23 December 2011

Action Scientist!

I wish I could say that I've knocked off for some holiday break, but some malevolent journal editor has decided to make the submission due date for their special issue the 31st of December, so I'm still scrambling to finish up one more draft of this paper before Christmas.

While I wait for my postprandial coffee to kick in, I'm going to plug in my new headphones (thanks, Mom!) and crank up Adam Warrock's new Atomic Robo homage, "I Am An Action Scientist."

Boom! Now I am ready to do some Science!

(Sketch by Scott Wegener.)

The CK Method

The Economist: Babbage Blog | G.F. | Digital content: Take it all off

Now, of course, [Louis] C.K. has the advantage of millions of fans from his live and television performances. He receives praise from his fellow comedians and appears regularly on late-night television. His [DRM-free, low-cost, independent] approach would probably not work for someone appearing at open-mic night in Duluth once a month.
But the guy grinding out open mic nights on Duluth isn't going to be able to sell the DRM'ed, $25, studio-backed album either!

I'm getting tired of this argument that you need to already have an audience in order to use non-traditional distribution models. People like Jonathan Coulton have already used the low-cost, no-DRM model to launch their careers. A lot of comics artists have used similar approaches.

Counter-examples aside, in what other industry would you hear "Don't try a different sales strategy; you can't break in unless you do everything the traditional way"?

21 December 2011

Stern's Lesson

National Review Online: The Agenda | Reihan Salam | Andy Stern’s Peculiar Idea

To be clear, Andy Stern believes that the United States needs a Chinese-style central plan to flourish, one that will be executed by a streamlined government.

To really learn from the Chinese, and to enjoy such staggering growth rates, we should go about things differently: let’s have a Maoist insurrection followed by a civil war that lasts for several years. Then let’s destroy most of the wealth in the country, and drive out millions of our most enterprising and educated citizens by launching systematic terror campaigns during which millions of others will die in violence or of starvation. Next, let’s have a modest economic opening in coastal regions: impoverished citizens will be allowed to launch small-scale township and village enterprises and components will be assembled in a handful of cities by our stunted descendants. Then let’s severely curb those township and village enterprises because they represent a potential political threat and invite large foreign multinationals and state-owned enterprises [let's not forget those!] to work our population to the bone at artificially suppressed wage rates, threatening those who complain with serious reprisals up to and including death. Let us also initiate a population control policy designed to improve our dependency ratio for a few decades. As large numbers of workers shift from low-value agricultural work to manufacturing, we will experience … rapid growth! Mind you, getting from here to there will involve destroying an enormous swathe of our present-day GDP. And that sectoral shift from rural to urban work will run out of gas pretty fast, as will the population control policy that will guarantee rapid aging.
(0) When you go to the PRC you get shown exactly what the regime wants you to see. No more, no less.

(1) The US produces almost six times as much per person as does China. Remind me again why we we are supposed to be taking lessons from them?

(2) Stern thinks we need more centralized control of the economy.  That's fantastic for Andy Stern, who naturally imagines we would get to be one of the lucky ones centrally controlling things. Did it occur to him that things would like different if he could be one of the impoverished agricultural peasants who gets denied permission to move off the farm and seek work in the city, and is instead doomed to a life of back breaking subsistence farming?

(3) Don't compare China-now to the US-now.  Compare China-now to China-then. You'll get a different conclusion than Stern.

(4) Put another way: The proper question isn't "How has China gotten richer recently?" The right question is "Why was China so poor for so long?"

They've got 1.3 billion people, have a staggering supply of physical resources, are largely ethnically and linguistically homogenous, enjoy a good geographic location, and have a solid societal tradition of business and trading. If you stop asking "what has China done in the last two decades to grow?" and instead ask "why didn't they grow for the fifty years before that?" you'll reach a very different conclusion than Stern.

Digest: 21 Dec '11

This batch of links and excerpts is a bit on the older side. I got it all ready to publish then the new Blogger design ate it (twice), and I didn't get around to reassembling it until now. Apologies.
~ ~ ~ ~

Going to the Mat | Matt Johnson | ATF and Obama Administration have used Fast & Furious to push gun control

Nathan Torkington | Libraries: Where It All Went Wrong

Somebody needs to give a version of this talk to the USPS. (Short version: forget what you used to do. What are you doing right now to create value for users?)

NY Times | Sebastian Thrun | Leave the Driving to the Car, and Reap Benefits in Safety and Mobility

Koushik Dutta | The Unintended Effects of Driverless Cars
And if cars are receiving 20 times more actual use, that would imply that there would be 20 times less cars sold.[1] This is the kind of disruptive change that can reshape the automotive industry. The recent GM/Chrysler bailout may have been for naught.[3]

[3] Of course, car companies realize this. And I can guarantee you, they will lobby against driverless cars.
And yet the first out of the gate with driverless cars will see huge sales. Will car companies be able to effectively collude to keep them off the roads? In every jurisdiction? Once they've been shown to be safe in Singapore, Korea, Germany, Poland, and Sweden (let's say) are there enough lobbyists in all of K Street to keep them out of the US?

Sarasota Herald Tribune | Anthony Cormier & Matthew Doig | Unfit for Duty: How Florida's problem officers remain on the job
Part 2: Despite ‘moral character violations' — allegations of violence, drugs, theft and forcible sex — Florida officers keep their badges

[...] Even those officers with multiple offenses have been given chance after chance through a disciplinary system that has been reshaped in their favor by the state's politically influential police unions. As a result, officers around Florida carry personnel files that are anything but heroic.

Corrections officer Kurt Stout, already dogged by allegations he groped and had sex with prisoners, was arrested on allegations he raped two teenage girls. Nick Viaggio capped a string of violent outbursts at the Ocala Police Department by attacking his girlfriend in a crowded nightclub until bouncers dragged him away. Palm Beach County deputy Craig Knowles-Hiller, under investigation for sleeping with a 14-year old, had to explain why the girl's DNA was found on one of his sex toys.

In each case, state law enforcement officials let the men keep their badges.
(1) Where's Dexter Morgan when you need him?

(2) Do we want people with (potentially deadly) authority over citizens to be held to higher or lower standards than the rest of us? Very simple question, but a lot comes down to that.

The Bluth Company

How dare you, Rick Perry?!
Inside Higher Ed | Steve Kolowich | The Problem Solvers
“I think too much conversation about Khan Academy is about cute little videos," Khan said in an interview last week. “Most of our resources, almost two-thirds of [the staff], are engineers working on the exercises and analytics platform. That, I think, is what we’re most excited about.” [...]

Using math and computer science concepts decidedly more advanced than most of those in Khan’s video library, the Khan engineers have trained the website’s exercise platform how to predict, with startling accuracy, how likely it is that a student will correctly answer the next practice problem -- and whether that student will be able to solve the same type of problem a week, two weeks, and a month later.
The birth of quantitative education?

(Side note: has the introduction of quantitative techniques into a discipline ever not been opposed by the current practitioners? Outside of the natural sciences?)

IEEE Spectrum | Warren Toomy | The Strange Birth and Long Life of Unix: The classic operating system turns 40, and its progeny abound

The Money Illusion | Scott Sumner | Two anecdotes and a complaint

(About unemployment insurance. His fourth point is the most interesting.)

15 December 2011


I have not complained at all about SOPA here. This is not because I don't despise it. Quite the opposite; I have nothing good to say about it. Indeed, I have not even read someone else who has something good to say about it.

However, I do find it deeply amusing how many statists have come out of the woodwork screaming about the Government quashing freedom. People (*ahem*) are attacking SOPA as if this isn't standard operating procedure for the State.

(Above image from @petridishes' twitter feed. I have no whether she thinks SOPA is the exception of business as usual.)

I'd like to see some more people concluding their attacks on SOPA with "And this is a great example of why we can't trust Congress to control things" rather than "Don't pass this particular bill." How do you look at SOPA and conclude that you can't trust Congress to abridge free expression in the interests of protecting intellectual property, without also concluding can't trust them to abridge free expression in order to enact "campaign finance reform" or to silence those who believe in jury nullification, or who want to talk about national security letters?  How do you not reach the broader conclusions that Congress shouldn't be trusted with too much power over us?

Yes Virginia, SOPA is a way for Congress to empower a few people who they want to please at the expense of trampling the liberty of everyone else. But you could replace "SOPA" in the previous sentence with a thousand other laws and programs: TARP, bank bailouts, car bailouts, farm subsidies, Green jobs subsidies, sugar tariffs, ethanol subsidies, the Durbin amendment, transportation earmarks, the mortgage interest deduction, Fannie Mae, eminent domain, most zoning laws, and on and on and on. Don't act like SOPA is some kind of anomaly; this is what governments do.

~ ~ ~ ~

The Guardian | Chris McGreal | Military given go-ahead to detain US terrorist suspects without trial: Civil rights groups dismayed as Barack Obama abandons commitment to veto new security law contained in defence bill

Barack Obama has abandoned a commitment to veto a new security law that allows the military to indefinitely detain without trial American terrorism suspects arrested on US soil who could then be shipped to Guantánamo Bay.

Human rights groups accused the president of deserting his principles and disregarding the long-established principle that the military is not used in domestic policing. The legislation has also been strongly criticised by libertarians on the right angered at the stripping of individual rights for the duration of "a war that appears to have no end".
What. The. F.

~ ~ ~ ~

The legislation's supporters in Congress say it simply codifies existing practice, such as the indefinite detention of alleged terrorists at Guantánamo Bay.
What the hell is that supposed to mean? Seriously, so what if it's existing practice? If you're doing something bad, the appropriate response is not to legitimize it, it's to stop doing the bad thing.

Career floozies -or- Atypical lifestyles require sacrificing typical benefits

Sofiastry | Sofia | Sluts

The problem with being a slut only arises when they want to simultaneously reject social expectations but also indulge in the larger framework of wanting conventional partners, children, marriage, etc. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or immoral about being a whore, but when you’re rejecting the status quo, you really have to commit to your beliefs and not still harbour insecurity or unhappiness at potentially being “single” for the rest of your life. Or, at least, be happy with the kind of partner who can accept your previous life [...]
I think you could say the same thing about careers for a lot of my contemporaries, especially many of those in the OWS crowd. They want to "follow their bliss," and "pursue their dreams," and "change the world," and "be their own boss," and "put people before profits" and all the other stuff you hear at commencement addresses. And that's cool. Good for everyone that wants to do that stuff.

But a problem arises when people expect to be able to do all that and also have job security, and live in a nice apartment in a nice part of town, and have a stable retirement, and get medical benefits, and eat out at good restaurants, and have new gadgets, and pay for their children's educations. Those are all noble things to pursue as well.

Just like the problem of sluttiness only really becomes a problem when you try to reconcile it to more traditional lifestyles, the problems of being bohemian really flare up when you expect to be able to produce like a bohemian but consume like a bourgeois.

I'm not trying to pass judgement on either of those paths. And they're not entirely mutually exclusive. I think everyone needs a little from column A, a little from column B. But there are trade-offs. You don't get all of A and all of B.

12 December 2011

OWS Care Bears

Studiously Uncool | Jules Aimé | Imagine unicorn sweat Pt 1

That title was inspired by a great line from Walter Russell Mead:
... greens shrieked hysterically and furiously that the world’s house was on fire. That may be true, but the greens were suggesting that all we had to do was collect enough unicorn sweat and then we could use that to put out the fire.
He's writing about global warming but the line applies to all sorts of political issues. To take just the great protest of the day, think of how the Occupy protestors resisted putting up any coherent list of demands. They thought it was enough to point at a problem.

As I've said before, this movement is anarchistic in spirit: it is driven by a magical belief that if we destroy the thing we don't like something we will like will most wonderfully grow in its place. All we have to do is care enough. [...]
There is no Green Lantern Ring of Power, and the State is not a Fairy Godmother with a bippity-boppity-boo magic wand.

Not having workable proposals to deal with things you dislike does not earn you bonus points for "transcending traditional politics through consensual consciousness raising." Yes, identification of a problem is good, but that is only Step Zero.
It's not an accident. For generations now, well-meaning people have taught kids that imagination and will are all it takes. Do you remember the adult who told you that, "You can be anything you want to be, you just have to set your mind to it". [...]

I remember, way back in the 1980s, hearing gay activists say that the only reason a cure for AIDS had not been found was that governments didn't care about gay men. Similar arguments are made about breast cancer and women. The implication being that all we have to do is care enough and we'll cure these diseases. With it goes the corollary that any failure proves ill will.
This attitude really annoys me. Not only is it completely wrong, it's counterproductive. Dangerous, even, because attributing bad outcomes to ill will and hoping someone will magic-wand them away prevents us from addressing the real causes.

Let's take a more recent example. Perhaps the disaster response to Katrina was so bad because "George Bush Hates Black People." But on the other hand perhaps the response was so bad because FEMA is a screw-up organization lacking the proper incentive mechanisms and insulated from the consequences of poor performance.

Which one of those diagnoses is going to lead to interventions which make disaster relief more effective the next time around?
The protestors have no intention of fixing anything themselves or even of indicating what they think will solve the problem. Someone else who is somewhere else is supposed to already know how to solve the problem. This has to be the case because, in the protestors' view, the problems only exist because of ill will.

And thus the reason why these protests always end in violence and disorder. That's not an accident but the intended result. The point is to keep attacking and tearing down until someone else makes all the things you don't like go away.
A protest founded on fairygodmotherism, besides sowing the seeds of it's own uselessness, actually reinforces the status quo system because it teaches people that the real problem is that elected leaders don't care enough, so if we only elect some other people who care even more all our problems will be fixed. Rather than revolutionizing politics, protests like OWS only serve to further entrench the cult of personality.

Umberto Eco, AUSA

Popehat | Ken | Reminder: Oh, Won’t You Please Shut Up?

Here’s how it works. The feds identify some fact that they can prove. It need not be inherently incriminating; it might be whether you were at a particular meeting, or whether you talked to someone about the existence of the investigation. They determine that they have irrefutable proof of this fact. Then, when they interview you, they ask you a question about the fact, hoping that you will lie. Often they employ professional questioning tactics to make it more likely you will lie — for instance, by phrasing the question or employing a tone of voice to make the fact sound sinister. You — having already been foolhardy enough to talk to them without a lawyer — obligingly lie about this fact. Then, even though there was never any question about the fact, even though your lie did not deter the federal government for a microsecond, they have you nailed for a false statement to a government agent in violation of 18 USC 1001. To be a crime under Section 1001, a statement must be material — but the federal courts have generally supported the government’s position that the question is not whether a false statement actually did influence the government, but whether it was the sort of false statement that could have influenced the government.

Hence, the government’s chickenshit false statement trap works — even though the government agents set it up from the start. Now, however weak or strong their evidence is of the issue they are investigating, they’ve got you on a Section 1001 charge — a federal felony. In effect, they are manufacturing felonies in the course of investigations.
This sounds like something out of Umberto Eco's new novel The Prague Cemetery, the protagonist of which is a double agent espionateur and forger who is very concerned with making "true fakes." If Eco wrote a novel set in 21st century America, I can imagine a modern Baudolino explaining to the reader how a Section 1001 charge is legitimate and moral thing to do.

(Note to lawmen who have not read Eco — at no point should you be happy to have a regime you participate in compared to something one of his characters would like.)

Business/Education Thought

If I were Amazon, I would curate reading lists for different topics and make the whole set available as a single product.

Perhaps pair up with The Great Courses or one of the universities like Stanford or MIT who are embracing online learning to generate them. Maybe get a nobel laureate or other luminary to sign off on the list in a subject they're familiar with.

I need to shore up my knowledge of statistics. I can go out there and read reviews and use the Amazon ratings systems and so on to find the best stats books, but that takes time and is hit-and-miss. That distributed, peer-driven recommendation system works great for novels and niche non-fiction, but for large topics like Data Structures there are some more-or-less canonical books. I want someone to quickly point those out to me so I can get started.

I want to be able to go to Amazon.com and have them give me the three or four best books on Linear Algebra so I can dive in without having to poke around in reviews and ratings and so on.

11 December 2011

Magical Tax Bargain

Kids Prefer Cheese | Angus | Infra-marginal garbage

If we want to sock it to these "most fortunate Americans", by all means let's do. But let's not think that the fact that it's a marginal tax rate increase means that it will have an attenuated effect on their future economic activity.

PS: another bogus argument is to refer to the proposed increase as a "modest 3.25 percent surcharge". It's a 3.25 percentage point increase. If the current top rate is 35%, then the proposal is actually a 9.3% surcharge.

Hey Treasury department: Do what you want to do. Just stop lying about what it is you are doing!
If I had a genie granting me wishes — check check; scratch that. If I had a genie who drove very hard bargains but still did magical things for me, I would accept a deal in which public policy became less pleasing to me, but it was always discussed in a way I found to be forthright and rational. So, in Angus' example, I wouldn't so much mind a world with higher tax rates, but in which the arguments for high rates could not do things like ignore the difference between percentage points and percentages, or ignore incentives.

(Actually, screw genies. If there was an actual political deal on the table in which I paid more of my dollars in taxes but did so under a dead-simple consumption tax system so that I would never have to fill out a 1040 or hear someone bitch about "fair shares" again I would take that in a heartbeat.)

09 December 2011

Digest: 9 Dec 2011

jwz.org | jwz | Watch a VC use my name to sell a con.
[The VC is] telling you the story of, "If you bust your ass and don't sleep, you'll get rich" because the only way that people in his line of work get richer is if young, poorly-socialized, naive geniuses believe that story! Without those coat-tails to ride, VCs might have to work for a living. Once that kid burns out, they'll just slot a new one in.
Slate | Sam Kean | The Inventor in Hollywood: Richard Rhodes explores Hedy Lamarr’s other career

I'm now perfectly used to seeing something in print or on TV and thinking "Oh yeah, I saw that online days ago."  It's still a strange feeling when I see something reported online that I remember seeing in print several days beforehand. I feel like I'm living in Bizarro World. Or the real world more than 10 years ago.

(To be fair to the internet, this Slate piece has much more information than the print piece I saw a week earlier week.)

Bng Bng | Jason Weisberger | Boars, Gore and Swords: 3rd best Game of Thrones podcast

Note to Self: Check this out when you get around to read Game of Thrones and follow along with their book club.

Note to Others: Podcasts and book clubs seem like they would go together very well. Sort of like Filmspotting's Marathon's feature.

Threat Quality Press | Jeff Holland | Crap, Pirated Digital Comics Got It Right

Everyone recognizes that pirated media is appealing because the price is lower. But that is only half of the picture. The other, equally important half is that the pirated copy is typically a better product.

Venonmous Porridge | Dan Wineman | Gaze Back
The only acceptable demeanor for a TSA officer toward a passenger, especially when the TSO is male and the passenger is female, is abject humility. No one made you take a job where you clinically deprive innocent people of their dignity under threat of force. You signed up for that, and I expect to see the apology on your face at all times. I expect to hear it in your voice; I expect to smell it in your goddamned sweat. And I expect you to wear that apology long after your disgusting daily routine is finally found unconstitutional and your hideous organization is disbanded and its leaders imprisoned. I expect you to wear that apology not because it makes up for all the years you helped ruin America — which it doesn’t — but because it’s simply the bare minimum standard of behavior someone in your position must meet in order to call himself a human being. [...]

People in power never see the abyss on their own, no matter how near to it they push us. It must be shown to them.

Be the abyss.

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | “The moral superiority of the Germans”

I could not be more with Cowen and opposed to Avent on this score.

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | I AM Doing Good
Once startups get going, Branson said, they need to start doing good for people, meaning I guess that they buy carbon offsets or something.

Guess what? If my startup is succesful, I am already doing good. I can’t make a dime unless I create value for people net of what they pay me. Every customer walks away from our interaction better off, or they would not have voluntarily elected to trade with me [...]

This, from Carpe Diem, is along the same lines. He looks at an editorial from the DC paper about the entry of Walmart, which says among other things
Despite the peacocking by Gray and others after the agreement was signed, the District is receiving mostly crumbs. Walmart has committed to providing $21 million in charitable donations over the next seven years, an average of $3 million a year. That’s a pittance.
Walmart does not have to do squat for the community beyond its core business, because selling a broad range of goods conviniently and at really low prices is enough. Or if it is not enough, they will not make money. The promise of $21 million to some boondoggle controlled by a few politician’s friends is just a distraction, I wish they had not done it, but I understand that this is essentially a bribe to the officials of the DC banana republic to let them do business.
(1) The idea that a profitable business is definitionally making the world better by creating values for others is such a bedrock postulate of my worldview that I don't think I can have a productive conversation about anything economic with someone who disagrees.

(2) I've been following this case of the DC Walmarts through all the bullshit demands that both the DC government and "concerned citizens groups" have been making. They could not be built soon enough for me. Forget crumbs, DC stands to gain several of the most advanced, revolutionary retail outlets of the last century! Is that "crumbs"?

Popehat | Ken | What Law Enforcement Thinks of Us
Via Radley Balko, we learn of a police raid on smoke shops, including one called Capitol Hemp. So far, so banal — another pointlessly mastubatory gesture in the financially and socially ruinous War on Drugs. What’s notable about this particular raid is that the police, in drafting their affidavit of probable cause in support of a search warrant, argued that display of materials about constitutional rights was probative of criminal activity and criminal intent: [...]

Yes, that’s the same 10 Rules publication that we wrote about here last year — an utterly straightforward, inoffensive exposition about protecting your rights (and your safety) when interacting with law enforcement. The video tells people that they have a right — a right set forth in the United States Constitution — to remain silent and to refuse to give consent to searches. Taking a page from modern pro-statist “what do you have to hide?” rhetoric, the police say that a typical citizen “would not need to know” such information and that it is intended to “deceive law enforcement.”
Whenever I hear someone in authority ask "what do you have to hide?" my first reaction is "From somebody arrogant enough to ask that question? Everything, up to and including the time of day."

01 December 2011

Time Magazine

Partial Objects | The Last Psychiatrist | Does Time Magazine Think Americans are stupider than Europeans?

I see one of these comparisons every year or so, and I'm always baffled by the people who are so scandalized by them. These are different products, marketed to different people, in different societies and economies. Just because they have the same umbrella organization and use the same trade dress does not mean we should expect them to cover the same issues.  (Last Psychiatrist addresses some of this; for example the average income of a Time Asia reader is orders of magnitude larger than the income of the Time US reader.)

You know how competition shows often have versions in different countries, so there's an America's Next Top Whatever and Germany's Next Top Whatever and Brzail's Next Top Whatever?* We don't expect the winner of the American, German and Brazilian versions to be the same. We don't expect the judges to look for the same things, or the audiences to respond to the same things, or the producers to emphasize the same things. Even though they're all called Next Top Whatever, we realize they are different products.

(* Sidenote: The Economist did a good piece on global reality television programming last month.  This also explained a lot, like why I'll only get to see 24 episodes of IT Crowd ever:
Alex Mahon, president of Shine Group, points to another reason for British creativity. Many domestic television executives do not prize commercial success. The BBC is funded almost entirely by a licence fee on television-owning households. Channel 4 is funded by advertising but is publicly owned. At such outfits, success is measured largely in terms of creativity and innovation—putting on the show that everyone talks about. In practice, that means they favour short series. British television churns out a lot of ideas.

Time US and Time Europe and Time South Pacific and Time Asia are all different products.

The Coke you get here is not the Coke you get in Argentina or Russia or Korea.

The Milky Way bar you get in America is not the Milky Way bar you get abroad. Mars just re-uses the same name to sell two different things. And that's okay. Why can't Time do the same?

PS To be very clear, I think the American version of Time is a crappy product. Do not read this post as standing up for Time US in particular.

30 November 2011

Calculating the SEM of a set from the SEMs of two subsets

Before moving on to more relevant blogging I should say that I got my statistics issue from last week sorted out. Thanks to my anonymous commenter and a tip I got out-of-band.

The OOB idea was to generate artificial data sets with the given SEMs and then calculate the SEM of the combined data. That sort of experimental approach is the kind of thing I like.

Anon pointed out what should have been immediately obvious to me: use the SEM of each subset to get their standard deviations, calculate the standard deviation of the whole set, then calculate the SEM of the whole set. Anon unfortunately had the incorrect method of finding the overall std.dev, but the correct method is readily available. I used both formulas listed here, and both gave me the same results, as well as matching the "experimental" results I generated earlier. I confess to not really understanding what the difference is supposed to be between those two methods.  (That's why I need to go back and learn stats for real, rather than the ad-hoc way I've gone about it up until now.)

For the record, here's the two ways you can get the SEM of the full set given sx = SEM(X), sy = SEM(Y), nx = |X| and ny = |Y|, and the mu's being the means for the appropriate sets.

(Click to enlarge.)

29 November 2011

Statistics Bleg

This is a bit of a long-shot, but I'm in need of some statistics help.

Does anyone out there know how to calculate the Standard Error of the Mean (SEM) for a set of data given the SEM from two subsets of the data?

I'm looking at a paper here that divides the results up into two mutually exclusive and exhaustive subsets. Let's call them Red and Blue. I don't have the original data, but I have the mean and SEM of the Red and Blue samples, and I know the size of each. It's trivial to calculate the mean for the overall set, but can I recover the overall SEM?

Wikipedia tells me that "If the standard error of several individual quantities is known then the standard error of some function of the quantities can be easily calculated in many cases;" Is this as trivial as doing a weighted average of the two samples' SEMs the same way I would to calculate the overall mean?

Update: Solution can be found here.

28 November 2011

"Seasteading Light"

Ars Technica | Timothy B Lee | Startup hopes to hack the immigration system with a floating incubator

So a new company called Blueseed is seeking to bypass the political process and solve the problem directly. Blueseed plans to buy a ship and turn it into a floating incubator anchored in international waters off the coast of California.

Ars talked to Blueseed founder Max Marty. He acknowledged that it would be better for America to reform immigration laws and thereby make his company unnecessary. But in the meantime, Marty and his team are hard at work tackling the practical obstacles to making their vision of a floating, year-round hack-a-thon a reality. Within the next year, they're hoping to raise a venture capital round large enough to lease or buy a ship with space for around a thousand passengers. If Blueseed's audacious hack of the immigration system is successful, it will not only open up Silicon Valley to a broader range of entrepreneurs, it will also shine a spotlight on the barriers American law places in the way of immigrants seeking to start businesses in the United States.
Cirsumvrenting immigration laws? Huzzah! [Sic]

Bypassing the political process and using technology and markets to get shit done? Huzzah times two.
Seasteading light

Marty met his cofounder, Dario Mutabdzija when both were employees of the Seasteading Institute, a nonprofit we covered back in 2008. [...] "A lot of seasteading projects in the past lacked a business model that made what they're doing work," he said. "We're solving a very specific and very big problem."
Bootstrapping seasteading? Can I get three huzzahs?

The firm will also need considerable legal advice to navigate these uncharted waters of immigration law.
Sounds like a job for Chareth Cutestory!

Half-and-half homeschooling

Pundit & Pundette | Jill | Getting know where: Public school kids explain why it's better than homeschooling

Those of us who argue that our kids learn more at home, in spite of their untrained, non-unionized teachers and limited budgets, can take the rest of the day off. The public school kids' comments have rendered argument on that score unnecessary. A sampling from the young scholars: [...]

The themes:
  • School is where our friends are (bullies included) and its institutional character prepares us for the grim "real world."
  • Home is an isolating, lonely place.
  • Friends are vastly more important than family.
  • "Socialization" is a necessity and can only take place in school.
  • "Socialization" is more important than learning.
  • Conformity is more important than learning.
  • Learning shouldn't be too pleasant an experience.
  • Herding us into groups is what we deserve.
  • Outside the institution of government school, personal advancement is not possible.
[...]I'm not sure what the poor things mean by "the real world," but I get the feeling they think it's going to be even bleaker than the current conveyor belt they're riding. Passivity and conformity have been bred into them from day one and all they can do is praise the system that is crushing them. It's not their fault; they never had a chance.
Homeschooling is pretty much unknown where I'm from (though I'd say I'm far more symathetic to it than most in my area/social group) so forgive what is perhaps a naive question.

Let's assume arguendo that home-school curtails socialization, and that the socialization you gain in a public school is not counter-productive.*

Why is there not partial homeschooling? Why can't you go to a traditional school to learn humanities, and have your parents teach you STEM, or something like that? Then you get some "socialization" outside the home, as well as the benefits of home instruction.  Why does homeschool seem to be an all-or-nothing proposition?

I had friends in my high school who took courses at the local community college. There were others who took classes in adjacent schools if the correct level wasn't offered in their home school. I think both arrangements are common, and also not frowned upon by the public school system. So it's certainly possible to opt out of public education for specific subjects. But why is that only an option if you're going to some other organized, traditional school?

I also had friends whose parents were professors or teachers. AFAIK they couldn't opt out of, say, their history class in order to be taught by their history professor mother, but they could opt out of schooling entirely in order to be educated entirely at home.  Why does the USNA trust Dr. Smith to teach their middies, but MCPS doesn't trust Dr. Smith to teach her own child?

~ ~ ~

When it comes to health care, I'm more interested in innovation in business models and organizational structure than in drugs and devices.  Not that the latter aren't important! I just think other people are already paying enough attention to them, and I think improvements in the former will create the right environment for improvement in the latter.  Similarly I am interested in Seasteading not for the particular rules that the Seasteading Institute would like to emplace in its colonies, but because it is a good metasystem for making the environments which make good rules possible.

Similarly I am most interested in the innovation in schooling systems, not the particular policy changes or teaching techniques that get debated.  More homework? More technology in classrooms? Extend the school day or year? Lower class sizes? Hire more teachers with MAs? Who cares?

We don't need to figure out the answers to those questions. We need to figure out a metasystem which will allow us to figure out the answers to those questions. That's why I'm so interested in vouchers, charters, smaller school districts, etc. It's not that a particular charter school or set of them does things better, it's that they are a better system for discovering the answer.  We need more diversity of approaches, and I think partial homeschooling can be one of those approaches.

Again, I don't know much about the specifics because homeschool just wasn't part of my milieu, but it seems to me like there are major roadblocks to structural innovation here.  Let's say we get things set up so Professor Jones can teach his daughter Suzie history and civics, and have her take her other classes at Local High School.  That's a good step forward.

But can Suzie's friend Eddie also takes history and physics from Professor Jones? What if Eddie's father is a engineer, and wants to Eddie to learn history from Professor Jones while he teaches both Eddie and Suzie calculus? Can they offer reciprocal classes? What if a third parent wants his child to learn with Eddie and Suzie, but not teach himself? Can he pay the other two parents directly?

I'd guess the answer to all of those is no, because we've set up some weird distinction where you can be trusted to teach your own child, but not accept money for teaching someone else's, because then you're running a miniature school, and you need licenses and approvals and oversight and god knows what else. These things standing in the way of people exploring new solutions themselves are what interest me, not arguments about the solutions themselves.

~ ~ ~

* Some people I've talked to homeschooling about have been confused about how socializing in school could possible be bad. Just being in a society is no guarantee that a person will pick up habits and views that are helpful. Being press-ganged into the Navy would also force a child to build social skills, but I'm sure there are many out there who doubt the things you would learn there would make you a better member of society. The relentless pressure to conform, from both peers and teachers, may be worse for people than more limited contact that can result from homeschooling.

Via Fourth Checkraise

21 November 2011

"Bootstrapping My Way Into the Ivory Tower"

The Chronicle of Higher Education | Rachel Wagner | Bootstrapping My Way Into the Ivory Tower

I read this before popping over to the grocery store. When I left I was thinking "oh, that's a sad story of this woman's sacrifices. Too bad she's in a tough spot." But it's been stuck in my head ever since, and I've been becoming more and more annoyed about it.

(1) This is presented as being a story about how it's hard to be a professor if you're not independently wealthy. It's really about how it's hard to be an unmarried mother if you're not independently wealthy.

(2) Wagner explains her choice to have her baby at 23 by saying that lots of people in her community had children before they were 25. But were lots of them unmarried? Were those women financially sucessful despite being in low-paying careers?

She chose to keep her baby, which obviously requires a lot of sacrifices and is in many ways very noble. But those are sacrifices she chose. I don't look too sympathetically on someone who complains ten years later about how unfair all the sacrifices have been.

(3) Her dream was to be a professor of religion. That is a dream she has achieved. Good for her! But such a job is not now, and has never in her lifetime been, well remunerated.

Achieving your dream does not also mean that you get to be financially comfortable. And have a child as a single parent. I am growing tired of people who say things like "The American Dream is dead!" but mean "I have not gotten to have everything I want!"

You don't get to have everything. Nobody has ever gotten to have everything. Achieving your dream will require sacrifices. It will mean not achieving certain other things. This is life.

(4) This part particularly grinds my gears:
But let's be honest here. The system doesn't easily support those wishing to improve their lives, especially those raising children in the process. [...] Without food stamps, housing assistance, subsidized student loans, and Medicaid, there is no way I could have made it through graduate school.
Do food stamps, housing assistance, subsidized loans and Medicaid not count as "supporting those wishing to improve their lives"?! Those sound like a tremendous amount of support. It looks to me like all of her necessities were supported by other people. Other people who also dreamed of improving their lives, I might add.

The very next sentence is this:
Today all of those programs are under threat.
Excuse me? Who says all of these programs are under threat? Has there been a single credible threat to food stamps? Student loans are only becoming more subsidized! Medicaid is under discussion for reform, but that's because the federal matching funds system creates perverse incentives for states to spend even more than the quarter of their budgets on the program that they already do. It's also a little fabulous to claim in a post-Obamacare world that medical funding for the poor is being threatened.

Does this look like the budget of a program under threat?

(chart via)

(5) People who order expensive drinks and appetizers at restaurants and then want to split the bill evenly are extremely rude. On that, Wagner and I agree 100%.

19 November 2011

Digest 25 Nov 2011

For the Love of Money | Fearsome Tycoon | Inequality Thought Experiment

Via Fourth Checkraise, as are many of these.  In fact I've taken the long-overdue step of adding a permanent link to the sidebar as part of my minor redesign

Cracked | John Cheese | 5 Ways We Ruined the Occupy Wall Street Generation

I agree with a lot of this, but older generations didn't do this to people my age. We're perfectly capable of making our own decisions about the value of manual labor, for instance. Yeah, older generations failed to help instill productive attitudes, but at the end of the day your attitudes and beliefs are your own responsibility, not your elders.

The NY Times | David Brooks | The Inequality Map
Academic inequality is socially acceptable. [...]

Ancestor inequality is not socially acceptable. [...]

Fitness inequality is acceptable. [...]

Moral fitness inequality is unacceptable. [...]
People who say they want to reduce inequality usually are more interested in trying to replace one form of inequality with another, ie shifting focus from a dimension where there is inequality and they are on the short end of the distribution to a dimension where there is inequality but they are on the top end of the distribution.

See also: WSJ | Megan McArdle | Spend It or Save It?

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | My Questions for Chu

Again, one important question is "Should the government be doing things to "help" like these failing DOE loan programs?"

But regardless of your answer tot hat question, there is an equally important follow-up: "Is the government any good at these sorts of programs?"

I see plenty of people who answer yes to both or no to both, but very few people who answer yes and no. I trust people who are willing to mix answers on this matter.

Legal Insurrection | Matthew Knee | How Would They View Occupy Planned Parenthood? A Proposed Paradigm For Protest Propriety
my generation seems not ti realize that civil disobedience entails opposing an unjust law by breaking it. In doing so, the protester benefits his cause by taking the punishment to call attention to its injustice and gain sympathy. Civil disobedience does not mean, as Team OWS and many others of my generation believe, that you can do whatever you want as long as you are sufficiently self-righteous about it.

They also seem not to understand that sit-ins and similar forms of civil disobedience were particularly appropriate during the civil right movement because not being allowed to sit certain places was a key policy they were actually protesting. Simply asserting the right to “occupy” any space, disrupt any event, block traffic, or trespass, vandalize, or defecate on any home, business, or public place is either “civil disobedience” against property rights in general, or against the very idea that laws apply to them.
Ric's Rulez | America Has Gotten Lazy
…at least according to the President. [...]

It isn’t true. What’s happening is that people are working more virtuously — in Socialist class-warfare terms.
Forbes | Tim Worstall | Jobs Are a Cost Not a Benefit

The American Interest | Walter Russell Mead | Listen Up, Boomers: The Backlash Has Begun

I would tally up a different list of failings from the leaders of the Boomer generation than Mead does, but the overall indictment is true.

18 November 2011

This will be ... Arrested Development

The Daily What | Breaking Arrested Development News of the Day

It’s official: The Bluths are coming back. Netflix, in partnership with 20th Century Fox Television and Imagine Television, will revive the critically acclaimed show, streaming new episodes to members starting in early 2013.
There is not a font large enough in the world to print the Huzzah I want to publish right now.

Digest: 18 Nov '11

This isn't nearly enough writing to help me build up a full head of steam, but it's feels better than nothing.

Nature: News | Eugenie Samuel Reich | Quantum theorem shakes foundations
The wavefunction is a real physical object after all, say researchers.
I can't even begin to grok the implications of this, but it's still fascinating.

Reason: Hit & Run | Mike Riggs | Occupy Wall Street Response Suddenly Causes Middle Class White People to See Law Enforcement In New Light

I haven't posted at all about use of violence by police toward Occupationist protestors. Mostly because ... come on, really? You're just figuring out the police are unnecessarily violent? Where have you been?

Riggs and others seem optimistic that these events will open the eyes of the white, privileged protestors about how violent the cops often are. I'm doubtful. I think they'll conclude the cops are counterrevolutionary thugs, rather than simply thugs full stop.

Rhymes with Cars & Girls | Sonic Charmer | The Protest Ritual
Theories about how nowadays the mere act of ‘occupation’ is so laden with such meaningful political significance (&c.) that in our modern, internet-dominated age you don’t actually need to make any actual points, arguments, or demands about anything anymore. Theories saying indeed that a lack of tangible, cogent demands or arguments for or against anything is a sign of great strength in a movement.
OWS: All pathos, no logos.

Rhymes with Cars & Girls | Sonic Charmer | The McMansion/Stability Exclusion Principle

We weren't as rich as we thought we were.

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Is the Government an Efficient Charity?
Tyler Cowen agrees with me that the most interesting sentence in Shikha Dalmia's essay is
in 1979, households in the bottom quintile received more than 50 percent of all transfer payments. In 2007, similar households received about 35 percent of transfers.
[...]I think that government is a lousy vehicle for redistributing income. Any private relief organization that gave only 35 percent of its transfers to the neediest households would be viewed as scandalously mismanaged. Donors would withdraw support and give their money elsewhere.
(1) Dalmia deserves wider recognition.

(2) I'd love to see a book that eschewed all the moral arguments about dirigisme, and focused entirely on the premise that the state just isn't any good at this.

The Gormorgons | Dr J | You're a mean one, Mr. Obama...

I believe the administration has backed off their Christmas Tree Tax plan after receiving heavy fire abut it, but this is still a good analysis.

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | The moronic campaign against corporate personhood

This is very worth reading.

PS Larry Ribstein argues that eliminating corporate personhood would actually make it easier for corporation to speak, which is not exactly what MoveToAmend has in mind.

American Scientist | Brian Hayes | An Adventure in the Nth Dimension

Grantland | Michael Weinreb | Growing Up Penn State

Whatever | John Scalzi | Omelas State University

Scalzi makes the perfect literary reference for this situation.

Data Pointed | Stephen von Worley | My God, It’s Full Of Blocks: Population Density Meets The Tile Space

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Stupid Math Tricks

Gizmodo | Jesus Diaz | Why Is China Building These Gigantic Structures In the Middle of the Desert?

Reason: Hit & Run | Shikha Dalmia | Treasury Admits What Everybody Already Knew: Taxpayer Losses On GM Bailout Are Going to be Massive
The Treasury Department yesterday revised its loss estimate for the Government Motors bailout from $14.33 billion to $23.6 billion, thanks to the company’s sinking stock price. [...] As I explained previously, Uncle Sam’s special GM bankruptcy package allowed the company to write off $45 billion in previous losses going forward. This could work out to as much as $15 billion in tax savings that GM wouldn’t have had had it gone through a normal bankruptcy. Why? Because after bankruptcy, the tax liabilities of companies increase since they have no more losses to write off.

This means that the total hit to taxpayers, who still own about a quarter of the company, could add up to $38.6 billion.
How's Occupy RenCen coming along?

EconLog | Bryan Caplan | How Elite Firms Hire: The Inside Story

Interesting. Too late for me to do much about it, but interesting.

Studio Shelter | Keep Drawing

Wow. Just wow.

That is all.

State of the Blogger

I haven't felt much like blogging recently. I haven't even been much in the mood to read blogs recently.

I completed a big and significant step in my grad studies a couple of weeks ago, then had to prep for a conference, and now am trying to get a manuscript together for a journal submission before Christmas. I had been hard charging the month before that milestone, and once I hit it the wind left my sales.

Between all of that, which was preceded by another conference presentation (a conference hosted by the people who sign my paychecks, no less), writing my dissertation proposal, reviewing three dozen papers for my reading list, and creating and practicing the associated talk, I've had it up to my eyeballs with communicating about science. All I've done for the last quarter is communicate. No actual Science has been done. As a result I've got something approaching writer's block, except it's more like writer's disgust.

I'm going to try and get back in the swing of blogging, just to get me pounding a keyboard. Hopefully getting some ideas smoothly from mind to screen and that small-but-not-insignificant satisfaction from pressing "publish post" on something I wrote will spark some motivation back into me.


PS I know you all don't actually care about this stuff. But these thoughts are Step 0 in my plan to write something, anything, in order to get the wheels turning. So there.

16 November 2011

Youth unemployment: not that puzzling

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Youth Unemployment: A Puzzle for Any Story

Mike Konczal writes,
Every age group has seen a substantial drop in the employment-population ratio during this Lesser Depression, but no other group I've seen comes close to this plummet. For the first time in half a century, a majority of young people aren't working.
I think it is hard to tell a sticky-wage story for new entrants to the labor market who do not have any wage history. By the same token, it is hard to tell a story in which these young people started out in one industry and then lost their jobs to a shift in demand or technology.
I don't find this that puzzling.

(1) Sticky wages are people being resistant to changing their expectations about how much they should be paid. Even people without wage history have expectations. Those expectations even might be particularly out of whack for those without experience.

(2) Young people may not have started in one field and need to switch, but they still need to switch from the field they expected to be in. A lot of people in my generation are holding out hope much too long that they will find employment in puppetry-like fields. While being paid a lot. And working for a non-profit. In a fashionable city. On the strength of their liberal arts degree from a middling school.

I don't see how that's substantially different than a steelworker in the rust belt needing to transition into something else. Just because they've never had that job before doesn't make them resistant to switching away from the job they imagine they could (or should) have.

(3) Youths often have the luxury of being stubborn sticky. I have a cousin who can choose to live at home and wait tables at a cafe a couple of nights a week while waiting for the world to recognize his genius as an architect and offer him that six figure salary he thinks he deserves. If he was 40 and had three kids and wife to provide for he wouldn't be so quick to turn down full time jobs that didn't live up to his expectations, as my cousin has done.

(4) Younger people have been brought up to expect a certain romanticism from work.  My generation and the one before it expects not only to be paid for working, but to achieve personal fulfillment and satisfaction.

This is obviously a trend which has been going on for some time, in concert — probably not coincidentally — with the romanticization of marriage.  (Alain de Botton discussed this quite cogently, perhaps in this EconTalk though I can't be sure.)  In the realm of marriage we have shifted from seeking someone who is compatible, both socially and in terms of complementary economic production, to seeking someone who uplifts our mental as well as material condition.  This has gone far enough that we now have a set of the population who were so picky for so long while looking for "The One" that they end up un-married or settling for runners-up and left-overs in their 40s.

I believe the same thing has happened in work.  Early in the 20th century, and before, people took work that put food on their table.  Then they came to expect work they enjoyed, then work they loved, now they look for their Soul Mate job.  Many of the young unemployed are like the 45 year old woman who, having failed to find their Soul Mate, end up with no one at all.

This romanticism adds a dimension on which to be sticky.  If all you want from work is the paycheck, you only need to adjust one variable in order to find work.  If you also want psychological benefits, then you must balance both, and if your expectations were too high coming out of college (and judging from the saccharine, insulting, deluded, go-save-the-world commencement speeches graduates hear, they almost always are) then you must adjust both downwards.

I've lot track of how many times I've seen someone described in an article on OWS which said they either quit or turned down work in the private sector because they wanted a non-profit job.  That's a form of sticky expectations you're not going to see from someone in their 50s.

15 November 2011

Occupationism vs Seasteading

Huffington Post | Robert Teitelman | Anarchism, Liberterianism and OWS

Here's Graeber on Rose in 2006 with his short definition of anarchism: "Anarchism is about acting as if you're already free. ... Anarchism is democracy without the government. Most people love democracy, but most people don't like the government very much. Keep one, take away the other -- that's anarchism. Anarchism is direct democracy." He elaborates. "Anarchism is the commitment to the idea that it is possible to have a society based on principles of self-organization, voluntary association and mutual aid. It's not the belief that we are necessarily going to have it but that we could have it. You can't know it's possible. But by the same token you can't know that it's not possible."

Graeber's description of the anarchist impulse, as an experiment without government, veers awfully close to Ron Paul-like "End the Fed" libertarianism. Venture capitalist and libertarian Peter Thiel, for instance, has helped fund The Seasteading Institute, whose "mission is "to establish permanent, autonomous ocean communities to enable experimentation and innovation with diverse social, political, and legal systems." One of the founders of the institute is Patri Friedman, a grandson of Milton Friedman, and a former engineer at Google. What is the difference between Zuccotti Park and a free, autonomous and sovereign community located in (presumably warm) international waters? Well, the seasteading idea remains theoretical, while OWS exists, albeit with the fragile and ironic permission of the police and city. The emphasis of a Thiel or a Paul (who Thiel has endorsed for president) involves a far more profound belief in markets than the anarchist belief in direct democracy, which has its market-like aspects but which is no fan of the wisdom of markets. Paul and Thiel-style libertarianism has an Ayn Randian edge -- meaning a kind of Nietzschian belief in supermen dragged down by the demons -- that is utterly lacking in the consensus style of Graeber and anarchist theory. The OWS crowd, naively or not, seem to believe it can transform the larger community by example, like medieval monks praying for our souls in giant monasteries; the steasteading crowd seems to argue that they can only carve out their free space outside the oppressive shadow of the nation-state.
I want to point out three particular contrasts between Seasteading and Occupationism.

First, it's true that a big impulse behind Seasteading is to "carve out their free space outside the oppressive shadow of the nation-state." To put more plainly, it's the desire not to be coerced. But an equally important aspect of Seasteading is that no one else needs to be coerced either.

If me and some buddies want to go live out on the ocean in a community with no income taxes, free trade, and autonomous marijuana dispensing robots then we could.  And we wouldn't need to force anyone else to live by those rules. If you want to live by different rules in America — may less taxes, maybe more taxes, maybe outlawing limited liability corporations, maybe easier bankruptcy laws, whatever — you'll need to force everyone who disagrees with you to submit to your desire. Maybe the dissenters are 49.9% or the populace, or maybe they're .01%, but you'll need to force the minority to shut up and obey.

This issue is (I believe) why the OWS people keep repeating "consensus" as a mantra. Unfortunately consensus is impossible in a diverse group,* so they've redefined it in practice to mean 90% majority rather than 51%. This is of course only a difference of degree from the way our society is governed not one of substance. Look at all the internal strife at OWS dealing with the "Finance Committee" or the
"Spokes Council":

(That first link is especially good.)

You can get 51%, 90%, even 99.9% of people to agree with you, but at the end of the day you've still got populism, and that's a fancy way of saying you rely on bullying.

The second difference between OWS and Seasteading is about the approach.  The former is trying to create social chance through social approaches.  That's why you hear people in Zuccotti saying things like they want to "enable a new consciousness." Maybe they'll have better luck, but historically that doesn't work very well.  Humans are not that good at achieving social goals through convincing people to hold new opinions or behave in new ways.

Seasteading, on the other hand, is trying to create social change through technological solutions.  And humans are extremely good at goal-directed technological change.  The key observation behind Seasteading is that you can side-step the very difficult task of convincing other people to live in free societies if you are willing to instead tackle more tractable challenges like "how do you provide fresh water and electricity for thousands of people in the middle of the ocean?"

Thirdly, Seasteading is a mechanism.  It's true that Thiel, Friedman, and other supporters are behind this because they want to create libertarian societies.  But if you wanted to live in a society with no limited liability corporations, 100% capital gains taxes and free university education you could use seasteading as well!

* Impossible because the most important diversity is diversity of opinion, not of phenotype, or linguistic group, or cultural heritage.


09 November 2011


I have no idea if the graphics from the Calgary Sun accurately depicts the demands of the Canadian Occupationists.  I'll assume they did, because doing so gives me something to talk about. (Image via.)

(1) Like ants to a picnic, wherever there is a wacko protest -- no matter the cause -- the Truthers will show up. Such demands are like red clown noses on the face of a movement.  How do you expect me to take you seriously when you give voice to such lunatics?  And when will I finally have to stop hearing from these people?

(2) Ceilings on interest rates of savings? We tried this. It ended poorly.  Screw it. Price controls on EVERYTHING have ended poorly. If price controls seems wise to you, I have nothing to gain from a conversation with you.

(3) I'm sympathetic to reduced penalties for many non-violent offenses.  But how does this jive with the other demands?  Offering >1% interest or bringing goods into the country without paying tariffs are both non-violent crimes. Should people guilty of free trade or offering returns on saving have their punishments waived, like this list demands happens to non-violent criminals in general?  Which demand trumps which?

(4) What is this Chavismo horseshit doing here?  This list doesn't mention corporate personhood, but it's a common OWS demand, so I'll take the liberty of assuming they're against granting person-like rights and privileges to groups of people. OTOH the are for granting person-like rights to abstract agglomerations and entities like species and quasi-deities like "The Environment."

Quiz: Who's better suited to handle 50 state sales tax regimes?

Amazon, or Joe's Online House of Knick-knacks?
Ars Technica | Nate Anderson | Surprise: Amazon "strongly supports" new sales tax bill

Amazon.com, the most vociferous opponent of collecting sales tax on purchases shipped outside its home state of Washington, has had a change of heart in the wake of today's new Senate tax bill, the Marketplace Fairness Act.

"Amazon strongly supports enactment of the Enzi-Durbin-Alexander bill and will work with Congress, retailers, and the states to get this bi-partisan legislation passed," said Paul Misener, Amazon vice president, global public policy, in a press release. "It's a win-win resolution—and as analysts have noted, Amazon offers customers the best prices with or without sales tax."

The states get the taxes, of course—but what does Amazon get?
Is that a serious question, or a sarcastic one? Isn't it obvious Amazon gets the same thing every dominant competitor gets when the throw their weight behind increased regulation, namely the new advantage relative to their smaller competitors of amortizing the new compliance costs over a larger revenue base? This isn't a surprise, it's a standard if-you-can't-beat-em-join-em manuever: fight the new costs, but if you can't win then buy-in so you can try and shape them in a way that gives you competitive advantage. It's the same reason Phillip Morris likes many restrictions on cigarettes, and Coors doesn't mind there being extremely byzantine state liquor boards.

Supporting your local business means not supporting any one else's local business.

Lifehacker | Buy Local Honey to Make Sure You’re Really Getting Honey, and Support Local Beekeepers

I'm really mystified by a national (international?) media organization suggesting to all their readers to support local businesses. The dissonance is overwhelming to me.

"People in Florida: your apiarists are more worthy of your support than those elsewhere. People in New York: your apiarists are more worthy of your support than those elsewhere. People in California: your apiarists are more worthy of your support than those elsewhere. People in Michigan: your apiarists are more worthy of your support than those elsewhere. ..."  I can see readers getting the warm-and-fuzzies from thoughts of supporting their local beekeepers.  But don't they simultaneously see that everyone else is being advised to NOT support their local beekeepers?

Of course I find the Buy Local movement too economically ignorant to ever make much sense,* but at least when it's a local organization advocating for it there's a consistency to it.

* I can understand as a means to achieve some other end, like wanting the freshest available produce.  Often that will happen to be local to you.  But localism-as-an-end is beyond my understanding.

PS The other part of the headline about honey-that-isn't-really-honey just refers to some honey that has been more thoroughly filtered, removing pollen and other substances. It's not ideal, but it's not some kind of masquerading frankenhoney either.

07 November 2011

The Behavioral Aristocracy?

The Atlantic | Megan McArdle | The Tyranny of Meritocracy

You can argue about why this is--are the upper middle class transmitting real skills, or pull? But does it matter? As an editor at The Economist once noted to me, it's actually rather more worrying if what they're giving their children is a strong education and an absolutely ferocious work ethic. An aristocracy that simply bequeaths money and social position to its children will eventually fall. And aristocracy that bequeaths the actual skills required to earn more money than everyone else is self perpetuating.
This makes no sense to me. At least in light of this intro to this post, which seems to indicate that the existence of an elite is not, in and of itself, a problem.
I don't care about income inequality. I care about the absolute condition of the poor--whether they are hungry, cold, and sick. But I do not care about the gap between their incomes, and those of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates. Nor the ratio of Gates and Buffett's incomes to mine. And I'm not sure why anyone should. Other than pure envy, it's hard to see how I could somehow be made worse off if Bill Gates' income suddenly doubled, but everything else remained the same.
If we have an aristocracy that's determined by attitudes I am 100% okay with that. Yes, it is easier to acquire those things if your parents work to give them to you. But you can also get those things on your own through no more than making the right choices. A aristocracy based on "ferocious work ethic" is one any sufficiently motivated person can break into.  One based on inherritance of name or money is not.  (Furthermore, how many screw-ups do you know who have successful parents? I know tons. Tons.  Many of them are related to me. I would not simple assume the ability of the "Top X Percent" to successfully impart the appropriate habits to their children.)

I'm reminded of the feeling I get whenever I see ads for water heaters. They always feature people taking painfully cold showers because their house ran out of hot water. This confuses me because running out of water is pretty much optional for all but the largest households. You want your hot water to last? You don't need to buy new plumbing kit. You just need to make the choice to take short showers. Problem goddamned solved.

(Okay, if you're in a family of eight it's not that simple. Sure. Granted. Similarly if you have some dopaminergic disfunction it's not so simple as deciding to focus on your school work. But if you have a typical family, or a typical neural substrate, it is that simple, so I think it's a pretty decent analogy.)

If the "aristocracy" is limited to people with strong work ethics, that's fantastic. Because anyone can chose to develop the same ethic and join the elite. It might not be easy, but who said it would be?

I am very concerned about an aristocracy based on having the right name, having the right biography, the right superficial phenotype, knowing the right people, etc. But the right attitudes? Bring it on.  That is exactly what I want.

PS I'm hesitating to publish this, because I don't think I understand McArdle point. People say "I don't understand" as a semi-euphemistic way of stating their disagreement, but I mean it literally. I really don't get what her thesis is here. Considering the two bowls of stir fry and four glasses of boxed wine in my body, perhaps I should sleep on this, but I really do not get her point, and I don't think racking out for six hours is going to help. I can always count on McArdle to be remarkably cogent, but right now I'm not understanding her. What does this mean, for instance?

And while I don't want to say that a society cannot last that way--obviously, many have, for hundreds of years--I don't think it's healthy for society. It is hard to get civic engagement, or respect for the law, when the bottom 40% or so feels that the game is rigged.
Is the game rigged or not? If it is, we need to un-rig it. But I don't see her claiming that. If it isn't, we need to convince people it isn't. But I don't see her saying that either.

Ah hell. I'm going back to my boxed wine and Sino-Finish martial arts movie.

PPS Okay, the Sino-Finish movie will have to wait another minute.  Elsewhere in this post McArdle makes a big deal about some mobility statistics.  Like much prose discussion of inherently multi-dimensional data, they seem more than cherry-picked.  The overall trend I remember (and I wish I could find a link right now but hell with it) is that in any quintile you/your children have a 20% chance of moving up and a 20% chance of moving down. (Except the top quintile, which obvi can't move up, and the bottom which can't move down, but still have a 20% chance of switching in the one direction.)  To me, that's a pretty reasonable rate of mobility. You don't want it to be a 0% chance of swapping groups, but you also don't want it to be a 33% chance (ie random) of moving up/down either.  So 20% going each way seems fine to me.  None of the individual statistics cited in this post seemed to contradict that overall system, so I'm left wondering what the evidence for such a big problem is.

Unemployment is a failure of imagination. But whose?

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Nice Sentence

From Ed Glaeser.
Unemployment represents a crisis of imagination, a failure to figure out how to make potential workers productive in the modern economy.
That might be a one-sentence articulation of PSST.
Good sentence, but I would make it better by modifying it to:
Unemployment represents a crisis of imagination, a failure to figure out how to make potential workers productive in the modern economy or a corresponding failure by workers to figure out how to make themselves productive for others.
For example, Joe "Master of Puppets" Therrien is not unemployed because employers have failed to imagine a way to make him productive.  He is unemployed because he has failed to imagine a way to produce something other people will voluntarily pay for.

Potential workers aren't just entities sitting idle that other people have an obligation to figure out what to do with. That's the impression I get from the original version. I don't think Glaeser or Kling actually intend that, but many (including Obama) often sound like they do.

PS If I was really going to edit the original, I would propose changing "crisis of imagination" to "crisis of problem solving." But that's a smaller matter.

04 November 2011

Mad Max plus The Natural in Inner Mongolian

LA Times | David Pierson | Baseball bat is a hit as a defensive weapon in China

Truck driver Wang Yonggang has never seen a baseball game or sung "Take Me Out to the Ballgame." He couldn't explain a sacrifice bunt.

But Wang's got a good eye for bats. His is a lightweight aluminum model with a long barrel and a sticky rubber grip. He treasures his Chinese-made club so much that he keeps it tucked under the seat of his rig.
I have no first-hand experience defending a truck using baseball bats. But I do had an uncle who did, and he was of the firm opinion that an unaltered baseball bat is too long for in-cab use. That's why he sawed the bottom six inches off his (ash) bat. Judging from the four finger-shaped indentations left in the bottom of his window opening courtesy of a would-be-hijacker, it's an effective modification.

03 November 2011

Catching Up

Posting has been light while I completed a big chunk of work, and now that things are lightening up I have mountainous backlog of things to post. Let the tab clearing begin.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Washington City Paper: City Desk | Michael Schaffer | Farewell, Mac

Mac McGarry is finally leaving It's Academic, a (very!) long-running quiz show in the Mid Atlantic. I'm a little surprised he's made it this long; he was beyond venerable a decade ago when I was competing on the show. I wish him all the best.

(BTW the format of It's Ac would be a more challenging test of IBM Watson than Jeopardy, since it allows interruptions, provided the input was provided to Watson at the same speed and pacing as it is to humans.)

The Unbroken Window | wintercow20 | Rich Man Scorn
In any case, imagine that by today no one had ever walked on the moon, and that no one in governments around the world had any ambitions about actually doing it. Now imagine Sergei Brin or some similarly wealthy dude proclaiming, “By the year 2015, I will spend every dollar that I have to in order to ensure that an American walks on the moon.”

What would our response be? Some might be bemused, delighted, strangely intrigued, indifferent, etc. But I would bet that a considerable share of the population (say 20% or more) would be appalled. “How could someone display such an arrogant disregard for their fellow humans!”
Great point. Somehow when we're coerced into spending money on white elephants they're noble endeavors that uplift the human spirit.

The Economist: Prospero | MJ | Money and Beauty: The benefits of early money-laundering
The Medici bank was supreme for almost a century, till its collapse in 1494 when the family was ousted from political power.

The Church deemed it sinful to charge interest on loans, viewing it as profit without labour.
And yet the Papal States were the Medici's single best customers. (Or perhaps that's not an anomaly, but partial cause of the Church's animus towards interest.)
As bankers fretted for their souls, funding religious art began as a form of penance, like spiritual money-laundering. But as revealed in “Medici Money”, Mr Parks’s 2005 book about 15th-century Florence (reviewed by The Economist here), patronage also projected power. Pious frescos were stamped with the patron’s family crest, and the medium was the message: costly paints in gold, cochineal red and lapis blue were conspicuous signs of wealth. Upwardly mobile patrons even appeared in some biblical scenes. In the Ghirlandaio workshop’s “Adoration of the Shepherds with Filippo Strozzi”, for example, a kneeling banker in a mud-brown tunic basks in the infant Christ’s gaze (pictured).
This is no different than what statesman and clergymen demanded from artists they patronized. Private citizens having themselves or their interests promoted through art seems vulgar, but people love the idea of government-funded patronage.

BTW, art-as-penance is one explanation for this phenomenon. Another is the basic ego-boost to the patrons. But another, unmentioned here, is that this serves to signal that private families are willing to take on the cultural care of their cities in a way previously reserved to the state. (These are not mutually exclusive.)

Kevin Karsch | Rendering Synthetic Objects into Legacy Photographs

Wow. Ignore the dry academic title and watch this.

The Gormogons | 'Puter | E.J. Dionne: Wrong Again

When was the last time Dionne wasn't wrong? That's not a rhetorical question. I mean it. When was the last time one of Dionne's column had insightful analysis or informative factual knowledge?

I digress. 'Puter discusses how relabeling "fair" as "economically just" doesn't change the basic notion that they both mean "whatever I think ought to happen."

Watts Up With That? | Anthony Watts | Replicating Al Gore’s Climate 101 video experiment shows that his “high school physics” could never work as advertised

This is my most basic problem with Al Gore. It's not his policy proposals, or his analysis, or his "science." It's that he's willing to lie to lead people to the "right" conclusion. It's one thing to disagree about the appropriate gas tax, it's another to disagree about what Truth means.

Bloomberg | Frank Bass and Timothy R. Homan | Beltway Earnings Make U.S. Capital Richer Than Silicon Valley

Not good. (Although I will add my usualy caveat that the average DC/Federal worker is not the same as the average worker in the private sector or rest of the country in terms of education, experience, job field, etc.)

Remind me again why Occupy Wall Street isn't Occupy Capitol Hill?

The Av Club | Noel Murray | Defending the Matrix sequels

I'm happy to read this. I've always rather liked the sequels. Not as good as the original, but I don't think they deserve the reputation they've gotten. Their biggest flaw is that they were released as two independent movies. If it was one 4.5 hour epic it would have been stronger. (Okay, maybe the single biggest problem is the Wachowskis took all the philosophical uncurrent and made it explicit. That's a problem.)

The AV Club | Nathan Rabin | My World of Flops, Case File #1: Studio 60 On The Sunset Strip

I'm also happy to read this because I couldn't stand this show or Sorkin's sanctimonious sermonizing about how important screenwriters are. Insufferably boorish.

Reason: Hit & Run | Peter Suderman | Farm Subsidies II: The Revenge
A few days ago, news reports began to appear suggesting that members of Congress might be nearing a deal to cut tens of billions in planned spending from farm subsidies. [...] But as is so often the case in Washington, the proposed cuts aren't really cuts, at least not if you look at the larger spending picture; instead, they're a form of budgetary sleight of hand, in which Congress makes spending disappear from one program and then hopes no one notices when it reappears later in a different form. [...]
It is a modification of the ACRE program that pays farmers a subsidy when the revenue per acre for a particular crop falls below recent statewide historical averages. Since crop prices are at, or near, all-time record highs [...]
Profit and loss, you knuckle-dragging bandits. Profit AND LOSS! You're trying to outlaw losses for agriculture! Screw you and the combine harvester you rode in on, you spineless rent-seeking (and -granting!) halfwits.

WSJ Opinion | Douglass Schoen | Polling the Occupy Wall Street Crowd
Our research shows clearly that the movement doesn't represent unemployed America and is not ideologically diverse. Rather, it comprises an unrepresentative segment of the electorate that believes in radical redistribution of wealth, civil disobedience and, in some instances, violence.
As an aside, I'm actually fine with the disobedience/violence stuff. You can either believe violence is occasionally legitimate for political purposes, or you can refuse to celebrate July 4th. I can only imagine what people would have been saying about the Tea Party if 31% of them had said violence is acceptable.
What binds a large majority of the protesters together—regardless of age, socioeconomic status or education—is a deep commitment to left-wing policies: opposition to free-market capitalism and support for radical redistribution of wealth, intense regulation of the private sector, and protectionist policies to keep American jobs from going overseas.

Sixty-five percent say that government has a moral responsibility to guarantee all citizens access to affordable health care, a college education, and a secure retirement—no matter the cost
No matter the cost? So trade-offs don't exist? Good to know. And to think I was always taught it was those nasty right-wingers who had the black-and-white, detached-from-reality opinions.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Noses

If you haven't seen this yet do yourself a favor.

Rhymes with Cars and Girls | | Occupy Wall Street us an incipient Fascist movement
Let’s run down some of the bullets.
  • Inchoate demands and lack of concrete proposals, justified by declaring that ideology and policies are less important than unity and the act itself of protesting.
  • Emphasis on ‘action’ and organization over reason, deliberation, open debate, democratic institutions.
  • Pedestalization of youth. Young voices (regardless of whether they have anything to say) must be heard, they can’t be wrong, their actions are self-justifying expressions of axiomatically-valid griefs.
  • Scapegoating of a hated subgroup, who don’t count as ‘real’ members of the nation, painted as parasites.
  • Everpresent undercurrent of appropriation; I want what I want because I want it, so give it to me.
I don't think OWS is Fascist so much as it's a mass movement. Fascist, Communist, Nationalist, Religious, Class-based, Race-based, whatever. This is how populist movements always work.

Occupy Herbstreit

Don't miss the "demands"
1. Equal pay for all SEC Quarterbacks
2. Schools may only purchase Fair Trade Gatorade for use on sidelines
3. Guaranteed Bowl appearances regardless of won-loss record
4. Let the mascots unionize
5. All sidelines must be made Segway-accessible so Ralph Friedgen can return to coaching
6. One trillion dollars so the Big East can buy some new teams
7. Free nachos
8. Conferences with numbers in their name must have that many schools in them
9. Open border migration for all Texas high school athletes
10. Must see physical documentation of Dr. Lou’s Phd in Football philosophy
11. Notre Dame’s TV appearances must depend on whether they are a good team
12. Outlaw all strength of schedule reporting agencies (We allowed Boise State to make one demand)
13. Penn State must reveal its secret for keeping Joe Paterno alive