31 August 2011

MLK Memorial

The Economist: Democracy in America | W.W. | Martin Luther King: A blockheaded memorial

I'm more than a little disappointed that a man who fought so intransigently, bravely, and beautifully for equality, of all things, has been set up for worship as a towering idol, more mountain than man, in the fabricated pantheon of the officially unofficial American state religion.
Having been born in 1984, and educated in a school system which taught that only three things happened in the entire 20th century — the New Deal, the Holocaust* and the Civil Rights Movement — I'm a little boggled by the idea that MLK has ever not been seen to be some sort of monumental demigod.

(* NB: The Holocaust was about one third of my modern history education, but WWII was only mentioned in passing.  No other democides were discussed, and some were outright denied by my teachers.)


PS I can't find it now, but I read a good piece at some point this summer whose thesis was that if mixing religion and politics bothers you today, you ought to have a real big problem with MLK as well.  At least, if you're going to be consistent about things.

Consequences: Even business owners must live with them.

I have a huge backlog of things I want to post about, or at least link to, that have piled up while I was prepping for and then attending a conference last week.

But before I get to that, I want to bitch about something I heard on the WSJ Radio this morning. They did a short piece on post-Irene flood damage, noting that many people are not insured for the costs.

The reporter mentioned one restaurant owner whose prep kitchen and wine cellar flooded. He could have bought flood insurance, but according to the reporter he decided the money for the premiums was better spent elsewhere.  (It was reported as "He couldn't afford it," but that's just one way of saying "He thought he would derive more benefit from spending that money on other things.")  Now that his place is ruined and his wine and food stocks destroyed he wants the government to bail him out, because he's a "Small Business Owner" and this will bankrupt him.

I love Small Business Owners.  They're fine folks.  And they do a lot of good.  I hope the government supports them.  But to me that means getting out of their way and letting them do their thing, not letting them push a tax-payer funded Do-Over Button whenever things go wrong.

This guy could have bought flood insurance.  He didn't.  He decided to stock up the wine cellar, or buy more expensive ingredients,  or hire more or better paid staff, or pay himself more, or whatever the hell else he did with that money.  Fine.  Now he's got to live with the consequences.

If I had a small business and decided that an extra $1000/month of advertising was too expensive, and my sales dropped and then I had to close up shop I couldn't go crying to the state to let me have another chance.  If I decided I "couldn't afford" new capital equipment to lower my costs, and that kept my margins high, and I got pushed out of the market, everyone would think I was foolish for trying to get the state to let me have another go at the citizens' expense.  But because this guy gambles on flood protection and looses, and a bunch of other people loose at the same time in a big, public, obvious way, some people think it's appropriate to give them all do-over.

I don't think its the state's job to protect people from bad luck.  Especially not bad luck they had the opportunity to hedge themselves against.  But if we're going to do it, justice demands we do it consistently.  If Jim's Random Diner in Dubuque got flooded last month, no one would have thought it appropriate for Washington to give Jim rebuilding funds.  But since dozens of businesses all got hit at once somehow it's our collective responsibility.  Talk about everyone endeavoring to live and everyone else's expense.

When the misfortune is big and public we have to Do Something, and that usually means calling in some stuffed-shirt blowhard like Ken Feinberg to hand out other people's money.  Screw that.  If Lee Boyd Malvo, or some anonymous car jacker, or stone cold bad luck kills your father you're SOL. But if your dad dies in a big National Pants Shitting Moment it's everyone's responsibility to ease your grief with a check? How much sense does that make?


PS I think it grinds my gears all the more that this was reported by the Journal.  They're the closest thing to a free market supporting media outlet I can get my hands on, but they didn't even bother to ask why it's my job to restore this business' wine cellar after the owner chose not to insure it.  Supporting free markets does not mean supporting business.  On the contrary, it requires letting them fail.

30 August 2011

I don't defer to scientists because I am a scientist.

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Krugman Unintended Irony: Anyone Who Does Not Unquestioningly Believe Authorities is Anti-Science

here.

It’s a wonder how, when over “97 percent to 98 percent” of scientific authorities accepted the Ptolomeic view of the solar system that we ever got past that. Though I could certainly understand why in the current economy a die-hard Keynesian might be urging an appeal to authority rather than thinking for oneself.

When, by the way, did the children of the sixties not only lose, but reverse their anti-authoritarian streak?

Postscript: I have always really hated the nose-counting approach to measuring the accuracy of a scientific hypothesis. If we want to label something as anti-science, how about using straw polls of scientists as a substitute for fact-based arguments?
I think Krugman's position of automatically deferring to scientists and determining truth by head-count is extremely foolish. And I think that specifically because I am a scientist.

I was at a small conference last week and I had to stand up in front of the room and give a talk, and one of the points motivating that talk is that a giant in my field is wrong about something. His view in incomplete, and his techniques are flawed.  His works gets hundreds, sometimes thousands of citations. It is widely accepted.  Mine is hardly read.  But his work is flawed, and I think I can show how.  No one in the room said "how dare you question this eminent researcher, and the legion of people who agree with him?"  They heard me out, and I think I convinced at least some of them my point has merit.

I was not the only one doing this. There were several other talks whose focus was errors in the work of our colleagues. One man's whole thesis was that the consensus -- yes, consensus -- about n-back training is incorrect. He couldn't replicate any of it. He thinks the statistics are sloppy and the methods are erroneous. He spoke for an hour about this, forcefully. It undermined the work of a lot of people in that room. But we all heard him out rather than shouting "But you're going against the accepted consensus! You're anti-Science!" And we heard him out specifically because we are scientists, and we listen to dissenting opinions rather than crouching behind a shield of popularity.  That's fine for pundits and columnists and talking heads, but in the lab that kind of behavior is unacceptable.

~ ~ ~

PS Even if consensus was the end of the story, it matter a lot who the consensus is among.  "Scientists" isn't helpful, because most scientists don't know a damn thing about the climate.  If I signed my name to an open letter saying I believe the Higgs boson exists you shouldn't care, because I don't know anything about particle physics.  That's the situation with much of the AGW "consensus."  Most of the people throwing their name onto the scales don't have any expertise in climatology or computational modeling or related fields.  Sociologists and geographers and geneticists are fine people, but how they feel about computational predictions of complex climactic systems is beyond irrelevant.

I think a lot of these signatories to "The Consensus" are suffering from some sort of blind spot bias.  If I stumbled into some debate on protein folding the proteomicists would have no trouble recognizing me as unqualified to support either side, even if I was trying to lend my weight to the popular one.  Hell, if most microbiologists stumbled into that debate the proteomicists would recognize them as being unqualified.  But they're more than happy to weigh in on something outside their own wheelhouse, for reasons which are both dubious and numerous.

~ ~ ~

PPS From Krugman's column:
Pay no attention to “fancy theories” that conflict with “common sense,” the Journal tells us. Because why should anyone imagine that you need more than gut feelings to analyze things like financial crises and recessions?
He has absolutely GOT to be shitting me. Does he have no recollection of writing this?
Europe’s economic success should be obvious even without statistics. For those Americans who have visited Paris: did it look poor and backward? What about Frankfurt or London? You should always bear in mind that when the question is which to believe — official economic statistics or your own lying eyes — the eyes have it.
I tore that statement apart, if I do say so myself, back when he made it.  It's one of my favorite posts, because Krugman is always so much fun to plane.

20 August 2011

Borders' death reveals its own cause

I stuck my head in a Borders yesterday to see if there were any decent deals to be had in their going-out-of-business sale.  I was excited to notice one of the Hellboy "Library Edition" oversized hardcovers was 40% off.

Too bad even with their everything-must-go, priced-to-move, final-clearance discounts it's still $2 more expensive than the everyday price at Amazon.

And that, in a nutshell, is why Borders needs to have an everything-must-go, priced-to-move, final-clearance sale in the first place.

19 August 2011

Environmentalism is its own worst enemy

Reason | Shikha Dalmia | Get Ready for the Green Civil War

Consider the recent massacre of six golden eagles at California’s Tehachapi Mountains wind farm. Federal authorities are investigating the incident, but some enviros are upset that not all their brethren are more outraged over the dead birds—along with the 440,000 others that are shredded annually by all the “cuisinarts of the sky” around the country. [...]

The problem for the environmental movement is that, in contrast to its original conservationist roots reflected in the thinking of Aldo Leopold, it has decided to protect nature from humans rather than for humans.
Amen.

The AGW movement sucks all the wind out the sails of the wider environmental movement. No good comes of this.

Funny how this kind of stuff never came up when I was being fed brainwashing episodes of Captain Planet.  There were no trade-offs between conflicting environmental goals there.  Of course, there were no trade-offs of any kind whatsoever in that universe.  I shouldn't be surprised, since the main characters got what they wanted literally by magic every single half hour.  Why bother with making choices when a goddess and a genie solve all your problems for you?

(When I am in less generous, more cynical moods I conclude the environmental movement has tossed out all other concerns to focus on AGW because many modern environmentalists do not care about the environment, they just want clubs to wields against capitalism, and AGW makes a great one.)

See also:
Think Progress | Matthew Yglesias | The Planet Is A Place For People To Live

It’s especially mistaken, I think, to try to look at children as a negative environmental externality. The beginning of wisdom here is to note that pollution isn’t “bad for the planet.” The planet is a gigantic roughly spherical chunk of rocks that can easily survive whatever level of greenhouse gas emissions or whatever else we care to pump into the atmosphere. The big picture ecological threat is a threat to human beings, and to the continued existence of ecological conditions that are conducive to human flourishing. Radical population reduction would sharply reduce the quantity of anthropogenic ecological impacts, but to what end? The goal needs to be to reconfigure human activity in order to make it sustainable over a longer time horizon. But sustained human flourishing requires both acceptable levels of ecological impact and also the continued production of new human beings.
Again, amen, especially to the title.

Our peaceful decade

Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | War and Peace
In fact, the last decade has seen fewer war deaths than any decade in the past 100 years…If the world feels like a more violent place than it actually is, that’s because there’s more information about wars — not more wars themselves.
From Joshua Goldstein in Foreign Policy.
Truth bomb.

The downside of corporations (and every other organization)

Via PEG 2.0
Sex, Art and Politics | Danny

The general idea that people have is of large, (multi)national corporations that suck their employees dry and spit out waste into the environment. Most definitely, there are many of these corporations. And the lack of personal responsibility within a corporations (everybody and nobody is to blame if something bad happens) leads to a lot of horrible behaviors.
This lack of responsibility is definitely true of corporations. But it's also true of every other organization of humans. Schools, police departments, town councils, regulatory agencies, churches, armies, umpire crews: all of them give their members power out of proportion to their personal responsibility.

There's no way to get n people in a room and perfectly balance all of their combined power with all of their individual responsibility. That's part of the downside of being social creatures.

~ ~ ~

PS This makes it sound like I am disagreeing with Danny. The thesis of his post is actually that corporations are a amoral (ie value-neutral) way of organizing affairs. I agree that they are without moral distinction.

PPS On a practical side though, their invention has made possible a remarkable amount of prosperity for the world. Morally, they're neutral. But from a consequentialist standpoint, they're Good.

18 August 2011

Links

Richmond Times-Dispatch | Barton Hinkle | Hey, conservatives – look what you made them do! — When rioters burn down shops in England it's because they're "disillusioned youths, upset about social programs." When Tea Prtiers have rallies in America, they're "violent, racist mobs."

Wired | Rhett Allain | Exposing a Fake Video Trick — A great use of image analysis and statistics to analyze the veracity of a viral video.

EconLog | David Henderson | A Day That Should Live in Infamy — The decades-long after effects of Nixon's dirigiste decision to impose price controls.

The Spectator | Alex Massie | Bill Bratton's Approach Provides Ammunition for Tories and Labour Alike — Allow me to just pull the relevant chart out. I've seen similar results for education and health care. I think what Massie calls the "it's always worse elsewhere" phenomenon should never be ignored when considering public opinion


Marginal Revolution | Alex Tabarrok | Fear without Function: Do Sex Offender Registries Reduce Crime? — In a word, "no." They are not only illogical, they are ineffective.

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | Cloudy with 100% Chance of Corporate State — Rick Perry and Barack Obama are both in favor of crony capitalism.

The Thinker | Jeffrey Ellis | To what degree is science really self-correcting? On rebuttals, retractions, and bias — Some rather depressing news about the uselessness of retracting scientific papers. I can't even remember ever seeing one, but I know some non-negligible fraction of the papers I read (and cite!) have been corrected. One thing to keep in mind about this: peer review doesn't check if a paper's claim is correct, only that it's reasonable on the surface, that's it's relatively novel, and readers may find it beneficial.

17 August 2011

If the US Congress was an ice cream shop, they would carry flavors ranging from vanilla to French vanilla

The in-laws were in town last weekend. We headed down to the Capitol to do some sight-seeing. The shiny new (and expensive*) Capitol Visitor Center was lackluster. The security was even ruder than the TSA, if you can believe it.

(* The facility took twice as long to construct as planned and cost 234% what it was projected to.)

Because this is the government, everything was proceeded by waiting in line.  Things started far behind schedule.  Everyone got "important information" once inside, like the fact that you can't bring food or drink inside.  Yes, we were informed of this in writing after we had been made to leave food and drink at the door.

Before the tour there was a little movie titled "Hooray for Congress! Aren't We Great?!"  One particular idea was repeated several times, and it really ground my gears.  It was the notion that Congress is a place for everyone to be heard, for every idea to be voiced, for every point of view to be aired and considered and deliberated upon.

Horseshit.

Congress is a place for two camps. And those two agree on more things than not. How much time is Congress spending hearing from people who think that locking up marijuana users is useless?

How about people who think buying something from a guy in China is morally equivalent to buying it from a guy in Ohio?

How about people who think corn farmers aren't superior to the rest of us and do not deserve to have their butts kissed?

How about people who think risk is a fact of life and we need to learn to accept it rather than screaming "There ought to be a law!" every time something bad happens?

How about people who think we should respond to terrorism with investigators and -- sadly -- ambulances, and not Marine Expeditionary Forces and TSA goons?

How about people who think that just because no one should be required to sell a kidney does not mean they should be prohibited from doing so?

How about people who think that if two people want to trade money for labor or lodging, it's no one else's business what the negotiated price is or what nation either is from?

How about people who think that "the savior who wants to turn men into angels is as much a hater of human nature as the totalitarian despot who wants to turn them into puppets"?

How about people who think politics is a nasty, violent business and want dearly to go home and tend their cabbages?

How about people who think DC shouldn't be running a VC firm, be it the Ex-Im bank or a "green jobs" program?

How about people who think the tax code is a blunt and ineffective way to reform society?

How about people who think I don't need to be saved from myself?

Where are all those people? When are those ideas being debated in this august deliberative body which rules our fair land from under their pretty iron dome? Where are they?

16 August 2011

The 13th Floor of Presidential Candidates

Via The Agitator:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Indecision 2012 - Corn Polled Edition - Ron Paul & the Top Tier
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

This kind of treatment only makes me like Ron Paul more.  Yes, he's still keeps company that is too wacky. (But honestly, what candidate hasn't? Not the current POTUS.)  And his ideology is far from a perfect fit for mine.  But every time he's dismissed out of hand I like him more.

Attention large media outlets: when Jon Stewart is giving a guy a fair hearing and you aren't, you need to re-evaluate your priorities. He's a comedian and he still doesn't condescend to dismiss Paul with a chuckle and an eye roll.

Of course Gary Johnson is still my favorite by a mile, and most media outlets don't even dismiss him.  They flat out refuse to acknowledge he exists.

"Trust me with extra power; I promise I won't misuse it" is not how the Rule of Law works

PEG 2.0 | Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry

Anyone who uttered (or believes) the line “Sure, the statute is written broadly, but we’ll only apply it to those guys” should be thrown down a well.
This is very true. The only problem I see is that there aren't enough wells around to hold all the people who believe this at one point or another.

Sadly, most of the people who believe this about one law are simultaneously very upset about some sort of legislative, regulatory or prosecutorial overreach in some other domain. PEG was commenting on Alabaman legislation which, as written, would make it illegal to give an illegal immigrant a ride to church. I'm willing to bet most of the people objecting to this are perfectly fine with extremely broadly written sexual offender laws, or the similarly broad CPSIA.

If your grandfather did it that way but your dad didn't, there might be a reason

PEG 2.0 | Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry
FrumForum | David Frum | What Really Went Wrong with the Nixon Shock?

Just generally, whenever anybody praises an arrangement from the past, it’s a smart idea to ask: “If this system was so great, why did people abandon it?
This is a great counterpart to the famous Chesterton quote about how only those who know why a fence was put somewhere should be allowed to tear them down.
I don't see that as a counterpart at all.*  If anything, it's a companion.

Chesterton advised us not to tear down fences if you don't understand why they were put up. Frum is giving the same advice: if you don't understand why a fence was torn down, don't put it back up. They're both saying that the things which have happened did so for a reason, and it is necessary that we be aware of those reasons.

(* Am I reading this correctly to conclude Gobry thinks these two ideas are in opposition to one another?)

Attacking causes which are neither necessary nor sufficient

Reason: Hit & Run | Jesse Walker | There's a Hashtag Goin' On

When social disorder rears its head, the political class usually offers two responses: more policing and more welfare. (These tend to be presented as radically opposed social visions, though you can easily read "more policing" as "the sort of welfare administered by a prison" and "more welfare" as "the sort of policing performed by a social worker.") In his statement to the House of Commons on the riots that have swept his country, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has proposed a policy from the police-state side of the spectrum:
[...] Free flow of information can be used for good. But it can also be used for ill.

And when people are using social media for violence we need to stop them. [...]
And how exactly would the authorities "stop" the people they "know" are using social media "for ill" without restricting or surveilling the users acting "for good"? Answer: They can't. This would be an attack on the speech and privacy of everyone in the United Kingdom, not just the people who burn buildings and rob shops. [...]

If social media made it easier to riot, they also made it easier to survive the riots, and they did so at a time when the institutions that were supposed to ensure survival were in disarray. It's no surprise that people like Cameron would respond to the failure of centralized authority by calling for yet more centralization of authority.
Cameron's proposal is beyond asinine. Just once I want some high politician to say "Yes, this new thing makes the police's job more difficult. And they're just going to have to deal with that and do a good job anyway."

I could get all ranty about how stupid this proposal is, but Tam has that covered:
View from the Porch | Tam | It's a poor craftsman that blames the tools.

Looking at limits on Twitter and Facebook? That's your answer? Buddy, I hate to break it to you, but they almost burned Los Angeles down in the '90s back when cell phones were the size of bricks and didn't even have custom ring-tones, let alone 3G internet connections. Hell, the Watts Riots of the '60s happened half a decade before you could play Space War over ARPANET, let alone Farmville on FaceBook.

15 August 2011

CAFE

I'm seeing more talk recently about CAFE standards, and with that comes much objection to them.  You're probably familiar with these.  (It's top-down; it's less efficient and less moral than just taxing gasoline; you can't will technical improvements into existence; if increased efficiency really "pays for itself" people will invest in it anyway; miles per gallon is the incorrect metric to use anyway; ...)

One I haven't seen is questioning why the "fleet" is a meaningful unit of analysis.  Why assume that the average fuel consumption of all Hyundais should be the same as all Mercedes and all Nissans and all Fords?  I understand politically why you do this.  I wonder why does anyone think this is a reasonable approach by itself.  The goal is to reduce total fuel consumption in relation to miles traveled.  The badge on the cars doesn't matter to that any more than the color of their paint.

Sitting here with my engineer hat on CAFE seems so kludgy that I'm actually having trouble coming up with an analogy.

Let's say we want to reduce our society's collective consumption of cotton.  Who would say that J. Press, Gap, and H&M must all aim for getting the same number of shirts per yard of cloth?  They have different approaches to making shirts, and offer different products to different consumers.  Why homogenize their outputs?

I have one other iron-clad argument against CAFE standards, or whatever the eurocrats call their version of them:  the Aston Martin Cygnet


(1) The Cygnet is an absolute boil on the capital-B Beauty of the Aston Martin line.  It is so ugly there are parts of me which refuse to believe it exists.  Any legislation which causes such a deformity should be struck down on aesthetic grounds alone.

(2) On a more serious note, if it becomes rational for Aston Martin to buy up Toyota iQs, spend money giving them cosmetic facelifts and reselling them at inflated prices that should be an indication that the legislation is an ugly hack, an attempt to control a complex system through simplistic means.

Citizenship Planning

Henley & Partners — Citizenship Planning

Ireland

[...] However, Ireland allows financially independent persons to obtain a residence permit, and to apply for naturalization as an Irish citizen after five years of legal residence.

St Kitts and Nevis

The Citizenship-by-Investment program of St. Christopher (St. Kitts) and Nevis was established in 1984. It is the oldest such program in existence. Benefits include a Commonwealth passport which allows visa-free travel to over 80 countries, including all of the EU. To qualify for citizenship, the Government requires either an investment in designated real estate to a value of at least US$ 350,000, or a contribution to the Sugar Industry Diversification Foundation (a public charity) of at least US$ 200,000 (for a single applicant, but this includes all Government fees). The SIDF option is clearly the best Citizenship-by-Investment program available today.

United Kingdom

Residence in the United Kingdom can often be established quite easily, for example if you have a British ancestor and if you are also a Commonwealth citizen, if you are willing to start a business or invest GBP 1 million in the UK. You may apply for British citizenship after 5 years of legal residence, although a substantial strictly physical presence during that period is required. [...]
My new goal in life is to become financially successful enough to both need and be able to afford the services of "citizenship consultant."

I am really curious about what constitutes "financially independent" in Ireland.  Based on this Michael Lewis article, I would assume it means "not up to your ears in mortgage debt."

PS:
Ireland is also the only country within the European Union that continues to confer citizenship on all persons born within its territory, although since 1 January 2005 this has been restricted to persons with at least one parent who holds a permanent, unlimited residence permit for Ireland or the United Kingdom.
Really?! The only one? Am I reading this right?  I always assumed all countries, or all civilized ones, granted citizenship to newborns the way the US does.

"ObamaCare is such a schlimmbesserung"

The Ragbag | Raynor | today in intruiging german loanwords

schlimmbesserung • a so-called improvement that makes things worse
That word could get a lot of mileage in my life.

Kafkatrap

Eric S Raymond | Kafkatrapping

One very notable pathology is a form of argument that, reduced to essence, runs like this: “Your refusal to acknowledge that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…} confirms that you are guilty of {sin,racism,sexism, homophobia,oppression…}.” I’ve been presented with enough instances of this recently that I’ve decided that it needs a name. I call this general style of argument “kafkatrapping”, and the above the Model A kafkatrap.
This is a wonderful term. Read the rest for his categorization of the particular forms of the kafkatrap.

Glamour

Bloomberg | Virginia Postrel | Obama’s Glamour Can’t Fix His Charisma Deficit: Virginia Postrel

This charisma, they predicted, would give Obama “the transformational capacity to lift the malaise that is paralyzing so many Americans today” because “a charismatic leader could break through the prevailing orthodoxy that the nation is permanently divided into red and blue states ... and build a broader sense of community, with a compelling new vision.”

There was only one problem. Obama wasn’t charismatic. He was glamorous -- powerfully, persuasively, seductively so. His glamour worked as well on Bennis and Zelleke as it did on voters.

What’s the difference? Charisma moves the audience to share a leader’s vision. Glamour, on the other hand, inspires the audience to project its own desires onto the leader (or movie star or tropical resort or new car): to see in the glamorous object a symbol of escape and transformation that makes the ideal feel attainable. The meaning of glamour, in other words, lies entirely in the audience’s mind.

That was certainly true of Obama as a candidate. He attracted supporters who not only disagreed with his stated positions but, what is much rarer, believed that he did, too. On issues such as same-sex marriage and free trade, the supporters projected their own views onto him and assumed he was just saying what other, less discerning voters wanted to hear.
(1) Exactly. As I said back in '08:
People will vote [Obama] him for exactly that reason. He's made himself into a blank canvas upon which any voter can project their desires. Anything you're dissatisfied with, he's the guy to change it. Gas too expensive? Barack will fix things. Worried about carbon emissions? Barack will fix things. Never mind that the fix for one will make the other worse, he's the man to make some changes.
(2) When Postrel talks about glamour, I listen.

Nihil novum

What is happening to our young people? They disrespect their elders, they disobey their parents. They ignore the law. They riot in the streets inflamed with wild notions. Their morals are decaying. What is to become of them?

Plato, 4th century BC
~ ~ ~
Our Earth is degenerate in these later days; there are signs that the world is speedily coming to an end; bribery and corruption are common; children no longer obey their parents; every man wants to write a book and the end of the world is evidently approaching.

Anonymous Assyrian, 29th century BC
Kids these days, right?

Monday Morning Pick-Me-Up

Just enjoy.

12 August 2011

something something .... Tom Smykowski!

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Don Peck’s new book

It is Pinched: How the Great Recession has Narrowed Our Futures and What We Can Do About It. Here is his Atlantic cover story on the future of the middle class, think of it as TGS from a more left-wing point of view, excerpt:
“I’m deeply concerned” about the prospects of less-skilled men, says Bruce Weinberg, an economist at Ohio State. In 1967, 97 percent of 30-to-50-year-old American men with only a high-school diploma were working; in 2010, just 76 percent were. Declining male employment is not unique to the United States. It’s been happening in almost all rich nations, as they’ve put the industrial age behind them. Weinberg’s research has shown that in occupations in which “people skills” are becoming more important, jobs are skewing toward women. And that category is large indeed. In his working paper “People People,” Weinberg and two co-authors found that interpersonal skills typically become more highly valued in occupations in which computer use is prevalent and growing, and in which teamwork is important. Both computer use and teamwork are becoming ever more central to the American workplace, of course; the restructuring that accompanied the Great Recession has only hastened that trend.
This seems like two different issues being conflated. Are we talking about "high-skilled jobs" or jobs requiring "people skills"? I don't know how you (or Weinberg) define those, but I see a world of difference between the two. You don't need advanced training or even a high school diploma to develop the latter.

You'd want a completely different set of responses if people (men?) are not getting jobs because they don't know things like nautical welding than if they're not getting jobs because they lack things like effective non-verbal communication skills.



* I was trying to make an Office Space joke in the title, but I don't have the time. This is all you get.

11 August 2011

Other stuff that is good!

My day of Huzzahness wraps up. There will be more disgruntledness tomorrow. But for today, here's a list of things which meet with my approval.

~ ~ ~

Mike Grab's fight against entropy.



~ ~ ~

Ip Man 2 and 13 Assassins both being available on Netflix Streaming.

~ ~ ~

The trailers for Shaolin...



... and Suing the Devil.



~ ~ ~

The todonotes package for LaTeX.  (It makes my life easier.)

~ ~ ~

Jeremy Mayer making sculptures from typewriter parts.



~ ~ ~

This computer system learning to read the Civ V manual well enough to improve its game play.

~ ~ ~

This news about progress in anti-viral medication.  (Iterative improvement is usually undervalued, but I think problems like viral infection, cancer, and transportation energy need something dramatically different.)

~ ~ ~

This picture of a showdown between Alfred Hitchcock and a Westie.


Special Bonus Amusing Thing ---

This is what Google autocompletes for "Did Alfred Hitchcock..."


Most adorable bear attack ever

From The Daily What:



Forget jet packs and flying cars. I'll know it's the future when I get to have a genetically engineered bear that stays cub-sized and neotenous and non-deadly it's whole life.

More Huzzah Stuff

The day of SB7 Certified Awesome Stuff roles on.



(both by AppuruPai)

Planetary Folklore describes these as "long exposure shots from the New Transit Yurikamome, an automated guideway train that connects Odaiba to the mainland." But long-exposure can't be all there is to it, right?  How would the buildings in the first or the car in the second be (relatively) in focus?

My guess about what's going on it that AppuruPai collected a set of images from the moving train and used some algorithm to pull out the pixels which form continuous curves between frames.  (It's like an edge detection problem in 3D.) Those show up as all the graceful arcs.  then for all other pixels that are less correlated, select a couple of temporally adjacent frames and average them together, and use the result to fill in everything between the curves.  I have no idea if that would work, but it's the first thing I'd try if I was going to replicate this.

Riots and financial panic and everything is getting me down.

I'm going to build up some positive mojo by posting some SB7 Certified Awesome Stuff today.

First up is the "Time Print Machine" of Paul Ferragut



It's 21st century Chuck Close.

I think my post-proposal resolution is to devote a couple hours every single week to making algorithmic art.

(Via Planetary Folklore)

Here's some more images from Triangulation Blog



10 August 2011

Amendment 28

Usually when Warren Buffett talks politics I put my fingers in my ears, for it is drivel (e.g. the other quotes at the bottom of this piece). But this is a stellar idea:
MSN Money | Kim Peterson | Warren Buffett's ingenious deficit idea

"I could end the deficit in 5 minutes. You just pass a law that says that anytime there is a deficit of more than 3% of GDP, all sitting members of Congress are ineligible for re-election."
Of course I'm not sure how you simultaneously believe this is a good idea and believe the things he went on to say.  Perhaps he doesn't.  But regardless, this is a good idea.  Maybe make some allowances for counter-cyclicality, but it's a start.

Via Nickel Cobalt

Good for the Birds, I suppose, but what does this mean for my 401k?

Ummmm....

This is not the headline I expected to see on Google Finance tonight:


"Eagles sign WR Steve Smith from Giants."

Riot Miscellany



(Via World's Best Ever)

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Esquire | Elizabeth Gunnison | From London's Riots: The Best Use Yet for a Rolling Pin

At The Ledbury, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Notting Hill, the staff provided what was perhaps the riots' best example of British pluck and grace under fire.

When looters smashed through the restaurant's glass door and attempted to rob its guests, the kitchen staff burst forth into the dining room wielding rolling pins and (presumably hot) fryer baskets, running the offenders off. Front-of-house staff proceeded to usher guests to safety in the wine cellar, and eased their nerves with the prompt serving of champagne and whisky. Now, if that's not deserving of an additional star, I don't know what is.
[Begin slow clap]

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Some advice: do not mess with a group of men whose traditional costume includes a dagger. They are not likely to find your jackassery amusing.

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I don't think this needs to be said,* but I will never, ever understand responding to violence by the police by destroying your fellow citizens' property.

So you think the fuzz murdered someone in your community, and you're angry about it. I totally get that. And you want to respond with violence of your own. Again, I see where you're coming from. I'm sympathetic. But then instead of attacking the constabulary, or the town hall, or even the post office, you burn down shoe stores and phone kiosks? F*** you! That behavior is as far beyond my comprehension as ... actually I'm having trouble coming up with something that makes as little sense. People who do that deserve to have some sense cracked into their skulls.


* But that has never stopped me before

Influential Intellectuals

Marginal Revolution | Tyler Cowen | Which intellectuals have influence?

Ben Casnocha suggested to me that I have harsh standards. I don’t mean “influencing lots of other minds,” I mean changing the world. Here are a few intellectuals who have had real influence:

1. Jane Jacobs: City planners heed her strictures in many different locales, sometimes too much.

2. Rachel Carson, and numerous environmentalists: Obvious.

3. Milton Friedman: He inspired market-oriented reformers around the world, eased the way to floating exchange rates, helped legitimize early derivatives, and focused attention on monetary policy and away from fiscal policy, among other achievements.

What about today?

1. Peter Singer: [...]

2. Muhammad Yunnus: [...]

3. Richard Posner: [...]

Who hasn’t had much influence over events? I would cite Jared Diamond, Richard Dawkins, Slavoj Žižek, Christopher Hitchens, Paul Krugman, Tony Judt, Noam Chomsky, Francis Fukuyama, Charles Taylor, Steven Pinker, Naomi Klein, and Niall Ferguson, among many others including virtually all economists.
He left out all engineers and scientists. To take just examples from my field, where is Vint Cerf? Tim Berners-Lee? Kernighan & Ritchie? Gosling or Stroustrup? Brin & Page? Gordon Moore? Craig Newmark? Dijkstra? Knuth? Von Neumann? Turing? Frank Rosenblatt, John McCarthy, Allen Newell, David Rumelhart, Geof Hinton? True, they influence fewer minds, but they changed the world.

How about Frederick Taylor and the other professors and consultants who drove the 20th century business trends? (Bruce Henderson, Bill Bain, Michael Porter, Fred Gluck, ...)

What about the businessmen themselves?* Ray Kroc? Sam Walton? John Bogle? Gates? Bezos? Jobs?

(* Perhaps these businessmen are influential people, but not influential intellectuals. What is our definition of "intellectual"? The consultants have intellectual credentials, often in engineering, and were paid to think.  The latter makes them intellectuals in my book.)

Conspicuously absent, and I think for good reason, are artists. Many have changed how we think of art, but what visual artist** has significantly changed how people live their lives? I say that as someone who loves and values art, but artists as a community have a vastly over-inflated sense of their impact.  Has Guernica, for all its hideous beauty, made wars less common?  Judy Chicago has had no visible effect on the status of women compared to whoever invented the refrigerator.

(**  I think writers, musicians and filmmakers – those artists operating in middle- and low-brow mass media – have had more of an effect upon society than visual artists have.  That effect is still limited compared to the business and STEM people mentioned above, however.  Do even 1% of people listening to "Born in the USA" draw the conclusion Springsteen was aiming for? Upton Sinclar wanted to change how people thought about capitalism; instead he changed how they thought about charcuterie. As powerful as The Wire is has our legal regime changed at all as a consequence?

I think artists have the more influence over how we remember the past and anticipate the future than they do on how we actually live.)

PS I would add John Paul II to the list of influential intellectuals.

Lessons of the Mini-Skirt

Studiously Uncool | Jules Aimé | The mini-skirt theory of marketing and politics

When I was at university the fashion industry reintroduced the miniskirt. It caused a political reaction in some people. That is to say, some people didn't just ask themselves whether they did or didn't like these things, they asked what it said about society at large that such a choice was being offered to women. They actively hated the miniskirt and hoped it would fail because they didn't want to live in a society where women dressed this way.

Feminists at the time claimed victory quickly. A pollster asked women and found that 95 percent of women didn't like miniskirts. [...] The thing is, Who cares what the majority of women think? At the time, I cared about what women who wore miniskirts thought. [...]

If you were a politician, you'd have to care because if the majority of women vote against you, you have a problem. But if you're selling miniskirts and only five percent of women buy your product you'll be fabulously wealthy.
This is why I don't like decisions being made through politics, even democratic politics. To be successful in the political realm you need half of the population plus one person to agree with you. To be successful in a market you need enough people to cover your costs plus one. One leaves room for diversity and disagreement and differences, while the other forces homogeneity and centralization.

Another Union of Concerned Scientists

Coyote Blog | Warren Meyer | What Could Our Economy Possibly Need More Than Subsidies for Failing Farmer’s Markets

Via the Thin Green Line
The number of farmers markets in the United States has skyrocketed from a measly 340 at the outset of the 1970s to more than 7,000 today, and, according to the USDA, sales of agricultural products directly from farmer to consumer brought in a whopping $1.2 billion in 2007.  [ed- this is a trivial portion of the US agricultural market, and hardly "whopping."]

But even though many markets have started accepting food stamps, critics still charge that they are only affordable for the haves, who are much more likely to have access to other fresh foods.

A new report from the Union of Concerned Scientists puts some holes in that theory. It says that modest public funding for a couple hundred otherwise-unsuccessful farmers markets could generate to 13,500 jobs over a five-year period.
[...] We already have highly efficient farmers markets that source produce from the world’s agricultural regions best suited to a particular crop and bring them in a very efficient and low-cost way to consumers, taking advantage of scale economies where they exist.  They are called “supermarkets.”   If you want crops that don’t take advantage of our best chemical and genetic technology, that are grown locally rather than in optimal soils and climates, and are retailed in inefficient, undersized and often unprofessionally managed part-time markets, they are going to cost more. [...]
Despite being a bona fide scientist, I have never, ever read about a pronouncement of the "Union of Concerned Scientists" and thought it was a good idea.  Forget about being right, I've never even seen a claim of theirs that I thought was intelligent or reasonable.

Can someone establish "Another Union of Concerned Scientists" that actually says things which make sense?  I'd sign up for that.

09 August 2011

"Baseball Bat Sales Up 6,541% on Amazon.co.uk"

Woot | Jason Toon | Baseball Bat Sales Up 6,541% on Amazon.co.uk - Woot

With all that unpleasantness over in London, how are Britons forgetting their troubles? According to the "Movers and Shakers" chart for the Sports & Leisure department at amazon.co.uk, they're taking up baseball.


(1) Wow.

(2) Are the cricket bats they have not good for this sort of thing? Sean of the Dead lead me to believe they would serve just fine.

(3) Why does Amazon.co.uk list telescoping batons under "Sports and Leisure"?!


PS I believe James May (@RealJamesMay) has the final word on these riots:
Its time I spoke. Now look here, you blithering idiots, we don't need your sort making a mess, now go home. There, that should do it.
That's just so... JamesMayish

Links

Best I can diagnose it, my laptop is having some virtual memory problems, so it has become imperative to keep as few tabs open as possible. This means it's time for another load of links.

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Ace of Spades | The Progressive Crisis

You can ask your average person: Do you wish people would exercise more? Take more of an interest in their health? Stop eating too much? Stop smoking? Stop drinking so much? Stop gambling away their kids' college funds?

Of course the answer is "yes" to all of these (for most respondents).

But again that's just the sales pitch, not the actual offer.

Give them the actual offer and most will say No. Because the actual offer is:

Do you wish to empower a cadre of busybody bureaucrats, who frankly are largely mediocrities at best, but believe themselves to be chosen for greatness, to boss you around your whole life, in order to make sure some other people aren't eating french fries and having a cigarette?
I said earlier that asking poll questions with only what Ace calls the "sales pitch" and not the actual offer is unethical, and I stand by that. It is useless -- and dangerous -- to ask people questions about a fantasy world in which there are no trade-offs.

Via Professor Mondo, who has more commentary on this worth reading.

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Julian Sanchez | Insuring Birth Control

With limited exceptions—I get that birth control can also be a treatment for certain medical conditions—it seems like birth control is just a predictable cost, not a risk to insure against. It’s like food: You might want to subsidize it for the badly off, but you don’t buy “food insurance,” because there’s nothing to “insure.” You just know you’re going to need food, and so everyone who isn’t poor just buys their own; there’s no good reason to pool the expense. [...]

If we think it’s of public value to make sure that low income folks have access to contraception when they want it, great, I get that. But it seems like the solution is to just publicly provide it—whether directly or through some sort of voucher. Achieving that goal through the private insurance system just seems bizarre. If, on the other hand, the goal is just to give a free goodie to people who can very well afford it at the expense of those who don’t want or need it… well, that’s just not a particularly worthy goal, is it?
This birth control ruling is astoundingly stupid in my eyes, and frankly, more than a little insulting. It's insulting because, as Sanchez points out earlier in this piece, it's not even a case of giving away free goodies. Even Mrs SB7, who does not customarily think about markets, recognized in two seconds flat that this meant we'd just end up paying for birth control through our premiums rather than out of co-pays. It is, in her words, like buying someone a gift and paying for it with their own credit card.

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Ricochet | Matt Frost | Getting Everything Wrong in as Many Ways as Possible

It's uniformity of thought and preference that hollows out institutions, as Michael J. Mauboussin explains in this passage from More than You Know: Finding Financial Wisdom in Unconventional Places (cited at the Macroresilience weblog):
"Here's my main point: markets can still be rational when investors are individually irrational. Sufficient investor diversity is the essential feature in efficient price formation. Provided the decision rules of investors are diverse — even if they are suboptimal — errors tend to cancel out and markets arrive at appropriate prices. Similarly, if these decision rules lose diversity, markets become fragile and susceptible to inefficiency. So the issue is not whether individuals are irrational (they are) but whether they are irrational in the same way at the same time." (Google Books)
I don't mean to propose a squishy relativism here: everyone's not right about everything. Rather, if you assume that everyone's going to be wrong sometimes, it's best they not all be wrong in the same way.
Amen. Is there anyone doing quantitative analysis of public policy who uses Cohen's kappa statistic to measure diversity of approaches? I've read some very good studies in the ML literature about ensemble robustness using kappa.

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I won't even both quoting this one, as it's all worth reading. The title is perhaps misleading though. Something like "100 Ways Obama is As Bad or Worse Than Bush" might be more accurate since some of the items on this list have no precedent in the Bush administration, except perhaps in spirit. "100 Reasons People Who Didn't Like Bush Shouldn't Like Obama" would be another option.

I am tempted to convert this into small pamphlets to tuck under the wipers of cars which have both Obama and anti-Bush stickers on them though.

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Speaking of Obama and Bush, Sonic Charmer made two good points this week:

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JamulBlog linked to the honest-to-god new logo for the Smithsonian's new "Department of Innovation" project.


If you don't see the fail, then you must not have played with enough k'nex as a kid.

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Growth Matters | Clement Wan | Made in China? Apparently not so much...?

From Paul Kedrosky:
Thus, on average, of every dollar spent on an item labeled “Made in China,” 55 cents go for services produced in the United States. In other words, the U.S. content of “Made in China” is about 55%.
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The Sports Economist | Victor Matheson | USA, the Crash Davis of the World

Just a quick comment to note that when President Obama says the the U.S. has always been and always will be a Triple-A country, that means a completely different thing to us sports economists than to the finance guys.
Ha! Love that post title.

08 August 2011

Science Appreciation

Monolithic3D | Ze'ev Wurman | Education to Raise Technology Consumers instead of Technology Creators

Consequently, I was excited when the National Research Council recently published its new Framework for K-12 Science Education, in which it outlines its vision for improving teaching science in America in the 21st century. [...]

This certainly looks promising, particularly because the framework for the first time introduces engineering as a subject of study for our K-12 students. Yet as I kept reading the document’s 280 pages of lofty prose, I noticed something odd: The framework does not expect students to use any kind of analytical mathematics while studying science. [...]

For example, the framework promotes a practice called Using Mathematics, Information and Computer Technology, and Computational Thinking (p. 3-13). Yet one observes that after singing paeans to the importance of mathematics, it only expects students by grade 12 to be competent in "recognizing," "expressing," and "using simple … mathematical expressions … to see if they make sense," but not in actually solving science problems using mathematics. [...]

Suddenly it all became clear. This framework does not expect our students to be able to do any science, or to be able to solve any science problem. This framework simply teaches our students science appreciation, rather than science. It expects our students to become good consumers of science and technology, rather than prepare them to be the discoverers of science and creators of technology.
"Science appreciation" is a great term for this. I would settle for students at least learning some "science literacy," but you can't really learn to read without having done some writing.

Frankly, I don't think we even get Science Appreciation right, as I believe this demonstrates:
NYTimes | Cornelia Dean | Groups Call for Scientists to Engage the Body Politic

When asked to name a scientist, Americans are stumped. In one recent survey, the top choice, at 47 percent, was Einstein, who has been dead since 1955, and the next, at 23 percent, was “I don’t know.” In another survey, only 4 percent of respondents could name a living scientist.
I feel like I see this story every year or so.
For example, according to the Congressional Research Service, the technically trained among the 435 members of the House include one physicist, 22 people with medical training (including 2 psychologists and a veterinarian), a chemist, a microbiologist and 6 engineers.
Groan.
Now several groups are trying to change that. They want to encourage scientists and engineers to speak out in public debates and even run for public office.
As much as I want to see more STEM professionals in office, I am not optimistic about this recruiting plan. I am afraid the people you will get to run for office are the people who either can't hack it in technology or whose heads and hearts were never really in it. I suppose it's no different than any other situation: I want the people in office who don't want to be there.

(Via Right on the Left Coast and The Fourth Check Raise)

That hateful rhetoric

Cato at Liberty | David Boaz | Stop the Hate

People in Washington are hurling harsh words at other Americans: words like terrorists, Satan, suicide bombers, Hezbollah, gone off the deep end, “recklessly diminished the power and reach of the United States.” No doubt the president and the mainstream media have denounced this sort of divisive, extremist language, right?

Yes, they have, many times. Except this week the divisive, extremist language has been directed at Tea Party members, the House Republican freshmen, libertarians, and other people determined to rein in federal spending, after deficits of $4 trillion in three years. The political and media establishments just can’t believe that anybody would actually try to use a debt ceiling increase to get a commitment to fiscal responsibility in the future.
Boaz quotes Barton Hinkle:
Richmond Times-Dispatch | A. Barton Hinkle | The media's two-minute hate

But as it turns out, there is one thing The New York Times hates more than hate itself: the tea-party wing of the GOP.

"Tea Party Republicans have waged jihad on the American people," fumes columnist Joe Nocera in his Tuesday column, "Tea Party's War on America." Has the GOP "gone insane? … Why yes, it has," writes Krugman several days before, going on to denounce the party's "fanaticism" and lack of rationality: "It has gone off the deep end," he concludes. The editorial board agrees, terming the tea-partiers an "ultraorthodox" and "extremist" group who "are not paying close attention to reality," who are "willing to endanger the national interest" and who show no "signs of intelligent life."

To Thomas Friedman, the tea-partiers are the "Hezbollah faction" of the GOP. According to Maureen Dowd, "The maniacal Tea Party freshmen are trying to burn down the House." They are "adamantine nihilists," and "political suicide bombers."
See also the jackassery displayed by Froma Harrop. Ed Morrissey gives Harrop both barrels. Ken joins in.  (Seriously, read those.)  Summary: despite being responsible for a project called "Restoring Civility," she had things like this to say in a recent column
The tea party Republicans have engaged in economic terrorism against the United States–threatening to blow up the economy if they don’t get what they want. And like the al-Qaida bombers, what they want is delusional: the dream of restoring some fantasy caliphate.
When called out on her incivility, she offered a really tortured defense, claimed the only characteristic of civility is allowing other people to speak their piece, then deleted critical comments from her blog and closed the comments section.

PS Putting aside the hypocrisy or civility issue, I have a question for the people who think the GOP's negotiating position was akin to terrorism: what is the debt ceiling for? If only terrorists won't raise it (or demand fiscal reforms in order to raise it), why do we have it?

I had a back-and-forth with someone on a comment thread who thought that voting to oppose raising the debt ceiling was (his words) "treasonous" and "a coup."  Look, I think it's pretty absurd for Congress as a whole to approve a budget that spends more than it raises and then oppose borrowing the difference.  But there is such a huge difference between voting against a policy you like a sudden overthrow of the government that I don't even know where to begin.

Some Tabs

By way of Jeffrey Ellis and Don Boudreaux:
“If one of our children grows up to invent a way to move goods and bits of information even more rapidly around the world, we rightly call that ‘progress’; if another child grows up to become a populist politician who advocates raising trade barriers to slow the movement of those same goods and data across borders, we perversely call that ‘progressive.’”

– Dan Griswold, Mad About Trade
Amen.

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Another quote for you, this one via Arnold Kling:
The "problem" with manufacturing is mainly productivity growth that permits fewer workers to produce more goods. As workers are freed from having to produce common goods and services, total output expands greatly. For example, in 1947, food and clothing were 43 percent of what we consumed; the comparable figure in 2007 was 16 percent. The productive gains were distributed into other industries, notably health care, education, business services and recreation. This is a win for the consumer and for the economy.

– Stephen Rose
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Ideas | David D Freidman | Reality Based Community?

I was struck by a recent post to a NYT blog on the subject of "What Happened to Obama." The author is identified as a psychology professor. His thesis is that Obama should have told a story to the American people that made sense of what happened. [...]

The third and most interesting was the focus on "story." As he put it, "in similar circumstances, Franklin D. Roosevelt offered Americans a promise to use the power of his office to make their lives better and to keep trying until he got it right."

It apparently did not occur to him that reality matters—that if you give the patient the wrong medicine he may die, even if you have a good story about why it is the right medicine.
If I had time I would write a critique of the West Wing using the ideas in this post as a jumping off point, especially this third one.

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Tom Friedman, Private Eye:


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Is one webcomic about punditry not enough for you? SMBC has you covered:


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Some news from my neck of the woods: historical preservationists prohibit Alexandrians from removing their chain-link fences.

(Via The Cranky Professor)

07 August 2011

Lessons from Greece

The Guardian | Aditya Chakrabortty | Greece in panic as it faces change of Homeric proportions

Jason Manolopolous, who is author of a new book called Greece's 'Odious' Debt, says that for years Greece was buying more from the rest of the world than it was selling. "We were buying BMWs from the Germans and selling them tomatoes."
That sounds remarkably like the wonderful "Iowa Car Crop." If such trade is available – sans subsidies, of course – then embrace it and enjoy it.
By European standards, Greece has an average-sized public sector, but a very leaky tax collection system. What the public sector is, however, is under-resourced and inefficient. On my last day in the country, I wangle my way inside a public pensions office for those working in the tourism industry: there are just two Dell computers in one large room, and lever-arch files dating back 30 years. No one ever paid for the data to be computerised, I am told, and the result is that one day's work takes three.
I think there are two very different conclusions you could draw from this reporting. The one I think the Guardian wants you to reach is that the public sector does a poor job because it is starved for resources.  The remedy for this diagnosis is bigger government budgets, of course.

But the conclusion I see is based on the Fundamental Axiom of Government: "government exists to give power and money to politicians, government employees, and clients of the government." Pensioners are not the clients of the rulers. The pension office employees are. Investing in computers for the office would displace labor with capital. That is not in the interest of any of the bureaucrats or politicians in the decision making chain.

Recall what I said recently about protectionism in Greece: it is difficult (compared to the recent past) for an EU country to create important restrictions which artificially prop up employment in tradable sectors. it is easier to create artificial floors in non-tradable sectors like bureacracies. Neglecting to digitize records is one way of doing that.

Don't think this only happens in Greece.  The Indiana Toll Road is set up so that drivers get a stamped ticket when they entered so that the toll-taker at the exit knows where they got on.  For a long time the ticket was given out by a person in the tollbooth.  The state government resisted replacing these people with the sorts of automatic ticket dispensers you see at garages until late last decade.  They similarly dragged their feet about E-ZPass for the same reason.

05 August 2011

"Good riddance to the Space Shuttle"

Locklin on science | Scott Locklin | Good riddance to the Space Shuttle

Really though, it is much worse than this. The shuttle was supposed to cost under $50/lb of launched payload. I can’t figure out how much mass they launched into orbit with the thing, but assuming 3/5 of the total 50,000lb payload capacity per flight (almost certainly an over estimate).

200E9 total program cost/(30,000lbs * 135 missions) = $50,000/lb

Making it a mind boggling 1000 times worse than it was supposed to be. And about 5-10x as expensive as using non-reusable spacecraft.

I guess 5-10x more expensive wouldn’t be horrible if it were incredibly safe or reliable. But as well know, it is neither safe nor reliable. The politician/managers estimated there was a 1/100,000 chance of a catastrophic failure. The engineers rated it 1/100. Both underestimated the dangers. In reality, we got amazingly lucky: hindsight informed us the early flights had more of a 1/10 danger of a catastrophic failure.

[...]

There is an excellent history page on Nasa’s website detailing the political and engineering decisions that led to the Space Shuttle (where I got the images of prototype concepts which are better than what we got). It should be read by anyone interested in the history of launch technologies: you’ll learn about what could have been, and what the design tradeoffs were that led to this abomination.
The Space Shuttle is a topic that should be studied by all engineers, anyone in political science or public administration, and probably many economists as well. The Shuttle program gives you the whole package of what goes wrong with institutional incentives.

"Education reform" is a much broader domain than it is usually treated as

EconLog | Arnold Kling | Schools without Classrooms:

Most education reformers want to focus on low-end students. While this is a noble idea, I think it is not a good path for reform. When you fail, you do not know whether it is because the innovations were not good or because the student population is too difficult to reach.
I think the idea that reform is equivalent to reform for low-end students is very destructive. In everything I have read about education, and everything I saw Mrs SB7 read when she was getting her teaching certificate last year, I have never seen anyone who did not treat it as an iron-bound axiom that reforming things for the bottom of the distribution was the highest priority. Often it was the only priority.

Maybe that is the correct approach, but I would like that to be demonstrated to me rather than being assumed into truth.

For instance, how many times have you heard someone say some variation on "we need our best and brightest young teachers in inner city schools"? That might be the correct resource allocation, but why? Might it better to match up the very best teachers with the very best students? I am more than willing to hear reasons why that would be bad, but I am not interested in assertions that it would be bad.

Religion and violence

These two charts come to me by way of the Hipster Libertarian (click to enlarge, as always)



Let's ignore the sectarian comparisons for a second. What interests me is comparing the top chart to the bottom. A majority of Christians, Jews and Mormons think it is acceptable for the government to kill civilians. But across all faiths a majority of respondents think it is unacceptable for civilians to kill other civilians. This strikes me as oddly asymmetric.  It's okay for the big, tough kid to hit some of the little kids (because we trust his judgement more?) but it's not okay for one little kid to hit another little kid.

It should either be acceptable to kill civilians in pursuit of your goals, or it shouldn't be.  I could go on about why I think people think this,* but I'd rather leave it as something for you to meditate about.

(* Most obvious explanation: people think it is okay for the military to kill civilians because those victims are far away and foreign (and also poor and dark-skinned) but it's not okay for civilians to kill other civilians because those victims are us. I think this might get filed under "Dumb stuff I think people think.")

PS I can't help making one sectarian comparison: the Protestant and Catholic responses are for all purposes identical.  What does this say about the nature of Catholic moral teaching?  These results make it look impotent as it relates to this issue, at least.

04 August 2011

"A Great Deal"

My senior year at Notre Dame I went with some friends to Cabo San Lucas. The hotel had overbooked though, and told us we wouldn't be staying there.*  The manager's solution was to have us stay in some shitty place a couple of miles away, but still pay the higher rates for his hotel. He kept telling us this was "a great deal." One of my buddies, finally fed up, shouted across the front desk at him: "Listen, a**hole:  this is not 'a great deal.' This is not even a deal."

That sums up how I feel about this "debt deal." It is better than the fiscal equivalent of sleeping on the sidewalks of a foreign city, but it is not even a deal, to say nothing of 'a great deal.'


Political Calculations | Ironman | Visualizing Federal Spending Before and After the Debt Deal

So, to recap, when compared to the pre-crisis decade of federal government spending, instead of increasing at an annualized rate of 7.35% per year, the total amount of U.S. federal government spending is now projected to only increase at an annualized rate of 6.78% per year, thanks to the so-called "Budget Control Act".

No word yet on whether or not the nation's GDP will grow as quickly....
Click to enlarge.  Note that those projections use the optimistic CBO convention that planned cuts actually occur as promised.


* The name of the hotel that screwed us was Tesoro Los Cabos. Do not stay there.

PS We raised enough of a fuss in the lobby that we ended up getting rooms eventually.  The manager had thought he could placate us by sending us out to the pool bar with free drink vouchers.  This was a huge strategic mistake on his part. He thought we would wander away, seduced by cheap tequila and girls in bikinis like Odysseus' men amongst the Lotus Eaters. We like both tequila and girls in bikinis very much, but we also liked not getting shit on, so we took shifts shuttling back and forth from bar to lobby. Instead of having a dozen angry but sober men making his life somewhat difficult, he had five or six angry men drunk on his own booze making his life very difficult.

Debt Deal Reporting

Mrs SB7 and I were out of town for a couple of days during the resolution of this debt ceiling drama. I was out of touch with anything beyond very basic cable, which I think was a small mercy. All things considered, reading Madman Gargantua and Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years on the beach and eating Jersey corn was a better use of my time, but it's weird being out of touch for the conclusion after having followed this pretty heavily.

Anyway, the special lady friend and I were watching some Jeopardy when ABC interrupted for the breaking news that the bill had passed the house. The news team then spent three minutes talking about nothing but Gabrielle Giffords' appearance. Not a single word about the contents of the final deal, or what the vote was, or any comment from the leadership (word used loosely) of either party about it. Nothing but human interest story. Even on C-SPAN.

Not having internet access, I did something I have not done in a long time: I tuned into the television news to try and learn some details of the arrangement. The entire coverage, on three different channels, was "The crisis is averted! A debt ceiling bill passed! AND GABRIELLE GIFFORDS WAS THERE!!!!!!!!" They never returned to the deal itself.  The only topic of discussion was how inspiring Giffords is. Not a single fact about what was in the bill.

Good for Giffords. I'm happy for her. It's not like I want her to be crippled in a hospital somewhere. But her appearance is the single least important thing about that vote. If it really was a crisis moment -- I think it was; the news teams' own verbiage indicate they did as well -- then talk about the actual event which affected that. Give me a few facts, maybe even a couple of numbers. Is there going to need to be another vote on this before the 2012 election? By what amount was the limit raised? What are the projected deficit reductions over the next year? Ten years? Are they composed of spending cuts ("cuts") or tax increases? Are "cuts" limited to "discretionary" spending? Is there any reform to entitlement programs? How about Pentagon spending? Not a single goddamned word about any of those questions, just a lot of back slapping about how all the congressmen were acting so pleased to see their colleague.

And in what possible world would they not behave that way? Maybe they were legitimately pleased to see her. Maybe they were putting on a show of collegiality for the cameras. Most likely some combination. But what possible motivation would any congressman have for not acting like that? What would they have to gain by ignoring her return? They're doing the only possible thing they could do. Why is anyone acting surprised by that? Why is that worth discussing on the news? You might as well tell me that when some guy throws money out of a window passers-by bend down to pick it up. It's that obvious.  Giffords was a footnote to the story, and it was being treated like the story itself.