Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Site Stats

Some fun statistics on my blog:

I have now made 108 posts.

I have received 7 comments, only one of which was me responding to another commenter.

One of the comments was spam from some motivational speaker no doubt trying to draw my enormous readership to his blog.

One comment was from a Brazilian(fn1) who I must assume was confused or otherwise mistaken in leaving a one-word comment of no particular relevance.

And the rest are from Salty Girl, usually haranguing me when I stop posting for too long. Most of these date to when she was my sole reader.

Nowadays my ad-hoc estimate of my readership is in the 10-12 range on a good day. All friends and family, of course.

Thanks to anyone who reads and Happy New Year!

fn1: The word "Brazilian" reminds me of the joke about Bush being told that two Brazilian soldiers had been killed in Iraq. Bush's face falls, he's silent a moment and then says "That's terrible. How many is a Brazilian again?"

Last bit of hilarity from Caroline...

Finally we get a glimpse of the powerful impact that Caroline has had and that will hope to have with in the Senate:

NC: So your precise role in the Gates grant was what? You came in at the end...
CK: It coincided with the time that I came into the department, and I think it was important to Bill Gates that I was there.
DH: What do you mean? I don’t get it. Just that you were there physically? Or just that you had arrived?
CK: Well I don’t know, you gotta ask him. But I think I, um —
Who knows what her role was? No one. Not her. Maybe Bill Gates. Because there's no way that it being "important" to him that she was there when the last stage of his gift went through was in any way just a throwaway line to some know-nothing scion of an important family at a cocktail party. No, she had an impact, she made a difference. She's not clear on how, exactly, but just ask her friends: they'll tell you she did just as they've told her the same.

Stimulating my curiosity

I've been ignoring as much as I can Obama's upcoming stimulus plan. I just know that the more I learn of it, the more my head will feel like it's going to explode. And I also know that it will be impossible for me to ignore all the unsavory details as the program gets implemented.

But there's a few things that have been puzzling me as I tangentially learn of his plan.

First, just as a general proposition, now that we're poor how is spending money on infrastructure projects that did not seem worthwhile when we thought we were rich a good idea? This seems a bit like losing your job and deciding to start work on the addition to your house that you felt you couldn't afford when you were employed. Sure, the plan is to put an office in there and start making real money but maybe that's just stupid?

Second, isn't construction one of those "jobs Americans won't do"? Wasn't that what we heard a couple of summers ago when we were told that the amnesty was imperative? That any effort to staunch the flow of millions of illegal immigrants would be disastrous for the construction industry? How is giving money to illegal immigrants to send home in remittances going to stimulate our economy?

Third, doesn't construction take massive amounts of steel and concrete and things of that nature? But don't we import most of that dirty stuff from China now? How is paying China to make steel for Mexicans to install in projects that aren't good investments going to help again?

Lastly, why is Obama calling for economic stimulus at all? Yes, I get that he wants the economy to be better, but wasn't he the one telling us that our consumerist ways were unsustainable and insulting to the rest of the world? Well, congratulations, we are no longer consuming nearly as much as were. But somehow that's now bad too? Kind of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't thing?

But prob. I'm just missing something fundamental.

Not with a bang but a whimper...

Humorous article in the WSJ about a Russian professor -- and former KGB analyst -- who's been predicting the collapse of the U.S. in a civil war for a decade now. He thinks it'll happen in 2010.

I think he's dead wrong. Western Civ. is def. in decline and not long of this Earth. And the U.S. is pretty much the last bastion of Western Civ. But I can't see it blowing up in a civil war. Far more likely to slowly fade away, so slowly that each step into the darkness will hardly be noticeable and it'll only be in hindsight that the few left who care enough to think it through will say, "Wow, where did it go?"

Particularly humorous is his idea that Alaska will be rejoined with Russia. I can see the appeal from the Russian standpoint but I can't imagine the Alaskans going without a fight. I'd picture something like Red Dawn fueled by whatever military advantage the part of the U.S. arsenal parked in Alaska would have over the entire Russian army. Which would likely be a considerable advantage: our military technology is light years ahead of just about everybody else's.

Speaking of Bad Decisions...

All this talk of food assistance programs put me in mind of a an article on the struggle of the poor to get enough food that appeared on NPR last summer. The economic problem then was the high gas prices, I'd imagine things are worse now. It stuck in the memory because the family they used to illustrate this struggle to get enough to eat -- a photograph of whom appeared with the piece -- were morbidly obese. Perhaps not the ideal family to use as a set-piece when talking about the hungry in America, though it does provide a nice illustration of the point raised in the article that Salty Girl linked to about the link between food programs and obesity.

As a side note, it seems that in very nearly every article on these types of issues -- the struggle of poverty -- the families used to illustrate the piece have made many conspicuously bad choices. I have to believe that the reporters are generally trying to find the most sympathetic stories -- that is the ones that best show how the problems of poverty are deep and about being unlucky and the rest -- but it's striking how there is always some egregiously bad decision making that appears in the article as well.

For example, the morbidly obese family is stuck in a town some distance from Toledo. There are few to no jobs in that town and without a car there is no way for them to get to work. Tragic. It also mentions that the family's current adult generation was raised middle class. So clearly, this kind of thing could happen to anyone, right? Well, maybe, but the matron of the family is also described as having "never worked" and having "no high school degree". And they talk about the bad luck of how a car accident "17 years ago" left her "depressed and and disabled" and "incapable of getting a job". But she's 40, so the car accident happened when she was 23. I'm sure it was debilitating and awful but why hadn't she finished high school or had any kind of job by the time she was 23? And given that she had no degree and no job, why was she having kids? Perhaps she missed the part of high school where they explain how babies are made...

And I don't mean to just pick on this one family in this one article. The NY Times ran a heart-string-tugging article some weeks ago describing the tough times faced by four families as they go through foreclosure and other economic-crash related problems. The story was written as sympathetically as possible so you had to kind of pick up the scattered details and reconstruct them for yourself to get a good picture of what went wrong for these people but in every case the way they had structured their lives prior to the crash was not going to work. In some of the cases it might have worked if everything had gone perfectly but that's not planning, that's gambling.

The one detail from that article that sticks most clearly in my mind was the story of the family who has one income of $30,000 now. In happier times, they had two incomes totalling about $60,000. And they bought a house which went up in value so they refinanced and took all of the new equity out of the house. The article didn't specify what they did with all of it but did mention that among their belongings in storage was an $8,000 4 piece mahogany and marble bedroom set that they had purchased just after taking the loan.

I make considerably more by myself than this family does as a whole at the best of times. And I don't have a family to support. And I live with someone who by herself makes considerably more than this whole family at the best of times. And we wouldn't dream of spending $8,000 on a bedroom set. Or, for that matter, anything else. If you're raising a family with 4 kids on $60K of dual income, it might be better to stick to Ikea than treating yourself to extravagant bedroom sets with money taken out of your home.

Now, of course, it's their life, if they want to throw away their security on home furnishings, that's their prerogative. But it does somewhat diminish the power of their story as a "tragedy". If you're hit by a bus while carefully crossing the street, that's a tragedy. If you're hit by a bus because you decided to practice your break-dancing on the median of a busy street while blind-folded that's less of a tragedy.

Now, of course, in a society as rich as ours we should have a safety net to prevent the worst of human suffering, even if self-caused. But we do need to be aware that not all human-suffering is inflicted by random chance and to the extent that you alleviate suffering caused by bad-decision making you are inviting more bad decision making.

This is what's known as "moral hazard" in insurance: the danger that if you remove the cost of recklessness you will get more recklessness. It's why there are things like deductibles and co-insurance, to make sure that just because you've got insurance on your car doesn't mean you feel no need to avoid running into things because it's all free to you.

Relatedly, it's also one of the best arguments against all the bailouts we've seen in the financial world this past year. Which is not to say that there weren't compelling arguments for them as well but it is why the government has been trying to work a little pain into the agreements along with all the cash.

Food Stamps Paternalistic? Heck yeah.

A friend asks on her blog if linking nutrition to food-stamps is paternalistic. She only briefly floats the question but based on the article she links she's wondering if making food-stamps more directly limited to purchase of healthy food is paternalistic.

My answer would be that I don't think it's any more paternalistic than food stamps inherently are already. After all, this is a program that fundamentally says, "You think you need more money. And I agree. But I think if I give you money you'll just blow it on stupid stuff. So I'm going to give you money that can only be spent on what I think you should be spending it on." That's about as paternalistic as it gets. I don't think it's any more paternalistic just because you get more specific about what is "okay" for the poor people to do with their handout.

Note that this is not to say that I think food stamp recipients wouldn't just blow their money on stupid stuff if they received plain-old cash. Just to recognize that it's paternalistic regardless.

I'll finish with one quick prediction: any attempt to regulate the diet of people who you feel are so bad at making decisions that you need to restrict the money you give them to food purchases or have them blow it is bound to fail. Once it does, we'll no doubt have an army of social workers ready to explain how that failure was the fault of neither the program nor the people it was intended to help and that with some retooling and a lot better funding these kinds of problems will disappear.

Am I Nostradamus or just a cynic? Too close to call.

Unintentionally Revealing

The exchange about her money is one of the more humorous parts of the Kennedy interview. First there's this:

NC: Have your personal finances been affected by the economic crash?
CK: Um, probably — yes. (Laughter)
NC: Can you give a sense of how badly?
I'm not her accountant, Nick, but I'd say that when you ask if the economic crash has affected someone's finances and they respond "probably" that's an indication that they haven't been, shall we say, overly distressed about the personal repercussions of the state of the economy.(fn1)

Here's her actual response to the "how badly" question:

CK: You know, I think everybody’s — not as badly as a lot of people’s, but obviously everybody’s been hurt by this, and it doesn’t matter where you live. And, I’m lucky that I’m not afraid of losing my home. And my husband still has a job. And that’s not true for a lot of people. So I feel very fortunate, and that’s exactly why I would like to help people who are in those circumstances.

Again not being her accountant it's hard to say for sure, but I'd bet that the "not afraid of losing my home" should actually read "not afraid of losing my homes."

fn1: I heard an anecdote about a fellow who had been a billonaire prior to the recent economic unpleasantness but was, perhaps foolishly in retrospect, invested heavily on margin. Long story short, he is now a millionaire -- low tens. Not the poorhouse, to be sure, but still: that's got to sting. I'm going to guess that if you ask him whether he's been affected by the economic crash his answer will be a good bit more specific -- and profane -- than "probably".

Flotsam and Jetsam

There's a bunch of random posts that I had played with and not posted a few days ago that I'm going to be putting up now.

So that's why it might appear that I'm suddenly interested in the same things again and also suddenly v. prolific...

Life imitates Art inspired by Life?

"Where it began... I can't begin to knowin'..."

-- Sweet Caroline by Neil Diamond

NC: Could you, for the sake of storytelling, could you tell us a little bit about that moment, like, where you were, what you said to him about your decision, how that played out?
CK: Have you guys ever thought about writing for, like, a woman’s magazine or something? (Laughter)
... cutting some inane blather from Caroline in response to a question about what she has against women's magazines...
NC: But there was no one moment you can draw on —
CK: I know I wish there was, I’ll think about it.

-- Caroline Kennedy's interview with the NY Times

Monday, December 29, 2008

Sweet Caroline...

Drinking games taking advantage of her annoying verbal tics aside, her interview with the Times is quite hysterical. For example there's this bit:
NC: It just seems like the only — your interest in this seat coincided with the chance to become appointed to it, which is the easy way into the seat, and so it raises questions. If you really want it —

CK: Actually, I think that actually a campaign would be an easier way, because I think it would give me a chance to explain exactly what I’m doing, why I would want to do this, and, you know, and get people to know me better and to understand exactly what my plans would be, how hard I would work, you know, kind of...
Ah yes. Elections are soooo much easier than appointments. In the course of an election, one never comes under the kind of harsh scrutiny that she has during this appointment process. On the other hand, if elections are so much preferable, one wonders why she has never shown any interest in participating in one? Even, for the most part, as a voter...

Which is not even to point out the absurdity of her claim that she wishes for an election to let people know about her plans. It's easy to see her point: in an election she might have some highly visible way -- like, say, an interview with the NY Times -- in which to lay out her agenda. Pity that in an appointment situation those opportunities never present themselves...


Here's a fun idea for a drinking game: take a drink every time Caroline Kennedy displays the verbal tic "you know" in her NY Times interview.  I bet you won't make it through her response to the second question before you pass out.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Your daily dose of Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy...

As a matter of fact, capitalist economy is not and cannot be stationary.  Nor is it merely expanding in a steady manner.  It is incessantly being revolutionized from within by new enterprise, i.e., by the intrusion of new commodities or new methods of production or new commercial opportunities into the industrial structure as it exists at any moment.  Any existing structures and all the conditions of doing business are always in a process of change.  Every situation is being upset before it has had time to work itself out.  Economic progress, in capitalist society, means turmoil.
(italics in the original)

And then this bit from later in the same paragraph:
Possibilities of gains to be reaped by producing new things or by producing old things more cheaply are constantly materializing and calling for new investments.  These new products and new methods compete with the old products and old methods not on equal terms but at a decisive advantage that may mean death to the latter.  This is how "progress" comes about in capitalist society.

It might be dangerous to say it this early in the book, but from my (admittedly cursory) knowledge of the work, this is the nut graph.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Holiday Reading

So over my little Christmas break, I'm reading Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, the seminal economic classic by Joseph Schumpeter.

Now, as everybody no doubt already knows, the thumbnail takeaway of this book is "creative destruction" which is Schumpeter's description of how capitalism progresses: the old and less efficient is swept aside by the new and more efficient.  This can be an unpleasant process for those being swept away but ultimately benefits everyone with a better use of inputs and thus increased prosperity.  (fn1)

At any rate, I figured it would behoove me as an economic dilettante to at least take the measure of those classics that I have not read and decided that Schumpeter was as good a place to start as any.

All of this is by way of saying that I'm on vacation and so posting will be light.  And what little posting there is will most likely be observations of and from Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy.

In his (unnecessarily long, in retrospect) discussion of Marx, I've found my lines of the day:
The masses have not always felt themselves to be frustrated and exploited.  But the intellectuals that formulated their views for them have always told them that they were, without necessarily meaning by it anything precise.

fn1 One of the earliest examples of this unpleasantness was the luddite uprisings against the new mechanized weaving industry at the very dawn of the industrial revolution.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Music notes

I recently learned from the band Spoon that I have no fear of the underdog and that this is why I will not survive.

Apparently, I also have my cherry bomb.


"So that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth..." - Abraham Lincoln

"So that poorly made cars assembled by overpaid labor to be sold at redundant dealerships shall not perish from the Earth..."(fn1) George W. Bush

A blogger I read had the humorous observation recently that the plan for the Big 3 seems to be that we bail them out so that we can force them to make green vehicles. This is, he points out, prob. the first time in history that the rationale has been "we have to save them so we can destroy them" rather than the other way around.

fn1: Note that I may be paraphrasing his actual remarks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

What's wrong with "Compassionate Conservatism"?

Oh, just about everything, according to John O'Sullivan in the latest National Review. He's right.(fn1)

Also, Jonah Goldberg has a good discussion of this piece and Michael Gerson's response on The Corner.

fn1: Oh wordplay!

A little bit better, every day...

I noticed this article in the Wash. Post last week about how the killers employed by Mexican drug cartels have been getting much more sophisticated and thought it was interesting. Not only because hired assassins are always going to be kind of inherently interesting, but also for the way it illustrates a universal economic point: people get better through experience.

Even with all kinds of book learnin', the best way to make yourself a more valuable employee is to hold down a job for a while. You'll learn the ins-and-outs of the job and get better at it. And, of course, as you get better at it, you are more valuable and thus, barring some unfortunate problem, better able to command a higher wage.

The fact that this is just as true -- if not more so -- at the bottom end of human capital as at the top end is why minimum wage laws are another one of those classic governmental programs that seem to straightforwardly advance one interest, raising the wages of poor folk, but actually work exactly to the opposite effect.

The goal seems to be unambiguously good: help poor people make more money. And the means couldn't be any more straightforward: force employers to pay them more.

But here's the problem: if you are not capable of producing value to employers that's worth more to them than the minimum wage, you will not be hired. So, right off the bat you're taking the least able members of society and locking them out of the job market entirely. (fn1)

This is bad for the obvious reason of them not having a job but you might think that this is okay in our modern welfare world. After all, if these people are that low on human capital, perhaps it's best that society take care of them through social safety nets and the like.

Ah, but here's the rub. If you can't ever get that first job, get your foot in the door even for what some rich person might find an appalling wage, you never begin the process of bettering yourself through experience. You are thus permanently less well-off not only monetarily but in terms of personal development.

You see folk who get uber-low paying jobs (yes, the minimum wage ones now, but it would be true of sub-minimum wage employment too, were that allowed to function) by and large do not keep those jobs forever. As they learn their job and develop skills, they move up the income ladder. Perhaps not very far but they do move. If you lock them out of the bottom, you lock them out of the growth.

As an aside, this is also why the selling of minimum wage increases is always so economically illiterate. The number of people who have earned minimum wage over some lengthy period is trotted out and talk about how awful it is that these folk have gone so long (since the last minimum wage hike) without a raise is tossed around. But this is wrong. They are not the same people, most people move on from minimum wage quite quickly and v. few stay at it forever.(fn2)

And that's before considering any shrinkage in the minimum wage workforce that happens as employers trim their employees to avoid paying folk who are not worth the new wage.

Coincidentally, as I was noodling this post I happened across this recent economics paper showing that minimum wage laws do, in fact, have all of these bad effects:
Based on their comprehensive reading of the evidence, Neumark and Wascher argue that minimum wages do not achieve the main goals set forth by their supporters. They reduce employment opportunities for less-skilled workers and tend to reduce their earnings; they are not an effective means of reducing poverty; and they appear to have adverse longer-term effects on wages and earnings, in part by reducing the acquisition of human capital. The authors argue that policymakers should instead look for other tools to raise the wages of low-skill workers and to provide poor families with an acceptable standard of living.
fn1: Interestingly, this lock-out was considered a feature not a bug of minimum wage laws when they were first suggested in the U.S. The people doing the suggesting back then were concerned about the huge migration of unskilled black labor from the South to the North. So they conceived of minimum wage laws as a way of locking those black folks out of the labor market. Ah progressivism. One wonders if the folk who like to use it as a label now-a-days would be as comfortable with it if they actually took the time to learn its history. But that's just crazy-talk, progressives are all about the future and the benighted past has nothing to teach us, right?

fn2: Note that this is a problem with reporting on "quintile" or other strata of earnings more generally. They tend to look at the distribution of income among quintiles in one year and compare it to another year without acknowledging that you are not talking about the same people in both years. For example, young people make less money, on average, than old people. Thus, over a lifetime, people tend to move from lower quintiles into higher quintiles. Obv. there is movement the other way as well, as people retire or scale back their workload or what-not. And, of course, there are lots of other things going on. But when you read a news story about how the income of the lowest quintile hasn't increased in 30 years or whatever, do take a moment to realize that the seemingly obvious conclusion: "OMG! 20% of people have been living on the same income for 30 years!" is flat wrong.

Will the last one left please buy some expensive jeans before you turn out the light...

Sad article in the Wash. Post today about a new magazine in Japan trying to appeal to the "elder boys" to get them to spend money.

Apparently when your demographics fall off a cliff, so does your consumer spending. Who knew?

In the tradition of Japan being the home of all things weird, the magazine is called "OilyBoy".

The good news, I suppose, is that this shouldn't be a problem for too terribly long. After 100 years or so there simply won't be enough Japanese folk left to market magazines to or worry about what their economy is like.

Note to the rest of the civilized world: you might want to take notes.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Keep trying Tom...

Tom Cruise back on the Today show tries his darndest to be sane:

Jocking my style.

No doubt noticing the explosive growth in my readership numbers, the NY Times Freakonomics blog has decided to crib my prostitution-economics nexus with a post discussing why prostitution is not a Giffen good.

Economics and prostitution, you saw it here first.

The discussion of Giffen goods in the post is quite good, though fairly useless as there has only ever been one found in the wild: rice among desperately poor peasants in China.

The two effects that work together to create a Giffen Good, the substitution effect and the income effect, are very useful indeed, however.

I can still remember the first time I used the income effect to explain an observed behavior. It was way back in college when Miller Lite was in the middle of a particularly fantastic run of advertising. I read an article in the Journal about how Miller was upset because despite this critically acclaimed and v. popular advertising push their product was not selling any better.

Of course, this was during the late 90's tech boom. My conjecture was that Miller Lite is an inferior product(fn1), that is people would prefer to drink some better beer if they can afford it. And in a boom everybody feels like they can afford it so Miller sales stall. And no amount of advertising was likely to change that.

fn1: I feel I should note that I do not personally view Miller Lite as all that inferior in the everyday sense. I prefer it to Bud Light or Coors Light. That said, they are all inferior in that I tend to buy nicer beers. But for certain uses, they are the best. Sports watching, for example, goes well with light beer, not so much with Guinness or Bass.

Meet the new boss...

Got a couple of posts in the pipeline, so hopefully this week won't be as barren as past weeks around here.

For now, though, perhaps a quick prediction.

Call me the worst sort of cynic but I'm gonna bet that this new South African party that has split from the reigning ANC will soon be just as mired in corruption as the old party. Prob. even before they manage to amass any kind of actual power.

As an aside, the article is a good example of at least one reason why newspapers are a dying industry. After the first 10 paragraphs describe the generalities of the split from the ANC and the speeches and chants at their first public meeting, the second to last paragraph almost gets interesting:
Zuma defeated Mbeki in a bitter race for the party leadership last year and is likely to be the country's next president, with general elections expected early next year. Lekota has questioned whether Zuma is fit to be president of the country and accuses Zuma, who would be South Africa's first Zulu president, of fanning tribal tension.

Wow! A bitter leadership race? Allegations he's not fit to be president? Sounds intriguing... but wait, just "fanning tribal tension"? That seems like kind of a let down.

And then this revelation in the very last paragraph of the article:

Zuma has been tarnished by corruption allegations; corruption charges were dropped on procedural grounds but could be revived. He also was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend.

So the guy leading the party they're splitting off from was acquitted of raping an HIV-positive family friend? Now that's a hook you could hang a "new party splits off" story on, don't you think?

Nah, better to stick it in a brief mention in the very last sentence of the article. Wouldn't want anybody to think we were slopping around in the gutter or, you know, trying to entice readers with interesting pieces about current events or anything...

Friday, December 12, 2008

Unspoken Transgressions

So about a month or so ago when I was down home-ways for T-giving, I went over to a good friend's house for some traditional night-before-Thanksgiving, homemade pizza. The food was delicious, the company was wonderful, a great time was had by all.

While there, the guests had a fascinating discussion on sharing a bathroom with your superiors at the office: the awkwardness, the oddity, etc.

I should note here that I did not introduce this topic of conversation and am somewhat offended that you would leap to that conclusion. Shame on you.

That said, I did relay an awkward experience of my own. Please feel free to stop reading if you're not interested in proper urinal etiquette.

The mens room in my office features six urinals arranged in a row as such:


Now, as any man will tell you, there is a correct order to the use of these urinals. The first fellow should take one end, the second the other, the third one of the middle ones and -- since there are an even number -- the fourth fellow might be better off using a stall or perhaps a sink rather than sidle up right next to someone who's already there. (fn1)

A few days before thanksgiving I happened to enter the bathroom immediately behind a coworker. And there was already one man at the urinals.

The first problem was that the current... occupant (I guess?) had already committed a small violation of etiquette, he had not gone to one end but rather was one urinal in from the end (fn2):

o o o o 1 o

(I'm using "o" to indicate empty as the Blogger software seems to not like spaces used as spacing.)

But this can be regarded as a strip of 5 urinals and there are two fellows entering, so easy solution, right:

2 o 3 o 1 o

This is what any sane person would do: go to the end, esp. realizing that the person who just walked through the door behind you is headed for the urinals as well.

But no.

This guy, in what was the most appalling disregard for the unspoken rules of life I think I have ever witnessed, instead went for the urinal one in from the other end:

o 2 o o 1 o

Yeah. So now I was left in the unenviable position of having to choose one of the fellows to buddy up with or else, perhaps, wave off and hit a stall or pretend to wash my hands or something.

But you know what? This guy, number 2 in our example, had set me up for this. And so I figured: screw him. I went right next to him. I was tempted to have bad aim and leave him with a wet leg but decided not to take it that far this time:

o 2 3 o 1 o

So that was then. It was a bizarre break with what I would have expected were the accepted norms in, at the very least, American mens room behaviour but there it is.

So today I happen to be headed into the bathroom to wash my hands (for real, actually, it was lunch time and I like to eat with clean hands) and a coworker walks in behind me and hits the completely unoccupied urinals. And chooses as such:

o o 1 o o o

What the hell? Am I living in bizarro world? Is this guy some kind of alpha-A-hole (he doesn't seem the type and, really, most actuaries don't...) who is expressing his dominance by trying to take over the whole "watering hole" (so to speak...)?

Unfortunately my ability to remember my younger male coworker's names and faces is such that I don't know if this was the same jackass from my previous encounter but it could be. Either way, it's unacceptable.

fn1: These rules obv. do not apply in crowding situations such as at a ballgame or other heavily attended event. These are for your ordinary bathroom uses, which is to say largely empty ones.

fn2: At the dinner-party discussion of these events the point was raised that the fellow who was in there first might have had good reason for choosing his spot based on the use of the other urinals when he entered. I am willing to acknowledge that it is not impossible but find it highly unlikely. The only acceptable scenario would be every single other urinal was taken and that was almost certainly not the case.


Bill Ayers in the NY Times: I'm not a terrorist and never hurt or wanted to hurt anyone.

Charles Lane (fn1) in the Washington Post: you def. did want to hurt people and didn't only through a combination of luck and incompetence. Stop lying.

fn1: Charles Lane was the editor of the New Republic when the Stephen Glass fabrication scandal broke. He's the guy who fired Glass. He was played by Peter Sarsgaard in Shattered Glass, the movie about the story. I have a weird love of that movie and have watched it an unhealthy number of times.(fn2)

fn2: I think my love of that movie might come from the writing style. It was written by H.G. Bissinger, the author of Friday Night Lights the book and movie and creator of the tv show.(fn3) The first season of Friday Night Lights was among the best television ever. The second season was still v. solid. The third season I've not seen as it's been shown "exclusively" on some channel only available on satellite tv. And that sucks. Though if the show is getting the money it needs to survive at all through that kind of deal, I guess that's better than the alternative. The show's been one of those "critical favorites that have trouble finding an audience" throughout its run.

fn3: After having developed something of an obsession with the tv show back in season one, I read the book and watched the movie as well. They are both also v. good.

Friday, December 5, 2008

It's stuff like this that makes people like me

Call me a wild-eyed libertarian but stories like this one rankle.

In a nutshell, a church's Christmas tree lot was shut down because it violated the Montgomery County law that prohibits sales of Christmas trees prior to Dec. 5.

You can count me in the group who is appalled at how early the commercial sector starts milking the holiday season each year but, honestly, a law?

Here's the best part: "officials could not determine why the law was enacted or even when, only that it was sometime in the late 1960s or early '70s".

Fantastic. Nobody knows why it's a law or even how long it's been a law.

This is why I sometimes think it would be much better if all laws had expiration dates and had to be renewed or cease being laws. You see, legislatures have to justify their existence, same as everybody else. They justify it by passing lots of laws. And those laws stack up. Until nobody knows or even can know them all. And that's when the law can become arbitrary in ways that are antithetical to the rule of law.

And that's not smiles times.

If they all had expiration dates then legislatures could busy themselves by re-authorizing the necessary ones and they wouldn't have to create busy work for themselves by crafting laws to deal with silly things like Christmas tree sales times.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

The sounds of the silence...

Busy week at work plus no internet access at home (coming Sat.) equals no posting on the ol' blog. Nothing to be done about that.

So, until I can get back in the swing of things, here's an article I stumbled across and enjoyed.

It's about Jill Price who has a perfect memory. Literally. She remembers every detail of every day since she was fifteen and many of the days before that. It's not all wine and roses:

In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. "I don't look back at the past with any distance. It's more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It's like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there's no stop button."

This put me in mind of the v. interesting book The Mind of a Mnemonist by A.R. Luria that I read a while back. It was one of that all-too-rare genre of medical case study written for a wide audience (Oliver Sacks of Awakenings fame is prob. the most well-known and prolific of the genre.) It was about a man who, like Jill Price, never forgot.

In the Mnemonist book the fellow had synaesthesia, the condition where your senses are not distinct from each other: sounds were associated with colors, tastes and smells for him. Apparently many people with phenomenal memories have varying degrees of the condition.

The Mnemonist fashioned a fairly successful career for himself as a memory showman. He would entertain audiences by having them recite random words or sounds or whatnot to any length and then he would rattle them back. Of course, as he never forgot, he could rattle them off for any of his shows no matter how many years before. The book ended, as I recall, unhappily as the fellow eventually went somewhat insane because he could no longer distinguish things that had just happened from things that had happened years before.

And, it seems from the article, much the same thing might be happening to Ms. Price, though she apparently does not possess the Mnemonist's ability to remember arbitrary strings of words.