Posts tagged ‘review’

The Guy Who Made the "Guardians of the Galaxy" Trailer Should Be Fired

After seeing the Guardians of the Galaxy trailer a while back, I thought the movie would suck.  The movie just looked stupid.  I had not intention of going to see it, until my son pointed out the high Rotten Tomatoes review scores.  I still hesitated, figuring the only people who had seen it and were reviewing it well were a select group of Comicon attendees or something similar.

But my son talked me into it and it was thoroughly enjoyable.  Sure, its still a comic book movie so its not winning any Oscars and there are a few plot holes (if everyone is looking for the movie's MacGuffin so hard, why was it so easy for the protagonist to find?).   And plenty of it is derivative (Rocket and Groot are Han and Chewy repackaged).  Some of the characters seemed to be tossed in out of nowhere (e.g. the Collector), but I never read the comic book and presume, since this is clearly the first in a series, that they are setting up future regular characters. But the visuals were good and the dialog had some wit and charm to it.   I loved how they worked the 70's music sound track into the story.  I had wondered if Chris Pratt could carry off the leading man role but I thought he did OK.   A very solid summer movie.

Postscript:  My four word review:  Zoe's Green This Time.

Obamacare Newly Insured Numbers Miss by at least 50% vs. Projections

With our new prosthetic memory, called the Internet, it should be easy to go back and look at past predictions and see how well those predictions played out.  Heck, sports talk radio hosts do it all the time, comparing their beginning of season predictions with what actually happened.  But no one ever seems to hold the government or politicians similarly accountable.

Here is one I found by accident.  In July of 2011, Kevin Drum quotes this prediction from the CMS (Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a government agency).

In 2014, the Affordable Care Act will greatly expand access to insurance coverage, mainly through Medicaid and new state health insurance exchanges which will facilitate the purchase of insurance. The result will be an estimated 22.9 million newly insured people.

In March of 2014 Kevin Drum quotes this from the LA Times

As the law's initial enrollment period closes, at least 9.5 million previously uninsured people have gained coverage. Some have done so through marketplaces created by the law, some through other private insurance and others through Medicaid, which has expanded under the law in about half the states.

The tally draws from a review of state and federal enrollment reports, surveys and interviews with insurance executives and government officials nationwide.

....Republican critics of the law have suggested that the cancellations last fall have led to a net reduction in coverage. That is not supported by survey data or insurance companies, many of which report they have retained the vast majority of their 2013 customers by renewing old policies, which is permitted in about half the states, or by moving customers to new plans.

This is presented as a great victory, but in fact it is nearly 60% below expectations of less than two years earlier.  We don't know the final number.  Drum, who should be expected to be on the optimistic end of projections, has upped his estimate to 11-13 million, but this is still barely half what was expected.   The disastrous Obamacare exchange rollout did one thing at least -- it hammered expectations so low that even a 50% miss is considered a great victory.

 

Another Plea to Global Warming Alarmists on the Phrase "Climate Denier"

Stop calling me and other skeptics "climate deniers".  No one denies that there is a climate.  It is a stupid phrase.

I am willing, even at the risk of the obvious parallel that is being drawn to the Holocaust deniers, to accept the "denier" label, but it has to be attached to a proposition I actually deny, or that can even be denied.

As help in doing so, here are a few reminders (these would also apply to many mainstream skeptics -- I am not an outlier)

  • I don't deny that climate changes over time -- who could?  So I am not a climate change denier
  • I don't deny that the Earth has warmed over the last century (something like 0.7C).  So I am not a global warming denier
  • I don't deny that man's CO2 has some incremental effect on warming, and perhaps climate change (in fact, man effects climate with many more of his activities other than just CO2 -- land use, with cities on the one hand and irrigated agriculture on the other, has measurable effects on the climate).  So I am not a man-made climate change or man-made global warming denier.

What I deny is the catastrophe -- the proposition that man-made global warming** will cause catastrophic climate changes whose adverse affects will outweigh both the benefits of warming as well as the costs of mitigation.  I believe that warming forecasts have been substantially exaggerated (in part due to positive feedback assumptions) and that tales of current climate change trends are greatly exaggerated and based more on noting individual outlier events and not through real data on trends (see hurricanes, for example).

Though it loses some of this nuance, I would probably accept "man-made climate catastrophe denier" as a title.

** Postscript -- as a reminder, there is absolutely no science that CO2 can change the climate except through the intermediate step of warming.   If you believe it is possible for CO2 to change the climate without there being warming (in the air, in the oceans, somewhere), then you have no right to call anyone else anti-science and you should go review your subject before you continue to embarrass yourself and your allies.

Krugman vs. Krugman 3 Days Earlier (A New Record For Self-Contradiction)

People like to compare what Krugman writes today in his political hack era with what he wrote in his real economist era.  But this time I do not have to look that far back.

On February 5 and On February 6, Krugman essentially agrees with the OMB review of Obamacare effects on employment, saying that the health care subsidies for lower-income workers would cause millions to work less by reducing the incentive to work, which he called "a good thing."  More here.

On February 9, Krugman returns to a theme he has been hitting on for some weeks now, calling the Republicans anti-science, mean-spririted, etc. for actually believing that unemployment benefits might reduce employment by reducing the incentive to work.  And here is what he wrote on the topic on December 8:

The view of most labor economists now is that unemployment benefits have only a modest negative effect on job search — and in today’s economy have no negative effect at all on overall employment. On the contrary, unemployment benefits help create jobs, and cutting those benefits would depress the economy as a whole.

Yes I understand the shape of the subsidy patterns with income are different, but good God man you cannot reasonably argue that the labor supply curve is sensitive to means-tested government subsidies for one program but not at all for another without a heroic analysis that I cannot imagine and Krugman has not supplied.

 

Our Business's Response to California $2 Minimum Wage Increase

Well, we have completed our response to minimum wage increases in California.   As a review, California is raising its minimum wage from $8 to $10 (or 25%)  in two steps starting this July 1.  I will confess that in some of these cases the causes are complex, and are not just due to minimum wage changes but also other creeping California regulatory issues (particularly the first two).

  • Suspended operation and closed on large campground in Ventura County that employed about 25 people
  • Suspended investment / expansion plans at two other campgrounds
  • Raised prices everywhere else, on average adding $3 to a $20 camping fee.   (this is inevitable when wages are increased 25% in a business where more than half the costs are tied to wages and margins are around 5%)

The only reason I take the time to write this is that I think this tends to demonstrate that 1) minimum wage increases can have a real economic impact and 2) just looking at job losses after the date the wage takes effect can miss most of this economic impact.

To this latter point, a lot of the impact is not necessarily job losses.  We see lost investment, which perhaps means fewer jobs in the future but there is no way to measure that.  We see price increases, which affects consumers and disposable income.  And we see some job losses, but note that the job losses were 6 months before the law goes into effect.

We are left with a certainty that the minimum wage had a real economic effect but a suspicion that, at least in this case, that effect would not be measured.

By the way, there may also be a lesson here for those who believe that the entire problem in the economy is one of not enough aggregate demand.  In the last month I walked away from a million dollars a year of demand, because it was impossible to serve profitably, in large part due to regulatory issues.

Huge Improvement for my Router with DD-WRT

I have found home routers to be hugely problematic.  Typically, they do OK at basic wired network routing functions, but they often have awful reliability in their wireless connections.  Go to any review site, and find their top-rated routers.  Then go to Newegg or Amazon and read the reviews for even these best devices -- you will see a litany of unreliability, particularly with the wireless functionality.

Some of this can be chalked up to interference issues, but I possess moderately sophisticated tools for ferreting this out.  A bigger problem for me is with routers that have to be reboot every 2-3 days to keep them working.  My most recent router I purchased had some software issue where mobile devices like iphones could not access Google.com and a few large sites through the wireless, a problem I eventually decided was due to some issue with handling sites that have dual ipv4 and ipv6 functionality (which I could never fix).  My Cisco E3000, otherwise a fairly solid modem, had an awful setup program whose first time settings for things like the guest network could never be altered.

So I finally in desperation burned dd-wrt onto my pile of unsatisfactory routers.  DD-WRT is a third-party, free, presumably open-source firmware that works with many commercial routers.  So far, all of my old routers now work great, and the prior problems I saw are all gone.  DD-WRT lacks the friendly automated setup routines of commercial firmware, and a few things are harder than I would wish them to be (it would be nice to have one-click reservation of an IP address to a device, rather than having to retype its MAC address).  But the defaults tend to work fine and it is a huge relief to come home from work and not have to immediatley help diagnose some family network issue.  I have been able to re-purpose one of the old routers into a bridge so I can get wireless in my backyard now.

If you have reliability problems with your router or home wireless, this might be something to try.  For certain routers, like my Cisco E3000, the process of flashing to DD-WRT is a bit complex. There are lots of web sites and ebay retailers who will sell you modems with dd-wrt already installed, and I think that Buffalo is actually selling a dd-wrt version of one of their routers.

KlearGear Sucks

I don't have a lot to add about this story.  A company called KlearGear trying to fine customers for writing a bad review about it (based on some BS prior restraint on criticism buried in their terms and conditions) and then hounding the customers' credit rating through debt collection agencies.  But I am all for the Streisand effect bringing karmic retribution to such folks, so here is my contribution to Google.

By the way, I found their current header warning to be odd:

notice-tues

Anyone ever heard of a "business hour" before?  Since most customers would not really freak at a 48 hour or 2-day order processing time, anyone want to bet that this means 6 business days (6x8 hours) or over a week, but is meant to fool folks into thinking only two days?  I would ask them directly but there is no way to send them an email without registering first as a customer.  Since by registering, I apparently cede my ability to ever criticize them, I won't be able to write them for clarification.

Our business gets mostly positive reviews, but we get bad ones from time to time.  Every bad review is both a pain in the butt (as they hang around forever on the Internet) but also an opportunity for me to learn and identify problems in the business.  On a couple of occasions I have identified personnel problems through online reviews that let me fix a real problem before something much worse happened.

Update:  The bottom of their home page says "As seen on ABC's Good Morning America".  Yup.  LOL

 

WOW! Incredible Contradiction in October Exchange "Enrollment" Report

I have not seen anyone notice this yet, but perhaps it is just because I have obsessed over the pathetically bad Commonwealth Fund survey whose findings were demolished by the numbers in the October report (here and here).  Well, it turns out, the October report actually proudly highlights the Commonwealth Funds report,  and quotes this line from the Commonwealth Fund in Appendix D:

Of those who have visited the Marketplace, 21 percent enrolled in a plan.

WTF are you doing including this survey finding in a report that essentially makes a laughing stock of this very finding?  Let's review what numbers we have in the October report:

  • From our chart here, the people covered by a "clicked" plan (sorry, but that is their circumlocution, not mine) were 106,185  (note this is generous because it is not actual enrollments, which will be less)
  • From the same chart, the people who were found eligible for Medicaid were 396, 261 (note this is generous as this is not actual enrollments, which will be less).
  • Finally, from the same source are total web visitors times 1.78  family members per visitor (to make our ratio apples to apples) of 47,840,217.  See here for further explanation of why this calculation is necessary

This gives us a percentage of web visitors of 1% that managed to do something kindof sortof close to enrollment.

This demonstrates just how insane the 21% figure is from the deeply flawed Commonwealth study.  So why in the hell is the Obama Administration quoting it as authoritative in their report?  Do they think anyone is dumb enough to use the 21% figure instead of the 1% figure?  Is this just providing ammunition to political hacks who want to spin the story in Obama's favor?  Did the Administration or possibly OFA actually pay for that study?

The only effect including that 21% number has on me is to say that Obama likely has a bigger problem -- If 21% of visitors THINK they enrolled and less than 1% actually did so, aren't a lot of people in for a rude shock?

Appeals to Authority

A reader sends me a story of global warming activist who clearly doesn't know even the most basic facts about global warming.  Since this article is about avoiding appeals to authority, so I hate to ask you to take my word for it, but it is simply impossible to immerse oneself in the science of global warming for any amount of time without being able to immediately rattle off the four major global temperature data bases (or at least one of them!)

I don't typically find it very compelling to knock a particular point of view just because one of its defenders is a moron, unless that defender has been set up as a quasi-official representative of that point of view (e.g. Al Gore).  After all, there are plenty of folks on my side of issues, including those who are voicing opinions skeptical of catastrophic global warming, who are making screwed up arguments.

However, I have found over time this to be an absolutely typical situation in the global warming advocacy world.  Every single time I have publicly debated this issue, I have understood the opposing argument, ie the argument for catastrophic global warming, better than my opponent.   In fact, I finally had to write a first chapter to my usual presentation.  In this preamble, I outline the case and evidence for manmade global warming so the audience could understand it before I then set out to refute it.

The problem is that the global warming alarm movement has come to rely very heavily on appeals to authority and ad hominem attacks in making their case.  What headlines do you see? 97% of scientists agree, the IPCC is 95% sure, etc.  These "studies", which Lord Monkton (with whom I often disagree but who can be very clever) calls "no better than a show of hands", dominate the news.  When have you ever seen a story in the media about the core issue of global warming, which is diagnosing whether positive feedbacks truly multiply small bits of manmade warming to catastrophic levels.  The answer is never.

Global warming advocates thus have failed to learn how to really argue the science of their theory.  In their echo chambers, they have all agreed that saying "the science is settled" over and over and then responding to criticism by saying "skeptics are just like tobacco lawyers and holocaust deniers and are paid off by oil companies" represents a sufficient argument.**  Which means that in an actual debate, they can be surprisingly easy to rip to pieces.  Which may be why most, taking Al Gore's lead, refuse to debate.

All of this is particularly ironic since it is the global warming alarmists who try to wrap themselves in the mantle of the defenders of science.  Ironic because the scientific revolution began only when men and women were willing to reject appeals to authority and try to understand things for themselves.

 

** Another very typical tactic:  They will present whole presentations without a single citation.   But make one statement in your rebuttal as a skeptic that is not backed with a named, peer-reviewed study, and they will call you out on it.  I remember in one presentation, I was presenting some material that was based on my own analysis.  "But this is not peer-reviewed" said one participant, implying that it should therefore be ignored.  I retorted that it was basic math, that the data sources were all cited, and they were my peers -- review it.  Use you brains.  Does it make sense?  Is there a flaw?  But they don't want to do that.  Increasingly, oddly, science is about having officially licensed scientists delivery findings to them on a platter.

Chutzpah of the Day

It is interesting that the buck just never stops at this President's desk.  Apparently, the reason for the delay in approval of the Keystone Pipeline is the Republicans.

The approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline has been delayed by Republicans playing “political games,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says.

Lew said that the economy is “strong” and more resilient after 40 months of growth but the economic recovery is not fast enough, which led Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” to ask whether approving the pipeline would help speed up job growth.

“If you’re so interested in creating more jobs, why not approve the Keystone pipeline, which will create tens of thousands of jobs?” Wallace asked of the pipeline under review.

“There were some political games that were played, that took it off the trail and path to completion, where Republicans put it out there as something that was put on a timetable that it could not be resolved. It caused a delay,” Lew said. “Playing political games with something like this was a mistake.”

 

Thoughts on Online Reviews, Suburban Express, and Dennis Toeppen

Apparently Dennis Toeppen likes to sue the customers of his bus company Suburban Express  (here, and previously here) with as many as 125 suits just this year in small claims court, many aimed at stifling customer criticism of the company.

This is just incredible to me.  Last year we served about 2 million customers in the parks we operate (I am guessing that is a few more than Mr. Toeppen serves).  Over the last 10 years we have served about 17 million customers.  Do you know how many I have sued?  Zero.  Do you know how many I considered suing even for a microsecond?  Zero.  Unless a customer is 6 months late on a payment that equals a measurable percentage of annual revenues, you don't sue your customers.

I know online reviews can be a mixed bag, and some people's mental state or unreasonable expectations simply do not allow them to be fair.  Get over it -- take your ego out of the equation.  For God sakes, Casablanca has 39 1-star reviews  (I always thought John Scalzi had a healthy way of dealing with this, publishing his one-star Amazon reviews on his blog from time to time.)

We get negative review from time to time.  The vast majority, while perhaps overwrought from what some might feel was a small slight, have a core of truth.  We treat all these reviews at face value, we try to track down the customers to find out more about their experience, we give out refunds and gift certificates, and then we fix things.  Our biggest problem is that we hire what seem to be perfectly normal people who turn out to be arrogant and overly-officious when dealing with customers.  This tends to come out in the form of an irritating predilection to over-enforce every trivial rule until customers' vacations are ruined.  In other words, they seem to act like Mr. Toeppen and his employees.  Negative customer comments are a treasure, as I can't be in every campground every minute of the day, and these comments are often the canary in the coal mine, letting me know we have an employee or process or training problem.

Yes, in a few circumstances we get flat out dishonest comments.  One ex-employee was so upset at being terminated that he posed as a customer, posting fake reviews about how we employed a sexual predator in some campground.  Several review sites we work with, knowing that I don't make a habit of trying to take down negative reviews, were willing to take this one down once explained.  The other sites that by policy do not take down reviews allowed me to post a comment under the review, wherein I explained the situation, and gave my office phone number and email for anyone to call if they had any concerns about the campground either before or after the visit.

Power Without Accountability Will Be Abused

President Obama argued that he should be trusted with the (in the US at least) nearly unprecedented power to order anyone he wants killed -- military or civilian, American or foreign-born -- sending a drone after them.  He claimed to have this really detailed and careful process -- heck, they even had a spreadsheet.

Most of us expressed skepticism, and several folks in the know have expressed fear that, as with most such powers, its use has been creeping from an extraordinary measure against uniquely qualified targets to an almost casual use against rank and file targets.  Turns out this fear was justified:

The CIA did not always know who it was targeting and killing in drone strikes in Pakistan over a 14-month period, an NBC News review of classified intelligence reports shows.

About one of every four of those killed by drones in Pakistan between Sept. 3, 2010, and Oct. 30, 2011, were classified as "other militants,” the documents detail. The “other militants” label was used when the CIA could not determine the affiliation of those killed, prompting questions about how the agency could conclude they were a threat to U.S. national security.

The uncertainty appears to arise from the use of so-called “signature” strikes to eliminate suspected terrorists -- picking targets based in part on their behavior and associates. A former White House official said the U.S. sometimes executes people based on “circumstantial evidence.”

Not sure this even requires further comment.

Apparently Obamacare is Better Because it Gouges Everyone

A number of people pointed out that the posted Obamacare rates in California are about twice what individuals are paying today at low-cost sites.  This was in response to a deceptive California press release that claimed they were much lower, but got this result only by comparing apples to oranges.

Rick Ungar has two responses, that seem to be the emerging talking points on the left:

  1. He found some bad Internet reviews of the low-cost source that Conservatives and libertarians used as a better point of comparison for Obamacare rates
  2. Some of the people had to pay up to 50% more than the published rates due to pre-existing conditions.

Avik Roy has a number of responses to Ungar (and Ezra Klein, who raises the same points as Ungar).  I would raise three points:

  1. Neither he nor Klein address the issue of the fundamental deceptiveness of the California press release.  I don't think anyone can defend comparing individual rates to business group rates as anything but apples to oranges.  If the Obamacare story is so great, why was the deceptiveness necessary?
  2. Everyone gets bad reviews on the Internet.  If one transaction out of a thousand goes bad, that one will write a negative review online and few of the satisfied will bother.  If sex were a product on Amazon.com, it would likely have some 1-star reviews.  That being said, it is amazing to me that government control is seen as the solution to customer service issues.  I could be wrong, but I would stack up the reviews of the worst health insurance company in America against the DMV and Post Office any day of the week.
  3. The published rates online are for the healthiest class of people.  I have never once had someone sell me health insurance and not make this clear.  Calling them teaser rates is a misnomer, particularly since, as Avik Roy notes, about 75% of the people who apply get these rates.  One in four have to pay 50% more today, so we are going to make 4 in 4 pay 100% more under Obamacare, and that is better?!?

To that last point, I will quote something I said years and years ago, long before Obamacare was passed:

The looming federal government takeover of health care as proposed by most of the major presidential candidates will be far worse than anything we have seen yet from government programs.  Take this example:  In the 1960's, the federal government embarked on massive housing projects for the poor.  In the end, most of these projects became squalid failures.

With the government housing fiasco, only the poor had to live in these awful facilities.  The rest of us had to pay for them, but could continue to live in our own private homes.

Government health care will be different.  Under most of the plans being proposed, we all are going to be forced to participate.  Using the previous analogy, we all are going to have to give up our current homes and go live in government housing, or least the health care equivalent of these projects.

Postscript:  Citizen Kane has over 100 1-star reviews.  Some are about the packaging or this particular version but many are about the movie.   The novel Gone with the Wind has dozens.

Postscript #2:  A sample Yelp review of a local USPS office

This place is the pits.

There are no supplies in any of the racks unless you want to send something Express Mail. All of the Priority Mail stuff is constantly gone and they don't have any more. Not that there's anyone to stock the racks even if they did.

People used to leave reviews complaining that there were "only two" workers. Those days are long gone--there is now ONE counter person at all times. That means if you get behind someone that has questions, or can't understand a customs form, or wants to argue about mail being held, you are just stuck.

Why not use the automated machine, you ask? Because its printer has been broken for two weeks and you can't actually print the postage that you might buy. Not that there's a sign telling you this--you have to spend a few minutes going through the process only to be told at the end that the transaction can't be completed because the printer isn't working.

I know they are making cuts because they are out of money, but it's a vicious cycle they'll never get out of because they've now effectively made it impossible to patronize the postal service.

Stay far, far away.

I would not be at all surprised if California banned online reviews of health care exchanges.  One department of the CA state government threatened to revoke all my contracts unless I took down a blog post simply linking to negative Yelp reviews of one of the department's facilities.

Spam Masquerading as Official, Important Mail: Paramount Merchant Funding

It's been a while since I have received a fake "check" whose cashing obligates me to a four year contract, or a deceptive yellow pages solicitation, or even my favorite, the board minutes services that masquerade as an official government form.  So I will highlight Paramount Merchant Funding for this over the top message on the front of their envelope they sent me, again in an apparent bid to masquerade as some sort of official mail that must be opened.

paramount-merchant-funding

The scam here is clever -- I don't have time to bother looking it up, but my guess is that this message is literally true - for all mail sent through the USPS.  But it is obviously meant to virtually force someone to open it thinking it is official, which I was dumb enough to do.

They seem to have a perfect 1-star review record over at Yelp, a fact I could have called in advance sight unseen.  They have more BBB complaints in the last year (5) than my company has in our whole history (0).

Never Miss A Good Opportunity to Shut Up

It strikes me that a service business model that relies on frequently suing your customers is not really sustainable.

My folks out in the field operating campground face far greater problems with customers than any of these petty complaints that Suburban Express is taking to court.  My folks have drunks in their face almost every weekend screaming obscenities at them.  We have people do crazy things to avoid paying small entry fees.  We get mostly positive reviews online but from time to time we inevitably get a negative review with which we disagree (e.g. from the aforementioned drunk who was ticked off we made him stop driving).

And you know how many of these folks we have taken to court in 10 years?  Zero.  Because unless your customer is reneging on some contractual obligation that amounts to a measurable percentage of your net worth, you don't take them to court.

Yes, it is satisfying from an ego perspective to contemplate taking action against some of them.  There are always "bad customers" who don't act in civilized and honorable ways.   But I  tell my folks that 1)  You are never going to teach a bad customer a lesson, because by definition these same folks totally lack self-awareness or else they would not have reached the age of fifty and still been such assholes.  And 2) you are just risking escalating the situation into something we don't want.  As did Suburban Express in the linked article.

The first thing one has to do in the customer service business is check one's ego at the door.  I have front-line employees that simply refuse to defuse things with customers (such as apologize for the customer's bad experience even if we were not reasonably the cause).  They will tell me that they refuse to apologize, that it was a "bad customer".   This is all ego.  I tell them, "you know what happens if you don't apologize and calm the customer down?  The customer calls me and I apologize, and probably give him a free night of camping to boot."  In the future, if this dispute goes public, no one is going to know how much of a jerk that customer was at the time.  Just as no one knows about these students in the Suburban Express example - some may have been  (likely were) drunken assholes.  But now the company looks like a dick for not just moving on.

This is all not to say I am perfect.  It is freaking amazingly easy to forget my own rule about checking one's ego at the door.  I sometimes forget it when dealing with some of the public agencies with which I am under contract.  One of the things you learn early about government agencies is that long-time government employees have never been inculcated with a respect for contract we might have in the private world.  If internal budget or rules changes make adhering to our contract terms difficult, they will sometimes ignore or unilaterally change the terms of our written contract.

And then I will get really pissed off.  Sometimes, I have to -- the changes are substantial and costly enough to matter.  But a lot of the time it is just ego.  The changes are small and de minimis from our financial point of view but I get all worked up, writing strings of eloquent and argumentative emails and letters, to show those guys at the agency just how wrong they are.  And you know what?  Just like I tell my folks, the guys on the other end are not going to change.  They are not bad people, but they have grown up all their lives in government work and have been taught to believe that contract language is secondary to complying with their internal bureaucratic rules.  They are never going to change.  All I am doing is ticking them off with my letters that are trying to count intellectual coup on them.

To this end, I think I am going to tape these two lines from Ken White's post on the wall in front of my desk

  • First, never miss a good opportunity to shut up.
  • Second, take some time to get a grip. You will not encounter a situation where waiting 48 hours to open your mouth will destroy your brand.

Punished for Speech

I have debated a while whether to run this personal experience, and in the end have reached a (perhaps wimpy) compromise with myself to run it but disguise the agency involved.  

As most of your know, I run a company that helps keep public parks open by privately operating them.  As part of that business, it is unsurprising that I would run a specialized blog on such public-private recreation partnerships.  Most of the blog is dedicated not to selling my company per se, since there are not many who do what we do, but advancing the concept.  In particular, I spend a lot of time responding to objections from folks who are concerned that private operators will not serve the public well or care for public lands as well as civil servants do.

One such objection is around law enforcement -- parks agencies who oppose this model argue that my company cannot possibly replace them because all their rangers are law enforcement officials and mine, a certification my private employees can't match.  So a while back I wrote an article discussing this issue.

I argued that parks were not some lawless Road Warrior-style criminal anarchy and simply did not need the level of law enforcement concentration they have.   We run nearly 175 public parks and do so just fine relying on support from the sheriff's office, as does every other recreation business.

I argued that so many rangers were law enforcement officials because they have a financial incentive to get such certification (e.g. more pay and much better pension, plus the psychic benefits of carrying a gun and a badge) and not because of any particular demand for such services.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I argued that providing customer service with law enforcement officials can cause problems -- after all, McDonald's does not issue citations to their customers for parking incorrectly.  To back up the last point, I linked to an article in the Frisky (of all places) and a Yelp review of a park where customers bombarded the site with one star reviews complaining about the rangers harassing them with citations and ruining their visit.

Well, one day I got a letter via email from a regional manager of the state parks agency whose park was the subject of that Yelp review I linked.  I was notified that I had 48 hours to remove that blog post or I would lose all my contracts with that state.  In particular, they did not like a) the fact that I linked to a negative Yelp review of one of their parks and b) that I impugned the incredibly noble idea that state parks are all operated by law enforcement officials.  I found out only later that there is a very extreme law enforcement culture in this agency -- that in fact you historically could not even be promoted to higher management positions without the law enforcement badge, truly making this an agency of police officers who happen to run parks.  I would normally quote the letter's text here, but it is impossible to do so and keep the agency's name confidential.

Fortunately, I was able to write the acting General Counsel of the agency that afternoon.  Rather than sending something fiery as the first salvo, I sent a coy letter observing innocently that her agency seemed to believe that my contracts with the state imposed a prior restraint on my speech and I asked her to clarify the boundaries of that prior restraint so I would know what speech I was to be allowed.  To her credit, she called me back about 6 minutes after having received the letter and told me that it was void and asking me to please, please pretend I had never received it.  So I did, and I reward her personally for her quick and intelligent response by not naming her agency in the story.

I am reminded of all this and write it in response to this story passed on by Ken at Popehat.  It is a story of free speech and petty government retribution for it.  I will let you read the article to get the details, but I will repost the original speech that earned Rick Horowitz a good dollop of government harassment.  As an aside, I realize in posting this how far from the law and order conservative I have come since my early twenties.

Your approach should be to try to live your life, as much as possible, without giving them one minute of your time. If they want to talk to you, you should ask, “Am I being detained, or arrested?” If they say “no,” then you walk away. If they tell you that you cannot leave, then you stay put, but don’t talk to them. Because they aren’t following the law when they detain you for no reason.

And if the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

Let me repeat that:

If the government will not follow the law, there is no reason why anyone else should.

So this is the proposal I set forth:

To the government, you can start following the law, or none of us will.

To everyone else, if the government will not follow the law, you should stop pretending law means anything.

It’s time to step away from the wrong.

Start fighting over everything!

 

 

Let Them Eat Trinkets

Steven Rattner, investment banker and former member of the Obama Administration,  is terrified that under a proposed law companies will be able to raise money without investment bankers.

Most troublesome is the legalization of “crowd funding,” the ability of start-up companies to raise capital from small investors on the Internet. While such lightly regulated capital raising has existed for years, until now, “investors” could receive only trinkets and other items of small value, similar to the way public television raises funds. As soon as regulations required to implement the new rules are completed, people who invest money in start-ups through sites similar to Kickstarter will be able to receive a financial interest in the soliciting company, much like buying shares on the stock exchange. But the enterprises soliciting these funds will hardly be big corporations like Wal-Mart or Exxon; they will be small start-ups with no track records.

This is absolutely, classically representative of the technocratic arrogance of the Obama Administration and the investment bankers that inhabit it.  I have three quick thoughts:

  1. Rattner's concern for individual investors comes rather late.  After all, he was the primary architect of the extra-legal screwing of GM and Chrysler secured creditors in favor of the UAW and other Obama supporters.
  2. God forbid investors get actual, you know, ownership in a company for their capital rather than just trinkets.  This is so bizarrely patronizing that I had to read it twice just to make sure I wasn't missing something.  But no, he is explicitly preferring that you and I get trinkets rather than ownership  (ownership, apparently, to be reserved for millionaire insiders like himself).
  3. We have truly entered the corporate state when leftish opinion makers argue that large corporations like Exxon and Wal-Mart get preferential access to capital and that smaller startups that might compete with them be shut out of the market.

I predict that over that Internet entrepreneurs running such crowd-sourcing sites would develop reputation management and review tools for investors (similar to those at Amazon and eBay).  Over time, it may be that these become far more trustworthy than current credit agency reports or investment bank recommendations.  After all, which do you trust more -- a 5-star Amazon review with 35 responses or a Goldman Sachs "buy" recommendation on an IPO like Facebook or Groupon?  Besides, it would take a very long time, like eternity, for fraud losses in a crowd-sourcing site to equal 1/100 of the investor losses to heavily regulated Bernie Madoff.

A Couple of Nice Observations on Technocracy and Budgets

From South Bend Seven come a couple of comments I liked today.  The first was on the Left and current budget plans:

If I was on the Left I would look at these figures and then begin to think long and hard about whether knee-jerk opposition to things like Medicare block grants or defined-contribution public pensions is such a good idea. The biggest threat to redistribution to the poor is existing redistribution to the old.

To the last sentence, I would add "and redistribution to upper middle class public sector workers."  I am constantly amazed at the Left's drop-dead defense of above-market pay and benefits for public sector workers.  This already reduces funding for things like actual classroom instruction and infrastructure improvements, and almost certainly the looming public pension crisis will reduce resources for an array of programs much loved by the Left.

The second observation relates to a favorite topic of mine, on technocracy:

Often enough I think "you know, we need more scientists in charge of things." Then I remember that the scientists we get are Steven Chu and I think "yeah, maybe not so much."

Then I think about all the abominable committee meetings and discussion sessions I've been in with scientists and I think "perhaps best not to put scientists in charge."

Then I look over at my bookshelf, notice my cope of The Machinery of Freedom, and think "why are we putting anybody in charge at all?"

If this Administration has any one theme, it is a total confidence that a few people imposing solutions and optimizations top-down  is superior to bottom-up or emergent solutions.   Even the recent memo on targeted killings reflects this same philosophy, that one man with a few smart people in the White House can make better life-or-death decisions than all that messy stuff with courts and lawyers.   Those of us who understand our Hayek know that superior top-down decision-making is impossible, given that the decision-makers can never have the information or incentives to make the best decisions for complex systems, and because they tend to impose one single objective function when in fact we are a nation of individuals with 300 million different objective functions.  But the drone war / targeted killing memo demonstrates another problem:  technocrats hate due process.   Due process for them is just time-wasting review by lesser mortals of their decisions.  Just look at how Obama views Congress, or the courts.

Why Do We Need Electronic Medical Records? So Your Personal Data is More Readily Available to the Government

Given recent legislative and judicial decisions, there are vanishingly few electronic records that the government cannot rape at will.  Increasingly, government agencies can access electronic data without even bothering with silly stuff like warrants or judicial review.  Latest case in point:  Electronic medical records

The Drug Enforcement Administration is trying to access private prescription records of patients in Oregon without a warrant, despite a state law forbidding it from doing so. The ACLU and its Oregon affiliate are challenging this practice in a new case that raises the question of whether the Fourth Amendment allows federal law enforcement agents to obtain confidential prescription records without a judge’s prior approval. It should not.

In 2009, the Oregon legislature created the Oregon Prescription Drug Monitoring Program (PDMP), which tracks prescriptions for certain drugs dispensed by Oregon pharmacies, including all of the medications listed above. The program was intended to help physicians prevent drug overdoses by their patients and more easily recognize signs of drug abuse. Because the medical information revealed by these prescription records is highly sensitive, the legislature created robust privacy and security protections for the PDMP, including a requirement that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before requesting records for use in an investigation. But despite those protections, the DEA has been requesting prescription records from the PDMP using administrative subpoenas which, unlike warrants, do not involve demonstrating probable cause to a neutral judge.

While the government needs a search warrant to access paper medical records, it apparently feels it can look at electronic records without a warrant,.  Which explains one reason why the Administration is so excited about the new medical records requirements in Obamacare.   You didn't think HIPAA applied to the government, did you?  And if you wondered why Obamacare requires doctors to ask medically-unrelated questions (e.g. on gun ownership), now you know.

Who Is Important to NBC News

I almost never watch the network news, but I happened to be in the room when NBC News had a year in review video where it paid tribute to famous people who passed away in 2012.  The people they chose were incredible -- probably 85% entertainers and sports figures and 15% government / military figures.  And that is NBC's world.   I vaguely remember there may have been one exception, but essentially there were no producers, no scientists, no inventors, no business people.  Not even someone like Carroll Shelby, a business person who also had a place in pop culture.

A Good Reason to Vote For A Write In Candidate...

... because it really annoys public officials when you don't vote for the candidates they have approved.

Every write-in entry must be verified with the list of legitimate write-in candidates for that election, by a three-member review team. In the August primary election, Maricopa County elections officials saw the biggest ratio of fake-to-legitimate write-in candidates in recent memory: Among 90,433 entries in write-in slots, 1,738 were votes for legitimate write-in candidates.

Each fake entry cost Arizona counties money and manpower and slowed down the tabulation process, said Maricopa County Recorder Helen Purcell, who oversees elections.

“They think they’re making some kind of a statement or being cute,” Purcell said.

The rise of write-in candidates - over 90,000 in one small-turnout primary election, strikes me as a very interesting untold story about the election and a metric of voter frustration with the whole process.

So don't be afraid to go off the board -- it is your right, no matter how much it irritates petty bureaucrats.  Mal Reynolds for President!

Dispatches from California

1.  On the lighter side, a customer came into our establishment in California the other day with a horse.  Claimed it was a "therapy animal" and therefore it would be a violation of the ADA to not allow the horse in.  Not knowing the law but with some experience with California, my managers rightly let the animal in, then researched it later.  It appears that we are safe denying entry to animals that are not licensed service animals, but this is an evolving part of the law, apparently.  Since it costs us about $25,000 a pop to get even the craziest suits dismissed in California, we will continue to err on the side of caution.

2.  Perhaps even crazier, we recently were forced to institute an HR policy in California that working through lunch is a firing offense.  One warning, then you are gone.  Why?  California has a crazy law that allows employees to collect substantial ex post facto compensation if they claim they were denied a 10 minute break every four hours or a thirty minute unpaid lunch break after five.  Suffice it to say we have spent years honestly trying to comply with this law.   The 10-minute break portion is less of a compliance hurdle, but the lunch break portion has caused us no end of trouble.   Theoretically, under the law, the employee has a choice - work through lunch paid, eating at the job post  (e.g. in a gatehouse of a campground) or leave the job post for 30 minutes for an unpaid lunch break.   As background, every one of our employees have always begged to have the paid lunch because they are from a poorer area and need the extra 30 minutes of pay.

Unfortunately, it does not matter what preferences the employee expressed on the job site.  In the future, the employee can go to the labor department and claim he or she did not get their break, and even if they did not want it at the time, and never complained to the employer about not getting it, the employer always, always, always loses a he-said-she-said disagreement in a California Court or review board.  Always.  Sure, it takes someone utterly without honor to make this claim in Court, but there seems to be no shortage of those.  So, we took a series of approaches to getting people on-paper, on-the-record as having asked to work through lunch.  Unfortunately, one court case after another has demolished each safe harbor we thought we had.

A few weeks ago I was advised by a senior case-worker at the California Department of Labor that the only safe harbor left for employers is to FORCE employees to take an unpaid lunch.  This means they clock in and back out, this means they have to leave the job site (because if a customer happens to ask them a question, then they are "working"), and this means we have to ruthlessly enforce it.  Or we are liable for scads of penalties.  So, we find ourselves at the bizarre crossroads of making working through lunch a firing offense, and employees who generally want to work an extra thirty minutes each day to earn more money are not allowed to do so.  Yet another example of laws that are supposed to be "empowering" to employees actually ending up limiting their choices.

Enshrining Peer Review as Part of the Scientific Method

I have written a lot about problems with over-emphasis on peer review and problems in scientific publishing.  This is from a press release by the CRU quoting the highly flawed Muir-Russel review / whitewash of the Climategate emails.

We note that much of the challenge to CRU’s work has not always followed the conventional scientific method of checking and seeking to falsify conclusions or offering alternative hypotheses for peer review and publication. We believe this is necessary if science is to move on, and we hope that all those involved on all sides of the climate science debate will adopt this approach.

Because methodological challenges to scientists work that don't appear in Climate Journals controlled by the scientists in question are not part of the scientific method.

By the way, the statement that "The raw tree-ring data used in our published work are available; anyone is free to use them in any way they wish" is absolutely hilarious for anyone who has followed this saga over the years.  To the extent they are available "freely," it is only because Steve McIntyre and other challengers of CRU's work engaged in a decade long legal campaign to get this publicly-funded data (necessary to verify and/or replicate the CRU's published work) released.  Here is the McIntyre post to which CRU was responding, though they bend over backwards not to actually mention him.

 

Police Don't Like It When The Shoe Is On The Other Foot

Via Radley Balko, certain Dallas residents are upset that they are getting "nitpicked" for speeding and other traffic violations caught by camera.  Normally, I would be quite sympathetic.  But not in this case.  You see, those who are upset about getting punished for violating traffic laws are Dallas police:

The Dallas Police Department has suspended a special unit’s regular reviews of dash-cam video from patrol cars because officers felt they were being nitpicked with disciplinary action for minor infractions such as speeding.

The recordings and the reviews are meant to provide evidence when patrol officers go renegade, and they are especially helpful in excessive-force cases. They’re also crucial for protecting officers falsely accused of wrongdoing.

In 11 months of operation, the unit reviewing the video found numerous examples of officers exceeding the department’s speed requirements, failing to turn on their lights and sirens or failing to stop at stop signs or red lights during chases or when responding to other emergency calls.

While in many cases these actions are against department policy, police commanders say they became concerned that some supervisors were taking a heavy-handed approach to routine problems, meting out discipline rather than finding ways to change behavior.

“The folklore among officers is, ‘I’m afraid to go five miles over the speed limit because I’ll be disciplined,’” said Chief David Brown. He ordered a cooling-off period for the review process while the department takes a look at what can be done to ensure that it is fair and reasonable.

As someone who has gotten a ticket from a police officer for going less than five miles over the speed limit, I can think of a two word response:  Equal protection.

While some supervisors informed of violations have simply counseled officers to be more cautious, Dallas Police Association officials say at least a couple of dozen officers were disciplined, mostly with minor write-ups, for speeding violations.

Well, since police officers like all public officials are impossible to fire, this does not mean squat.  I don't see any fine here, or points on their license, penalties absolutely everyone else would face.  A better spin for this article would be "police violations of traffic law treated far more leniently than those by anyone else."  And even with this lenient treatment, they still shut it down as too onerous.

All that being said, the video review program Dallas was doing is a good idea.  It should continue, and if traffic law enforcement is getting in the way of the program continuing, I would be willing to let the officers slide if only to catch more substantial violations in how they interact with the public.

 

Science and Politics

Matt Welch's description of science and politics strikes a chord

Even more interesting than the soft consensus in favor of government intervention was a strong undercurrent that those who disagreed with it were guilty of denying basic truths. One of the questions from an audience full of Senate staffers, policy wonks, and journalists was how can we even have a rational policy discussion with all these denialist Republicans who disregarded Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s famous maxim that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts”? Jared Bernstein couldn’t have been more pleased.

“I feel like we’re in a climate in which facts just aren’t welcome,” he said. “I think the facts of the case are that we know what we can do to nudge the unemployment rate down.…I think the consensus among economists is that this is a good time to implement fiscal stimulus that would help create jobs and make the unemployment rate go down. I consider that a fact.”

In science, you insist most loudly on a fact based on how much it has withstood independent peer review. In politics, it’s closer to the opposite—the more debatable a point is, the more it becomes necessary to insist (often in the face of contrary evidence) that the conclusion is backed by scientific consensus