Jan 31, 2012

Collected links

It's my last crunch time at the Monthly, so here are some links to keep you busy:

1. A critical look at ADHD drugs.

2. Mitt Romney's Massachusetts heath care plan is a galloping success.

3. Radley Balko takes on the developing moral panic over prescription painkillers. For my money Balko is one of the ten best reporters in America, up there with Jane Mayer and Charlie Savage. I know where he's coming from, and disagree with a lot of it, but he's honest about his biases, focused on the right sorts of stuff, and does his homework. Great man.

4. Why we get the drunk-spins.

5. An old piece from Sports Illustrated on Mitt Romney and the Olympics.

6. How do states behave when they get nuclear weapons?

7. How Swedes and Norwegians broke the power of the one percent.

Jan 28, 2012

Opaque finance?

Steve Randy Waldman has one of his typical long, subtle series (one, two, three) looking at the concept of opaque finance:
Financial systems help us overcome a collective action problem. In a world of investment projects whose costs and risks are perfectly transparent, most individuals would be frightened. Real enterprise is very risky. Further, the probability of success of any one project depends upon the degree to which other projects are simultaneously underway. A budding industrialist in an agrarian society who tries to build a car factory will fail. Her peers will be unable to supply the inputs required to make the thing work. If by some miracle she gets the factory up and running, her customer-base of low capital, low productivity farm workers will be unable to afford the end product. Successful real investment does not occur via isolated projects, but in waves, forward thrusts by cohorts of optimists, most of whom crash and burn, some of whom do great things for the world and make their investors wealthy. But the winners depend upon the existence of the losers: In a world where there was no Qwest overbuilding fiber, there would have been no Amazon losing a nickel on every sale and making it up on volume. Even in the context of an astonishing tech boom, Amazon was a pretty iffy investment in 1997. It would have been an absurd investment without the growth and momentum generated by thousands of peers, some of whom fared well but most of whom did not.
To summarize, if I may, the idea is basically that the financial system is successful because it is a systematic con. It's similar to some ideas I'm reading in Reasons and Persons right now, where Derek Parfit talks about "coordination problems" where if everyone does what is rationally worse for them individually, everyone as a whole is better off. Waldman makes a lot of intelligent points about finance, and worries a bit about opacity and how it might be eliminated. It's natural given the 2008 cataclysm, and as a lot of his readers pointed out, finance unregulated leads inevitably to recurring economic crises.

However, I took a different message away from it. A utopian, transparent financial system would obviously be ideal, but if we concede the point and treat finance as a black box, and financiers as, collectively, a bunch of dopes, I think we can then gain some real benefit. As Waldman says in the third post:
Financiers aren’t especially bright, and they are in the business of mobilizing capital, it’s what they get paid to do. As a group, they can’t distinguish periods with excellent real opportunities from periods in which they are shepherding capital into idiocy and waste. Financiers are first and foremost salesmen. Some of them do understand when they are selling poison. But many of them, like most good salesmen, persuade themselves of the amazingness of what they are selling in order to persuade the rest of us more effectively. So there are periods, as we’ve just seen, when financiers attract huge gobs of capital and confidently deploy it into an incinerator.
The great thing about the idea of opaque finance is it makes financial regulation very easy. If all the hysterical arguments about efficiency and crippling our financial competitiveness are bogus—if, in fact, the very thing that makes finance work is that it is a kind of collective madness, conducted by knaves and fools—then those arguments may be safely jettisoned. We don't need smart regulation that takes into account all the theoretical advantages to having umpteen complicated forms of derivatives contracts on soybean futures, we need dumb regulation that is easy to understand. We need blunt, brute force kinds of rules that take a claw hammer to the largest institutions and make the accumulation of excessive risk as hard as possible.

Some ideas:
-Ban banking across state lines.
-Break up any bank with more than 5% of total deposits.
-Break up any institution with assets greater than 5% of GDP.
-Institute a public option banking program.
You see what I'm getting at. Obviously enforcing those rules would be an entirely different proposition, but I would also note that once-implemented this would make financiers substantially less wealthy and therefore easier to crush underfoot when the time came.

Jan 27, 2012

Fool of a Took!

Locked myself out of my house like the idiot that I am. It wouldn't be nearly so frustrating if I hadn't done this once before and as a result become very paranoid about forgetting my keys, usually triple- and quadruple-checking to see if they're there. The one time I don't have them I stroll cheerfully out, probably thinking about some useless trivia.

Then, of course, I just miss the train to go down and borrow my housemate's keys so I'm sitting here listening to Metro agitprop: "EXCUSE ME, IS THAT YOUR BAG?"

Jan 26, 2012

How to waste infrastructure tax dollars in Forest Glen, Maryland

This metro stop is about a five-minute walk from my house:


The background here is that a month or so ago they demolished an old house on a great big lot, probably the better part of an acre, right across the street from the Forest Glen metro station on the Red Line. You can't see, but if you zoom in on the picture the sign across the street says that they're going to be building some single-family homes soon.

The natural question here is just what in God's name would make a developer or real estate agent think that single-family homes are the best use of vacant land literally ten steps from a heavy rail station. There are trainloads of money to be made, and good public policy to boot. One would hope if we're going to spend hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer money on public transport the logical thing to do would be to put up big-ass apartment buildings, or at least some townhouses, near the stops when possible.

The answer, of course, is that if you look (pdf) the place is zoned for single family residential only. More generally, if someone proposed rezoning the lot the neighborhood busybodies would likely respond with howling, purple-faced outrage, probably centering their complaints around parking and ill-concealed hatred of the young and/or poor. (At least, given how I was treated when I moved in, that's my best guess.)

It's not all bad, as there are at least some medium density-zoned sections nearby, but this could have been a great opportunity to sneak in a little improvement, especially given this station is already mostly devoted to giant parking lots.

UPDATE: Here's another shot which gives a sense of the size of the lot they're throwing away here. It's huge.

Collected links

1. Why is Type 1 diabetes rising?

2. Google will now systematically collect all your personal information across its entire platform. Ugh. It's hard for me to imagine extricating myself from their tentacles. I'm using their browser, their email, Blogger, Android, Reader, and Docs just right now.

3. Excellent Cory Doctorow essay on the coming war against general computing. I'm not sure if I'm quite as pessimistic as he is. A lot of his case rests on peripherals like 3D printing, which would be a lot easier to control than computers.

4. Powerful New Yorker piece on the America's prison hell.

5. Ryan Lizza on the Obama memos.

Jan 25, 2012

Vice President Biden Strolls through the Nevada Higher Ed Apocalypse

Joe Biden was in Reno the other day, doing one of those stock vice president speeches where he made a bold call for high school kids to go to college, according to the Reno Gazette-Journal:

Vice President Joe Biden spent time Thursday imploring Galena High School students to make some kind of post-secondary education a mandate upon graduation from high school.

The whole thing would be utterly trivial if it weren’t for the fact that Nevada’s higher education system is starting to resemble something out of Cormac McCarthy. A blighted dystopian hellscape where the few surviving students wander aimless in the wastes.

Ok, slight exaggeration. But Nevada’s higher education system has been hit hard since the recession. In Reno, state tuition is up almost 60 percent. Cuts for this fiscal year alone were 14 percent, coming on top of a 13 percent cut from previous years. Its six-year graduation rate is a lousy 40 percent.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Nevada Higher Education Chancellor Dan Klaich lean on the panic button in a recent memo:
Since too many of our elected leaders seem to be so focused on the bottom line, allow me to summarize the previous points: Nevada public higher education will no longer be competitive with any state in the U.S., let alone the Western states. Our main competition for students, faculty, and businesses needed to diversify our economy will be with Third World countries. […]
This budget crisis cannot be solved with new taxes alone, and certainly there are concerns with this budget other than education. There will be cuts, and I expect cuts to education. Everyone must share the pain to heal our state. What I am saying is that to pretend that cuts alone should be the answer is wrong.
If you want to continue to live in a state that consistently ranks in the bottom of every education and quality of life measure, then by all means, sit back and watch your state burn.

Italics in the original. It is true that Nevada’s economy is in sad shape. It has the highest unemployment rate in the country. As Klaich says, some cuts are probably inevitable, but he has outlined some slight revenue increases to patch the budget and avoid staggering tuition hikes. Nevada’s Republican party has gone medieval doctor, using the state’s atrocious graduation rate as justification for further cutting.

Might have been a good thing for the vice president to mention.

Cross-posted at College Guide.

Jan 24, 2012

Africa is not a country

Kevin Drum ponders Mitt Romney's anti-China paranoia:
Are we doomed to a future in which we are mere vassels to a burgeoning and aggressive Chinese hegemony? If you vote for Barack Obama, yes! In fact, according to Mitt Romney, he's actively working toward such future.

But seriously. Are we? I don't think so. Sure, China is going to grow and there will inevitably be some shifts in influence as that happens, but if I had to make a 50-year bet on any region of the world, I'd pick the United States. Europe has demographic and growth problems; Russia is doomed once their energy resources run out; Africa will remain a basket case for the foreseeable future; India is starting from a poor base and I'm not convinced they have the governance or institutions to maintain rapid growth over the long term; and China — well, China has its problems, as I've noted multiple times in this space.
Ok, whatever. My natural question when talking about stuff like this is: who cares? Being the sole superpower seems to mean we just have a greater than average propensity to launch idiotic wars of aggression that actively damage our security while letting our own vital infrastructure crumble to bits for lack of funds.

But I have a better quibble. So America and Russia are both single countries, that makes sense, Europe has nailed itself to a cross of 2 percent German inflation, all sinking as one, so that's defensible too. But Africa is not a region in any sense like the previous ones. First of all, it's fucking enormous. As big as Japan, the UK, the US, Europe, India, and China combined. Second, it's not universally a "basketcase." Some countries are doing quite well, others not so much. Overall the 2000s were probably the best decade for Africa writ large in hundreds of years. Botswana and Mauritius in particular are doing very well for themselves, more than twice as rich as China.

You could make the case for various regions of Africa making sensible units. French-speaking Western Africa, English-speaking Eastern and/or Southern Africa, Arabic-speaking North Africa. But "Africa will remain a basket case?" Not good enough.

More on Apple's EULA

Joe Wilcox provides a good roundup. These two points get to the heart of the issue:
This is a software EULA which for the first time attempts to restrict what I can do with the output of the app, rather than with the app itself. No consumer EULA I've ever seen goes this far. Would you be happy if Garage Band required you to sell your music through the iTunes Store, or if iPhoto had license terms that kept you from posting your own photos online? It’s a step backward for computing freedom and we should resist it...

Restricting use is what EULAs have traditionally done. This one does something different: it restricts what you can do with the output of the software after the software is closed and put away. If you make a document using iBooks Author, you aren't allowed to sell that document except through Apple, ever, for the rest of your life.
And a bit about the legal background:
Qualifying that I'm not a lawyer, I know a few things about copyrights, as someone who writes for a living and who has reported on software copyrights and EULAs for 18 years. For example, software sidesteps typical US copyright terms allowing copying by being licensed, not sold. Developers like Adobe and Microsoft would be helpless against people copying software for personal use if not for laws supporting licensing. You pay for the application, but the developer retains all rights; technically you didn't buy anything, and the developer can retract your use of the software at any time.

Content produced by software like Word is typically sold, not licensed, which is one of many, many reasons why Microsoft couldn't restrict distribution of the writer's works like Apple tries to. It's also major reason why Wineman's calling the EULA "unprecedented" is gross understatement. Apple is trying to extend its rights over yours and doing so attempting to establish a dangerous precedent about which copyright supersedes the other -- yours as the content producer and Apple's as software developer and content distributor. I simplify complex copyright laws here, to make the point.
For online freedom types, this is a point well worth pressing in the courts, both to obtain clarification and to provide an angle of attack should the courts rule that software developers can claim infinite rights. As Dan Wineman (quoted above) hat we're seeing here is the sharp edge of developers' ever-increasing claim on power.

The whole "licensing" idea is bogus in my opinion, and should be replaced by something more akin to the "first sale doctrine," but in any case this is even more outrageous. Imagine if your toaster company laid legal claim, not only to your toaster, but also to what you did with your toast.

No one would stand for it.

Jan 22, 2012

How I am racist, part I

Ta-Nehisi Coates asked awhile back:
I think there's an essay to be written about why any accusation of a racial offense is so often reduced to "Are you a racist?" It would be as if my wife said, "You forgot to check Samori's homework" and I responded, "I'm not a bad father."

But that piece isn't for me to write. It's for some white person daring enough to plumb the depths of their soul. I don't think this is something that can be explained from the outside.
I would like to try. The strict answer to that question is straightforward. It's as he implies, an evasion. A way to move the terms of the debate to more open, maximalist, easily-defended ground, where counterexamples are easier to find and inflate. "Ron Paul is racist? But he's against the drug war!" etc.

But I think Ta-Nehisi was looking for something deeper. Let me start with a story and a confession.

Some time ago coming home from work on the train three young black men got on and came to my section. One sat next to me, the other on the floor next to him, and the third across the aisle. They began talking loudly, the one next to me pointing at me kind of behind my head such that it was impossible to determine whether he was trying to subtly signal me as some kind of target or just try and intimidate me out of my chair so he and his buddies could sit together.

There commenced in my mind a vicious battle between 1) the modern secular liberal, arguing (correctly) that I knew nothing about these guys and it was wrong to judge them as I was doing, and 2) the lizard-brain defender of life and limb, arguing (also correctly, in my view) that these guys were setting off some alarms and it would be prudent to evacuate. The winner, of course, was 3) the seat of cowardly, guilty, white middle-class maledom, who argued it would be least awkward to just sit there and continue reading, or pretending to read, The Power Broker. The next ten minutes or so were awful.

Nothing happened. I sat there until my stop and got off without incident. But I was afraid of those three kids in a way which made me almost ill. I had to admit: I am a racist. And in the way of a disease, where my reactions have been hijacked by old programming, where my conscious "self" watches in horror.

This kind of thing is, I think, common. The way racism is most obviously manifested in everyday American society is against young black men. I even have a half-plausible excuse. During my two years in South Africa I was three times attacked by thieves, once successfully and twice not. In all three cases the perpetrators were young to middle-aged black men. Though I do not always trust my own memory or impressions, I think in this case it is fair to conclude that my negative reaction to black men has gotten much worse since before my Peace Corps service.

I think Ta-Nehisi's question cuts to something deeper in the soul of white Americans. We do not like talking about race. I don't mean talking about how black people are oppressed by the system—that's easy, even satisfying—or even "owning our privilege." I mean rooting around in the rancid basements of our minds, finding the most vicious rottenness down there, and spreading it out for the world to see.

It's partly the result of a lot of very positive development. It's now generally accepted that slavery and white terrorism in defense of Jim Crow were atrocities. Martin Luther King is one of our most cherished heroes. Being a committed racist is now about the most awful thing someone can be in public life. But imagine Nancy Pelosi talking about being afraid of black men. Better to avoid the subject altogether. Too much potential downside.

But just avoiding the issue is not enough for me. Another piece from Coates:
This basic extension of empathy is one of the great barriers in understanding race in this country. I do not mean a soft, flattering, hand-holding empathy. I mean a muscular empathy rooted in curiosity. If you really want to understand slaves, slave masters, poor black kids, poor white kids, rich people of colors, whoever, it is essential that you first come to grips with the disturbing facts of your own mediocrity. The first rule is this--You are not extraordinary. It's all fine and good to declare that you would have freed your slaves. But it's much more interesting to assume that you wouldn't and then ask "Why?"

This is not an impossible task. But often we find that we have something invested in not asking "Why?" The fact that we -- and I mean all of us, black and white -- are, in our bones, no better than slave masters is chilling. The upshot of all my black nationalist study was terrifying -- give us the guns and boats and we would do the same thing. There is nothing particularly noble about black skin.
I met many Afrikaners in South Africa who were utterly, abjectly racist. I met them in bars, backpackers, or was picked up by them hitchhiking. Nice folks to me for the most part, but when the subject turned to race, as it inevitably would despite my efforts to avoid it, things got ugly. I can't tell you how many times I heard the phrase fokken kaffirs, which is Afrikaans for "fucking niggers." These people were gripped by a cancer of the mind. It was at first horrifying, like watching some trembling junkie shoot up in the stairway of an abandoned tenement; numbness eventually set in.

But the worst part was the creeping realization: that could be me. That is the context underlying whites' unconscious goalpost-shifting. "Is Ron Paul a racist?" Well, that's hard to prove. "Is there a potential KKK member in nearly everyone?" That is far more uncomfortable territory.

In the next post, I'll try to find that "muscular empathy."

Colorado could be a renewable energy powerhouse

From this extremely encouraging post by James Wimberley:
Take my three resources, together more than enough to meet all US energy needs. The overall picture is clear. Colorado has everything. South and West of Colorado has solar. North-East of Colorado (the Plains) has wind. The Rockies have geothermal. The Northeast has nothing apart from offshore wind (which generates temporary construction jobs but not rents).
This map, in particular, ought to have Colorado politicians'—particularly those on the Western Slope—eyes bugging out of their heads:


Ya-hoo! I'm smelling me a geothermal bonanza! A good time for, say, Scott Tipton to be lobbying for some tax credits. As Wimberley says:
At present geothermal is is numerically insignificant. I put it in because I bet this will change. Geothermal is the Mercedes of renewable energy: it’s expensive but top quality. ├Źslandsbanki (the Icelanders are experts on this) give the capital cost per kw capacity at $4,000, against $2,600 for solar PV and $1,900 for wind. Since the big cost in geothermal is drilling, a mature technology, geothermal costs aren’t likely to come down as fast as those of its rivals are doing. However, with hot dry rock fracking , there is orders of magnitude more recoverable geothermal energy than used to be thought. It’s technically beautiful: reliable (95% capacity factor, beating everything else), safe, frugal with land. As we push the load management envelope with cheap but variable wind and solar, geothermal will compete with storage for the high-cost zero-carbon baseload.
It's coming, sooner or later. No better time than now to be making those initial investments in plans and right-of-way.

Jan 20, 2012

Chris Christie: "No life is disposable."

Check it out:


Obviously not nearly enough policy-wise, but rhetoric-wise he's miles away from the drug warrior frame. From here it's only a short step to evidence-based, rather than punishment-based, drug strategy.

Intern jams

A great unreleased Deadmau5 track:

Jan 19, 2012

Why unemployment is so high in South Africa, prologue

I'm considering a smallish project: trying to tease out the factors which make for South Africa's staggering unemployment rate—at last count 25 percent. I've been reading up on it a bit myself and soliciting questions from some random economist types (also, to see if there is any consensus at all).

A further question is how it manages to survive with such a problem. That level of unemployment was a grinding, horrible crisis which shook the foundations of our democracy during the Great Depression, but South Africa has been dealing with it basically since 1994, when it could actually be called a real country.

Stay tuned for further developments.

The Eye of God


Phil Plait captions: "About 700 light years away sits the expanding death cry of a star: the Helix Nebula, a four-light-year wide gas cloud blasted out when a star that was once like the Sun gave up its life."

Jan 18, 2012

Strike to save the internet!


PROTECT IP / SOPA Breaks The Internet from Fight for the Future on Vimeo.

CONTACT YOUR CONGRESSCRITTER TODAY. Tell them not to break the internet. I gave some poor Mark Udall staffer a extensive—though polite—rant.

My idea for a tech company blackout—though clearly other more important people had the same idea—has been adopted today. Wikipedia is down. Reddit and Mozilla are down. Google, though it remains functional, has blacked out its banner in support. If I weren't a little uncomfortable with fiddling with my site code (and more realistically, if I had more than a dozen readers) I would do the same.

For more, here's Julian Sanchez with SOPA: An Architecture for Censorship.

Also, Dan Gillmor makes the important point that this really isn't about stopping piracy. It's about controlling information:
So, why do [SOPA supporters] make unsupportable statements?

Because they don't dare make an honest argument. If they were saying what they believe, it would go roughly this way:
"The internet threatens our longstanding control of information and communications, and that is simply unacceptable. Therefore, it is essential to curb the utility of the internet for everyone else."
That is true.

UPDATE: Check out this gallery of striking sites.

Jan 17, 2012

Chris Hayes interviews Lakhdar Boumediene

The translator is a bit distracting, but everyone should see this.



Hard not to run howling down the street tearing out your hair.

Cormac McCarthy on political journalism

Brokaw cracked with the back of an axe the shinbone on an antelope and the hot marrow dripped smoking on the stones. They watched him. The subject was the campaign.

Polls say that people are disgusted with modern politics, said Fineman.

Brokaw smiled, his face shining with grease. What right man would have it any other way? he said.

The electorate does indeed count politics an evil, said Matthews. Yet there’s many people concerned about it just the same.

It makes no difference what men think of politics, said Brokaw. The campaign endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. The campaign was always here. Before man was, the primary season waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner. That is the way it was and will be. That way and not some other way.

He turned to Ignatius, from whom he’d heard some whispered slur or demurrer. Ah Davy, he said. It’s your own trade we honor here. Why not rather take a small bow. Let each acknowledge each.

My trade?

Certainly.

What is my trade?

Politics. The campaign is your trade. Is it not?

And it aint yours?

Mine too. Very much so.

What about all them notebooks and video cameras and stuff?

All other trades are contained in that of political journalism.

Is that why the campaign endures?

No. It endures because old men love it and young men love it in them. Those that ran, those that did not.

That’s your notion.

Brokaw smiled. Men are born for games. Nothing else. Every child knows that play is nobler than work. He knows too that the worth or merit of a game is not inherent in the game itself but rather in the worth of that which is put at hazard. Games of sport involve the skill and strength of the opponents and the humiliation of defeat and the pride of victory are in themselves sufficient stake because they inhere in the worth of the principals and define them. But trial of chance or trial of worth all games aspire to the condition of presidential campaigning for here that which is at stake swallows up the game, player and all.

Suppose two men at Iowa with nothing to campaign with save their lives. Who has not heard such a tale? A turn of the ballot. The whole universe for such a candidate has labored clanking to this moment which will tell if he is to die at that man’s hand or that man at his. What more certain validation of a man’s worth could there be? This enhancement of the campaign to its ultimate state admits no argument concerning the notion of policy. The selection of one man over another is a preference absolute and irrevocable and it is a dull man indeed who could reckon so profound a decision without agency or significance either one. In such elections as have for their stake the annihilation of the defeated the decisions are quite clear. This man holding this particular arrangement of positions is thereby removed from existence. This is the nature of presidential elections, whose stake is at once the game and the authority and the justification. Seen so, politics is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. Politics is the ultimate game because the election is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. The campaign is god.

Adapted from this:

Jan 16, 2012

Best thing I've ever read on South Africa

It's not comprehensive, but a truly amazing look at the rot that has taken root in Mzanzi's poorest slums. It focuses on the random mob murder of a Zimbabwean immigrant named Farai. I liked this graf in particular:
At age 17, the Republic of South Africa is still young enough to be appreciated as a marvel. The “skunk of the world,” as Nelson Mandela called the apartheid state, has been peacefully transformed into a constitutional democracy. There are disappointments, without question. The optimism of the early years — the glorious idea that South Africa would be an inspiration of enlightened leadership — has long faded. The frail, 92-year-old Mandela may remain the most beloved and respected man on the planet, but during its years in power, the organization he championed, the African National Congress, has become, in the words of the historian Martin Meredith, “just another grubby political party on the make.”
Check it out.

Why is DC so bland?

MS over at Democracy in America, talking about the new MLK memorial, suggests it's about the monuments:
There are many culprits in the devolution of much of Washington into a cloddish, ugly, characterless city. And in some neighbourhoods the past 20 years have seen momentum in the opposite direction. But the relentless drive towards ever more memorials is definitely part of the problem. There hasn't been an interesting or culturally significant one built since the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in the early 1980s. The FDR memorial is weird. The second-world-war memorial is pompous, empty of ideas, and militaristic; if the other guys had won, they probably would have built something that looked very similar.
Too true. Though I like a lot of the monuments and museums, the overall effect is lame. We could definitely stand to relax some of the insane restrictions on the style of new construction at the least.

MLK day



Never seen a better orator. Better than Hitler, I think.

Jan 14, 2012

Department of WTF, mountain bike bureau

(Hey Pops, check this out!)

When I was back home it was unseasonably warm and dry, and I did a lot of mountain biking with my dad as a result. It's great fun, and good exercise. I'd like to think that I'm somewhat more than passably mediocre, but watching this I see how really, I'm only just out of training wheels:



Sheesh. Ah well, can't let being way worse than the world's best at something interfere with the fun. Still the best cardio I can imagine.

Schadenfreude watch

SOPA supporter (the break-the-internet bill) Lamar Smith is a copyright violator:
"I do not see anywhere on the screen capture that you have provided that the image was attributed to the source (me). So my conclusion would be that Lamar Smith's organization did improperly use my image. So according to the SOPA bill, should it pass, maybe I could petition the court to take action against www.texansforlamarsmith.com."
He should clearly be convicted of a felony and go to prison for five years.

And Arthur Laffer, famous supply-side bullshitter, is being sued:
Fifty-two investors claim fund managers associated with supply-side economist Arthur Laffer took $3.1 million to prop up a Ponzi scheme, then said nothing as their money was "wasted with no reasonable expectation of recovery."
Now if only Thomas Friedman's house could get ransacked by like Belgium or something.

Jan 12, 2012

Economic crisis as debating point

Michael Mandel has a new piece (which I fact-checked) in the latest issue of the Monthly arguing that economic statistics are exaggerating the productivity of American workers. It's an interesting idea, and might be correct; I can't judge that. At the end, though, he dismisses the idea of more economic stimulus:
For example, economists and journalists repeatedly say that the U.S. economy won’t recover and jobs won’t come back until the consumer starts spending again. That seems to imply that the U.S. needs another massive jolt of fiscal stimulus directed toward pumping up consumers. But which producers would really benefit from such a jolt? If U.S. manufacturers have cut back on factory jobs because of higher domestic productivity, then boosting consumer demand will indeed cause the factories to hire back American workers. But if cutbacks in manufacturing employment have come from increases in supply chain productivity, then giving Americans more money to spend on clothing and consumer electronics will simply boost employment in other countries.
This is a basic error. The story behind more stimulus is as follows. The economy was ticking along in 2007. Then we had a gigantic demand shock in the form of a worldwide financial meltdown. Unemployment more than doubled and output crashed. The standard remedy for one of those is Keynesian stimulus in the form of fiscal stimulus from the government, and Friedmanite stimulus in the form of, basically, printing money. Once we're back to within a percent or two of the 2007 unemployment rate, we could tie off the stimulus and start looking at deeper problems.

Critically, that story has nothing to do with Mandel's thesis. It doesn't preclude the obvious fact that the economy of the Bush years was terrible. Growth was weak, median incomes were flat, inequality was skyrocketing, and the government was racking up a huge deficit for no reason. But taking a look at that 2007 economy, it is surely better than the current situation:



Ygesias had something along these lines awhile back:
My view is that the fact that we’re facing a major short-term emergency is not in tension with the reality that we’re also facing a serious longer-term problem. On the contrary, desire in various quarters to leverage the short-term problem as a way to increase the salience of their preferred long-term ideas has become an impediment to fixing the short-term problem. Meanwhile, the existence of a massive short-term problem is creating new long-term problems as unemployed workers and recent graduates lose opportunities for on-the-job training and skill-enhancement and state/local policymakers scrape together emergency budgets.
Italics mine. Mandel's piece is a perfect example of that attitude. I think it's telling that he's been writing essentially this same article since at least June 2007 with only minor adjustments.

UPDATE: More here.

The Bush Inquisition

Cullen Murphy has a great, and horrifying, article that draws a straight line from the Dark Ages to today:
The public profile of torture is higher than it has been for many decades. Arguments have been mounted in its defense with more energy than at any other time since the Middle Ages. The documentary record pried from intelligence agencies could easily be mistaken for Inquisition transcripts.
One big difference—today, it's worse:
The Inquisition, with its stipulation that torture and interrogation not jeopardize life or cause irreparable harm, actually set a more rigorous standard than some proponents of torture insist on now. The 21st century’s Ad extirpanda is the so-called Bybee memo, issued by the Justice Department in 2002 (and later revised). In it, the Bush administration put forth a very narrow definition, arguing that for an action to be deemed torture, it must produce suffering “equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.” To place this in perspective: the administration’s threshold for when an act of torture begins was the point at which the Inquisition stipulated that it must stop.

Jan 11, 2012

Physics question

Check this out:



If you can't see, the water boiling on the stove is somehow making the pot vibrate on the burner. What's causing it?

My hypothesis is that the burner and pot make for a barely-balanced system that can rock back and forth just a bit, and the bubbles coming up are prodding it such that it gets a harmonic oscillation going. Thoughts?

Jan 10, 2012

Matt Stoller, Ron Paul, and crankery

There's been some smoke in the lefty blogosphere over Ron Paul recently. Glenn Greenwald argued that, despite his many flaws (abjectly racist newsletters published under his name, for example), Paul is a valuable presence:
But the point that she’s making is important, if not too subtle for the with-us-or-against-us ethos that dominates the protracted presidential campaign: even though I don’t support him for President, Ron Paul is the only major candidate from either party advocating crucial views on vital issues that need to be heard, and so his candidacy generates important benefits.
Kevin Drum disagrees, saying that Paul's crankery is so thorough he's doing more damage than good:
If you want to advance the cause of a less interventionist foreign policy, you need to find a way to persuade the American public to agree with you. Ron Paul doesn't do that. He's never done that. He's such a stone libertarian that he literally doesn't know the language to do it. Because of this, giving him a bigger spotlight does little for the cause of a saner foreign policy. At the same time, it does plenty for less sanity everywhere else because you don't get to control where the spotlight falls. Politics may make for strange bedfellows, but there are limits. There are some allies that aren't worth having.
That's a debate we can have, and though I think I lean more toward Greenwald's position, given that the media doesn't show much inclination for putting Paul in the crank box and we have no progressive anti-imperial champion (the real tragedy), but I can see the logic of Kevin's position.

On the other hand, we've got Matt Stoller, who's cooked up a bizarre theory (one, two) about how Ron Paul gives liberals fits:
The basic thesis was that the same financing structures that are used to finance mass industrial warfare were used to create a liberal national economy and social safety. Liberals supported national mobilization in favor of warfare and the social safety net during the New Deal and World War II (and before that, during the Civil War and WWI), but splintered when confronted with a wars like Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The corruption of the financial channels and the destruction of the social safety net now challenges this 20th century conception of liberalism at its core (which is heavily related to the end of cheap oil). Ron Paul has knitted together a coalition of those who dislike war financing, which includes a host of unsavory and extremist figures who dislike icons such as Abraham Lincoln and FDR for their own reasons. But Paul, by criticizing American empire explicitly and its financing channels in the form of the Federal Reserve, also enrages liberals by forcing them to acknowledge that their political economy no longer produces liberal ends.
The reasoning seems to go something like this (hat tip to Matt Yglesias, who helped me with the scheme):
1) Modern states use financial innovation, like fiat money and central banking, to do things.
2) Some of those things are good (WWII, Social Security), while others (Vietnam, Iraq) are bad.
3) Ron Paul thinks all those are bad and wants to destroy the capacity of the state to do things.
4) ???
5) Liberals hate Ron Paul because he's forcing them to confront the failure of their "political economy."
No, it doesn't make any sense. It's fair to say that most liberals would like the state to do things, like provide a safety net, police, and Medicare, which means it must have the capacity to do things. Therefore Ron Paul is a lousy candidate for a liberal (plus about three dozen other self-sufficient reasons). The liberal "political economy" still works, we've still got Social Security, Medicare, and food stamps. It's not like countries that don't invade random countries for no reason, and provide a decent life for their citizens (i.e., Sweden) got there by abandoning paper money and central banks. I think Digby's instincts serve her well in just tossing Stoller's faux-intellectual mess of pottage aside and reiterating basic progressive common sense:
...I will simply say that I define my own liberalism as a belief in egalitarianism, universal human rights, individual liberty and social justice, all tempered by a pragmatic skepticism of all forms of power, private as well as governmental. I prefer democracy because it provides the best possibility of delivering on those desires while keeping authoritarian power at bay even though it's ridiculously inefficient and often corrupt.
Amen. It's especially noteworthy how Stoller openly flirts with goldbuggery in his first post:
What connects all three of these Presidents is one thing – big ass wars, and specifically, war financing. If you think today’s deficits are bad, well, Abraham Lincoln financed the Civil War pretty much entirely by money printing and debt creation, taking America off the gold standard. He oversaw the founding of the nation’s first national financial regulator, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which chartered national banks and forced them to hold government debt to back currency they issued. The dollar then became the national currency, and Lincoln didn’t even back those dollars by gold (and gold is written into the Constitution).
Big time economists like Paul Krugman and John Kay (not to mention Yves Smith) have been strongly criticizing the foundations of economics. There may be a economics revolution in the offing. But there are still some ideas out there that are definitely nuts, and the gold standard is one of them. If an idea leads you anywhere close to Ron Paul's economics ideas, it's a good sign you're in dangerous territory.

Collected links

Some good longform stuff from here and there:

1. Lakhdar Boumediene tells how he was wrongly imprisoned in Guantanamo. For seven years. Read it.

2. The psychology of procrastination.

3. The man who sailed his house.

4. Gangs in El Salvador.

5. Wikipedia and the death of the expert.

6. Inside the mind of an octopus.

Jan 8, 2012

On the road again

Flying back to DC today. Here's the lovely Ute Mountain Casino.


Jan 7, 2012

Free scientific knowledge!

One of the most obnoxious things I run into as a fact checker is paywalled papers. Journals and places like JSTOR usually want you to pay an outrageous sum for a single paper—usually $25 or more. If you google around, you can often find the paper for free someplace, or someone with a lot of twitter followers will have mercy on you and get their followers to send it to you. It's still a pain though, and increasingly anachronistic.

On another plane of outrage is this recent effort from Elsevier (another publishing cartel). The National Institutes of Health came up with a "Public Access Policy," mandating that all taxpayer-funded research should be public domain. Elsevier doesn't like this:
But the policy has been quite unpopular with a powerful publishing cartels that are hellbent on denying US taxpayers access to and benefits from research they paid to produce. This industry already makes generous profits charging universities and hospitals for access to the biomedical research journals they publish. But unsatisfied with feeding at the public trough only once (the vast majority of the estimated $10 billion dollar revenue of biomedical publishers already comes from public funds), they are seeking to squeeze cancer patients and high school students for an additional $25 every time they want to read about the latest work of America’s scientists.
So they've bought themselves a congress critter to outlaw the Public Access Policy and make the public pay to see research we already paid to produce. Complain here:
Twitter: @RepMaloney @CarolynBMaloney

Phone: 202-225-7944

FAX: 202-225-4709

Jan 3, 2012

On the road again

I'm heading over to my old Utah childhood hometown to help my dad with some roofing. Might be there won't be cell phone service, in which case I'll be back on Thursday.

Jan 2, 2012

Department of WTF, free solo edition

Saw this guy on 60 minutes today:



Freakishly, frighteningly badass. See here for more.

Jan 1, 2012

2012 off to a good start

If it's Sunday, it's my dad's world famous omelettes:

Happy New Year!

Just hit it in my time zone, listening to Garrison Keillor sing Auld Lang Syne, feeling oddly melancholy. Hope all is well with you, and may next year be better than the last.