Archive for November 2011

Apple Newsstand is a Mess

I have written before that despite being a PC guy, the iPod 2 is probably the greatest piece of gear of I have ever owned.  I take it with me everywhere.

However, the newsstand is a half-baked mess, and is so bad I can't believe they saw fit to release it in this form.  The navigation is totally non-intuitive.  I am never clear if I am going to go to the store or my list of downloaded magazines when clicking on a link.  The library seems to forget that I own certain issues, and because of the choices Apple made, trying to Kluge the thing into its apps store interface, every magazine is really its own app and the Newstand is actually nothing much more than a folder holding all the apps.  This means that the interface changes radically from magazine to magazine.  In half the magazines, I still have not been able to figure out how to navigate from inside a single issue back to the overall issue list.  And don't look for an integrated issue list across all magazines - there is none.  You have to go into every single magazine app to see what issues are available in that particular product.

Worse, the subscription system does not seem to work for many of the magazines.  I have subscribed to magazines, but that fact  is not always obvious in the interface.  And in many cases, the magazines I get to download seem to have little relationship to whether I subscribed.  For example, I subscribed to PC Gamer but am not offered any of the newest issues to download -- they show up as requiring a full price purchase.

There are other bizarre touches as well.  The newstand has a little red "2" icon in the corner, which in the apps store means there are two apps that have updates.   But I can't figure which of my magazines needs updating -- there is no icon on the individual magazines hinting they need updating somehow, and there is no "update all" button or even a button to see a list of updates available as there is in the app store.  Yes, I know the new issues are theoretically supposed to download automatically.  The NYT does.  A number of magazines don't, and I have had to go into the store and click on them to get them to download.

Finally, looking at my iphone, which should have a mirror of all the magazines I have bought on the ipad (same apple account), only about half the magazines show up.

This is just a big, big disappointing mess, all the more so because the iPad feels like the perfect device to read magazines.  I can only guess this was all driven by a desire to reuse the existing apps micro-payments infrastructure, but the result is very un-Apple.  The only reason one tolerates Apple's closed ecosystem and resulting loss of options and flexibility is because it yields predictability, particularly in the interface.  Apple has thrown that all away with Newsstand and I can't believe their user community is going to tolerate it.

Update:  I just googled the Newsstand and I get pages and pages of positive reviews.  This absolutely has to be Apple fan-boy crap.  Really, the Newsstand interface is really awful.

Update#2:  The NYTimes apps seems to work beautifully, but most of the magazines have weird interfaces.  Again, Apple does not seem to have imposed a single interface structure on magazine app developers, so they all have their own.

My Questions for Chu

1.  Accepting for a moment that the purpose of the loan program under which Solyndra received its money was truly reduction of CO2 output and fossil fuel use, what is the metric the DOE uses to score these investments against these goals (e.g. tons of CO2 output avoided over the next 10 years per dollar of government investment).

2.  How did Solyndra and other companies that were accepted for the program score on your metric?  How did companies that were turned down score?

Of course there was no such analysis -- the government appears to have invested in whatever companies raised the most money for Obama or got Joe Biden's heart palpitating or both.  Even if one pulls the obvious politics out of it, it appears they invested in stories they found appealing, the same mistake many novice investors make.

The Left works hard to wrap itself in the mantle of science, and Republicans just let them do so.  If Chu wanted to take the high ground of  trying to do the right thing for US energy policy, questioners should have taken him at his word and challenged how well his internal process matched his bold words.   Politicians are too obsessed with finding some crime or smoking gun.  The underlying failure is that the loan process does not, never will, and in fact cannot match the stated ideals and goals of the program.

Huh? Is This Like the Lake Wobegon Effect?

This article at Kevin Drum's titled "The Death of Middle Class Neighborhoods" really had me scratching my head.

At first I thought this was about an end to self-segregation of the middle class.  After all, if middle class neighborhoods are gone, but middle class people are still living somewhere, then they must be living mixed up with other groups.

But then Drum says the problem is the increasing self-segregation of the middle class.  Huh?  How can they be self-segregating more but we end up with fewer all middle class neighborhoods?

But then the problem appears to be that the middle class want to hang out with the rich people.    Um, OK, I don't find this wildly surprising, though the evidence he cites for this is awful, the typical low standard of science practiced by sociologists everywhere.  But Drum himself admits he self-segregates with more educated people, so there you have your proof.

Finally, as usually is the case with the Left, the problem turns out to be not with the middle class at all but with rich people

We've been fretting for a long time about the rise of gated communities, the abandonment of public schools by prosperous city residents, and the booming market in McMansions. And more and more, this kind of segregation doesn't apply only to the truly rich. Increasingly, even the merely well off hardly have any social interaction outside their own class: they live in different neighborhoods, eat in different restaurants, send their kids to different schools and different sports leagues, and vacation in different places.

Really?  Like you had a much better chance as a poor person to be hanging out with Andrew Carnegie at the pub than you do today chilling with Bill Gates at a Starbucks?  When was this magic past time when the affluent liked to mix more with the unwashed?  I hate to just use my personal observations, but Drum does, so here is mine:  I feel like many of our meeting places today are less rather than more exclusive.  I know a lot of very rich folks, and they simply don't cloister themselves in exclusive clubs and stores like they used to -- I am not at all surprised to see them in the Costco or at the public golf course.

I can be persuaded to accept schools as an exception to this, but this hardly does much to help Drum's argument as the government school system has been run (and run into the ground) by his fellow progressives for decades.  It says a lot about private vs. public solutions that Costco has found a way to appeal equally to rich and poor but the public schools have not.

Update:  From the NYT article on the underlying study, note the problem on these maps- the urban boundary in the study is static, so as the city expands, more of the metro area is outside the bounds of the study area.  What group likely is the predominent occupant of new suburbs on the leading edge of urban boundaries?  Dare I say middle class?

The central core of older American cities has always been where the richest and poorest live.You can see this on the Philadelphia maps.  The pattern is not changing, just each area is getting larger.  A full picture would show the middle class area expanding out as well, but the study cuts off the boundary at arbitrary country lines and never expands the boundary as the city's geographic size grows.  The "trend" they are supposedly seeing are middle class continuing to move outwards from the city center, and their flawed study methodology  loses visibility to them.  This makes more sense than the study's finding, that somehow there is this weird lake Wobegon-type effect where no one is in the middle band of the percentile range.


Holly Fretwell of PERC discusses the huge leap in agricultural yields since WWII

Not only does this mean that we have have billions of people on Earth and not starve, but it also has freed up labor for more productive and value-enhancing activities.

As an aside, remember this chart when global warming alarmists argue the the warming trend of the last 50 years is reducing crop yields.  (If the linked article seems simply bizarre given the chart above, realize the NYT is saying that crop yields are down from what they might have been.  This is the same kind of faulty logic that was used by Obama to credit his stimulus with job gains when in fact the economy was losing jobs.  They posit some unproveable hypothetical, and then say reality diverged from that hypothetical because of whatever factor they are trying to push, whether it be CO2 or stimulus).

The problem with food prices is not production, its the fact that we take such a huge percentage of our food grains and, by government dictat, convert them to automotive fuel.

Attorney Fail

I'm not really going to comment on the Jerry Sandusky pedophile cases.  The evidence looks pretty damning at this point but I'll let it play out in the courts.

But guilty or innocent, how could his attorney possibly have let him do a TV interview with Bob Costas the other day?  The interview has spurred new victims to come forward.

But beyond that, given that he insisted on going on TV (I suppose clients can ignore good advice), how could his attorney have allowed him to be so unprepared?  I did not watch the interview (I am not big on these select legal cases we like to try in the press), but I heard excerpts on ESPN.  The guy was not prepared to answer the simple and obvious question "are you a pedophile."  He hemmed and hawed and babbled and kindof said yes and no.  It was the worst, dumbest interview by an alleged criminal I have ever seen, and if you ever wonder why folks facing criminal or civil charges never jump into the media fray to defend themselves, go watch this interview.

Stupid Math Tricks

James Hansen, head of NASA's GISS and technical adviser on An Inconvenient Truth, wrote recently

Thus there is no need to equivocate about the summer heat waves in Texas in 2011 and Moscow in 2010, which exceeded 3σ – it is nearly certain that they would not have occurred in the absence of global warming. If global warming is not slowed from its current pace, by mid-century 3σ events will be the new norm and 5σ events will be common.

This statement alone should be enough for any thoughtful person who here-to-fore has bought in to global warming hysteria out of vague respect for "science" to question their beliefs.

First, he is basically arguing that a 3σ event proves (makes it "nearly certain") that some shift has occurred in the underlying process.  In particular, he is arguing that one single sample's value is due to a mean shift in the system.  I don't have a ton of experience in process control and quality, but my gut feel is that a 3σ event can be just that, a 3σ event.  One should expect a 3σ event to occur, on average, once in every 300 samples of a system with a normal distribution of outcomes.

Second, and a much bigger problem, is that Hansen is gaming the sampling process.  First, he is picking an isolated period.  Let's say, to be generous, that this 3σ event stretched over 3 months and was unprecedented in the last century.  But there are 400 3-month periods in the last hundred years.  So he is saying in these two locations there was a 3σ temperature excursion once out of 400 samples.  Uh, ok.  Pretty much what one would expect.

Or, if you don't like the historic approach, lets focus on just this year.  He treats Moscow and Texas like they are the only places being sampled, but in fact they are two of hundreds or even thousands of places on Earth.  Since he does not focus on any of the others, we can assume these are the only two that have so-called 3σ temperature events this summer.

It's hard to know how large to define "Texas"  (since the high temperatures did not cover the whole state) or "Moscow" (since clearly the high temperatures likely reached beyond the suburbs of just that city).

Let's say that the 3σ event occurred in a circular area 500km in diameter.  That is an area of 196,250 sq km each.  But the land surface area of the Earth (we will leave out the oceans for now since heat waves there don't tend to make the headlines) is about 150 million sq km.   This means that each of these areas represent about 1/764th of the land surface area of the Earth.  Or said another way, this summer there were 764 500km diameter land areas we could sample, and 2 had 3σ events.  Again, exactly as expected.

In other words, Hansen's that something unusual is going on in the system is that he found two 3σ events that happened once every 300 or 400 samples.  You feeling better about the science yet?

Luboš Motl has a more sophisticated discussion of the same statement, and gets into other issues with Hansen's statement.

Postscript:  One other issue -- the mean shift in temperatures over the last 30 years has been, at most, about 0.5C  (a small number compared to the Moscow temperature excursion from the norm).  Applying that new mean and the historic standard deviation, my guess is that the Moscow event would have still been a 2.5σ event.  So its not clear how an event that would have been unlikely even with global warming but slightly more unlikely without global warming tells us much of anything about changes in the underlying system, or how Hansen could possible assign blame for the even with near certainty to anthropogenic CO2.

Generally Freedom-Loving Australia Turned Totalitarian By Climate Alarmists

This is really sad to see in what is supposed to be a liberal democracy:

Now that the carbon tax has passed through [Australian] federal parliament, the government’s clean-up brigade is getting into the swing by trying to erase any dissent against the jobs-destroying legislation.

On cue comes the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, which this week issued warnings to businesses that they will face whopping fines of up to $1.1m if they blame the carbon tax for price rises.

It says it has been “directed by the Australian government to undertake a compliance and enforcement role in relation to claims made about the impact of a carbon price.”


There will be 23 carbon cops roaming the streets doing snap audits of businesses that “choose to link your price increases to a carbon price”.

Instead, the ACCC suggests you tell customers you’ve raised prices because “the overall cost of running (your) business has increased”.

Update:  Obama loves the Aussie carbon tax

Addressing the press in Australia, where legislators passed a carbon tax earlier this month, Obama praised Prime Minister Julia Gillard for pursuing “a bold strategy” to trim industrial emissions that most scientists say are contributing to global warming.

Well, It's Good to Have That Settled

Via Junk Science

In “Capitalism vs. the Climate“, [Naomi] Klein rants against “the deniers” but makes this admission:

The deniers did not decide that climate change is a left-wing conspiracy by uncovering some covert socialist plot. They arrived at this analysis by taking a hard look at what it would take to lower global emissions as drastically and as rapidly as climate science demands. They have concluded that this can be done only by radically reordering our economic and political systems in ways antithetical to their “free market” belief system. As British blogger and Heartland regular James Delingpole has pointed out, “Modern environmentalism successfully advances many of the causes dear to the left: redistribution of wealth, higher taxes, greater government intervention, regulation.” Heartland’s Bast puts it even more bluntly: For the left, “Climate change is the perfect thing…. It’s the reason why we should do everything [the left] wanted to do anyway.”

Here’s my inconvenient truth: they aren’t wrong. [Emphasis added]

A Small Victory

A small victory against the relentless march of the state regulators and licensors

Eyebrow threading to remove facial hair, a practice which has ancient roots in Eastern countries such as India and Iran, is gaining popularity around the country.

And threaders can now operate freely in the state without a cosmetology license after an October court settlement determined that the Arizona Board of Cosmetology would no longer regulate the trade.

The consent judgment resulted from a lawsuit filed in Maricopa County Superior Court by five threaders, including Gutierrez.

The threaders argued that the Board of Cosmetology was merely trying to help more traditional hair removal outfits remove a source of low-cost competition.  The threaders were represented by the IJ, who do great work for economic liberty

Least Surprising Statistic

via here, which has a lot of good data on California job losses.

If you have a service business, I can understand the desire to get access to the large and wealthy populations in these areas.  I even started a service operation in the LA area about 4 years ago, though I regret it intensely (other operations we have in rural CA are difficult but much easier than in LA).  But even so, why would anyone ever, ever start a manufacturing or any other business in these locations if it could be located anywhere else?

I was at a cocktail party the other night lamenting to a number of business owners (more successful folks than I) about problems I am having in CA.  Usually I get sympathy, but there was none to be had.  They looked at me like I was a moron, like I was the guy who went $30,000 in debt for a puppetry degree.  They said they had gotten out of CA years ago, would never go back, and (essentially) if I was stupid enough to be there, it was my own damn fault.

Unfortunately, a lot of the recreation is there, and for better or for worse, we have found that we are better and more efficient at dealing with a lot of the CA-induced mess than other companies.  But I often wonder if I am crazy to be there.

PS- as an example, it took us 4-1/2 years to get a permit for a 1000 gallon double wall gas tank at a marina in Ventura County.  We just got it approved last month, so at last we can stop hauling truckloads of 5-gallon fuel tanks from the gas station.  We are in the third year of trying to get permitting approval to replace (in kind, same size and features) a bathroom building in a campground.

Update:  All the job gains are in industries, like health care and construction, where the jobs have to be near the population served.  Compare that to manufacturing and tech.

The Diamond Age

This is pretty cool

NeverWet Fabrics from Ross Nanotechnology on Vimeo.

Note sure why the video just went private. Check out their web site here: See the second video on the video page, never wet on shoes.

Outsourcing the HR Department

I thought this was an interesting hypothesis, that the inability of coporations to use aptitude tests on potential hires (something that has been effectively killed by civil rights suits) has led to the increased reliance on college credentials as a screening mechanism.

I think there is an element of truth to this, but I suspect this would have happened anyway as the presure to cut costs caused companies to push their candidate evaluation and screening onto other institutions.  As I wrote a while back

There is some rationality in this approach [to hiring mainly from the Ivies] – it is not all mindless snobbism.   Take Princeton.  It screens something like 25,000 already exceptional applicants down to just 1500, and then further carefully monitors their performance through intensive contact over a four year period.  This is WAY more work and resources than a private firm could ever apply to the hiring process.  In effect, by limiting their hiring to just a few top schools, they are outsourcing a lot of their performance evaluation work to those schools.

I don't know if these percentages are entirely correct - I would argue the education / skills component of my mechanical engineering degree was higher than 10%, but that may be just my personal bias - but the basic approach seems sound

Peter Thiel describes higher education as a "giant selection mechanism" and estimates that only 10% of the value of a college degree comes from actual learning, and 50% of the value comes from selection (getting into a selective university) and 40% comes from signalling (graduating from a selective college becomes known to employers).  If employers could use intelligence tests instead of college degrees as measures of aptitude, it might be a lot more efficient and more cost-effective than the current practice of using very expensive four-year college degrees that add very little in terms of educational value (at least according to Thiel).

When Did We Vote For This?

Lost in the discussion of Dan Carol's criticism of Steven Chu and his conduct in the Energy Department was an amazing implicit assumption about the DOE's mission:

“Secretary Chu is a wonderful and brilliant man, but he is not perfect for the other critical DOE mission: deploying existing technologies at scale and creating jobs,”

Seriously, is this really their mission?

They Would Have Failed Anyway

This Newsweek article reviews the amazing coincidence that so many Obama DOE loans and subsidies benefited heavy-duty Obama campaign supporters.  The author seems surprised:

...these were highly competitive grant and loan programs—not usually a hallmark of cronyism. Often fewer than 10 percent of applicants were deemed worthy.

Nevertheless, a large proportion of the winners were companies with Obama-campaign connections. Indeed, at least 10 members of Obama’s finance committee and more than a dozen of his campaign bundlers were big winners in getting your money.

But his first sentence misses an important aspect.  Sure, competitive contracts for, say, building a bridge may not be fraught with cronyism.  If so, it is likely because these contracts have pretty clear decision criteria - ie we will take the lowest bid by anyone with minimum qualifications.

But the DOE loans were all to companies with sketchy prospects -- if they had actual profits or even a reasonable hope of profits, someone would have funded them privately.  So these are all wild longshots no one in the private sphere would touch.  Given that, what objective criteria can possibly exist?  And even if one can imagine such a criteria - e.g. least dollars invested per ton of Co2 mitigation - it is clear that no such criteria existed or were applied.  So of course it was going to be a crony-fest.

But my point is this - even without fraud or cronyism.  Even if every choice were made by the best and the brightest in a politically color-blind fashion, the program would still be failing.  Because by definition the program's success would require a few folks in Washington to be smarter than, and to have more and better information than, the entire rest of the country which turned down the opportunity to invest in these companies.

You Don't Get To Define The Value of Your Work

Kevin Drum writes that the lesson of OWS is that hard work no longer is enough to be succesful.  I wrote in the comments

I think you are leaving an important portion out of the value proposition kids are hearing.  Its not just "work hard and get an education and you will do well."  The actual proposition they think they are buying into is "work hard and get an education and work at whatever pleases you and you will do well."

I am reminded of Michelle Obama's plea to graduating college students to not go work in for-profit businesses, but to work for government or NGO's.  The problem is that workers, particularly young workers, don't get to define what is productive labor and what is not.  You can't go out in the world expecting to work really really hard at puppeteering or for the cause of Mayan feminism and necessarily expect to get paid a lot.  In any job, how much you make is determined by how valuable others see that work.

Particularly when you are 22, the work the world needs done and is valuable may very well not be what you want to do.  As you get older and more skilled, you often gain more possibilities of monetizing your true interests.  I was never really able to work at what I wanted until I was about 40.   That does not mean you can't do whatever the hell floats your boat when you are 22.  It just means don't expect the world to pay you whatever you want or need for doing it.

Petersburg: First Battle of WWI

For something like 9 months in the Civil War, the Union and Confederate armies engaged in a stalemated trench warfare that was a preview of the western front in WWI (a preview that no one learned from).  Only Grant's ability to keep flanking the Confederate line and stretching it out until Lee faced thinning his troops too much eventually broke the stalemate.

One interesting parallel with WWI-- the Union in the Civil War had miners dig tunnels under the Confederate lines and packed them with explosives.  When they blew, it created a great gap in the line and an opportunity for the Union, an opportunity that was lost when Union soldiers went racing into the crater rather than around it.  Trapped in the crater, they were slaughtered by the Confederates.  The mistake was apparently the result of a last minute change of plans.  A group of black soldiers was supposed to lead the attack and had been trained to not go into the hole, but they were replaced at the last minute with white soldiers who had not been similarly briefed.

Anyway, it is odd how history repeats itself.   In WWI, the British tried the same trick, blowing a huge hole in German lines and eventually making a little headway against the German army, though the advantage was, as so many such things were on the Western front, short-lived.

Italy Going Down the Drain. So Who Is Next?



Its amazing how many people can shake their heads in despair at the European debt crisis and then continue urging the US to do exactly the same things that got the Europeans into this mess.


I have tried to write this post several times but we are having some kind of Internet problem and I keep losing the post just before I get it finished.  Anyway, let's try again.

Yesterday my daughter was reading after school.  Like many freshman English classes, they are doing Greek mythology.  I was asking her questions about her day when she yelled at me, "dad, I have one more paragraph left in Sisyphus, just let me finish.  Every time you interrupt me I have to start over".  So of course I had to wait about ten seconds, just when I estimated she was about done, and I interrupted her again.  I kept doing this for a while, thinking it was simply hilariously apt.  Unfortunately, I don't think she

Most Unfortunately Yet Appropriately Named Book Ever

Touched: The Jerry Sandusky Story (I kid you not).

Some of the reviews are classic, though I am disappointed many of them are "please remove this book."  Why should we let this jerk hide?  The book up with its amazing irony and spate of scathing review comments is much better than being disappeared.

Yeah, I am Sure Everyone Else Is Linking This Video Today. Deal With It.

Outright Theft by Public Unions

Though it's a high bar given what has been going on recently, this is the most aggravating thing I have read this week, via Glen Reynolds:

Robert and Patricia Haynes live in Michigan with their two adult children, who have cerebral palsy. The state government provides the family with insurance through Medicaid, but also treats them as caregivers. For the SEIU, this makes them public employees and thus members of the union, which receives $30 out of the family's monthly Medicaid subsidy. The Michigan Quality Community Care Council (MQC3) deducts union dues on behalf of SEIU.

Michigan Department of Community Health Director Olga Dazzo explained the process in to her members of her staff.  "MQC3 basically runs the program for SEIU and passes the union dues from the state to the union," she wrote in an emailobtained by the Mackinac Center. Initiated in 2006 under then-Gov. Jennifer Granholm, D-Mich., the plan reportedly provides the SEIU with $6 million annually in union dues deducted from those Medicaid subsidies.

“We're not even home health care workers. We're just parents taking care of our kids,” Robert Haynes, a retired Detroit police officer, told the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. “Our daughter is 34 and our son is 30. They have cerebral palsy. They are basically like 6-month-olds in adult bodies. They need to be fed and they wear diapers. We could sure use that $30 a month that's being sent to the union.”

This is a microcosm of the typical liberal fail -- a group or agency does initial good work (private unions in the early 2oth century, civil rights groups in the 60's and 70's, the EPA in the early 70's) but refuse to go away and declare victory, instead morphing into self-sustaining parasites whose only concern is their own survival.

Movie Trailer for Academy Award Winner

This has been around a while but it is worth a repost as we approach Oscar film season.

The True Cost of the Education Bubble

I hinted at it in my last post, but have addressed it in more depth in my column this week at Forbes.  A brief excerpt:

The theme from all these failures is distorted signals and corrupted communication.  People, no matter how savvy, cannot possibly research every nook and cranny of the economy before making an investment.  They make decisions, therefore, based on signals – prices, interest rates, perceived risks, and the profit history of other similar investments.  If these signals are artificially altered or corrupted, bad decisions that destroy wealth and growth will result.

Which brings me back to education.    I will tell you something almost every business owner knows:  We business owners may whine from time to time that banks won’t lend us money, but what really is in short support are great people.  Nothing has more long-term impact on an economy than amount and types of skills that are sought by future workers.  That is why everyone accepts as a truism that education is critical to economic health.

Unfortunately, there is good evidence that our education policies have already done long-term harm.   The signals we send to kids making their higher education plans have disconnected them from reality in a number of fundamental ways, causing them to make bad decisions for themselves and the broader economy.

Examples follow.  Read it all.

Wage Stagnation in One Chart

My Brief Conversation with the Homeland Security Department This Morning

I got a call this morning from Homeland Security about their e-verify immigration tracking system (which we are required by law to use in Arizona).  The caller said that Homeland Security was interested in the satisfaction of their customers.  I told her that I am not her customer.  I am a subject of the state who is forced by law against my will to use their system.  A customer is someone who is in a voluntary relationship.

The call ended soon after that.  I supposed I have just asked for some sort of audit, but at this point I don't care.