3-31-12 Hodgepodge

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Don't Forget to Turn on the Lights!

This evening, at 8:30 p.m., I'll be celebrating human achievement during "Edison Hour" while too many people in my benighted "blue state" will be pretending to save the world. As I said in answer to a comment recently, after a two-day blackout I had to endure:

I thought more than once during my ordeal -- which is really nothing compared to the kind of world these idiots will achieve if they succeed -- that anyone who celebrates "Earth [Hour]" deserves to do so this way: caught almost completely off-guard at a time definitely NOT of their own choosing, and for an indeterminate amount of time.
Regarding the image, follow the link at "From the Vault", below.

Weekend Reading

"In other words, restricting physicians' freedom to practice is not some 'unintended consequence' of ObamaCare, but rather an explicitly desired goal." -- Paul Hsieh, in "It’s Not Just the Mandate: ObamaCare's Other Infringements" at PJ Media

"A parent has to be prepared to let a grown-up child go -- even if it means throwing him out." -- Michael Hurd, "Childhood Is Not a Lifetime Debt" at DrHurd.com

"[B]laming traders because you happen not to care for a market's prices is like blaming the mailman because you don't like the mail." -- Jonathan Hoenig, in "What the Bond Market Is Telling Us" at SmartMoney

From the Vault

By a happy and instructive coincidence, I posted the photo at the top right exactly four years ago today, under the title, "Every Hour is 'Earth Hour' in North Korea".

Pop Those Knuckles!

Futility Closet relates the story of a boy who ignored his mother's admonitions against knuckle-cracking and published his results fifty years later.
In 1998, California physician Donald L. Unger wrote to the editors of Arthritis & Rheumatism to report a "50-year controlled study by one participant." His mother had told him that cracking his knuckles would lead to arthritis, so for 50 years the science-minded Unger had cracked the knuckles of his left hand at least twice a day, more than 36,500 times in all, and left the right uncracked as a control. After 50 years he found no arthritis in either hand and no differences between the two hands.
Another author, invited to respond to the article, made the amusing speculation that knuckle-cracking might even prevent osteoarthritis.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, March 30, 2012

1. It would be premature to celebrate, but it looks like ObamaCare is in serious trouble at the Supreme Court:

Early in the arguments, [Anthony Kennedy, who appears to be the "swing" vote in a 5-4 decision,] cut to the heart of the debate over the so-called individual mandate -- which was the focus of Tuesday's hearing -- asking the federal government's attorney to explain what constitutional power the government had to force all Americans to obtain health insurance. "Can you create commerce to regulate it?" Kennedy asked Solicitor General Don Verrilli.
A legal analyst for CNN said that it looks like a "train wreck" for Obama and his cronies. Better yet, James Antle, writing for The American Spectator, notes that "[N]o matter how the Court rules, the bedrock assumptions of constitutionally limited government have returned to the mainstream of American political discourse." I hope he's right. Here's something else that goes no matter what: "... Americans will still have one last opportunity to overturn ObamaCare at the ballot box this fall: [by] elect[ing] politicians committed to repeal."

2. I got a kick out of reading about someone building the "worst Linux PC ever".
How fast is it? [Dmitry] tells us it takes two hours to boot up to a bash prompt, and four more to load up Ubuntu and login. If you want a Megahertz rating, good luck; the effective clock speed is about 6.5 kilohertz. While the worst Linux PC ever won’t win any races, its simple construction puts it within the reach of even the klutziest of hardware builders; the entire device is just a microcontroller, RAM, SD card, a few resistors, and some wire.
I guess this guy proved that Linux doesn't need "‘a computer made in the last 20 years" -- or at least that you need to add "to be useful" to that claim.

3. Scientists at MIT are working on a drug that could kill all viruses.
[DRACO] is a broad-spectrum antiviral. We have other broad-spectrum antivirals. We also have other PANACEA treatments that we've adapted to go after other things. Like for bacteria. And of course there are antibiotics, but for bacteria that are resistant to existing antibiotics, such as tuberculosis, malaria... so we can adapt this to pathogens other than viruses. We've done some initial experiments, we just can't get funding for that so far.
The idea is still in the lab, and many things could legitimately -- unlike the FDA -- stop its use in humans. However if this proved safe, genetic engineering could conceivably  allow people to produce the drug themselves at all times. I have my own misgivings about the advisability of using such a drug in this way, but this is still a fascinating idea.

4. I'm a proud father and my stories about my daughter do have their fans.... Here's one I meant to include in last week's batch: we have a "towel game". If I dangle a burp cloth in front of the baby, she'll grab at it. One day, while waiting with her on a subway platform, I started pulling it away just as she grabbed at it, and then lowering it again. I'd make sure I let her get hold of it once in a while, and say, "You got my towel!" whenever she did. Lately, with yawns having becoming mostly passé, this seems to be the best way to get her to laugh.

-- CAV

Libertarian Petri Dish

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Libertarians who are fond of so-called states' rights like to imagine that "data" produced from the success or failure of government schemes imposed by the various states will somehow, deterministically lead to more freedom when such schemes fail. As I have indicated in the past, all the data in the world is useless without analysis, and, in turn, all the analysis in the world is useless (or worse than useless) without the guidance of proper principles. That's too bad for them and their close cousins who fantasize about establishing "Libertarian islands", because a recent article in Ars Technica provides an enormous amount of data on the failure of just such an "experiment" in government.

The article is a lengthy look at the the dabblings of a former pirate radio operator in turning an abandoned naval facility off the coast of England into the "Principality of Sealand" and later, from this paradise of freedom from the laws of established countries, providing a base for a shady Internet content hosting company. Unsurprisingly, this micro-nation failed to protect the company from itself, much less provide it with the stability of being able to operate under rule by known (let alone proper) law.

The final straw came in May 2002, when Sealand's advisors decided against allowing HavenCo to host an unlicensed streaming-video service. (The scheme, which involved buying DVDs and streaming video from them to one customer at a time, bears a striking resemblance to the recently-enjoined Zediva.) [HavenCo's Ryan] Lackey saw it as exactly the sort of service HavenCo had been created to host, but the Sealanders decided that it risked undermining Sealand's relationship with the United Kingdom. A deal was negotiated, under which Lackey would be repaid the $220,000 he had put into HavenCo and continue as a reseller of HavenCo services but turn over day-to-day operational control.

Lackey was barely off the platform when the deal broke down. In his view, HavenCo had been "nationalized" by Sealand. This locked him out, physically and virtually. The company even confiscated his personal computers. The newly reorganized HavenCo issued a statement that Lackey was no longer an employee, and it adopted a new and much more restrictive acceptable use policy. The next five years were a sad study in decline.  [links dropped]
In addition, "Sealand" was also plainly unable to provide real protection from foreign invaders or any halfway sophisticated criminal enterprise, for that matter:
Even if Sealand were "officially" its own country, independence isn't worth much without allies. Any nation with warplanes -- no, make that any nation with an inflatable boat and an outboard motor -- could blow the place up. The only thing stopping it would be the United Kingdom's displeasure at explosions in its territorial waters. Any protection offered by Sealand's larger neighbor, however, would presumably come with enough strings attached to raise the question of why the servers should be on Sealand rather than onshore. The United Kingdom has been leaving the Bateses alone since 1968 mostly because they're such clever chaps that ousting them would be more embarrassment than it's worth.
This all sounds remarkably like a point I once made:
One moment's thought about the viability of such islands as states should make the point. Even assuming one achieves a capitalist society on such an island, which is no trivial feat, what of self-defense? How would one stop the pirate island ten miles away from enslaving or laying waste to his? With weapons? Purchased from where? The now-socialist United States one fled? Before or after the pirates strike? Before or after Obama invades your island instead, seeing it as a threat to hope and change? You started out with nukes? How nice: So did the pirates. And Obama. 
In that same post, I went further about the premise behind such islands:
... It is, in fact, the people who want to build such island-states who are the pessimists: They are the ones not developing a solid understanding of the theoretical basis and justification for freedom so that they can make its case to the rational people in their very midst. (They do exist.) The island-builders are the ones giving up without a fight (of the intellectual variety).
The author of the piece on Sealand sees at least a glimmer of this lesson:
Legal systems are like Soylent Green: they're made out of people. If you want to protect civil liberties using law, you need to get people on your side who share your vision of what law stands for. That's why the SOPA protests were so effective. They converted an argument about justice into real-world political power.

One more story from pirate radio history illustrates the paradox at the heart of HavenCo. In the summer of 1967, the pirate radio ship Laissez Faire radioed a distress call. Two factions on board were fighting. There were threats of murder. The authorities did nothing, explaining that the pirates "had deliberately placed themselves outside the reach of the law." Touché. [link dropped, bold added]
Government, properly delimited, is necessary for the functioning of a human society and is, as such, a good thing. Escaping its long arm may be difficult, but attempting to create a society without it -- or reinvent it without understanding what it is and why it is needed is impossible.

-- CAV

Regulation as Anti-Mind

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

John Stossel makes a couple of excellent and less-than-obvious points about how government regulation strikes at the heart of our economy by removing its most valuable asset -- brainpower -- from the equation at multiple levels.

[T]he thick rulebooks help cheaters by giving them an indecipherable screen to hide behind. They also mislead consumers by giving them the illusion of protection. "I don't need to worry because regulation protects me." It's why some sophisticated people gave all their savings to Bernie Madoff.
In the first two clear, memorable sentences, Stossel has eviscerated the whole idea that government regulations somehow have a magical power to stop the unscrupulous, as well as protect the ignorant from the effort of careful thought. But he's not done. Aside from encouraging stupidity and aiding desception, regulations have a huge cultural cost:
On top of doing little good, endless rules kill the freedom that made America the land of opportunity. We preach entrepreneurship, and try to teach children the value, satisfaction and excitement of starting their own businesses. Then we let entrepreneurial opportunity be crushed under the weight of the regulatory state. The byzantine rules send this message to Americans: Don't try. Don't build anything. Don't innovate. Don't create anything new. [bold added]
Americans who foolishly find amusement in stories, such as how difficult Stossel once found it to open a lemonade stand, should stop to think about what this is doing to us, now, as well as how this will stunt our children's psychological growth.

Stossel does note that "big businesses often have no problem with this". While this isn't the blanket condemnation of large businesses that is a commonplace on the left, I wish he had said something to the effect that some in business succumb to the temptation to take advantage of government regulation. His mention of big business is necessary, but in today's cultural climate, big business as such is often unjustly blamed for many of the problems caused by improper government, and I could see the mention adding some fuel to that fire. Aside from that, this is a great followup to another piece of his I noted here some time back about the cost of government meddling in prediction markets.

-- CAV

Creating More Effectively

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The blog post is on the long side, but a writer who, like myself, has a baby in her home, describes what she did to improve her writing output. Although she is a fiction writer, her advice is general enough to be helpful for almost anyone involved in creative work who faces little time and many distractions. I'll simply list the name of each side of her strategic "triangle" and advise you to follow the above link if you think it could be helpful:

  1. Knowledge, or Know What You're Writing Before You Write It
  2. Time [This includes setting time aside, guarding it ferociously, and tracking its use. --ed]
  3. Enthusiasm [I think knowledge and self-awareness are crucial to developing this. --ed]
Interestingly, a key part of the "knowledge" side resembles the "Thinking on Paper" technique Jean Moroney advocates in her "Thinking Directions" curriculum.
Every writing session after this realization, I dedicated five minutes (sometimes more, never less) and wrote out a quick description of what I was going to write. Sometimes it wasn't even a paragraph, just a list of this happens then this then this. This simple change, these five stupid minutes, boosted my wordcount enormously. I went from writing 2,000 words a day to writing 5,000 words a day within a week without increasing my 5 hour writing block. Some days I even finished early. [minor edits]
I'll be able to use something from this post for at least a couple of projects I'm working on, and the timing for finding this post was fortuitous: I was close to a scheduled reevaluation of my progress and tactics for each.

-- CAV

A Silent and Invisible Savior

Monday, March 26, 2012

Granted, I'm barely able to follow news these days with a baby in the house, but I bet I'm hardly the only one who will be surprised to learn that, nearly a week ago, Mexico City experienced a magnitude 7.4 earthquake, its worst since 1985. (For comparison, the infamous quake that devastated Port-au-Prince, Haiti in 2010 was a 7.0.)

Why wasn't this news, despite the fact that much of Mexico City is built on landfill, and is, as such, much more vulnerable to earthquakes than many other places? An article in Nature explains that improved engineering resulted in "little structural damage and no deaths":

No one really understood how the loose landfill would react to major earthquakes until 1985, when a magnitude-8 quake struck the coast along the same plate boundary as Tuesday's quake. The effects were horrific, crushing hospitals, hotels and apartment buildings. Tower blocks between eight and eighteen stories high were hit especially hard. Mexico City fast became one of the best-studied earthquake zones in the world and scientists now know that buildings of these heights reacted to the particular frequency generated by the shake-amplifying landfill.

After the quake, the country changed its building regulations and pushed for better design and materials. Cement buildings, for example stood up less well than brick, so the government tightened up on which cements could be used. Buildings were buttressed with giant steel lattices and special attention was given to those in the crucial 8–20-storey range.

"Mexico City in 1985 was a wake-up call for the engineering profession," says Alcocer. "Engineering has improved."

Today, many seismologists see Mexico City as a model for the developing world as an earthquake-conscious city within a moderate budget. But until Tuesday, the city had yet to be tested. Although measurements at UNAM suggest that this quake was only a third as strong as the one in 1985, Alcocer says it will generate massive amounts of valuable data. [American Seismologist David] Wald, however, sees it as a warning for any city located in a silty basin -- few of which have the kind of data that Mexico City has gathered.
The lack of gory consequences does not, alone, explain why the story of a great achievement did not at least merit some news coverage. The full explanation is cultural, and pertains to what is regarded as newsworthy.

It is a commonplace in modern culture that the word "reality" is often used with negative connotations. If someone has a generally positive outlook, he will sooner or later hear that he needs a "dose of reality". If one upholds principles of any kind, this view holds, it's basically because one just hasn't been exposed to "reality" yet. Admiration of someone as a hero is "unrealistic" unless qualified (to put it very mildly) or even prefaced by words (true or not) to the effect that the hero has feet of clay -- and a prolonged elaboration of same.

The fact that a story like this is apparently of only limited interest -- to academic scientists, judging from the source -- is an indication that this view, obviously missing its own dose of reality, is too widespread. And that's too bad: Even devoid of the vividness that comes with "human interest" reporting, I found something in this story too often missing in the products of modern culture: inspiration and encouragement.

-- CAV

P.S. A quick search of Google News reveals some press coverage, but the engineering is given somewhat perfunctory treatment, as in this Houston Chronicle story, dated March 23. I find the title almost amusing: "7.4 Quake Apparently Spares Lives in Mexico". I had no idea quakes could be so compassionate.


Today: Added P.S.
3-27-12: Corrected a typo.

3-24-12 Hodgepodge

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Two for Cultural Activists

I regard myself as a cultural activist and as such am always on the lookout for useful items regarding the matter of persuasion. I ran into a couple this week that pertain to the related matters of making a point clear and motivating people to consider one's differing point of view and follow up on its implications.

The first such item is a troubleshooting metaphor-cum-suggestion culled from the field of computer programming: Rubber Duck Debugging.

To use this process, a programmer meticulously explains code to an inanimate object, such as a rubber duck, in the expectation that upon reaching a piece of incorrect code and trying to explain it, the programmer will notice the error. The method exploits cognitive dissonance; the programmer will both describe what the code is supposed to be doing and observe what it actually does, and any mismatch between these two will become apparent. [footnote and links dropped]
While I don't think one could actually argue persuasively without making any assumptions about audience context, adopting the technique, perhaps with a reasonably intelligent person in lieu of a duck strikes me as worth doing on a regular basis.

The second such item is an article about how to complain effectively, which I discovered through a Lifehacker blog posting on the subject of making a "complaint sandwich".
Start with an ear-opener -- something that will help the recipient of the complaint become sympathetic.  Add the meat -- your actual request for redress of your grievances.  Finish it off with a digestive -- words that will increase the listener's motivation to help you.
In a manner of speaking, cultural activism is both troubleshooting and complaining. One must become effective at both to make a difference.

Weekend Reading

"Although Greece chose to over-borrow and then chose to default, it has gone un-criticized and un-punished. Why?" -- Richard Salsman, in "Greece's Disgraceful Debt Default -- and Calls to 'Euthanize' Bondholders" at Forbes

"It's an old market adage that winning trades are usually born right from the start." -- Jonathan Hoenig, in "When the Best Trade Is No Trade" at SmartMoney

"In Titan, the biography of John D. Rockefeller, the family patriarch required his kids to live for periods of time in relatively humble circumstances, away from the family mansion." -- Michael Hurd, in "Love Your Stuff!" at DrHurd.com

My Two Cents

The Hurd column touches on a problem I think exists nationwide, and that is greatly exacerbated by the entitlement state: people not "owning" or appreciating what they have. Hurd correctly notes that the problem can still exist without an entitlement state or pampering during childhood, because it relates to what a person knows about what material success requires.

Nostalgia for Simplicty

Via Alexis Madrigal, I ran into the following pithy critique of the "direction" Google has chosen to move with its flagship product:
[L]ately when using Google search I've found myself nostalgic for the old days, when Google was true to its own slightly aspy self. Google used to give me a page of the right answers, fast, with no clutter. Now the results seem inspired by the Scientologist principle that what's true is what's true for you. And the pages don't have the clean, sparse feel they used to. Google search results used to look like the output of a Unix utility. Now if I accidentally put the cursor in the wrong place, anything might happen.
The above comes from an article by venture capitalist Paul Graham titled, "Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas", in which "a new search engine" appears and Graham further notes, "[F]or the first time in over a decade the idea of switching [search engines] seems thinkable to me."


-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, March 23, 2012

Call this "The Proud Father Edition". -- Ed

1. The baby and I have a new ritual when we get home from walks, trips, and errands: I let her grab the door knocker and tell her to knock three times. This started when I saw her grabbing for the knocker after a Baby Bjorn trip and decided to see what she would do -- and then noticed her go straight for the knocker after the next such trip. So I made a game of it, and now take her out of the stroller and hold her up, if we're not using the Baby Bjorn. She is not, as far as I can tell, purposely doing three knocks so far, so I pull her away after she makes a good noise three times, while I count aloud.

2. The baby babbles quite a bit now, and often makes the sound "da-da". She also turns towards me and smiles when Momma asks her, "Where's Daddy?" As much as I'd love "Da-da" to be her first word, I am refraining from counting it until she clearly means "Daddy" when she makes the noise. As it was with crawling, so it is with talking, there are lots of pieces she has to put together before she's really doing it.

3. Baby Van Horn got a clean bill of health this week after her nine month checkup. At nineteen pounds, she's just shy of being three times her birth weight. I've been here the whole time, but it's still amazing to me both that she has grown so much and that she was ever so small. It's hard to imagine her at newborn size now, and I find that I now have to think of things, such as, "Well, her whole body used to fit comfortably across my lap. Now, not so much," and "She's much stronger and sturdier now: Some of the ways I can hold her now could have hurt her back then." Pictures help too, of course. Lately, I have been fond of saying to her, "You're three times your original size, but you're still a tiny little person!"

4. I have been assured that some anxiety is normal for a nine-month-old. She clung to me at a friend's house last week, although she has been to numerous other "new" houses before. (She eventually adjusted, and started playing on the couch, then the floor.) My first taste was more amusing: She clung to me when the bathtub faucet made a racket as I filled her bathtub. I didn't catch the hint, and proceeded to undress her and finish preparing her bath. When I filled a small container I use to rinse her from the same terrifying faucet, she clung to me and peed on my shirt. Momma sometimes calls me "Mr. Immaculate" since I usually manage to go through the day spotless, but we both were wearing a new change of clothes after that particular bath!

-- CAV

Is Anything Actually Legal Anymore?

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A list of  "19 Signs That America Has Become A Crazy Control Freak Nation Where Almost Everything Is Illegal" first drew my attention because I was sure that at least something on the list might not really belong there -- and left me amazed after I checked each item that its author was able to limit himself to only nineteen items.

Two of the items are directly related to previous blog posts here. I'll elaborate on each here, but the whole list is worth a look.

Item 18, which states that, "In San Juan Capistrano, California it is illegal to hold a home Bible study without a 'conditional use permit', is about a case I discussed here a few months ago. Back then, I concluded that there may well have been a legitimate reason for government intervention in that case, but that the actual remedy was wrong. This was, with one possible exception I haven't the time to dig deeper into, the only item on this list whose inclusion was dubious -- and it ultimately still belongs!

Item 14 leads to a story headlined by a statistic from a Heritage Foundation report: Congress manufactures one new crime a week. (At least, as of four years ago, that was the rate.)

There are at least 4,450 offenses in federal criminal law. That's the number Louisiana State University law professor John S. Baker Jr., and his researchers came up with in a just-published report.

Baker's work updates a 1983 count conducted by the Justice Department itself. That tally found more than 3,000 criminal laws -- meaning that in just 25 years Congress has created some 1,400 criminal offenses.

Both Baker and the Justice Department cautioned that they couldn't be sure they had found them all. Congress has scattered criminal offenses throughout the tens of thousands of pages of the United States Code.

Baker's study also found that at least 454 federal crimes were added from 2000 to 2007. That's an average of about 56 new federal crimes a year.

In short, Congress has been creating one new crime a week.
That article goes on to cite many of the absurd non-individual rights-violating "crimes" that have landed ordinary citizens in jail that I learned about from an article in the Wall Street Journal and passed on last year.

-- CAV

Cash-Free Isn't Theft-Free

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Those who like to imagine that money as the root of all evil are thrilled that in Sweden, the percentage of economic transactions that involve actual cash changing hands is the lowest of any European economy and may continue to dwindle.

Bills and coins represent only 3 percent of Sweden's economy, compared to an average of 9 percent in the eurozone and 7 percent in the U.S., according to the Bank for International Settlements, an umbrella organization for the world's central banks.

Three percent is still too much if you ask Ulvaeus. A cashless society may seem like an odd cause for someone who made a fortune on "Money, Money, Money" and other ABBA hits, but for Ulvaeus it's a matter of security.

After his son was robbed for the third time he started advocating a faster transition to a fully digital economy, if only to make life harder for thieves.

"If there were no cash, what would they do?" says Ulvaeus, 66. [link removed]
The article answers itself later on, for anyone who realizes that theft needn't be physically violent and that graft isn't the only illegitimate form of political activity: The criminals will join the only gang left, the government. (Conversely, one might ask what a criminal would do, seeing that electronic transactions are more convenient, and therefore, becoming more popular.)
[T]here are pockets of resistance. Hanna Celik, whose family owns a newspaper kiosk in a Stockholm shopping mall, says the digital economy is all about banks seeking bigger earnings.

Celik says he gets charged about 5 Swedish kronor ($0.80) for every credit card transaction, and a law passed by the Swedish Parliament prevents him from passing on that charge to consumers.  [bold added]
In a society that has forgotten (or never knew) that the government is supposed to protect individuals from having their money and property taken from them by force, nobody will bat an eye at the idea of terms being dictated to a businessman as to how he might offer a cashless option to his customers. (I think the impossible-to-fulfill requirement that he somehow not pass on his higher costs to his customers speaks even worse of such a society.)

So what if there's less graft when, economy-wide, the government's cronies (e.g., corrupt bankers) can legally (but still improperly) skim a little bit off of every electronic transaction, or there's an easy way for the wolf guarding the hen-house to trace everyone's economic activity?

-- CAV

Thank You, Elle Macpherson!

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Via Matt Drudge, I learned of the following excerpt from a Howard Stern interview:

STERN: You like Obama?

MACPHERSON: Yeah, I'm living in London and I'm socialist. What do you expect?
This reminds me of the following Ayn Rand quote, from her essay, "The Anatomy of Compromise":
The three rules listed below are by no means exhaustive; they are merely the first leads to the understanding of a vast subject.
  1. In any conflict between two men (or two groups) who hold the same basic principles, it is the more consistent one who wins.
  2. In any collaboration between two men (or two groups) who hold different basic principles, it is the more evil or irrational one who wins. 
  3. When opposite basic principles are clearly and openly defined, it works to the advantage of the rational side; when they are not clearly defined, but are hidden or evaded, it works to the advantage of the irrational side.
Along the lines of item 3 above, I thank Elle Macpherson for openly acknowledging what too many on the left don't: That she's a socialist. If more people on the left, including the president she admires, expressed their sympathy for socialism more openly, it would be harder for leftists to get away with selling their proposals or covering up their failures. They could no longer easily pretend their proposals are compatible with free markets -- or blame capitalism when their economic policies inevitably fail. (It would, incidentally, also be harder for Republicans to get away with advocating their own, similar policies while posing as proponents of free markets.)

It is always easier to attack and defeat an open enemy than one wearing camouflage or, worse, pretending to be a collaborator.

-- CAV

EPA Endangers My Species

Monday, March 19, 2012

Apparently, Barack Obama recently made a claim about American oil reserves versus consumption that is even more ridiculous than it is memorable. First, the claim as cited by Hot Air:

"With only 2% of the world's oil reserves, we can't just drill our way to lower gas prices," he said. "Not when we consume 20% of the world’s oil."
The Hot Air piece goes on to claim that Obama is partially right, in the sense that even a surge in domestic production would probably not reduce oil prices since we'd sell what we don't need -- but this is after demolishing the President's implication that we can't produce enough oil for our needs.

So does Larry Kudlow in a piece at RealClear Politics:
This is just patently untrue. According to the Institute for Energy Research, when you include oil shale, the U.S. has 1.4 trillion barrels of technically recoverable oil. That is enough to meet all U.S. oil needs for about the next 200 years, without any imports.
Of course, as Kudlow indicates, our own government is our worst enemy with regard to exploiting those enormous reserves:
And then there's the EPA, which is holding up oil and gas exploration in the Outer Continental Shelf, Alaska's North Slope, ANWR, Utah tar sands, and the whole Green River Formation in Wyoming and neighboring states. Energy development on private lands is leading to greater development and production. But the Obama administration is still way behind on permits for drilling on federal land or offshore.
Returning to Hot Air for a moment, it is interesting to note that the Green River formation alone contains 1.4 trillion barrels. This is the same figure as the total noted by Kudlow for recoverable oil because, as a listing of reserves at Hot Air indicates, the others added to this would round down.

So how's this for a memorable statistic? "With the EPA preventing us from recovering over 99% of our oil, we can't even try to drill our way to lower oil prices?"

That sounds like an argument not for giving up oil, but for ending the EPA -- which is single-handedly destroying my environment by making it harder and harder for my speciies, Homo sapiens, to acquire the energy it needs to survive.

-- CAV

3-17-12 Hodgepodge

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Potential donors spout Marxism instead.

An article in the New York Times describes an innovative way of solving a telecommunications problem at a technology conference: roaming hotspots. The idea was that people would roam the South by Soutwest technology conference carrying mobile Wi-Fi devices and dressed in easily-identifiable garb.

Unfortunately (in the eyes of some conference goers), the company that came up with the idea didn't offer high enough-pay and benefits for walking around and talking -- or use college students instead. Rather, it offered very poor people twenty dollars a day and any donations attendees chose to give in return for the free wireless.

[A]s word of the project spread on the ground and online, it hit a nerve among many who said that turning down-and-out people into wireless towers was exploitative and discomfiting.

Tim Carmody, a blogger at Wired, described the project as "completely problematic" and sounding like "something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." [bold added, links dropped]
One man who works with the homeless and at least one "human hot spot" disagreed with the Marxist assessment of the project as "exploitative":
"It's an employment opportunity, regardless of who is offering it," [charity development director Mitchell] Gibbs said.

The human hot spots seemed unconcerned as well. One volunteer, Clarence Jones, 54, said he was originally from New Orleans and became homeless in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

"Everyone thinks I'm getting the rough end of the stick, but I don't feel that," Mr. Jones said. "I love talking to people and it's a job. An honest day of work and pay." [links dropped]
Nobody forced anyone to do anything here, so this idea was not exploitative.

I guess that it was easier (and cheaper) -- but discomfiting -- for an attendee to spout platitudes about "exploitation" and inequality in a show of concern, rather than thank the "hot spots" and perhaps dig a little deeper into his own pockets, if, knowing the circumstances, he wanted to help a stranger.

Weekend Reading

"It's been well over a generation since U.S. investors dealt with an inflationary period of higher interest rates -- so long in fact that most of today's investment class has little memory of investing in such an environment." -- Jonathan Hoenig, in "The End of the Bond Bull Market (Finally) " at SmartMoney

"[T]oday's bias is overwhelmingly in favor of the notion that 'biology is destiny.' Nobody seems interested in the possibility that concepts and beliefs could contribute to emotional states." -- Michael Hurd, in "Disorders are not a Free Pass" at DrHurd.com

From the Vault

Three years ago today, I learned from Stanley Crouch that a classic of American literature had been chopped in half and its second half discarded before I read it in high school:
[Richard] Wright's original title for his autobiography, American Hunger, was changed and the second half of it was removed. That vital second half was set in the North and pulled the covers off the urban Communist movement. Now, in its full form, the book is remarkable.
I'd forgotten about this: Time to add one to the reading hopper.

Tax it, and they will leave.

Jake Ludington notes that an Illinois pipe dream has failed in dramatic fashion.
January thruough June 2011, the months before the law went into effect saw the Illinois Department of Revenue collect approximately $139 million use tax. From July 2011 through the end of the year, Illinois collected $127 million in use tax. That's right, Illinois collected less use tax after their affiliate nexus tax went into effect.
The loss of tax revenue is just part of the fallout.

-- CAV

Anti-Man is not Pro-Woman

Friday, March 16, 2012

Right on the heels of hearing about a foolish conservative petition to take Bill Maher off the air, I have learned that there is a "trend of female lawmakers submitting bills regulating men's health". In other words, leftists opposed to restrictions on abortion are proposing bad legislation of their own just to send a message:

Before getting a prescription for Viagra or other erectile dysfunction drugs, men would have to see a sex therapist, receive a cardiac stress test and get a notarized affidavit signed by a sexual partner affirming impotency, if [Ohio] state Sen. Nina Turner has her way.
Turner has proposed this legislation in response to a so-called "heartbeat bill" that would ban abortions whenever there is a fetal heartbeat. She is correct that, as a health law, her bill is analogous to the heartbeat bill, but that fact doesn't make what she is doing an effective way of promoting her own position. This is because the real problem with the heartbeat law is that only actual (not potential) human beings have rights, and that using mere possession of a heartbeat to define what constitutes a human life is wrong. Violating the rights of even more individuals is not a way to protect the rights of anyone, and failing to even broach the subject of individual rights when a defense of same is urgently needed (and essential) to one's cause is to forfeit the fight.

Turner and her ilk should concentrate on making cogent, pro-individual rights arguments for women's reproductive rights, rather than proposing legislation that, in today's morass of confused political philosophy, actually stands a good chance of being passed -- on top of strongly resembling other legislation already on the books that ought to be repealed, such as anti-abortion legislation and ObamaCare.

To re-cast a recent comment about American bishops suddenly being angry about the contraceptive/abortion implications of ObamaCare: "If women Democrats had previously opposed ObamaCare and supported free market health care reforms on principle, they would now have the moral high ground to argue for reproductive freedom." That is, if Turner wants the state's hands off her body, she should argue against them being on anyone's body.

-- CAV

Back Bay Blackout

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In case you were wondering where I've been over the last couple of days, these pictures, taken around seven in the morning yesterday in the Prudential/Copley Square area of Back Bay Boston, where I live, should offer a clue.

Here's another clue: Some buildings had backup generators, and some didn't. A huge electrical fire in our neighborhood knocked out the substation that provides electrical power to a large swath of Boston around 7:00 Tuesday evening -- just as I was about to post the answer to a comment, and we didn't get power back until this afternoon. I see that I have some email and a few comments awaiting moderation. I probably won't get to any of that until tomorrow morning.

Wednesday in our neighborhood was bizarre, with many businesses, including all stores and kiosks in both malls closed. Fortunately, the grocery store across the street and the subways were open. I bought supplies for life without a fridge later that morning and we had dinner in Cambridge last night. Later today, I'll be throwing out practically everything that had been in the fridge and having to replace it. Aside from that annoying task, I'm relieved and thrilled to have power back.

In the meantime, the curious can find some good blackout pictures at the City Desk blog of The Boston Herald.

-- CAV

The War on Drugs Justice

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

According to a story in The New York Times, one casualty of the so-called "War on Drugs", could well and relatively easily be a criminal justice system that functions at all:

After years as a civil rights lawyer, I rarely find myself speechless. But some questions a woman I know posed during a phone conversation one recent evening gave me pause: "What would happen if we organized thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of people charged with crimes to refuse to play the game, to refuse to plea out? What if they all insisted on their Sixth Amendment right to trial? Couldn't we bring the whole system to a halt just like that?"
Michelle Alexander, whose answer is in the affirmative, explains why she thinks so:
[I]n this era of mass incarceration -- when our nation's prison population has quintupled in a few decades partly as a result of the war on drugs and the "get tough" movement -- these rights are, for the overwhelming majority of people hauled into courtrooms across America, theoretical. More than 90 percent of criminal cases are never tried before a jury. Most people charged with crimes forfeit their constitutional rights and plead guilty.

... In the race to incarcerate, politicians champion stiff sentences for nearly all crimes, including harsh mandatory minimum sentences and three-strikes laws; the result is a dramatic power shift, from judges to prosecutors.

The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that threatening someone with life imprisonment for a minor crime in an effort to induce him to forfeit a jury trial did not violate his Sixth Amendment right to trial. Thirteen years later, in Harmelin v. Michigan, the court ruled that life imprisonment for a first-time drug offense did not violate the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
Alexander comes across to me a little bit as a soft-on-crime leftist: There's nothing wrong with being "tough on crime" as long as the sentence is appropriate and there has been an actual crime committed (i.e., the individual rights of another person have been violated or threatened). Nevertheless, she raises a good point about the folly of making non-crimes illegal -- a point which conservatives, with their fixation on legislating morality, seem to me quite likely to miss.

Between leftists eager to quit punishing crime at all and theocrats wanting to continue prohibiting activities that do not violate the rights of others, I am hardly eager to see what might come of such a crisis.

-- CAV

An Amusing Blindside

Monday, March 12, 2012

I haven't been surprised by Daylight Savings Time in years, thanks in part to my partial adoption of the system David Allen outlines in Getting Things Done, but I was, yesterday morning. Typically, on going through my calendar on the evening before, or during my weekly review, I would have seen "02:00 * Begin Daylight Savings Time *" marked there. But I didn't get to check my calendar the night before, and since I was without a baby sitter last Friday, I ended up performing my weekly review in bits and pieces; apparently, checking the next week's calendar had slipped through the cracks.

In any event, it was amusing to see what advances in technology have made it like to completely forget about Daylight Savings Time. First, I woke up on time. The baby sleeps in our room, so I use my smart phone, set to vibrate (which I can still hear), as my alarm clock. My phone had already automatically re-set to the correct time. I started my coffee and logged in to my computer, which had also re-set itself to the correct time. Since I always plan my day first thing, "02:00 * Begin Daylight Savings Time *" popped up on my calendar.

"What?" I thought. I enter everything into my calendar manually, so I wondered whether this was correct. And since, without even being aware of DST, I was awake and seeing the time I had thought it was on my computer screen, I checked the paper. Yep: The Boston Globe's web site had a blurb.

"Oh, great! So it's really 4:00 a.m. and I've lost an hour's work already," was my next thought. But it quickly occurred to me that my phone and computer had probably reset themselves. To confirm this suspicion, I consulted my analog wristwatch and saw that it read a little bit past 2:00 a.m.

I chuckled with mild relief.

-- CAV

3-10-12 Hodgepodge

Saturday, March 10, 2012


A group of conservatives has started a petition to the FCC to take Bill Maher off the air. Fortunately, it seems to be failing, in terms of its signature count so far. It reads, in part, as follows:

If those who oppose Rush Limbaugh are going to make a petition to pull him off the air for one derogatory thing he said. It only makes sense that we actually pull people off the air who add nothing to the national dialogue but derogatory and inflammatory language.
While I can understand wanting to make such a petition, what kind of message does it send? If it garners enough signatures, it looks like "We're all censors now," to recast a phrase from the start of the so-called Great Recession, when both parties supported government "bailouts". If it fails, it looks like nobody really cares about the selective outrage leftists are showing towards Rush Limbaugh (not that his slur wasn't outrageous).

Weekend Reading

"Like the singsong mocking of a little child, 'I know something you don't know,' the sad truth is that some adults never outgrow this immature stage." -- Michael Hurd, in "Being Contrary Is Not Self-Esteem" at DrHHurd.com

"Highly doubted and dangerous, the new emerging markets might end up surprising us all, just as Latin America and the BRICs have over most of the past decade." -- Jonathan Hoenig, in "Give Greece a Chance" at SmartMoney

"In truth it's Mr. Geithner who seems to suffer from amnesia, although you can't really forget what you never learned in the first place." -- Richard Salsman, in "Five Financial Reforms That Would Prevent Crises and Promote Prosperity" at Forbes

"If the Catholic bishops had previously opposed ObamaCare and supported free market health care reforms on principle, they would now have the moral high ground to argue for religious freedom." -- Paul Hsieh, in "Free Market Lessons from Contraception Fight" at PJ Media

My Two Cents

The quote from the Hsieh piece reminds me of a column by Senator Jim DeMint who, although "pro-life", ended up saying the following: "The problem is not how the federal government is abusing its new power in this instance, but that the government -- indeed, a single person -- suddenly wields this power at all."

I Think I Agree

A sportswriter, commenting on Arsenal F.C.'s nearly coming back from the dead in the the UEFA championships, says the following:
[Manager Arsene] Wenger, just maybe, was seeing evidence of a new team of excellent competitive character but shaped by his most basic beliefs in how football should be played. ...


If Wenger can persuade his owners to see the importance of making more than nominal attempts to re-sign Robin van Persie, if Jack Wilshere comes back as whole and potentially masterful as he left, we might have evidence that the club was indeed right, and so many of us wrong, to believe that the best of the manager's work was not consigned to the past.
I recall how shaky the now-superlative goalkeeper was last season, and am no longer seeing the kinds of mistakes caused by mental weakness among some of the younger players that plagued the team last season. The team, as inconsistent as it has been this season, is currently fourth place. It would be ludicrous for the owners not to support Wenger.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, March 09, 2012

1. Due to a variety of hardware failures I determined it would take too long to fix (or cost too much to pay someone else to fix), I decided to scrap my trusty ASUS Eee PC 702 netbook about a month and a half ago. Its replacement, although not cutting-edge, arrived in the mail last week and now dual boots Ubuntu Linux and its original Windows 7 operating system.

I'm quite happy with my ASUS Eee PC 1018P, which I found advertised on-line in "like new" condition. Its larger screen, greater processing speed, and really slick case design are all helping me get over any sentimentality I felt for the old machine. Best of all, buying not-quite-new ensured that others got to be guinea pigs/had to figure out how to get Linux to install on it, and that I paid half of what I had paid for the old machine. (Regarding installation, it helps to understand the oddball boot manager.)

2. In one fell swoop, a company has found a way to make an iPad and Windows much more useful.

It's a tiny app -- about 5 megabytes. When you open it, you see a standard Windows 7 desktop, right there on your iPad. The full, latest versions of Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Internet Explorer and Adobe Reader are set up and ready to use -- no installation, no serial numbers, no pop-up balloons nagging you to update this or that. It may be the least annoying version of Windows you've ever used.
You can get all this convenience for a subscription fee of $5.00 per month. I am not a tablet fan and I dislike Windows, but ... wow!

[Note: If the above sounds too good to be true, it may be: In between writing the above blurb and time to publish this post, I learned that this service violates a Microsoft license.]

3. Last week, I blogged about the smallest PC I'd ever heard of. This week, I note the cheapest PC I've ever heard of, thanks to an anonymous commenter.
The Raspberry Pi is a credit-card sized computer that plugs into your TV and a keyboard. It's a capable little PC which can be used for many of the things that your desktop PC does, like spreadsheets, word-processing and games. It also plays high-definition video. We want to see it being used by kids all over the world to learn programming.
The Model A costs $25.00 and the Model B costs $35.00.

4. And the (real) winner is ... TinyMCE. Some time back, in a bid to save blogging time and avoid headaches with Google's lousy new post editor, I settled on KompoZer as a blog post editor. But strange typos started showing up in my posts, and I was unhappy with elements of its interface and with having to go back and forth between my browser and another application. TinyMCE works within my browser and is easy to customize.

-- CAV

Trivia vs. Understanding

Thursday, March 08, 2012

I practically shouted "Amen!" when I read, in a blog posting, an admonition against asking "nano questions" when interviewing potential employees. From the title -- "I'm an engineer, not a compiler." -- I had a fairly good guess as to what a "nano question" might be, but  here's an example, taken from the field of computer science:

It seems like technical interviews have become more and more focused on the tiny trivial pursuit details of technology: "So, Mr. Olsen, exactly which version of Java were you using in this project, was that or" Who remembers? Who cares? The kind of knowledge that is wrapped up in knowing the difference between V1.2a and V1.2c has approximately the same shelf life as unrefrigerated shell fish. I'm certainly not telling you to not to ask technical questions. By all means do ask technical questions. But there is a difference between a technical question What is inheritance? What is the downside of using Java? and questions that could appear in Trivial Pursuit/Geek Edition.
The so-called "nano question" -- whose answer one could easily look up (if he ever needed it) -- merely indicates factual knowledge on some very specific topic; the broader questions require relevant knowledge to answer and, more importantly, a conceptual understanding of that knowledge.

Computers are great a coughing up trivia, but only humans can conceptualize, and that is presumably why they're being hired. It follows that the cost of screening humans as if they were computers (or computer programs) is that good candidates can and will get passed over. The post excerpted above goes on:
Aside from telling you not much at all, the tiny question has two real costs: first it takes up the time that you could be spending getting to know this person, finding out if they are smart enough, if they have the right background, if they will fit into your group. The second cost of this kind of question is that it tends to tick off those smart, well rounded people that you really do want to hire.
The first post I linked indicates a possible trend, noting that many certification exams ask such questions, and provides a pithy rule of thumb: "Any question that takes 5 seconds to answer with Google is not a good question."

But it's only a rule of thumb: Some things that look like nano questions aren't, and may be the kind of knowledge one must have readily accessible in memory to get the job done. (I am sure that lots of information used by emergency medical personnel might fall into this category.) I learned this not-always-obvious distinction the hard way about twenty years ago: When I was a junior officer in the submarine force, I confused a question about the basis for a normal operating limit with a nano question -- during a qualification board interview! I basically replied that I could just look up the answer if I needed it. "Wrong answer!" is what the Captain said. Why? In some kinds of emergencies, it could well be necessary to know the "trivia" cold. I was rightly thrown out and had to take that board again.

-- CAV

Why not (really) privatize?

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

An interesting article in The American notes that the budget crisis in California is resulting in increased private involvement in the funding and maintenance of government recreational programs, such as parks and university sports teams.

One of those organizations with an imaginative approach is the Lagunitas Brewing Company in Petaluma. The company's founder, Tony Magee, is in negotiations with California State Parks to assume the maintenance of the local Samuel P. Taylor State Park. Magee believes that through volunteer staffing and a more creative marketing approach, he can "come pretty close to breaking even" on a budget that currently runs at $1 million annually.

Further creative solutions can be seen in nearby Jack London Historic Park, also designated for closure. Working with the Los Angeles-based Transcendence Theater Company, the Valley of the Moon Natural History Association is producing an "under the stars" concert to raise the money needed to keep Jack London and other area parks open.

Transcendence's Amy Miller says, "The first time we walked into the gorgeous venue we knew it was the most remarkable space for a theatre." If the fall shows prove popular, the theater company is looking at a full slate of productions in area state parks next summer -- inspired new uses for park land. [links dropped]
To its credit, the article does not call any of this "privatization", but calling such efforts "partnerships" is bad enough, since the government, as a coercive entity, ultimately calls the shots, and shouldn't be involved in such matters anyway.

On the bright side, however, such efforts may well raise numerous opportunites (which The American has missed) to ask the following question: Why not get the government completely out of owning and running things like public parks? One rationale for having the government do this is already being refuted: the idea that were it not for the government's deep pockets, there would not be, for example, parks open to the public. Other rationales, such as the kinds noted by Brian Phillips in his book, Individual Rights and Government Wrongs (excerpted below), should also come into question.
These proposals are usually met with indignant opposition. Private companies, it is claimed, would despoil the parks by building condos on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Motivated by profit, they would erect a Starbucks in front of Old Faithful. They would raise prices and turn parks into the playgrounds of the rich, leaving the poor and middle-class with few opportunities to enjoy outdoor recreation. And, as the acting director of the National Recreation and Park Association stated in 2006, privatizing parks is un-American: "Public parks embody the American tradition of preserving public lands for the benefit and use of all."
I will note that Phillips provides plenty of examples of successful private parks, libraries, roads, and  other things the government needn't -- and shouldn't -- be involved in.

-- CAV

Stossel on Regulations

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

A recent John Stossel column about his attempt to open a lemonade stand "by the book" in New York City just about has to be read to be believed:

Here's some of what one has to do:
-- Register as sole proprietor with the County Clerk's Office (must be done in person)
-- Apply to the IRS for an Employer Identification Number.
-- Complete 15-hr Food Protection Course!
-- After the course, register for an exam that takes 1 hour. You must score 70 percent to pass. (Sample question: "What toxins are associated with the puffer fish?") If you pass, allow three to five weeks for delivery of Food Protection Certificate.
-- Register for sales tax Certificate of Authority
-- Apply for a Temporary Food Service Establishment Permit. Must bring copies of the previous documents and completed forms to the Consumer Affairs Licensing Center.
Since the whole process  would have taken over two months, Stossel sold lemonade anyway, although he was sure to place a legally-required fire extinguisher on the table when he did.

-- CAV

--- In Other News ---

As part of a slide show explaining what a "search bubble" is -- something the folks at DuckDuckGo make a point of not placing its users into -- there is a headline from The Onion that aptly skewers the problem with tailor-made searches: "Area Woman Prefers to Get Same Advice from as Many People as Possible". So-called "personalized search" too easily slips into "baked-in confirmation bias",  and, at least the way it is being done now, I'd call it a bug, and not a feature.

A tech writer, reacting to the computing world apparently having to re-learn lessons already learned and forgotten in the past, discusses some innovative software from the 1970s and then utters the same thought I have often had regarding countless modern user interfaces: "The user is expected to learn all these widgets and how to use them and what they mean (intuitive my ass) and then whenever they need to do something they just do it repeatedly."

Heh! A blogger does an image search for iPad case and concludes, "Dude, It's a Laptop You Want, not an iPad". The writer notes: "Basically, people want cases that (a) prop the screen up and (b) have a keyboard. The thing is, we already have a gadget that does these two things. It's called a laptop."

Weber Gets Cheap Lesson

Monday, March 05, 2012

A company beloved by backyard barbecuers has been bitten by the very cause it self-destructively supports. Robert X. Cringely reports that Weber-Stephen Products LLC, which manufactures grills and other barbecue equipment, is the target of a class action suit because the company had, for a time, included a foreign-made valve on one of its grills. The product was thus no longer (completely) "Made in America", contrary to its label. Interestingly, Weber stopped using the part when its quality was found to have suffered. Cringely quotes a friend on the circumstances:

My charcoal grill has a propane starter.  I put in the charcoal, turn a knob, push a button, and 10 minutes later my charcoal is lit.  It is very nice.  My grill uses the small 14 oz propane bottles.  One summer I noticed my bottles were running out too fast.  There was a small leak in the control valve.  Weber sent me a new valve, for free.  It was a different type and design of valve.  They sent me some other parts to fit it to my grill properly.  One of the makers of their valves had sent their production overseas and the quality was suffering. Weber found another domestic maker of valves and had redesigned their products to use them. You know me, I have an insatiable curiosity.  I examined the old, leaking propane valve from my grill.  I did some Google'ing and found the manufacturer.  Most of their products go into small propane heating products, like the stoves in RV's.  Weber was smart enough to figure out this supplier was now making lower quality products. 
Setting aside the question of the propriety of truth-in-advertising laws, which strike me as unnecessary since fraud is already a crime, it is ironic that Weber would not be in trouble now had it not pandered to the "Buy American" brigade in the first place.

Brigade? Yes. As Harry Binswanger noted long ago in his essay, "'Buy American' Is Un-American":
Collectivism reflects the notion that life is "a zero sum game," that we live in a dog-eat-dog world, where one man's gain is another man's loss. On this premise, everyone has to cling to his own herd and fight all the other herds for a share of a fixed, static, supply of goods. And that is exactly the premise of the "Buy American" campaign. "It's Japan or us," is the implication. If Japan is getting richer, then we must be getting poorer.

But individualism recognizes that wealth is produced, not merely appropriated, and that man's rise from the cave to the skyscraper demonstrates that life is not a zero-sum game -- not where men are free to seek progress.


The patriotic advocates of buying American would be shocked to learn that the economic theory underlying their viewpoint is Marxism. In describing the influx of Japanese products and investment, they don't use the Marxist terminology of "imperialism" and "exploitation," but the basic idea is the same: capitalistic acts are destructive and free markets will impoverish you. It's the same anti-capitalist nonsense whether it is used by leftists to attack the United States for its commerce with Latin America or by supposed patriots to attack Japan for its commerce with the United States.
There was nothing inherently wrong in Weber's prior use of a foreign-manufactured valve. In fact, had quality remained high, its use in the grills would have saved its customers money. On top of that, Weber switched suppliers when the valve was foud to be of low quality. The folks at Weber acted the part of true capitalists regarding their components, but, through labeling, paid homage to Marxism (and betrayed themselves). The company is now getting a taste of what it asked for: the government penalizing it for how it makes its own grills.

Cringley ends his blog posting with a shrug. "I don’t have a solution to offer here."

Indeed, the problem of massive government interference in our economy, including advertising regulations and the kinds of trade restrictions many people misguidedly advocate out of patriotism, is huge, and too big for any one man to solve. But one way to start would be for manufacturers like Weber to stop voicing support for ideas that are inimical to its ability to use the best parts and equipment possible for its bottom line and its customers.

Weber's getting in trouble for a label, but that's actually a cheap lesson: Restictions of all kinds on trade -- both across borders and within our own country -- are among the biggest enemies to businesses like Weber and to the prosperity of indivdual Americans alike.

-- CAV

3-3-12 Hodgepodge

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Quote of the Day

"Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence." -- Robert Frost (HT: Futility Closet)

In my experience, there can be many reasons for people to lose their tempers during intellectual debates, but this quote pithily reminds me of a common one: The person losing his temper has discovered on some level that he does not completely understand his own position.

Weekend Reading

"On hearing of a 'safe, effective, and potent' vaccine, 'factory whistles blew, children cheered, car horns honked and parents wept with relief.'" -- Jonathan Hoenig, in "We Need More Apples, Fewer DMVs" at SmartMoney

"More than just venting, moods need challenge and correction using facts, reason and logic." -- Michael Hurd, in "Bad Mood? Not So Bad" at DrHurd.com

"Americans today face a choice: Do we want to be on our own -- or continue as society's servants?" -- Yaron Brook and Don Watkins, in "The 'On Your Own' Economy" at Forbes

"[E]ven the most propitious tax reform becomes a mere re-arrangement of deck chairs on the Titanic if no effort is made simultaneously to severely restrain and reduce the size, scope, and cost of illegitimate government functions..." -- Richard Salsman, in  "Romney's Welcome But Wobbly Walk on the Supply Side" at Forbes

My Two Cents

Brook and Watkins take on an assumption implicit in advocacy of the entitlement state -- that we can choose only between being "taken care of" or starving in the streets -- and indicate both that it is a false dichotomy and that accepting the former comes at a steep price.

Good Week for This Fan

Two soccer teams I follow had big wins this week. Arsenal trounced archrival Spurs 5-2 in the English Premier League after falling behind 2-0 in the first half. The win might help salvage what has been a frustratingly uneven season so far.

I got to see the second half of the first game live, but I missed seeing the U.S. Men's National Team defeat Italy for the first time in history. My favorite American player, Clint Dempsey, scored the only goal of the game, as seen above.

-- CAV


Today: Corrected title.

Friday Four

Friday, March 02, 2012

1. Baby Van Horn's development has been impressive lately. Hating "tummy time" caused her to start crawling a little late -- but frustration with immobility and a strong desire to grab our cat's fur have conspired to make her pursue crawling with great single-mindedness for the past few weeks. I've also been building towers for her to knock down. She got to one before I could finish it for the first time yesterday. We've been trying to sign with her lately, too, but so far, she favors her own "signs". For example, if she's hungry, she will reach out to be picked up and then reach for a bottle nearby. Her babbling started a little late, but impressively. I'll glow when her "da-da's" become purposeful. She's now sitting like a pro, and no longer cries when left alone in her crib for a few moments. (I came back to find her standing with the help of the rails for the first time this week.) The baby seems generally to be gobbling up and synthesizing information about everything lately, and progressing on multiple developmental fronts at once, contrary to a view I heard put forward (perhaps badly) in a parenting class I recently attended.

In the trivia department: We've been feeding Baby Van Horn solid food for some time now, but oatmeal remains her favorite food by a big margin. She loves the checkered pattern on our copy of The Real Mother Goose. She reaches out for the knocker on our door and raps a couple of times when I bring her home from walks in the Baby Bjorn.

2. A computer company is rolling out a full-fledged Linux computer that is the size of a pen drive.

FXI announced today that the Cotton Candy is available for preorder. The standard retail price is $199 plus tax and shipping. The product is expected to ship in March. The small form factor and relatively high specs make the product seem like a compelling choice for enthusiasts who are looking for an ultra-compact Linux system. [link dropped]
The computer has video and usb/power adapters at its ends and both WiFi and bluetooth transceivers. It can function as a computer with as little as a monitor, a USB power adapter, and bluetooth-enabled input devices -- or it can be used as a conventional bootable USB drive.

3. Science fiction fans will enjoy reading about the fake chemical compound Isaac Asimov published several "papers" about.
I was in the homestretch and beginning to think forward to writing my Ph.D. dissertation. I rather dreaded that, since the obligatory style of disserations is turgid in the extreme, and I had by now spent nine years trying to write well and was afraid I simply might not be able to write badly enough to qualify for my degree.


It occurred to me, however, that instead of writing an actual story based on the idea, I might write up a fake research paper on the subject and get a little practice in turgid writing. I did the job on June 8, 1947, even giving it the kind of long-winded title that research papers so often have -- "The Endochronic Properties of Resublimated Thiotimoline" — and added tables, graphs, and fake references to non-existent journals.
And anyone who has been through graduate school, but still knows how to write, will understand his motivation!

4. And, via BoingBoing, speaking of interesting papers on chemistry... I haven't read it all, but there's a report by O. Hai and I. B. Hakkenshit on how to synthesize the active ingredient of Sudafed from crystal meth. From their intro: "A novel and straightforward synthesis of pseudoephidrine from readily available N-methylamphetamine is presented. This practical synthesis is expected to be a disruptive technology replacing the need to find an open pharmacy." The "War on Drugs" has been a complete failure so far: At least now it can claim some modest success as inspiration for a joke.

-- CAV

"Scientific Spectacles" Not Enough

Thursday, March 01, 2012

It's a few years old, but Malcolm Gladwell's review of James Flynn's None of the Above is worth reading and keeping in mind for the next time the subject of IQ and race comes up, as it has a few times in comments here in the past. The book calls into question the tidy assumptions some people like to make regarding race and IQ, by considering such matters as the method used to measure intelligence in individuals (i.e., tests that have to be "re-normed" periodically to account for cultural and technological change) and how analyses of the data are performed (e.g., whether two sample populations really are comparable; or whether some relevant, explanatory variable, such as age, might have been omitted from the analysis).

I'll excerpt a couple of clear cases, starting here with a striking example of how one's culture can affect how one answers test questions:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. "A wise man could only do such-and-such," they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, "How would a fool do it?" The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the "right" categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement -- that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?
This problem isn't confined to distant tribes: Flynn famously observed that IQ, as measured by standardized tests, rises by 0.3 points per year. Gladwell restates this: "If an American born in the nineteen-thirties has an I.Q. of 100, the Flynn effect says that his children will have I.Q.s of 108, and his grandchildren I.Q.s of close to 120..." Extrapolating backwards, Gladwell notes that "[T]he average I.Q.s of the schoolchildren of 1900 [would be] around 70, which is to suggest, bizarrely, that a century ago the United States was populated largely by people who today would be considered mentally retarded." Clearly, there is some problem with the test.

Flynn also dispenses with a couple of common racial stereotypes perpetuated by people Gladwell aptly calls "IQ fundamentalists". For example, Flynn considers the question of whether there is a genetic or environmental reason for low IQ scores among American blacks relative to whites:
Flynn took a different approach. The black-white gap, he pointed out, differs dramatically by age. He noted that the tests we have for measuring the cognitive functioning of infants, though admittedly crude, show the races to be almost the same. By age four, the average black I.Q. is 95.4 -- only four and a half points behind the average white I.Q. Then the real gap emerges: from age four through twenty-four, blacks lose six-tenths of a point a year, until their scores settle at 83.4.

That steady decline, Flynn said, did not resemble the usual pattern of genetic influence. Instead, it was exactly what you would expect, given the disparate cognitive environments that whites and blacks encounter as they grow older. Black children are more likely to be raised in single-parent homes than are white children -- and single-parent homes are less cognitively complex than two-parent homes. ...
Flynn considers other evidence, but this should serve to show how difficult it can be to correctly interpret differences in scores among demographic groups, even if questions about the measuring instrument are set aside for the sake of argument.

This is just a taste of how thorny a question it is to measure human intellectual potential, and its lessons are much more broadly applicable than as a hammer to use against the claims of racists: Even people who are not simply bigots eager to dress their foolishness up in the garb of science have accepted  some of these scientific-sounding stereotypes. Furthermore, "scientific" fads occur among laymen in other disciplines, as well, when people who do not understand the complexities of a given area are tripped up by a combination of ignorance and misapplied common sense. After all, it isn't entirely unreasonable to conclude that a group that performs worse on a test than another group has less native ability -- but it's still not necessarily correct.

It may well be that most people in modern Western culture go about wearing what Flynn calls "scientific spectacles", but that plainly doesn't make everyone scientists.

-- CAV


3-3-12: Corrected a typo.