Archive for December 2010

Dang, How Did I Miss This

I usually check out the TeeFury shirt of the day, but must have forgotten when the Serenity Sake ("with just a touch of saffron") shirt was for sale.  Dang.

Spoke Too Soon

I was so excited about my web site progress that I overlooked somehow to hit "save" when I made changes to my MX records on the DNS.  So all our corporate email went awry for 2 days.  Fortunately I can access it in a box where it all collected, but now I have to sort through it and re-forward it all.  If I was a cool haxor d00d, I could probably write a script to do it, but I will just sort through the 300 emails by hand.  Halfway there already.

The Health Care Trojan Horse: Property Rights Edition

For years I have warned that government-funded health care will be used as a Trojan horse for a nearly infinite body of legislation under the pretext that X [where X = nearly every activity or individual choice] has implications for health care costs.  Here is the latest chapter of this ongoing saga:

New stand-alone fast food restaurants have been banned from setting up shop in South Los Angeles, due to rising health concerns by the city council.

This story also mixes in a good portion of corporate statism as well, as it represents pretty transparent protectionism of current competitors against new entrants:

Perry's new plan bans new so-called "stand alone" fast food restaurants opening within half a mile of existing restaurants.

So McDonald's, who is likely firmly entrenched in the area, is unaffected, but potential new entrants challenging McDonald's are out.

For even further points, one can see another powerful constituency at work.  I suppose commercial real estate developers complained about potential loss of tenants, so this was added:

Such stand-alone establishments are on their own property, but those same restaurants are OK if they're a part of a strip mall, according to the new rules.

Obviously the same food is much more nutritious if served in a leased building rather than on a piece of land the restaurant owns itself.

Read the whole thing, its a great example with a lot of fact-free pronouncements by politicians about market failures.  via Matt Welch

Our Medieval Economy

This is a pretty interesting observation, from Walter Russell Mead via Arnold Kling

Most intellectuals today still live in a guild economy. The learned professions - lawyers, doctors, university professors, the clergy of most mainline denominations, and (aspirationally anyway) school teachers and journalists - are organized in modern day versions of the medieval guilds. Membership in the guilds is restricted, and the self-regulated guilds do their best to uphold an ideal of service and fairness and also to defend the economic interests of the members. The culture and structure of the learned professions shape the world view of most American intellectuals today, but high on the list of necessary changes our society must make is the restructuring and in many cases the destruction of the guilds...

In most of our learned professions and knowledge guilds today, promotion is linked to the needs and aspirations of the guild rather than to society at large. Promotion in the academy is almost universally linked to the production of ever more specialized, theory-rich (and, outside the natural sciences, too often application-poor) texts, pulling the discourse in one discipline after another into increasingly self-referential black holes. We suffer from 'runaway guilds': costs skyrocket in medicine, the civil service, education and the law in part because the imperatives of the guilds and the interests of their members too often triumph over the needs and interests of the wider society.

Doublethink

As typical type-A parents, we were pushing our son to seek out some sort of internship this summer - we have friends in the medical field that were offering some type of job.

To his credit, my son pushed back.  He said he was not interested in medicine, and was not really interested in math and science, though he does well in them.  He wanted to pursue something involving writing and perhaps history and literature, which are definitely his strongest activities.

So we talked things through.   One interest he has had since 5th or 6th grade has been dystopic fiction.  In 6th grade he found a list of top dystopic novels and started hammering down the reading list (1984, Brave New World, etc).  In his writing assignments he typically writes some sort of dystopic or alternate history fiction.  And in current events, he has a particular interest in some of the worst states, particularly North Korea.

So with some discussion from his teachers, he is going to try to pursue a writing project this summer, though I specified that he had to have some goal / forcing device, such as a submission for a student or youth fiction contest.

To help start to to gather background and refine his thoughts for the project, he has created a new blog --  Doublethink:  Totalitarianism in Literature, History, and Current Events.  He is pretty early in finding his voice (and on hold for a few days as he finishes finals) but I encourage you to check it out sometimes.  In particular, if you see something interesting along those lines, hit his email in the header of that site.

Quote of the Year

This should be inscribed over the entrance to the Capitol building:

Salutatory goals and creative drafting have never been sufficient to offset an absence of enumerated powers

Unfortunately, they often have.  From the Virginia ruling on the health care bill.

Productive Weekend

  • Migrated about 20 web sites to my new server (actual a virtual private server rather than a dedicated server, but it seems to have most of the functionality of dedicated at a lower price -- performance remains to be tested).  This was sort of a death march as it was incredibly dull and repetitive, especially since many of the sites use WordPress as the content management system so they required database setup and migration as well.  Basically got almost everything done except this site.  I am sure after 20 smooth moves Murphy's Law will cut in on the largest and most complicated.
  • Created our Christmas / Holiday card.  Some 20 years ago I set the unfortunate precedent of trying to do something unique for our cards, so I have made this a double extra more time consuming process than it has to be.  (past examples here, here, here)
  • Made a lot of progress laying track on my model railroad.  All my track is scratch built (from rails and ties) and so it takes a while, but I have nearly all the major switches in place, which are the real time consumers when hand laying track
  • Created a second RAID for my home theater system.  Incredibly, the original 8Tb raid (5x2 TB drives in a RAID 5) is almost full.  Chalk this up in part to Blu Ray rips (which can be 30Gb each) but also to my finally ripping TV series I have on disk (Sopranos, Mad Men, Firefly, etc).  These involve a lot of disks.

At some point soon I want to write a review of my experience with the new SageTV version 7.0 software, which is an ENORMOUS improvement over their old versions.  The Sage system is still for advanced users, but the process for managing plugins and extensions (the whole point of Sage is its customizability) is greatly improved.  The new HD300 set top box is also improved, though with a flaw or two.  You are welcome to email me if you are considering Sage (or if you want something more capable than most media streaming boxes) and I can give you the pros and cons.

Now all I need is a few Christmas present ideas for my wife.

Spaceship Pr0n

This is some really nice footage of the now-defunct space shuttle.

Via Engadget

Its Good To Mess With People's Heads

and this is funny

OK, I am geeky enough to think this is funny too (sorry, my daughter keeps emailing these to me)

Progressives and Capitalism

My Forbes post this week is on progressives and capitalism:

Progressives are often as overwhelmed by the world economy as primitive man was by his natural environment.  Just as the primitive man was confused by and fearful of storms and earthquakes and drought and disease, progressives are befuddled by the rise and fall of industries, booms and recessions, wealth and poverty.  And just as primitive men invented gods and myths to help bring order and a sense of controllability to events they didn't understand, progressives create governments in the hopes of imposing top-down order on a chaotic economy....

The children of the 1960's had a number of catch phrases, among them "power to the people."  The irony is that no system in history has ever empowered individuals as much as has capitalism.  Capitalism is the only way to organize economic activity without the use of force, the only approach that does not require that a few human beings be given power over us to guide our activity from above.  This results in an order that is emergent and bottom-up, as beautiful in its complexity as anything in nature.  And, and order that is as terrifying to progressives as nature was to primitive man.  As a result, progressives would trade it all away, would accept a master, would accept impoverishment and stagnation, in order to attain predictability.

I am sure, if asked, most  progressives would profess to desire iPod's and cures for cancer.  But they want these without the incentives that drive men to invent them, and the disruption to current markets and competitors and employees that their introduction entails.  They want to end poverty without wealth creation, they want jobs without employers, they want cars without unemployment for buggy whip makers.  When it comes to actual, real-world legislation, progressives will nearly always embrace predictability and egalitarianism over innovation and growth.

Yes, the Site is Slow

I have a horrible, awful, embarrassing confession.   All my sites, including this blog, are run off of super-cheap shared hosting accounts at Godaddy (yes, the guys with the juvenile commercials).  For years I think they did a decent job and my sites were not that busy, so it was no problem.  But as with most large, cheap hosting companies, they seem to be cramming more and more domains on each shared server.  Someone on this server is chewing up a lot of CPU cycles and it's time to move on.

I have switched to a virtual private server account at a new hosting company, as a sort of stepping stone potentially to a dedicated server  (my business and I have over 30 web sites so it probably can be justified).  The VPS account is cheaper and lets me start learning some new things about managing hosting (e.g. I have access to the root for the first time) but still shields me from some of the server management (e.g. OS updates).  And it's cheaper than a dedicated server, so we will see how it goes.

At some point, not quite yet, the site will have some down time when I do the migration.   Not sure yet when that will be -- the wordpress database for this site is over 50mb which exceeds the import file size allowed in my data base tools (phpmyadmin for mysql).  I have read there is another way to do it, I just have to do some research and tests first.  I probably will have to learn to work the data base from the command line.

Over the Top

I got this in an email from something called the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC.  They seem to be worried about the passage of the Dream Act, which I have not paid much attention to.

If we lose in the Senate tomorrow, most future battles will be fought as we retreat step by step, while millions of illegal aliens become legal workers, students, and voters who are used to replace Americans and put in positions of authority over us.

May God Save The United States.

Rally your kith and kin and join us shortly after dawn on the East Coast for our next battle tomorrow.

We must hold the line in the Senate! WE STILL HAVE A CHANCE TO STOP THIS NATION KILLING LEGISLATION BUT WE WILL NEED ALL OF YOUR HELP IN THE MORNING.

May God favor our efforts.

Holy Cr*p, you would think Hitler's panzers were rolling into Washington.  Seriously, this is all because millions of immigrants might become legal workers and voters like, uh, nearly every one of our ancestors who came from somewhere else?  Their apocalyptic vision is legal workers and students?

This email just gives the lie to the PAC's name -- obviously they are not for legal immigration or they would be thrilled that formerly illegal immigrants suddenly become legal.

On many occasions I have had people tell me that I was stupid -- explaining to me that this issue is not about immigration per se but the rule of law, and that their objection was to the illegal behavior not being punished, not immigration itself.  Fine, here is the fix -- make them all legal.  The formerly illegal immigrants will be, as you say, legal students, workers, and voters. Problem solved, right?

I get told all the time by immigration opponents that they are open to legal immigration, but we have to deal with illegal immigration first.  Really?  When thousands of Arizonans were breaking the law and getting photo-radar tickets, did we say that we would only do something about photo-radar when the problem of illegal speeding went away?  No, we got rid of the hated cameras, and most folks holding photo-radar tickets got amnesty (in the form of the state choosing not to pursue the high percentage of people who threw away their tickets rather than paying them).

Postscript: I am not religious, but I wonder if folks who are find the use of God in this context offensive.  Doesn't this imply God hates the Mexicans?  Does God love your family, who happened to enter this country when immigration laws were loose, but hate Xavier who wants to come here just like your family but does so in a time when immigration laws are restrictive?

It reminds me of winning football players who say, to begin interviews, "I want to thank God..." as if their victory were the result of particular favor payed to them by God.  I have always wanted to see a losing player follow such an interview with, "well, you heard it:  God was against us.  What chance did we have?  I think we kept it pretty close given that an omnipotent deity was working for the other team."

Asset Forfeiture and the Rule of Law

Thank goodness for the drug war so we can have crappy asset forfeiture laws that allow this:

You're free to go -- but we'll keep your money.

That's the position of Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard on the failed case of Mario de la Fuente Manriquez, a Mexican media millionaire accused of organized crime.

Manriquez was arrested and charged earlier this year with 19 counts of money laundering, assisting a criminal syndicate, conspiracy and fraud. Seven other suspects, including Manriquez's son, were arrested in the alleged scheme to fraudulently own and operate several Valley nightclubs and exotic car dealerships.

Charges against Manriquez's son, Mario de la Fuente Mix, were dropped in August. And on Monday, as we reported, the state moved to drop the case against Manriquez.

But the state still wants to keep $12 million of Manriquez's money that was seized in the case, a spokesman for the AG's office tells New Times today.

The folks involved don't strike me as particularly savory characters, but due process is due process and if you drop charges against the guys, the money should be considered legally clean, especially when the authorities confess

Prosecutors acknowledged the money funneled to the United States from Mexico was earned legitimately by Manriquez. In the end, they couldn't prove he knew what was happening with his dough.

What happened to the money, by the way, is that is was invested in a series of businesses that appear to be entirely legal, their only apparent crime being that the incorporation paperwork omitted the name of Manriquez as a major source of funds.  Wow, money legally earned invested in legal businesses, with the only possible crime a desire for confidentiality (at worst) or a paperwork mistake (at best).  Sure glad our state AG is putting his personal time in on this one.

I do not know Arizona's forfeiture laws, but if they are like most other states', they probably allow state authorities to keep the seized money to use as they please, an awfully large incentive for prosecutorial abuse.

Well, It Is A Much Stronger Greenhouse Gas than CO2

For those who remember the Penn & Teller show where they had people at an environmental rally sign a petition to ban dihydrogen monoxide (water), you may enjoy seeing some CFACT interns doing the same among delegates to the COP16 climate change conference in Cancun, with predictable results.  Its all about the science!  Its pretty funny that the interns seemed to go out of their way to always have a cup of water in their hand when they discussed the petition.

Consumer Surplus

From an email from Amazon.com:

Greetings from Amazon.com.

You saved $7.00 with Amazon.com's Pre-order Price Guarantee!

The price of the item(s) decreased after you ordered them, and we gave you the lowest price.

The following title(s) decreased in price:

Inception (Blu-ray/DVD Combo + Digital Copy)
Price on order date: $24.99
Price charged at shipping: $17.99
Lowest price before release date: $17.99
Quantity: 1
Total Savings: $7.00

I was willing to pay the $24.99 but I will certainly take the extra $7.

But I Am Sure This Would Never Happen in Climate

Wow, suddenly skepticism, and even outright harsh criticism, of peer-reviewed work is OK, as long as it is not in climate I suppose.

On Thursday, Dec. 2, Rosie Redfield sat down to read a new paper called "A Bacterium That Can Grow by Using Arsenic Instead of Phosphorus." Despite its innocuous title, the paper had great ambitions. Every living thing that scientists have ever studied uses phosphorus to build the backbone of its DNA. In the new paper, NASA-funded scientists described a microbe that could use arsenic instead. If the authors of the paper were right, we would have to expand our....

As soon Redfield started to read the paper, she was shocked. "I was outraged at how bad the science was," she told me.

Redfield blogged a scathing attack on Saturday. Over the weekend, a few other scientists took to the Internet as well. Was this merely a case of a few isolated cranks? To find out, I reached out to a dozen experts on Monday. Almost unanimously, they think the NASA scientists have failed to make their case. "It would be really cool if such a bug existed," said San Diego State University's Forest Rohwer, a microbiologist who looks for new species of bacteria and viruses in coral reefs. But, he added, "none of the arguments are very convincing on their own." That was about as positive as the critics could get. "This paper should not have been published," said Shelley Copley of the University of Colorado.

The article goes on to describe many potential failures in the methodology.  None of this should be surprising -- I have written for years that peer-review is by no means proof against bad science or incorrect findings.  It is more of an  extended editorial process.  The real test of published science comes later, when the broader community attempts to replicate results.

The problem in climate science has been that its proponents want to claim that having research performed by a small group of scientists that is peer-reviewed by the same small group is sufficient to making the results "settled science."  Once published, they argue, no one (certainly not laymen on blogs) has the right to criticize it, and the researchers don't (as revealed in the Climategate emails) have any obligations to release their data or code to allow replication.   This is just fresh proof that this position is nuts.

The broken climate science process is especially troubling given the budgetary and reputational incentives to come out with the most dramatic possible results, something NASA's James Hansen has been accused of doing by many climate skeptics.  To this end, consider this from the bacteria brouhaha.  First, we see the same resistance to criticism, trying to deflect any critiques outside of peer-reviewed journals

"Any discourse will have to be peer-reviewed in the same manner as our paper was, and go through a vetting process so that all discussion is properly moderated," wrote Felisa Wolfe-Simon of the NASA Astrobiology Institute. "The items you are presenting do not represent the proper way to engage in a scientific discourse and we will not respond in this manner."

WTF?  How, then, did we ever have scientific process before peer-reviewed journals appeared on the scene?

But Jonathan Eisen of UC-Davis doesn't let the scientists off so easily. "If they say they will not address the responses except in journals, that is absurd," he said. "They carried out science by press release and press conference. Whether they were right or not in their claims, they are now hypocritical if they say that the only response should be in the scientific literature."

Wow, that could be verbatim from a climate skeptic in the climate debate.

And finally, this on incentives and scientific process:

Some scientists are left wondering why NASA made such a big deal over a paper with so many flaws. "I suspect that NASA may be so desperate for a positive story that they didn't look for any serious advice from DNA or even microbiology people," says John Rothof UC-Davis.

Reform of the Day

Why is it that taxpayers seem to be the one group that never has standing?  No one wants the milch cow mouthing off, I suppose.  How about we change the law to say that any taxpayer has standing in court on any issue that affects government spending.  Too broad?  Well, I'll narrow that when they narrow their interpretation of the commerce clause.

More Adventures in Photography

I am still trying to figure out how traditional film photographers got great outdoor photos.  I struggle with haze and a loss of vibrancy in distant photos, as if the images were photographed through dirty glass.  Maybe filters?  More vibrancy in the film (I know that drove a lot of Kodak users to Fuji)?

Anyway, I don't have to rely on film, and can fiddle around with Photoshop until I get things right.  I used it in this image to lighten some dark areas and then eliminated the haze effects by painting the whole image with a low-opacity color burn (I used to use a neutral gray for this but I have had better luck using a color with much of the blue taken out (using the RGB sliders in the color selection)).  I gave a second helping of the color burn to the buildings only, to make them pop a bit.  I try to stay far away from the contrast controls - every photo I have ever ruined started downhill with the contrast control.    Instead, I went into each of the R-G-B channels in the "levels" section and fiddled with the distributions a bit, in effect widening the distributions (only a little) to get a tad more contrast.

I think it came out pretty well -- I was at an art show with a guy selling almost this exact same photo from the exact same spot and I think mine compared favorably with his art shot.  The only thing I think might have improved it was to get morning light, but I was not going to camp out for 18 hours to do so.

Anyway, this is Vernazza, one of the five towns of Cinqueterre on the Italian Riviera, taken from the fabulous walking trail the connects the five towns.  As usual click for enlargement.

On the monitor screen, the colors are perhaps a bit over-saturated but by trial and error it looks great on paper (at least with my printer -- the color variation among printers and papers is really astonishing once you start paying attention to it).

Below, by the way, is the original digital image.  If someone can tell me what I am doing wrong (filters, camera selection, etc) to get such crappy original images, I would be appreciative.  It looks like I haven't cleaned the lens or something.  All I am using is a pretty good quality UV filter (mostly just to protect the lens) on a Nikon D50 with the stock Nikon lens.

At Last, Something Other Than Downfall

This is a clever subtitle mashup criticizing public pensions in California which, incredibly, does not actually use the Hitler clip from Downfall.

Delicious

Bursting the Chinese Bubble

This is one of the more interesting things I have read this week, and confirms a hypothesis I have developed, which is that whenever the Left in this country begs that we emulate some fast growing government planned economy, we are probably looking at a bubble about to burst (e.g. the Left's desire to emulate Japan's MITI in the late 80's and their envy of China's authoritarian economic interventions today).

The Royal Bank of Scotland has advised clients to take out protection against the risk of a sovereign default by China as one of its top trade trades for 2011. This is a new twist.

It warns that the Communist Party will have to puncture the credit bubble before inflation reaches levels that threaten social stability. This in turn may open a can of worms.

"Many see China's monetary tightening as a pre-emptive tap on the brakes, a warning shot across the proverbial economic bows. We see it as a potentially more malevolent reactive day of reckoning," said Tim Ash, the bank's emerging markets chief.

At some level, the dynamic is not surprising and is one seen in every developing country -- early development is based on export markets taking advantage of low cost labor.  But as growth proceeds, demand for labor increases and bids up labor costs.  A transition has to occur from exporting low-cost merchandise to making a higher-value products and services for the domestic market.  Dislocations are nearly inevitable

On a recent visit to a chemical plant in Suzhou, I was told by the English manager that wage bonuses for staff will average nine months pay this year. This is what it costs to keep skilled workers. His own contract is fixed in sterling, which has crashed against the yuan over the last two years. "It is a sobering experience," he said.

China may have hit the "Lewis turning point", named after the Nobel economist Arthur Lewis from St Lucia. It is the moment for each catch-up economy when the supply of cheap labour from the countryside dries up, leading to a surge in industrial wages. That reserve army of 120m Chinese migrants everybody was so worried about four years ago has already dwindled to 25m.

This tends to be made worse in a heavily planned economy.  As any Austrian-schooler will tell you, government intervention in the economy and credit markets tend to distort investments, pushing investment capital from the most productive uses into less productive assets that are favored by the government distortions.  Thus the Japanese 80's and American 00's real estate bubbles.  And now the Chinese:

The froth is going into property. Experts argue heatedly over whether or not China has managed to outdo America's subprime bubble, or even match the Tokyo frenzy of late 1980s. The IMF straddles the two.

It concluded in a report last week that there was no nationwide bubble but that home prices in Shenzen, Shanghai, Beijing, and Nanjing seem "increasingly disconnected from fundamentals".

Prices are 22 times disposable income in Beijing, and 18 times in Shenzen, compared to eight in Tokyo. The US bubble peaked at 6.4 and has since dropped 4.7. The price-to-rent ratio in China's eastern cities has risen by over 200pc since 2004

Hair of the Dog

This is pretty incredible.  It's like the last two years didn't even happen.

A national consumer coalition plans to file a series of landmark federal fair housing complaints beginning Dec. 6, challenging a widespread practice by banks and mortgage lenders: requiring borrowers who apply for FHA loans to have FICO credit scores well above the 580 minimum set by the FHA for qualified applicants with 3.5 percent down payments....

Because FHA insures lenders against losses from serious delinquency or foreclosure, there is "no legitimate business justification" for rejecting applicants solely on the basis of FICO scores that are acceptable to FHA, the complaints contend.

Subprime mortgage customers are generally defined as those under a credit score of 620.  I am surprised that anyone in this environment is offering 3.5% down to any buyer  (though here is the government actually advertising the fact).  But giving 3.5% down to subprime borrowers?

Even with the FHA guarantee, banks have learned that the cost of default for them is not zero.  Only someone who has been in a cave for two years could somehow ascribe this action to discrimination rather than an obvious reaction to the ongoing mortgage crisis.  The government is still out acting irresponsibly, and when private institutions (who actually have to live with the cost of their decisions) try to behave like adults, they get hauled into court.

By the way, this sure does seem to bolster the argument that community banking standards and the pressure from the government and community groups to drop lending standards played a large role in the housing crisis.  If we are seeing this kind of pressure even after the housing disaster, what kind of pressure was at work, say, in 2005?

Via Mark Calabria, who has more

Update: Flashback

"In 1995, HUD announced a National Homeownership Strategy built upon the liberalization of underwriting standards nationally. It entered into a partnership with most of the private mortgage industry, announcing that "Lending institutions, secondary market investors, mortgage insurers, and other members of the partnership [including Countrywide] should work collaboratively to reduce homebuyer downpayment requirements."

The upshot? In 1990, one in 200 home purchase loans (all government insured) had a down payment of less than or equal to 3%. By 2006 an estimated 30% of all home buyers put no money down.

"The financial crisis was triggered by a reckless departure from tried and true, common-sense loan underwriting practices," Sheila Bair, chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, noted this June. One needs to look no further than HUD's affordable housing policies for the source of this "reckless departure." If the mortgage finance industry hadn't been forced to abandon traditional underwriting standards on behalf of an affordable housing policy, the mortgage meltdown and taxpayer bailouts would not have occurred."

Trading Cribs

Brian Caplan compares his life with that of the richest of the Gilded Age:

I just returned from the Biltmore, America's largest home.  Built by George Vanderbilt between 1889 and 1895, the Biltmore is a symbol of how good the rich had it during the Gilded Age.  I'm sure that most of the other visitors would answer "very good indeed."

But how many would actually want to trade places with George?  Despite his massive library, organ, and so on, I submit that any modern with a laptop and an internet connection has a vastly better book and music collection than he did.  For all his riches, he didn't have air conditioning; he had to suffer through the North Carolina summers just like the poorest of us.  Vanderbilt did travel the world, but without the airplane, he had to do so at a snail's pace.

Perhaps most shockingly, he suffered "sudden death from complications following an appendectomy" at the age of 51.  (Here's the original NYT obituary).  Whatever your precise story about the cause of rising lifespans, it's safe to say that George's Bane wouldn't be fatal today.

I made this observation several years ago, though, though I went west coast railroad entrepreneur rather than east coast.  I showed pictures of a San Francisco mansion and a middle class home of a friend of mine in Seattle.

One house has hot and cold running water, central air conditioning, electricity and flush toilets.  The other does not.  One owner has a a computer, a high speed connection to the Internet, a DVD player with a movie collection, and several television sets.  The other has none of these things.  One owner has a refrigerator, a vacuum cleaner, a toaster oven, an iPod, an alarm clock that plays music in the morning, a coffee maker, and a decent car.  The other has none of these.  One owner has ice cubes for his lemonade, while the other has to drink his warm in the summer time.  One owner can pick up the telephone and do business with anyone in the world, while the other had to travel by train and ship for days (or weeks) to conduct business in real time.

I think most of you have guessed by now that the homeowner with all the wonderful products of wealth, from cars to stereo systems, lives on the right (the former home of a friend of mine in the Seattle area).  The home on the left was owned by Mark Hopkins, railroad millionaire and one of the most powerful men of his age in California.  Hopkins had a mansion with zillions of rooms and servants to cook and clean for him, but he never saw a movie, never listened to music except when it was live, never crossed the country in less than a week.  And while he could afford numerous servants around the house, Hopkins (like his business associates) tended to work 6 and 7 day weeks of 70 hours or more, in part due to the total lack of business productivity tools (telephone, computer, air travel, etc.) we take for granted.  Hopkins likely never read after dark by any light other than a flame.

If Mark Hopkins or any of his family contracted cancer, TB, polio, heart disease, or even appendicitis, they would probably die.  All the rage today is to moan about people's access to health care, but Hopkins had less access to health care than the poorest resident of East St. Louis.  Hopkins died at 64, an old man in an era where the average life span was in the early forties.  He saw at least one of his children die young, as most others of his age did.  In fact, Stanford University owes its founding to the early death (at 15) of the son of Leland Stanford, Hopkin's business partner and neighbor.  The richest men of his age had more than a ten times greater chance of seeing at least one of their kids die young than the poorest person in the US does today.

Hopkin's mansion pictured above was eventually consumed in the fires of 1906, in large part because San Francisco's infrastructure and emergency services were more backwards than those of many third world nations today.

Here is a man, Mark Hopkins, who was one of the richest and most envied men of his day.  He owned a mansion that would dwarf many hotels I have stayed in.  He had servants at his beck and call.  And I would not even consider trading lives or houses with him.  What we sometimes forget is that we are all infinitely more wealthy than even the richest of the "robber barons" of the 19th century.  We have longer lives, more leisure time, and more stuff to do in that time.   Not only is the sum of wealth not static, but it is expanding so fast that we can't even measure it.  Charts like those here measure the explosion of income, but still fall short in measuring things like leisure, life expectancy, and the explosion of possibilities we are all able to comprehend and grasp.

In the Backyard

A while back, we finally finished reworking our backyard, one of those 3 month projects that eventually threaten to be a multi-generational saga.  We turned our existing pool, with a bit of trickery, into a zero-edge thing, put a dark bottom in it and ended up with a nice effect.  I probably could have posted it upside down and no one would have been able to tell the difference.  The pool design creates a surface like glass.

The tree is an ironwood.  A lot of the more interesting plants will not grow in the desert, but an exception is the native ironwood tree.  We have three now and every one is a work of art.

Its All About the Science

From the WaPo

With United Nations climate negotiators facing an uphill battle to advance their goal of reducing emissions linked to global warming, it's no surprise that the woman steering the talks appealed to a Mayan goddess Monday.

Christiana Figueres, executive secretary of the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change, invoked the ancient jaguar goddess Ixchel in her opening statement to delegates gathered in Cancun, Mexico, noting that Ixchel was not only goddess of the moon, but also "the goddess of reason, creativity and weaving.

The Mayans used to also cut the hearts out of living human beings as sacrifices to their gods, an apt metaphor for what the assembled UN delegates want to do to development and the world economy.