Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shrinking Respect for Strunk

Judging by the enormous number of misuses I've seen of late, I'd estimate we are no more than a half dozen years away from completely losing the distinction between 'effect' and 'affect'.

If Stimulus II: This Time We'll Call It Jobs Because We've Already Tainted The Word 'Stimulus' With Our Ineptitude goes through, I would consider supporting it if some significant amount of money were spent on distributing copies of Strunk & White to everyone who claims to be literate.

As is often the case, XKCD is there to give me hope.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

That's so weird!

The government of Venezuela being boldly progressive has, over the past several years, taken greater and greater control over various economic sectors, among these the energy sector.

They have used all of their progressive skill & acumen, all of their socially-just compassion to provide low-cost power so the poor could finally enjoy a decent standard of living.

What was the result of these nobly-envisioned price controls?

Rampant shortages.(fn1)

If only there had been some way of foreseeing the possibility of this outcome. But, alas, this must be chalked up as an odd aberration, the root causes of which may never be fully known. At any rate, the solution is clearly more direct involvement by the government in energy production and, increasingly, consumption.

Because when the government sets out to provide something good for the people and, inevitably, destroys what was already there, the blame is never on the good-hearted, hard-working progressive overlords, but on the venal people greedily using too much. Thus Chavez has taken to berating his citizens for taking showers over 3 minutes and getting fat.

Don't worry, there are no lessons here for our own impending government takeover of health care. As I say, this is a weird, totally unpredictable one-off kind of event with no generalizable lessons. When our own well-intentioned, very smart & compassionate progressive overlords redesign a massive chunk of our economy for the betterment of the poor & everyone else it will be smooth sailing with no unintended consequences or highly predictable economic ill-effects. None.

fn1: I'd add that the NY Times is, predictably, completely flummoxed by this odd appearance of shortages in the wake of price controls. I'd point out this might be their ideology once again blinding them to reality but pointing out their manifold failings gets tiresome even for me at times.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Government Leading Us to Progress!

So the Pfizer plant that prompted the Kelo decision that legitimized using the right of public eminent domain to take property from one private interest to give it to another, more-favored private interest is being abandoned. So the town of New London kicked a bunch of people out of their homes for nothing.

At base, this episode was a fairly massive change in the traditional understanding of the relationship of the people to government that was okayed in the name of allowing the government a freer hand to pursue broad social goods, in this case gaining a higher tax base and improving the town through redevelopment.

The end result was a fairly complete disaster with people kicked out of their homes by the government in the name of progress and no actual gain to be seen for the trouble.

Don't worry, this was an isolated incident that should in no way influence our faith in the power of government to engineer good outcomes through exercising state power behind good intentions. I'm sure that the fairly significant redefinition of the traditional relationship between the citizen and the government represented by the health-care reform legislation currently wending its way through Congress will not end in a similar disaster...

Friday, November 6, 2009

Great Scot! It's Doc Brown's Phone!

Funny line in this Times article about the capabilities that will be coming on phones in a couple of years:

Open up the device, point it at the street and ask it to show you what the place looked like 200 years ago, and it offers a photo or video.

Wow! Photos of what places looked like 200 years ago! Truly technology is progressing faster than I thought: apparently phones will have access to time-machine capabilities only a few short years from now...(fn1)

fn1: Some fun history. The first photographic techniques date to the 1820's but took several hours of exposure. The first relatively workable techniques were developed by M. Daguerre in the late 1830's and early 1840's. They took several minutes of exposure. So we are still at least a few decades away from being able to look at photographs of what places looked like 200 years ago, barring the invention of time travel allowing us to photograph them before the invention of photography.

The earliest workable motion picture camera was famously invented by Thomas Edison in the 1890's so we're quite aways away from calling up 200 year old moving pictures, even ignoring the fact that video more specifically referes to electronic capturing of motion pictures, which wasn't invented until the late 1920's by the fantastically named Philo T. Farnsworth. Electronic television, it should be noted, was based on an idea Farnsworth had at the age of 14! And people think teens today spend too much time thinking about television...


The main article in the NY Times on the Fort Hood shootings contains one of the more awkward examples of media bias I've ever personally come across.

Thirty-three paragraphs into a fifty-four paragraph article comes this:

"The Muslim Public Affairs Council, speaking for many American Muslims, condemned the shootings as a “heinous incident” and said, “We share the sentiment of our president.”

So why is that odd? Because nowhere in the article is the religion of the shooter mentioned. So why the non-sequitur of a condemnation from a Muslim group when the religion of the shooter is apparently not known or not important to mention? Why not include a condemnation from a Christian group, since it was Texas and Christianity is the majority religion of Texas? Why not a quote from a Jewish group, if we feel it's important to include minority religious reaction?

Oh, I learn about 80% of the way through the Wash. Post's main article on the shootings, the shooter is Muslim. Well, that explains the otherwise inexplicable reaction quote in the Times.

One must wonder, though, what is going through the minds of the NY Times. I think this is just the reflexive obedience to their pieties leading them into absurdity: linking Muslims to violence is wrong & bigoted & evil so you must not mention the religion of the shooter. But people are likely to find out anyway, so it's best to include something to show that Muslims are just as shocked and outraged as everyone else. Obeying these two dicta leads them to the curious position of leaving facts out of their story, implying that if you actually want to know all of the facts about a breaking story, you should go elsewhere than the Times.

Or learn to read their code, b/c clearly the random quote from a Muslim group indicated that the shooter was Muslim w/o the Times having to do the awkward, bigoted act of actually reporting news they would rather not.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Fun Fact

So Mayor Bloomberg won a third term by a surprisingly narrow margin. Prob. a good thing that he won over the other guy, prob. also a good thing that it was scarily close. Lets him know New Yorkers are upset about his term-limits shennanigans.

But here's something odd I noticed. Again and again in the coverage of his victory it was noted that this makes him "only the fourth three-term mayor in the last century". This makes it sound like quite an unusual thing, no? Only 4 in 100 years?

Here's the thing, though. The first was LaGuardia who took office in 1934. NYC mayor terms are 4 years a piece. So the other way of looking at this "only the fourth" statistic is that when he completes his third term, New Yorkers will have spend 48 (3 terms * 4 years per term = 12 years per mayor, 4 3-term mayors * 12 years per mayor = 48 years) of the past, well, 80 years if we take LaGuardia's entrance as the start but, oh, let's call it 100 years so as to not cherry pick LaGuardia's start date.

48/100 years under 3-term mayors doesn't sound nearly as rare as "only the fourth in a century" does it? Going by number of mayors, it would be 4 of the last 10 mayors, again not exactly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

A good example of the truth in the phrase "lies, damned lies & statistics".

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Truth of the Day

Fascinating article in the NY Times about an expensive piece of bomb-detecting equipment that the Iraqi government is quite enamored of which has the sole drawback of being comically useless:

To detect materials, the operator puts an array of plastic-coated cardboard cards with bar codes into a holder connected to the wand by a cable. “It would be laughable,” Colonel Bidlack said, “except someone down the street from you is counting on this to keep bombs off the streets.”

Proponents of the wand often argue that errors stem from the human operator, who they say must be rested, with a steady pulse and body temperature, before using the device.

Then the operator must walk in place a few moments to “charge” the device, since it has no battery or other power source, and walk with the wand at right angles to the body. If there are explosives or drugs to the operator’s left, the wand is supposed to swivel to the operator’s left and point at them.
This heartfelt statement from the head of the Iraqi Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives betrays the truth I referred to in the post's title:
“Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri
Though this fellow might be written off as a backwards yokel from a backwards region of the world, this is how most of humanity thinks, even today, even in the West where science seems to reign supreme. Rational thought is very alien to humanity. Scientific thought is an even more unnatural subset of rational thought. It's a rare person who is able to fully embrace it and takes real will for most people to even follow the logic of it, even in the face of literal centuries of evidence of its benefits.

This is a big part of the reason that I feel civilization rests on such infirm footing, despite seemingly irrefutable evidence to the contrary. The glorious achievements of our civilization were not natural or inevitable, nor is the maintenance of the modes of thought needed for their further existence. Indeed, most of humanity would gladly embrace the pleasantly irrational, civilization be damned, than do the hard work of maintaining rationality. For an example from the very heights of the "rational West", just look at the anti-vaccine movement.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Sounds like somebody brought a knife to a gunfight...

So Chicago is out of the running for the 2016 Olympics in the first round just days hours after both the President and First Lady personally appeared to make speeches on behalf of its bid.


It seems that just about everybody assumed when Obama reversed his "I'm too busy" excuse and made the trip that this meant the fix was in and Chicago was a lock. Everybody assumed this because Presidents of the United States tend to only show up after all of the many thousands of people working under them have already ironed out all the issues and all that's left is to sign the final deal and take the photos.

Not Obama. Apparently he honestly just wanted to go to use the power of his office and, perhaps, his legendary personal charisma to try to sway the judges. I guess it never occurred to him that the chance to build themselves up by snubbing major officeholders like the President of the U.S. usually proves irresistible to minor, unimportant functionaries like the IOC.

I wonder if the administration figured that having him go would ensure Chicago's victory. I could see them thinking, "Gee, when presidents show up at big treaty signings and the like, they always get their way, so if we want Chicago to get the nod, all we have to do is have the President go and he'll get his way, b/c that's how it works right?"

And of course this is exactly backwards. Yes, it is rare for a President to show up for a big decision and not have it go his way but this is because most presidents have their staff make sure the decision is going to go their way before they make an appearance.

It's really just the old correlation/causation thing. The Obama-ites figured that Presidents showing up caused things to go their way but in reality Presidents show up only after they know things are going to go their way.

Not this one, though.

I also found both of the Obamas speeches to be kind of odd. I didn't read them in their entirety but from the description and excerpts in the Wash. Post, they sounded like kind of not very good US campaign speeches, which is not what one would think would win over an international crowd like the IOC.

Mrs. Obama's seemed to be mostly about how hard her Dad's life was and how much she loved him and how much he would have loved having the Olympics in Chicago. That's great but I'm sure there are heartwarming stories about challenged parents in Rio -- and everywhere else, for that matter -- who would love to have the Olympics there.

Pres. Obama's seemed to be mostly about what a great American city Chicago is, populated by people from all over the world. Wonderful then, I guess you don't need the Olympics as a show of diversity, you've got your own little Olympics every day! And saying it's a great "American city" seems particularly odd in the context of this particular decision given that 4 Summer and 4 Winter Games have been held in American cities while none have been held in S. America at all. Isn't Obama all about spreading the wealth and we're all equals and all that? Isn't it odd for him to lobby on behalf of his adopted hometown against the first serious contender from an entire snubbed continent?

It's odd, I'm kind of torn on the whole thing. On the one hand, I hate seeing the US President get so flagrantly snubbed. On the other, it's kind of Obama's fault that he put himself in the position to get slapped in the face.

On the one hand, I'm not a fan of Obama's, so it's somewhat satisfying to watch him get a first hand lesson about how international relations works in the real world, rather than (as Sarkozy memorably put it recently) Obama's 'virtual world'. But on the other it's always nice to see America come out on top.

And, as one might expect, I think the Olympics are way overrated. They're a good way for local politicians to engage in graft and wasteful legacy building at the expense of their constituents -- very rarely are they ever a net positive for the hosting city overall. I frankly wouldn't mind if the Olympics were always held in the middle of nowhere, where they wouldn't bother anyone and could be safely ignored, but that wouldn't give the IOC members the chance to collect bribes from and showcase their importance in all of the world's major cities.

I guess overall it's something of a wash. But def. embarrassing for Pres. and Mrs. Obama in light of the "sacrifice" (the Mrs.'s word) of flying over there to lobby on Chicago's behalf.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Texting while driving part II: this time it's nuanced...

Perhaps I was too rash in my post about the texting-while-driving regulation.

This article is frightening in suggesting how much of this goes on, drawing particular attention to blue-collar folk tethered to a dashboard-mounted dispatch computer while driving massive trucks. This seems like an amazingly bad idea for a whole host of reasons and one that even I would concede might benefit from some regulation. (Though the cynic in me notes that in that last article, about the executive order, there were already complications raised about extending the ban to interstate drivers because of "industry concerns" aka: I paid good money to install that computer to tell my jackass drivers where to go, don't you dare say they can't use it!)

I standby my determination that texting (or emailing or watching youtube or reading dispatches or whatever) while driving is so self-evidently stupid as leave me mind-boggled that it happens at all.

The reasons I underestimated the extent of the problem are probably twofold:

a) I cannot conceive of caring so much about my job (or, he adds quickly lest you think he doesn't care about his job, any job, for that matter) that I would endanger my life or the lives of others(fn1) for it.

b) I represent an extreme case of the one-track mindedness the article notes:
The reason, researchers say, is that the brain can effectively perform only one difficult task at a time.
I find it almost literally impossible to focus on more than one thing at a time, even if neither thing is particularly engaging or important. If I'm reading a book or watching television or doing whatever I get so focused that it is near impossible for me to even maintain conversation, a fact noted on numerous occasions by both my girlfriend and my mother.

fn1: Well, I say not the lives of others. Maybe I wouldn't mind endangering the lives of others so long as I got to choose the others. I kid! I kid! I kid b/c I have a warped and disturbing sense of humor.

Commonsense regulation

Obama has issued an executive order forbidding all federal employees from texting while driving government vehicles or while using government-issued phones in their own vehicles.

Unconfirmed reports indicate that in the coming days he will issue additional orders confronting such menaces as: stabbing yourself in the eye with a government pen or with your own pen while engaged in government business; blithely driving your government car into a lake or driving your own car into a lake while engaged in government business unless that business expressly requires the driving of a car into a lake; and, finally, jumping off a government bridge or off a private bridge while engaged in government business just because "everyone else is doing it".

While I'm sure that texting-while-driving is a rising menace, I wonder if the type of people who are prone to engaging in it are really the types to stop because they've been told it's against regulations. That is, if you are so stupid that you willfully disregard obvious and immediate threats to your own safety, will being told not to by an abstract regulation really stop you?

Also, if there are so many government employees who are, in fact, so stupid that they will place themselves in danger for no good reason but will stop if told not to, does this suggest that we might have some work to do on improving hiring standards in the federal workforce?

But perhaps I'm looking at that last point the wrong way. Maybe idiots who will follow instructions to the letter but are incapable of performing even the most basic independent thoughtful analysis for themselves are exactly who we need to carry out the detailed will of our government...

Why I hate CSI:Miami

This Youtube clip compiling an amazing number of instances of David Caruso's patented "one-liner while putting on sunglasses" is a good distillation.

To be fair to the Miami version, I don't actually like any of the many CSI variants. The only one I've ever actually seen at any length, though, is CSI:Miami. And it was atrocious. Beautiful, lush cinematography that looks absolutely glorious in HD combined with incredibly cliched storylines, laughable casting choices and pathetically bad acting.

No sir, I didn't like it.


Fascinating article in the NY Times about people organizing group living situations in the city.

The article is everything you'd expect and serves as a beautiful illustration of how difficult it can be to put together satire in today's world where actual craziness tends to vastly outstrip anyone's ability to exaggerate it.

Perhaps just a few choice quotes with some commentary...

Consider the efforts of Ms. Berger, 28, and Ms. Hazard, 24, who advertised eloquently for roommates before even settling on a house: "Some of the things we like are: permaculture, living sustainably, gardening, dancing, hula hooping, yoga, herbalism, making music, active listening, non-violent communication ..." they wrote, in part.
It's kind of sad the way they are clearly trying as hard as they can to be unique people fearlessly carving their own way in the world and yet are ending up as hopeless cliches every bit as ridiculous as the conformists whose restrictive reality they no doubt believe they are bravely fleeing.

A house in Philly apparently had this listing:
"You will probably not feel at home here unless anti-ableism, anti-ageism, anti-classism, anti-racism, consent, trans-positivity and queer-positivity, etc., are very important to you," the ad read.
Ms. Feigelson, who works as a political organizer and volunteer, explained: "It means against the oppression of those who are physically or mentally disabled, and extends to language. Like you wouldn’t use the word ‘lame.’ "
Ah yes. Because you wouldn't want to get a roommate who is in favor of the oppression of the handicapped -- as so many in today's society are.

You know, this tendency to imagine yourself as a brave warrior courageously fighting evil opression is one I've noticed for a while, perhaps I should pull together my thoughts on it at some point and share them.

Basically, the driving force seems to be that while it's a lot of fun to be bravely fighting oppression -- it's romantic and all that -- it sucks to actually live in a place that's full of real oppression with lots of power behind it b/c then, for all the romance, you tend to get thrown in jail, beaten, killed, that kind of downer stuff. So what's really fun is to come up with definitions of "oppression" that are so mild that very open, very accepting societies can be shoe-horned into meeting them. Then you get all the pleasantness of living in an open, free society bereft of much actual oppression AND all the romantic fun of proving how moral you are by bravely standing against oppression -- nevermind that this oppression exists mostly in your own imagination.

I don't pretend that this is a recent phenomenon -- indeed, based on my cursory knowledge, it seems to have been a significant force animating the late 1960's -- but it def. seems to be on the rise of late.

Then later, the reporter (fn1) asks a personality expert about the ads:
Yet she worried that other personality types, the sort who know how to fix the toaster or program the VCR, weren’t being invited into these houses.
That's not really a concern though, is it? After all, everyone knows that toasters are a tool of the patriarchy designed to oppress womynkind; VCR's, in their conceit to 'record' something that 'happened', are reflective of a normative heuristic favoring certain dominant frames of reference over others; and as for "programming", don't even get me started on how inherently oppressive the idea that it is right or even possible for one being to impose its designs and desires on another is...

Somehow even after reading this article about these brave iconoclasts creating a new type of society, one based on profound thought and deep insight about the role of humanity in the world, my conviction that Western Civ. is on its last legs and disaster will follow remains unshaken...

fn1: Who, somewhat oddly, openly admits in the article to "fretting" over her interview subjects, though that's a topic for a separate post. One on my old favorite: the NY Times. The open sympathy of their reporters -- even in the "hard news" sections -- for their subjects, when those subjects are on the 'right' side of the political spectrum, is getting pretty out of hand. But, as I say, a topic for another time.

Real rights for a truly just world

Hi all, it's me Dewey. I'll be popping in now and again to shed some progressive light on these dark corners. With luck, soon all the doubters will come to their senses and we can realize a true progressive utopia right here in the good old, benighted USA!

At any rate, here's my first...

In light of the Supreme Court's decision to review the McDonald's v. Chicago gun rights case, Atlantic blogger Megan McArdle asks "is the second amendement is a real amendment?"

The answer, of course, is that the second is clearly not a "real" amendment in the sense that it does not protect a real right -- nor, I hasten to add, do many of the others in the supremely over-hyped "bill of rights".

Real rights are more solid and lasting. They are granted by well-intentioned progressive overlords and include, but are not necessarily limited to, the following:
- The right to effective, extensive, up-to-date medical care
- The right to nutritious, environmentally-sustainable, delicious food
- The right to clean, attractive, well-designed, modern housing situated in easily-walkable, vibrantly-diverse, multi-use communities
- The right to meaningful, sustainable, socially-responsible employment
- The right to societally-approved free expression of sexual preference with other consenting beings

The provision of these rights should be society's top -- indeed, perhaps only -- goal. Protecting supposed "rights" like "free speech" or "freedom of religion" or "free assembly" or "the right to bear arms" or whatever else is beyond outmoded.

In a society as rich as ours, every single person's "freedom" should be utterly trammeled if that is what is necessary to provide everyone with an equitable, meaningful, environmentally-sustainable, socially-reponsible existence.

Sure, we have this atavistic desire to cling to these archaic concepts, and that is largely understandable b/c they are familiar and comfortable. But we will not be living in a just, progressive world until we throw them on the dustbin of history as they deserve and allow our betters to redesign our society in a more perfect form.

Naturally, the evil Republicans will try to frighten us with their soceror's talk of "negative rights" and "limited government". Hopefully, the Supreme Court will make the right decision and end our country's sad devotion to this ancient religion of so-called "rights" and help us to conjure up a new progressive age and discover a base for meaningful growth. Then we can be proud of the technological progressive achievements we have constructed.

Is it clobberin' time?

NASA has announced that cosmic-ray radiation has reached its highest level in more than 50 years.

As any dedicated student of pop-culture or slightly geeky teenage boy could tell you, 50 years ago is roughly the start of the silver age of comics, a period when many of the super-heroes we all know and love were created, many through the effects of cosmic rays.

Obviously a surfeit of cosmic radiation heralds a new age of superheroes. I'm sure it will work out better than it did in Kingdom Come.

Something New

In a new turn for the ol' blog, I've invited a fresh face to put up occasional posts.

I was worried that my somewhat misanthropic, generally conservative, often contrarian views might be too out of sync with the progressive times we're living in -- and besides, my posting sched. has not been the best. So I've invited a nice, earnest progressive idealist to submit occasional posts. He will endeavor to provide a progressive take on the issues of the day, hopefully enlightening us as to why on earth that tired, tyrannical philosophy would hold any attraction for anyone.

I am informed that his first may well be up later today. He'll be posting under the name "Dewey" and will be keeping in the somewhat insouciant spirit of the blog. Look for it and I hope you enjoy it.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Bad Books

Talking about Stephanopoulos in that last post reminded me that his book about his time in the Clinton administration, All Too Human, was possibly the worst book I've ever finished.

I was assigned it, once upon a time, and aside from being hilariously self-sycophantic (yes, I wouldn't have believed that was possible either) it was in general so poorly written that it was a slow struggle just to finish each page. During the long slog through, I literally thought I might have some kind of a brain disorder that was erasing my ability to read. I thought there was no way a book could be pseudo-high-brow fluff, airport bookstore fodder, while at the same time having syntax and sentence construction subtly impervious to speedy absorbtion.

Turns out I was wrong: it wasn't me, it was him. But then, that's usually the case, isn't it?

The Art of Not Lying**

President Obama addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations yesterday and gave what I found to be a fairly appalling speech -- though, to be sure, not significantly more appalling than his usual obviously deceptive, overly obstreperous, often inane and surprisingly incoherent speeches.

Perhaps the most baldly prevaricative statements came towards the end:

"And I pledge that America will always stand with those who stand up for their dignity and their rights -- for the student who seeks to learn; the voter who demands to be heard; the innocent who longs to be free; the oppressed who yearns to be equal."

"There are basic principles that are universal; there are certain truths which are self-evident -- and the United States of America will never waver in our efforts to stand up for the right of people everywhere to determine their own destiny."

Were the obviously fraudulent Iranian elections that led to weeks of protest in the street, --protest met by that evil regime with murder and intimidation and by our own lofty President Obama with delay and dissembling before weak condemnation -- so long ago that he thinks we have forgotten?

"Always stand"? "Never waver"? It was less than 4 months ago that he himself didn't stand and did waver on precisely those principles! I wonder if he honestly believes his own bullshit or thinks that everyone else is so stupid that he can say whatever he wants, however contradicted by reality his words might be, and get away with it.

He does this kind of thing all the time, on matters great and small. Last Sunday, George Stephanopoulos(fn1) asked him how fining people who don't buy health insurance -- as Obama has said he would do -- is not a tax? Obama said it's just not. Only a liar would say it was. Stephanopoulos cited the Webster's dictionary definition of "tax" in support of his question, to which Obama replied "George, the fact that you looked up Merriam's Dictionary, the definition of tax increase, indicates to me that you're stretching a little bit right now." I see, so when Obama denies that a word means what it means, he is right, not the dictionary. Nor, apparently, is the bill he was defending, which calls the charge a tax, correct. Whatever Obama says at the moment is right. Reality bends to his needs.

Or, later during that same Sunday morning media blitz, when Obama suggested that he is holding off on committing more troops to Afghanistan -- troops that were requested in a strategy document sent to him a month ago by his own chosen general -- because we are "lacking a strategy", he seems to want to imply that Bush screwed up Afghanistan, left us without a goal or a strategy and that Obama must fix that problem before moving on to questions of resources. He must think we are so stupid that we have forgotten his speech of last March (6 months ago!) "announcing a comprehensive, new strategy for Afghanistan". A strategy that marked "the conclusion of a careful policy review that I ordered as soon as I took office." Clearly, he was either lying then about having carefully developed a strategy or he is lying now about not having one. Or, perhaps most likely, both.

I honestly cannot understand how our supposedly bright punditocracy continues to gush over his enormously similar speeches. Yes, he gives a good speech. His cadence and pronunciation, his gestures and pauses: he is a master, no doubt. But given that he gives every speech pretty much the same way, you would think at some point our professional political observers would start paying attention to the actual content of these wonderfully delivered speeches and discover that they are at best full of deception, often contradict previous statements and are usually in conflict with plain reality. Sometimes all at the same time.

** I've had something of a ground-swell of late asking for new posts -- well, as much of a 'ground-swell' as a blog whose highest readership number was barely in the double digits can generate, anyway. So here you go. I've been considering taking up the blog again but am leery. I've got some potential ideas but a lot of other stuff on my plate of late so don't go getting your hopes up. With any luck, this angry rant will turn my few beleaguered readers off to the point that I can retire in peace...

fn1: Can I just note how appalled I am to find "Stephanopoulos" in the spell-check? I hope they have it wrong.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Bad Decisions: Not Just For Poor Folk!

I've pointed out in previous posts that nearly every article I read about people in horrible financial straits contains obvious hints -- if not outright confirmation -- that colossally bad decision making underlies the problems.

I get the sense, sometimes, that people think I'm picking on poor folk when I do this. That somehow, poor folk are forced into making bad decisions by the immutable facts of their lives and it is somehow bad form to point out that if they had made better decisions, they would have had a better outcome.

Well, today I saw an article in the NY Times written by one of their economics writers about how he has descended into a pit of debt. Reading the article one sees, as always, that his situation is the result of terrifically poor decision making. Perhaps because he is not a middle-class writer trying to tug heart strings about the plight of the poor but rather confessing his own problems, these bad decisions are not concealed and glossed-over the way they tend to be in sob-stories focusing on the poor.

At any rate, I thought I'd just take the moment to point out that if you repeatedly make bad decisions, they will lead you to penury just as surely whether you make $120,000 a year (as the author of this piece does) or $30,000 per year (as the unfortunates in one of my previous posts on the subject did). Sure, you'll probably get to the poorhouse faster on $30K but the fall will seem much more calamitous from $120K.

The other thing to note is the perhaps obvious point that people who make $120,000 are probably less likely to make enough bad decisions to ruin their lives. If they were the types who were relatively incapable of logically forecasting the results of their actions, after all, it's unlikely they would make it through the requirements to get jobs at $120,000. (Education, working-your-way-up, etc.)

I came to the article through Megan McArdle, one of the professional bloggers at The Atlantic. In her post she acknowledges the courage it must take for a professional economics journalist to admit to having fallen into the state he's in and then goes on to talk about how difficult it is to make ends meet as a journalist, particularly b/c you tend to be well-educated and friends with upwardly mobile professionals in industries that pay much better and probably aren't teetering on the verge of extinction.

Of course, she also points out that she finds it "obvious, unembarrassing, and uncontroversial" to admit that her household (with her and her unemployed journalist boyfriend) must cut back. Here we have an example of good decision making. This is why she is unlikely to fall into the truly dire straits in which the NY Times fellow finds himself. If, on the other hand, she found it unremarkable to live on credit card debt while maintaining a lifestyle that neither she nor her boyfriend could afford, then disaster would follow as surely as night follows day. And it would not be the choice of poorly-paying career -- or rather not primarily that choice -- that led them there. It would be the logical end result of the repeated bad decision to not live within their means.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Quote of the Day

George Will on the Obama administration: "The administration's central activity -- the political allocation of wealth and opportunity -- is not merely susceptible to corruption, it is corruption."


Thursday, May 7, 2009

What 12-year Old Girl's Basketball, TE Lawrence and Computer War Games have in Common

I'm still under the gun with work-related stuff until next Wed., so posting will be fairly nonexistent until then.

I did just want to point out that Gladwell's latest piece in the New Yorker is stupid and approaches self-parody.

I don't have time to go through it point- by-point illustrating its manifold stupidities, so I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

I'll just tease it by saying that one of his main arguments is that men's college basketball way under-utilizes the full-court press. His primary support for this is that a parent-coach had a lot of success with it in his 12-year old daughter's league.

No, seriously.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Greed apparently not always good

Oliver Stone is looking to make a Wall Street sequel.

As long as we're going with bad ideas, why not follow in the footsteps of the ultimate bad-idea man, George Lucas, and have an entire awful trilogy to crap all over the magnificent creation of your youth?

Wall Street: The Phantom Prosperity
Wall Street: Attack of the CDO's
Wall Street: Revenge of the Socialists

Best part? Shia Labeouf is up for it. You know, I'm a nice guy. I don't wish harm on anyone. But it's really hard not to wish at least some harm on Shia.

And I say this as one who enjoyed the odd Even Stevens episode as a guilty pleasure.

His good movie to bad movie ratio is skewed way to the dark side. This isn't, in and of itself, a reason to wish him harm, of course. There are lots of people who don't make good movies and never have that bother me little to not at all. But his failures tend to involve the steaming wreckage of beloved childhood memories of mine. Yes, Transformers was okay. But the last Indy film was an abomination. (fn1)

Wall Street is a good movie. It encapsulated its time well. I agree that the current financial mess could serve as a good backdrop for a movie. But, Oliver, please. Let some young auteur with a fresh take and feel for the times take a crack at it. Don't try to wedge Gekko into it. Don't ruin what we had with some half-baked cash-in staring that sack of overwhelmed youngster that is Shia.

I leave you with a link to Talking Heads This must be the place, the song playing as Charlie Sheen outfits his new apartment in Wall Street. Good tune, I always smile when it comes up on my iPod.

fn1: South Park had a memorable episode in which the kids are traumatized from having seen Indy getting raped. The rape being, of course, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Which I still haven't seen. And probably won't because while it was fun to watch the Nazis' faces melt when they looked in the Ark in Raiders, I fear that something similar would happen to me upon witnessing Crystal Skull.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Warning: Slow Traffic Ahead

I've got some work-related stuff that'll be keeping me pretty occupied for the next month or so, just to explain the slow posting of late and to come.

Of course, if I have any more run-ins with prostitutes, you kind people will be the first to know.

Also, to my anonymous debate partner in the AIG-bonus post, I've seen your latest and will respond but, sadly, that will be slow as well.

Prostitutes Redux OR Stories from the Recession

I was awoken at 3:00 this morning by a loud fight taking place outside my building. Now, living in midtown Manhattan I do not expect pastoral silence for my slumbers. Pretty regularly, we get boisterous revellers (read: drunken bar-goers) caterwauling their way down the block but this did not sound like the type of noise typical of my neighborhood.

What I heard was what sounded like one woman loudly screaming at someone to "get out of the car!" Along with plenty of cursing and the like.

Much as Father does in the celebrated poem Twas the Night Before Christmas, I sprang from the bed, flew to the window in a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash(fn1) to see what was the matter...

Instead of a miniature sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, however, what appeared to my wondering eye was two African American prostitutes and a drunken white businessman.(fn2) They were having quite the argument in and around an SUV parked directly across the street from my apartment.

How nice.

From what I could gather of the fight, the two hookers must have picked up the john to do their business in the SUV and at some point (impossible to tell when during the proceedings it might have happened) the man refused to pay. This had understandably upset the prostitutes terribly and they were demanding that he get out of the car so they could leave. It was hard to make out what the man was saying, as unlike the ladies he wasn't screaming at the top of his lungs, so I'm not quite sure what his argument was, except perhaps "I'm a drunken idiot who wants to have an argument."

How can I be sure they were prostitutes? Because at one point, after they had apparently drawn the man's ire by asking him loudly, "If you're a millionaire, where is your money? Where are your friends? How come you're walking down the street at night alone??" To which he responded (audibly, for the first time), "I'm going to take down your license plate number!" Whereupon one prostitute replied, displaying admirable logic, "Go ahead! I'm a prostitute! What you gonna do with a license plate number??"(fn3)

There were also a number of asides to the ladies by what I can only assume was one or the other's daughter in the vein of "Let it go, Mom, let's just leave!" Sensible advice but predictably slow to be heeded by prostitutes who would take their daughter with them to turn tricks.(fn4)

At any rate, eventually the prostitutes tired of haranguing the drunken lout and managed to extricate their car enough from his inebriated grasp to peel out and away.

The disheveled, suited man then took a moment to survey the surrounding buildings and, as my head was perched in front of my still mostly-closed blinds, caught sight of me. He looked dead straight at me and then slowly extended to me a middle-finger salute -- a gesture I would have though more appropriate coming from me whom he had awoken. I shook my head slowly and then withdrew for a moment. He began to stagger off down the street and back to bed I went.

It took me an hour to fall asleep again. I wish I'd called the cops (there's a station two blocks away) when I first heard the noise. It would have given me great joy to have had that man thrown in jail, though that probably wouldn't have happened.

So prostitutes again. In my neighborhood again. I was a bit groggy and at a much further distance this time, but I have to say this pair was much less appealing in both appearance and -- most certainly -- demeanor than the one who propositioned me from an SUV some months back.

I can't help but think the increasing prevalence and apparent rising disregard for stealth is somewhat related to desperation brought on by the worsening economic conditions. But maybe I've just been reading too many sob-stories in the Times.

fn1: Well, drew the Venetian blinds, things have changed since Victorian times...

fn2: My sig. other informs me that the man was British. I do not recollect this but, if true, it would lend an additional sad air to the fall of that once great people. She also says there was a significant part of the fight during which one of the women was yelling about being pregnant. I also do not remember that. Ah, how interesting to see how people's recollection of an event can differ! This is why eye-witness testimony is not the gold-standard that you might think it would be and why circumstantial evidence, though it sounds much inferior, can actually be sig. more persuasive.

fn3: This exchange immediately followed an amusing comment by one of the prostitutes to the effect of "I"m a real New Yorker! You must be from Jersey or somewhere!" Ah yes, a status fight between a prostitute and her john. I'm reminded of the tag line from the first (which lamentably was not also the last) Alien vs. Predator movie: "Whoever wins... we lose."

fn4: Perhaps they had confused this with the child-friendly version of "trick-or-treat" or perhaps the daughter was deemed to be of age to start an apprenticeship, who knows.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Mythbusters Cranks the Awesome up to 11

Video of the Mythbusters team smashing a steel plate into a car at 700 miles per hour.

Just in case the probably-faked Italian meter-maid humping video from earlier didn't do it for you.

Healthcare Link

Interesting post on health care over at The Atlantic's business section.

It's pretty much where I was heading with my posts but the ambitious folk who are actually paid to blog for a living have got there before I did.

Rest assured, the rest of my promised healthcare musings will be forthcoming regardless. The Atlantic, for the most part, doesn't have my insouciant way with words, so I can add that, at the very least...

Video of the day

Sorry for the slow posting of late. Know that I am noodling some long posts on various topics. Mostly I'm trying to tone down the invective in them so I don't scare the horses.(fn1)

Also, due to circumstances out of my control, I will be in Anguilla for a wedding for most of this week. I will not be thinking about the internet while I am there so you will have to suffer without my wise guidance.

As a small attempt to make amends, I give you this video of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi taking the time out of his busy day to pretend-hump a meter-maid on his way to the car.

The guy's an amateur. Bill Clinton would have avoided the cameras and would not have gone the 'pretend' route, but rather the full monty.

fn1: In this usage horses = my liberal readers.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Boxing Day

I work, as some readers know, for a large corporation. (We're trying to keep this thing at least nominally anonymous so, please, those of you who know which one, don't go shouting out the answer -- or even any hints. Thx.) I work in the corporate headquarters building. As corporate headquarters are wont to have, it has corporate security. They are perfectly nice fellows, so far as I have interacted with them, but they are most definitely carrying out fairly specific rules that have been given to them. I ran into one of these rules in a rather amusing way the other day.

A few weeks back I ordered some t-shirts online. They were too small but the store has free exchanges: you print out a packing slip, rebox it and drop it at the post office. Since there is a post office that is very convenient to my office, I took the boxed t-shirts to work to drop off during a spare moment.

Now, this box. It was a brown cardboard box just the right size to hold the 4 or 5 t-shirts it contained. So, a small box. Too small to put, say, a ream of paper in. Just about the right size to put one desk phone in, maybe.

So about 3:00 I decided to pop out to the post office with my box. As I walked through the turnstiles at the main entrance, a security guy stopped me and asked about the box.

"Where are you taking that?"
"To the post office."
"The mailroom or the post office?"(fn1)
"The Post Office."
"Are you bringing it back?"
"No, I'm mailing it."
"Do you have a form for that?"

A form? What? I was befuddled. He directed me to the security desk. I got over there and the nice security man there asked me about the box. It's my box, I said, with some shirts that I'm returning. He explained that no one may remove "anything" from the office without filling out a form saying what it is, why you are removing it, who approved the removal, and your supervisor's name. He gave me the form and told me to put my name down as "removing" and also as "authorizing" and whatever.

I asked him, "If I remove 'anything'? Because I brought this box in this morning, what if I brought in a gym bag, would I need a form to take it back out?"
"Yes, anything."

So as I finished filling out the form, as luck would have it, a lady was leaving the office and had come through the turnstiles behind us. She was carrying a large purse-like bag and also a large Duane Reade bag. And was, of course, just walking out, hassle free. Each of the two bags could hold maybe 3 boxes of my box's size. So I pointed her out and asked the guy, "See her? Why doesn't she have to fill out a form to remove those bags?"

"Those are her personal bags."
"So, to be clear, if I had put this box into a Duane Reade bag I would not have to fill out a form and we would not be having this conversation?"
"We don't search personal bags, you have a box."
"It's my personal box."
"It's not a bag."
"Again, I just want to understand, if I put this in a bag, you don't care. It's only because it's in a box."

The guy was confused so his supervisor who had returned to the desk as we were talking came over to see what was what. I asked him about the box-bag distinction.

"That's right," he said,"it sounds stupid, I know, but that's the rule."
"I think it sounds stupid because it is stupid," I said, "But now I know: take things out in bags, not boxes. Good to know."

fn1: Our headquarters is large enough to have its own mail system but we are not supposed to use it for anything but official correspondence and I am nothing if not a fastidious follower of corporate rule-making.


Some interesting links:

- Sports Illustrated on pro-players going broke

Eye-opening stats from the first page:

• By the time they have been retired for two years, 78% of former NFL players have gone bankrupt or are under financial stress because of joblessness or divorce.
• Within five years of retirement, an estimated 60% of former NBA players are broke.

- Former IMF'er writes on the U.S. as suffering from a classic "emerging market" financial disaster.

Best part? Due to our "advantages" we're less likely to actually take the hard steps to quickly confront the problems and more likely to pussyfoot around and let things get worse and worse.

Quick Question

Does anyone ever actually use the "Overwrite" feature in Windows where typing overwrites the text ahead of your cursor instead of inserting it or is it just there to annoy me whenever I accidentally brush the "Insert" key when reaching for its next-door-neighbor the "Home" key?

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

When Analogies Attack

I was reading the "preview" of this week's NY Times Magazine article on Freeman Dyson and why he is crazy b/c he's not joining up with the global warming scare-team when I came across this:
...The New York Review of Books, the left-leaning publication that is to gravitas what the Beagle was to Darwin...
What can it possibly mean? The NY Review of Books is to gravitas as the Beagle was to Darwin?

The Beagle was the ship Darwin travelled on that provided him the time and opportunity to catalog the observations that led to his theory of evolution and book laying out said theory "On the Origin of Species".

So the NY Times Review of Books is akin to a ship that gravitas sails on? Or it's the tool that allows gravitas to create new insights?

Am I missing something or is this gibberish?

I think what happened is the writer decided to forget that words actually mean something b/c it was just so nice to be able to shoehorn in a reference to another famously controversial-for-his-time scientist while reminding the reader of the "gravitas" of the NY Review of Books. It flowed so well the actual meaning (or lack thereof) of what he'd written seemed unimportant by comparison.

Slow Ride...

The city that never sleeps is going to slow down a bit, it seems. Massive service cutbacks and fare increases have been passed by the MTA's board.

It could be a bargaining tactic to force Albany to cough up some green but my bet is that my commute -- and travel to just about anywhere -- is about to get uglier.

Title of this post courtesy of Foghat.

Worst Week Ever...

So this Japanese businessman was on a business trip to Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945 and gets a nuke dropped on him.

You can imagine how glad he was to quickly make it back home to Nagasaki...

Just in time for the Aug. 9 bombing there.


Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Misc. Links!

Couple of quick links to things I'm reading and enjoying.

1) This article(fn1) on the rise and fall of Culture11 is interesting thus far. It makes me wish I'd paid more attention to Culture11 when it was around(fn2). The opening few paragraphs also make me want to read more Tom Wolfe(fn3). I leave you with just this one quote from James Poulos, who was apparently the Political Editor for Culture11:
"The right has a lot to learn from people who are completely outside of it," he explained later. If they did that, they "might actually win some latecomers, people who have lived unhappy or unsatisfying lives. And if they show up at the door of the right and say, ‘Gosh, my super-transgressive life is sort of unrewarding, maybe I’ve exhausted this mine of self-indulgence and personal freedom and saying ‘fuck the man,’ and the right is completely disinterested in engaging those people, I think they’re missing out."
I feel that this expresses something significant about the approach to conservatism that I and many of my friends take. If I ever sit down and think constructively about my philosophy, understanding those elements will certainly be a part of it.(fn4)

2) That quote put me in mind of this excellent speech (the link is to the transcript) delivered by Charles Murray at the recent AEI something or other. I'll let him lay out the topic:
"I have two points to make. First, I will argue that the European model is fundamentally flawed because, despite its material successes, it is not suited to the way that human beings flourish--it does not conduce to Aristotelian happiness. Second, I will argue that twenty-first-century science will prove me right.
I haven't finished reading it through, just yet, but I find it intriguing. More the first bit than the second.(fn5)

fn1: Which I came across from the link in this post on the excellent Marginal Revolutions blog. Seriously, it's excellent, you should check it out.

fn2: I did find my way over there quite a bit, but not in any organized kind of way.

fn3: As does, interestingly, reading Tom Wolfe. Oh for more time...

fn4: Which is not at all to say that any of us have lived -- or even wanted to live -- "super-transgressive" lives, just that I have a respect for people who do but also a kind of distrust of the mindset that says we should throw out civilization b/c I want to grow beyond it. If you throw it out, how will you be able to justify your journey as going "beyond"? In other words, without standards, how can you boldly disregard standards? I'm going on too long, but it's something that I wrestle with from time to time. (fn6)

fn5: Came across the Murray speech on The Corner, National Review's blog that is usually fairly lively and interesting.

fn6:The phrase I always remember when thinking along these lines is "if you see through everything, you don't see everything, you see nothing." Kind of the zen way of pointing out that life without rules isn't ultimate freedom, it's ultimately meaningless.

Photo Fun!

Inspired by my friend Mr. D's blog, I have spruced up my title with a snappy new picture.

The picture was cribbed from here and adjusted in MS Paint with my awesomely spectacular graphic design skills. If anyone who has actual graphic design skills wants to come up with something better, I would be much obliged.

Couple of other blog management type things, while we're on the topic:

1) I am vaguely considering switching the blog to Wordpress. There seem to be some better features over there that interest me. If anybody has thoughts on the relative merits of Wordpress vs. Blogger, or even just wants to tell me about the fantastic features of Wordpress, I'd be interested.

2) Ads. As I was implementing my title picture, I noticed a "Monetize" tab in the Blogger management screen. Since we in the U.S. are now all about monetization, I was intrigued. But, of course, I live to serve my readers, both of them. Would there be any sig. objections to my experimenting with the relatively run-of-the-mill Ad-Sense text ads? Please register objections in the comments to this post. Frankly, I'm interested to see what ads my rather specialized take on the world would draw...

Monday, March 23, 2009

Of Sickness and Work

I've been thinking a bit about health care of late. It seemed only appropriate since our president is apparently of the opinion that the near collapse of the economy is a problem secondary to our health care system's many flaws and failings. So I'm going to be putting together some posts outlining my few thoughts on the health care system's present state, the problems, the potential, the potential problems...

At any rate, here's the first one.

Thought 1: The fact that health insurance is almost entirely tied to employment in this country is beyond stupid.

Interestingly, this bizarre state of affairs is actually a result (as most bizarre states of affairs are...) of prior government intrusion in the economy. You see (he says, settling into his easy chair and grabbing his pipe...) back, oh, 60 or 70 years ago, there was no such thing as health insurance. If you were sick or otherwise needed a doctor you sought one out, got treated and paid him. All on your own.

Now, keep in mind that this is so long ago that medical science was pretty rudimentary compared with what we have today. Oh sure, they had the germ theory of disease and a few highly efficacious drugs (aspirin, penicillin) but not many. The nearly miraculous and extremely costly treatments that we take for granted today simply didn't exist. For lots of conditions the best the doctor could do was make you comfortable and hope you either got better fast or died quickly. This was not as effective, for the most part, as modern medical science but it was relatively cheap.

So. No health insurance. Then, low about 1941 or so, we got into a bit of trouble with Germans and Japanese and decided to dedicate pretty much our entire economy to destroying their war-making powers. You may have heard the period referred to as WWII. It was an interesting time not just for foreign relations, but economically as well in that the government exerted unprecedented control over the economy, as it might be expected to given that it was purchasing the majority of the output.

Among the controls put in place were wage controls.(fn1) Now, people being bright and enterprising, they wanted some way around the wage controls. They wanted to be able to compete on price for labor, that is to offer higher payments for better workers, just as they always do. But they were explicitly not allowed to offer higher wages. So what happened? That's right! The first large-scale creation of "benefits". You see, rather than paying more you could pay the government mandated wage but add in a benefit like, for example, having your medical expenses paid for by the company.

Bully. And, of course, once created the benefit became a standard expectation and never died even though it is beyond ridiculous to have health insurance tied to employment in the way we do.

And that, dear reader, is the story of why health insurance is tied to employment in the United States: it was an unintended side effect of the well-meaning effort to curb wage inflation during the tight labor markets of the war years.

So, I think we can all agree that having health insurance tied to employment is beyond stupid. But it's interesting to note that this stupid state of affairs is the result of government involvement in the economy; it makes one wonder whether further government involvement in the economy is really the solution...

One of the best ways to wean us all off of employer provided health care would be to stop giving the tax breaks for health insurance only to employers. This gives them the incentive to offer gold-plated health-insurance as a benefit as it's a tax-free way to increase compensation. But why should health insurance be tax-free if your employer picks your choices but after-tax if you buy it on your own?

I thought McCain's proposal on this was great and I was disappointed to see Obama demagogue the point throughout the campaign. Relatedly, I was somewhat heartened to see that Obama has recently changed his mind and floated the idea of removing the tax benefit of employer-provided health care. Sadly, he has missed the point of McCain's plan, which was to move the benefit from the employer to the employee (or, actually, everyone, since you would no longer have to have employer-provided health care to benefit from the tax-savings) and is simply using it as a revenue generating measure to pay for his attempt to nationalize health care.


At any rate. Things to look forward to in future health care musings:

- Health care in the US is more expensive than in many countries with socialized systems yet has no better (and, in some measures, slightly worse) mass health outcomes. This is not suggestive of what you think it is.

- Enabling greater access to and utilization of preventative care may be a laudable goal but -- contrary to what many pro-government health care advocates say -- it is in no way a cost saving measure for the health care system as whole.

- And other wackily sensible thoughts on health care economics that I haven't even thought up yet!! What fun.

fn1: Which are always stupid in exactly the same way as price controls are because they are simply price controls on the price of labor. Anyhoo.


My favorite story of the year so far has got to be the story of the Prime Minister's gift.

In case you haven't been following all of its amusing wrinkles, please allow me to give a brief recap of the more humourous(fn1) moments.

Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, our oldest and most powerful ally, paid a state visit to President Obama. Ordinarily when the UK Prime Minister visits there is pomp and circumstance: a joint press conference, perhaps a state dinner, that kind of thing. Obama was apparently quite too busy not nominating anyone to Treasury to deal with the economic crisis and so decided that all he could spare was a brief conference in the Oval Office. Oh well, can't have everything for the first major state visit.

It is traditional at these first meetings to exchange gifts. Mr. Brown brought Obama a pen holder. A pen holder carved from the timbers of the old British anti-slaving warship the HMS President, the ship, it so happens, that was the sister ship to the British anti-slaving warship HMS Resolute whose timbers supplied the wood to create the desk that Pres. Obama uses in the Oval Office. He also gave him a 7-volume biography of Winston Churchill.(fn2)

Initially, it was a bit of a secret what President Obama had given in return, as the Prime Minister's office was uncharacteristically coy when asked about it. Eventually, though, it came out that Obama had given him a collection of 25 classic American DVDs -- including films relatively unknown in Britain such as The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars and Psycho.

That's quite a gift for any special occasion. I mean that could run you anywhere from $100 to $150 at Target, unless they were having a sale, but actually the thoughtlessness of the gift is even more profound than that. You see, Gordon Brown is blind in one eye and apparently slightly hard-of-seeing in the other. Giving movies to a partially blind guy might seem insensitive but it's actually not b/c the DVDs they gave were coded for the U.S. region and so won't play on British DVD players regardless.

It is literally hard to think of a gift that would be more embarrassingly inappropriate and demonstrate a higher level of disregard.

The British press took this as an unconscionable snub, and it's sort of hard not to see it that way. (fn3) Apparently, when asked what this meant for the historic "special relationship" one unidentified WH staffer said that Britain should expect to be treated no differently than any other country. Any other country like, say, pissant third-world dictatorships who hate America? Interesting to know.

More recently, when someone at 10 Downing tried to play one of the DVDs thus discovering that they were the wrong region and unplayable, a WH staffer contacted by the British press apparently "snickered" when he heard. It is funny -- I've been tremendously amused -- but this is perhaps not the correct reaction from a WH staffer. Maybe some contrition, some embarrassment, something.

I'm just so glad that we finally have some adults in the White House who will be charming our way back into those Europeans' good graces.


Perhaps later we can talk about Hillary's disastrous world tour that culminated with her trying to "reset" the administration's relations with Russia after their attempt at back-channel letter writing was embarrassingly publicly rebuffed. She gave the Russian Foreign Minister a button labeled "Reset" except that they mistranslated the button so it actually said "Overcharge". Aside from the wild inappropriateness of hammy prop-gags in international relations among world powers, there's the simple incompetence on display in not being able to get a one-word translation correct. Have they never heard of babelfish?

A wag on a blog I read pointed out that this is also interesting in that our general foreign policy towards Russia since the dawn of the nuclear age has been pretty uniformly directed towards getting them to not push the button. But whatever.

fn1: Yes, the British spelling. 'Cause it's a post about British folk.

fn2: The Churchill bio. might have been a traditionally understated British slap to the face, seeing as our Pres. had only recently decided to give back the bust of Churchill that the British government had loaned us as a sign of solidarity in the days after 9/11. But then again it might not have been, this is the genius of the understated British sense of humor.

fn3: Yes, hard to see, 'cause the PM's partially blind, get it? Whatever, I'm a blogger not the President. Yet.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009


On the topic of the AIG bonuses, I understand and sympathize with the outrage but am very much on the side of respecting the sanctity of contracts and our system's (rather flimsily remaining, it seems at present) rules against bills of attainder(fn1) and the like. These are the kinds of things that our very civilization depends on and should not be trifled with no matter how vehement the popular outrage.

That said, the whole episode throws into stark relief an interesting problem with the way high-finance's compensation system is currently set up.

This piece in the NY Times presents the best (and, perhaps, only possible) defense of paying out the bonuses. In addition to sharing my respect for contracts, he points out that the problems these people are unwinding are tremendously complicated and since these folk built them, they know the details better than anyone and are in the best position to fix them. So you want to keep them around and thus will pay to do so.

Also, there is the possibility of other companies poaching these folk away precisely because of their familiarity with AIG's positions. Yes, they constructed the financial bomb that almost destroyed the financial world, but now there is good money to be made if you know which companies are counterparties to the mess. Basically, you could bet against the folk exposed to the bomb you built.

Can we see the problem here? If you are one of these geniuses of finance, every incentive you have is to make big, risky potential bombs. The bigger, the better. The riskier, the better. If everything goes well and it pays off, you become unfathomably rich. If everything goes wrong, then so long as it's big enough and complicated enough, you'll be paid handsomely to try to defuse it, because you were the one who built it. And if anyone should refuse to pay you to try to save them from the disaster you created, you can go and make a killing betting on it's blowing up.

Financial innovation can be a wonderful thing but so long as the entire system of rewards is set up so that those with the most skill and knowledge of complex finance can best maximize their earnings by creating massive potential financial catastrophes, we are going to continue to have massive financial catastrophes.(fn2)

I'm not sure what the solution is. Perhaps going back to something more like the old-school partner model might be beneficial, as then the folk responsible are not just playing with other people's money, but with their own and with their own name.

fn1: It occurs to me that folk might not be familiar with the term "bill of attainder". A bill of attainder is when you pass a law that directly targets an individual. Traditionally, they were used to punish or sentence to death without a trial. They are expressly forbidden in the US Constitution. My recollection is that they were only very rarely used even by the time of our split from England but still our founders felt it an important enough point to include in the constitution. Though with a "living constitution", perhaps our understanding of their prohibition has grown to include allowing them when we really, really want to get somebody without all the usual legal rigmarole.

fn2: Note that we will certainly have massive financial catastrophes either way, but without the poor incentive structure we will hopefully have fewer and, at the very least, can take consolation in that we weren't basically paying people to create them on purpose.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Wither Britain

Meant to mention this a month or so ago when it came out but congratulations to Britain for becoming the first industrialized nation to see the Flynn Effect reverse itself!

First into the Industrial Revolution and now first into the dark night! What an iconoclastic people those Brits are!

I must note how nice it is to have actual hard evidence for my thesis of Western Civ's decline. Guess I wasn't just whistling dixie after all...

A Tale of Two Monkeys

Recently up here in the NYC area we had an awful bit of excitement when a chimpanzee went wild(fn1) and mauled a lady, taking out her face and very nearly killing her. Police shot the chimpanzee dead.

An interesting side-note to the story was that the chimp's mother had also been shot after going wild but the circumstances were different in what I think is a fairly illuminating way. You see, the chimp's mother didn't actually maul anyone. In that case, the chimp started acting in a threatening manner and someone got a gun and shot it before it hurt anyone.

So what happened to that person? Oh, they were put in jail, of course. You see, the chimp hadn't done anything wrong. Its owner said they should have just hidden inside and let the chimp cool down, they didn't have to shoot it.

I am 100% sure if someone had shot the latest chimp just prior to its ruining of the woman's life, that person would likewise have been condemned for attacking an innocent animal.

Much of life is like this: you cannot prove a negative so you will be pilloried for taking actions that you feel are preventing worse outcomes. And you are more likely to face disapprobation the more successfully preventative your actions are.

Please note that I am not saying that we need to always err on the side of "shooting the chimp"(fn2), I am merely pointing out, as someone must, that the world is a complicated and messy place and there are no easy answers.

fn1: Any time a wild animal in captivity snaps and hurts someone I am reminded of Chris Rock's memorable nsight when Siegfried and Roy's tiger mauled whichever of them it mauled:
Sigfried and Roy, man, the tiger bit the man in the head and everybody's mad at the tiger. Talking about 'The tiger went crazy.' That tiger didn't go crazy, that tiger went tiger! You know when the tiger went crazy? When the tiger was riding around on a little bike with a Hitler-helmet on!
Classic. You can see it
here at about 1:20 in.

fn2: Though I do think "shooting the chimp" would make an excellent candidate for a phrase to popularize. I picture it working like this:
Two guys at a party immediately after one has cut his friend off as he was about to say something stupid in front of a girl...
Guy 1:"Why the hell did you do that, man??"
Guy 2:"Just shooting the chimp."(fn3)

fn3: I must confess, though, to never having had the stick-to-it-iveness to follow through on my phrase popularization schemes. A couple friends and I thought the phrase "compensating for bullet drop", which originally refers to snipers having to aim far above their targets to hit them after the effects of gravity, would make for an equally good pop-phrase. Actually, I still do, I'm going to try to work that into conversation over the next few weeks.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Just Deserts

Ran across this piece in the Onion AV Club about the film The Devil's Advocate, a decent-ish Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino movie featuring the devil as a New York corporate attorney.

In the piece, the author makes this aside:

Aside: Why are criminal-defense attorneys always nearest to Satan in our culture? Everyone deserves a fair trial and adequate representation, and if they didn't, our justice system would collapse.
This is a fairly common way of thinking about our justice system's insistence on everyone having access to a fair trial but it is wrong. Everyone does not deserve a fair trial. Someone who has violated society's agreed upon standards of behavior deserves only whatever punishment society has deemed should follow that violation.

The reason we have this insistence on a fair trial is that we do not know with certainty who is guilty and who is innocent. And because we highly value the protection of the rights of the innocent, we have devised a system with hurtles against conviction of innocent people.

The reason everyone must have access to a fair trial in our system is not b/c guilty people deserve fairness it's because innocent people do. And you can't always easily tell the one from the other.

To illustrate the self-evident truth of this, let's imagine for a moment that we discover some marvelous new technology that allows us to tell with 100% certitude whether someone is guilty of a crime. Let's say it provides a television like view of the person that you can rewind through time to see with perfect clarity if they were actually the person who robbed the bank or killed their friend or whatever else the crime might be.

What possible purpose would a trial, fair or otherwise, serve in that scenario? Wouldn't they "deserve" a fair trial? Of course not! The purpose of the trial is to establish beyond a reasonable doubt that they are the guilty party but you would already have established that!

We might still have a use for sentencing hearings to determine the person's level of culpability (were they temp. insane, were there other mitigating factors?) and we would most def. still have disagreements as a society over what the appropriate punishment for various crimes should be but the trial system would be obsolete and useless.

I found the author's treatment of the devil's seductive monologue at the end of the film arguing that he (the devil) has been far more a friend to man than God ever was to be interestingly flawed as well but my dime-store theologizing will have to await another post.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Je réponds

So, as I mentioned, my flurry of posts at the end of last year drew forth an unprecedented number of comments. And not only a sig. number(fn1) but also substantive, which was pretty much a first for the blog. I was excited. I wanted and promised to respond. Unfortunately, year-end close and the ensuing annual statement stuff is the busiest time of the year at work and I've also been busy with some stuff at home so I have not taken the time to sit down and give the attention that such a response deserves.

But now I am.(fn2)

First, because I'm pretty sure nobody besides me reads the comments(fn3), here is SaltyGirl's response to my post on the paternalism of foodstamps:
(Not knowing where to begin, she puts on her boots, and wades in the muck.)There are many, many valid reasons for the government to designate what various forms of assistance must be spent on. Your assertion that the very act of designating aid for food, rather than just "giving" handouts is paternalistic is perplexing. There are many parallel circumstances- such as with governments only spending certain funds on certain projects- where it makes good sense to have designated pots of money for certain needs. Why do this? Any number of reasons- accountability, ease of tracking and evaluating need, etc. With foodstamps and other need-based forms of assistance, the gov't has the additional compelling interest of promoting the health and welfare of its people.

Ultimately, the fact that you are against most forms of gov't regulation will probably cause you to dismiss what I am saying. BUT. You should at least learn something about foodstamps while you are dismissing me: For people that are struggling financially, foodstamps are literally a lifesaver. Foodstamps and WIC make a huge difference in the quality of life for almost 30 million people in America. They give children the opportunity to not start out life disadvantaged because they are malnourished. Hunger is a real problem, and it exists in your city, today. Until you are prepared to do without all of the benefits of government, don't heap scorn on others who benefit as well. Aiee! I am supposed to be studying right now! Damn you and your blog, damn you!! :) (fn4)
First, just as an overall comment to dispel any misconceptions, I was not saying that foodstamps were bad because they were paternalistic. Indeed, I was saying that I think the paternalism is a necessary feature of them, that the money would be wasted if the government didn't attempt to direct the handouts to food.

Second, still sticking with the general before I respond in detail, I am not against "most government regulation". I am against stupid, counter-productive government regulation -- a category into which a disturbingly large amount of government regulation falls, I'll admit. But I am fully cognizant of the need for much government regulation. Being a conservative, I also believe that there are limits to how well government will ever function. This does not mean that I feel it should stop functioning. That would be more on the libertarian side of the spectrum and while I have some sympathy for that view, it is miles from where I am.

Another aspect of being a conservative is to be aware that there are no real "solutions" to many of life's problems. We live in an imperfect world that is not perfectible. Indeed, attempts to perfect it tend to lead to the worst kinds of suffering. So when I point out a problem, do not think that I am implying that I have a solution or that there even is a solution at all. There are always different sets of trade-offs that we could change to and we need to be aware of what set we are dealing with and think about what other sets might be possible but there is no "solution".

Now, to deal more directly with SaltyGirl's comment.

I must confess perplextion at SatlyGirl's perplexity (fn5) as stated in the first part. I am fully aware that there are lots of reasons for the government to put different money in different pots. I work fairly closely with accountants and realize that it is important and fascinating work.(fn6) That said, there is no need for the government's obv. interest in tracking their expenditures to dictate that expenditures intended to alleviate the effects of poverty be explicitly guided to food or housing or whatever with separate programs. The only reason for that is that you do not trust the recipients of these payments to spend them wisely. And given that you are designing programs to keep people from starving or dying of exposure (for housing programs), etc., it is imperative that you try as best you can to prevent that from happening.

Let's imagine, for a moment, that we do not feel that we need to supervise the recipient’s spending, that we trust their decision-making and don't feel the need to paternalistically tell them "this money is for food", "this money is for rent", "this money is for clothing" and whatever other programs we might set up. In such a world, the government's interest in tracking their expenditures and testing people's needs could be far more simply met. Rather than have a panoply of poverty programs designed to meet the various needs of poor people, we could simply decide what the minimum income for a person should be. Then need-testing would be the (relatively) straightforward process of seeing how much someone made and the giving would be the (again, relatively) straightforward process of truing up their income to the agreed-upon level. Much easier to administer, much easier to track for fraud, much easier to ensure that everybody's getting their needs met.

In fact, there are people who do trust in the decision making powers of everyone and advocate precisely such a system. Milton Friedman was one such person. I have perhaps a more cynical (realistic?) sense of reality so I feel that such a system would be a disaster. Some portion of the people who received the "true-up aid" would waste the money and end up starving in the cold anyways. They need guidance or structure to prevent that, much in the way a child does. And the word for that guidance is paternalism.

Indeed, SaltyGirl seems to pretty much concede this point at the end of her first paragraph. She says the government has the "additional compelling interest of promoting the health and welfare of it's people". I would agree. But, of course, promoting someone's health and welfare through guiding their actions is paternalism. Again, this does not make it a bad thing.

Not to belabor the point, but when SaltyGirl draws a parallel to the good-directed nature of food-stamp assistance to “governments only spending certain funds on certain projects”, I think she is making an error. No doubt, the government has an interest in knowing how much they are spending on, say, a bridge (I imagine this is the type of project SaltyGirl has in mind), but I hope we can all agree that if the government, when appropriating money for that bridge, felt it necessary to go beyond saying “this is bridge money, here you go” to “this is rivet money, you must spend it on rivets; this is concrete money, you must spend it on concrete; this is girder money, you must spend it on girders” and so on, they would be entering paternalistic territory. Pretty much the only reason I can imagine that they would go to that level of micromanagement would be if they didn’t trust the people in charge of building the bridge to not do something stupid with the money, like just blow it all on a pile of rivets. (fn7)

Now, does the government have an interest in knowing how much money was spent on concrete, rivets, girders, etc. for the bridges they have directed be built? Yes they do. But they get those figures by looking at how much was spent on each category after the fact, rather than trying to direct the money in the appropriation bill.

Moving on to SaltyGirl’s points about hunger being a real problem and foodstamps saving literal millions of lives, I would just say that I was in no way calling for the abolishment of foodstamps or doubting that they help real people. In fact, in the following post, I even said: “of course, in a society as rich as ours we should have a safety net to prevent the worst of human suffering”.

So I hope that will suffice to prove that I am not trying to deny others the benefits of government.

SaltyGirl was interested enough to also leave a comment in my follow-up post about the bad decisions that always seem to be in evidence in media stories about the plight of the poor but I’ll respond to that one in another post.

fn1: Well, significant to me and my little blog...

fn2: A small part of the reason for my long absence was what one might call the procrastinator’s dilemma. I had wanted to respond to the substantive comments left on my blog at the end of last year. I even started composing a response. But I wanted to do it right, spend some time on it. But never seemed to get around to it. And it seemed wrong to throw little one-off posts while not finishing my one big one, so I stopped those as well. It was a vicious cycle. Hopefully this post has broken it and I will learn from the experience to not get into that situation again.

fn3: A quick note about comments. First off, I fully realize that the Blogger software is rudimentary at best. Comments on a separate page without the post? Why? Also, I realize that it looks like you have to register to leave a comment. An exchange with a reader who has emailed me comments in the past brought to my attention the fact that some might be put-off by having to register to leave a comment. You do not, in fact, have to register to leave a comment. You will have to answer a captcha ("what does this text say?") to post and that's annoying but it does keep the spam down. So, just to let you know, don't be afraid to comment. I'd love it and it's prob. not as difficult or intrusive as you think. Also, in the spirit of 50 million Elvis fans not being wrong, I'd point out that Elvis has done it. If the King can comment, why not you?

fn4: I added a paragraph break where I thought it was appropriate and corrected one typo. Because the comment system on Blogger is atrocious (see fn3) I thought it was the least I could do. If there are objections, I'm happy to put it back the way it was.

fn5: Yes, I'm having fun by creating my own conjugation. It's the kind of thing I do.

fn6: Wait, no. Not fascinating, the other one. Boring. That's it. But still v. important. In fact, double entry accounting is one of the key discoveries underlying much of what we think of as "the modern world". Interestingly, it was invented during the "Dark Ages" and is just one of a number of examples of crucial technological innovation that took place during that much maligned era.

fn7: The other big reason they might do that level of micromanagement was if they had the opposite problem: the bridge builder is too honest and would just spend the money to efficiently build the bridge. Why would this be a problem for the politicians in charge of appropriating the funds? B/c they might want to direct money to, say, concrete providers and the bridge guy might not buy as much concrete as the politicians in league with the concrete builders have already decided should be used. Is this type of thing one of the motivating factors for food-stamps above and beyond paternalism? Almost certainly. We do have, after all, an incredibly powerful food and agricultural lobby, but I don’t think it’s the kind of thing SaltyGirl is advocating so I’m sticking it down here.