Archive for July 2011

Why Libertarians Aren't just Republicans Who Smoke Pot

Because we also think this kind of intrusion by the state is offensive.

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee voted 19-10 for H.R. 1981, a data-retention bill that will require your ISP to spy on everything you do online and save records of it for 12 months. California Rep Zoe Lofgren, one of the Democrats who opposed the bill, called it a “data bank of every digital act by every American” that would “let us find out where every single American visited Web sites.”

It really pisses me off that the Republicans wrap themselves in the mantle of individual liberty when challenging Obama over insane spending levels, but then, simultaneously, do this kind of crap.

Ridiculing the Innocent

Sheriff Joe Arpaio has a web site where he encourages the public to poke fun at the ugliest or most odd-looking mug shots taken by his officers.  He has a mug shot of the day contest, where citizens can vote for their favorite.

What do all the people pictured in these photos have in common?  The are all innocent -- by definition, since they have not plead in any court or gone to trial.

Sorry, I know he has added the reminder that these folks are innocent on that page, but this kind of public shaming and ridicule for un-convicted arrestees (part and parcel with other favorites like the perp walk) are absolutely inappropriate for the police to engage in.  It is absurd to see our Sheriff running his only little TMZ.

(Yes, I know there are private sites that engage in this, as the photos are public information.  I have always wondered why arrest records are not confidential, but that is another post.  There is a big difference between a private entity engaging in such a behavior and a law enforcement officer doing so.)


Using Computer Models To Launder Certainty

For a while, I have criticized the practice both in climate and economics of using computer models to increase our apparent certainty about natural phenomenon.   We take shaky assumptions and guesstimates of certain constants and natural variables and plug them into computer models that produce projections with triple-decimal precision.   We then treat the output with a reverence that does not match the quality of the inputs.

I have had trouble explaining this sort of knowledge laundering and finding precisely the right words to explain it.  But this week I have been presented with an excellent example from climate science, courtesy of Roger Pielke, Sr.  This is an excerpt from a recent study trying to figure out if a high climate sensitivity to CO2 can be reconciled with the lack of ocean warming over the last 10 years (bold added).

“Observations of the sea water temperature show that the upper ocean has not warmed since 2003. This is remarkable as it is expected the ocean would store that the lion’s share of the extra heat retained by the Earth due to the increased concentrations of greenhouse gases. The observation that the upper 700 meter of the world ocean have not warmed for the last eight years gives rise to two fundamental questions:

  1. What is the probability that the upper ocean does not warm for eight years as greenhouse gas concentrations continue to rise?
  2. As the heat has not been not stored in the upper ocean over the last eight years, where did it go instead?

These question cannot be answered using observations alone, as the available time series are too short and the data not accurate enough. We therefore used climate model output generated in the ESSENCE project, a collaboration of KNMI and Utrecht University that generated 17 simulations of the climate with the ECHAM5/MPI-OM model to sample the natural variability of the climate system. When compared to the available observations, the model describes the ocean temperature rise and variability well.”

Pielke goes on to deconstruct the study, but just compare the two bolded statements.  First, that there is not sufficiently extensive and accurate observational data to test a hypothesis.  BUT, then we will create a model, and this model is validated against this same observational data.  Then the model is used to draw all kinds of conclusions about the problem being studied.

This is the clearest, simplest example of certainty laundering I have ever seen.  If there is not sufficient data to draw conclusions about how a system operates, then how can there be enough data to validate a computer model which, in code, just embodies a series of hypotheses about how a system operates?

A model is no different than a hypothesis embodied in code.   If I have a hypothesis that the average width of neckties in this year's Armani collection drives stock market prices, creating a computer program that predicts stock market prices falling as ties get thinner does nothing to increase my certainty of this hypothesis  (though it may be enough to get me media attention).  The model is merely a software implementation of my original hypothesis.  In fact, the model likely has to embody even more unproven assumptions than my hypothesis, because in addition to assuming a causal relationship, it also has to be programmed with specific values for this correlation.

This is not just a climate problem.  The White House studies on the effects of the stimulus were absolutely identical.  They had a hypothesis that government deficit spending would increase total economic activity.  After they spent the money, how did they claim success?  Did they measure changes to economic activity through observational data?  No, they had a model that was programmed with the hypothesis that government spending increased job creation, ran the model, and pulled a number out that said, surprise, the stimulus created millions of jobs (despite falling employment).  And the press reported it like it was a real number.

Restraint of Trade

Private actors are often accused of collusion to restrain trade and decrease competition, and certainly there are a number of examples of this in history.  However, all such private arrangements are usually doomed, in part because the incentive for certain parties to cheat are high in such arrangements.  And the parties to such agreements have no control over new or outside competitors entering the fray.

The only stable restraints of trade and competition are therefore enforced by the government, who can use police and prisons to enforce such rules.  That is why successful businesses who are tired of fighting off upstart competitors run to the government for help.

But the government does not like competition with its own services (e.g. Federal bans on intracity mail delivery competition). Here is a good example:

"Drivers attending the Indiana State Fair or a major sporting event downtown may sometimes opt to grab a parking spot in someone's yard rather than pay higher prices in a parking lot, but some city officials think people who provide parking spots should get a permit first. City leaders are proposing that residents pay a $75 fee (per event) if they want to turn their yards into parking lots."

Does anyone think there is a burning safety issue here?  The goal is to kill competition with publicly operated parking garages.  My guess is that someone figured out the average revenue of a private home offering front lawn parking, added $5, and made that the registration fee.

Only in Washington

Only government workers could consider this proposed spending profile to be a "cut".  Below is Boehner's discretionary spending plan (numbers exclude programmed spending such as entitlements).

This reminds me of my Forbes column a while back comparing the Federal budgeting process with that of a private enterprise.

Environmental Animism

This is from an environmental writer who criticises climate skeptics as being anti-science:

I can't be the only one who thinks about how strange cancer is: It seems sometimes like a giant "dislike" button the heavens push when humans engage in behaviors we weren't built for, even seemingly natural things like sun-bathing — until you remember that Northern Europeans didn't, evolutionarily speaking, have a lot of sun to deal with.

This notion that somehow cancer is a punishment from Gaia for our high-technology and lifestyle choices and eating habits actually seems pretty prevalent among environmentalists.

The author, in reporting on some really interesting research about cancer as an independent parasitic lifeform rather than a disease, makes this statement:

The new view depicts cancer as a new species — one for whom our unhealthy lifestyles are a growth market. Humanity's radical manipulations of nature can create just this sort of unexpected power vacuum.

The first nine words of this graf do accurately reflect the gist of the article he is linking.  The rest is pure fantasy and supposition, his own biases applied to his reporting.  He pretends it came from the study, but of course no such thing can be found in the source.  But we don't need any proof, because we know that cancer and parasites and all other unhealthy things only began with the incorporation of Dupont. Thank God the black death did not come along today, or I am sure it would be blamed on Exxon.

PS- by the way, interestingly enough, there is a school of thought that the black death was made far worse by climate change, in this case global cooling and the end of the Medieval warm period.  In the 1330's, the end of the warm period brought wet and cold weather which killed crops and caused great famines, which may have weakened the population for the black death a decade later.

It is really, really funny sitting in on a Medieval history course and having the professor have to say things like, "I know this is not what you hear in the news, but in the Middle Ages, warmth brought prosperity and cold brought death."

I Would Have To Be Pretty Hungry To Hit This Vending Machine

Seen recently in an airport, but unfortunately I have been to so many I can't remember which one.  Sacramento, maybe?

Why Would Anyone Start a Business in San Francisco?

Via Protein Wisdom:

A legislative proposal in San Francisco seeks to make ex-cons and felons a protected class, along with existing categories of residents like African-Americans, people with disabilities and pregnant women. If passed by city supervisors, landlords and employers would be prohibited from asking applicants about their criminal past. [...]According to The City’s Human Rights Commission, San Francisco has the highest recidivism rate of any big city in California, almost 80 percent. With an influx of new prisoners set to be released because of the state’s budget crisis, supporters argue felons need legal protections before they’re disqualified simply because of their record, which could be decades old and for crimes that have nothing to do with the job they’re hoping to get.

Do you really want to open your customer contact business in a location where you cannot background check employees, or are not legally allowed to fire them if you find some horrible criminal history?  Can you imagine the lawsuits flying?  And don't tell me that the company would be safe in a courtroom arguing that it was illegal to check.  I could easily see a California jury holding a company liable for not background checking an employee for an incident even when it was illegal to do so.


The $529 Million Family Car

Ray Lane of Kleiner Perkins has helped score hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money from the Obama administration to help subsidize Kleiner investments.  More corporate welfare for billionaires.

It is a nice touch, therefore, that the first tangible result of these sizable public subsidies will be... a new family car for Ray Lane (the car is from Fisker Automotive, a Kleiner investment and recipient of $529 million in taxpayer subsidies.  It appears to be a cool car, but an iPhone is a cool piece of tech too but you don't see me advocating taxpayer money for Apple.

Who is the Tax Evader?

Kevin Drum, referencing an article by Christopher Caldwell, says

What is's biggest advantage over its competition? One-click ordering? The ability to go shopping in your pajamas? Its enormous selection? Those all play a role, but Christopher Caldwell thinks the real answer is the fact that Amazon's customers mostly don't have to pay state sales tax...

The latest state to insist that Amazon collect state sales taxes is California. Amazon's response? As in Illinois, they summarily severed the contracts of every one of its affiliates in the Golden State. But that's not all. Like mafia goons going to the mattresses in a gang war, Amazon immediately announced that it would spend millions of dollars to place a referendum on the ballot to nullify the new California law. And in the meantime? Law or no law, they won't be collecting sales tax in California, and that's that.

Amazon customers do have to pay sales taxes, or the substitute in states called a use tax.  So the wording in the post in technically incorrect.  The correct statement is that Amazon does not have to collect the taxes as an agent of the state.

Both Mr. Drum and Mr. Caldwell are likely required by their state to report out of state purchases from online suppliers and pay taxes on these purchases.  Most people don't do it, and I would bet that both Drum and Caldwell do not.  If I am wrong, Mr. Drum is welcome to post a copy of his return.  Otherwise, he and Caldwell are the ones illegally evading taxes, not Amazon.

Clarification: I personally couldn't give a rip about these gentlemen evading taxes the government chooses not to enforce.  Join the ranks of tax protesters, guys!  The point of the post is hypocrisy.

Manufacturing News to Fit the Narrative

OK, so the Eastern narrative on Arizona is that it is full of a bunch of wacked-out xenophobic conservatives.  And sure, we have our share.  But the NY Times delves into an issue that, living here, I had never even heard of

The massive dust storms that swept through central Arizona this month have stirred up not just clouds of sand but a debate over what to call them.

The blinding waves of brown particles, the most recent of which hit Phoenix on Monday, are caused by thunderstorms that emit gusts of wind, roiling the desert landscape. Use of the term “haboob,” which is what such storms have long been called in the Middle East, has rubbed some Arizona residents the wrong way.

“I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob,” Don Yonts, a resident of Gilbert, Ariz., wrote to The Arizona Republic after a particularly fierce, mile-high dust storm swept through the state on July 5. “How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”

Presumably Yonts also uses some numeric system other than arabic numerals for his math as well.  Seriously, I could mine any community and find some wacko with some crazy idea.  Good journalists are supposed to have some kind of filter on these things to determine if they really are some pressing regional issue.  I live here and I have not heard one word about any such controversy.  But it fits the NY Times caricature of AZ, so they ran with it.

In fact, I think "haboob" has caught on pretty fast because it is a fun sounding name and it is something that is unique to AZ vs. other states.    After living on the Gulf Coast and in tornado alley and on the west coast, it is kind of nice to live in a place where the worst natural disaster you get is a dust tsunami that makes you have to go out and wash your car.

Federal Debt Visualized

From a bunch of emailers, this is a fun set of graphics.

To Think I Used to be a Law and Order Conservative

It is absolutely frightening that the state arms and empowers officers like this.

Don't Feed the Bears

Running campgrounds, this is the hardest thing we still have to teach people.  Do not feed the wildlife -- you are killing them.  Example from Yellowstone:

On Wednesday, Montana biologists euthanized a female grizzly that had taken to eating human food in the West Yellowstone area, frustrating a state bear expert with campers' failure to secure their food, reports The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

"It is always frustrating to have to make this type of decision and remove a bear for things that could have been basically prevented by people," Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks bear specialist Kevin Frey said on Thursday.


Another Private-Public Contrast

This article on the FDA's propose to regulate medical-related iPhone apps got me thinking.   These bureaucrats are really like marketers in a company.  They are constantly coming up with growth ideas, though in the case of regulators it is ideas to growth the size and scope of their power, rather than sales, but the thought process is probably about the same.

Most new product ideas that come out of these brainstorming sessions in the private industry are a failure - they die in the conference room, or later in funding, or maybe later in the marketplace.  A few survive.  But at the end of the day, what matters is not how much the person who came up with the idea wants it to happen, it is whether the idea proves to be of value to the public.

Unfortunately, there is no such check on the regulatory sphere.  They come up with an idea to expand power, and they just run with it and make it happen.  In fact, general public opposition is generally interpreted by these folks as proof of concept - ie if people are against the new regulations, they must REALLY be necessary.

We would be better off if regulatory ideas were adopted at roughly the same rate that new products ideas are successful.

The Debt Limit: America's Hostage Crisis

My column in Forbes is up.  Here is how it starts.  Hit the link to see it all.

We Americans are all being held hostage.  The ransom demand:  Trillions of dollars in new taxes.  The threat:  the shut down of any number of economic activities, from retirement payments to mortgage lending.

Megan McArdle, blogging at the Atlantic Monthly, posted a hypothetical list of what government activities would have to cease if we bumped up against the debt ceiling and 40% of government activity (ie the amount currently funded by deficit spending) had to cease immediately. Here are two examples from her article:

The market for guaranteed student loans plunges into chaos. Hope your kid wasn’t going to college this year!

The mortgage market evaporates. Hope you didn’t need to buy or sell a house!

Terrorists have tried for years to find some way to threaten the whole of America and have, with the exception of 9/11, never really succeeded.  Who knew that all they really needed was not to buy guns and bombs, but to get elected to Congress.   How did we ever get in this position, where a handful of men and women in Washington had the power to hold the entire economy hostage?


I'm On Board With This

Via SB7

The US Federal expenditures for 2007 were a total of $2.8 trillion. The US Federal expenditures for 2010 were $3.55 trillion. This is a more than 25% increase. Where has all of this increased spending gone, and why are the programs it went to fund so critical that cutting them is not a serious option? It's not like 2007 was the dark day of anarchy, lawlessness, and starving seniors. Originally the increase was 'stimulus spending' of various kinds, but it seems to have morphed from 'temporary increase' into 'permanent budget baseline,' and any talk of serious cutting is treated as beyond the pale by the media and the Democrats alike.

I'm of the opinion that going back to the 2007 budget (adjusted to account for population growth) should be a viable option, and would save something like $5-6 trillion over 10 years. It sounds (to me) both simple and feasible. What am I missing?"

Wilhelm Scream

This is something my son pointed me to a while back. Many, many movies use the same scream.  It sort of has become an in joke by movie makers.  Watch the video, you have heard it a zillion times but may not know it.
IMDB has a list of 225 movies and games with the scream. As you can tell from the video above, Lucas puts it in nearly every one of his movies. And it is not surprising to see Tarantino on this list -- his movies are like movie trivia contests with all the inside jokes and references and homages to other films.

Someone Must Have Been Reading My Blog

On July 8 I showed a series of job growth charts showing that the recovery in private employment virtually ceased almost on the exact same day Obamacare passed.

Via Q&O, Heritage has done a similar analysis, and come to a similar observation, though with much nicer and more professional graphics than I had.

Correlation is not causation, but in fact we have a lot of independent evidence (including my own experience) that many small and middle sized companies have changed their hiring plans based on costs and uncertainties of Obamacare.

Sorry, I Forgot What Century We Lived In

From the Jerusalem Post via Radley Balko

When the severed head of a wolf wrapped in women's lingerie turned up near the city of Tabouk in northern Saudi Arabia this week, authorities knew they had another case of witchcraft on their hands, a capital offence in the ultra-conservative desert kingdom.

Agents of the country’s Anti-Witchcraft Unit were quickly dispatched and set about trying to break the spell that used the beast’s head.

Saudi Arabia takes witchcraft so seriously that it has banned the Harry Potter series by British writer J.K. Rowling, rife with tales of sorcery and magic. It set up the Anti-Witchcraft Unit in May 2009 and placed it under the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPV), Saudi Arabia's religious police.

"In accordance with our Islamic tradition we believe that magic really exists," Abdullah Jaber, a political cartoonist at the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, told The Media Line. "The fact that an official body, subordinate to the Saudi Ministry of Interior, has a unit to combat sorcery proves that the government recognizes this, like Muslims worldwide."

Actually, we have something similar here, we just call it "climate change" instead of witchcraft.

Today in History: One of History's Great Botched Lines

Today in history, Neal Armstrong botched his lines in front of an audience of a billion people.  The line was supposed to be "One small step for A man, one giant leap for mankind."  Makes a lot more sense that way, but to most ears he dropped the A in front of "man" and ask any school kid to recite it, and they will usually say it without the A.  I'll cut the guy some slack, he did everything else pretty well and he had a few distractions.

32 Years Ago Today

If you can see what's on the screen, you can see this was from 32 years ago (as of tomorrow).  My sister and I, in Florida on vacation, watching the moon walk.

If You Are Buying All Your Games at Toys R Us, You Are Missing Out

For some reason I do not fully understand, there are two worlds of gaming - the Wal-Mart/Target/Toys R Us world of Monopoly and Risk, and the geeky world of strategic gaming.

It used to be that the strategic gaming world was just too complicated and arcane for prime time.  I once spent a whole summer playing through a game called "War in Europe" from SPI.  It had a 42-square foot map of Europe, thousands and thousands of counters, hundreds of pages of instructions, and simulated WWII in weekly turns.

However, there is now a whole slew of games in the strategic arena, mostly from Europe, that are very accessible.   A number are not much harder to learn than Risk but are more fun and play a lot faster.  Unfortunately, few of these have migrated to mainstream stores, so you may be missing them.  Here are a few my family plays that are excellent places to start.  I have put them in approximate order of complexity, from low to high.

[By the way, don't have a family or friends?  Your in luck!  At least 3 of the games below have very high quality iPad game apps with good to very good AI competitors]

  1. Ticket to Ride. Very easy to learn.  Even visiting kids get the idea immediately.  This is a railroad line building game.  Start with the original North American version, it is the least complicated.  Also, if you have an iPad, there is a very good game app port of this game.
  2. Small World. This is an absolute freaking classic. Totally fun, pretty easy to learn, fast to play.  Sort of a wargame ala Risk but it doesn't feel like Risk.  Very repayable because the army or race (e.g. dwarves, elves, giants, etc) you play changes each game as special powers are mixed and matched.  As important to taking territories will be recognizing when your race has become senescent and when it is time to start a new race.  If you have an iPad, there is an awesome Small World game app I heartily recommend.
  3. 7 Wonders. A new game that has quickly become a favorite.    This game is typical of many modern strategy games -- there are many ways to score and you only have a limited number of actions, so the trick is figuring out your priorities.  The play rules of this game are dead simple.  The complicated part is deciding what action to take among many alternatives, since the scoring is complicated.  Here is my advice on this game and for many of these games that follow.  Just play the game once.   This is what my kids and I did with 7 Wonders.  They yelled at me at scoring time that they hadn't understood that such and such scored so well or poorly, but they understood it better with one play-through than by any number of times parsing the rules.  This is our current favorite.  Interesting dynamic here as after each card play, everyone passes his or her whole hand to their neighbor.
  4. Dominion.  Similar to 7 Wonders in that it is a card game building to victory points.  There is a constant tradeoff of getting victory points now or building up "infrastructure" that will allow more scoring later.  It is more complex than 7 wonders as it has even more options and paths.  I play it with my family but both this and the next game fall out of what are typically called "family" games.
  5. Race for the Galaxy.  Again, similar to 7 Wonders and Dominion, just more complicated.  A planet development game.

Here are some other family accessible games I can't recommend as much

  1. Settlers of Catan. This is a popular strategy classic, and is simple to learn.  My kids think its kind of meh.  It has a diplomacy negotiating element that does not seem to work well in my family for games
  2. Cargo Noir. I have only played this once, so I can't say how it wears.  My kids liked it better than I did.  It is easy to learn, but I thought the strategic options were a bit thin.
  3. Carcasonne.  There are very few games I don't care for, but I have tried this game several times and it just does not click for me.  But it is wildly popular, so what do I know?  A game where you add tiles of roads and cities to try to score based one where you have put your mini people (meeple in euro-game speak).   There is a high quality port of this game on iPad.

Here are some games I really love but are not appropriate for the entry level family

  1. Twilight Struggle - replay the cold war.  My son and I played this and it was awesome, but it took some time to learn and was pretty wonky.
  2. Agricola - one of the reigning kings of hard-core Euro-style strategy games, this game is fairly complicated to learn (not helped by instructions that really need a re-write) and very complicated to master.   The concept -- trying to keep a medieval family alive - bored the hell out of my kids but it is similar to many of the games above in that there are far more ways to score than one can pursue in a turn, and it has a very strong element of balancing immediate returns against investments in the future.   I have never played Puerto Rico but my sense it is in a similar genre.

The Boardgame Geek website is a great place to learn about these games (I have just listed a few of the most popular of literally thousands of games).  Their ranking of top family games is here.  To give you an idea, Monopoly is rates #781 in family games and #7148 overall by their readers (though there is some geek snob factor in this, it really is not a very good game), so you probably have some good games to discover.

PS- Most all of these are on Amazon.

Your Government at Work

Brilliant!  Selling dollar coins for 95-cents.  Maybe they will make it up on volume.

If Politicians Want to Pick Winners, They Can Go Be Venture Capitalists