Monday, August 03, 2009


by Tom Bozzo

We'll be moving the show over to the long-neglected WordPress version of Marginal Utility. For those of you still checking in, please point your links to New Marginal Utility a/k/a To keep the forces of link-rot at bay, the archives here will remain.


Great Minds Think Alike

by Ken Houghton

And I guess that applies to James Wolcott and I as well.

Have Sarah Palin and George Jones ever been seen in the same place? And, collaterally, if 90% of life (or thereabouts) really is Just Showing Up, what does this say about the GOP vetting process?? (h/t Wonkette; headline NSFChildren). Or, as a certain NRO columnist would say:

For the rest of us, Ol' Possum got it closer with this one:

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Thursday, July 23, 2009

Gresham's Law of Pizza Relaxing?

by Tom Bozzo

One of those signs of a possible bottom of the Great Recession is that compared to (say) 9 months ago, a lot less of the time I spend worrying about the possible demise of beloved local small businesses is spent worrying about the one I work for.

Tops on the list of the hope-they're-thriving list is Pizza Brutta, our neighborhood outpost of the Madison Pizza Renaissance. Time was the city's pizza problem was that there was a lot of mediocre-to-bad pizza serving the large and quality-indifferent student and suburbanite-takeout markets. OK, there's still a lot of mediocre-to-bad pizza around. But with a Pizza Brutta around, making pies in the authentic Neapolitan style (with VPN certification) with market ingredients, the rest of them can be ignored.

I have a hard time imagining their cost structure. The big "fixed" investment is the wood-fired pizza oven. Was the build-out cheap or expensive? What are rents like on that stretch of Monroe St.? What's the margin on the microbrews on tap?

We recently hauled Nina Camic and the kids there for a one-of-us-is-still-blogging dinner.

The Caprese salad, with tomatoes from the Westside Community Market and house-made mozzarela:

The Caprino pizza (prosciutto, mushrooms, red onions, goat cheese, and arugula):

The Salsiccia pizza, my regular (house-made sausage, roasted onions, truffle oil):

Nina and Julia:
Nina and Julia

For some lily-gilding, Cafe Porta Alba, another VPN outlet late of downtown, is reappearing at Hilldale Mall while the Pizza Hut across the street appears to have closed. Madison readers, support good pizza!

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Monday, July 13, 2009

Offered without (Much) Comment

by Ken Houghton

Unfortunate E-Mail Headline from The New Yorker's weekly update on items in their current issue:
Sarah Palin, the obesity epidemic.

Place hasn't been the same since Jay McInerney stopped working there. Or at least Terry McGarry.

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Tuesday, July 07, 2009

What Have You Been Doing Lately?

by Ken Houghton

So I'm watching the remake of The End of the Affair, and I recognize the priest.

And, sure enough, Jason Isaacs was, indeed, one of the stars of Capital City (yet another show sadly missing from DVD release).

And I discover he also has another recurring role, this one in film.

But you knew that, didn't you?

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Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Answering the Question

by Ken Houghton

In about 3.5 hours, Stevie Wonder will officially open the Montreal Jazz Festival with a free concert less than a klometer from where I am now sitting. Which brings us back to the question from High Fidelity: "top five musical crimes perpetrated by Stevie Wonder in the '80s and '90s":

If I had to pick, using YouTube presence as a guide:

5. "Happy Birthday" as performed at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. (Starts around 4:22 in.)

Does almost everything wrong. The original is a tribute to Martin Luther King—who then isn't mentioned at all. Just one more reminder of how the Atlanta Olympic Committee lied to the shops on Martin Luther King about all of the business they would be seeing from the Olympic visitors—who were then discouraged from going anywhere near those shops, which spent several hundred thousand dollars on improvements in anticipation that they were not being lied to by the Organizing Committee.

4. Part Time Lover

Almost musically interesting. And detectably a Stevie Wonder song, unlike what follows.

3. I Just Called to Say I Love You

The proximate cause of the question from the movie, and truly a depressing song.

2. That's What Friends are For

Friends don't let friends make songs that don't highlight your skills at all. Even "We Own the World" was careful about that. This effort isn't.

1. Used to Be (with Charlene)

Unlike the later "Gone Too Soon" with Babyface, there's virtually nothing to recommend here; rhyming is strained ("Have another Chivas Regal/Twelve years old and sex is legal") and the history is worthy of Billy Joel ("someone shot the Beatles's lead guitar").

Which abominations am I missing?

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Monday, June 22, 2009

Random Notes, Night at the Museum II edition

by Ken Houghton

Yes, Youngest Daughter got to pick the movie for Father's Day/her birthday. Her review: "It was boring." Even worse: that was as compared to her sixth or seventh viewing of Hotel for Dogs.

So some random notes about it, and around the web:

(1) Lance Mannion did not warn me that the three cherubs are played by The Three Antichrists. Consider yourself so cautioned.*

(2) Ezra schools McMegan. Not that it will do any good.

(3) Did anyone else think Amy Adams at the end looks like a hennaed Erin O'Brien?

(4) The Hunting of the Snark did a two part post weeks ago on McMegan, bankruptcy, and health care that I'm still trying to digest. Which I mean in a good way. If rdan is reading this, yes, I think you should recruit Susan of Texas for Angry Bear; her latest post is a perfect summary of What's Wrong with Contemporary Conservative Thought. Though, as the Good Roger Ailes notes, she's developing a strong following for good reason.

(5) I assume it was the location of the theatre that got a laugh from the audience at the end of the film when Amelia Earhart leaves 77th Street and starts flying to "Canada." YMMV, but the film sorely needed laughs.

*However, since my version of H*ll would feature the "JoBros" performing "More than a Woman" and "This Song Must Drone On," their first appearance does qualify as an Adult Moment in a movie that has more of those than kid jokes.

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Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tinfoil Hat Time!

by Tom Bozzo

After reading this, and weeping a bit, some Deep Thoughts:

1. If the nice people at Fort Meade already have a bunch of quantum computers in the basement, then presumably public key cryptography isn't an obstacle to U.S. government access to the content of private communications. [*]

2. If the nice people at Fort Meade already are directly tapped into (e.g.) the Googleborg and not just communication switches, then we already live in a surveillance state more intrusive in many ways than (e.g.) the UK's CCTV panopticon. [**]

If neither 1 nor 2 is true, at least yet, then the general — versus privacy geek — appeal of encrypting one's personal communications has increased a lot.

Update: How could I have forgotten about first-class mail?! The venerable postal product is sealed against inspection and impervious to electronic surveillance.

[*] Which is not to say that it's lawful for them to be scooping up even ciphertext of U.S. domestic communications in contravention of FISA.

[**] Clearly some of Google's "free" services come at the price of letting its computers process one's communications and other online activities for the purpose of directing advertising, which is not without privacy considerations. Of course if Google decided to enter businesses such as blackmail, there would be legal remedies. Indeed, after posting this originally, Google served up a bunch of ads pertaining to commercial surveillance products and/or services.

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Monday, May 18, 2009

Short Subjects

by Ken Houghton

Susan of Texas has an immortal post on the housing crisis, McMegan's ratiocination, and the persistence of ignorant memes.

The OnionESPN reports on a bodybuilding championship.

Brad DeLong says the problem isn't that Geithner isn't organized, it's that he doesn't organize, leaving that to his assistants.

Two things that, for some reason, made me think of Erin: this today and this (via The New Yorker's Book Bench).

Another discussion of Harlan, from Nancy Nall, probably via Lance.

For all the complaining some SF(F)WAns do about Scribd, you would think the place was Pure Evil, not a Marketplace for Sf/Fantasy writers (see the screen shot) (also via The Book Bench).

Apparently, not all men from Brussels are naturally "six foot four and full of muscles."

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Monday, May 04, 2009

News Flash: Turing Test Almost Passed!

by Tom Bozzo

It's increasingly looking like the best explanation for Stanley Fish's "Think Again" column is that its "author" is actually a Fish-O-Matic in a sub-basement of the Times' headquarters building, cranking away on maybe version 0.8 of a Wolfram Alpha engine. I mean, what other explanation could there be for validating a claim of the "bourgeois fallacy par excellence" of "self-authorship" with a reference to Milton? [*] Surely the program's "imitate intellectual tics of source material" parameter overwhelmed the "deploy actual evidence in support of argument" parameter.

[*] I.e., those crazy sciento-religionists contend that there's no need for a god to serve as first cause let alone all causes (which theologians for centuries have said is neither necessary nor the same as the role of ineffable quality of being [**], [***]), and you know who else thinks he wasn't created? Milton's Satan. Ka-chow!

[**] Though it would be fair to say haven't reached consensus on that.

[***] It's funny how arguments in favor of god as ineffable quality of being almost trip over images ("father," "lord") or qualities (ability to love) that seem to my undertrained mind to be inherently effable. Cf. Aquinas: "God is what sustains all things in being by his love, and ... is the reason why there is something instead of nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever." Salon review of Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith, and Revolution, h/t Lance Mannion on Facebook.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Just a Question

by Ken Houghton

Have Lenny Dykstra and Beowulf Shaeffer ever been seen together?

Collateral question: Has Jim Cramer ever gotten anything correct?

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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Three Times is Enemy Action

by Tom Bozzo

Last year, John's chaser broke (irreparably, as it happens) at a joint that allows the long neck that connects its frame to the hitch to fold for easier non-bike transport. A lifetime frame warranty being what it is, it was replaced with minimal grumbling from the company that put its trade dress on the frame — this being the roaring zilches, the actual manufacturer is some unnamed Chinese factory making the bikes under contract.

Well lo, this morning I took a ride after dropping the boy at school and the new one broke in the same damn place! We may ride a lot, but this is getting ridiculous; chains and tires may be consumption items when one puts a couple thousand annual miles on one's bike, but frames?!1! This time, at least, it looks like it might be fixable.

It was all worth it though when John announced, as he was buckling his helmet this morning, that going to school by bike was "better than driving" because it "saves electricity." Well, close enough.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Minicar Owner vs. the IIHS

by Tom Bozzo

As the so-far happy owner of a 2009 Honda Fit, I read the results of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's minicar crash tests with some dismay — as in, oh joy, there goes my already not-super-cheap car insurance premium. That's despite the headline being purely Dog Bites Man, as in we all know small cars will end up on the short end of head-on crashes with much larger cars. If anything, the whole exercise begs the question of why IIHS didn't just face the Fit, Yaris, and ForTwo off against the Honda Pilot, Toyota Sequoia, and Mercedes GL-class, respectively. Surely minicar drivers are impressively fucked in front-offset collisions with 2-1/2-ton SUVs.

IIHS's prescription is that minicar intenders opt instead for high-MPG midsize cars. That's not totally objectionable (*), though in listing as alternatives the Camry and Ford Fusion hybrids plus the VW Jetta diesel IIHS effectively exhausts the current U.S. market in such vehicles. At least it makes them look more reasonable than if they had followed their logic to its conclusion that if we really wanted to be safe, we should all drive the largest possible vehicles. In fact, it's just as easy to interpret the IIHS results as favoring a shift to more light, small, slow cars with advanced safety features like my dear little Fit.

This is a story of externalities (of course), and in a world that's stupidly been populated with oversized cars and light trucks, the minicar driver sacrifices his or her lower extremeties in a severe crash so that drivers of legacy vehicles can be more lightly injured. Stick us in a high-MPG tanks instead, and there's a good chance that the aggregate damage from crashes will be increased — which on its face is socially undesirable if not obviously so from the insurance industry's perspective. Were small vehicles much more prevalent than they are now in the U.S., then the public could rely on the good performance of the better-engineered small cars on the usual crash tests (including IIHS's main efforts) in judging their safety.

AIG scandal aside, I've long assumed that my insurance company (if not insurance companies in general) does a terrible job of disentangling vehicle and driver effects. When I gave up my 1998 BMW M3 for a 2001 Honda Prelude with 45 fewer horsepower and barely 55% of the sticker price, my insurance premiums increased — not unlikely because Preludes were favored among fast-driving youth whereas the venerable E36 M3 was (a few trust-fund babies aside) actually favored among low-risk guys going early-middle-age-crazy (like me). So I was not dinged when I traded-in the 'Lude on an E46 330Ci, and I found that the subsequent Lexus was treated as if I were the little old lady from Pasadena; the Fit, on the other hand, is taken to be a greater risk despite its comparative dirt-cheapness. It may not help that the insurance company calls the car a 2-door notwithstanding that there's no such thing as a 2-door Fit.

So: insurance companies are stupid and their trade association doesn't know what's good for them. It perhaps goes without saying that some of the other statistics they deploy — high accident and fatality rates in minicars relative to the general automotive population — aren't worth a bucket of spit unless they've carefully controlled for driver effects (cheap cars are driven by the relatively young) and usage patterns (minicars are citycars and used in collision-rich environments). Screw them and I suppose I'll take my medicine in 5 months when the car insurance renewal comes in.


(*) IIHS correctly observes that the minicars' mileage, at least with U.S.-spec drivetrains, is good but not spectacular. The Fit's main virtue is in the efficiency with which it encloses space given its exterior dimensions and its lack of the small SUV's excess poundage and middle finger waved in the face of aerodynamics.



by Tom Bozzo

Thomas Frank:
As the mad-as-hell come together to proclaim their outrage, all the well-known earmarks of right-wing populism will no doubt be present. Leadership, in certain instances, will probably be furnished by one of the many well-known, well-funded Washington pressure groups. The ideology will be strictly Manichean: "government" and "freedom" in a zero-sum cage match..

Other than that, the tea partiers' stance on the issues is a little mysterious. But outrage is outrage, the party organizers probably figure; who will know the difference?
It's as if King George organized the Boston Tea Party, innit?

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Friday, April 03, 2009

Friday Preschooler Extra: Self-Portrait by Julia

by Tom Bozzo

Self-Portrait by Julia


Thursday, April 02, 2009

I Was Wondering When This Would Come Down

by Tom Bozzo

A fund of fund(s) that funneled money — including a portion of the late Madison Cultural Arts District trust fund — into the Madoff scam is in Big Trouble:
Massachusetts regulators have sued the Fairfield Greenwich Group, one of the earliest of these so-called feeder fund managers, for fraud, saying it had repeatedly misled investors about how diligently it checked out Mr. Madoff’s operations over the years.

“Fairfield’s complete disregard of its fiduciary duties to its investors and its flagrant and recurring misrepresentations to its investors rises to the level of fraud,” [said the complaint].
Henry Blodget had nicely ripped Fairfield Greenwich's marketing claims a while back (Fairfield Greenwich also apparently forgets that the Internets remember all). If the rap can be beaten with a claim that those were mere puffery rather than outright fraud, then the law surely is an ass: performing rigorous analysis of investment managers' strategies is one of the (few) ways a fund-of-funds can justify its fees-on-fees [*]. An interesting question is why this is being handled as a state matter; maybe now that the Ted Stevens debacle is over, some Justice Department resources can be liberated.

One thing this points to is that the "accredited investor" concept — the "safe harbor" that allows hedge funds to escape much regulation by limiting their services to high-income, high-net-worth investors — deserves a place, however minor, on John Quiggin's growing rubbish heap of refuted ideas. Merely being rich (or at least upper-middle class) didn't make the Madoff suckers and suckers-of-suckers sophisticated. [**] There's really little more (if not much less) reason to think the well-to-do can evaluate complicated investment strategies than that they can reliably complete their own taxes. The MCAD trust's case shows that moderately rich institutions with very rich benefactors are not exceptions. Ultimately there's a reliance, possibly at a couple degrees of separation (part of the Madoff fraud that I leave to the sociologists), on actual expertise. As we've seen, when that's faked, bad things happen.

(Cross-posted at Angry Bear.)


[*] That is, substantively justify, as opposed to charging what convention and apparent market failure allows the market to bear.

[**] In U.S. securities regulation, "sophisticated investors" is a more restrictive category such that few funds apparently use it, presumably to avoid too narrow an appeal for funds.

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