My Favorite Personal Pumpkin Effort

Pumpkin1   Pumpkin2

I traced a world map on the pumpkin, and then thinned the pumpkin skin in the land masses without cutting all the way through.  Since there are no holes, you will need an electric light to illuminate it.

Much Better Performance on Mobil Devices for Coyoteblog

With the help of several readers, I did a revamp on some of my site code that I think substantially fixed performance on mobile devices -- in particular, the large right hand margin that made the site really small is gone.  The site scales well to most of the devices I have tried, and as a bonus I learned enough about putting mobile code in CSS that the fount for the main post section (not the margins) should increase automatically now on small, high density screens.

My Son, the Libertarian Economics Major

Conversation over text today between my wife and my son who is in Venice:

wife:  "So the gondola ride wasn't the highlight?"

son:  "It was pretty fun... I just kept thinking about the economic barriers to entry into that field.  They are basically a closed guild."

 

So Why Is Paul Krugman Now Defending the Privileges of the 0.1%?

Apparently Paul Krugman has weighed in on Amazon and has concluded that it has "too much power".

I just cannot believe progressives are falling into the trap of defending major publishers against Amazon.  People like Krugman who bash Amazon are effectively setting themselves up as defenders of a small oligarchy of entrenched publishers who have, until recently, done a very good job of making themselves the sole gatekeeper of who gets into print.  Amazon is breaking this age-old system down, in the same way that Uber is challenging taxi cartels and Tesla is challenging traditional auto dealer networks, and giving most everyone access to the book buyer.

The system that Krugman is defending is the system of the 1%.  Or 0.1%.  The current publishing system benefits about 200 major authors who are in the system and whose work has traditionally been spammed by the large publishers to every bookstore and news outlet.  When you walk into an airport book seller, how much diversity of books do you see on the front table?   You just know that you are going to see Sue Grafton's "AA is for Aardvark" and Janet Evanovich's "Fabulous Forty-Six".  The publishers have risk-return marketing incentives to push the 46th Stephanie Plum novel over trying any new author.

So while the traditional publishers flog the 0.1% of authors, Amazon has empowered 20,000 authors.   Those who sell just a few thousand copies (or fewer) of books have found an outlet in Amazon that never existed for them (as disclosure, I am one of those).  And writers who distribute mainly through Amazon get a far higher percentage of their book revenues than they ever would get from the traditional publishers.

So Amazon is helping the consumer (lower prices) and 99.9% of authors (better access and higher profits).  It is perhaps hurting the top 0.1% and a few century-old entrenched corporations.  So what doesn't Krugman like?

Not Sure That Word Means What You Think It Means

While I share this individual's frustration with the Obama Administration's lack of transparency, I am not sure this phrasing quite works

“There is no precedent for President Obama’s Nixonian assertion of executive privilege over these ordinary government agency records,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton in a written statement.

If the assertion is "Nixonian", doesn't that imply that there is indeed a precedent?  Otherwise how would the practice be named after someone else?

PS- since we were on the subject of grammar and editing yesterday, I will say that yes, I know the comma after "Nixonian" above is supposed to be inside the quotes.  But as an engineer and former programmer, this rule is entirely illogical.   It's like writing 3+(x+y*)7 instead of 3+(x+y)*7.   I do it the way that makes logical sense.

Poof. There Goes My Free Time

The new installment in the Civilization computer game series is out.  This review dings it a bit for being too like the last installment (Civ 5), but I am sure I will like it because I still evidence addictive behavior whenever I go back to Civ 5.  Just one more turn....  After how badly the Sim City franchise has been trashed in recent installments, I will take a Civ game that is safely similar to the old Civ games.  Though my life, the Civilization game series is probably second only to having children in terms of sucking up my free time.

With the Advent of Mandatory Paid Sick Leave in California, Here are a Few Sick Leave Excuses

The AZ Republic rounds up some actual sick leave excuses people have tried:

"I accidentally got on a plane" was on the list of most dubious excuses for calling in sick to work, according to a recent survey by careerbuilders.com.

"I just put a casserole in the oven," "I need to tweak my botched plastic surgery," and "I broke my ankle after my leg fell asleep while I was sitting on the toilet," were among other hilarious, yet real, excuses that employers reported.

The survey found that 28 percent of employees called in sick when they were feeling well, down from 32 percent last year, and that one in four employers have caught an employee faking sick through social media.

There are more at the link.

We get very, very little of this, so we are lucky to have great employees.  Since many of my employees are in the 70s, 80s, and even 90s (really), employee absences are generally real, quite serious health concerns.  Besides, since most of my employees live on the work site, it is a little harder to fake this kind of thing.

It will be interesting what having the incentive of getting paid, in addition to just skipping out of work, will do to this.

From My Vantage Point, Social Security Disability is Totally Corrupt

Nicole Kaeding of Cato has an article on the SSD system heading for bankruptcy.  I can tell you from my experience that a week does not go by when someone doesn't come to me looking for work and saying something like, "I am on full disability but I am fully able to work.  However, I can't take any pay because that would screw up my disability payments.  Can I work for you and have you write my payroll checks to my wife?"

The easy answer to that is "no".  With a backlog of 25000+ people who want a job, why am I going to help them cheat, particularly when it would be me taking the legal risk?

I once had an ex-employee who was applying for a SS disability.  You may not understand that for many folks, getting a Social Security lifetime disability is like hitting the lottery.  This employee knew that if asked, we would have to tell the SS investigator that she seemed fully able to do her job and never demonstrated any reduced functionality.  So to pre-empt that, she and her attorney sent me a letter saying that if we in any way testified to her being able to work and prevented her from getting her disability payment, she would tie me up in court for years, suing me for sexual harassment, discrimination, and everything else she could think of.

Oops, Coyote Blog's 10-year Anniversary Passed About a Month Ago

I guess as I have aged I don't tend to pay much attention to birthdays either, but as of last month this blog is ten years old.  Hard to believe.  Celebrating a decade of my inability to proof-read.  Thanks for your patients.

PS- yes, I did that on purpose.

PPS - I actually do know the difference between its and it's, for example, but I just don't always execute carefully.  However, I use "them" and "they" and "their" intentionally as a third-party singular pronoun in an effort to establish from the ground up a gender-neutral third party pronoun, because saying "he or she" sucks.

I Can't Understand the Obsession with Streetcars

I just don't get it -- why the obsession with streetcars?  Why pay zillions of dollars to create what is essentially a bus line on rails, a bus line that costs orders of magnitude more per passenger to operate and is completely inflexible.  It can never be rerouted or moved or easily shut down if changes in demand warrant.  And, unlike with heavy rail on dedicated tracks, there is not even a gain in mobility since the streetcars have to wallow through traffic and intersections like everyone else.

What we see over and over again is that by consuming 10-100x more resources per passenger, rail systems starve other parts of the transit system of money and eventually lead to less, rather than more, total ridership (even in Portland, by the way).

But apparently, in DC the cannibalization of buses is even worse, as the streetcars are getting in the way and slowing buses down:  (hat tip to a reader)

Three District mayors have backed plans to return streetcars to D.C. streets, following in the transit-oriented footsteps of Portland, Ore., and other cities. Officials in the nation’s capital want to build a 20-plus-mile network connecting neighborhoods from Georgetown and Takoma to Anacostia, linking richer and poorer communities, giving people an alternative to the automobile and, they argue, spurring development along the routes. Eventually they see a system stretching about 37 miles.

... The inaugural 2.2-mile line, on H Street and Benning Road NE, is viewed by some as proof that the concept will work. Others see the opposite.....

Buses are facing significant delays behind the streetcars, which are making regular practice runs meant to simulate everyday operations. “We’re having to go around them. Since H Street has narrow lanes to begin with, it’s a challenge,” Hamre said. He said he has instructed bus drivers to pass streetcars only when they are stopped.

“That reduces the risk of misjudging,” Hamre said.

But it also forces faster-moving buses to hang back and wait for the less-agile streetcars, prolonging commutes for the much larger population of bus riders.

Back in 2010, District transportation officials estimated that 1,500 people a day will ride streetcars on the H Street/Benning Road line once it opens. But the X-line Metrobuses that travel the same streets — and go farther east and west — carry more than 12,000 passengers a day.

Apparently, the line creates so much value that no one is willing to pay even a dollar to ride it, so they will not be charging for the service for now.  By the way, from the "I don't think that word means what you think it means" files, note the use of the term "revenue service":

Early plans were to charge $1 or more a ride. But now “DDOT has determined that fares will not be collected at the start of revenue service,” according to a DDOT plan dated Oct. 2.

And from the "and other than that, how was the play Mrs. Lincoln" files:

District officials said the move will solve a pair of outstanding problems: They don’t have a system in place to collect fares, and ridership is projected to be underwhelming.

97% Mortgages are 100% Insane

I am not sure there was ever any excuse for considering a 97% loan-to-value mortgage as "sensible" or "responsible."  After all, even without a drop in the market, the buyer is likely underwater on day one (net of real estate commissions).  Perhaps for someone who is very wealthy, whose income is an order of magnitude or two higher than the payments, this might be justfiable, but in fact these loans tend to get targeted at the most marginal of buyers.

But how can this possibly make sense when just 5 years ago the financial markets collapsed in large part due to these risky mortgages?  Quasi-public, now fully public guarantors Fannie and Freddie had to be bailed out by taxpayers with hundreds of billions of dollars.  There are still a non-trivial number of people trapped deep underwater in such mortgages, still facing foreclosure or trying to engineer a short sale after seeing the small bits of equity they invested swamped by a falling housing market.

But, here they go again:  Fannie and Freddie, now fully backed by the taxpayer, are ready to rush out and re-inflate a financial bubble by making what are effectively nothing-down loans:

Federal Housing Finance Agency Director Mel Watt has one heck of a sense of humor. How else to explain his choice of a Las Vegas casino as the venue for his Monday announcement that he’s revving up Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to enable more risky mortgage loans? History says the joke will be on taxpayers when this federal gamble ends the same way previous ones did.

At his live appearance at Sin City’s Mandalay Bay, Mr. Watt told a crowd of mortgage bankers that “to increase access for creditworthy but lower-wealth borrowers,” his agency is working with Fan and Fred “to develop sensible and responsible guidelines for mortgages with loan-to-value ratios between 95 and 97%.”

The incredible part is that the Obama administration is justifying this based on all the people still underwater from the last time such loans were written.   The logic, if one can call it that, is to try to re-inflate the housing market now, and worry about the consequences -- never, I guess.  Politicians have an amazing capacity to mindlessly kick the can down the road, where short-term is the next morning's papers and unimaginably far in the distant future is after their next election.

My Emotional Support Alpaca

This is a great article about the fraudulent practices people pursue to try to take advantage of rules about service animals that help people with true disabilities to bring their pets with them everywhere.  This kind of crap strikes me as being in the same category as folks who used to hire disabled kids to go to Disneyworld with them so they could skip the lines (a practice, by the way, that led to Disney giving fewer special privileges to handicapped kids because of the abuse).

I will say from personal experience that the pressure on service businesses to succumb to this sort of service animal fraud is immense, especially in places like California where the financial penalties for even tiny well-meaning infractions of bewildering ADA rules are substantial.  My employees once felt they had to allow a woman to bring her horse (!) into the park because she had letters like the ones in this article saying she required the horse for emotional support.

This week I was at a conference where a featured speaker was an executive of the Forest Service named Joe Meade who happens to be blind.  I say "happens to" because Joe is one of the best, and best-loved, executives in that organization and what makes him great has little or nothing to do with his disability.  But I watched him work his way through a hotel with his service dog -- a casino hotel I got lost in about 4 times and I could read the signs -- and the skills that dog had are simply amazing.  Service dogs like that get deference from service businesses for a reason.  It infuriates me that people are trying to counterfeit that kind of credential so they don't have to pay an extra airplane fare for their cat.  And the only way they get away with it is because of our screwed up tort system that leaves service businesses at the mercy of even the most outrageous claims.  Because we businesses have given up on, particularly in places like California, ever getting real justice.

hattip:  Overlawyered.

Long, Long, Long Several Weeks

I am finally back and I have mostly climbed on top of the hosting and web attack issues we have been having.  I honestly think site performance will be better, at the cost of a bit of caching that might delay new posts for a few minutes.

Many thanks to the Young Republicans of Dekalb County who hosted a fun event in Atlanta.  I particularly enjoyed meeting Don Boudreaux, whose writing I have admired for some time.  Hopefully they will have a video of the talk I can post soon.

Over the next few days I am playing with site widths to try to overcome some problems displaying on certain mobile devices.  I have been told I should give up and restart with a mobile-friendly newer template but statements like that are just raw meat, making it more likely I bang my head against the older template to try to make it work.

WordPress / Site Hell, Hopefully Getting Better

All of my websites have been a mess this weekend as there has a been a worldwide brute force attack occurring for several days on WordPress admin accounts.  I avoid most of the common mistakes (using the default user name, simple passwords, etc) so I don't think anyone has breached a site but the constant calls of the login function acts effectively like a DDOS attack, flattening my server.

I have put in place some extra code to detect brute force attacks and temporarily and even permanently ban IP's.  Since attackers don't just sit in a single IP in Russia any more but use shifting and spoofed IP's, you may at some point find yourself locked out.  Email me if that happens.

Gay Marriage in AZ

Good:  A judge has ruled that Arizona's same-sex marriage ban is unconstitutional.  I suppose I am a little torn over judicial overreach here, but enough freedom-robbing stuff happens through judicial overreach that I will accept it here in my favor.

Republicans should rejoice this, at least in private.  From my interactions with young people, there is nothing killing the R's more than the gay marriage issue.  Young people don't understand squat about economics, but they are pretty sure that people fighting gay marriage are misguided (they would probably use harsher language).  Given that R's hold a position they are sure is evil (anti-gay-marriage) they assume that Progressive attacks that R's are evil on economics must be right too, without actually understanding the issue.  In short, young people reject the free market because its proponents hold what they believe to be demonstratively bad opinions on social issues.

I learned a real lesson about politics from my brief involvement in this issue -- which is, don't ever become involved again.  I am still frankly reeling from the refusal of gay rights activists to work with our group because I and others involved did not hold other Left-wing opinions.  Until this time I had a fantasy that libertarians could make common cause with the Left on social issues and the Right on fiscal and commerce issues, but I saw how this was a pipe dream.

Assuming the Worst

One of the traditions of college football is that rabid student fans will paint their face, and sometimes whole body, in school colors.  So when some ASU students painted their face black (the school's uniform color for the last several years) for a college football game, one would expect that people would take this as an entirely normal event, an expression of school loyalty.  One would NOT expect that people would immediately assume the face-painting was some sort of racist statement.  I mean, really, you wouldn't expect the rules to be different just because the school's uniform color happened to be black, right?

Well, you would be wrong.  In this hyper-sensitive world of people SEEKING to be offended, people got offended.

PS - when our Coyote's hockey team makes the playoffs, they have a thing called a "white out" where everyone dresses in white, face paints in white, etc.  Next time they make the playoffs (which may be a while), I think I am going to be offended.

And I'm Anti-Science?

Would all those folks who so revel in calling folks like me "anti-science" (Dr. Michael Mann being foremost among them) please stop using cooling tower steam plumes as an illustration of CO2 production?  Not only is steam not pollution (though it sortof kindof can be made to look like it if you photoshop it right), but the cooling towers so often featured in these shots are not even emitting combustion products at all.

Is Phoenix Light Rail Fudging Its Charts to Look Better?

I bring your attention back to this chart from this post the other day about light rail killing transit growth.

ridership_140903_annotated

I have no evidence that this chart was deliberately manipulated, but somehow the light rail ridership bar for 2014 got exaggerated.  It certainly seems suspicious.  Light rail ridership went up from 2013 to 2014 by only about 45,000, or 0.3%.  This is negligible  We should not even see the bar move.  Note the total ridership in 2011 and 2010 when ridership fell by 86,000 but the bar lengths are almost indistinguishable.  The rail ridership looks to my eye like the bar is 7-9% longer, not 0.3% longer.  In fact, the bar for 2014 clearly goes past the halfway point between 10 and 20, despite the fact that 14.3 should be less than halfway.  In fact, the 2014 rail increase of 45,000 is graphed as visually larger than the 1.3 million decrease in busses.

Missing the Point

John Hinderaker says that Democrats have been unsuccessful in their anti-Koch brother campaign because only 25% of Americans have a negative opinion of the Kochs and that has not changed much in 6 months.

But that strikes me as missing the point.  The Democrats have raised tens of millions of dollars from those 25% inflaming them with anti-Koch rhetoric.  They will outspend Republicans this year largely on the back of a campaign that, for example, never failed to mention the Kochs in almost every email sent out.  Further, they have succesfully turned the words "Koch Brothers" into some sort of boogeyman.  The media even here in Red state Arizona breathlessly discusses every contact a Republican candidate has with Koch Brothers-funded organizations while never ever mentioning any large backers on the Democratic side.  Despite the fact that Democrats have raised more so-called "dark money" than Republicans, nearly 100% of the media stories on dark money are about Republicans.  Further, by successfully (and asymmetrically) making public life a living hell for prominent Republican supporters, the Democrats are doing important battle space preparation for future elections, giving second thoughts to future potential Republican donors.

That, in my mind, is a political success.

(Of course, it is a disaster for liberty, and demonstrates EXACTLY why anonymous speech and donations have to remain legal.  The campaign waged right from the floor of the Senate by Democrats like Harry Reid to vilify private citizens who have been out-front and transparent about exercising their free speech is an insult to liberty).

More on Liberal Vigilantism

Last week, I wrote about how much liberal college sex vigilantism reminds me of the right-wing 1970's Death Wish vigilantism.  Here is Ezra Klein proving my point:

For that reason, the law is only worth the paper it’s written on if some of the critics’ fears come true. Critics worry that colleges will fill with cases in which campus boards convict young men (and, occasionally, young women) of sexual assault for genuinely ambiguous situations. Sadly, that’s necessary for the law’s success. It’s those cases—particularly the ones that feel genuinely unclear and maybe even unfair, the ones that become lore in frats and cautionary tales that fathers e-mail to their sons—that will convince men that they better Be Pretty Damn Sure.

Good God, I have had many differences with liberals on a variety of issues but I have always made common cause with them on civil rights and criminal justice issues.  I can't believe he wrote this.  What is the difference from what Klein writes and and having a 1960's southern sheriff argue that it is OK to hang a few black men because it has the benefit of making the rest of the African-American population more docile?   Last week I asked:

 It is the exact same kind of rules of criminal procedure that Dirty Harry and Paul Kersey would have applauded.  Unacknowledged is the inevitable growth of Type I errors (punishing the innocent) that are sure to result.  Do the proponents not understand this tradeoff?  Or, just like the archetypal southern sheriff believed vis a vis blacks, do women's groups assume that the convicted male "must be guilty of something".

I guess we have our answer.

Life Imitates Portlandia

For those who enjoy the series Portlandia, doesn't this remind you of the first episode when diners insisted on going out to the farm to meet the chickens they were going to eat?

Life on College Campus

This is from the Wesleyan (CT) student center.  They had a men's and women's room plus this single stall multi-gender bathroom

click to enlarge

Please don't mistake me for a cultural conservative here.  I am not complaining about this or posting it as a sign of the apocalypse.  I actually think the one stall multi-gender bathroom (which a lot of public buildings already have but they are simply called "family" bathrooms) is a reasonable accommodation for those who struggle with the typical two gender classifications.  I did find the third gender symbol sort of funny, and only on a modern college campus would a restroom sign need 14 words of gender explanation in the (probably futile) hope of not offending anyone.

I Am Speaking in Atlanta This Friday, Come Say Hi

I am speaking at an event this Friday in the Atlanta area held by the Dekalb Young Republicans called "Cutting the Red Tape: A Forum on Overbearing Government Regulations".   Even better than my presence, I will be sharing the stage with Don Boudreaux of George Mason University and Cafe Hayek.  Anyone who has read this site will know I link Don at least once a week so it will be fun to meet him in the flesh.  Here are the full details:

When:
Oct. 17th, 2014 at 7:30 PM

Where:

Atlanta Perimeter Marriott Center

246 Perimeter Center Pkwy NE, Atlanta, GA 30346

Free Parking

Again, it is open to anyone (as proven by the fact that I am neither young nor a Republican and they are letting me speak).

The Graveyard of Cronyism

Phoenix businesses add hundreds of jobs every week.  However, the only jobs that every get subsidized are in sexy businesses.  That is because the subsidies themselves make zero sense, from an economic or public policy standpoint.   The point is not to create jobs, but to create press releases and talking points for politicians and their re-election campaigns.

And there is little that is sexier to politicians spending taxpayer money to get themselves re-elected than solar and Apple computer.  Which brings us to this plant in Mesa (a suburb of Phoenix), which I am calling the Graveyard of Cronyism.

GT-Advanced

This plant was built by First Solar to build solar panels.  I would have to quit my day job and work full-time to figure out all the ways this plant was subsidized by taxpayers -- special feed-in tariffs for First Solar customers, government tax breaks for solar panel purchases, direct government subsidies and grant programs for solar panel purchases, the DOE loan guarantee program for solar... etc.  In addition, the City of Mesa committed $10 million in infrastructure improvements to lure First Solar to the site.  I can't find what economic development incentives there were but there must have been tax abatements.  In addition, the company was promised a further $20 million in economic development funds from the County, but fortunately (unlike most such deals) the funds were tied to hitting employment milestones and were never paid.  First Solar never produced a single panel at the plant before it realized it had no need for it.

More recently, Apple and sapphire glass manufacturer GT Advanced bought the empty plant from First Solar.  And again there was much rejoicing among politicians locally.  Think of it -- Two great press release opportunities for politicians in just three years for the same plant!  I never feel like we get the whole story on the development deals offered for these things but this is what we know:

Brewer and the Arizona Legislature approved tax breaks related to sales taxes on energy at manufacturing plants. The state also put the Apple/GT plant into a special tax zone that pays a 5 percent commercial property tax rate. Most Arizona companies pay a 19 percent rate this year and an 18.5 percent next.

[In addition,] Apple was slated to received [sic] $10 million from the Arizona Competes Fund for the Mesa factory. The Arizona Commerce Authority — the privatized state economic development agency which administers the $25 million sweeten-the-deal fund along with Gov. Jan Brewer — said neither Apple nor GT Advanced (Nasdaq: GTAT) have received any money.

Well, it turns out that artificial sapphire sounds really cool (a pre-requisite for crony deals) but it is not so great for cell phones.  Apple went another way and did not use the technology on iPhone 6 -- not just for timing reasons but because there are real issues with its performance.

So a second crony buys the plant and does not even move in.

What's next?  I am thinking the best third tenant at the sexy-crony nexus would be an EV battery plant, or even better yet Tesla.  It is too bad Fiskar motors went out of business so soon or they would be the perfect next crony fail for this site.

Phoenix Light Rail Update: We Spent $1.4billion+ to Reduce Transit Ridership

Check this graph out from the Phoenix Metro web site.  It shows bus ridership in years past, and more recently both bus and light rail ridership.

click to enlarge

 

You can see a few things.  First, note that almost all the rail ridership came at the expense of bus ridership.  It  was almost a pure 1:1 substitution.  The bus ridership, even with a half year of light rail being open, was 65.7 million in 2009.  Total ridership was only 67.6 million in 2010 and 2011.  Yes there is a recession here, but of the 12 million or so in light rail ridership, at least 10-11 million of that came out of buses.  Essentially, we paid $1.4 billion in capital costs to move 10 million riders to a mode of transit that is at least an order of magnitude more expense.  Nice work.

Second, note that after over 12 years of growth, with the onset of light rail transit ridership has stagnated for 6 years.  Some of this, at least initially, is likely due to the recession but in fact recessions are supposed to spur transit ridership, not reduce it, as people look for lower cost alternatives.  There is a good explanation for this.  Because light rail is so much more expensive, the cost per rider for the entire transit system has skyrocketed.  With budgets unable to be increased this fast (and with fares covering only a tiny percentage of rail costs), the system must cut back somewhere.  Since rail can't really be cut back, bus routes are cut.

If we had seen the same growth rate from 2009 to 2014 as we had seen in the twelve years prior, we should have over 86 million trips in 2014 (note these are fiscal years, and fiscal year 2014 is already closed, so this is not partial year data).

We paid, and continue to pay (since rail must be subsidized heavily) billions of dollars to reduce transit ridership.