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.