Leftists Should Thank Scott Pruitt

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Vox laments the "damage" EPA head Scott Pruitt is doing to the EPA "from within," even as it demonstrates ways environmentalists can slow down his campaign of regulatory rollback, delay, and non-enforcement.

But the following passage is what I find alarming, given how Pruitt's tactics and the GOP's refusal to argue for the abolishment of the EPA tee it up:

And, in the meantime, the government can keep subsidizing rights-violating noise-polluters like these. (Photo by Karsten Würth (@inf1783) on Unsplash)
The EPA is essentially an environmental public health agency. Its regulations directly affect millions of Americans as it diagnoses ailments in the air, water, and soil, to name a few, and prescribes solutions.

It has had a pretty great track record.

The Clean Air Act, for example, reduced conventional air pollutants by 70 percent since 1970. Substances like ozone, carbon monoxide, and lead have dangerous consequences for human health like heart attacks, strokes, and respiratory arrests.

According to one estimate, the legislation prevents 184,000 premature deaths each year and has saved $22 trillion in health care costs over a period of 20 years. [links omitted]
It is easy to make Pruitt and the GOP look bad -- and to smear capitalism -- when there is no one pointing out that proper protection of property rights could accomplish many of the "public health" goals of the EPA while also protecting our rights, rather than violating them. And not only does a positive case against the EPA remain unstated, so does the negative case, against preventative/regulatory law.

Pruitt may indeed give us breathing room, but it is coming at an even greater cost than I initially anticipated.

-- CAV

A Not-So-Hot Office Layout

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Dropbox -- or at least one of their bloggers -- takes on the question of what to do about the rightly hated "open office." The article starts off well enough, ticking off the many well-documented problems with open offices. But then, judging from some of the comments at Hacker News, the article then proceeds to tick off many of its readers by suggesting an alternate office plan many of them have problems with:

Maybe it's better than this, but that's not saying much. (Photo by Alex Kotliarskyi on Unsplash)
No designated desks. Today's mobile communication tools allow people to work from anywhere, opening up the entire building as a potential workplace. You may want the buzz of energy that a cafe or atrium can provide. Other times, you may find that setting up shop in the fresh air can lead to fresh perspectives. Moreover, according to the architecture and design firm Gensler, "employers who offer choice in when and where to work have workers who are 12% more satisfied with their jobs and report higher effectiveness scores."

These kinds of setups -- where people have the autonomy to work in the areas that best suit their tasks and temperaments at any given moment -- may just be what offices need. With them, companies can finally achieve the freedom and exchange of ideas promised by the original open office of the 1950s. And that can give us something we can all agree on: workplaces that work for all employees. [formatting and link in original]
Yes. It's "hot desking," and I've commented on it here, although it was to note the increased chance of theft of personal items such a setup brings with it. Many of the gripes against hot-desking regarded the fact that the setup makes customizing an office (with something like a standing desk) more difficult, and can leave workers without a real home base when they're at work. Lockers can partly remedy the second problem, and it appears that the market is hard at work on the first (such as with portable stands that can convert a traditional desk to a standing one). That said, the discussion there leaves me with the impression that I am not alone in being highly skeptical of this idea.

-- CAV

Regulation and Architecture

Monday, January 29, 2018

Government regulation frequently has economic consequences that are unintentional, or at least unanticipated by most people. It should be no surprise then, that, since regulations affect the behavior of individual human beings making mundane decisions, such consequences can pop up in the most unexpected places. I've noted a couple of these before, from the layout of suburbia to modern car design. To our list of examples, we can add architecture, which turns out to have a very long and rich history of such influence (and particularly so when we include special kinds of taxation as a de facto form of regulation). Here's an example from a survey by Kurt Kohlstedt at 99% Invisible:

Taxation makes these houses in Amsterdam picturesque -- and a pain on moving day. (Photo by Isabella Jusková on Unsplash)
In 1783, Paris implemented a 20-meter (roughly 65 feet) restriction on structures, with a crucial caveat: the limit was based on measuring up to the cornice line, leaving out the roof zone above.

Naturally, land owners seeking to optimize their habitable space responded by building up mansard roofs. Later window-based taxes offset some of the financial incentive behind this design strategy, but in 1902, an expansion of the law allowed up to four additional floors to be built using the roof-related loophole, helping to re-expand its utility. Similar restrictions in other places helped the mansard style spread beyond Paris as well.
Regulation and taxation had other consequences, ranging from the picturesque through the curious to the disastrous: Respectively, Amsterdam's tall, narrow housing; English bricks increasing in size over the ages; and a deadly fire caused by a baker connecting his hearth to the chimney of a neighbor.

Many people speak of the economic consequences of regulation in vague, abstract terms since it is easy in some respects to conceptualize its impact by looking at aggregate economic effects, like its $1.75 trillion drag on the economy. This can be useful, but in order to help other individuals understand just how pervasive regulation really is, it might help to recall such concrete consequences. Even a simple tax can end up interfering with such personal decisions as how to build a home.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, January 26, 2018

Notable Commentary

"[W]e should bury trash, bit by bit, not ourselves." -- Gus Van Horn, in "It's Time to Get Serious About Recycling, Via Market Forces" at RealClear Markets.

"I support the right of everyone to eat meat (or not) according to their individual personal, medical, and economic circumstances." -- Paul Hsieh, in "In the War on Meat, Count Me in the Resistance" at Forbes.

"By focusing on opposing the PRC, the United States has inadvertently become a second-handed actor, driven not by its own values and interests, but by those to which it is reacting." -- Scott McDonald, in "Forthcoming Asia Strategy Should Avoid Second-Handed Pitfalls" at The National Interest.

"A rational immigration policy could exclude individuals who are criminals, dangerously contagious or terrorists; but to exclude individuals because they are members of a group is a form of collectivism as anti-American as (but not as anti-conceptual as) racism." -- Bob Stubblefield, in "Letter: American Should Not Exclude Anyone" at The Aiken Standard.

From the Blogs

Correction: The quote below turns out to have been endorsed by Sanders, rather than being his words.

"Manhattan Contrarian" Francis Menton recently reviewed economic news from Venezuela -- "Maybe you thought Venezuela had hit rock bottom a year ago..." -- ahead of a review of "useful idiots" whose quotes in support of that regime he'd rounded up a year ago. Among them, Bernie Sanders:

"Feeling the Bern" in Venezuela. (Image via Wikipedia)
These days, the American dream is more apt to be realized in South America, in places such as Ecuador, Venezuela and Argentina, where incomes are actually more equal today than they are in the land of Horatio Alger. Who's the banana republic now?
Read the whole thing.

-- CAV


Today: Added missing attribution link to image. 
4-30-19: Added correction to last section. More on that here.  

Another Day, Another Conceded Premise

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Michelle Malkin observes that the public education establishment isn't wasting any time trying to gain political advantage from the Turpin family abuse and imprisonment case:

Image via Pexels.
[T]he vultures of political opportunism are using the plight of the Turpin children to impose expanded control over all home-schoolers in the Golden State. California Assemblymember Jose Medina, D-Riverside, plans to introduce a bill requiring that "mandated reporters" designated by the state Department of Education conduct annual assessments in all home schools.

Echoing Medina's concern for "the lack of oversight the state of California currently has in monitoring private and home schools," liberal New Republic writer Sarah Jones decried how "lax homeschooling laws protect child abusers." She pivoted quickly from the Turpin tragedy to an attack on the home-school movement's academic achievements and opposition to mandatory kindergarten.

Fundamentally, the home-school crackdown caucus views the very freedom to educate one's own children as a threat to government authority. In the name of liberating the Turpin children, they seek to keep the rest of us home-schooling families in regulatory chains.
Earlier in the piece, Malkin notes gaping holes in the assumption that government oversight is some sort of panacea. These exist in the forms of both the well-known, general deficiency of government schools at providing a decent education and numerous instances of sexual abuse there. She also argues that the rationale for the increased state oversight is flawed by indicating the many lost opportunities in this case to have raised an alarm about possible abuse.

Unfortunately, quibbling over how much state supervision of home schooling there should be represents a missed opportunity because it concedes the premise that the state ought to run or regulate education. Rather, this long chain of missed opportunities to stop the abuse highlights the following crucial fact: Child abuse, false imprisonment, and torture are already illegal. The parents are being investigated. They will be tried. And they will probably die in jail. As tragic as this case is, to demand that the state closely scrutinize whatever activities a parent takes when not entrusting his child to the care of the state would be analogous to having a cop shadow everyone while they shop -- because some people steal, or having random raids in private residences at night -- because sometimes domestic disputes or murders occur in such places. In order to have a free society, human beings must be free to act, so long as they do not violate the rights of others, and integral to that condition is a presumption of innocence before the law and the absence of prescriptive law. That crimes sometimes occur does not merit the state treating everyone like a criminal or, worse, like the Turpins treated their own children.

-- CAV

Unf*ck Your (Social) Habitat?

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Editor's Note: My Apologies go to Amy Alkon and Rachel Hoffman, the second of whom is the actual proprietress of Unf*ck Your Habitat (and author of the book of the same name), a fact I should have been aware of, but which someone mentioned on Twitter soon after I published this post. My delay in correcting this misattribution is due to the fact that I rarely log in to Twitter, relying on a third-party service to publicize posts here.

Over at Inc., Suzanne Lucas reviews a book by Amy Alkon, proprietress of the Unfuck Your Habitat web site (and author of a book with the same name). Unsurprisingly for Alkon, the book's title is Unf*ckology: A Field Guide to Living with Guts and Confidence. Lucas admits she was planning on skipping the book until she heard an interview with Alkon and realized the book might have something to offer for many of her readers. Lucas concludes:

Image of Amy Alkon via Wikipedia.
If you've ever been the person in the office who works extra long hours only to see your co-worker get the promotion, you'll recognize yourself in this book. Learning how to stand up to people in authority and say no when you need to can actually help advance your career.

My favorite advice from the book is that just because you're afraid to do it, doesn't mean that fear is a good reason not to. When we talk about bravery we often think that "brave" people have no fear, but the reality is, brave people are afraid, they just go ahead anyway.

Alkon teaches a technique called "cognitive reappraisal" for helping you get through this. This means rethinking how you view a situation.When you come across something scary, like Alkon says, introducing yourself to an important stranger, you can either be paralyzed by fear, or you can rethink.
This is a book I wish my twenty-year-old self had gotten his hands on, and since the degree of shyness I had then is something that takes a lifetime to recover from, I am tempted to purchase it anyway.

Whatever you might think of her affinity for profanity, Alkon offers a sympathetic voice to those with hurdles of one kind or another to overcome. A good example comes from her site, mentioned above, in which she addresses the large number of people for whom cleaning house apparently comes naturally -- and yet still feel the need to insult her audience:
If you think it's easy, then this isn't for you." That's it. If you think it's easy, or stupid, or unnecessary, UfYH wasn't meant for you. If you think articles and books about cleaning are pointless, well, I'm not sure why you read them except to be a jerk about it in comments. It's meant for everyone else. For people who don't know how to clean. Or who don't know where to start. For people who can't do it the way they were taught because that takes energy or mobility that they don't have. For people who are overwhelmed. Or ashamed. It's OK to be any or all of those things, no matter what sanctimonious strangers on the internet say. If you're any of those things and you're here, you're using the resources you can find to try to make things better for yourself. Isn't that the point of the internet (well, that and cute animal gifs)?
Alkon has "been there" before, she knows how to get to a better place, and she isn't in the all-too common business of flagellating those who are trying to find their way there. If you've read this book already, feel free to leave a comment or drop me a line.

-- CAV

P.S. Please see the Editor's Note at the beginning of this post for a correction to an error on my part.


1-27-18: Added PS and Editor's Note. 

Absence of Propaganda Is Not Censorship

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Over at Medium, Chris Castiglione decries what he calls "censorship," by the EPA, whose Trump-appointed head has seen that it no longer uses the term "climate change" on its website. Castiglione's grasp of which he pontificates is slippery beyond the obvious point that presidents choose some of their employees: He never questions the conventional wisdom about climate change (né global warming), his grasp of the history of the EPA lacks full context, and he would do well to consider what censorship is, and why it is wrong.

Regarding the scientific issue of climate change, even Nature recently published an article admitting that models predicting catastrophic warming were wrong -- not that catastrophic warming would justify the political measures the left touts as a solution, anyway. Similarly, although Castiglione understandably credits the EPA with improving air and water quality over the past few decades, this improvement is largely to whatever degree its regulations mimicked the private property protections that were removed to cause these problems in the first place.

And regarding censorship? I'll defer to Ayn Rand:

This was said to government employees, not forced onto private citizens. (Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash.)
"Censorship" is a term pertaining only to governmental action. No private action is censorship. No private individual or agency can silence a man or suppress a publication; only the government can do so. The freedom of speech of private individuals includes the right not to agree, not to listen and not to finance one's own antagonists. [bold added]
The functionaries of the EPA are government employees, not private individuals. I would add that, among the many violations of my individual rights the EPA represents, has been its bullhorning specific answers to and interpretations regarding the scientific questions about climate change, for political purposes. I think Trump should be working on abolishing the EPA, but I'll give one cheer for him ending its improper use of my money to spread views I disagree with. (That said, I think this way of doing it is ham-fisted and looks cowardly. But telling a subordinate employee what he can and cannot say is part of an employer's purview.) As even Castiglione admits, this does not stop him or any other private citizen from continuing his "climate change" advocacy, or from pointing out the existence of the Internet Archive. Whatever you think of him, Trump is not guilty of stopping private citizens from speaking their minds: He has only deprived a vocal political faction of a tax-financed forum for their views. That is not the same thing. In fact, had he done this on principle, it would have been a win for property rights.

-- CAV

Regulation-Induced Drug Shortage Update

Monday, January 22, 2018

Almost exactly two years ago, I ran across Derek Lowe's explanation of the government's role in causing high prices for or shortages of some off-patent drugs. A recent story in the New York Times -- about hospitals manufacturing their own drugs -- reminded me of his explanation of how perverse regulatory incentives were distorting this market. Unsurprisingly, and as I hoped he might, the pharma blogger weighed in soon after the Gray Lady:

Without government meddling in the economy, cronyism such as his wouldn't be possible. (Image via Wikipedia)
... if you're going to start your own generic manufacturing effort, you have to get in line for the FDA to review your application to sell the compound(s). And that's one of the logjams -- one that will not be fixed by jamming another log into it. The article, though, mixes several problems together. You have the not-enough-players-making-cheap-drugs problem (which can happen through several means, regulatory approval not least among them), and you also have the only-one-manufacturer-eat-my-dust problem, which also takes many forms.

In some cases of the latter, you have old, off-patent, formerly cheap compounds where one supplier has been granted market exclusivity (and the ability to raise prices and drive everyone else out of the market). How does this happen? Deliberately by design of the FDA: there are incentives to bring older drugs into the modern regulatory framework, and if you do the tests needed, you get a very, very nice reward. Too nice, from my point of view, but that's how the law is written. In other one-manufacturer cases, people have bought up the only supplier of a small drug and then taken it into "restricted distribution", which basically keeps any other potential competitor from running the comparison trials needed to even get in line at the FDA to sell the drug, too. That's the Martin Shkreli playbook (although he's not the only one), and it also takes advantage of FDA regulations about how and why distribution of a drug can be so restricted. Want to change these? Change the law. [emphasis in original]
Lowe mentions that eliminating the "logjam" is a high priority of the current head of the FDA, and that is potentially good news in the short term.

But I cannot agree more with Lowe's last sentence, although I know I would take it much farther than he would. We must ultimately abolish the FDA, devolving whatever legitimate functions it performs either to legitimate governmental agencies or to non-governmental watchdog groups (depending on whether these are the business of the government) and altogether ending its innovation-killing, health-threatening stranglehold on the drug market. The FDA prevents desperate patients from trying new drugs even when they have nothing to lose, slows down or stops the introduction of even less speculative or cutting-edge drugs, and, as we see again here, threatens the availability of familiar drugs.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, January 19, 2018

Four News Items

1. An article in the Weekly Standard suggests at least a partial answer to the question, "Why are Iranians protesting now?"

Protests in Tehran. (Image via Wikipedia)
Obama, who has made a number of political pronouncements since leaving the White House a year ago, has said nothing about the unrest in Iran. It's a repeat of his performance as president in 2009, when the Green Movement sprung up to protest what appeared to be the fraudulent reelection of the president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The regime violently quashed the demonstrations, killing at least 110 people and jailing 10,000 in the course of nine months, but Obama remained silent, much to the disappointment of the protesters, who chanted a rhyme in Farsi, "Obama, Obama, are you with them or with us?" His retirement has not gone unnoticed in Iran.

"There is also one big difference now compared with 2009 -- the Obama policy of appeasement of the Iranian regime has finished," says Shabnam Madadzadeh, a 30-year-old human-rights activist who fled Iran just over a year ago, after spending five years in prison. "Obama always helped the regime when it was in trouble. Now the regime no longer has this asset, and this has its impact on the people in the street, to realize that the international community is on their side and is not siding with the regime."
This article is also worth reading for its perspective on the nature of the revolution: Iranians "have realized that they will not be able to live normal decent lives and the economic situation will not get better for as long as the mullahs are in power," according to an Iranian expatriate who is helping organize protests.

2. Abha Bhattarai of the Washington Post describes "5 Ways the Future of Retail Is Already Here." Most interesting to me is the first, digital price displays that could allow stores to change prices quickly.
If a particular store is down to two bottles of tomato sauce, for example, a manager could raise prices until the next shipment arrives. Or, Fessenden said, "if we have a lot of cereal, we could decide to do a flash sale."
The option to pay more for an item low in stock would beat the pants off of simply having to do without. Walmart, are you listening?

There could be a downside for shoppers on a budget, though. There needs to be some warning if prices are going to go up.

3. And speaking of prices that rise by the hour, cautionary tales for anti-capitalist Americans continue to pour out of Venezuela. Here's a vignette about hyperinflation from another one:
Hyperinflation is disorienting. Five or six years ago, the 500 bolivars on the floor [of a store that had just been looted] would've bought you a meal for two with wine at the best restaurant in Caracas. As late as early last year, they would've bought you at least a cup of coffee. At the end of 2016, they still bought you a cup of café con leche, at least. Today, they buy you essentially nothing ... well, except for 132 gallons of the world's most extravagantly subsidized gasoline.
Anyone who wants socialism, thinking it will improve his life, should read this article for a start.

4. Theocrats in Florida are borrowing a page from paternalistic Democrats in their silly crusade against pornography:
Florida could declare pornography a public health risk that needs education, research and policy changes to protect Floridians, according to a resolution overwhelmingly approved by a House committee Thursday.
What's next? Warning labels? "The contents of this magazine are known to the state of Florida to cause blindness."

-- CAV

Does Dumb on Trade Trump Random Deregulation?

Thursday, January 18, 2018

In the grand scheme of things, that is a rhetorical question, of course. It is bad for a rational animal to either act on incorrect principles or to do so without explicit regard to any. Hallucinations -- or blindness? No thanks.

That said, there is an article by NPR titled "Turning Soybeans Into Fuel Is Costing Us Billions," that is at once somewhat amusing and, with some effort, also somewhat instructive. Aside from needing "Regulation Mandating" at the start of the title, the piece offers many interesting tidbits on the byzantine economics of the government-created, artificial market for biodiesel made from soybean oil:

Trump's stand on imports is wrong, and he should let the market decide whether these belong in fuel tanks. (Image via Pixabay.)
The story, however, is more complicated than it seems. For one thing, that boom in Argentine biodiesel exports is over, at least for now. Last summer, the United States accused Argentina of subsidizing its biodiesel producers and "dumping" cheap biodiesel on the world market. In retaliation, the U.S. imposed hefty taxes on all biodiesel from Argentina. Overnight, those imports ceased. Americans now will have to rely on biodiesel produced here in the U.S. — which also is more expensive. (In a way, Argentina was doing the U.S. a favor, helping it satisfy its biodiesel demands more cheaply.) [link omitted]
Note that Trump's general -- but unprincipled -- animus against regulation harms America here. His desire to regulate international trade, which he sees as a zero-sum game, is making an existing regulation he should get rid of more expensive to Americans. At the same time, I disagree with NPR: While calling Argentine subsidies a "favor" is understandable, you could also view this with the same lens as "enabling" our indulgence in environmental regulations, much like an indulgent parent might shield a child from the consequences of bad choices. Considered in this way, blocking these imports -- wrong because international trade shouldn't be interfered with in this way -- has the potentially happy consequence of helping Americans see just how wasteful biodiesel mandates are. Except that with the President's unprincipled approach to deregulation, it is anybody's guess whether he'll work to get renewable fuel standards off the books. I'm betting not.

That said, I note with some amusement that the article teaches that the cost of making this particular biofuel is significantly more expensive than making diesel the old-fashioned way -- even though soy oil is a waste product of the soy meal industry, in which China is a major player.

-- CAV

Solved ... Already (And Better)

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Continuing yesterday's theme of working without distraction, I'll toss out a couple of pieces on RSS I encountered in the recent past. The first argues that RSS is a better way to keep up with news than Facebook and Twitter, for any number of reasons, such as signal-to-noise ratio. Here's that author's take on Twitter, in the form of an answer to a hypothetical question:

The wheel: Fine to customize, folly to reinvent. (Image via Wikipedia)
Wonderful! With Twitter, people can keep up with updates interspersed with cat photos, stolen jokes, retweeted jokes and celebrities' political opinions! Subscribers to multiple sites can enjoy the user-friendliness of having them all mushed up together, or having to laboriously visit each outlet's page to see new updates they missed in the firehose of minutiae!
His take on Facebook is somewhat similar.

The author of the second piece focuses more on the benefits he derives from using RSS:
... I like to work in focused bursts. If I'm deep into writing a book or a legal client project. I basically ignore everything else. I close my mail application, tell my phone service to take my calls, and I definitely don't open Twitter. When I finish the job, I can then go back to the Internet. I'll check in on Twitter, but I won't be able to get my news from it. That only works if you go into Twitter much more frequently than I do. That's why RSS is such a great solution for me. If a few days go by, I can open RSS and go through my carefully curated list of websites and get caught back up with the world.
Perhaps there are apps that can filter/save Twitter/Facebook feeds to make them less cluttered/more amenable to scheduling one's reading around one's schedule (rather than the other way around), but that would ... just make them more like RSS feeds.

As the first author notes:
Yes, the technology is dated, but it remains the best at what it does and isn't closed source or tied to some Silicon Valley company. It still works, is widely supported and does what it does better than any alternative that's come out since. Sometimes, newer isn't better. Sometimes the problem has already been solved. No blog or news website should be too new or too minimal to support RSS. [bold added]
Amen. A nice problem that comes with our era of constant and rapid innovation is that the shiny new things can cause us to forget about (or never learn the merits of) the tried and true. One should keep this in mind when choosing tools, as I have discussed before.

-- CAV

Talking About Slack, to Talk Less With It

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Recently, comparing notes about our respective telecommuting gigs with my sister-in-law made me very glad that I use Slack exactly zero percent of the time. It also reminded me of an article I encountered about the stress caused by telecommuting, much of which comes from the way many, if not most telecommuters end up feeling pressured to misuse it:

Ideas? She won't have too many working in an open office -- or its online equivalent. (Photo by rawpixel.com on Unsplash.)
When working remotely as a developer, the chat (usually Slack or Hipchat) quickly becomes your lifeline to the company: that is the way most people will try to contact you. And to me, being responsive on the chat accomplishes the same as being on time at work in an office: it gives an image of reliability. It also implies that if you do not really want to give the impression that you are taking a lot of breaks, you might finding yourself checking your notifications a lot while taking lunch for example, while if people had seen you working the whole morning, or if I was just talking with colleagues at that point, you would not feel the need to be so responsive. I actually often realized that other colleagues working remotely were criticized because they were not answering very quickly on the chat.

A part of the problem is that on a chat, people do not see you physically, so they cannot really estimate if you are at a good moment to be interrupted. So, you are interrupted a lot, and if you are a bit like me, you feel forced to answer quickly. So, you interrupt your work a lot. And in case you do not know it: interruptions are loathed by programmers, since it is really bad for their productivity as it breaks their focus. [bold added]
I am not a software developer, but I don't see how I could be very effective if I had to try to work this way.

Fortunately, Cal Newport, author of Deep Work offers a way out of this practice, namely by bringing it up with one's boss:
  1. Explain the concepts of deep and shallow work, noting, of course, that both are important.
  2. Ask what ratio of deep to shallow work hours you should be aiming for in your job.
  3. Then promise to measure and report back regularly. (Most bosses will be interested to gain these extra data points.)
Newport reports that the person he advised to do this very quickly got his boss on board with the idea of letting him concentrate for a decent amount of time twice a day. "Just ask Tom. But not between 9 to 11 or 2 to 4, because he'll be too busy creating valuable things to answer." Incidentally, Newport also indicates that this strategy is useful for other workplace practices that evolve more out of thoughtlessness and inertia than active hostility to the ability to concentrate.

-- CAV

Google and Political Fantasies About Technology

Monday, January 15, 2018

Google has just told us a lot more about itself than it has about any of the conservative news organizations whose claims its new "fact-checking" "feature" can or will.

"Google's New 'Fact-Checker' Is Partisan Garbage," argues David Harsanyi over at The Federalist. After demonstrating an interesting tendency for the new "feature" to scrutinize only conservative sites, and sometimes effectively put words in their mouths, Harsanyi summarizes:

It's the facts that he wants, and he knows he will still have legwork to do after he gets them. (Image via Wikipedia.)
[I]f this is the standard for corrections and dissuading people from visiting a site, what possible reason could there be for left-wing sites that regularly make arguable or false assertions about economics, history, science, and politics, like Vox and ThinkProgress and many others, to be spared from this fact-checking? It's one thing for us to read publications through filters. We do it all the time. But it's another for a search engine to manipulate perceptions about those sites -- and only conservative ones -- before people even read them. [format edits]
This reminds me of a couple of things.

First, it brought me back to my undergraduate days, way back in the late eighties, when I was contemplating a course of independent study centering around Ayn Rand's fiction. One of the first things one of my potential "advisers" uttered upon hearing the name, "Ayn Rand," was "Isn't she a fascist?" So, brand-new technology, same old, bullying left. Yes, Google's participation in this farce does expose them as sympathetic to leftists. But it also shows us that leftists imagine that they can use technology to keep people from discovering differing opinions on their own. Fortunately, they aren't a government, with the ability to censor the likes of David Harsanyi, so all they can do is psychologically project their own second-hand way of reaching opinions onto others and "help" them by means of smearing dissidents. Despite lip service to "facts", the left sees technology as a means of disseminating and enforcing an orthodoxy, rather than of helping people form solid opinions based on independently verifiable facts.

Second, this way the left sees technology as an aid to its cause reminds me of a somewhat similar fantasy I have observed on the right: If the left sees ideas as important (even if they implicitly admit they can't defend their own with facts), many on the right see them as irrelevant. All we need is the easy access to "facts on the ground" that high tech makes available, and freedom will burst forth throughout the world:
Here's another counterexample to the notion that technology -- unaided by an improvement in a society's intellectual climate -- can effect meaningful social change. [Glenn] Reynolds notes that Philippine President Joseph Estrada was brought down by a text-messaging flash mob. He fails to mention that this flash mob gathered in exactly the same place the old-fashioned mob that overthrew Ferdinand Marcos 15 years before had gathered. I dare say that unless the people of the Philippines make fundamental cultural and political changes, some other corrupt president will probably have to be overthrown later on. What difference does it make that a president can be overthrown if he never gets replaced by anything better? [bold added]
See also their current leader, the "Arab spring", and possibly also Iran. And see also scores of free-market economists who scratch their heads at how socialist regimes keep popping up despite a century of failure by socialism -- which they have documented for almost as long -- to bring anything but misery and death, much less prosperity.

Leftists think ideas are important, but can't defend their ideas. They see technology as a way to do their reeducation more effectively. Too many on the right think ideas are unimportant, that people want prosperity enough that simple exposure to facts will obviate the difficulty of having to convince them of anything in the fight for freedom. They see technology as the magic pill that will make everyone in favor of their version of freedom once the facts are out. Both sides are wrong. Opinions can and should be based on facts, and facts don't force people to act in a certain way. Technology doesn't obviate the need to think about opinions or the need to guide one's actions based on sound ones.

-- CAV

Friday Four

Friday, January 05, 2018

Four Things

Belated happy New Year's wishes come with this post, as I begin the second half of my annual blogging hiatus. Expect me back here on the fifteenth.

1. Richard E. Ralston, Executive Director of Americans for Free Choice in Medicine, debunks commentary from the left regarding the repeal of the ACA personal mandate:

We have been told ceaselessly and repeatedly that the end of the mandate means 13 million people will have their health insurance taken away. That is an Orwellian way of saying that 13 million people will not be forced, fined, or taxed to buy insurance that they do not want. Allowing people to choose to obtain their own insurance (or not) is intolerable to politicians who believe they know what is best for citizens. Eliminating the coercive mandate is instead a restoration of freedom for those 13 million people.
Also, Ralston calls the repeal "poetic justice," given the ... creative ... way that part of the law was saved from being ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

2. Some are calling "raw water" the "New Anti-Vax," while others are complaining that natural selection won't work fast enough on the buyers:
Members are taking up the unrefined drink due to both concern for the quality of tap water and the perceived benefits of drinking water in a natural state. Raw water enthusiasts are wary of the potential for contaminants in municipal water, such as traces of unfilterable pharmaceuticals and lead from plumbing. Some are concerned by harmless additives in tap water, such as disinfectants and fluoride, which effectively reduces tooth decay. Moreover, many believe that drinking "living" water that's organically laden with minerals, bacteria, and other "natural" compounds has health benefits, such as boosting "energy" and "peacefulness."
Lots of people are warning enthusiasts about the numerous hazards of drinking untreated water of which they are apparently not wary, but I can see such warnings falling on mostly deaf ears.

To ignore the huge swath of common knowledge about untreated water -- but grant credence to conspiracy theories, such as those about fluoridation requires such a degree of evasion and magical thinking that one could credibly say, "To the raw water skeptic, no warning is necessary; to the customer, none is possible." I can almost hear some hippie saying, "That's just propaganda, man," as he rushes to the water closet a few days after swilling some of this.

3. Thanks to Gallium OS, a lighweight Linux distribution, I have finally have a new "netbook" to replace the one that died when I moved to Baltimore.

The new netbook, during a break.
I'd been using a full-sized laptop for my mobile computing ever since, and it's a fine computer, but I missed the convenience of the tiny, light form factor. Unfortunately, Chromebooks -- similarly-sized laptops running the dumbed-down, web-centric Chrome-OS -- had killed off the netbook. Chrome is inadequate for my needs, but I heard about people installing Linux on Chromebooks and looked into it. I now own a Samsung Chromebook 3 that runs Gallium. As much as I liked my netbook, I'd forgotten how convenient it was, and what a perfect (at least for me) writing platform it was.

I never expected a $200.00 semi-nostalgic Christmas indulgence to be quite so liberating.

4. NPR recently put out an interesting piece on the small Chinese community in the Mississippi Delta:
"The Chinese face with a Southern accent throws people off," Jean Maskas chimes in. "I was at my daughter's school, and we'd taken some friends out to eat, and they all said, 'I just can't get used to talking to your mother! It's like an identity theft!'" The others chuckle knowingly.

Quon says the more she's traveled, the more she's come to realize how unique this Mississippi Chinese community is.

"We are all connected," she says. "The other states are not like that, truly. We knew Chinese from Memphis to Vicksburg."
The Chinese presence in the rural Delta is declining as a younger generation, encouraged by their parents, seeks opportunities elsewhere.

-- CAV


Today: (1) Fixed formatting glitch. (2) Edited caption. 

Protests in Iran

Thursday, January 04, 2018

There's a good piece in Maclean's about what's going on in Iran. Probably the most interesting aspect of the protests is that they may be a repudiation of Islamic rule:

Cities affected by protests so far. Follow link for legend. (Image via Wikipedia)
This time around, the uprising is leaderless, and freelance journalist Samira Mohyeddin, a prominent figure in Toronto's Iranian diaspora, says that's a good thing. "There isn't a single person they can go after and put under house arrest. The regime is scared, and that's what's really interesting. You can tell they're afraid the red lines are gone," she told me. "People are saying 'Death to the regime.' They're saying 'Death to Hezbollah.' They're saying 'No to Syria, No to Gaza, No to Yemen.' Iran's imperialist behaviour is being called into question. The chants are 'We don't want an Islamic Republic.' Posters of Khamenei are being burned.

"It's totally unprecedented. And most of this movement is not in Tehran. It's in the slums and in the small towns. That's where people are feeling the disparity. This is where the movement is really happening. These are people who have nothing to lose anymore." [bold added]
There are protesters speaking up against the Islamic Republic and protests are happening in areas you'd expect would more likely support the regime. And other parts of the piece note that saying things like this -- even merely complaining about the economy -- are crimes punishable by death under the current regime.

It is hard for me to feel optimism after the "Arab Spring," particularly after the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's subsequent elections. Iran, although not an Arab country, is a Moslem country, with all that entails: What do Iraninans think are the purpose and origin of law and government? What they do after a successful revolt will hinge on those beliefs. And protesting the inevitable outcome of a planned economy isn't the same thing as an embrace of capitalism, much less secularism. But perhaps the heavy-handedness of that regime has opened minds to the idea of secular government. And perhaps there are aspects of Iranian culture absent in Arab culture that additionally favor the viability of an actual revolution (as opposed to a blind revolt). But I really have no idea.

That said, a successful revolution or revolt could give secular Iranians a chance to improve the culture and politics of Iran, or perhaps leave more easily if the situation is hopeless. And a dangerous regime would fall, with its likely replacement less dangerous for any number of reasons. For this last reason, and in hopes of the preceding, I think the protesters deserve more support than they are getting so far.

-- CAV

Recipes Don't Cook Themselves

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Or: No Boundaries, No Work from Home

From the New York Post comes a cautionary tale about working from home whose title includes "Recipe for Disaster." Here's the first paragraph:

We've all fantasized about working from home. Rolling out of bed midmorning and beginning work still dressed in pajamas, avoiding those sickeningly perky co-workers the moment you walk into the building, getting paid while you go about your social life while sneakily working on your phone.
Surely the author is joking. But you might wonder about that after the second paragraph. I sure did.
As irresistible as all those things are, for me the biggest drawcard when I started working from home was being able to continue looking after my young son (and avoid childcare fees) while earning a much-needed income. Unfortunately though, "the dream" didn't last long as the line between personal and professional life quickly went from blurred to non-existent. [bold added]
You should be imagining this, but without the treats -- rather than this, but without the laptop. (Image via Pixabay.)
I thought: You must have been out of your mind.

I work from home. I also have a four year old son and a six year old daughter, and the idea of getting actual work done while watching them is borderline ridiculous. (I managed to surprise myself by doing this a couple of days last week, but I wouldn't put myself or them through this on a regular basis: He is normally in daycare.) Below at least about five or six, kids need help and attention too often and too unpredictably to allow one to concentrate. And even at six, you can't expect much quantity or quality of work time. Katie Jones does a good job covering the unpleasant mixture of failure (from not getting the job done) and guilt (from ignoring kids) that comes with attempting to do both jobs at once.

And that attempt came from the fundamental failure she correctly identifies at the end of her piece: not setting firm boundaries between her work life and her family life. Because kids are only starting to learn boundaries at best, they will be the first to make the problem of setting boundaries evident. And notice that Jones also tried to pretend not to be home when people came knocking. Other adults can be a problem if you allow them to be, because even if you don't hold the misconceptions Jones displays in her first paragraph, they often will. (This is my biggest pet peeve, but it comes with the territory.) You need to be able to politely and quickly let them know that you're working, and be willing to enforce that. Everything else, too: Wake up early enough to get started. Change clothes. Get out of the house or work from a special part of the house (that you avoid otherwise). Remember that "flexibility" isn't a fantasy, but a two-way street. You can run errands during the day? Great: You can save lots of time by avoiding crowds, but you have to find a way to get your job done at another time. You can plan vacations more easily? Yeah, but you won't be earning while you're gone. Everything has trade-offs, and it will be a disaster unless you banish magical thinking from your choices. This means learning about trade-offs as you go, so you can better anticipate them in the future. If you do these things, and only if you do these things, can you start to understand and use the vaunted "flexibility" everyone fantasizes about when they imagine how great working at home can be.

I think that the first thing anyone considering the prospect of working from home should do is ask two related questions: (1) How good at setting boundaries am I? And (2) Why do I want to work from home? If you aren't disciplined about setting boundaries, or your answers seem to involve mostly wanting to escape from setting boundaries at work (or worse, you think it's like a vacation), you might consider working on that problem -- at work -- for a while and then reassess.

-- CAV

Time -- or Milestones? It Depends.

Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Reviewing my notes on Cal Newport's Deep Work led me to his blog post on the "hybrid approach" he uses to track progress on important, but non-urgent projects. Newport notes that he tends to oscillate between tracking the time he spends working on such projects and his progress, as measured by milestones:

If you're stuck, try your luck with another tracking method. (Image via Pixabay.)
The advantage of tracking milestones, for example, is that the urge to achieve a clear outcome can inspire you to hustle; i.e., drop everything for a couple days and just hammer on the project until it gets where you need it to be. Sometimes my projects fall into a state of stasis where hustle of this type is needed to get unstuck.

The advantage of tracking hours, on the other hand, is that many of the important but non-urgent projects I pursue cannot be forced. I can commit, for example, to finishing a proof in a week, but this doesn't mean I will succeed. Some proofs never come together; some take months (or years); others fall quickly. It's hard to predict. Tracking hours in this context ensures, at the very least, that these projects are getting a good share of my time, even if I can't predict what will finish and when.
He admits that he doesn't know why he oscillates, and is uncomfortable with the apparent lack of simplicity of the approach. His further remarks, as well as the discussion among the commenters there, are thought-provoking. Interestingly, he seems to have decided that the technique is good, despite the messiness, since he specifically mentions the post in the book as an example of keeping a "compelling scoreboard."

I agree, and I think the reason this is such a good idea is due to the nature of the tasks themselves, as I think some of the further discussion indicates: These tasks can be mixtures of exploratory, "un-forceable," tasks of uncertain duration; familiar or non-exploratory tasks one is capable of completing in a given time and amount of effort; and tasks that might be one or a mixture of both of these. Accordingly, it makes perfect sense to track progress according to which type one is dealing with, and to cultivate an awareness of what the work "feels like" at the moment. (For example, if a milestone provokes a desire to procrastinate, that is likely a good indication that there is exploration to do, be it research or simply learning what the task entails.)

I have found Newport's book very helpful in straightening out my thinking on managing many aspects of my work day, and highly recommend it and his blog, which you can find at the blogroll. I have taken the liberty of using his subtitle, "Decoding Patterns of Success," as its title there.

-- CAV

Column: China Has a New Year's Resolution, ...

Monday, January 01, 2018

... and So Should We

Landfills: Ready for all our trash. Image via Pixabay.
Whatever you think of New Year's resolutions, a not-so-friendly suggestion for one is heading your way across the Pacific. On January 1, China, which uses "recyclables" as industrial feedstocks, will begin refusing shipments that don't meet its new, higher standards. The prospect of burying our recyclables has made some environmentalists lament the "decades of recycling progress under threat," and others wish the change "will make recycling stronger." Predictably (and incorrectly), greens are reusing the cliché about the Chinese word for crisis meaning both danger and opportunity. Since when has it been a danger to get rid of garbage? And is the alternative really an opportunity? I throw out plastic bottles -- and I think we should take on this challenge, but not in the way environmentalists intend.

Let's be clear about what recycling is. Although you might think it was invented by hippies who, as Ayn Rand once put it, "would pollute any stream by stepping into it," recycling pre-dates China itself, and began the moment someone realized that it saved time, effort, and/or money to re-use an object or any of its raw materials. In fact, the practice was so economical that there was no need for scolds and government bureaucrats...

To continue reading my latest column, please proceed to RealClear Markets.

I would like to thank reader Steve D. and my wife for their comments on an earlier version of this piece.

-- CAV