28 July 2012

Paging John Hackworth

Bng Bng | Cor Doctorow | Report of working 3D printed gun

Alternate headline: "All gun control laws are obsolete"

Policy-makers: good luck keeping up with reality. You'll need it.

26 July 2012

Penn State Punishment

Atomic Nerds | LabRat | In Which I State The Obvious

I have a very low opinion of college sports programs in general. While I can appreciate the notion of a healthy mind in a healthy body, I think it’s completely ludicrous to set up our higher education institutions as feeder systems for professional sports leagues, or to encourage any student to prioritize sports when there is only a miniscule chance that that will be his or career
Hmmm. Indeed. So let's not let kids major in studio art.

That came out snarkier than I intended, but I stand by my point. The way the modern American university handles athletics is a little screwy. But the way the modern American university handles most things is screwy. There are a lot of athletes (in the major sports, particularly) who are wasting their time and opportunities. But there are a lot of students who are wasting time and opportunities and money. Let's not get caught up on the couple thousand students who are on TV on Saturdays and ignore the millions of others.

I'm not going to take the time to address the meat of LabRat's post. I disagree with it, but it's good. This particularly is convincing:
If football has attained an importance within your institution such that the question of whether or not a child or children was raped on your premises by one of your coaches, and the identity of the child, is so uninteresting to you that the possibility only attains importance in the question of liability, you need to take a f***ing break from football.
Note that I could easily say the same about the Catholic Church taking a break from offering sacraments or American prisons taking a break from incarcerating people, as each seems to think those things are more important than people getting raped by their employees.

Here's all I'll say w.r.t. PSU's punishment: I'm happy that Penn State is being punished, but I'm not happy that they're being punished by the NCAA. I don't like child abuse (obviously), but I also don't like power grabs by unaccountable, state-backed groups like the NCAA. Obviously given the choice I'd prefer empire-building, jurisdictional-stretching bureaucracies over pederasty, but if I really had my druthers there'd be neither.

24 July 2012

You Didn't Bake That

One hundred people are given apples, flour, sugar, butter, etc.

Some people make delicious apples tarts and pies that everyone wants.

Some people eat their apples, and manage to make passable loaves of coarse bread which others will eat.

Some people eat their apples and have no idea what to do with the baking material.

Some people leave the apples out to spoil, and the butter to go rancid, and everything goes to waste.

How do you conclude from this that the people who made the delicious pies needs to pay for everyone's ingredients next month?

"You Don't Owe That"

WSJ | You Don't Owe That: An Obama proposal would make it easier not to repay student loans

Here's my Student Loan Reform proposal: by some miracle or magic, make loan servicers actually bill people the correct amount.

It has now been ten months since we submitted the relevant paperwork to FedLoans,*Run by the State of Penn-sylvania and explicitly licensed by the Dept. of Ed. and they still can't correctly calculate our bill. Some loans they're over-charging us for, and some under-charging. (And no, it doesn't come out even.) Why does the government have an Income-Based Repayment program if their approved loan servicers can't read a 1040 and figure out what your income is? The other servicers managed to get this sorted out in a lightening-quick six month window.

Once when we submitted the paperwork again to correct one of their errors, FedLoans admitted to throwing out the papers un-read, because they assumed they were duplicates. Of course they didn't tell us until eight weeks later that they didn't even bother reading them.

This is not difficult financial wizardry we're asking FedLoans to do. The D.O.Ed. has a website that can calculate the right answer with about a dozen lines of javascript. You could train sixth-graders to figure out the appropriate payments. Get it right.

Until the Federal government can actually bill people for the loans it already owns it has no business mucking with any new student debt rules.

General Rule: Don't pass any more reforms until you can get people to properly implement the current system.

Also, for the record: until such a time as someone figures out how to repossess a college degree or otherwise force students to put up collateral, discharging student loans in bankruptcy is bad news.

18 July 2012

On not building things

I haven't had the energy for lambasting Obama's "you didn't build that" comment. I mean, jesus, didn't we just cover all this when Elizabeth Warren put her foot in her mouth? Haven't we been down this road. I wrote nine counter-arguments to Warren's position back then; I think they apply equally well to Obama now:

SB7 | Getting Rich on Your Own

I should have added a tenth point:

(10) Let's say the factory owner was the beneficiary of public education. His or her teachers were compensated at that time. It's not like there's some profit-sharing clause in their contract.* Although that would be an interesting tuition model for a new university I don't think there's an ongoing obligation from the (now rich) factory owner to the people who taught him years ago, but even if there is, why would there be an obligation from the factory owner to people who currently hold positions as teachers? Because that's the situation: not a transfer from a high-income person to people who made that income possible, but a transfer from a high-income person to people who claim to be making high income possible for others in the future.

Other than that, I didn't really think there was much more to be said, but I realized today that Obama, Warren, and their apologists are not only wrong, they are actually under-estimating how much cooperation is required to become successful in business. Yes, capitalist success requires roads and courts and other state functions. You can't build a business entirely on your own; you need the cooperation of other people. But public employees are but a small moiety of these. What you really need is interactions with customers and employees and suppliers and contractors and other entrepreneurs. You need all of those voluntary, cooperative interactions to succeed. (We don't call them trade "partners" for nothing.)

Meanwhile Obama has been blasting off-shoring/out-sourcing on the campaign trail as some kind of dastardly treason. It really grinds my gears that Obama is simultaneously telling me you can't be successful on your own while also criticizing people who reach across borders and oceans to cooperate with other people.

He isn't content to make entrepreneurship an issue of solitary vs. cooperative effort: he wants to specify exactly who you can cooperate with. Cooperating with GM or Solyndra or the NEA or the International Association of Machinists is good. Cooperating with Honda or UBS or KIPP or Chan's House of Weaving, Spinning & Sewing is bad.

I think I have identified another fundamental, bottom-elephant sticking point between myself and many on the Left: I see capitalism as an essentially peaceful & cooperative endeavor between willing trade partners, and they see it as a terrifying thunderdome of red-in-tooth-and-claw scrooges. I don't think I can have productive conversations with the Left as long as that mismatch exists.

See also:

10 July 2012

"Higher frequency (book) trading"

FT | Barney Jopson | Amazon ‘robo-pricing’ sparks fears

High-speed trading tools pioneered in the stock market are increasingly driving price movements on Amazon’s website as independent sellers use them to undercut and outwit each other in a cut-throat online market place.

Product prices now change as often as every 15 minutes as some of the 2m sellers on Amazon’s site join the online retailer in using computerised tools – often developed by former data miners at investment banks – to lure shoppers with the best deals.

…Amazon sellers – using third-party software – can set rules to ensure that their prices are always, for example, $1 lower than their main rival’s.

…Some sellers have even created dummy accounts with ultra-low prices to deliberately pull down those of rivals so they can corner a market by buying their goods, say pricing experts. That practice violates Amazon’s rules of conduct.
As an undergrad I had a nice side-job selling classmates' used textbooks on Amazon. I was able to pay for the next semester's books from the revenue I got from selling the previous semester's batch. Based on stories like this, as well as my own anecdotal experience, I think this would be much harder to do now.

Via Marginal Revolution

Professional Romance

Hit & Run | Nick Gillespie | Hey Chris Matthews: Can You Stop Talking About Nonexistent "Cronkite Moments" Already?

I respect various professions in inverse relation to how much they mythologize themselves. Plenty of people think their jobs are important, but only certain ones seem to have constructed a whole romantic vision around this importance. Journalists are definitely guilty of this.

I should elaborate on this, but I've got better things to do, like go make some enchiladas. I'll just say this: I bet if if you ask a thousand journalists what they think the five best movies are a huge percentage of them will mention All the President's Men.

John Goodman can only joke about air conditioner repairmen saving civilization on Community because real air conditioner repairmen don't think they're saving civilization.

04 July 2012

If I offer everyone chocolate and only redheads take some, am I subsidizing redheads?

Reason: Hit & Run | Nick Gillespie | Breaking: Affluent, Well-Educated White Guys Dig Bicycle Subsidies for Affluent, Well-Educated White Guys

The video notes that [DC's Capital Bikeshare] has received around $16 million in federal, state, and local subsidies and, according to the program's newest user survey, is used exclusively by well-educated, mostly affluent, and mostly white folks. The video makes the bold and apparently novel argument that while biking is fun and wonderful and all kinds of awesome, there is no good goddamn reason that cash-strapped taxpayers should be subsidizing the preferences of elites.
(1) No, Capital Bikeshare shouldn't be subsidized. Let me get that out of the way right now. I supposed I could conceivably be convinced this is worth subsidizing as a congestion-reduction method, but I would need a big heap of convincing.

(2) I'm not convinced subsidies like this are "for the rich." These (subsidized) bikes are available to everybody. (Assuming Capital Bikeshare hasn't put all of their depots in neighborhoods a standard deviation above average income, that is. For all I know they have, in which case please disregard this point.) Some subset of people choose to use them. Those people are rich. There is nothing I can see which is intrinsic to short-term bike rental which favors rich people. The only reason I am aware of which makes this a subsidy to "the rich" is that "the poor" have chosen not to use it.

We have plenty of programs which explicitly transfer money to rich people (e.g., Solyndra, US sugar policy) or people who are on average rich (e.g., Medicare, various house-price inflation measures, assorted student loan schemes). I would not lump those policies together with a program that benefits rich people due to voluntary decisions people make about participation.

(3) I've had this same conversation with people about subsidizing museums. On average, museum attendants are wealthy. That does not mean that a subsidy for a museum is a subsidy for "the rich." Ditto public radio. The decision to subsidize something should be independent of the demographics of the people that freely choose or do not choose to use it.

03 July 2012

Drug Dogs & Information Retrieval

The Agitator | Radley Balko | "Good Enough" for Probably Cause

“Bono” is a state police drug dog in North Carolina. Of the 85 times Bono has alerted his handler to the presence of drugs, a subsequent search turned up actual drugs just 23 times.

No matter. Federal District Court Judge Glen Conrad ruled late week that Bono’s record is still good enough to establish probable cause.
Bono “may not be a model of canine accuracy,” Conrad wrote in an opinion filed Thursday in U.S. District Court in Roanoke.

However, the judge ruled that other factors, including the dog’s training and flawless performance during re-certification sessions, were enough to overcome a challenge raised by Green’s attorney, public defender Randy Cargill.
Conrad’s justification for allowing the search illustrates just how clueless federal judges can be about these things—and why they can be such poor custodians of the Fourth Amendment. Judges have far too little skepticism for law enforcement officials.
Too little skepticism for law enforcement and too little knowledge of math. A precision of 0.27 is astoundingly bad, especially for this circumstance.

And so what if he performed flawlessly in training? Training error doesn't count! No self-respecting, honest assessor would put any stock in the training error of a decision or detection system. You can only evaluate against samples not seen in training. I would fail an undergrad for not understanding that.
What’s incredible is that even if everything the U.S. Attorney says is true, the dog and his handler still have a 50 percent rate of error. Which means they’re no better than a coin flip. A coin flip is good enough for Judge Conrad.
No, it's even worse than that. Even if everything the USA says is true, the dogs have a precision of 0.5. Since they certainly have non-zero false negatives, their accuracy is even worse than a coin flip. Not to be pedantic about this, but the distinction between false positives and false negatives is a really important one in this context.

(We should be especially vigilant against false positives in this context because — in theory at least — our judicial system puts a higher cost on wrongly punishing the innocent than on mistakenly letting the guilt off.)

PS I wonder how this judge would feel about this new system for detecting fraud and graft in the judiciary I'm developing. It causes more false positives than true positives, but there are "other factors" that I think are more important. I'm sure he'd be fine if I audited him and everyone else in his courthouse whenever my worse-than-a-coin-flip system indicated that a judge was corrupt. Right?

Foreign Language

The Gormogons | The Czar | Sometimes Extinct Isn't Forever

And by the way, languages disappear for very simple reasons: not because the people are dying out, or are the victims of some physical or cultural genocide—they generally die out for two main reasons: (1) the language (like Latin) becomes so unmanageable that it splinters into easier-to-speak dialects that evolve into new languages or, more commonly, they don’t cut it anymore.
Yes. Thank you. Languages are tools. If they aren't as good as other available tools, people should discard them.

(Although there are some exceptions in which languages were purposefully supressed, like Musolini did to Sicilian in order to promote Italian nationalism. In fact every example I can think of was in service to nationalism.)
English is responsible for the ongoing decay and dissipation of (perhaps) most of the world’s languages. And why not? It is easy to learn, is incredibly flexible, is superbly suited for technology programming, precise enough for business and legal applications, rapid enough for international airline travel, and is well-supported by a network of hundreds of millions of speakers, reinforced by books, motion pictures, television shows, and more. English is a great way to go, and some countries (such as Korea and Sweden) make learning English mandatory for students.
I disagree. I think the Czar is overthinking this. English isn't popular because of any intrinsic quality. It's not uniquely well suited to people's needs. (I think it's so ad hoc it might actually be maladapted.) English is popular because it's popular. Simple as that. It has bigger network externalities than any other language right now. End of story.

On a related note, I am one of very few people I know who does not think we should be teaching more foreign languages in schools. (I'm not even sure we should be requiring it at all.) My reason is simple: every hour spent learning a foreign language is an hour not spent learning something else. It would be swell if our children could speak seven languages like that charming European guy you met when you were back-packing, but it would also be nice if they knew statistics, economics, etc.

Yes, yes, knowing [foreign language] will help you communicate better with others. Sure; however:
  1. Is this the most efficient way to communicate with them? Probably not, especially if the language you are learning has fewer speakers than English, which is true of every language except Mandarin. It sounds selfish and imperialist to say everyone should just learn the (current) lingua franca, but just because it benefits us doesn't make it a bad idea.
  2. Why not learn rhetoric or oratory or practice any number of other communication skills which will allow you to communicate with anyone, including the one-billion-plus English speakers in the world? I'm baffled that people will spend thousands of hours learning a second language but have no interest in spending even a dozen hours getting better at their first.


The Gormogons | GorTechie | Power

Like GorTechie, I lost power in the most recent DC storm. This has been a common occurrence for Mrs SB7 and I since moving into Villa SB7. This is the second time in 8 days actually. Which means it's the second time in a week that I've had to restock our fridge. Grrr. I'm beginning to think I should keep gallon jugs of ice in the fridge at all times, to boost the thermal mass. But I digress.

Also like GorTechie, I'd like to see some more accountability from Pepco. I know that utilities are natural monopolies, but I'll confess that I don't know much about the Public Service Commission, or how Pepco, WSSC, etc. operate or are overseen. I know just enough o understand there are structural reasons we get sub-par performance out of Pepco, but not enough to meaningfully comment, so consider this idle speculation.

My question is why Pepco's monopoly, despite being "natural" must be permanent? Why not have the state, or some combined MD-DC-VA organization, own the facilities and contract out the operation of them for several years at a time? Customers still wouldn't get competition between service providers at an one point in time, but we would benefit from inter-temporal competition. Is this done somewhere and I simply don't know? If not, what am I missing?

One further note on power outages: I am always impressed how well drivers manage to regulate themselves when traffic lights are out. DC drivers, in my estimation, have no other redeeming qualities. I heard news reports that three quarters of my county's traffic signals were down this weekend. I think that was a low estimate; in my trip across the county on Sunday I saw only a single working signal. And yet every intersection moved beautifully. Perhaps even more smoothly that they do when the lights are working. (Maybe throughput was lower, but utilization rates were higher.) Certainly they were working far, far better than when I see police or crossing guards directing traffic. Maybe this is just my bias showing, but it always warms my heart to see such a vivid demonstration of spontaneous, bottom-up, emergent order, especially in a such a complex and high-stakes environment.