Central Planning Holds No Water

Monday, April 20, 2015

Joel Kotkin, writing about California's water crisis, offers an interesting assortment of data and historical background on the problem, but I disagree with many aspects of his analysis. As a case in point Kotkin notes the slowness of many municipalities to act on the common knowledge that the state was wasting water:

Many cities, too, have been slow to meet the challenge. Some long resisted metering of water use. Other places have been slow to encourage drought-resistant landscaping, which is already pretty de rigeur in more aridity-conscious desert cities like Tucson. This process may take time, but it is already showing value in places like Los Angeles where water agencies provide incentives. [link dropped]
Not to belabor my differences with Kotkin, but while I agree that water use should be metered, I disagree that government should be involved. The problem here is that a valuable commodity has been treated by governments as a birthright, rather than as something to be bought and sold. That said, the bit about not even metering water use reminded me of a better analysis I encountered last year that gets closer to the real problem:
[T]he proliferation of limits on water use will not solve the problem because regulations do nothing to address the main driver of the nation's wanton consumption of water: its price.
Although even that piece was a far cry from advocacy of a capitalistic solution, it is easier to conceive of an alternative absent from today's debate: phasing out central "planning". Central planners caused the water crisis by making water artificially cheap, conning millions into moving to a semi-desert. The crisis they made is ugly, and I see no reason why their solution -- as the nature of central planning and the indications in Kotkin's article make clear -- won't be even uglier.

-- CAV


Today: Fixed a formatting error. 

4-18-15 Hodgepodge

Saturday, April 18, 2015

How Likely Was It Meant to Be Easy?

Amateur mathematician Brian Hayes makes a flow chart from a tax form that is so confusing one has to see it to believe it. He then asks:

What are the chances that I correctly followed all the steps of this algorithm? What are the chances that the published algorithm correctly implements the intent of the tax code?
Our laws improperly and unreasonably make so many things crimes that ordinary people can't tell whether they are acting legally at any given moment. In light of that fact, the answers to his respective questions are plausibly, "very low" and "very high". This state of affairs reminds me of the following passage from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:
The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens? What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted -- and you create a nation of law-breakers -- and then you cash in on guilt. (p. 406)
Until and unless more Americans decide they have had enough, and serious momentum builds behind overhauling our systems of taxation and regulation on the way to abolishing them, we have a problem: We will continue jumping through hoops to abide by complicated laws while any government official could plausibly cause us legal problems on a whim.

Weekend Reading

"If this attitude could talk, it might say, 'I ordered the steak. I liked it a lot, but I'm worried that the chicken might have been better.'" -- Michael Hurd, in "Is 'Good Enough' Good Enough?" at The Delaware Wave

"People who buy into the 'zero sum' idea get in their own way far more often than they are victims of others." -- Michael Hurd, in "The Antidote to Envy" at The Delaware Coast Press

From Apple, a Free Lesson on Managing Expectations

The following comes from a review of the Apple watch, written by a loyal Apple customer:
You can see pixels. You can see a bit of an airgap between the digital screen and the glass. Nothing is as sharp as I thought it would be. To be honest, this was a huge letdown. I was getting myself psyched up for the Apple Watch by looking at photos and watching videos on Apple's Website, but in reality, it didn't meet my expectations. Apple didn't underpromise and overdeliver, they did the opposite.
I'm sure Apple will survive this marketing gaffe, but it blows my mind that such a successful company could make such a basic mistake.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, April 17, 2015

1. Any fears that our daughter has inherited Mrs. Van Horn's poor vision were allayed on a recent trip to Florida. While we were at a swimming pool, Pumpkin told me she saw a lizard. Naively thinking it might be green, I looked for it and came up empty.

"Where is it?" I asked.

"Near a wood chip," she said.

This was not terribly helpful, since we were near a small garden covered with a wood chip mulch.

"It's looking at us," she added.

Several minutes later, I finally spotted a strange-looking lizard whose coloration was a near-perfect match for the mulch. It was about three feet away, and it was indeed looking at us.

2. In an entertaining post about a ramen noodle museum in Japan, a traveler also imparts the lessons in entrepreneurship he learned there, including the following:

Don't wait for your customers to come. Go to them.

When [Momofuku] Ando introduced his [product] to the public, it was deemed ... a luxurious item because of the relatively high price point. It costs 6 times more than a bowl of traditional noodles. Although it did well, Ando felt that the product wasn't reaching enough people and he need[ed] people [to] spread the [word].

Instead of just waiting passively, he expanded his sales channel and directly targeted places like news stations and police stations. These places have the right demographic[:] people who worked late-night and [did]n't cook. This move paid huge dividends for [his company,] Nissin. [italics added]
Ando became quite wealthy from his product, despite not even getting started on it until he was nearly fifty and bankrupt.

3. The longest-running Wikipedia hoax known to date was recently exposed. The obscurity of the subject matter, Australian Aboriginal religion, probably helped it along, but we should still use the research tool with a healthy degree of skepticism:
On Monday night, [Gregory] Kohs wrapped upan experiment in which he inserted outlandish errors into 31 articles and tracked whether editors ever found them. After more than two months, half of his hoaxes still had not been found -- and those included errors on high-profile pages, like "Mediterranean climate" and "inflammation." (By his estimate, more than 100,000 people have now seen the claim that volcanic rock produced by the human body causes inflammation pain.)
And checking other sources is complicated by a phenomenon known as "citogenisis".

4. The author has mixed philosophical premises, but I can't help but wonder whether an opinion piece titled, "Skip the Sharing Kids", might reflect Ayn Rand's cultural influence:
How will they understand the importance of property rights to growing a free and prosperous ­society?

And this whole business about having some authority divvy up our spoils and arbitrarily decide who is most deserving of them sounds more like a socialist utopia than a practice for training our children to be democratic ­citizens.
The article also incidentally reminds me of my childhood reaction to my kindergarden's weekly "Share a Toy Day": not wanting the other kids to trash any of my favorites, I took a big, blue, metal, indestructible tractor I cared nothing about every single time. To her credit, my mother did not make a huge deal of this when the teachers inevitably caught on.

-- CAV

Coming Soon: Less-Inconvenient Theft?

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Farhad Manjoo, writing about "return-free" tax filing, asks, "Would you let the I.R.S. prepare your taxes?" Manjoo notes further that, in this day and age, many aspects of filling out tax returns are technologically unnecessary:

[E]mployers, banks, brokerage firms and pretty much every other financial organization in the country send the federal government detailed records about our economic activity every year. These organizations also send you, the taxpayer, a similar set of documents, which are forms with names like W-2 and 1098. After you file your taxes, the government matches its two sets of documents to make sure you have filed correctly.
The idea behind return-free filing is that, instead of wasting money or part of your life filling out forms, you could waste less by simply checking what the IRS comes up with for your taxes -- unless maybe your tax situation is made overly cumbersome by our 74,608-page-long tax code.

I will cheerfully admit that when I find myself again giving a company or government agency information it already has, I roll my eyes and think, "Don't we have computers for this?" That said, I think return-free filing is almost as bad an idea as automatic withholding. Both things insulate people from the arbitrary and confiscatory nature of the income tax. Making people consciously fork over money each month -- or continuing to go through inordinate efforts to calculate what will be taken from them -- will not automatically make people want to abolish the income tax. But it might prompt more thought than an automatically-generated number on their pay stubs that they don't have to think much about even once a year.

The question that too often goes unasked at tax time is, "By what right does the government take money from individuals?" In that light, the correct way to frame this proposal is, "Would you like to be robbed politely?" The correct answer, as tempting as not doing taxes sounds, is, "No. I don't want to be robbed at all."

-- CAV

Notes on Choosing a New Web Browser

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Partly because a friend told me this topic might be of general interest, I am posting about my process of selecting a new web browser for my news scanning/reading and writing research. It didn't occur to me at the time to ask why he thought the topic could be of general interest, aside from the information I gleaned about alternative web browsers. That said, in considering my thought process, it occurs to me that how one goes about exploring an unfamiliar field might be generally interesting as well, so here goes.

As regulars know here, I blog almost daily. I also am father to two very young children, and hope to expand my writing once again to include longer, more in-depth pieces while continuing to blog near-daily. Writing and research take significant amounts of time, preferably of the uninterrupted variety; Children find ways to gobble up that time and always threaten what's left. Suffice it to say I have major time constraints.

Over the past few months, I have been looking at all aspects of this problem in order to find ways to speed up writing- and research- related tasks that seem like they should take much less time than they do. One area of particular concern was how much time browsing can take. For example, nothing is quite so irritating as having to decide whether to sit on my hands for a few more minutes or reboot my computer when my web browser coughs a hairball. (Were there an award for stupendous achievements in wasting computational power, it would surely go to some web scripter somewhere: I have six gigabytes of RAM, a 2.4 GHz, dual-core processor, yada-yada, and some page I want to load for the sake of reading a short article freezes it up?) This is astonishingly bad and amazingly common. I run Linux and, if I caught the problem in time, would usually kill my browser from the command line, but even then, I'd generally lose some work. Something had to give.

As you might guess from my last few sentences, I am no computer expert, although I probably know more than most people about computers. I also don't have enough time to, say learn all about the inner workings of web browsers and test dozens of candidates or code my own variant of a browser I like. I would need to take an initial stab at what I thought the problem might be and look for help from others. And I would base any testing I might do on that information and my own criteria for what I need, with a mind open to having to dig deeper at the problem if new information indicated I would need to. As I did when testing/learning/deciding to adopt Emacs as my new writing software, I would "learn by doing", with my old, familiar software there as a fall-back if I needed it.

My old browser was Firefox, and when it started gumming up the works, a related process called something like "plugin-container" was usually the culprit. "I don't use plug-ins," was my thought upon seeing this information. (This turned out to be incorrect: I was actually using built-in plug-ins, most notably one for Flash content. More on this later.) Yes, Google's Chrome (and its open-source cousin, Chromium) was an option, which I'd turned to a few times, but I dislike several aspects of the browser, and wanted to find an alternative to either. This immediately led me to set my criteria for an acceptable replacement.

For most writing-related software I use, I demand the following: (1) It runs at least on Linux and Windows, and preferably also Apple platforms; (2) It is under active development and has some critical mass of users; (3) It is capable of fitting in with my usual ways of doing things. In the case of web browsers, the last criterion would entail me being able to enjoy the full functionality of the accounts I have on a small handful of web sites. Oh yeah, and a web browser needs to allow me to have multiple tabs open without completely freezing my computer.

With this in mind, I searched for alternative browsers, filtering for recent articles, and came up with all but the last of the below results. (I looked again when my first candidates fell short.) Here they are, along with my slightly edited notes:

  • 10 Alternative Web Browsers for Ubuntu Linux
    • QupZilla -- Solid, but nothing new. Can it not bring my computer to its knees?
    • Web (formerly Epiphany) -- very simple and fast -- a commenter who uses this and qz rated qz higher.
  • Six Alternative Web Browsers You Should Know About
    1. WhiteHat Aviator (privacy) -- no Linux version [no ads or media autoplay, duckduckgo by default]
    2. Citrio (media junkies) -- faster downloads
    3. Midori (lightweight) -- native to Linux, but Windows version exists, cuts out lots of RAM usage [may crash a lot]
    4. Coowon (gamers) -- Nothing for me here.
    5. SpaceTime3D (visually-oriented research) -- [or is it an extension? may or may not work in Linux possibly try later] This is actually an application that allows easy preview of search results
  • The Best Alternative Browsers -- The Comodo offerings may be worth a look, if they can run on Linux.
    1. Comodo (Ice)Dragon -- more secure versions of Firefox and Chrome
    2. MaxThon Cloud Browser -- see below
    3. Avant Browser -- for people who want MS, but not IE
  • Unhappy With Chrome and Firefox? Here Are Some Alternate Web Browsers -- maybe: Pale Moon, Maxthon, and Opera
    1. Pale Moon -- optimized for speed, native to Windows, ported -- to Linux and Android, like Firefox, but not made to look like Chrome, maybe
    2. Opera -- perhaps worth another look [not supported by default in Ubuntu]
    3. Iron Browser -- a Chrome offshoot that doesn't track your every move
    4. K-Meleon -- Windows-only
    5. Maxthon -- cross-platform, split-screen mode
    6. Chromium -- Chrome, without the built-in Flash player or PDF viewer
    7. Safari -- can't run on Linux
    8. IE -- can't run on Linux
And here are my notes for the browsers I tried, in the order I tried them:
  1. Midori
    • pros: doesn't bring my computer to its knees, good view source
    • cons: crashes often enough to be a deal-breaker, some sites not functional, slow when lots of tabs open
  2. Pale Moon
    • pros: zero learning curve since it's a fork of Firefox, not as Chrome-like as newer versions of FF
    • cons: It happens a lot less, but I still wound up yanking out my battery and rebooting while looking for material.
    • Added Later: Can I solve freeze problem by disabling Flash? It seemed to help with QupZilla, which still gobbled memory more than this. I think this did the trick.
  3. Opera -- WTF? It can't properly render GVH.
  4. QupZilla
    • pro: very good source code viewer
    • con: no text zoom, crappy fonts, GMail doesn't support "this version of Safari"
And the winner is ... Pale Moon. I liked Firefox but for the crippling toll it took on my computers during heavy usage (or, apparently, sometimes just having it open for days at a time), and except for a trend in its development towards becoming more Chrome-like. As you can see above, I may have discovered the problem all along with Firefox when I returned to Pale Moon after I saw it happen again on two other candidate browsers. (It was still less frequent on Pale Moon, which seemed faster overall, anyway, and had the added bonus of being the "Coke Classic" to Firefox's current "New Coke".) The feature list -- See the web site. -- is also a superset of a sort of "best of" from prior versions of the Firefox project, of which Pale Moon is an active fork. It is interesting to consider that, had I known more about browsers, I might have stuck with Firefox (with Flash disabled by default), and never discovered Pale Moon. On the other hand, it is also possible I might have found a better browser for my purposes, but the solution I have found is satisfactory enough for me to move on to other ways of shaving time off web research while being open to a better browser solution, should I happen upon it.

Regarding the process itself, it is interesting to consider the measures I took regarding the fact that my knowledge of this area is limited and I did not have lots of time to increase it. Given my purposes, relying on the knowledge and experience of others, and supplementing my own knowledge when I reached an impasse was sufficient. We live much of our lives in situations like this, so studying them might be fruitful.

-- CAV

P.S. The inability of Opera, a fairly common browser, to render my blog, bothers me. If any regular here finds that he is having to avoid (or use) a certain browser just to read my blog, I would like to know more about it. Please leave a comment about your problem or email me. Thanks!


Today: (1) Fixed some typos. (2) Improved some wording.

Considering Mise en Place

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Over at Unclutterer I recently came across a post titled, "Mise en Place Beyond the Kitchen". The gist is that it's a good idea to set things up in advance generally, as the French do specifically for cooking. While I agree, I have to admit to wanting to comment on mise en place itself, or at least how it commonly seems to be understood and applied in another post and comments at the same blog.

My main bone of contention is that the best way to be organized necessarily entails setting out or preparing everything in advance. Here is one typical example:

  1. Read through the entire recipe to get a comprehensive idea of what I'll be doing.
  2. Read through the recipe again, this time taking notes on the recipe that are helpful to me during the cooking process.
  3. Set out all of the equipment I'll need to complete the recipe.
  4. Measure, chop, mince, etc. anything that has to be done at a very specific time during the cooking process. (If I'm making soup, I'll chop all my vegetables first, but I tend to just measure and grab ingredients out of the refrigerator and pantry as I go.)
  5. Heat the stove or oven, if applicable.
  6. Cook.
Erin Doland admits to flexibility regarding chopping vegetables, but I think one can be more deliberate about when one chops vegetables or measures ingredients. I know this because I learned to take advantage of my own absent-mindedness years ago.

While I have always read recipes ahead of cooking, things like "one small onion, chopped" in mid-recipe often annoyed me. If I had tons of time (and didn't forget), I could do such things first, but if I didn't. I'd have to remember to do them at some (hopefully) opportune time. It eventually occurred to me to just rewrite the recipes to explicitly call for the cutting, measuring, heating, or whatever at the most convenient time they could be done. For example, when I make chicken jambalaya, I normally chop vegetables while I cook the sausage. This strategy is especially helpful when there are sizeable time gaps in the action. Of course, one can always just hunt for words like "chop" and do a "regular" mise en place if advanced preparation is preferable, such as when one needs time gaps (for cooking other things at the same time) or a safer, simplified process (as when cooking while watching young children or socializing).

I would summarize my approach to mise en place as:
  1. Evaluate the procedure for steps that can be performed ahead of time or in parallel, and re-write it to make time savings extremely easy.
  2. State initial conditions, such as ingredients, total preparation time, special steps, and unusual equipment at the beginning of the procedure.
  3. Check initial conditions before starting the procedure,
  4. Evaluate the situation in which you will perform the procedure and plan any desired deviations.
  5. Perform the procedure
In many cases, I can save 15-20 minutes of preparation time every time I cook a given recipe simply by spending a half-hour or less rewriting a recipe. I have the further advantage of being able to dump the ingredients lists into my grocery list using a few simple commands, rather than having to waste time writing out a full shopping list. (See the recipe at the end of the jambalaya post for further details. Note that I have since started dumping the text file (with some minor editing) into a smart phone app rather than printing it out.)

-- CAV

Do People Value Facts Anymore?

Monday, April 13, 2015

John Stossel makes a variety of good points in a recent column on "The Right to Discriminate", but the following is one of his more interesting:

It would actually be useful to see which businesses refuse to serve one group or another. Tolerance is revealed by how people behave when they are free. American law fosters the illusion that everyone is unbiased, while their real feelings remain hidden, making them harder to boycott, shame or debate.
This Stossel says after reminding us that businesses run by bigots are vulnerable to being boycotted.

I don't find the above quote to be a big revelation, and I don't think others should. But perhaps this is something that needs to be said.

If so, it could be useful to speculate on why it would need saying. The result, if not the intent, of so much law over the past fifty years, during the vast expansion of the paternalistic state has been to make individuals dependent on the government for everything from money to judgement (e.g., all-encompassing regulations). This has especially been the case in the attempts to end government-enforced discrimination (a proper goal) and that of individuals (which is not properly the business of government). Furthermore, improper means, such as racial quotas, have been employed as remedies. The focus seems to have shifted from ending active discrimination to merely ending the results (or even what could be the results of discrimination. And so you have quotas and statistical analyses of hiring and promotion practices, police stops and the like. And now this is morphing into the government prescribing behaviors to individuals.

This shift to increasingly meddlesome law has followed inexorably from the premise that righting wrongs (vice protecting rights) is the proper purpose of the government. Might corresponding cultural shifts, including an expectation of rescue, a mental passivity that doesn't see the value in ugly truths, and a failure to appreciate the value of freedom, also follow? People are free to reach their own conclusions and form their own habits, but our current state of affairs is hardly one that encourages thinking.

-- CAV