5-28-16 Hodgepodge

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Editor's Note: I will be taking next week off from blogging. I will occasionally check for comments and email, but may be slow to respond. I plan to resume posting on June 6. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the holiday.

$4 Trillion: An Underestimate

The headline in the Fiscal Times reads, "The Crushing Cost of Regulation: $4 Trillion Since 1980." Believe it or not, that figure is an underestimate, because it leaves out the effects of numerous regulations, namely those in place in 1980:

[R]egulation strangles innovation and economic growth. A new study by George Mason University's Mercatus Center ... examines how regulatory costs build up over time. The study finds that if regulations had been frozen at 1980 levels, by 2012 the U.S. economy would have been about $4 trillion, or 25 percent, larger in inflation-adjusted terms than it actually was. [link dropped, bold added]
I left out the qualifier, "too much" since central planning of any sort is contrary to the proper purpose of government, and must be done away with. Rolling things back to 1980 would be an improvement, but it would not enough.

Weekend Reading

"If you expect your government to do unlikable things, then you'll dislike the candidates you elect to do those things." -- Michael Hurd, in "Least Favorable Candidates Win" at Newsmax

"If you underrate the value of 'being there,' then you're going to end up inadvertently hurting the people you thought you were helping by leaving them alone." -- Michael Hurd, in "Different Ways of Grieving " at The Delaware Wave

"Look at such people as you'd look at anyone else who's wrong, and therefore weak and vulnerable..." -- Michael Hurd, in "Watch Out for Good Slackers" at The Delaware Coast Press

Giving Credit Wins Goodwill

I don't agree with giving credit to someone whose work one genuinely thinks was irrelevant to a project, but I do think there is a take-home lesson here: Being reasonably generous with acknowledgments doesn't go unappreciated:
I have always felt miffed after reading a paper in which I felt I was not being given proper credit, and it is safe to conjecture that the same happens to everyone else. One day, I tried an experiment. After writing a rather long paper, I began to draft a thorough bibliography. On the spur of the moment, I decided to cite a few papers which had nothing whatsoever to do with the content of my paper, to see what might happen.

Somewhat to my surprise, I received letters from two of the authors whose papers I believed were irrelevant to my article. Both letters were written in an emotionally charged tone. Each of the authors warmly congratulated me for being the first to acknowledge their contribution to the field.
There are other things at the above link one might find useful when ascending the career ladder.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, May 27, 2016

1. From a Quartz article about a scientist's new theory comes a peek at science behind the Iron Curtain:

Thinking is a big part of [Ruslan] Medzhitov's science. It's a legacy of his training in the Soviet Union in the 1980s and 1990s, when universities had little equipment and even less interest in producing good scientists. For his undergraduate degree, Medzhitov went to Tashkent State University in Uzbekistan. Every autumn the professors sent the students out into the cotton fields to help take in the harvest. They worked daily from dawn to dusk. "It was terrible," said Medzhitov. "If you don't do that, you get expelled from college." He recalls sneaking biochemistry textbooks into the fields -- and being reprimanded by a department chair for doing so.
And Medzhitov's theory? I am in no position to give an opinion one way or the other on his theory about why people develop allergies, but it is an attractive one:
We know that allergens often cause physical damage. They rip open cells, irritate membranes, slice proteins into tatters. Maybe, Medzhitov thought, allergens do so much damage that we need a defense against them. "If you think of all the major symptoms of allergic reactions -- runny noses, tears, sneezing, coughing, itching, vomiting and diarrhoea -- all of these things have one thing in common," said Medzhitov. "They all have to do with expulsion." Suddenly the misery of allergies took on a new look. Allergies weren't the body going haywire; they were the body's strategy for getting rid of the allergens.
This would make sense, but is it true?

2. After hearing about yet another kind of resistance reaching our shores, I am glad to hear this latest news from the quest to create new antibiotics:
Three hundred analogs! Now that's the sort of thing you can build a project or two around. And as that quote says, these aren't just small changes around the edges of the molecules (although you can do, that, too) -- they're variants that are otherwise just completely unobtainable. And also to their great credit, the team went on to screen these in a good-sized panel of bacteria, including (in the later rounds) a number of resistant organisms. They obtained a number of scaffolds with promising activity -- none of them are ready to leap into the clinic as is, but they're definitely of interest. Some of them, in fact, show activity against some rather fiercely resistant strains. Having done some antibiotic drug discovery myself, I can barely imagine a screen of only three hundred compounds that returns a list of actives like this.
As Glenn Reynolds would say: Faster, please!

3. Do you want to get paid to write?
Who Pays Writers? is an anonymous, crowd-sourced list of which publications pay freelance writers -- and how much. This list is primarily concerned with writing for publications; we don't collect information about copywriting, advertising, corporate, or sponsored-content assignments.
You can learn more here, or just dive straight into the rate listings.

4. It's Friday, so laughing wins out over crying in the following then-and-now comparison. In 1996, John Tierney, writing that "Recycling is Garbage," noted the following about allegedly wasteful food packaging practices:
... Plastic packaging and fast-food containers may seem wasteful, but they actually save resources and reduce trash. The typical household in Mexico City buys fewer packaged goods than an American household, but it produces one third more garbage, chiefly because Mexicans buy fresh foods in bulk and throw away large portions that are unused, spoiled or stale. Those apples in Dittersdorf's slide, protected by plastic wrap and foam, are less likely to spoil. The lightweight plastic packaging requires much less energy to manufacture and transport than traditional alternatives like cardboard or paper. Food companies have switched to plastic packaging because they make money by using resources efficiently...
Nearly two decades later, an environmentalist admits the following (among other things):
Thanks to decades of research, we now understand the interacting metabolisms of vegetables and microorganisms. We can design high-tech transport and storage techniques that slow down, even halt, deterioration through the use of harmless mixtures of gases. Chips fitted to containers give off signals when the gas composition and temperature need adjusting to plan ripening at the exact moment of delivery. Likewise, to minimise food losses in supermarkets, packaging techniques and materials have been developed to prolong shelf life. Surprising but true: modern treatments with ... plastic bags and sealing create an optimal environment inside the package and reduce loss. So does the industrial washing of packed and cut vegetables, which also saves water, compared with household-level processing.
Let me hasten to add that avoiding waste isn't intrinsically good. It is good because it helps bring appealing, life-sustaining food to the table as easily as possible. This is in the selfish interest of buyer and seller.

-- CAV

Yep. Trump's a Politician.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

It seems that lately, I am having trouble reading headlines in the conservative press because my eyes keep rolling. Case in point is a recent op-ed listing "5 Very Smart Things Donald Trump Has Done Since Becoming the Presumptive GOP Nominee." I'll discuss two of these bullet points because they pretty much exemplify Trump and his latest converts, as well as anything they might happen to do.

Regarding former enemies "unifying" around Trump, about all I can muster is the mental equivalent of a sigh. Take the first bullet point:

1. Traveling to D.C. To Meet With Paul Ryan

This was a win-win for Trump. His past condemnations of many of the party leaders in Washington -- and their doubts about his ability to lead the party -- made it very hard from an optics perspective for people like Ryan to simply throw their support behind Trump once it became clear he was the nominee.

A gesture was needed, something that these members of Congress could point to as evidence that they had brought Trump to heel or, at the very least, that they had expressed their concerns to him, he had heard them and both parties were satisfied with the outcome.

The mood in the wake of Trump's visit -- from Ryan to Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus -- was ebullient. And, more importantly for Trump, it was clear that Ryan would, at some point in the not-too-distant future, be for him. [italics added, format edits]
Let me translate that first italicized passage: They got to pretend to stand up to Trump a little bit. The second such passage comes as no surprise either, given the GOP's decades-old appeasement of opponents. Although I don't think Trump is Hitler or we are ready for a dictatorship, I can't help but remember Neville Chamberlain's crowing about "peace in our time" after I read this. Smart? More like obvious, given that Trump is "smart" enough to want to use the party he is bullying into submission. He knows that, as cowards, they need a chance to feel like they've got an "in" with their new Big Man in Charge.

And then we have the following bone he's tossing to the rest of us, in the form of a list of promises from a politician (albeit a new one) who has no discernible ideology but has repeatedly spoken of abusing the law to suit his own purposes:
4. Rolling Out a List of Potential Supreme Court Picks

There's nothing that united the disparate elements of the Republican party base like talk of future Supreme Court nominees...

If you are looking to unite a fractious party, then, proposing a list of judges you would consider naming to fill the vacancy caused by the death of conservative hero Antonin Scalia this year is a very smart strategic play. Trump made no secret of his goal with the list: to put 11 names on it that would be totally unimpeachable in the eyes of conservative activists. Look at the kind of judges I would put on the Supreme Court, Trump is saying to doubting conservatives. And imagine the kind of judges Hillary Clinton would pick. See?
Antonin Scalia dissented against the Kelo decision, of which Trump is a huge fan. And, while I'd love a Justice Willett (whom I've heard is on the list) on the Supreme Court, this sounds too much like a bridge a dishonest real estate mogul is trying to sell me.

Politics may well be the "art of the possible," and Trump's nomination has indeed made many worthwhile and achievable goals less possible, but the proper reaction isn't to lick the boot that just stomped on them. It's to promise to do whatever is in one's power to stop Trump from further damaging the Republic, when necessary, and to help him on the off-chance he offers to do something constructive. Maybe the meetings are a way to do that -- with Trump -- but I'd appreciate hearing it, and ultimately, actions speak louder than words. But really, anyone could have said something like this without meeting with Trump.

Trump is issuing orders to those "uniting" around him and patronizing those who aren't. I'm abstaining from the presidential race and gagging while I vote for a Republican Congress this time around.

-- CAV


Today: Corrected a formatting error. 

Less Policing, More Crime

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Two new articles about the "Ferguson Effect" are out, each noting, in the aftermath of the 2014 Michael Brown killing, an alarming increase in violent crime in cities with large black populations. The increase has been so pronounced, in fact, that a prominent criminologist who had denied the existence of any such effect, has reversed his position, as Michael Barone notes:

University of Missouri at St. Louis criminologist Richard Rosenfeld has had "second thoughts." Like many academic criminologists, he had pooh-poohed charges that skyrocketing murder rates in many cities in 2015 and 2016 result from a "Ferguson effect" -- a skittering back from proactive policing for fear of accusations of racism like those that followed the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014.

Now, after looking over 2015 data from 56 large cities, he's changed his mind. Homicides in those cities were up 17 percent from 2014. And 10 cities, all with large black populations, saw homicides up 33 percent on average.

"These aren't flukes or blips, this is a real increase," Rosenfeld said. "The only explanation that gets the timing right is a version of the Ferguson effect."
Heather MacDonald, who has focused on this problem for a long time, cites similar statistics and also notes conversions, such as Rosenfeld's. But acknowledging such an effect is not the same thing as correctly identifying its source:
Despite this mounting evidence, the Ferguson effect continues to be distorted by its critics and even by its recent converts. The standard line is that it represents a peevish reaction from officers to "public scrutiny" and expectations of increased accountability. This ignores the virulent nature of the Black Lives Matter movement that was touched off by a spate of highly publicized deaths of young black men during encounters with police. As I know from interviewing police officers in urban areas across the country, they now encounter racially charged animus on the streets as never before.
MacDonald goes on to assign the blame where it belongs:
The country's political and media elites have relentlessly accused cops of bias when they police inner-city neighborhoods. Pedestrian stops and broken-windows policing (which targets low-level public-order offenses) are denounced as racist oppression. That officers would reduce their discretionary engagement under this barrage of criticism is understandable and inevitable.

Policing is political. If a powerful segment of society sends the message that proactive policing is bigoted, the cops will eventually do less of it... The only puzzle is why many Black Lives Matter activists, and their allies in the media and in Washington, now criticize police for backing off of proactive policing. Isn't that what they demanded?
Sadly, on top of it being "open season" on our police, it will, as Barone argues, be black Americans who will bear the brunt of this new, and completely avoidable national crime wave.

-- CAV

Old and Reliable

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Editor's Note: This post, which I noticed in my reserve queue this morning, will probably be it for Emacs-centric posts for a while. Interested readers can find a layman's introduction to the text editor here, and a caution about delving into potentially murky projects in the first comment here. Learning Emacs is hard, and, although I recommend it, I also recommend being sure about why you are doing so. That said, I am quite happy with my decision over a year ago to start using it, but recognize that there may be a limited audience for such enthusiasm here. Oh, and I do like some of the comments about computing in general within...

Back in late October/early November last year, we moved from St. Louis to Baltimore. Naturally, my desktop's motherboard died a week or so before we began the move and my netbook's case cracked during the move. I could thus no longer take the netbook anywhere. (I would have risked making it inoperable by closing it. It now lives up high, away from the kids and serves as an upstairs terminal in addition to automatically creating news digests for me.) So I had computer shopping to do, and that entailed carefully researching potential purchases to make sure I could turn them into productive machines by installing Linux. (Microsoft is working overtime to make this difficult. Too bad they can't put half of this energy into making decent, unbloated, and unobtrusive software.) It is at such times that I become almost nauseatingly aware of how different my approach to computing is from that of the vast majority of people.

Most people want something that is easy to use and adequate for the job, and maybe some further capabilities once they master a given tool. There is nothing inherently wrong with that, but this approach comes with several costs: One of them is that one must adjust to the software, which means (at least initially) doing things the way the least computer-adept people in the general population do things. This can allow a novice to start working productively right away, but, unless there are good ways to get around the hand-holding, click-to-do-anything-at-all, modern desktop interface, there is a low ceiling on how efficiently one can work. (Often, there are shortcuts, but "upgrades" can obviate these or even break backwards compatibility. That's a related, but different problem.)

I have spoken before of my different approach to computing, but Irreal blogger "jcs" puts it better than I ever have:

... People often say that they have to use an editor for a while so they can adjust to it. [Vivek] Haldar says that's backwards. Your editor should adjust to you, not the other way around.

Finally he says that editors are like fine wine: the older the better. If you want a good editor, choose one that's been around long enough that all the quirks have been worked out and that every conceivable way of manipulating text has been considered and reified into workable code.
One could argue that Microsoft Word has been around for a long time, but has it? Microsoft makes big enough changes to its interface and even its file format from time to time, that it's more like a succession of products than one, continually improving suite. By contrast, Emacs, of which jcs and Haldar speak, has undergone steady development, and for longer than anything called "Word" has been around, but without major changes to its interface and no changes to its basic file format. Since an "Emacs file" from 1970 (or 2016) is text, it is completely compatible with any version.

This is a screen shot of my Emacs+Pale Moon custom editing environment during a blogging session. (In the upper right is part of another instance of Pale Moon being used for research.) A script periodically updates the web page on the right from the markup code I am editing.

One thing is worth noting: Saying that one needn't adjust to an editor is not the same thing as saying there is no learning curve. It took me a few months of using Emacs for blog posts each morning to become comfortable using it, but once I did, I ended up being able to customize it to create the writing work flow I had only dreamed of before. I stripped the interface of everything I didn't need, created my own shortcuts for things I did often, and learned that decades of computer hacker users had already thought of how to do a few things (like split-screen views of different parts of the same document) I had always wanted to do without all the clumsiness of GUI-based office suites.

For more up-front effort, I now have something I need only think about when I want to do something with even more convenience or speed. Oh, and my wrists are quite happy, too.

-- CAV

Inbox Zero Is Less Than Zero to Her

Monday, May 23, 2016

Writing for the New York Post, Sara Stewart throws the "BS" flag on "Inbox Zero" -- something I briefly advocated and (even more briefly) achieved some years ago. She advocates "inbox whatever," instead.

Studies show that it takes an undue amount of time to return to whatever you were doing when you take time out to read some (usually unnecessary and unsolicited) email, delete it and redirect your mind to where it was before. One study, cited in a story about how some of us may just be more attached to our techno-identities than others, quoted a researcher who studied distraction and email. "When someone drops everything just to get an unread count back to zero, productivity might be taking a hit. 'It takes people on average about 25 minutes to reorient back to a task when they get interrupted,' [a researcher] says."

Plus, if we're talking about work email, consider this: Having an empty inbox has zero effect on your salary. You're not getting paid to erase emails all day -- unless your job title is Deleter of Emails, in which case, poor you. [format edits, links dropped]
In fairness, I think Stewart misses the point of Merlin Mann and others, that achieving this goal can be a way to worry less about email. She still makes a good point: If you're spending loads of time "managing" your email, you're wasting that time. (And you're missing the real point of having an empty inbox.) If this is true, I agree that you should try something else. I did until recently, but it was a very unsatisfactory default.
Personally, I have found my own modified version of "email bankruptcy" to be easy to implement and maintain. I neither must schedule "purges" as Stewart advises nor miss out on interesting tidbits that my friends send me that I am too busy to read at the moment. I like not feeling inundated or unsure that I am missing something important. My email counter has also become somewhat useful: It allows me to skip email checks altogether if it is zero and I already either have my email open in a browser tab or am using my phone at the time.

-- CAV

P.S. My own sight modification of "email bankruptcy" has been, for my busiest two accounts, to filter most non-spam commercial email to a "crap" folder. This solves what I call the "ToysRUs" problem: Either I can't easily (or at all?) unsubscribe, but GMail (for example) won't let me send it to the Spam folder -- or I might want to glance at the emails, but not every time I check. This folder I check every couple of days or so, and usually mass-delete.

5-21-16 Hodgepodge

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Business, Not Charity, Helping the Poor

David Harsanyi writes about the latest leftist apoplexy about non-unionized "sweat shops" run to produce a line of celebrity-branded clothes. Harsanyi, after helping the reader -- with an assist by Paul Krugman of all people -- put such shops "into proper context," he notes the following:

[I]f you want to help the world's impoverished, you should probably buy Beyoncé's products. The more demand there is for tight-fitting, overpriced celebrity clothing lines, the more factories Sri Lankans will have to work in. As those workers have more choices, salaries will rise and so will the quality of life. This competition will impel employers to increase productivity and, if Sri Lanka doesn't revert to its old ways, the economy will grow. The children of these workers will turn to white-collar professions. And before you know it, factories will be taken over by automatons and the Sri Lankan middle class will grumble about how the Indonesians are stealing their jobs.
This brings to mind the following quote, from a Harry Binswanger column late last year:
There is another, and truly amazing, proof that the altruist-collectivists, contrary to their claims, have no concern whatever with the fate of the poor: the story of India and China. The quickest and largest-scale betterment of the poor in all of history came to these 2 billion people once they moved away from socialism toward capitalism.

What do we hear from the Left about this unprecedented improvement in the lot of the most vulnerable? Nothing. They are not mystified by it, embarrassed by it, or deterred by it. They simply refuse to look at it. It's a monumental evasion.
The left evades the cumulative results of semicapitalist improvements, in those instances they don't succeed in stopping them dead in their tracks, as they try to do in cases like Sri Lanka.

Weekend Reading

"Thoughtful action, even in the simplest day-to-day endeavors, comes before self-esteem -- not the other way around." -- Michael Hurd, in "What Confidence Really Means" at The Delaware Wave

"The issue of first impressions is related to the issue of judgmentalism, i.e., the elevation of emotions above the facts when evaluating someone." -- Michael Hurd, in "The Benefits and Hazards of First Impressions" at The Delaware Coast Press

A Term I Like ... For the Moment

Via Word Spy comes a term that could describe whole categories of cultural phenomena today, mostly emanating from the left:
mathwash -- v. To use mathematics, logic, or a similar rational argument to make something inherently subjective appear to be objective. [format edits]
I wouldn't define it quite this way, but the idea, of giving a patina of rational credibility to an irrational idea, is clear.

So why do I anticipate disliking this clever neologism some time soon? Because I fully expect some mathwasher to be among the first to use the term to smear an opponent for offering a truly rational counterargument to his pseudoscientific drivel.

-- CAV