Too Much Golf, or Too Little Thought?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A piece in USA Today considers the fact that our Presidents' political opponents have, over the past few decades, been reliable complainers about those Presidents daring to partake of leisure activities:

This is great news, particularly if you hate Trump's politics. The more time he spends playing golf, the less time he has to play president.

Rather than pleasing his critics, Trump's golf outings irritate them. It's ironic that the same people who don't want Trump to do anything complain when he doesn't do anything.
Indeed it is, and I have openly wished for Obama to play golf much more often.

Windsor Mann starts with the fact that a President you oppose who plays golf has less time to do political damage to your cause, and that's true enough. But he continues with the following interesting observation:
Golf exposes a president to derision. Critics accuse him of neglect and insouciance -- in short, of not caring enough. But a president can't possibly care about everyone; nor should he. That's not his job.
I don't know Mann's political persuasion, but he's right: It is not the President's job to be some kind of national father. Indeed, if our government were properly limited, our Presidents would probably have far more leisure time. But back to the issue of caring. Mann reminds me of a profound point about such critics that conservative blogger Walter Hudson once made in defense of one of Obama's vacations:
It's entirely legitimate to criticize someone for indulging at the expense of vital responsibilities. To the extent Obama has neglected his job, you can build a case against his vacations. But this idea that he or any person should not enjoy life while others languish in misery proves as immoral as any have-not claim upon the lives of haves. [bold added]
The best you can possibly say about such criticism is that it is poorly thought-through. Mann is absolutely correct to say, "The dumbest criticism of any president is that he plays too much golf."

-- CAV

Not-So-Super Audi Rebutted

Monday, February 20, 2017

Business writer Suzanne Lucas efficiently demolished perhaps the most insipid bit of pandering I have ever seen in a Super Bowl ad (playable at the link). For those who want one, here's her synopsis:

[T]he text begins with a dad (apparently a dad who never once read a parenting book or listened to his own parents) who says, "What do I tell my daughter?" He then goes on to say all these horrible things about how she'll be treated poorly because of her gender. "Do I tell her that her grandpa is worth more than her grandma?" and "Do I tell her that despite her education, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?"

Goodness, no, dad. What kind of a parent sets out to tell his child that she'll be an utter failure? Oh wait, that's not the point. The point is the pay gap. [link dropped]
The easily-digested idea of a male-female "pay gap" is constantly being used as an insult/moral cudgel against anyone with the temerity to suggest otherwise, with the ad campaign's hash-tag as Exhibit A. Obviously, I am a regressive troglodyte if I don't turn my brain off and join the bandwagon.

I won't, and to understand why, I invite the interested reader to consider some of the many lines of evidence offered by Lucas against the idea that women are universally valued less than men or that there even is a pay-gap when controlling factors -- all of which Lucas boils down to the choices many women make -- are accounted for. Here's just one:
Women prefer to not do jobs that are dangerous. In 2013, 3,635 men died in workplace accidents, compared to 950 women. Men are far more willing to take on dangerous tasks, and dangerous jobs pay more than safe jobs. [bold and link in original.]
This is one I had not heard of before. The others are similar in nature to the main factor, time off due to bearing children, I was already familiar with.

None of this is to say that women do not face real issues as women in the workplace. Rather, such pandering trivializes that whole idea, makes it easy to dismiss out of hand, and should cause people to wonder if those who spout the idea of a "pay gap" really are concerned with such issues. It is also telling how irritated many of the same people are with Donald Trump's campaign slogan of, "Make America Great Again." They both attribute too much of his win to the slogan and give his voters (I am not one of them.) too little credit for allegedly swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. "Pay gap" is just as simple, has been repeated at least as often (and has been for longer), and is just as much an empty vessel to fill with whatever suppositions one wants.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using a memorable phrase or slogan -- so long as facts warrant doing so. Otherwise, expect to harm your cause in the eyes of your most able potential allies, and to attract an unthinking mob. That certain movements apparently cultivate mobs on purpose conversely speaks volumes.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, February 17, 2017

Three Things

1. Last week, I credited the Waze app with taking much of the frustration out of driving in DC, but I didn't mention another app that also helps a bunch. Parking there would be a nightmare even if you knew the streets like the back of your hand. For that, I highly recommend Parking Panda. That and two other things: (1) Check your email (which is stored on your phone) for your reservation if you find yourself at a pay booth a mile underground, and (2) Allow yourself an extra half-hour of lead time when using an unfamiliar garage. The first tip comes from quick thinking and the second from hindsight.

2. It was nice for once to see someone with an academic interest in the subject consider the idea (via Marginal Revolution) that customers of check-cashing (aka "payday loan") stores may actually have solid reasons for using them:

"The implication of that" -- the biennial surveys of the "unbanked and underbanked" by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation -- "was these people were making poor decisions," [University of Pennsylvania professor Lisa] Servon recently told Business Insider. "I knew that the people I had worked with closely who don't have very much money know where every penny goes. They budget things. They know where to get the best deals on things. And so it struck me that if they were using check cashers, there must be a good reason for that." [link dropped, format edits, italics added]
Servon decided to learn more by working for months in such an establishment, and her conclusions make it clear that these stores benefit their customers, buttressing Thomas Sowell's past defenses of the same.

3. 3-D printer not required:
Applying an electric charge across the strip causes cells in the sample to separate according to their electrical properties, allowing researchers to isolate certain cell types. This could be used to separate out tumour cells circulating in the bloodstream, for example, and catch certain cancers at an early stage.

If researchers want to switch experiments and start counting cells instead of separating them by type, they can simply pop in a different electronic strip. "You can just draw [the strip] out on the computer and print it," [Rahim] Esfandyarpour [of the Stanford School of Medicine] says. In the future, he'd like to see a shared online database of different designs that can easily be downloaded, printed out and put to use. [link omitted]
The article notes that a regular printer with electrically conductive ink can produce one of these "printed 'labs on a chip,'" meaning this idea is a potential boon for the developing world.

Weekend Reading

"This ominous episode underlines how students are learning to be contemptuous of intellectual freedom." -- Elan Journo, in "UCLA Banned My Book on Islam From a Free Speech Event" at The Hill

"Having to rely on the ignorance of others doesn't sound very healthy to me." -- Michael Hurd, in "Lying Doesn't Feel Right When You're Mentally Healthy" at The Delaware Wave

"[J]obs are just the means to an end." -- Michael Hurd, in "The Job Isn't the Career" at The Delaware Coast Press

"Don't listen when some non-Binswanger tries to tell you that outsourcing means you don't have to cut your own hair, clean your own home, raise your own farm animals, sew your own clothes, cobble your own shoes, and fabricate your own microchips." -- Harry Binswanger, in "It's Time For All Binswangers to 'Buy Binswanger'" at RealClear Markets

"In a letter to ARI, the UCLA Law School issued a formal apology for the incident, and it explained that the decision to ban the book was inconsistent with its vigorous commitment to freedom of speech and respectful debate." -- Elan Journo, in "After Banning My Book, UCLA Explains Itself" at The Times of Israel

In More Detail

I am glad to see both that Elan Journo won a skirmish in the fight for freedom of speech in academia and that the event he covers above (twice) is "part of a wider campaign."

-- CAV

My Favorite Weather Babe

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My wife purchased an Amazon Echo around Christmas, and let me take this opportunity to sing praise to the high heavens for the following mundane use: I can (at last!) get a concise summary of the weather on a daily basis. Yes, this thing is a technological marvel, and I love having something so science-fictiony sitting unobtrusively in the kitchen (where it blends in suspiciously well with our car coffee mugs), but this has been my most pleasant surprise and favorite use so far. Here's a slightly edited transcript:

Me: Alexa what's the weather today?

Alexa: Currently in Whitetail Woods, it's 28 degrees with intermittent clouds. Today you can look for intermittent clouds with a high of 58 degrees and a low of 21 degrees.
Short, sweet, and to the point. But why has this been missing from the web?

Before I begin, let's consider the obvious benefit of Alexa's weather summary: I can get the weather immediately when I need it -- generally when getting myself and the kids ready for the day -- without having to drop everything to check my computer or phone -- or having some radio station blaring the whole time. That's a big part of it, but the summary is far superior to the barrage of verbiage, images, and advertising (however much decent formatting salvages it) from the web, or even the less-bloated output of my phone's weather app. Indeed, I looked for some time for exactly this kind of summary, in text form, a couple of years ago, in the hopes of automatically dumping it into my daily planner so I could ... just ... know ... what generally to expect. I never found one. Given that this is a popular use of the Echo, it's not as if there was zero demand for something like this.

My best guess as to why the web, for all the information available from it, never delivered something like this comes down to a few things:
  • Since it's easy to deliver gobs of information, and there's no telling how much detail what any one visitor might want, weather pages just go ahead and give it. (And one can come up with a general idea by perusing, say, the hourly forecast, but it takes more time.)
  • Web pages are delivered "free," but since someone has to pay the bills, they have to include ads. So the "weather page" suffers from having more than one purpose. No man can serve two masters ... (Alexa, though not ad-free, is a subscription service, and needn't and doesn't serve ads for things like this. You'll get an ad only if you bump into something your subscription doesn't cover.)
  • Such a summary, while it sounds simple, strikes me as something requiring artificial intelligence. Perhaps it is a happy byproduct of all the other work it took to create the Echo. Note that the web hasn't caused mass unemployment of television and radio weathermen.
In any event, it has been a joy to be able to get what I need when I need it so quickly and easily.

-- CAV

Jawboning Won't Fix This

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Over at In the Pipeline, Pharma blogger Derek Lowe has a short post about Marathon Pharmaceuticals, the latest company to get money -- as opposed to earning it -- thanks to the perverse incentives of the regulatory state:

[W]hat's not to like? Well, this drug has been around since the early 1990s. Marathon most certainly did not invent it. Nor did they think of applying it to [Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy] patients -- the biggest clinical trial of the drug for that indication was done over twenty years ago, by someone else. DMD patients in the US were already taking the (unapproved) drug by importing it from Canada. Marathon just dug through the data again and ran a trial in 29 patients themselves, from what I can see. I should note that this is not any sort of cure, nor does it address the underlying pathology of the disease. The steroid treatment makes muscle strength in DMD patients stronger -- barely. But even for that benefit, US patients will now have to get it from Marathon at something like 50 to 100 times the former price. This is exactly the same business plan as Catalyst Pharmaceuticals and several others, and the only reason that it's viable is because perverse incentives by the FDA make it completely legal. [emphasis added, links omitted]
So the same agency that routinely keeps desperate patients from trying new treatments for their diseases also makes it easy for companies to charge gouging prices for old drugs of dubious value that had been on the market for a reasonable price. Lowe shares a belief held by many that some regulation is necessary, but I differ from him there: Increased consumer vigilance, aided by watchdog organizations like the Consumers Union or UL could perform the legitimate activities of the FDA.

That said, I find this tale ironic, given that I have also heard that Donald Trump wants to jawbone drug companies into offering medicine at lower prices. First, the solution to the economic distortions caused by government control is less of it, not more. Second, it behoves any potential reformer to consider how else the government is ruining the drug market, be it through the FDA or other agencies that abuse government power. Finally, notice that "capitalism" is once again implicitly getting the blame for a government-created problem, first of all from the President himself, in the form of his immediate scapegoating/threatening of the companies.

-- CAV

What Is the Real Work?

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

How many time have you heard someone complain of a Google or a Microsoft that they "could do that in a weekend?" How many times have you wondered how on earth they stay in business? I recently ran across a post by software developer Dan Luu addressing that argument that offers both a quick rebuttal and a dose of the kind of thinking that is missing.

First, there is often evidence that, no, you can't do that in a weekend. Luu specifically considers the problem of internet search:

A few years ago, in the wake of the rapgenius SEO controversy, a number of folks called for someone to write a better Google. Alex Clemmer responded that maybe building a better Google is a non-trivial problem. Considering how much of Google's $500B market cap comes from search, and how much money has been spent by tens (hundreds?) of competitors in an attempt to capture some of that value, it seems plausible to me that search isn't a trivial problem... [link dropped, bold added]
A world littered with the failures of others doesn't prove that there isn't a better way to do something, but it suggests that, at minimum, there are aspects of the problem that might need more than passing attention.

Luu goes into some detail about the problem of search and those of running a business, as a means of making his main point:
It's not that all of those things are necessary to run a service at all; it's that almost every large service is leaving money on the table if they don't seriously address those things. This reminds me of a common fallacy we see in unreliable systems, where people build the happy path with the idea that the happy path is the "real" work, and that error handling can be tacked on later. For reliable systems, error handling is more work than the happy path. The same thing is true for large services -- all of this stuff that people don't think of as "real" work is more work than the core service. [link and footnote omitted, bold added]
This reminds me somewhat of the "bike shed" argument, in which people will endlessly debate some trivial matter they know about (a bike shed on the site of a proposed nuclear plant), while glossing over something that is actually complicated (the nuclear power plant itself). In this case, internet search (although not trivial) is the bike shed, and numerous other things, like, say, making money with it, are being ignored.

-- CAV

One Cheer for Snapchat

Monday, February 13, 2017

(Oh, wait. Never mind.)

Upon encountering the following headline, my first reaction was to think, "It's about time:"

Snapchat Doesn't Care About Saving the World -- and Its IPO Docs Prove It
This is because, for far too long, businessmen have regarded the goal of making money as amoral at best. Never mind that businesses produce something of enough value to their customers that they willingly trade for it. Thousands or millions of win-win propositions don't (and can't) cut it under the moral code of altruism -- which ought to make people think twice about using it as a guide to their actions. In any event, the practice of grafting some altruistic goal or collectivist cause to one's business has become so common that it is newsworthy when a company doesn't rave about doing so. And that's all we have here, nasty headline and bile from the Observer's Brady Dale to the contrary.

We are in a sad-enough state of affairs that the article slams the company simply for the fact that it finds its business opportunity in the most prosperous, well-developed markets before finally reaching what its author regards as a smoking gun. And what is the smoking gun?
In February 2017, we established the Snap Foundation. After this offering, we and our co-founders have each pledged to donate up to 13,000,000 shares of our Class A common stock to the Snap Foundation over the course of the next 15 to 20 years. We anticipate that the proposed programs of the Snap Foundation will support arts, education, and youth.
The Observer then lambastes the company for taking too long to make these donations.
So, the co-founders might give 13 million shares and, in 15 years, the company might even still be around by then. Like the good Snapchat and its foundation might ever do for the world, it's anybody's guess.
Apparently, it would be better for Snapchat to raise a bunch of money, ostensibly for a business, but dump it into a charity instead, if push comes to shove. But that's beside the point. Do note that the filing documents do graft a foundation on to the company. Whether one believes the founders hand over shares to it when they propose because (1) they want to be able to support their own foundation or (2, as the article implies), they cynically hope to avoid donating money altogether is immaterial: The filing documents in no way prove the founders to lack an altruistic interest in "saving the world." At best, it indicates that they might want to keep their own money, but don't know (how) to stand up for themselves. An IPO from a true proponent of the virtue of productiveness and the trader principle might make no mention of charity, or it might include some mention of charitable donations towards causes Brady would strongly disapprove of. But that would be up to the founders.

-- CAV