A Modest Proposal: Let's Adopt A Ceremonial Royal Family for the US To Safely Absorb People's Apparent Need for Powerful, Charismatic Presidents

I have been watching the Crown as well as the new PBS Victoria series, and it got me to thinking.  Wow, it sure does seem useful to have a single figurehead into which the public can pour all the sorts of adulation and voyeurism that they seem to crave.  That way, the people get folks who can look great at parties and make heart-felt speeches and be charismatic and set fashion trends and sound empathetic and even scold us on minor things.  All without giving up an ounce of liberty.  The problem in the US is we use the Presidency today to fulfill this societal need, but in the process can't help but imbue the office with more and more arbitrary power.  Let's split the two roles.

Thoughts on the Inauguration

Inauguration day is probably one of my 2 or 3 least favorite days in every decade.  My feelings on the whole exercise are probably best encompassed by a conversation I had the other day at a social function.

A couple of my many liberal friends were complaining vociferously about the upcoming Trump Presidency.  After a while, one observed that I seemed to be insufficiently upset about Trump.  Was I a secret supporter?

I said to them something roughly as follows:  You know that bad feeling you have now?  That feeling of anger and fear and exasperation that some total yahoo who you absolutely disagree with has been selected to exercise power over you, power that offends you but you have to accept?  Yeah, well I feel that after every Presidential election.  Every.  Single.  One.   At some point we need to stop treating these politicians as royalty and instead treat them as dangerous threats whose power needs to be circumscribed in every way we can find.

Anyway, 8 years ago I felt absolutely the same way (proof here) but at that time I was out-of-step with most of those around me, and my liberal friends thought I was being some sort of racist pig.  Now I act exactly the same way and they accuse me of being some sort of collaborator with the enemy.  Lolz.

Accountability for Police and Why Its So Hard

The other day, in writing about how I think Black Lives Matter has lost its way, I said that I supported their goal of increasing accountability of police forces but that goal was going to take a lot of hard, nuts-and-bolts legislative and policy steps that BLM seems uninterested in pursuing.  This article from Reuters (via link from Overlawyered) gives one an idea of some of the issues that exist:

The episode is a telling snapshot of the power police unions flex across the United States, using political might to cement contracts that often provide a shield of protection to officers accused of misdeeds and erect barriers to residents complaining of abuse.

From city to city, union contracts have become just as crucial in governing departments as police manuals and city charters. Yet those contracts are coming under scrutiny amid civil rights protests over alleged police abuses, including shootings of unarmed black subjects.

Reuters, examining the fine print of 82 police union contracts in large cities across the country, found a pattern of protections afforded the men and women in blue:

• A majority of the contracts call for departments to erase disciplinary records, some after just six months, making it difficult to fire officers with a history of abuses. In 18 cities, suspensions are erased in three years or less. In Anchorage, Alaska, suspensions, demotions and disciplinary transfers are removed after two years.

• Nearly half of the contracts allow officers accused of misconduct to access the entire investigative file – including witness statements, GPS readouts, photos, videos and notes from the internal investigation – before being interrogated.

• Twenty cities, including San Antonio, allow officers accused of misconduct to forfeit sick leave or holiday and vacation time rather than serve suspensions.

• Eighteen cities require an officer’s written consent before the department publicly releases documents involving prior discipline or internal investigations.

• Contracts in 17 cities set time limits for citizens to file complaints about police officers – some as short as 30 days. Nine cities restrict anonymous complaints from being investigated.

Police and their supporters will say that Police have a particularly dangerous job and need such extra process protections.  In fact, while there are dangers, it is certainly not among the most dangerous jobs (trash collectors are twice as likely to die on the job than police).  I would argue that we give the police unique powers -- to use violence and to take away a persons liberty -- not possessed by any other citizens and thus we should expect more rather than fewer accountability provisions to go with these special powers.

I will say that I am not particularly optimistic about progress in this area.  The Right tends to fetishize police and are tend to oppose any restrictions on police.  The Left is the natural home for police reform, but most on the Left are loath to take on public employee unions, probably their strongest base of political power, and most of these changes (as seen above) require challenging the police unions.  Black Lives Matter brought a lot of focus to these issues, but they simply can't seem to get past disruption and into policy changes and legislation, and besides the group appears to have been hijacked by the Left to be a vehicle for generic protests of Progressive causes like climate change legislation.

Well, I Was Uninvited to Speak on Climate -- A Post-Modern Story of Ignorance and Narrow-Mindedness

Well, I got dis-invited yet again from giving my climate presentation.  I guess I should be used to it by now, but in this case I had agreed to actually do the presentation at my own personal expense (e.g. no honorarium and I paid my own travel expenses).  Since I was uninvited 2 days prior to the event, I ended up eating, personally, all my travel expenses.  There are perhaps folks out there in the climate debate living high off the hog from Exxon or Koch money, but if so that is definitely not me, so it came out of my own pocket.   I have waited a few days after this happened to cool off to make a point about the state of public discourse without being too emotional about it.

I don't want to get into the details of my presentation (you can see it here at Claremont-McKenna College) but it is called "Understanding the Climate Debate:  The Lost Middle Ground" (given the story that follows, this is deeply ironic).  The point of the presentation is that there is a pretty mainstream skeptic/lukewarmer position that manmade warming via greenhouse gasses is real but greatly exaggerated.  It even suggests a compromise legislative approach implementing a carbon tax offset by reductions in some other regressive tax (like payroll taxes) and accompanied by a reduction in government micro-meddling in green investments (e.g. ethanol subsidies, solyndra, EV subsidies, etc).

I am not going to name the specific group, because the gentleman running the groups' conference was probably just as pissed off as I at the forces that arrayed themselves to have me banned from speaking.  Suffice it to say that this is a sort of trade group that consists of people from both private companies and public agencies in Southern California.

Attentive readers will probably immediately look at the last sentence and guess whence the problem started.  Several public agencies, including the City of Los Angeles, voiced EXTREME displeasure with my being asked to speak.  The opposition, particularly from the LA city representative, called my presentation "the climate denier workshop" [ed note:  I don't deny there is a climate] and the organizer who invited me was sent flat Earth cartoons.

Now, it seems kind of amazing that a presentation that calls for a carbon tax and acknowledges 1-1.5 degrees C of man-made warming per century could be called an extremist denier presentation.  But here is the key to understand -- no one who opposed my presentation had ever bothered to see it.  This despite the fact that I sent them both a copy of the CMC video linked above as well as this very short 4-page summary from Forbes.  But everyone involved was more willing to spend hours and hours arguing that I was a child of Satan than they were willing to spend 5-minutes acquainting themselves with what I actually say.

In fact, I would be willing to bet that the folks who were most vociferous in their opposition to this talk have never actually read anything from a skeptic.  It is a hallmark of modern public discourse that people frequently don't know the other side's argument from the other side itself, but rather from its own side (Bryan Caplan, call your office).   This is roughly equivalent to knowing about Hillary Clinton's policy positions solely from listening to Rush Limbaugh.  It is a terrible way to be an informed adult participating in public discourse, but unfortunately it is a practice being encouraged by most universities.  Nearly every professor is Progressive or at least left of center.  Every speaker who is not left of center is banned or heckled into oblivion.  When a speaker who disagrees with the Progressive consensus on campus is let through the door, the university sponsors rubber rooms with coloring books and stuffed unicorns for delicate students.  There are actually prominent academics who argue against free speech and free exchange of diverse ideas on the theory that some ideas (ie all the ones they disagree with) are too dangerous be allowed a voice in public.   Universities have become cocoons for protecting young people from challenging and uncomfortable ideas.

I will take this all as a spur to do a next generation video or video series for YouTube  -- though YouTube has started banning videos not liked by the Left, there is still room there to have a public voice.  I just bought a nice new microphone so I guess it is time to get to work.  I am presenting in Regina next week (high 22F, yay!) but after that I will start working on a video.

Postscript:  You know what this reminds me of?  Back when I was a kid, forty years ago growing up in Texas, from time to time there would be a book-banning fight in the state.  Perhaps there still are such fights.  Generally some religious group will oppose a certain classic work of literature because it taught some bad moral lesson, or had bad words in it, or something.  But you know what often became totally clear in such events?  That the vast vast majority of the offended people had not actually read the book, or if they had, they could not remember any of it.  They were participating because someone else on their side told them they should be against the book, probably also someone else who had never even read the thing.  But I don't think that was the point.  The objective was one of virtue-signalling, to reinforce ties in their own tribe and make it clear that they did not like some other tribe.  At some point the content of the book became irrelevant to how the book was perceived by both tribes -- which is why I call this "post-modern" in my title.

The Left's Nutty, Irrational, Disruptive Opposition Tactics Almost Make Me Want to Switch Sides

I am embarrassed to admit that I initially supported the war in Iraq (though at least I admit that rather than try to rewrite history as do many public figures).   I got swept up in the post 9/11 nationalism and wasn't very sophisticated in my thinking about such interventions.  But I also think part of the  reason for my support was because the opposition was often so irrational and, well, loony.   At least subconsciously, I must have been thinking, "I can't be on the same side with these idiots."

This was a useful experience, though, because in the years since I have frequently found myself allied with the Left on certain issues where I have been appalled by their opposition tactics.  Black Lives Matter is a great case in point.  I absolutely agree with the premise that police forces need more accountability and that the costs of the current lack of accountability fall disproportionately on African Americans.  I thought this initial BLM 10-point plan was really very good.  But ugh, their tactics.  Blocking highways and threatening drivers, where does that get us?   Or the whole tactic of forcing someone to choose between "Black Lives Matter" and "All Lives Matter" -- I mean seriously, WTF?  How is this kind of social justice rhetorical trap at all useful?  And now the movement has so much cred that it has been hijacked by the Left to support climate change legislation and all sorts of unrelated matters, so it likely will never make any actual progress on police accountability.  It would be easy to recoil from all this and shy away from my passion for increasing police accountability because my allies are so off-putting in their tactics, but my Iraq War experience has taught me that this would be a mistake.

And now, we have the opposition to Trump, and all the same loony Left tactics are emerging.  We get lectured by celebrities, and discover that the deepest threat of Trump may be the marginalization of actresses who make $20 million a picture.  We get roads blocked and public violence.    I wonder if all this is driving folks who originally found Trump distasteful into his arms?

I fear that all the oxygen is getting sucked out of the room with protests of crazy hypothetical scenarios while ignoring the real problems that are occurring already.  So everyone is focusing on women marching on Washington, despite the fact that Trump is almost certainly no worse in his personal behavior towards women than Bill Clinton and is likely, on women's issues, the furthest to the Left of all of the 16 original GOP presidential candidates.    We focus on some hypothetical future slight to women while ignoring his economic nationalism, economic interventionism, corporatism, and cronyism that is already on display with Carrier and the auto makers.

As I wrote here, the ability to criticize public figures has limited bandwidth.  Sure, an infinite number of things can be discussed on the Internet, but only a few reach a general consciousness across society.  One way to look at it is to compare it to an NFL game.  In an NFL game, coaches only have two challenge flags they can throw to challenge a bad call by the referees -- after their challenge flags are used, they are out of luck.  The Left is using up all our challenge flags on their own social justice bogeymen, and causing everyone to miss the opportunity to challenge Trump on more relevant faults (of which there are many).

The other problem with the Left's tactics is that they are not well-matched to Trump and likely will be counter-productive.  All this crazy protest is more likely to cause Trump to petulantly lash back.  This one of his worst qualities as a leader, but it is a fact all the same.  Take abortion, for example.  My gut feel is that Trump has never had any problem with abortion, and likely has supported it in the past.  Hell, he's probably secretly paid for a few.  If women's groups had gone and sat down with him quietly and said, "hey, we are worried about creeping restrictions on abortion in many states", Trump probably would have been sympathetic.  This is the Trump, after all, who mythologizes himself as a deal-maker.  But groups on the Left can't seem to do this, in part because of tribal virtue-signalling on the Left.  The Left has decided that their tactic will be to treat Trump as illegitimate, so any group that goes to talk to him is marginalized and excoriated by the rest of the Left.  So rather than sit down and work with a likely-sympathetic Trump, they head out into the streets to denounce him in the craziest possible terms, tactics that may well drive him into exactly the actions that women fear.  If abortion was a big issue for me, I would be pissed at women's groups for their bone-headed tactics.

Diesel Emissions Cheating, Regulation, and the Crony State

One of my favorite correspondents, also the proprietor of the Finem Respice blog, sent me a note today about my article the other day about cheating on diesel emissions regulations.   The note covers a lot of ground but is well worth reading to understand the crony-regulatory state.  They begin by quoting me (yes, as I repeat so often, I understand that "they" is not grammatically correct here but we don't have a gender-neutral third person pronoun and so I use "they" and "their" as substitutes, until the SJW's start making me use ze or whatever.)

"My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance."

Exactly. More importantly, the regulators KNEW it. I was researching energy shorts and had a ton of discussions with former regulatory types in the U.S. I was stunned to discover that there was widespread acknowledgement on the regulatory side that many regulations were impossible to comply with and so "compliance trump cards" were built into the system.

For instance, in Illinois you get favorable treatment as a potential government contractor if you "comply" with all sorts of insane progressive policy strictures. "Woman or minority owned business" or "small business owner", as an example. Even a small advantage in the contracting process for (for example) the State of Illinois puts you over the edge. Competitors without (for instance) the Woman or Minority Owned Business certification would have to underbid a certified applicant by 10-15% (it's all a complex points system) to just break even. It got so bad so quickly that the regs were revised to permit a de minimis ownership (1%). Of course, several regulatory lawyers quickly made a business out of offering minority or women equity "owners" who would take 1% for a fee (just absorb how backwards it is to be paying a fee to have a 1% equity partner) with very restrictive shareholder agreements. Then it became obvious that you'd get points for the "women" and "minority" categories BOTH if you had a black woman as a proxy 1% "owner." There was one woman who was a 1% owner of 320 firms.

Some of my favorites include environmental building requirements tied to government contract approval. The LEED certification is such a joke. There are a ton of "real" categories, like motion detecting lights, solar / thermal filtering windows, CO2 neutral engineering. But if you can't get enough of that, you can also squeeze in with points for "environmental education". For instance, a display in the lobby discussing the three solar panels on the roof, or with a pretty diagram of the building's heat pump system. You can end up getting a platinum LEED certification and still have the highest energy consumption density in the city of Chicago, as it turns out.

U.S. automakers have been just as bad. There's been a fuel computer "test mode" for emissions testing in every GM car since... whenever. Also, often the makers have gotten away with "fleet standards" where the MPG / emissions criteria are spread across the "fleet." Guess how powerful / "efficient" the cars that get sent to Hertz or Avis are.

Like so many other things in the crony capitalist / crudely protectionist United States, (e.g. banking prosecutions) foreign firms will get crucified for industry-wide practices.

Gee, I wonder if state-ownership of GM has been a factor in sudden acceleration / emissions prosecutions?

BTW, I wrote about the silliness of LEED certification here, among other places, after my local Bank of America branch got LEED certified, scoring many of their points by putting EV-only spaces (without a charger) in the fron of the building.  In a different post, I made this comparison:

I am not religious but am fascinated by the comparisons at times between religion and environmentalism.  Here is the LEED process applied to religion:

  • 1 point:  Buy indulgence for $25
  • 1 point:  Say 10 Our Fathers
  • 1 point:  Light candle in church
  • 3 points:  Behave well all the time, act charitably, never lie, etc.

It takes 3 points to get to heaven.  Which path do you chose?

My Favorite Description To Date of the Problems and Appeal of Trump

Scott Alexander has a great article on the problems with Trump's approach to economics.  I want to begin, though, with an analogy he uses at the end because it is the best single framework I have seen about understanding Trump's appeal:

Suppose you’re a hypercompetent billionaire in a decaying city, and you want to do something about the crime problem. What’s your best option? Maybe you could to donate money to law-enforcement, or after-school programs for at-risk teens, or urban renewal. Or you could urge your company full of engineering geniuses to invent new police tactics and better security systems. Or you could use your influence as a beloved celebrity to petition the government to pass laws which improve efficiency of the justice system.

Bruce Wayne decided to dress up in a bat costume and personally punch criminals. And we love him for it.

I worry that Trump’s plan for his administration is to dress up in a President costume and personally punch people we don’t like, while leaving policy to rot. And I worry it’s going to work.

Basically, Trump is acting like a small state governor, focusing his economic efforts on getting the Apple factory to come to town

So based on these two strategies, we are in for four years of sham Trump victories which look really convincing on a first glance. Every couple of weeks, until it gets boring, another company is going to say Trump convinced them to keep jobs in the United States. The total number of jobs saved this way will never be more than a tiny fraction of the jobs that could be saved by (eg) good economic policy, but nobody knows anything about economic policy and Trump will make sure everybody hears about Ford keeping jobs in the US. Every one of these victories will actively make the world worse, in the sense that these big companies will get taxpayer subsidies or favors they can call in later to distort government priorities, but nobody’s going to notice these either.

It seems appropriate to end this with a bit of Bastiat:

In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.

There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.

Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil.

As Predicted By Coyote Over a Year Ago, Other Car Manufacturers Have An Emissions Cheating Problem

Back in November of 2015 I wrote:

I would be stunned if the Volkswagen emissions cheating is limited to Volkswagen.  Volkswagen is not unique -- Cat and I think Cummins were busted a while back for the same thing.  US automakers don't have a lot of exposure to diesels (except for pickup trucks) but my guess is that something similar was ubiquitous.

My thinking was that the Cat, Cummins, and VW cheating incidents all demonstrated that automakers had hit a wall on diesel emissions compliance -- the regulations had gone beyond what automakers could comply with and still provide consumers with an acceptable level of performance.

So we have this:

U.S. environmental regulators accused Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV of using software that allowed illegal emissions in diesel-powered vehicles, the latest broadside in an unprecedented government crackdown on auto makers for alleged pollution transgressions.

The Environmental Protection Agency, days before the end of the Obama administration, delivered a violation notice to Fiat Chrysler accusing the auto maker of using illegal software that allowed 104,000 recent diesel-powered Jeep Grand Cherokee sport utilities and Ram pickup trucks to spew toxic emissions beyond legal limits. The affected vehicles have model years ranging between 2014 and 2016.

Regulatory compliance can be a royal pain in the *ss, but I comply with everything I know about and can figure out in my own business.  There just is no percentage in cheating.  Where regulation has made my business untenable, such as in certain parts of California, I have closed the affected parts of the business.

So if I see no good reason to cheat in my own business when the rents for doing so would flow directly into my own pocket, how in the hell do middle managers on a salary with little or no share in the marginal profitability gains of the company convince themselves to take these risks?

Conflict of Interest In Government

You want to raise a government ethics violation?  Here is one for you with which I absolutely agree:

I am not sure that this is a suitable subject for a blog post, probably more a project for an aspiring PhD student, but with all the discussion of conflicts of interest in the Trump cabinet, it strikes me that the most glaring conflict in the public sector is ignored: The CoI between state and local politicians elected with the support of public sector unions who then participate in compensation negotiations for the members of those unions.  Here the temptation of the politicians to buy the support of the unions with public money is overwhelming.  The impact of this is potentially trillions when public pension liabilities are included.

This is such an obvious conflict that I have looked to see if there are laws preventing this, but my initial research shows nothing.

Does The Left Know How To Make An Argument Not Based On Racism? The Trouble With the Left's Critique of Trump

As I predicted in my letter to the Princeton University President last year, two decades of living in university monocultures and political echo chambers, combined with a one-track focus on social justice, seems to have left the political Left with no ability to engage in rational opposition politics.

The Golden Globe Awards were a magnificent example.  I presume that many of these actors are reasonably intelligent people.  And they are obviously upset and worried about Donald Trump's election to President.  But they can't express anything beyond their fear and loathing.  They can't articulate what specifically worries them, and when they do articulate something specific - e.g "this may be the last Golden Globes Awards" - it is silly and illogical.

Perhaps worse, these critiques of Trump are, IMO, focusing on all the wrong things and sucking the oxygen out of the room for more relevant criticism.  The Hollywood types all seemed terrified that they and their industry are going to somehow fall victims to government authoritarianism.  At some level I guess this makes sense -- when the Left was in power, they used their power to hammer industries they did not like (eg energy) and thus expect that the Right will do the same once they are in power.  But Trump is a New York social liberal who is a part of the entertainment industry.   While I confess that one of the problems with Trump is that he is wildly unpredictable, Hollywood is an unlikely target, at least until they just  went on TV and begged to be one.

An even better example of focusing on all the wrong problems is the confirmation hearings for Jeff Sessions.  If you read pretty much any of the media, you will be left with the impression that the main issue with Sessions is whether he is a racist, or at least whether he is sufficiently sensitive to race issues.  But this is a complete diversion of attention from Sessions' true issues.  I am not sure what is in his heart on race, but his track record on race seems to be pretty clean.  His problems are in other directions -- he is an aggressive drug warrior, a fan of asset forfeiture, and a proponent of Federal over local power.  As just one example of problems we may face with an AG Sessions, states that have legalized marijuana may find the Feds pursuing drug enforcement actions on Federal marijuana charges.

Why haven't we heard any of these concerns?  Because the freaking Left is no longer capable of making any public argument that is not based on race or gender.  Or more accurately, the folks on the Left who see every single issue as a race and gender issue are getting all the air time and taking it away from more important (in this case) issues.    The SJW's are going to scream race, race, race at the Sessions nomination, and since there does not seem to be any smoking gun there, they are going to fail.  And Sessions will be confirmed without any of his real illiberal issues coming out in the public discussion about him.

I have said this before about Left and Right and their different approaches to politics.  The Left is great at getting attention on an issue.  Think of BLM and their protests and disruption tactics -- they had everyone's attention.  But they went nowhere on policy.  I challenge you to list the 5 or 10 policy goals of BLM (they actually had a good set once, but abandoned them).  The Left is great at expressing anger and dismay and frustration and outrage, but terrible about thoughtfully taking steps to fix it.  The Right on the other hand is great at working (plodding, really) in the background on policy issues, often at the local level.  ALEC is a great example, building a body of model legislation, working in groups around the country to try to implement these models.  But they absolutely suck at generating emotion and excitement around key issues (except maybe for wars and in abortion protests).  The only example I can really think of is the Tea Party, and (despite how the media tried to portray it) the Tea Party was extraordinarily well-behaved and moderate when compared to protest movements on the Left.

Trump has an enormous number of problems in his policy goals, not the least of which is his wealth-destroying, job-destroying ideas on trade nationalism.   But all we get on trade are a few lone voices who have the patience to keep refuting the same bad arguments (thanks Don Boudreaux and Mark Perry) and instead we get a women's march to protest the Republican who, among the last season's Presidential candidates, has historically been the furthest to the Left on women's issues.    It is going to be a long four years, even longer if the Left can't figure out how to mount a reasonable opposition.

Postscript:  All of this is without even mentioning how the Left's over-the-top disruption tactics seem to just feed Trump's energy.  At some point, Hercules figured out that cutting heads off the hydra was only making things worse and switched tactics.  If only I could be so confident about the Left.

Bad Reviews

John Scalzi often posts some of his more over-the-top one-star Amazon book reviews as a sort of self therapy.  I have done the same think in the past with our online campground and TripAdviser reviews.  Here is a two star review we received the other day for our Juniper Springs facility in Florida.

I have had problems with employees here in the past telling lies about me to other campers & employees, because my extreme good looks are a threat to them somehow. I am an Actor. The amount of jealousy is ridiculous. I won't repeat any of it here, but the defamation & slander has been pretty extreme. I am camped here now for a planned long stay, & if they come off with that crap again I plan to sue them individually & as a company.

As for the campground itself, I love it. The showers are awesome & the best in the forest. They have bear boxes now to store food, but these seem large enough to hide a couple of people. Can be opened from the inside easily..in an emergency I'd go for it. There are No Electric sites, which makes things difficult. But it is far enough away from civilization to make sleeping at night quiet & peaceful, with an occasional smooth hum of a tractor trailer going by.

The last part of the review was nice but the first paragraph was a total head-scratch.  I have polled the staff and no one has any idea who this person is or what he is referring to.  I usually respond to negative reviews online but have no idea what to write on this one.  I sent a private message to the customer to please give me a bit more detail so I can investigate.

By the way, one of the reasons I think we are successful is that I have systems in  place where nearly every negative review from a variety of sources, including our own surveys, flow right to my inbox.  I read every one, and respond to most.

As a second by the way, the Juniper Springs canoe run is a very special experience if you are ever in the area and like that sort of thing.  It is not for beginners, but it is one of the most beautiful wild areas in Florida.  When the author of the Unofficial Guide to DisneyWorld was asked in the back of his book what his favorite attraction in Florida was, he did not answer Disney or Universal but said the Juniper Springs canoe run.

Dave Barry on the Ephemeral Nature of the "Deeply Held Beliefs" Of the Coke and Pepsi Party

Via his end of year roundup, about the election:

In Washington, Democrats who believed in a strong president wielding power via executive orders instantly exchange these deeply held convictions with Republicans who until Election Day at roughly 10 p.m. Eastern time believed fervently in filibusters and limited government.

The two parties' attitudes about Russia are another great example.  Through Russian invasions of its neighbors and a variety of hacking episodes on US government infrastructure, Republicans wanted Russian blood and the Democrats were in forgive and forget mode (remember also the "reset" and Obama's poo-pooing of Romney's claim that Russia was our #1 geopolitical adversary).  But as soon as Russia is accused of stealing and releasing private emails from (non-government) Democratic Party servers that made some party officials look bad, suddenly everything changes.  Republican President-elect Trump wants to forgive and forget and Obama is suddenly, and for the first time that I can remember, putting (mild) sanctions on Russia.  And the attitudes of the rank and file have shifted on a dime:

Even more surprising, however, is the change in Republican attitudes toward Putin. He is still viewed unfavorably, but much, much less so. Putin’s current net favorability among Republican voters is now -10, meaning that Putin’s net favorability among Republican voters has improved an astonishing 56 points in the last two years.

Among Democratic voters, meanwhile, Wikileaks and Putin have remained relatively unpopular. Wikileaks’ net favorability among Democrats was -3 as of June 2013, and it has fallen today to -28. Putin’s net favorability among Democrats in July 2014 was -54, according to YouGov; it has now fallen slightly to -62.

I am more convinced than ever that our political parties are two tribes who are just going to take the opposite side of any issue from the other tribe, without any need for intellectual consistency either across positions or over time.

Bank of America is Protecting Merchants Who Lose Credit Card Data By Hiding Their Names

My small business has a Visa account with Bank of America so that our managers can have the ability to charge small expenses.  My personal corporate card is part of that account.  At least twice a year, I get the dreaded call from the bank telling me my card number was part of a data breach and I have to get a new card.  And then I have to spend hours and hours updating a zillion online accounts with new numbers, and I face weeks and months of past due notices from accounts I forgot to change.

I am willing to accept Bank of America's explanation that some merchant outside their system caused the breech.  So each time I ask the obvious question, "who was the merchant so I can stop doing business with them?"  And every single time Bank of America refuses to tell me.  For reasons beyond my reckoning, Bank of American and apparently the Visa system have a vow of Omerta in which they protect security-deficient retailers from scrutiny.  It is infuriating.  In a free society, we should not need the government to hold merchants accountable for data privacy, we should be able to do it ourselves as customers.  Apparently I am not the only one who is similarly frustrated by this.

Does anyone know of any Visa issuers that are more transparent about the sources of data breaches?  Is Amex better on this than the Visa/MC system?

Update:  From a Senior Fraud Analyst at Bank of America:

I am responding to an email you sent to us regarding the data compromise situation that keeps happening with your corporate card.

I do understand the frustration you experience.  We are not provided specific details about where the compromise occurred.  The compromise could have happened sometime in the past and it may not be limited to one specific merchant or processing center.  I do understand that  you not wanting to use the card at the site of the compromise, but keep in mind that when a merchant or processing center is compromised they likely took measures to improve their security, the continued compromises could be coming from different processing centers or merchants and not the same place each time.

My email back in response:

This is how banks invite regulation on themselves.  If Visa and the large credit card issuing banks were more transparent with customers about retailers that create data breaches, customers could take their own action to police irresponsible parties by taking their business elsewhere.  Ditto merchant processors -- we businesses could easily shift our merchant processing accounts.  But instead, by creating this sort of rule of Omerta where you protect the irresponsible party from public disclosure, people feel helpless.  It is in that environment that folks like Elizabeth Warren can create so much havoc with regulation.

By the way, please do not tell me to be comfortable that the offending merchants have already tightened up their security.  It has been nearly 18 months after the requirements that merchants accept chip cards to avoid extra liability and half the stores I visit still have the chip card slot on their credit card machines disabled.  No retailer is going to stop being irresponsible until you banks stop protecting the bad ones.  Look what happened at Target - they got a lot of bad publicity from their breach but you can be damn sure they were one of the first that were accepting chip cards.

Thoughts on Language Learning

I went to a good private school (Kinkaid in Houston, if anyone knows it).  I didn't really know how good it was until I went to an Ivy League college and found I was ahead of most of the other students in most every subject.  The thing  I thank Kinkaid for more than anything is that we had to write -- and write, and write.  Every test was an essay test.  By the time I was 18, I could write a well-organized and reasonably coherent (but not well-proofed, as readers will know!) five paragraph persuasive essay in my sleep.   (My ability to communicate was not really advanced at all in college, and I only began to learn more about persuasive, organized communication when I joined McKinsey & Co. and was taught the pyramid principle).

Anyway, that is all background to my one gripe about primary school -- I hated language learning.  Hated it.  I took Spanish from Kindergarten through the 11th grade, but counted the years and months and days to when I could quit.  From when I was 18 until I was about 45, I never had any desire to learn another word of any language again.

But about 10 years ago I picked up a Pimsleur language course (Italian, I think) and I loved it.  Knowing some Italian really enhanced my trip to Italy.  From there on, I have been studying a number of languages.

I want to pause for a minute and reflect on why I hated language learning so much in school but like it now.  It could just be a function of age -- I was bored stiff plowing through Les Miserables in high school but re-read it as an adult and loved it.  But I think there is a bigger problem:  I think schools suck at teaching languages.  My kids, who generally love learning and are good at school, hated language class.  My guess is that people just want to be able to converse, which is what courses like Pimsleur are geared towards.  When I go to Florence, I want to be able to order dinner in Italian and talk to the shopkeepers.   But in high school we seemed to spend a lot of time learning two (!) forms of the pluperfect subjunctive in Spanish.  Great for the AP, but my guess is that the bartender in Barcelona is going to give you a pass for messing up the subjunctive.  "If I were to have a beer, how much would it have cost me yesterday and  how much might if have cost if I had come tomorrow instead?"

So I have taken about 60 hours each of Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin.    I seem to be able to remember them all in deep memory but I can only hold one other language in my short-term, immediately-available recall buffer.  So I have to do 5-6 hours of one of these again before I go to the country to shift that language into the top of the memory heap.

I like the Pimsleur approach, which is pure auditory (which matches how I learn, I have a much higher ability to remember what I hear than what I read).  The courses use an approach called spaced repetition that works well for me, and must work for others given that these courses, which are pretty old and predate all the new Internet tools, are still quite popular.  The one oddity about them is that they almost never explain any points of grammar.  For example, they really don't explain the rules of verb conjugation.  You are expected to figure out the rules as you go based on the examples -- essentially you back into the rules based on use.  This works pretty well, though certain situations can drive English speakers crazy.  For example, we are not used to having a command form of verb conjugations, as Spanish and Italian have, so I have seen folks get confused for a while when the verb in "You can come with me" and "Come with me" are conjugated differently.   At some point one needs more structure for grammar, which means I almost always buy a basic grammar book and one of those 501 verb conjugation books for each language I do on Pimsleur.

People always ask me which languages were easiest and hardest.  The answer is that it depends.  Each have hard and easy parts.  Here are a few thoughts on each (all from an English-speaker's perspective):

  • Spanish and Italian are incredibly similar, so similar it can be confusing knowing both, as I forget exactly which word is which when their words for something are very similar.  Both have a lot of borrow words in common with English and have sentence structures and word order reasonably similar to English (except for having adjectives follow rather than precede nouns).  Like other romance languages, they have gendered nouns which are unfamiliar to English speakers and generally I find gendered nouns add complexity without any really gain in meaning.   I consider both Spanish and Italian to be easy languages for an English speaker to learn.  In terms of which of the two is easiest, I have studied Spanish since I was 4 so I can't really be unbiased here, and they are similar in many ways.  Spanish plurals are more natural to English speakers, and I think management of adjectives with the genders is a bit easier and it seems to be more regular.  Italian verb tenses are a bit easier, without as much complexity in past tenses as there are in Spanish.  Overall, though, both are fun and easy to learn.
  • German is a mixed bag but was generally a lot harder for me to learn.   If you hate the two genders in Romance languages, you are going to love having three (!) in German.  German has pretty rigid rules about sentence order which in many cases will be unnatural to English speakers.  For example, there are certain types of sentences where the verb goes at the very end, after everything else (something Mark Twain made fun of).  When you have a list of adverbs or prepositional phrases in a sentence, there is a correct order for them (e.g. time before place).  In English we would consider "I ate in the kitchen in the morning" and "I ate in the morning in the kitchen" to be equally OK but not so in German.  The articles and possessive pronouns not only have different forms based on the 3 genders of the noun, but there are different forms if the noun is in different parts of a sentence, eg the direct or indirect object.  I found myself having to diagram each sentence and plan it out in my head before I let it come out of my mouth.  I can say a fair amount in German, but it never became natural.  The good news about German is that pronunciation is very regular, though there are a few sounds you have to learn to make that we don't have in English.  There are a ton of borrow words, so a lot of vocabulary comes easily.  And verb conjugation is pretty straightforwards, with what seems to be fewer cases in use than in, say, Spanish (never learned a future tense and no special command tense, though I suppose one could be snarky and say all German verbs are in command form.)
  • Mandarin is a mixed bag but it may surprise English speakers that it is easy in some ways.  First the hard parts:  Speaking it is really hard for a westerner, as every sound has at least four possible tones, plus variations such as falling  and rising.  I am a terrible singer and believe I would have done much better at Mandarin if I were good at music, since the hitting the tones right felt a lot like singing to me.   The other hard part about Mandarin is the almost complete and total lack of borrow words.  Every single word is new and unfamiliar.  But there are aspects that are surprisingly easy, such as basic grammar.  There are no gendered nouns, there are really no plurals, and within a tense there seems to be no very conjugation -- For example the form of "to be" for I, you, she, they are all the single same word.  Many things from numbers to prepositions are very logical, in some ways almost like it was designed by a group of scientists.  Past tenses are also surprisingly easy to form.  There are a few quirks, like special count words -- it is not just one beer, but one count of beer, and the word for "count" changes whether you are counting beers or people or something else.  But all in all, a very easy language to learn -- if it were not such a royal pain in the butt to pronounce for westerners.

By the way, I find that being able to speak the languages has different value depending on the language.  People in Italy and Spanish-speaking countries are just absurdly delighted if you can speak any of their language -- there is a big payback in goodwill.  Also, it is far easier in Italy or Latin American (than, say, in Germany) to find oneself in a place where no one speaks English.  In Germany, the homeless people speak better English than my German.  When I insisted on trying to use German, the Germans were generally willing to let me try but you could just see their impatience, knowing they could have finished the exchange two minutes earlier in English.  Mandarin turned out to be a virtual non-starter.  I just did not have enough experience conversing with natives to be comprehensible.  Also, it was easy to run into many other dialects, or other languages like Cantonese.  Others have reported that many Chinese hate when Westerners try to speak Mandarin and will pretend not to understand it -- I can't confirm or deny this, though my Chinese exchange student loves it when I try to speak Mandarin.

Postscript:  Mark Twain on German:

A dog is "der Hund"; a woman is "die Frau"; a horse is "das Pferd"; now you put that dog in the genitive case, and is he the same dog he was before? No, sir; he is "des Hundes"; put him in the dative case and what is he? Why, he is "dem Hund." Now you snatch him into the accusative case and how is it with him? Why, he is "den Hunden." But suppose he happens to be twins and you have to pluralize him- what then? Why, they'll swat that twin dog around through the 4 cases until he'll think he's an entire international dog-show all in is own person. I don't like dogs, but I wouldn't treat a dog like that- I wouldn't even treat a borrowed dog that way. Well, it's just the same with a cat. They start her in at the nominative singular in good health and fair to look upon, and they sweat her through all the 4 cases and the 16 the's and when she limps out through the accusative plural you wouldn't recognize her for the same being. Yes, sir, once the German language gets hold of a cat, it's goodbye cat. That's about the amount of it.
- Mark Twain's Notebook

Much more here.   I would swear I saw a quote from Twain that said he had read a whole book in German but did not know what was happening until he got to all the verbs on the last page, but I can't find the quote.

Whose Brain Did I Put In? Abby Someone. Abby....Normal

Sorry, I can't get that Young Frankenstein scene out of my head when I read this story:  Wrong sperm may have fertilized eggs of 26 Dutch women in IVF mix-up


Solar Roads -- Remember These When Environmentalists Accuse You of Being "Anti-Science"

I have written about the horribly stupid but oddly appealing idea of solar roads many times before, most recently here.  As a quick review, here are a few of the reasons the idea is so awful:

 Even if they can be made to sort of work, the cost per KwH has to be higher than for solar panels in a more traditional installations -- the panels are more expensive because they have to be hardened for traffic, and their production will be lower due to dirt and shade and the fact that they can't be angled to the optimal pitch to catch the most sun.  Plus, because the whole road has to be blocked (creating traffic snafus) just to fix one panel, it is far more likely that dead panels will just be left in place rather than replaced.

But the environmentalists are at it again, seem hell-bent on building solar roads with your tax money;  (hat tip to a reader, who knew these solar road stories are like crack for me)

France has opened what it claims to be the world’s first solar panel road, in a Normandy village.

A 1km (0.6-mile) route in the small village of Tourouvre-au-Perche covered with 2,800 sq m of electricity-generating panels, was inaugurated on Thursday by the ecology minister, Ségolène Royal.

It cost €5m (£4.2m) to construct and will be used by about 2,000 motorists a day during a two-year test period to establish if it can generate enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents.

The choice of Normandy for the first solar road is an odd one, given that:

Normandy is not known for its surfeit of sunshine: Caen, the region’s political capital, enjoys just 44 days of strong sunshine a year

Wow, nothing like a 12% utilization to really bump up those returns on investment.

The article follows the first rule of environmental writing, which is to give the investment required or the value of the benefits, but never both (so the return on investment can't be calculated).  This article follows this rule, by giving the investment but stating the benefits in a way that is impossible for the average person to put a value on, e.g. "enough energy to power street lighting in the village of 3,400 residents".  Since we have no idea how well-lighted their streets are or how efficient the lighting is, this is meaningless.  And by the way, they forgot to discuss any discussion of batteries and their cost if they really are going to run night-time lighting with solar.

But, the article does actually give something close to the numbers one would like to have to evaluate another similar investment, and oh boy are the numbers awful:

In 2014, a solar-powered cycle path opened in Krommenie in the Netherlands and, despite teething problems, has generated 3,000kWh of energy – enough to power an average family home for a year. The cost of building the cycle path, however, could have paid for 520,000kWh.

As a minimum, based on these facts, the path has been opened 2 years and thus generates 1500 kWh a year (though probably less since it likely has been open longer than 2 years).  This means that this investment repays about 0.29 percent of its investment every year.  If we ignore the cost of capital, and assume unlimited life of the panels (vs a more likely 5-10 years in this hard service) we get an investment payback period of only 347 years.  Yay!

Christmas Advice for Those Worried About Global Warming

If you are worried about greenhouse gasses and global warming, then I have some Christmas advice for you.   When you are done with your Christmas tree, do NOT take it to one of those "recycling" locations most towns have.  The recycling process is typically chipping and mulching the trees, which just accelerates their decomposition into greenhouse gasses.   If you are really concerned about catastrophic warming, you want to use your tree as a carbon sink.  Have it shrink-wrapped in some sort of plastic what won't biodegrade and then landfill it -- the deeper it is buried, the better.  Those folks trying to get you to "recycle" your tree are secretly in the pay of the Koch brothers and trying to trick you into ruining the environment.

Create Your Own Star Wars Title Crawl

Darwin Award in 3, 2, 1....

Computer Gaming Update

Well, I have now spent scores of hours playing Factorio and have almost completely ignored, so far, the excellent new Civ 6.  I was about done with Factorio when I discovered Bob's Mods, a set of game mods that about triple the number of resources and chemical intermediaries and make the game one or two orders of magnitude even more complex.

This is going to have incredibly niche appeal, so be forewarned.  If you spent most of your time in SimCity or City: Skylines trying to optimize road flow rather than making a pretty city, or if you like Space Engineers, this may be your game.

Awesome Web Site - Radio Around the World

This is a pretty cool site - spin the globe, click on the dots around the world, and listen in on local radio.  There are other web sites with links but I find this interface way more fun to play with.


Trump Silver Lining: Liberals Are Now Defending Trade Deficits

Thanks to Trump, it appears that some of the Left have discovered economic reality and are defending trade and suddenly seem less unsettled by trade deficits.  Here is Kevin Drum with one in a series trying to downplay panic over trade deficits, in this case with Mexico.    Here are some of my recent thoughts on the trade deficit.

International trade is such an obvious benefit to the country that it is simply incredible that we are, hundreds of years after Adam Smith and Ricardo and Bastiat, still trying to explain and defend it against ignorance.  It's like we have to constantly battle recurrences of the phlogiston theory of combustion.

Why Is the Diet Coke Always Out of Stock?

As a purchaser of Diet Coke in the medium-sized bottles, I have come to notice that all the other Coke products are often fully stocked, but the Diet Coke is sold out.  In hotels, when I hit the vending machine, if one type of soda is sold out, it will be the Diet Coke.   Here is my grocery store this morning, with a sight I have seen many times at each of the three stores where I shop.  Note that there is full stocking of all the Coke SKU's with a huge gap where the Diet Coke should be.


I like business analysis conundrums like this, so I can think of three explanations:

  1. Observer bias:  It could be all the other SKU's are out of stock an equal amount of time, but since I am not looking for them I do not notice.  I will say that I began thinking about this years ago and over the last year I have tried to pay special attention each time to what is and isn't stocked, but this is still a very likely possibility.
  2. Diet Coke loses money:  It is possible that Diet Coke has the lowest margins for the local distributor.  They are committed to stocking it by Coca-Cola, but they intentionally keep the shelf stock short to minimize sales of a bad product for them.
  3. Lack of granularity in distributor stocking plans:  By this I mean, if a distributor uses one stocking plan and set of product ratios in all stores, it may be that certain products sell out in areas that are over-weighted towards liking that product.  My gut feel is that Diet Coke, vs. Coke, skews more suburban and affluent.   So if they stock to a single standard plan across Phoenix, there may not be enough Diet Coke inventory in suburban grocery stores and fancier hotel vending machines.  This is a sort of variation of the observer bias issue -- Coke has a stocking problem only in a few locations, but I preferentially shop in those locations.

I Was Right About the December Surprise, But For the Wrong Reasons

I have observed in the past that the media will run negative pieces about legislation they favor, but only after the legislation is passed and the information is not longer useful to the debate.  I suppose they do this to retroactively create a paper trail for being even-handed.  So I hypothesized that we might see a December surprise once Hillary won, raising issues about her more forthrightly than they were willing to before the election.

Well, I was sortof right.  We are seeing a December surprise -- the silly Russian hacking story being pushed by the Clinton campaign and the White House -- but for completely different reasons.   These stories are clearly to try to de-legitimize Trump's election, either just as general battle-space preparation or more specifically ahead of the Electoral College vote.

By the way, speaking of fake news, it strikes me there is an interesting bait and switch in how this story is presented.  The story itself is about the appropriation and publication of the emails of Democratic insiders.  To my knowledge, no one has claimed the emails have been altered or faked, so one could argue that most of the damage is self-inflicted on Democrats -- if they had not been writing about inciting violence at Trump rallies, there would be nothing salacious to leak.

But the media shorthands all this as just "hacking" which I suspect many low information voters think refers to actually altering vote tabulations.  Certainly this is the assumption that Jill Stein and all the suckers who donated to her money-hole recount effort ran with.  But of course there is zero evidence of this and it is almost impossible to imagine happening in any kind of wholesale manner.  But I think that some in the media and many in the Democrat camp are purposely throwing around the "hacking" term in the hopes that people will get this false impression.

Postscript:  I have a new standard we should apply to any government regulatory effort aimed at a private company selling a product or service thought to be fraudulent:  No private individual can be prosecuted for selling any product or service that is less of a scam than Jill Stein's recount eff0rt (which, oh wait, may get spent on something else, anything else they want).   Ordinary people are being suckered into giving money to this on completely false, really absurd, principles.  It infuriates me when politicians get all pious about, say, Exxon misleading the public about global warming when they sell crap like this.  At least when I pay my $3 to Exxon, I get a gallon of gas that actually runs my car as promised.  What will any of these donors get from Stein's effort?

Politicians Are Going to Use "Fake News" Panic as A Wedge to Enhance Censorship

This is simply a terrible idea and demonstrates the point I made after the last election, that "fake news" is the new "hate speech" -- in other words, an ill-defined, amorphous term that will be the excuse for censorship.  Every politician thinks that every criticism of themselves is "fake news".   Note the absolute relish with which the millennial Endgadget author greets this awful idea:

Fake news and hate speech are sadly unavoidable on social media, but that might change soon... in Germany, anyway. Late last week, Thomas Oppermann — chairman of the German Social Democratic Party — proposed a stringent law meant to hold companies like Facebook responsible when fake news makes the rounds. As reported by Der Spiegel(and translated by Deusche Well), Oppermann's plan would require Facebook to actively combat fake news all day, everyday. Here's the fascinating bit: if a fake news item pops up and Facebook can't address it within 24 hours, it would be subject to a €500,000 (or $522,575) for each post left untouched.

Oh, it gets better. Facebook and other "market-dominating platforms" would be required to to have teams in Germany dedicated to fielding reports of fake news and hate-filled posts. Fortunately for Oppermann — and German web users, most likely — the push to penalize companies for letting false, misleading or malicious content run wild has received plenty of support from the other major party in German politics, too. The country's Christian Democratic Union hates all of that stuff just as much, prompting one senior party member to promise definitive action "at the beginning of next year." The CDU has also proposed legislation (with backing from Chancellor Angela Merkel, no less) that would make it illegal to post fake news entirely.