a dedicated comic shop the staff will have enough knowledge to walk the customer through which of the many Iron Man books on the shelf are good for an inexperienced reader.  It's still intimidating, but at least there's some help.  You don't have that in a place like Hastings.  If you're Marvel/DC and your biggest single outlet is now a place like Hastings you need to make it easier on the person who wants to walk into a store and just grab Iron Man or Batman: you can't publish so many series of the same character simultaneously, it needs to be clearer which issues go with which and which series follow which, things need to publish on time, etc.

Camera accessories

Amateur Photographer | Chris Cheesman | Photographers' rights campaign spawns lens cloth launch

Rules on photography in public places have been spelled out in black and white on a photographers' lens cloth set to be given away with Amateur Photographer (AP) magazine's 10 July issue.

Made of microfibre material the cloth is designed to be carried by photographers when out and about and can be attached to a keyring, for example.

It will give photographers, amateur and professional, easy access to guidelines issued to Metropolitan Police officers last year to help them deal with photographers.

Amateur Photographer Editor Damien Demolder said: 'Despite government assurances to AP, photographers are needlessly prevented from taking pictures in public everyday. But with our Photographer's Rights lens cloth you'll be able to quickly and politely point out what your rights are. So long as you are on public property this should make your day a whole lot better – and it will keep your lens clean too.'
It would be great to have an American version of one of these, since we have more than our share of over zealous cops inventing laws against photography. (For instance, my new home has tried to ban photography three years ago.)

May I also suggest that the reverse of the cloth has a message to parents explaining that taking pictures where children are present does not make one a pedophile.

21 June 2010

education-as-investment and education-as-consumption

WSJ.com | Moshe Milevsky | Think Smarter About Risk

Recall that the dividends you receive from your human capital are not solely the result of hard work, innate skills, fortuitous parents or sheer luck. Rather, these dividends can be traced to the investment of time, money and effort during your student years. The skills you acquire in your late teens and early 20s set the stage for the value of human capital. Surgeons who spent more than 10 years as undergraduates plus medical school and then internship and residency invested in their human capital. They were not consuming time. They were investing time.

Therefore, in my opinion—and this might get me in trouble with my academic colleagues—too many students (and some parents) view education as a consumption good. They immerse themselves in a liberal-arts degree and study dance or literature or dance literature, without any regard for how this might influence the future dividends of their human capital.
Hat tip to my buddy D.R. for passing on this article about considering your human capital when thinking about your asset allocation and diversification.

I like these paragraphs in particular. I think this gets at some of the disfunction of the Higher Education Bubble. We subsidize college degrees without regard to how productive they actually end up being, maintaining a sort of willful fiction that all education is equally valuable to society.

I think we need to stop thinking about subsidizing education and start thinking about education-as-investment and education-as-consumption.

I'm all in favor of people dedicating time and resources to consumptive education — I chose to go to Notre Dame largely because I could take art and history and film and philosophy classes while getting an engineering degree — but I'm not so sure why we should be asking the rest of society to subsidize what amount to educational luxuries so highly.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Usually when I write things like this my friends who studied humanities get sort of offended.  Dudes: I am not slagging on your majors.  I think that stuff is valuable.  I just think we need to rethink encouraging people to take on mountains of debt pursuing it, asking the rest of society to help people take on that debt, and all the while telling kids that a college degree is the ticket to success regardless of what the degree is in.

Barton & BP

EconLog | David Henderson | Joe Barton is Wrong

Yesterday, Republican leaders John Boehner, Eric Cantor and Mike Pence issued a statement castigating their fellow Republican Congressman Joe Barton. Barton had apologized to BP's CEO, Tony Hayward, for the shoddy treatment he received from Congressmen of both parties. He also accused Barack Obama of a "$20 billion shakedown" of BP. Boenher, Cantor, and Pence wrote, "Congressman Barton's statements this morning were wrong."

But they didn't say why he was wrong. He wasn't wrong for apologizing for his colleagues' horrible behavior. He was wrong for claiming that Obama had carried out a "$20 billion shakedown." As later news reports made clear, the shakedown could be more than $20 billion. So the correct statement is that Barack Obama carried out a "$20 billion or more shakedown."

Note that I'm not talking about whether BP should be held accountable for the horrible consequences of its actions. Rather, I'm defending the rule of law, something Barack Obama, at one time a professor of constitutional law, might have some dim memory of. His tactics--asserting executive power with no legal basis--were Bush-league.
"Bush-league"! Bazainga.

I'm with Henderson. Holding BP accountable is important. Maintaining the Rule of Law is more important.

Note that there are at least four reasons for BP to cooperate with Obama's "shakedown" that I can think of right now.

(1) Good PR. They can immediately claim to have spent this big pile of money on making things right. It also takes some wind out of their critics sails who want them to suffer more.

(2) When the costs run up above $20B it makes it easier for them to tell people to piss off since they've already worked up this deal with the White House. If $20B turns out not to be enough it's now their fault but also Obama's fault that the money has run out.

(3) When people filing claims get turned down, or just hung up in the bureaucracy of getting reimbursed, it's not BP giving them the bad news. It falls to whichever agency administers the escrow account to explain to people why they don't get the money they want.

(4) It maintains good will between Obama and BP. Obama is the single largest recipient of BP's and its employees' political donations in the last 20 years. Additionally BP is extremely gung ho about Obama's carbon rationing scheme. (I read somewhere (the Economist?) that no one has spent more lobbying in support of cap-and-trade than BP has.)  If they can maintain their seat at the table when that gets hashed out they stand to make back their $20B plus a lot more.

(Yes, I realize Barton is also a huge recipient of contributions from a company that is a partner of a partner of BP at this well. I'm not saying his hands are clean here either.)

20 June 2010

This is too awesome not to re-post

I have one of those cunning hats. It never fails to get compliments, even from people who have never heard of Jayne.

From The Ultimate Answer to Kings, by way of TJIC and Random Scrub.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

"I'll kill a man in a fair fight. Or if I think he's gonna start a fair fight. Or if he bothers me. Or if there's a woman. Or if I'm gettin' paid. Mostly when I'm gettin' paid."
— Jayne Cobb

19 June 2010

The Boldest Boldness that Ever Bolded

AP | Colleen Slevin | In bold move, Colorado alters teacher tenure rules

Denver – Colorado is changing the rules for how teachers earn and keep the sweeping job protections known as tenure, linking student performance to job security despite outcry from teacher unions that have steadfastly defended the system for decades. [...]

It requires teachers to be evaluated annually, with at least half of their rating based on whether their students progressed during the school year. Beginning teachers will have to show they've boosted student achievement for three straight years to earn tenure.

Teachers could lose tenure if their students don't show progress for two consecutive years. Under the old system, teachers simply had to work for three years to gain tenure, the typical wait around the country.
It's a sad, sad state of affairs when this is rightly considered a "bold move." Reforming a system in which showing up to work for three years grants you a job for life should be common sense, not an audacious scheme.
Teachers won't be at risk of losing tenure until 2015 because lawmakers slowed down the process under political pressure from the teachers' union. Teachers can appeal dismissal all the way to the state Supreme Court, and school districts have the burden of proving why they should be terminated.
Of course.
On average, school districts across the country dismiss 2.1 percent of teachers annually ...
I'd love to see that stat for other industries.
... generally for bad conduct rather than performance.
In a way it's the mirror image of the way school systems treat students. Schools are really just ways to keep children busy, not places to educate them.  Just failing to learn things is almost never cause to dismiss a student where I come from, but bad conduct is.   Why should the wardens be evaluated any differently than the inmates?

I've got to give Jon Stewart some credit

I didn't think he would have the backbone to criticize Obama the way he did Bush.  He's certainly been softer on him than Bush, but he's hasn't pulled punches like I thought he would.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Respect My Authoritah
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorTea Party

"Your campaign was premised on reigning in presidential power. WHAT HAPPENED??" [cue film of inauguration] "Oh, I see. You used to have a little, now you have a lot."

(Via Matt Welch.)

PS What's with the Palin cheapshot in there at the end?  Is a joke about a failed VP candidate really relevant there?  Like Coyote, I really don't understand the amount of attention her enemies pay to her.

18 June 2010

Photography publishing ban

DCist | Kriston Capps | PG County Schools Ban Cell Phones

The Washington Post's Michael Birnbaum posts an update noting that the Prince George's County school board has approved the area's strictest ban against students using cell phones during school hours. No texting, no twittering, and no phone calls will be allowed on school property "from the first bell of the morning to the last bell of the day."
It took them until 2010 to come up with this policy? I wasn't allowed to have a cell phone (or beeper! remember those?) in school back in the 90s.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the ban: Students may not post photographs taken on PG school campuses to Facebook. The rationale there is lost on me.
Huh? This is lost on me too.

What is it with rulemakers these days and photography? (If you don't know what I mean then please go familiarize yourself with Carlos Miller's fine blog.) I can understand why cops treat cameras like vampires treat holy water, but what's with this general paranoia about photographing public space?  It's like people have regressed to some atavistic belief that cameras steal souls of public buildings.

I know we have built a weird society in which students have only a small fraction of rights, but does this policy hold up in any reasonable way?  Under what grounds do you prevent a student from posting a picture taken in a public building to the internet

Bottom Elephant: All politics is interest group politics.

Dispatches from TJICistan | TJIC | another left wing attack on free speech

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats are pushing hard for legislation to rein in the power of special interests by requiring more disclosure of their roles in paying for campaign advertising — but as they struggle to find the votes they need to pass it they are carving out loopholes for, yes, special interests.
(a) color me shocked that Democrats would try to pass a good-for-the-goose-but-let’s-cut-a-special-deal-for-the-gander law.

(b) the phrase “rein in the power of special interests” actually means “limit the ability of Americans in groups to express their opinions”.
All politics is interest group politics.  All of it.

There is no policy which benefits all people equally. There are vanishingly few policies which are Pareto improvements. Advocating anything at all means that you are advancing the cause of a limited group, i.e. a special interest.

There is no such thing as prefect safety

dispatches from TJICistan | TJIC | safety vs. dollars

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which established the $75 million liability cap after the Exxon Valdez accident, also said that spills due to gross negligence or similar safety violations are subject to unlimited liability. The evidence is building that BP won’t be able to hide from the gross negligence charge even if they try:
“Time after time, it appears that BP made decisions that increased the risk of a blowout to save the company time or expense,” Representatives Henry Waxman of California and Bart Stupak of Michigan said in a letter to BP Chief Executive Officer Tony Hayward. “If this is what happened, BP’s carelessness and complacency have inflicted a heavy toll on the Gulf, its inhabitants, and the workers on the rig.”
This is supposed to be a smoking gun quote?

Look, we all trade off safety in order to save time and expense.

Do you put on your seat belt when moving your car from one point in the driveway to another?

Do you buy the car that costs twice as much, because it’s got a 1% increase in crash survivability?

Did you pay $40k to get industrial fire sprinklers installed in your house?

Do you have a home defibrillation machine?

There is nothing wrong, in the abstract, with trading off safety in order to save time and expense.

The question is whether BP did this to a level that constitutes “gross negligence”.
What he said.

I took a risk management course as an undergrad engineer.  The first lesson, and indeed the single most important one, is that there is no such thing as "safe."

Stories get written up in the media as if there is some cut off between "safe" and "unsafe."  There isn't.  It's not Boolean.  There are degrees of safety, against which you must trade off cost, efficiency, longevity, ease of manufacture, ease of maintenance, weight, and a host of other concerns, even aesthetics.  Designers and engineers weigh these considerations in absolutely everything you encounter in your life.

Just to say that BP engineers made a decision on the risk / cost spectrum is irrelevant.  Anyone who has the slightest clue about how things are designed and built already knew that to be true because that's what ALL ENGINEERS must do.  You need to somehow establish that the point on that curve they chose is the wrong one and was demonstrably wrong a priori.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Some more sense on risk, via Bruce Schneier:
Creators.com | Lenore Skenazy | Hot Dog! Stand Back 200 Feet!

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued a statement calling for large-type warning labels on the foods that kids most commonly choke on — grapes, nuts, carrots, candy and public enemy No. 1: the frank. Then the lead author of the report, pediatric emergency room doctor Gary Smith, went one step further.

He called for a redesign of the hot dog.

The reason, he said, is that hot dogs are "high-risk." But are they? I mean, I certainly diced my share of Oscar Mayers when my kids were younger, but if once in a while we stopped for a hot dog and I gave it to 'em whole, was I really taking a crazy risk?

Here are the facts: About 61 children each year choke to death on food, or one in a million. Of them, 17 percent — or about 10 — choke on franks. So now we are talking 1 in 6 million. This is still tragic; the death of any child is. But to call it "high-risk" means we would have to call pretty much all of life "high-risk." Especially getting in a car! About 1,300 kids younger than 14 die each year as car passengers, compared with 10 a year from hot dogs.

What's happening is that the concept of "risk" is broadening to encompass almost everything a kid ever does, from running to sitting to sleeping. Literally!
The story Skenazy cites about children not being safe running (a school which banned tag because it requires running, which in turn leads to falls, which may lead to injury) is a great example of the futility of trying to eliminate all risk and the folly of treating multi-objective situations as unidimensional. You ban games which have kids run because it's risky to their health. So they run less. So they gain weight. So they become obese. Which is risky to their health.

This is the same as the TSA making air travel safer but more costly, causing more people to drive, causing more people to die in highway car crashes, which were a bigger threat than air travel was in the first place.

You're never going to keep anybody safe if you imagine you can just de facto outlaw some activity with non-zero risk. People are complex, even children. They aren't simple enough to impose non-riskiness top down.


Woot Blog | Flash in the Brainpan: Entanglement

Warning: the all-too-appropriately named Entanglement will ensnare you in a web of frustration and lost productivity. The idea is to rotate the tiles so that the orange path crosses as many borders as possible without touching the sides or the center hex. Sounds simple... maddeningly simple. Don't be fooled by this high-score screenshot: you'll be lucky to crack 50 on your first few tries. I've played way too much of this game and the best score I can manage is 67.

I've racked up 79 points in the first level and 84 in the second. Great game. It's one of those "okay, just one more round" addictive games. Check it out.

PS I struggled a bit until I realize using the keys is much easier than using the mouse. Left and right to rotate a tile and space to lay it down.

PPS Booyah!  Scratch that 84.  Mark it 99, dude.