25 April 2013

No one gets to draw blueprints until they've layed bricks

Asymmetric Info | Megan McArdle | Obamacare Won't Be Doing Much for Small Business Next Year

I don't get the sense that at the time of passage, people had spent a lot of time thinking about the sheer mechanics of how this would all work: how the IT would be built, the rules written, the necessary information assembled. They spent a lot of time staring at the blueprints, not so much thinking about the building materials and the labor.
This is one of the advantages of studying CS: you actually take things from conception to execution. You can't just brainstorm up a bullet point that your system will have feature X or accomplish goal Y; you actually have to work out the rules for how to do X or Y and then implement those rules in such a way that X or Y actually happen — on time and without breaking everything else.

I don't think there are many other disciplines where that happens. I heard a story when I was touring Taliesin West that Frank Llyod Wright wouldn't take on a new student until they had actually built their own shelter on his grounds. We could use that kind of qualifier more often.

I think this is also a symptom of politicians failing to ask the crucial question and then what? You pass Law A, establish Department B, implement Regulation C. And then what? The vote isn't the end of the line. People change their behavior. The environment shifts. Incentives change. Agents react.

I want more lawmakers who are good at chess, poker, Civ, Supremacy... any game that forces you to think "if I do this, he'll probably respond by doing that, in which case I can do this, which will cause him to..." and so on down the line.

Attention lawmakers: you're playing an iterated game; act accordingly.

Kilts — I thing I want to have most when I'm told I shouldn't have one

I interupt this unintentional blogging hiatus for the following important announcement: Laura Beck at Jezebel can kiss my pale Clan Mackay ass.

I don't even have time to get all fired up about this, so I'm outsourcing it to Judgy Bitch.

Also, Laura: why are you illustrating your post about men in kilts with women in Aboynes? This is a dude in a kilt:

What you pictured is very much not this.

PS No, this is not me. But it will be when I have a few hundred extra dollars to spend on wool. Because a kilt is one of those things where you come correct or you don't come at all.

PPS On behalf of the gardeners out there, I have another note for Laura Beck: you can't build a roof out of peat moss. Peat moss, or sphagnum, is a crumbly stuff typically used for upping the organic content of your soil or occasionally planting epiphytic orchids and the like. If you're going to pull stereotypes out of the air for shits and giggles at least aim for them to have some connection, however tenuous, to reality.

13 April 2013

...for sufficiently narrow values of "everybody."

Bloomberg BusinessWeek | Alex Nussbaum | Insurers Scream Rate Shock. Is It for Real?

To compensate [for having to ignore preexisting conditions, offer generous benefits, and being unable to fully account for customers' age] insurers say they'll have no choice but to raise rates, particularly on young, healthy people. ...

"It's the people from 26 to 45 that you want to make sure are in the pool to balance it out," [Karen Ignagni, CEO of the health insurers' lobbying group] says. "It's in everybody's best interests to get the young and the healthy into the system."
Everybody's interests? Not the interests of the young and they healthy, you selfish, rent-seeking harpy.

12 April 2013

"What I'm complaining about is not being told 'no.'"

In a post a few weeks back I complained about authoritarian decision-making that masquerades as being cooperative and "consensus-driven."
So much focus is put on "cooperation" and "community" and "getting input from all the stakeholders" but at the end of the day, we're doing what whoever holds the most cards wants to do. Sometimes that's the traditional elite, sometimes its whoever can wave the biggest victim flag, but it's still a unilateral decision.
Commneter Petwer W. linked to a great David Mitchell video that covers this, and needless to say, he does it much better than I could.

This, like the rest of the "David Mitchell's SoapBox" series, is highly recommended. In fact, most of his work is recommended. If you haven't seen the Mitchell & Webb sketch on homeopathy, do so now.

Obfuscated Judgmentalism

Why do I get the feeling that the people with the "Don't like gay marriage? Then don't have one!" bumper stickers would not only disagree with but also be bewildered by a "Don't like Wal-Mart's new program? Then don't participate!" slogan?
Hit & Run | Scott Shackford | Wal-Mart’s Proposed Customer-Assisted Delivery System: Brilliant or Predatory?

The problem isn’t really Wal-Mart. The problem is that some Americans don’t like the choices other Americans make and they blame retailers for offering consumers those choices.

You could replace Wal-Mart in that passage with about a thousand other things and be left with a perfect explanation of our social/political dynamics.

I feel like we were better off in many ways a few generations ago when people were willing to evaluate (and condemn) other people's choices openly. Now we're too enlightening and non-judgmental and afraid of confrontation to do so openly, but since deep down we're just as annoyed by people who disagree with us we spend our energy lobbying the State to condemn other people's choices for us. We get all the same satisfaction of telling other people how to live without ever having to get our hands dirty, appear mean, or risk getting punched in the nose.

How many Americans would physically interpose themselves between a shopper and a Wal-Mart entrance to prevent them shopping there? How many Americans would be willing to actively prevent a stranger from buying a large Coke? How many Americans would walk in to a store and confiscate all of their plastic bags and bottled still water?

How many of us are willing and more to direct our public servants to do those same things on our behalf?

As long as we're judging each other (and we are, just as much as ever) we ought to be honest about. I'd much rather have someone criticize the choices I make themselves than play these charades of blaming the guy who offered me the choice. At least when some scold personally tries to stop me from doing whatever gets their knickers in a bunch they don't simultaneously have the taxman pick my pocket in order to use my money to hire some badged thug to stop me.

04 April 2013

Why more vintners (and butchers, bakers, candlestick-makers, ...) aren't libertarians

ProfessorBainbridge.com | Stephen Bainbridge | I don't understand why more winemakers aren't libertarians

[...] something I've heard from many winemakers, as they also almost uniformly bitch and moan about land use regulations, which seem to be the bane of their existence. So if a conservative is a liberal who just got mugged, why aren't winemakers all libertarians?
For the same reason that conservatives who don't trust government employees somehow do trust government employees once they've been given me a gun and a badge: people don't connect the dots.

The State's lifeblood is coercion and violence. It is arbitrary and amoral and inefficient. Not only when you happen to hit some friction with a department or bureau or organ you dislike: always.

Sometimes individual state actors do a good job. Some of them care. But sometimes a bear in the woods doesn't eat you.

Sometimes Mama Grizzly doesn't devour you; Nature is nevertheless red in tooth and claw. Sometimes governmental employees do good works; the State is nevertheless an institution premised entirely on using violence to compel other people's behavior.

We've been trained to believe that the Government are the Good Guys. (This is why conservatives love cops and soldiers: they position themselves in contrast to the "the Bad Guys" and thus look more like the Good Guys.) Almost everyone with power reinforces this belief, from your elementary school teacher to the President. But they aren't the Good Guys. They aren't necessarily the Bad Guys either. They're just Guys. This is the Fundamental Insight of Libertarianism.

That's a scary thing to come to grips with. It's comforting to think the guy with the power of life and death is the best and the brightest. He's not. He's the same jumped-up dweeb you remember from 8th grade who promised that if you elected him class president every day would be pizza day in the cafeteria, but really was only running because he thought if he won then maybe the cute brunetter in homeroom wouldn't ignore him. That's who's in charge of the State. The only difference is now he has better hair, a winning smile, and a raging case of Narcissistic Personality Disorder.

PS For an excellent contemporary example of this Government == Good Guys illusion, check out the infuriating and dismal consequences of letting a girl cross the street. If any citizen threatens to kidnap a child it's a community-wide pants-shitting moment. If someone with a business card from Child Protective Services knocks on your door to take your child away you're expected to acquiesce no questions asked.

03 April 2013

Driverless cars will affect our cities; let's not make assumptions about the sign of those changes

Meeting of the Minds | Issi Romen | How will driverless cars affect our cities?:

1. Cities will greatly expand, again: Faster and more efficient transportation will convert locations that are currently too remote for most users into feasible alternatives, abundant with space. Like suburban rail in the early twentieth century and the mass consumer automobile that followed, driverless cars will generate a gradual, but dramatic expansion of cities.

2. Buildings and parking will be uncoupled, freeing up valuable land: After dropping off passengers, driverless cars will independently seek parking (or their next car-share customers) and they will show up for the return ride at the tap of an app. As soon as driverless cars are common enough, the demand for adjacent parking will dwindle and parking lots in areas where land is sufficiently valuable will be ripe for conversion to other land use.
These two things are at odds with each other. Lowering the time and psychic cost of commuting will make outer suburbs more attractive. Lowering congestion and the amount of land focused on parking will make downtown areas more attractive. How can we be certain which will dominate?

Issi assumes the former. If I had to bet I would choose the former as well, but I would not consider it inevitable. Further, while the overall diameter of a city may increase, I expect the density within that region will be less evenly distributed that it is now. The combination of #1 and #2 may mean that the farthest suburbs are farther away, plus there are denser, smaller pockets of activity closer to the core, but there are spaces in between which are less developed than they are now.
And what about the carbon footprint, you ask? Traveling greater distances at greater speeds will require more energy. Full stop.
This is simply not true. The energy required (in the form of fuel) is the integral of the positive acceleration. This is only equivalent to the speed if you do no braking. Autonomous cars, inter-vehicle communication and intelligent roadways will all reduce the amount of braking and congestion. There is zero reason to believe the net effect on energy use will be positive.
Car sharing will not undo this in spite of reducing the total number of cars, because car sharing essentially only does away with the time cars spend parked.
Again, false. A significant portion of a car's energy is used in its construction. You conserve more energy by buying a used car than by buying a new hybrid. If car sharing results in fewer vehicles, each of which travel more miles per day total energy usage may be higher or may be lower.

02 April 2013

Fairytale Movies

Charlie Jane Anders asks "Why can't Hollywood make a decent fairy tale movie?"

Because fairy tales don't make any damned sense.

I just got finished reading Philip Pullman's new edition of the Grimm stories, and two things stood out:

(1) They're violent. I think everyone realizes they're a lot darker than what Walt Disney told us, but I wasn't prepared for Cinderella's bird friends not only helping her get gussied up for the ball but also gratuitously pecking out the eyes of her evil step sisters. I lost count, but I think there were a dozen stories in a row in which someone was casually executed.

(2) They don't make any sense. Characters pop in and out of the narrative, completely unrelated stories are strung together, and everything has the logical coherence of a fever dream. They're the kinds of stories children tell: "first there was a princess, and she ran away from home because her stepmother was evil, and then this guy found a mountain made of gold after a witch gave him some magic socks, and then the king went hunting and ordered his sons to go find a rabbit made of rubies which was living in the golden mountain with a singing donkey. The end."

Add to this that characters in fairy tales are almost universally one-dimensional (often by design) and you're not left with much to build a movie around. There's few compelling characters. There's no rising action or climax. The stakes are often ridiculously high or non-existent. There's often no love interest until the prince shows up at in the last paragraph and instantly falls in love with the heroine. Dei ex machina show up to resolve conflicts left and right.

If you try to fit that into a standard contemporary three act structure all you'll be left with is the syntactic trappings of a fairy tale instead of the semantic meat of the story. And that's usually not a good recipe to work from.

In fact I think that's the problem with a lot of sub-par movies. You can't start with the syntactic pieces you're interested in and mash them together until a story comes out. You need to start with the story. This (partially) explains why so many Hollywood trend-following movies are so bad. People sit there and think "oh, audiences are in the mood for werewolves and plucky heroines and [whatever]. Let's keep jumbling those bits and bobs around until a movie pops out." It's not a Mr Potato Head. You can't keep sticking parts on it until it works.

This is also why I dislike such a vast majority of superhero comics. Too many writers grew up enthralled by their favorite character, and wanted nothing more than to play with those costumes and sidekicks and powers and villains when they grew up. So then they land a job writing for DC or Marval and they're given the keys to the toy chest and they just start banging all the pieces together. No no no no. Start with a story that's worth telling, and then figure out if and how it fits into Spiderman's universe.

I have to disagree with something Anders says: "Fairytales don't have a lesson at the end, unlike fables."

I don't want to get into a big thing about Charles Perrault and Romanticism and the difference between fairytales and folktales, but yes, fairytales do often have lessons.

Sometimes fairytales are discombobulated knots of hallucinatory story fragments. But sometimes they have lessons. They're not deep or complicated, but they exist. They're things like "be kind to strangers," "don't trust everyone you meet," "fortune favors the bold (sometimes)," "don't fall asleep while you're on guard duty," and "stay out of the woods."

Even the really weird stories have an important, Tom Robbins-esque meta-lesson: the world is a really weird place; don't expect to be able to make sense out of it all the time. That's a lesson we could all use some reminding of.

Staffing Agencies will be the New Normal

Hit & Run | JD Tucille | Obamacare a Huge Boon ... For Temp Staffing Companies

Well, let me quote an Investors Business Daily story from last week, noting that "the bullish outlook for staffing firms is reflected in their current stock prices. The 20 stocks in IBD's Commercial Services-Staffing group are trading at a five-year high. The group's value has risen about 40% over the last four months."
Question for EMH people: why are these stocks up 40% over the last four months?

Surely this has been predictable for a couple of years. In fact I'm pretty sure I did predict such staffing changes. And I'm far from alone.

I've no doubt ObamaCare is a bonanza for temp agencies. I'm curious why the market would only respond to this now.