Archive for August 2010

Gone

I am heading for Italy for two weeks.  No blogging planned except perhaps some photo-blogging.  I expect you guys to have this country straightened out by the time I get back.

Geekiest T-Shirt? Beyond Just Spock with the Beard

Sunday's shirt at Teefury.  Pointed to me by my daughter, who was convinced I was geeky enough to want this.   Shirts only sold one day so if you click tomorrow you will see something different.  This is the image from the front:

Fermat's Last Theorum

I second Alex's nomination - this is one of my favorite documentaries as well.  The book by the same name is very good as well and covers more of the math history.  I actually watched it just the other day in a home double feature with a A Beautiful Mind, mainly showing my kids the scenes shot at Princeton**  but it turned out to be a great essay on math and the human mind.

** I suppose I could have thrown in Transformers 2 as a Princeton triple feature but it seemed somehow out of place in terms of tone.  Also, seeing all the ASU girls walking around the Princeton campus was almost weirder than the hallucinations in A Beautiful Mind.

Some Love for Complex Numbers

Why playing around with complex numbers is more than just wanking.

Freaking Hilarious

Onion News Network:  Are Standardized Tests Biased Against Kids Who Don't Give a Shit? Via Carpe Diem.  The Onion is brilliant because in some ways, this is absurd and some ways it cuts way too close to reality.

One Lab Left Out

Glen Reynolds linked this gallery of 30 awesome college labs.  My favorite at Princeton was our Junior year mechanical engineering course which was basically interfacing micro computers to mechanical devices  (which was a non-trivial task in 1983).  There were two one-semester courses.  The first was mostly software, and involved programming an s-100 bus computer in assembly language to do various things, like control an elevator.  My final project was a put one of the first sonic rangefinders from a Polaroid camera on a stepper motor and built a radar that painted a blocky view of its surroundings on a computer monitor.

But the really cool part for me was the second semester, when it was software + hardware.  We had to build a complete electronics and mechanical package to perform an automated function on ... a very large n-scale model railroad.  Well, readers of my blog will know that model railroading is my hobby anyway.  My team built a coal loading facility where the train was stepped forward one car at a time and a hopper filled each successive car to the right level with coal (or actually little black pellets).  We had sensors to be able to handle certain problems the professor might throw at us, like a car that was already full, cars of different sizes and lengths, etc.  That lab with the big model railroad was easily my favorite.

In retrospect, I almost miss programming in assembler code, trying to cram the code into 4K EPROMS, etching my own circuit boards....  Almost.   Now my only use for circuit boards is to shear them into strips to act as railroad ties when I hand-solder track work and my only use for etchant is weathering scale sheet metal to make it naturally rusty.  Pictures of the latter in a few weeks.

The New American Corporate State

The rise of the American corporate state is the theme of my most recent column at Forbes.

Sideways Protectionism

Apparently, legislators in California can't get away with just passing a law that says something like "no damn foreigners can build trains for us."  So they repackage their protectionism by finding a way to disguise it, in this case with a truly screwball piece of fiddling-while-Rome-burns legislation:

A bill authored by Assemblymember Bob Blumenfield (D "“ San Fernando Valley) requiring companies seeking contracts to build California's High Speed Rail system to disclose their involvement in deportations to concentration camps during World War II gained final approval from the state legislature today. AB 619, the Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act, passed the Assembly on a vote of 50 "“ 7 and was sent to the governor, who will have until September 30 to act on it.AB 619 would require companies seeking to be awarded high speed rail contracts to publicly disclose whether they had a direct role in transporting persons to concentration camps, and provide a description of any remedial action or restitution they have made to survivors, or families of victims. The bill requires the High Speed Rail Authority to include a company's disclosure as part of the contract award process.

Apparently they have in mind specifically the SNCF, the French national railroad.  Its loony enough to blame current corporate management and ownership for something the entity did three generations ago, but the supposed crimes of the SNCF occurred when France was occupied by the Nazis.   Its like criticizing the actions of a hostage.  And even if there were some willing collaborationists, they almost certainly were punished by the French after liberation, and besides the US Army Air Force did its level best to bomb the SNCF's infrastructure back into the stone age, so I am certainly willing to call it quits.

The Great Moveway Jam

Thanks to a commenter, the short story from Omni that was so reminiscent of the China traffic jam was "The Great Moveway Jam."  The blog Cedar Posts and Barbwire Fences found it online:

Part One is Here

Part Two is Here

It is Still Amazing This Was Once Law in This Country

From the National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933, eventually struck down by the Supreme Court:

Whenever the President shall find that destructive wage or price cutting or other activities contrary to the policy of this title are being practiced in any trade or industry or any subdivision thereof, and, after such public notice and hearing as he shall specify, shall find it essential to license business enterprises in order to make effective a code of fair competition or an agreement under this title or otherwise to effectuate the policy of this title, and shall publicly so announce, no person shall, after a date fixed in such announcement, engage in or carry on any business, in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, specified in such announcement, unless he shall have first obtained a license issued pursuant to such regulations as the President shall prescribe. The President may suspend or revoke any such license, after due notice and opportunity for hear ing, for violations of the terms or conditions thereof. Any order of the President suspending or revoking any such license shall be final if in accordance with law.

With this law, all commerce was to be conducted only at the President's pleasure. The law also instituted code authorities, modeled on Mussolini's economic system, that would set prices, wages, production quotas and nearly every other business practice in an industry. To some extent, I would argue that the recent health care bill is the first modern American code authority.

So What?

Via Glen Reynolds, from Keith Jurow at Business Insider

There is a far-reaching change occurring now which threatens housing markets around the country. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive for the National Apartment Association in May 2010 found that 76% of those surveyed now believe that renting is a better option than buying in the current real estate market, up from 71% in 2008.  Especially sobering was the fact that 78% of those surveyed were homeowners.

David Neithercut, CEO of Equity Residential, the nation's largest multi-family landlord, believes that there is a "psychology change" in the mind of consumers.  In a June address to an industry conference, he declared that there is "a change in one's thought process about the benefits or wisdom of owning a single-family home."

When an author uses the word "threatens" to describe a trend, you know he doesn't like it.  While a home may be  a good place to put excess cash for some people, as a leveraged investment it is insane.  It is a dead asset, producing no cash flow or future value.  While the land under it may be a scarce asset, particularly in some areas with strict growth limits and zoning laws, the house itself is a depreciating asset as much as your car is (trust me, I just replaced an air conditioner and spent weeks repairing dry wall cracks).

Renting pays a lot of benefits, not the least of which is the mobility it adds to the labor market.  Individuals with leases are less tied to a certain spot, so have more flexibility to leave a given area to seek better opportunities elsewhere  (this actually triggers a thought I had not had before -- I wonder if government promotion of home ownership, particularly at the state and local level -- can be seen as a modern form of serfdom, with politicians attempting to tie people to the land so they cannot move and take their tax money elsewhere).

So home ownership is a fine option for many (I own a home and prefer that status in my present circumstances) but there is no law that says it has to be the norm or the default.  Many people have switched from whole life to term, from buying individual stocks to mutual funds, from defined benefit pensions to 401k's.  The way we achieve goals evolve over time, and there should be nothing surprising about a change in how people wish to access housing.  And certainly nothing in this trend which should occasion government intervention to prevent.

My Vote Yesterday

Like many libertarians, I am tempted not to vote each election, though I usually do.  However, choosing between whatever lesser evil exists in the Coke or Pepsi party gets tiresome.  Given that, I have never voted in a party primary, until yesterday when I voted in the Republican primary simply to vote against Andrew Thomas for state Attorney General.  Thomas has for years been Joe Arpaio's chief enabler and of late as County Attorney has spent his time launching frivolous lawsuits against his political enemies, from County supervisors to judges.  When attorneys from adjacent counties would not support his suits, he sought criminal charges against them.

Most recently, it was revealed that a series of grand juries, which typically will indict an inanimate object, not only refused to indict in several of his cases but ordered him to shut down the investigation entirely.  This useless prosecution of a County Supervisor turned out to be part of a plan.  When Thomas decided to vacate the County Attorney position to run for state DA, he disagreed with many of the County Supervisors as to who his replacement should be, and as narrated in this letter, began filing charges against Supervisors to deny them a quorum  (apparently some quid pro quo discussions, of the sort "we will drop the charges if you vote how we want" were actually recorded and turned over to the US Attorney, so if Thomas should win his election we be following the NY/Spitzer path of having our top state legal officer facing felony charges and disbarment.

Unfortunately, Thomas (and Arpaio) have somehow become folk-heroes among lame-brained Arizona voters, who tend to accept any sort of civil rights violations by officials as necessary measures to maintain the peace in the face of the dreaded Mexican immigration wave, so their re-election chances are not necessarily hurt by near Louisiana or Chicago levels of abuses of power.

I was tempted not to vote -- you know, one vote won't matter -- because I felt downright icky actually voting in the Coke primary.  But in AZ, the Coke primary is pretty much the election since the state is so full of Coke voters, so I did it.  As it turns out, my vote may matter.

99.7% of Precincts Reporting
(2232 of 2239 Precincts)

Republican Votes Percent
HORNE, TOM 233,700 50.0%
THOMAS, ANDREW P. 233,327 50.0%
Total Number of Votes 467,027

Don't know a thing about Tom Horne, but I eagerly voted for him as not-Thomas.  Here is the lock of the week:  with a vote this close, Thomas will keep this in the court for months, perhaps years.  If he gets the wrong decision, he will go after the judge, and if that doesn't work.....

Update: Apparently, Arpaio got his guy elected in the race to fill Thomas's county attorney seat, so I suppose once we get rid of one Arpaio-enabler we just end up with another.  I took Arpaio's list of people he endorsed yesterday and the only votes I cast were for whoever the challenger was to team Arpaio.

Update #2: This is a depressing quote (emphasis added)

Oddly, the truth-telling was attributed to our own local Pinocchio, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, in regards the decisive victory of Bill Montgomery over interim Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley.

"That's going to make my job very easy," Arpaio said of Montgomery's win.

Great Horce Race Call

You need the sound on for this.  Stick it out for the final stretch.  Trust me.

Abbot and Costello meet horse racing

Who, Us? Arrogant?

I have stayed away from the story about Hollywood producer/director James Cameron backing out of a climate debate at the last minute, a debate he demanded and previously had thumped his chest that he would win going away.  The event in Aspen was being run and attended by folks totally sympathetic to Cameron and completely hostile to the skeptic's position.  The event's founder and producer Chip Comins is almost defamatory in how he talks about skeptic Mark Morano, who was to debate Cameron and was actually on a plane flying to the event when Cameron backed out.  Its amazing that Morano would agree to debate in such a hostile environment with a biased organizer, but in fact it was Cameron who chickened out.  This statement by Comins tells you all you need to know about Hollywood culture:

"Morano is not at James Cameron's level to debate, and that's why that didn't happen," Comins said. "Cameron should be debating someone who is similar to his stature in our society."

Chart of the Day

This is an analysis from Denmark's Labor Market Commission. There are many people who simply stay on unemployment as long as they can.

I Sense a Pattern Here

Here is a chart I ran a while back on auto sales, showing how the cash for clunkers "stimulus" program simply spent a bunch of money to pull forward car sales by a month or two

Here are housing sales -- I don't have time this morning to annotate the chart but the housing stimulus program expired in May

Story in Omni Magazine

Yes, I am among the geeks who miss Omni magazine.  Is there anyone who remembers a short story in that magazine about a traffic jam so bad they eventually just paved it over, people and all?  I am reminded of that given this story from China.

A HUGE Government Benefit

I had not realized that some Federal employees did not have to participate in Social Security.  Intriguingly, this fact was raised by people who were defending government pay as not being excessive -- they said something like, "well, some workers don't even get Social Security."  Via Bryan Caplan

Some government employees don't participate in Social Security. How does that change the benefits picture?

[T]hat's irrelevant because they're neither paying nor receiving benefits. If you follow Social Security, you know it pays a low rate of return... [N]ot to participate in Social Security is actually a benefit, because they're keeping more.

I agree. Not participating in Social Security is a huge benefit.  The implicit return on "premiums" paid by you and your employer is typically below zero.  In other words, if you took your social security taxes and stuffed them in a mattress, you would get a better return.  As I wrote in the link above

as a retirement program, [social security] is a really, really big RIPOFF.  Ever worker in this country is being raped by this retirement plan.  In fact, it is the worst retirement program in the whole country:

  • As we see above, it pays a negative rate of return
  • It is not optional "“ you go to prison if you choose not to participate
  • Unlike a private annuity contract, the government can rewrite your benefits level any time, and you have to take it.  In fact, my statement says "Your estimated benefits are based on current law.  Congress has made changes to the law in the past and can do so at any time.  The law governing benefit amounts may change because, by 2040, the payroll taxes collected will be enough to pay only about 74 percent of scheduled benefits."
  • There are no assets backing this annuity!!  An insurance company that wrote annuities without any invested assets backing them would be thrown in jail faster than Jeff Skilling.  The government has been doing it for decades.

In Praise of Divided Government

I must say that I am not much of a fan of trying to find spurious relationships between long-term economic trends and the political parties who hold office at various times.  But I must say I kind of liked this one from Mark Perry:

PS-  I was around a dinner table this weekend with a group of Republicans, including some activists.  I asked them what exactly they thought Republicans would do next term if they won real gains in Congress.  None of them, many hard-core activists, could name anything except divide government and slow the pace of growth.  Which I suppose is better than we have now.

Food Miles Silliness

Maybe its because I live in Phoenix, but the local food movement has always seemed silly to me.  To somehow argue that food grown in our 6 inches of annual rainfall is better for the environment than trucking product in from more suitable growing regions has always struck me as crazy.  Russ Roberts links several good articles on the local food movement, one of which included this nice snarky observation:

The result has been all kinds of absurdities. For instance, it is sinful in New York City to buy a tomato grown in a California field because of the energy spent to truck it across the country; it is virtuous to buy one grown in a lavishly heated greenhouse in, say, the Hudson Valley.

GRRRRRR. Commerce is Not a "Privilege"

The government terminology that tends to tick me off the most is calling commerce a "privilege" that can only be granted to the state and therefor must be licensed with appropriate tribute paid to the state for the "privilege."  Here in Arizona our sales tax is called a "transaction privilege tax."  Here is a story about licensing bloggers in Philly:

Between her blog and infrequent contributions to ehow.com, over the last few years she says she's made about $50. To [Marilyn] Bess, her website is a hobby. To the city of Philadelphia, it's a potential moneymaker, and the city wants its cut.

In May, the city sent Bess a letter demanding that she pay $300, the price of a business privilege license.

Selling one's labor, and conducting commerce to the mutual interest of two parties are fundamental rights rather than artificial constructs granted by the state.

One (Of Many) Problems with the TSA

One substantial problem with the TSA that is seldom discussed is that in the switch from using private security to government agents to screen passengers, there was always going to be a temptation by the Feds to expand the airport screening from narrowly a search for weapons that might endanger an airplane to a catch-all crime search point.  Here is an example of the latter:

That same screener started emptying her wallet. "He was taking out the receipts and looking at them," she said.

"I understand that TSA is tasked with strengthening national security but [it] surely does not need to know what I purchased at Kohl's or Wal-Mart," she wrote in her complaint, which she sent me last week.

She says she asked what he was looking for and he replied, "Razor blades." She wondered, "Wouldn't that have shown up on the metal detector?"

In a side pocket she had tucked a deposit slip and seven checks made out to her and her husband, worth about $8,000.

Her thought: "Oh, my God, this is none of his business."

Two Philadelphia police officers joined at least four TSA officers who had gathered around her. After conferring with the TSA screeners, one of the Philadelphia officers told her he was there because her checks were numbered sequentially, which she says they were not.

"It's an indication you've embezzled these checks," she says the police officer told her. He also told her she appeared nervous. She hadn't before that moment, she says.

She protested when the officer started to walk away with the checks. "That's my money," she remembers saying. The officer's reply? "It's not your money."

At this point she told the officers that she had a good explanation for the checks, but questioned whether she had to tell them.

"The police officer said if you don't tell me, you can tell the D.A."

Sarcasm and the Web

Patrick at Popehat observes how a media outlet probably missed the fact that they were hearing sarcasm.  But there is a very good explanation of why sarcasm does not work on the web.  Think of a couple of sarcastic comments, like "Boy that Joe Arpaio is sure a friend of civil rights" or "wow, that Cynthia McKinney is one sharp legislator."  The problem is that on the web, there are likely any number of people arguing, quite seriously, that Arpaio is the greatest friend the Constitution ever had or that McKinney is a bastion of well-reasoned, sober deliberation.  We are getting to the day that without regularly reading an author on the web, it is virtually impossible to be sure a given remark is sarcasm.  I mean, if I didn't know where he stood politically, I would have initially pegged Kevin Drum's assertion that Tip O'Neil cut a deal to have poor people pay the taxes of rich people as some sort of clever joke.

First Amendment and Speech

I believe it is time for a public information notice reminding everyone the actual text of the First Amendment as it applies to speech:

Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech

It does NOT say:

No citizen may ever experience any negative consequences from their speech

This is the reason the reminder seems necessary

Kevin Drum Is Still Repeating This Absurd Claim About Social Security

From Kevin Drum

Bob Somerby is following the latest Social Security chatter and hopes that Paul Krugman can explain how the trust fund works in an understandable way:

The trust fund is just an accounting fiction "” a pile of worthless IOUs! Generations of voters have been misled by such skillfully-wrought presentations.

....Krugman is our most valuable player by far "” our only player at the top of the press corps. Can he disentangle the trust fund scam in a way average people will understand? We don't know, and it isn't his job; no player should be expected to carry the ball on every play from scrimmage. Tomorrow, we'll offer our own ideas at how the "there-is-no-trust-fund nonsense" might best be approached, in a way average people can follow.

Well, hell, I'll take a crack at it. Here's the simple version.

In 1983, when we last reformed Social Security, we made an implicit deal between two groups of American taxpayers. Call them Groups A and B. For about 30 years, Group A would pay higher taxes than necessary, thus allowing Group B to reduce their tax rates. Then, for about 30 years after that, Group A would pay lower taxes than necessary and Group B would make up for this with higher tax rates.

This might have been a squirrelly deal to make. But it doesn't matter. It's the deal we made. And it's obviously unfair to change it halfway through.

This is an incredible fantasy.  Absolutely no one thirty years ago (Drum dates the "deal" to 1983) explicitly or even secretly crafted any such deal.  Seriously, is Drum really positing that a Democrat-dominated Congress led by for-god-sakes Tip O'Neil really said "lets have poor people pay some of rich people's taxes for thirty years?"  Just last night I was reading a quote from Hitler late in WWII that asserted he actually let the British escape from Dunkirk on purpose because he wanted the British to know he had no real quarrel with them.  While it certainly is true Hitler never really wanted a war with Britain, this is just a self-serving rewrite of history.  Drum is doing the same thing.  Its amazing to me that an obviously intelligent person can convince himself of this.

Here is the real, simple explanation of the Social Security trust fund:  Social Security was spinning off huge piles of money and no Congress person of either the Coke or the Pepsi party could resist grabbing it and spending it in a way that would support their reelection.  They ended up spending it all.  Every bit of it, all gone.  The Social Security trust fund is the Enron 401K plan stuffed with Enron stock.

Drum gets to his bizarre theory because he believes the fiscal discipline problem over the last 30 years was all due to tax cuts rather than spending, and that all these tax cuts were for rich people.   Of course, throughout the last 30 years, the share of taxes paid for by the rich have steadily risen, so the claim is absurd on its face, but the false assumptions it is built on are ones that every progressive accept as holy writ.

This paragraph is particularly a howler:

The physical embodiment of this deal is the Social Security trust fund. Group A overpaid and built up a pile of bonds in the trust fund. Those bonds are a promise by Group B to repay the money. That promise is going to start coming due in a few years, and it's hardly surprising that Group B isn't as excited about the deal now as it was in 1983. It's never as much fun paying off a loan as it is to spend the money in the first place.

It would be some exercise to try to define groups A and B in a non-overlapping manner.  The fact is everyone is in group A, as almost everyone overpays into Social Security on a return on capital basis -- the retirement income most people get represents generally a negative net ROI on the "premiums" paid.  And it is amazing to me that I have never heard that we now have government bonds that must be paid back only by a specific sub-section of the population.  It may very well have been a progressive assumption that only rich people would be on the hook for every dollar of government debt run up over the last 30 years, but that fact will likely be a surprise to just about everyone else in the country.  Here is his conclusion:

But pay it off they must. The rich have been getting a loan from the middle class for decades...

Delusional.