31 July 2010

Someone go tell the DC FOP that Judge Dredd is fictional.

Popehat | Ken | What Law? Just, You Know, THE LAW.

Law enforcement would have you believe that cameras are dangerous and justify their intervention. Either it’s because a camera could be a high-tech weapon, or because they get folks all het up:
Police officials say officers who seek to stop photography are driven by safety concerns and the fact that the presence of a camera can spike emotions.

"When people see a camera, they get more into it," said Marcello Muzzatti, president of D.C. Lodge No. 1 of the Fraternal Order of Police, which represents 11,000 officers in more than 100 D.C. and federal agencies. "Some people will figure, 'I have a right to take pictures,' and we are not arguing with that. An officer also has a right to his or her safety and to control the situation."
Woah there, big fella. What's this "right to control the situation" you're talking about? I don't remember seeing that in the Constitution, or any statutues, or any books of philosophy or law. That sounds an awful lot like a right to tell anyone within ear shot of you to behave however you want.

Cops have a right to safety. The very same right that I have and the rest of the humans in the world have. No more, no less. There's no right to "control the situation," because that's nothing but a spiffy way of saying they have a right to unquestioned local authoritarianism.

The Defense Spending Illusion

The Growth Illusion - The Corner - National Review Online

The problem with the way we count economic growth is that it focuses on spending [...]
Yes, the way we calculate GDP is silly: assume that $k in government spending has produced exactly $k of wealth. Not sure of a better way to do it, but yes, it's bogus. Ask the Greeks. Actually, don't. I have no reason to believe they've learned the error of their ways yet. Ask the Germans about the Greeks.
This is the growth illusion embedded in economic forecasts and in the way we calculate gross domestic product, and we are seeing its negative effects in the anemic numbers posted by the general economy. Increases in nondefense spending are almost exclusively redistributions of revenue from one group (working individuals, or future generations through debt) to current non-earners or non–wealth producers. Even the business spending may be illusory, particularly if the increases in inventory built by domestic manufacturers were based on distortions from gimmicks — cash-for-clunkers, housing tax credits, or stimulus infrastructure [...]
Wait, what? Nondefense spending is just shuffling money around? Why nondefense? How is it any better to take my money and give it to a welder at a General Dynamics shipyard or a software engineer in a Raytheon office or some noncom in the 10th Mountain Division? I've got nothing against those folks, but the defense spending they receive is still just shuffling money around.

Attention Conservatives: government spending is spending. You may think the defense spending is particularly worthwhile or defensible, but it's still spending like any other. It obeys the same rules, and it has to be paid for the same ways. Stop treating it like some magical, inviolate section of the budget that you can't even begin to consider to discuss tampering with.  It makes you look unserious.

tabs: black out recovery

The Americans with Disabilities Act, twenty years on...
"The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled this week that customers in wheelchairs are being denied the full "Chipotle experience" of watching their food being prepared because Chipotle's 45-inch counters are too high."
Even the SF Chronicle thinks this was a bullshit decision. They have more details. The plaintiff, Maurizio Antoninetti, has sued twenty plus business in the last 19 years.

Walter Olson has more info about the ADA after 20 years, including this passage about the conflation between legislation and society:
One reason for the law’s immunity from criticism is that it is defended as a matter of identity politics: if you’re against it, then you must be against the people it protects. So it is treated as rude, not merely provocative, to bring up the failure of the original ADA premise that the new law would “pay for itself” by increasing the labor force participation of the disabled (the rate declined instead).
PS I can't imagine there are that many Maurizio Antoninettis in San Diego, so I'm going to assume the plaintiff is the same Maurizio Antoninetti employed as a professor of city planning by SDSU. I'm counting this as one more reason I don't respect the entire discipline of city planning.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Via CoyoteBlog, a 1:4 scale radio controlled Tiger II.  That's 550lbs of awesome.


I wish they had an original Tiger.  No reason in particular, I'm just a little partial to them since I had a model of one in my toy soldier collection as a kid.  (Yes, I have a favorite Panzer.  That's the kind of kid I was.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


Today's xkcd.

You hear that UMD? I want a usable campus map.

The title text to the comic:
People go to the website because they can't wait for the next alumni magazine, right? What do you mean, you want a campus map? One of our students made one as a CS class project back in '01! You can click to zoom and everything!
This happens all the time. I've seen a dozen or so completed students projects from my very small undergrad CS department that were better than what ND was providing online. Often ND was providing nothing.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Patrick of Popehat points out that not only did an unspecified number of FBI agents cheat on the law exam to be promoted to "special agent," the FBI Inspector General claims that they only shared answers during the exam because they were confused and didn't know not to. The IG seems to think it's a mitigating factor. I think it means that these agents are not only corrupt, they're too stupid to know how a test works. So glad these guys are out there keeping society safe.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

These Icelanders know how to celebrate a goal.


Via Matt Johnson

~ ~ ~ ~ ~


The Daily What | Proclamation of the Day

Maryland declares the day of Civ5’s North American release — September 21st — “Sid Meier’s Civilization V Day.”

Move over Christmas: Papa’s got a new favorite holiday.
I have never been so proud to be from in MD.

(This isn't totally random. Sid has lived around Baltimore for decades.  Cockeysville, I believe.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Yahoo News | John Carey | Mighty oil-eating microbes help clean up the Gulf

Where is all the oil? Nearly two weeks after BP finally capped the biggest oil spill in U.S. history, the oil slicks that once spread across thousands of miles of the Gulf of Mexico have largely disappeared. Nor has much oil washed up on the sandy beaches and marshes along the Louisiana coast. And the small cleanup army in the Gulf has only managed to skim up a tiny fraction of the millions of gallons of oil spilled in the 100 days since the Deepwater Horizon rig went up in flames.

This isn't to say that the "missing" oil isn't still causing damage, particularly on the sea floor, but it rather gives the lie to the line I kept hearing that the Gulf would "never" recover. (E.g. one, two, three:
ThinkProgress’ Brad Johnson was blogging from the Gulf Coast and spoke with Gulf Coast marine scientists who all agreed that the “unfolding oil disaster could mean devastation beyond human comprehension” and “all bets are off.”
This was a pretty bad spill, but it was no Out of Context Problem.)

I stopped believing the "this is such a bad disaster that Nature will NEVER RECOVER!" hype after Mt Saint Helen's.

By the way, can someone tell me why anyone cares when a random sample of Americans think the Gulf will recover?
Gallup | Lidia Saad | Many Americans Say Gulf Beaches, Wildlife Will Never Recover
Nearly all agree that full recovery will take 10 years or more

From what they have seen of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill rolling onto America's shores, nearly half of Americans (49%) believe that at least some of the affected beaches will never recover. Even more, 59%, believe normal levels for some animal species will never be restored.
This isn't a matter of opinion or taste or animal spirits or what have you. This is a scientific question. I still don't have a lot of faith in experts to answer it, but I have no faith at all in a random selection of Americans with no facts and no theory and no background to figure it out.

And don't give me that wisdom of crowds line. The opinions being aggregated need to be at least minimally accurate for that to work. (Better than chance in a categorical question. Not sure what the rule is for ratio variables.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

TJIC offers a twist on the dirigisme-as-economic-creationism observation:
I am amused by the fact that the same group of people say:
“the vast web of trillions of interactions between different plant and animal species is so thick and complicated that it’s folly and arrogance for us to step in and start messing with things that we don’t understand”
and also say
“the vast web of trillions of interactions between economic actors is so simple that we philosopher kings with our law degrees and 129 IQs should absolutely step in and start messing with things that we don’t understand”.
That's in response to this:
The nation’s dominant ratings firms have in recent days refused to allow their ratings to be used in bond registration statements. The firms, including Moody’s Investors Service, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch Ratings, fear they will be exposed to new liability created by the Dodd-Frank law.

The law says that the ratings firms can be held legally liable for the quality of their ratings. In response, the firms yanked their consent to use the ratings, hoping for a reprieve from the Securities and Exchange Commission or Congress. The trouble is that asset-backed bonds are required by law to include ratings in official documents.

The result has been a shutdown of the market for asset-backed securities, a $1.4 trillion market that only recently clawed its way back to health after being nearly shuttered by the financial crisis.
Can something that's so eminently foreseeable really be called an "unintended consequence"?

29 July 2010

sortvis

A three day power outage, plus an unrelated internet outage, plus juggling three different projects at work has kept me from blogging this week. Booooo.

I'd make up for lost time now, but I'd rather go curl up in bed and pay down some REM debt. Or maybe read Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour, which I've had in my possession for six days (!) and still haven't cracked open yet. No big deal, just been waiting slightly impatiently for this to come out for a year and a half or so.

In the mean time, you all go and take a look at the pretty visualizations of sort algorithms at sortvis.org.  There are some ones with pretty colors you can fool around with, but I rather prefer these static black and white jobies.  These things would actually make an extremely geeky twist on the barbed wire / pseudo "tribal"tattoo some bros get around their arms.


I'm a sucker for algorithm visualizations.  For more pretty sort algorithm pictures, I'd direct you to the nearest copy of Sedgewick's Algorithms. Cormen et al's "Big Book o' Algorithms" is probably better over all, but Sedgewick gets the thumbs up for intuitive and pretty pictures.


(Via Coyote Blog)

26 July 2010

Observations from DC's freak storm

CNN | Severe storm leaves thousands without power in sweltering D.C. area

Washington (CNN) -- A severe thunderstorm packing high winds blew through the Washington area Sunday afternoon, downing trees and power lines, and leaving tens of thousands of residents without power.

[...]

Electricity provider Pepco reported that as of Sunday evening, about 280,000 residences across the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia were still in the dark -- and without air-conditioning -- on one of the hottest days of the year, with temperatures reaching 99 degrees at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport.
According to our governor this will be a "multi-day effort" to restore power. Water shortages are also happening since there's no power to the local treatment plant.

Some observations:

(0) CNN Editors: how is 280,000 reported as "tends of thousands"? Sure, it is in fact tens of thousands, but only in the way that it's also dozens or hundreds.

(1) This was a weird storm. Some blocks look have fallen trees and ripped up signs, and the block next to them is completely clear. Not so much as a leaf in the road.

(2) I really wish I had a camera this morning because I saw a great scene courtesy of the Department of Not My Problem. Some DPW workers were canvasing a neighborhood and roping caution tape across streets where there were downed tree limbs even partially obstructing the way. The limbs I saw at both sites weren't more than an inch or two thick and no longer than a man.* Apparently it's better to rope off an entire block than just drag five pounds of wood a few feet towards the curb.

* Some men are longer than others! Harrrrr! Couldn't resist. I'm soooooo mature.

(3) Special Lady Friend and I went to the grocery last night to secure some ice to preserve our fine meats and cheeses. It wasn't entirely a mad house but it was close. They were moving a ton of ice out the door. They had turned over most of the freezer isle to 20lb ice sacks and were trucking in more from out of the region. This feels like a good time to revisit the classic EconTalk episode on "price gouging" on ice and other supplies in the wake of a storm in North Carolina.

(4) If I could make one request of Gov. O'Malley in regards to this respose it would be to get the people trying to direct traffic out of the intersections. Things were flowing much, much easier when order emerged bottom-up from the drivers than they are at intersections with someone commanding traffic. Most of these people aren't very good at this. Delays are longer, based on my admittedly anecdotal experiences. Resources are not being used efficiently (e.g. directly northbound traffic to turn right, but not allowing southbound traffic to turn left or other northbound traffic to proceed straight). A lot of the traffic directors park their cars in traffic lanes, which caused more back ups and frustration for me than all the downed tree limbs they're working to clear out of traffic lanes. Add to this that it's dangerous work and a lot of these people are probably pulling expensive over time.

(4b) There's one intersection in particular, just down the way from my place, that is one of those traffic circles that are screwed up in a way that only Americans can screw up. Lights everywhere, weird merging, unspecified lanes, illegal right turns, paths that cut through the center of the circles. Just a complete mess. Based on observations this weekend and the last several power outages this summer, this intersection works an order of magnitude better with no power and no one directing traffic than it does in it's normal mode of operation.

(5) RCN already had an internet outage in my neighborhood six hours or so before the storm.  That's a whole other rant about their service and the quality of Apple's network diagnostic software.  (A sample:  the router RCN supplied me with had a helpful guide stuck to it.  If you have problems turn the router off and on again.  (Thank you, Roy.)  "If problems persist, go to rcn.com."  Seriously.  If you can't get an internet connection, go to our website.)  So even when power does get restored to our apartment I fear I'm going to be stuck in the dark, dark days of the mid-nineties.

24 July 2010

State Unions

The Agitator | Radley Balko | Saturday Links

New federal law will force states to allow public employees to unionize. This is a bad idea for a number of reasons, but Wendy McElory has the goods on a repercussion of interest to readers of this site: more police unions.
I'm not much of a fan of trade unionism. I'm less of a fan of public sector unions. I'm care for police unions even less.  I still think states should be forced to allow their employees to unionize.

States require private sector employers to deal with trade unions. States should be able to use their capacity as law makers to shield themselves, in their capacity as employers, from the same requirements.

23 July 2010

"Tenure: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone"

Since I posted about the bleak futures of law students a couple of days ago I thought I'd post this link about the similarly bleak prospects for an academic career that PhD students have.
The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | Tenure: An Idea Whose Time Has Gone

The arguments for academic tenure have always struck me as pretty weak, and more to the point, transparently self-serving. [...]

Consider what the academic job market now looks like. You have a small elite on top who have lifetime employment regardless of how little work they do. This lifetime employment commences somewhere between 35 and 40. For the ten-to-fifteen years before that, they spend their lives in pursuit of the brass ring. They live in poverty suck up to professors, and publish, for one must publish to be tenured. It's very unfortunate if you don't have anything much worth saying; you need to publish anyway, in order to improve your chances. [...]

Is this producing better education? Doubtful; there's no particular relationship between scholarship and the ability to teach. How about valuable scholarship? Well, define valuable--in many liberal arts fields, the only possible consumer of the research in question is a handful of scholars in the same field. That sort of research is valuable in the same way that children's craft projects are priceless--to their mothers. Basically, these people are supporting an expensive hobby with a sideline business certifying the ability of certain twenty-year olds to write in complete sentences.

And what about the people who do get tenure, and are producing scholarship in areas that other people care about? Doesn't tenure protect free intellectual inquiry? Diversity of thought? Doesn't it allow teachers to be more demanding of students?

Perhaps--but the question is, at what point? Most scholars in their sixties are not producing path-breaking new research, but they are precisely the people that tenure protects. Scholars in their twenties and thirties, on the other hand, have no academic freedom at all. Indeed, because tenure raises the stakes so high, the vetting of future employees is much more careful--and the candidates, who know this, are almost certainly more careful than they would be if they were on more ordinary employment contracts. As a result, the process of getting a degree, getting a job, and getting tenure has stretched out to cover one's whole youth.
When I was applying to doctoral programs at 21 years old I thought I wanted to become a professor. Where I applied at that age would determine what department I studied in, which would determine who my adviser would be, which would determine what subfield of the discipline I published about, which would determine which departments I could apply for jobs with, which would determine which universities I would be pursuing tenure at. That meant my decision of where to go to school at 22 was going to be the dominant influence of where I would be and what I would be doing when I was 35 or 36. No changing careers, no moving around the country, no trying things out to see what fits: get on the tracks now and ride them into middle age.
The same is true of diversity. Academics within the tenure system are probably more careful about weeding out heresy, because they'll be stuck with it if it manages to sneak in. Tenure can easily be used to entrench the ideological or scholarly commitments of a department's powerful members, reducing diversity rather than enhancing it.

The current tenure system only protects revolutionary, dangerous ideas to the extent that they spring full blown from an academic's head after he has secured tenure, startling the hell out of everyone who hired him. Or perhaps after he's secured his full professorship. Or after he's managed to move to a better class of research institution with a nicer salary.
I actually disagree with this a little bit. As I said in the comments to this post:
I'm mostly on board with this, but I think it's wrong to assume that the "academic freedom" of tenure is supposed to lead to "revolutionary" work.

It doesn't really do that, but it does change the mix of topics that get investigated. It gives professors more freedom to spend part of their time working on the less popular sub-sub-disciplines and theories and techniques and such in their field. The sorts of things you wouldn't bother to look into if you had a more conventional employment contract [because they wouldn't produce big, popular results right away]. Tenure doesn't get you revolutions, but it pushes back against the tendency for everyone to concentrate on the big, flashy areas that are hot right now. It keeps theories that have fallen temporarily out of favor alive while they're out of fashion. It allows for new theories to gestate while they gain traction. It allows for fusion between areas, and applying knowledge from one field in another.

This doesn't necessarily lead to many breakthroughs, but breakthroughs are rare any way. Nibbling around the edges may be slow but it's still valuable.

Maybe we would get this without tenure, maybe not. Maybe we wouldn't need it as much if everyone wasn't trying to show how relevant and mainstream they were in order to get tenure. I'm not sure. But it's a benefit worth keeping in mind.

(PS I'm writing this as someone who only really knows how it works in science/tech/engineering/math. I have no idea how those humanities people on the other side of campus operate.)
I neglected to mention in the comment that maybe we want some of those areas being kept alive by the part-time interest of tenured faculty to drop out of circulation. Maybe. But better a hundred theories whose time has past being kept alive past their prime than one theory which deserves wider study passing being extinguished.

I think what's important to keep in mind is that professors (again, at least in STEM) are looking out for their research assistants' careers in addition to their own.  You can't analyze academia accurately if you treat professors as acting unilaterally.  Advisers want their students to get good jobs, to publish popular results in influential journals, to pursue hot avenues of research in trendy fields with active grant environments.  Partially because advisers aren't all miserable, curmudgeonly people, but also for the selfish reason that it makes the advisers look good.  So even the gray hairs with tenure have an ear to the ground for what's orthodox, and what's popular, and try to stay on the right people's good side, and all the rest that young up-and-comers are doing.

Age of Persuasion

Based on an interview I recently listened to on The Sound of Young America with Terry O'Reilly, I've begun listening to podcasts* of the CBC's The Age of Persuasion, a radio show about advertising.

It contains a lot of analysis and theory of marketing, but just as interestingly, lots of semi-related trivia and anecdotes. For instance, I have come to conclude that George Lucas's greatest contribution to American film has nothing to do with Star Wars, and is actually his role in convincing Martin Scorsese to film The Godfather, which he was initially reluctant to do since he thought it was racist. Tidbit Two: The Beatles were the first rock band with a logo. Tidbit Three: Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner, formerly a writer and producer for The Sopranos pitched Mad Men to HBO when they were looking for a dramatic tent pole series to replace The Sopranos when it was going off the air. They not only passed on Mad Men, they never called Weiner back to give him the news. After HBO cut off communication Weiner pitched to AMC, and they ran with it as their first original series.

I knew I would like O'Reilly's point of view when I was listening to the first episode I downloaded, a recent one about the aforementioned Mad Men. The title sequence/theme music/whatever you call it of each episode is an collection of advertising catch phrases through the last few deacdes. "Where's the beef?", "I can't believe I ate the whole thing!" that sort of thing. Thrown into the mix in that episode were "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself" and "Yes we can!" I love people recognizing politicians for being relentlessly marketed brands just like McDonalds or VW or Apple.



* The CBC won't release an official podcast of this for some unspecified legal reasons, but there is an unofficial feed located here.

21 July 2010

finreg smoke and mirrors

At some point in the future we're going to have another financial panic. And when we do there's going to be a bunch of people running around gnashing their teeth and wailing about how they though this wasn't supposed to happen because we fixed things back in 2010 and this time was supposed to be different. And people are going to spend a lot of energy trying to figure out and explain why we got into another mess.

Let's save them the trouble and just tell everyone to go back and listen to Mark Calabria's list of things that Congress conspicuously failed to do in their financial reform act.

I'm pretty sure that no legislation congress could have passed would prevent the next financial crisis for a lot of reasons.*  But I'm damn due that this particular piece won't do a damn thing.  It wouldn't even have prevented the last meltdown, so I don't see how it can possibly prevent the next one.

(* One: you can't win the next war by refighting the last one.  Two: you can't control an emergent system like the financial industry with top-down dictates.  Three: the same institutions have been trying to prevent financial crises as long as there have been crises, and they haven't been very successful at it yet.)

Lagoa

Now for something different.

Check out Thiago Costa's new demo for a physics engine he's developing:



One thing I love about contemporary computer graphics is that you can literally watch the state of the art improving from year to year.

Write Like

So all the cool blog kids are feeding their posts into I Write Like, a tool that claims to analyze your writing and compare it to famous authors and tell you who you Write Like.

I fed my last ten sufficiently meaty posts (excepting quotes from others) into this thing's maw and got back eight different authors, ranging from the embarassing — Dan Brown — to the highly flattering — P.G. Wodehouse, David Foster Wallace (!!).

I'm not optimistic about anything which can take ten samples from the same distribution and come up with eight different conclusions, but still ... DFW!


(For the record, the eight authors were DFW (twice), Stephen King (twice), Wodehouse, Oscar Wilde, Isaac Asimov, Margaret Atwood, Cory Doctorow and Dan Brown.)

20 July 2010

Law School

Political Calculations has a good analysis of whether law school is worth it financially, complete with some pretty graphs.


It looks worse when you look at cumulative income:


Best I can tell this doesn't account for any time-value of money concerns, which would make law school an even worse investment.

(Speaking of which, see this Steve Landsburg post on time-diversification of investments. It's a pretty convincing case against dollar cost averaging, at least in the ideallized scenario he describes. I'm not entirely convinced it applies to more realistic scenarios, but I don't see why it wouldn't still hold.)

The Political Calc post quotes a report from the Bar Assoc. pretty much admitting that law school isn't a good bet financially.  Then they throw in this puzzler:
The lack of financial return, of course, does not mean that it is not valuable to go to law school. Many lawyers receive intrinsic benefits from a satisfying career that cannot easily be quantified.
I'm pretty sure the ABA does not want you to start thinking about career satisfaction of lawyers, because then the profession would stack up even worse. Consider this:
According to a Johns Hopkins University study, lawyers suffer the highest rate of depression among workers in 104 occupations. A University of Washington study found that 19 percent of lawyers suffered depression compared to 3 percent to 9 percent in the general population. And a University of Arizona study of law students found that they suffer eight to 15 times the anxiety, hostility and depression of the general population.
So ... ummm ... good luck to my friends in law school. Seriously.

I don't even want to know what those charts would look like for someone like me taking six years or so to get a doctorate.  Yikes.

Spending cuts

I've had an email exchange with my father recently.  He is optimistic about a uptick in dissatisfaction with the size of government in the last few months.  (I believe he is not just talking about tea party type populist dissatisfaction, but is observing such sentiment at "higher" levels.)

I agree that this is better than the reverse, but I am concerned that very few people in the political mainstream are willing to actually identify specific programs they want to see cut.  It's find and dandy to promise to get rid of all the "waste, fraud and abuse," but no one wants to say what the actual waste is.

IIRC Rand Paul almost got laughed out of the GOP for proposing to eliminate the Dept. of Education.  Now maybe he's got a good idea and maybe he doesn't.*  But at least he's willing to point to a certain line item and say "we're going to cut spending and we're going to do it by getting rid of this thing."

( * Answer: he does.)

Kevin Williamson points this out vis a vis Mitch McConnell specifically:
If you cruise over to Mitch McConnel’s website and click on “Issues,” there is an issue that is conspicuously missing: spending. He talks about spending night and day, castigates the Democrats for their spendthrift ways, says he wants spending cuts. But, here’s the Entire Universe of Issues according to Mitch McConnell:
1. Financial Regulation
2. Economic Growth
3. Health Care Reform
4. War on Terror
5. Energy
6. FY 2011 Appropriations Requests
Or, as I like to put it:
1. New spending on babysitting bankers
2. New spending on special-interest projects
3. New spending on oldsters who might vote for Mitch McConnell
4. New spending on bombing Afghanistan until it turns into Connecticut
5. New spending on Kentucky coal products
6. New spending on things Mitch McConnell is keen on
There is no category for “Spending Cuts,” or “Balancing the Budget,” or “Ceasing to Basically Haul the Nation’s Entire Stock of Diminishing Assets Down to the Local Pawn Shop and See If We Can Get Enough for a Forty.” But . . . FY2011 Appropriations Requests. Now, there’s something a politician can get to cackling about.

As you might guess, those appropriations requests are more densely packed with pork than a can of Spam — Kentucky-fried pork, of course. Seems the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant needs $116 million of your money. The Forage Animal Production Unit needs $4 million. The biofuel lobby needs a million dollars to be routed to it through the University of Kentucky. Hopkinsville has a narcotics taskforce with its hand out. Raytheon wants $12 million to put lasers on 20mm Gatling guns in Louisville — which at least sounds kind of awesome, but President Obama thinks they can do it with $6 million instead of $12 million. Somebody wants to buy something called Fern Lake and make a park out of it, but they want you to pay for it — $1.2 million. No, there’s no tab for “Cutting Spending,” but if you add up all the stuff that Senator McConnell lists under FH2011 Appropriations Requests, you come up with just about $600 million. That’s a lot of cash — and that’s just the special-interest stuff he’s advertising on his website, not the big-ticket items.
Williamson also produces an invaluable chart in that post of federal spending (in billions):

There are many similar good charts, though not colored by congressional leadership, available from Heritage here.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I'm adopting the convenience here and in my conversation with my father of equating "size of government" with government spending.  Things aren't so simple of course.  Even if we just look at the number of dirigiste or nannyist programs rather than their costs I think we see a similar picture.  More people than a year or two ago want the state to leave them alone, but more people are also discovering problems that they want the state to attempt to fix.  (Or "problems" they want to "fix," really, since I will concede neither that these things are problems nor that the state could fix them if they were.)  For every person getting upset about another raid on non-pasteurized dairy products, there's someone who wants to ban school bake sales.
The problem is each citizen has a pet issue. It may be a smoking ban. Or the need to coerce the obese to stop stuffing their faces. And when you add all of those up we have the nanny state. While all these piddling intrusions can be separately viewed as non-threatening, once you bundle them together we have a movement with the potential to inflict tremendous damage on our basic freedoms.
— David Harsanyi, "Nanny State"

casinos

I said I wouldn't tangle any more with Les Bernal's foolishness, but that doesn't mean I don't like it when someone else takes up the task:
dispatches from TJICistan | tjic | oh noz! the 80/20 rule !

Radley Balko is debating some idiot about whether gambling should be legal or illegal.

One of the reasons that it should be illegal:
gambling prey[s] on human weakness for profit. Its business model is based on people who are addicted or heavily in debt. The casual player is virtually irrelevant. It explains why casinos like Harrah’s, America’s largest gambling operator, found that 90% of its gambling profits come from the financial losses of 10% of its visitors, according to Christina Binkley’s book, “Winner Takes All”. Matthew Sweeney, author of “The Lottery Wars”, found that in some American states 70% of lottery sales comes from the financial losses of 10% of its users.
Oh noz! A minority of the customer base delivers the majority of revenue and profit!

Someone alert the authorities, because SmartFlix.com and HeavyInk.com display the same pattern!

Yes, as it turns out, I am such an evil human being, and oil-painting and metalworking how-to DVDs are so addictive that some of our customers deeply enjoy our products while others are casual users.

[...] I strongly suspect that in my town 100% of [the public library's] book lending is to just 5% of the public – even worse than the the casinos! Let’s shut down the libraries.

How about the Minuteman bike trail? Even worse, I imagine – perhaps 100% of the use is by just 3% of the population.

Abusive! Shut that down as well!

Now, let’s move on to the gay bars, lesbian book stores, model train stores…
You see variations on this all the time. X% of banks' ATM fees are from Y% of customers! X% of credit card revenues are from Y% of card holders! So what?

I know I harp on this point, but I'm going to keep on doing so as long as I keep seeing this mistake: if you say that some figure is too high or too low, it is incumbent on you to identify what the right value would be. If an 90/10 or 70/10 split is bad for gambling, what is the right value? 50/50?*  Every customer should lose exactly the same amount of money? Would that really be ideal? How would you achieve that? Why would you want to?

(* In order to get a perfect 50/50 split you would really need everyone to profit the casino the exact same amount. Even something seemingly "fair" like a uniform or normal distribution of profits will result in the most profitable X% of customers being responsible for more than X% of profits.)

Note that this whole analysis, Bernal's and mine both, is assuming a very simple cost structure for the casino. Assume the only costs to the casino are paying out winnings to lucky/skillful customers, and revenue is taking in losses from the unlucky/unskilled ones. This way every dollar a customer looses is a dollar the casino makes.  That seems to fit the frame Bernal has in mind.

Allow me to run a few quick monte carlo experiments to explore casino profits. Let's forget that the house always wins — because it doesn't, strictly speaking — and assume that 25% of patrons walk away ahead. Assume that gambling results are normally distributed amongst all patrons, because this seems nice and equitable and because it makes my math easy, and because Bernal has us living in a world where everyone likes to gamble exactly the same and everyone is equally skilled at it.

In that case the 10% of customer who are most profitable to the casino will account for 36% of profits, the 20% of most profitable customers will account for 62%, and 100% of the profits will come from the pockets of just over 40% of customers.

Note that the more customers win, the more inequitable this split must become! If the number of winning customers up to just 30% then 10% of customers account for 45% of profits, 20% of customers account for 75% of profits. The more likely customers are to win, the more unjust Bernal will think the casinos are!

Economist Debates: Gambling

Starting today The Economist is hosting a running debate about the legality of gambling between Radley Balko and Les Bernal.

Here's Balko's opening statement:
Gambling is no different from any other consensual crime. Prohibiting it does not make it go away. It merely pushes it underground where it is impossible to monitor for cheating and fraud and where the stakes are likely to be higher.
And here's Bernal's opening statement:
Gambling operators attempt to hide under the cloak of 'personal freedom' as if the issue was about social forms of gambling like playing cards at a neighbour's house on a Friday night. The issue is really about predatory gambling and broken government.
I haven't seen a more spurious argument in a long time. I could make the same hand waving, hey-look-over-there claim that Bernal does about pretty much anything. Let's try it.
Legalizing pot isn't about "personal freedom," it's about a bunch of stoners who want to get high.

Gay marriage isn't about "personal freedom," it's about a some guys who want to call the guy they're sticking it to their husband.

School vouchers aren't about "personal freedom," it's wanting to see public schools fail.

Opposition to the CPSIA isn't about "personal freedom," it's about people who don't care if kids get lead poisoning.

Giving due process to Guantanamo inmates isn't about "personal freedom," it's about letting terrorists go free.
We don't need the State to respect our freedom to play euchre at the neighbor's house.  Legally protected freedom isn't about the liberty to do what is popular and safe and unobjectionable and non-threatening.  The entire point of legally enshrined freedoms is to protect minority, unpopular, disfavored behaviors.

Saying "we can dispense with the freedom to gamble and I promise no one will mess with Bridge Night" is about as relevant as saying "we can dispense with freedom of the press and I promise no one will stop you from reporting 'local cat rescued from tree by brave firefighters' stories."

Bernal's view of freedom is that you don't need freedom to do something if there are potentially bad consequences.  Apparently only worth being free to do things like singing lullabies to babies and calling your mother on her birthday.  Freedom comes with responsibility, actions come with consequences.  Bernal is saying "there are consequences to this action, therefor this isn't about freedom."  Of course there are consequences.  There are always consequences to everything.  Some are good and some are bad, just like driving and voting and having a job and watching movies and everything else you are free to do.

The rest of Bernal's arguments (if you can call such weak sauce an argument) would make for good fisking, but I have neither the time nor the inclination today.  Battle not with nitwits, lest ye become a nitwit, and all that.

Be advised, the winner of the debate is being decided by internet voting.  (I object on principle to deciding on the correctness or wisdom of a proposition by way of popularity, but I didn't let that stop be from tossing my digital ostracon into the pot.)

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.
— Adlai Stevenson


When your response to everything that is wrong with the world is to say, 'there ought to be a law,' you are saying that you hold freedom very cheap.
— Thomas Sowell

19 July 2010

How the oil spill may be keeping birds alive

Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | Number of Birds Killed

Number of birds killed by the BP oil spill: at least 2,188 and counting.

Number of birds killed by wind farms: 10,000-40,000 annually.

Number of birds killed by cars: 80 million annually.

Number of birds killed by cats: Hundreds of millions to 1 billion annually.

Don't worry there is some good news.

Number of birds killed by fisheries: tens to hundreds of thousands annually (fortunately for the birds, some of these fisheries are now shut down).
Assume the number of birds killed by oil will more than double to a round 5,000.

Let "tens to hundreds of thousands" be read as "2 * 10^4 to 2*10^5."

Finally, use the last to approximate the number of birds killed by fisheries as 2 * 10^4.5 ≈ 63,000.

We can conclude that if US fishing is down by any more than 5,000/63,000 = 8% as a result of the spill the number of birds killed this year can be expected to go down.

Tabs, getting rid of some

Angus at Kids Prefer Cheese makes a good point: even if you think the fixed exchange rate of the Yuan is hurting Americans (and I don't), that doesn't even crack the Top Ten Chinese Policies We Should Be Concerned About list.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Reason: Hit & Run | Jesse Walker | Quote of the Week (Washington Edition)

For Washington consultants to sit around and personally disparage the Governor anonymously to reporters is unfortunate and counterproductive and frankly immature," the aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity, continued.
This guy either completely lacks shame, self-awareness, or both.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Draw your own conclusions from the following:


From John Merline, via Nick Gillespie

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Tim Harford's piece in the FT on Germany and board games is getting some well-deserved attention.

It looks like part of my dissertation work may be to teach an artificial neural network to play Ravensburger's "The Amazeing Labyrinth." Maybe a slightly simplified version, but still...

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Via JamulBlog, a very good piece by Matt Simpson at Less Wrong about how we perceive probability.  I don't come across many things that mention both connectionist models of cognitive science and F.A.Hayek — two of my favorite intellectual topics.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Salon | Glenn Greenwald | The revolving door spins faster on healthcare reform

Behold as what were once (during the Obama candidacy) noble and inspiring objections to 'Revolving Door Politics' have now magically morphed (during the Obama presidency) into unfair and pernicious McCarthyite tactics (how dare you think someone should be disqualified from a high-level government position just because they recently worked as a high-level executive at the very industry they're about to regulate!).
I don't actually have a problem, in general, with people who have experience in an industry getting jobs regulating that industry. I'm actually a little afraid of the reverse. But Obama got to make political hay from all his promises to "close the revolving door" and "keep lobbyists out of Washington" and "end special interests" so I think it's worth putting the lie to those claims.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Well knock me over: the NHTSA has concluded that most those Toyotas with the faulty accelerators were really crashing because of Stupid Operator Errors.
The U.S. Department of Transportation has analyzed dozens of data recorders from Toyota Motor Corp. vehicles involved in accidents blamed on sudden acceleration and found that the throttles were wide open and the brakes weren't engaged at the time of the crash, people familiar with the findings said.

The early results suggest that some drivers who said their Toyotas and Lexuses surged out of control were mistakenly flooring the accelerator when they intended to jam on the brakes. [...]

NHTSA has received more than 3,000 complaints of sudden acceleration in Toyotas and Lexuses, including some dating to early last decade, according to a report the agency compiled in March. The incidents include 75 fatal crashes involving 93 deaths.

However, NHTSA has been able to verify that only one of those fatal crashes was caused by a problem with the vehicle, according to information the agency provided to the National Academy of Sciences.
Megan McArdle helpfully provides some excerpts from P.J. O'Rourke's essay on the "Sudden Accelerator Incidents" that Audi had back in '89.  Those all came down to Stupid Operator Error as well, though that lesson was conveniently forgotten by all the folks with their panties in a bunch over this.

You could change the names and dates in O'Rourke's piece and you'd have a ready-made commentary on this round of outcry and incriminations.  Speaking of which, when are our Congressmen going to work themselves up into a tizzy and hold hearings based on these new findings?  Surely if they had time to rake Toyota over the coals before having any evidence they'll take at least as much time to apologize now that real data is available with which to form rational opinions.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Liquidity Preference | Jacob Grier | Beyond the pale

UK Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg made a lot of favorable headlines recently by launching the Your Freedom website, allowing citizens to suggest laws that should be repealed. In a new video he reveals that there are at least two suggestions that will “of course” not be taken seriously:
1) Reintroducing the death penalty; and

2) Allowing people to smoke in private businesses
Because clearly, these ideas are equally at odds with liberalism!
I feel like nannyists treat their proscriptions the same way people in the 50's (or at least in media depictions of the 50's) treat their sexual mores. "Of course you can't smoke in a pub!" is the new "Of course you can't stay in the same hotel room as your fiancee!"

~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Cafe Hayek | Russ Roberts | Simple

From the Washington Post:
On Tuesday, Obama tapped Jacob Lew as budget director and publicly directed him to reduce the deficit.
Well that’s that. All Lew has to do is what Obama told him. Simple.
No hard decisions about what taxes to raise or what spending to cut, but don't worry, because the Barackstar has his top men on it. Top Men! Bippity boppity boo! Problem solved.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Noah Millman on the militarism of the contemporary American Right. Some good thoughts, e.g.:
The danger in the existing emotional dynamic isn’t so much that it is an emotional dynamic, that it’s not a cold-blooded search for a good manager, but rather the conflation of patriotism and militarism. The gauntlet to run within the right is to prove that you’re a real, patriotic American – fine. But apparently you prove this by asserting that no amount of military spending is ever enough, by making torture a virtue, by mocking the very idea of diplomacy, by dividing allies into two camps, vassals who must be punished if they don’t obey our commands (Japan, the various countries of Europe) and holy causes for whom we must be willing to bear any burden, pay any price (Israel, Taiwan, Georgia) and, most alarmingly, by a kind of hero-worship of conquering generals. This is not the way it has to be, nor how it was within fairly recent living memory. America has a citizen army, and the right has a long tradition – one that encompasses leaders like Eisenhower who were hardly isolationist – of calling for caution in the commitment of our military precisely because it is an extension of the citizenry, not a mere tool of the government.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Popehat | Ken | Obscenity Task Force Prosecutes John Stagliano of Evil Angel Productions For Obscenity

Make no mistake — I’m not making a point about moral relativism. A breast milk fetish grosses me out. I have no problem judging it as creepy. But I’m not afraid of people with a breast milk fetish. I am terrified of the sort of sick freaks who believe it should be their job to pursue and punish those who produce fetish videos and distribute them to consenting adults. I am repulsed by the mindset that it is job of the state to protect the moral fiber of its subjects by jailing those who produce things we shouldn’t (in the view of the government’s minions) read or view. I want to throw up when I see that some people inhabiting a job I was very proud to hold are crusading to limit what grown-up free people can watch.
Amen.

16 July 2010

Sentence of the Day

WSJ | Jennifer Levitz | To Protest Hiring of Nonunion Help, Union Hires Nonunion Pickets: Jobless Recruits Get Minimum Wage 'To March Around and Sound Off'

The union's Mr. Garcia sees no conflict in a union that insists on union labor hiring nonunion people to protest the hiring of nonunion labor.
Jesus wept.

There are a couple of quotes from labor union organizers justifying this with "hey, the people we hired didn't have jobs, and now they do, so who cares what the pay and benefits are?" It's unclear why they won't accept the same justification from the contractors who hired people to hang drywall (i.e. do something productive) rather than loaf around with picket signs.

Shark Week!

The Discovery Channel HQ is about a block down from my apartment. Usually it's a pretty standard looking contemporary office building.

Earlier this week it decided to get dressed up for the upcoming Shark Week. Now it looks like this:


How good.

Don't worry, there's a tail and dorsal fin too.  And two rows of teeth that are part of the geometry, not just painted on as texture.

I say more advertising should take the form of buildings-in-costume.

(Photo via Nextround.  I wanted to take my own, but my camera fell victim several weeks ago to an unfortunate wedding rehearsal dance floor accident.  Now it doesn't take pictures anymore.  It does make a very sad whirring noise though.)

How The Discovery Channel Building Gets Ready For Shark Week | NextRound.net

That's one thing I can cross off my list of things to experience

CNN / LA Times | 3.6-magnitude earthquake strikes Maryland

A 3.6-magnitude earthquake struck near the Gaithersburg, Maryland, area just after 5 a.m. ET Friday, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The center of the quake was about 20 miles northwest of Washington, the USGS said.

The earthquake was the largest in the area since 1974 -- and the first registering above 3.0 on the Richter scale there in that time period, said Amy Vaughan, a geophysicist at the USGS National Earthquake Information Center.
So I'm sure you all out in California are all "Pshawwww! 3.6! Whatever." But this is still my first earthquake, and it was powerful enough to rouse me from my peaceful slumber, so I think it's worth blogging.

15 July 2010

Universality

Via Coyote Blog:
Mother Jones | Kevin Drum | Let Us Now Praise the USPS

I'd welcome private competition for first class mail, but just go ahead breathe the words "universal service" and see how many private sector companies are still eager to compete with the post office for 46 cents an ounce.
This brings to mind something I wanted to talk about, so bear with me while I digress for a minute.

I was catching up on some EconTalk recently, and I got to the very good episode Roberts did with Diane Ravitch about the American school system.

(Digression-from-the-digression: perhaps the single point most worth repeating was that American schools have been in perpetual "crisis" for over a century, and the we've been doing the same "OMG! Our kids are mediocre compared to the rest of the world!" freak out since the Reagan Administration. That's not to say our schools don't have actual problems, just that we might need to calm down a bit and drop the Perpetual Proclamations of Doom.)

I very much liked the episode, but one part stuck out as unreasonable to me.  Ravitch was discussing charter schools, and said that the original vision was that they would take the most difficult to educate children off the hands of the public schools and give them special attention. This isn't what happened. Charter school students are, depending on who you ask, either a representative sample of the school age population or disproportionatly drawn from the upper end of the skill and motivation distributions. Ravitch was pretty dismayed by this. She seemed to take it as de facto evidence that charter schools were a bad idea because they were burdening public schools with difficult children.

I'm not so sure why this is self-evidently a bad thing for the same reason that I wouldn't be that bothered by private competitors to the USPS that didn't do universal service. Why not have privately operated organizations siphon off the group of customers/students they can serve effectively and leave the problem cases to the government? We already do that with a lot of programs. We don't provide public housing for everyone, or subsidized heating oil, or medical care. Philosophically* why does a postal system or a school have to be all-or-nothing?  Isn't it the state's job to provide services to the problem cases?  Why trap everyone in a system just to make it easier to serve a subset of people?

(* There may be practical arguments that such a system wouldn't work efficiently, but I don't see why Drum and Ravitch can treat considering such a solution to be de facto ridiculous.)

I guess this is another example of my desire to have subsidies be explicit. I've discussed this in the mail context before. If it's expensive to get mail to people out in the sparse areas and we, as a society, think they should get mail, then we — as a society — ought to pay for it. That subsidy shouldn't be born by other people who mail things, or hidden in the price of a stamp, it should be born by everyone.

Similarly if we're going to commit large amounts of resources to teaching difficult to educate children, we shouldn't attempt to obscure the costs by mixing them in with easier to educate children. Costs and accounting aside, it isn't fair to trap some children in a public school system just to maintain appearances of generality.

Charts

Since I mentioned Roissy in the context of picking up women yesterday I wanted to point out that he has occasional posts that aren't about that or broader pop-sociology. Today he had some interesting charts about wages, taxation, government spending, etc. I think some of them are bogus or irrelevant, some of them aren't as insightful as they may appear at first but are still useful, and others are interesting. I don't feel like commenting on these, but here a three of the better ones:



Speed cameras

Here's what I don't understand about speed cameras.  The state can set up a box by the road with a radar gun and a camera inside and use it to detect speeding cars.  Then they can mail a ticket to the owner of the car.

So why do cops have to bother pulling you over to write a ticket?  Why not just give them a radar gun with a digital camera mounted to it and let them snap photos as you whiz by?  Saves everyone involved time.

A semi-related question regarding traffic stops...  I've personally been in the car twice, once in MD and once in IN, when the police have falsely claimed a tail light was out.  Is there any jurisdiction that requires police to document such claims, say by taking a picture?  A digital point-and-shoot would be a drop in the bucket, cost-wise, compared to the rest of the kit in a police cruiser.

I suppose it wouldn't really do much good since the cops would just shift their bogus explanations to something they didn't have to document, like "driving erratically."

14 July 2010

This woman's field is human rights the way the guy hanging out at the bookstore coffee shop is a "writer" even though he's never finished writing anything.

dispatches from TJICistan | TJIC | award winner
http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/12/opinio…

To the Editor:

I was always one of those top-of-the-class kids … who everyone also assumed was destined to succeed.

I finished graduate school in August 2007… I’ve worked hard to gain experience — in administrative positions, as a tutor, as a freelance writer and so forth. But I’ve never held a paying job in my field — international human rights and welfare…

I know a lot of other incredible young people in situations like mine.

… for many of us, that dream is proving elusive.

Arielle K. Eirienne
[...]

Finally, she’s lamenting that she’s never “held a paying job in my field — international human rights and welfare”.

I might as well bitch and moan that I’ve never held a paying job in my field – reading cranky libertarian science fiction novels at coffee shops while checking out the racks of every red-head and brunette that crosses my path.

As a matter of fact, even though that may be my avocation, I realized long ago that there’s not much money in it, so I decided to pick up a vocation as well.
That's only one of the three of four good reasons TJIC finds to take issue with this conceited letter.

Three years chasing a dream, and it still isn't in the bag.  What a terrible situation.  I thought the nature of dreams was that you could achieve them within 24 months of graduation.

Gorilla Guerrillas

CNN | Taliban training monkeys to fight?


Speaking of this, I really hope Image gives Brahm Revel a chance to finish up his miniseries about simians conditioned to fight in Vietnam. Sounds campy, but it was really well executed. It's tough doing a comic when most of the characters don't speak.

Hat tip to my buddy D.R. for bringing this to my attention.

Hush Money

Kids Prefer Cheese | Mungowitz | Tickle Me, Congressmen

Your Congress at work....
The wrinkly old men that we elect to Congress are so horny and gross that the American taxpayer shells out on average $1 million a year in settlements to sexually harassed Hill staffers, according to the Office of Compliance. The level of perviness fluctuates from year to year — in 2007, 25 staffers were paid a total of $4 million.
Wouldn't such settlements possibly be of interest to voters, the media, and opponents of the crotch-grabbing perv-boys? It sure would! And that is why Congress passed a law saying that no one can obtain this information!
Un-F'ing-real.

PUA

Megan McArdle had a post yesterday (and follow up today) on how contemptible many members of the "Pick Up Artist" community are.  Maybe contemptible isn't the right word, but she's right that many of them share a lot of characteristics with lovesick teenage girls.

By and large I agree with her, but I'd like to stick up for the concept, if not the execution, of the idea.

(1) At it's core — as far as I understand it, which isn't very far* — "The Game" and its ilk are just gender-specific applied psychology. A sort of How to Win Friends and Influence People for guys.  I don't find that to be a terribly objectionable.

(* My understanding is limited to what I've discussed with my bachelor friends and what's I've read of Roissy's.)

(2) Not getting attention from women is a very real problem for a lot of men, and can have an extremely large impact on overall happiness.   At the very least it teaches guys that there are proactive approaches to attack that problem. "Game" tells guys there are more productive way to deal with their perceived short comings than sitting around wondering when she's going to call and complaining about how girls always pick the wrong guys. I'd rather have guys doing something about what makes them unhappy than just sitting around being unhappy, even if that something can end up being juvenile.

(3) A lot of people — men and women both — spend an absurd number of hours and dollars to make themselves more physically attractive. Clothes, gym memberships, diets, obsessive grooming, all to look more attractive. A lot of those people still act like jerks, or boors, or flakes, or creeps, or psychos, but they invest a lot in becoming pretty jerks, etc. PUA types are at least making an effort to change how they behave in addition to how they look. Again, a lot of them miss the mark in execution, but the basic message that you can adjust how you act rather than how you look is a good one.

A lot of people who read The Game probably turn into creeps, but a lot of kids who took karate back in the 80's to gain self esteem probably turned into pushy jackasses too.  I'm not going to condemn an idea because a lot of troglodytes misapply or misinterpret it.

13 July 2010

Other People's Money

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Did You Ever Notice…

Did you ever notice that when government programs are labeled “popular,” it is always by their beneficiaries, e.g.
For the second time in two years, the state universities are weighing whether to limit or even get rid of the popular AIMS scholarship, which waives tuition and fees for thousands of college students.
Since most similar government programs consist of giving people something of value for free or at least for a below-market price, aren’t they always going to be popular with their recipients? Wheat subsidies are popular with wheat farmers, light rail subsidies are popular with those who ride it, cash-for-clunkers was popular with folks who got 2-3x blue book value for their trade-ins, and education subsidies are popular with the students and parents who get them. In this usage, then, I would argue that the word “popular” in the paragraph above is entirely tautological and should therefore be eliminated from standard usage. The only meaningful definition of “popular” vis a vis a public program should be “popular with those who fund it.”
Amen.

I will add calling subsidies "popular" to the list of the things that give an article or blog post or speaker a strike.  Three strikes and I skip the rest of the article unless it is otherwise fantastically interesting.  I don't mind if writers or speakers disagree with me, but I can't abide sloppy analysis.

World Cup Pics

The Boston Globe's Big Picture has some great World Cup related shots up. Here are a couple of my favorites, but there are plenty of non-action shots that are beautiful as well.



(by Eddie Keogh)


(Dylan Martinez)


This is probably my favorite World Cup image though, from The Daily What:


That's in reference to this, if you weren't following the tournament.

Speaking of which, I understand that the rules at the World Cup are bound by a desire to keep the game "scalable." FIFA wants the game to be played in a way which can be exactly duplicated by a local amateur team, so no extra refs, no instant replay, no electronic goal sensors, etc.

I'm a little skeptical that that is terribly important — see previous commentary here — but it's still admirable. Nevertheless, I think that needs to bow in the face of the delinquent job the referees put in this tournament. The desire to have a scalable game needs to take second place to the desire to have a fairly judged outcome. No one wants to feel that their team is subject to the sorts of capriciousness we witnessed in South Africa, especially since FIFA explicitly wants people to not just care about the outcome of the games, but to stake their hopes and dreams and the pride of their entire nation on the outcome.

Referees shouldn't be part of the story in a sports game. They ought to be part of the background, like the groundskeepers. This tournamenet I'd put them as one of the top five topics. That's a failure. And it costs the game a lot of potential fans (e.g. Randomscrub.)

PS I can't pass up the opportunity to post this from Munger:
I can see why futbol is so big in Europe and Latin America. Largely arbitrary, controlled by officials who are in no way accountable to anyone, yet who are remarkably incompetent and indifferent. Everyone constantly pretends to be a victim, and rolls around on the ground crying until they get a subsidy they don't deserve. And then they waste the free kick, just giving up the ball. And then they run around in random patterns, hoping that someone will get lucky and do some actual work, so we can all celebrate.
Bazinga!

Polanski

A lot of people, myself included [e.g. one, two], raised a lot of ruckus last year when Roman Polanski was arrested in Switzerland.

I feel compelled to point out that the Swiss rejected the American extradition request yesterday.  I don't really have much to say about that, but I want to post it just because there was so much hullabaloo last Fall and I haven't seen a single mention of this update.

11 July 2010

Gerson (cont.)

I actually agree with this part of Gerson's WaPo column I previously took issue with, though I doubt we would reach similar conclusions from this starting place.
[Out of power] parties tend to interpret shapeless public discontent as the endorsement of their fondest ambitions. Obama mistook his election as a mandate for the pent-up liberalism of his party. Some Republican activists are intent on a similar but worse mistake.
I'd agree with that. Discontent manifests as an oscillation between Team Red and Team Blue, not as any real change.

I'd imagine that Gerson's conclusion from this observation is that we need to elect people who promise to be more bipartisan and moderate.

The conclusion I reach is that we need to rethink the very structure of the government to allow more nuanced positions to be staked out over a wider range of the idea-space than the binary Red Team/Blue Team oscillator.

There are all sorts of ways to do this, starting with the relatively popular move away from first-past-the-post single member legislative districts, moving up into decoupling of various government services from each other* on into the "let a thousand nations bloom" territory of seasteading and secession and dynamic geography and distributed nations and so on.


(* There's no reason that the same county government I am subject to should be the body which decides on local school policy, alcohol regulations, licensing taxi cabs, and waste disposal.  Those are all separate functions.)

SF: Milk is a bad choice; No puppies in the window

Cato @ Liberty | Jason Kuznicki | The Calorie Police

What can I say about San Francisco’s ban on vending machines for sugared soft drinks on city property?

I could say that a twelve ounce can of Coca-Cola has fewer calories than twelve ounces of whole milk, because it does — 140 to 216.

I could say that you’ll be even fatter if you substitute whole milk for Coke, ounce for ounce, because you will be.

I could say that the extra nutrients in milk don’t do anything to make it less fattening, because they don’t.

I could say that 12 ounces of soy milk has 198 calories, which is still well above Coke’s 140.

I could even say that switching to skim milk doesn’t help you all that much — if you do the math, you’ll find that there are 124.5 calories in 12oz of skim milk, compared, again, to 140 for Coke.

I could also point out that a tall Starbucks Frappuccino — also 12 ounces, and not covered by the ban — has 190 calories, largely from sugar and fat.

I could ask: Does anyone ever order a plain Frappuccino? A tall mocha Frappuccino has 220 calories.

Finally, I could point out that banning vending-machine drinks while leaving Starbucks untouched is a pretty rank example of class privilege at work — my indulgences are sophisticated and upper-class, while yours are vulgar and prole.

And, I imagine I hardly need to make the case that this ban is the thin end of a wedge, and that comprehensive regulation of sugar, fat, and salt is on the way.

But really, it’s a lot simpler than that. What I should say is that your body is yours. Liberals themselves would tell you just the same in many other contexts. It’s yours to do with as you see fit. It’s yours to use, and it’s yours to use up, as Dan Savage once put it.
Never let those facts get in the way of political health posturing. I'm waiting for all those folks with the "keep your laws off of my body" bumper stickers to be up in arms about this. They'll probably be rallying against this any minute now...

Sadly, this isn't the most ridiculous ban being contemplated in San Francisco right now.
If the commission approves the ordinance at its meeting tonight, San Francisco could soon have what is believed to be the country’s first ban on the sale of all pets except fish.That includes dogs, cats, hamsters, mice, rats, chinchillas, guinea pigs, birds, snakes, lizards and nearly every other critter, or, as the commission calls them, companion animals.
Coyote comments:
Oddly, when you read the pet article, it turns out their main concern is with hamsters, that get euthanized a huge rates as people who initially think they are cute wake up one day and realize they are just irritating rodents. One wonders then why they ban on all animals just to get at one kind. And why are fish OK but dogs are not?
Probably because (a) many people don't think fish are really animals on par with other vertebrates (demonstrated by all the keep-the-dolphins-out-of-the-fish-net outrages and people who adopt pescetarianism for moral reasons) and (b) fish don't get euthanized, they get flushed. It's not a problem if wowzers don't have to see it.

09 July 2010

Contra Gerson

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Morning Libertarian Rant

But what should the public be afraid of? The Post's conservative columnist, Michael Gerson, has the answer.
the ideology of libertarianism is itself a scandal. It involves not only a retreat from Obamaism but a retreat from the most basic social commitments to the weak, the elderly and the disadvantaged, along with a withdrawal from American global commitments."
Sub in "statists" or "dirigists" for "socialists" in the following and you have my reply to Gerson.
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."

— Frederic Bastiat, "The Law"
Besides that, I want to note specifically how Gerson threw "elderly" into the mix there. "Elderly" is not a category of people I have a commitment to. If people happen to be elderly and weak, or elderly and disadvantaged, then we help them because they are weak or disadvantaged. Elderly by itself is neither necessary nor sufficient for us to owe anyone anything.

This is sloppy thinking at best. More likely it's duplicitous posturing. "Hey you Post readers (who are largely elderly) don't trust those libertarians, they hate you."

Gerson continues:
Libertarianism has a rigorous ideological coldness at its core. Voters are alienated when that core is exposed.
Better a rigorous ethos than the wishy-washy opportunism and grab bag of positions that masquerades as coherent ideology of the contemporary conservative or liberal.

If there is a coldness at the core of libertarianism it is the coldness of responsibility. People should be able to do as they want but accept the consequences, for there is no freedom nor power without responsibility. Libertarianism preaches that the state is the state. It is not your mommy nor your daddy, your guidance counselor nor your life coach, your pastor nor your psychiatrist, your savior nor your conscience. Many find that to be a cold message. But it is an honest one.