Saturday, December 31, 2005
The Last Post of the Year
We're back in Madison, the kids — amazingly, they survived a nonstop run from Minneapolis with only a little whining and about a half-dozen butter spritz cookies each — are fast asleep upstairs, and I'm a New Year's Eve martini away from happily hitting my own hay.
Such is life in the big city. Normal business will resume next year.
Happy New Year, all!
Friday, December 30, 2005
One More For The Book Hopper
Ken Houghton reminds me that I should pick up Pietra Rivoli's The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy : An Economist Examines the Markets, Power, and Politics of World Trade. The Yale Center for the Study of Globalization's website has a short article based on it here. One of her findings is that textile import quotas intended to protect the domestic textile industry actually helped speed the flight of textile production abroad.
While the point is a little buried in the article, one of the things that makes quotas particularly suck among departures from free trade is that they can be thought of as a tariff that's paid to the foreign producers rather than to the U.S. government. Rivoli points out that the "revenue" from the effective tariff is large per displaced U.S. textile worker, but it's being collected by the Chinese among others. (Likewise, restrictions on Japanese auto imports were much more of a bonanza for Honda and Toyota than for GM and Ford.)
Meanwhile, I'm reminded that I have to post some wrap-up thoughts on Accelerando and get back to reading The Republican War On Science.
Thursday, December 29, 2005
They Grow Old Faster Than We Do (For Now)
It's hard to believe this has been both John's fourth Christmas and our fourth with digital photography (*). We have, at the same time, been visiting with my old friends Chris and Lydia from NYC, and their Adorable Offspring Niels (a year older than John) and Iris (a couple months younger than Julia). As such, we have some time-lapse photography of the kids and us.
December 26, 2002: The boys, Lydia, and very sleep-deprived me. John is not so sleep-deprived.
December 26, 2003: Now, I'm with glasses and Lydia's without. The boys are a lot bigger and it's taken a lot more to get them to stop moving.
December 26, 2004: Now, the girls. Two months makes a big difference, esp. with Iris only a few days old.
December 26, 2005: The girls again. Julia desperately needs a nap. Iris is just up from one.
I've known Lydia since freshman year of college — the wild and wacky fall of 1985. I've known my friend Katherine (coincidentally also a veteran of the NYC transit strike), seen holding Julia while John declines to tear his attention away from one of Julia's pounding toys, since sixth grade. Fortunately, I have no scanner and can spare everyone the grade school yearbook pictures.
(*) It may be time for a new camera, as our current one has never been 100% right since its dip in Lake Monona the summer before last.
Wednesday, December 28, 2005
Thanks to all the commenters in this thread for the music suggestions. I started off with The Arcade Fire's "Funeral" and Spoon's "Girls Can Tell;" hat tip for the latter to my one-time employer Bert Ottaviano of Bert's CDs in Wilmington. The rest should keep the Madison shops busy for a while — or, if heavy weaponry is needed, Other Music NYC's mail order operation.
Meanwhile, Baby Boy Cousin (#4) was born at 5:17 CST this evening, so there'll be a new baby in St. Paul when we return to the Midwest. Congratulations to the parents and Cousin Al!
The Odyssey Continues...
More friends to see in suburban Washington (Maryland). The Time Flies theme continues as these are "new" — grad school — friends, meaning I've known them "only" 15 years.
On the plus side, we'll be able to pick up a broadband connection to the Internets at our next destination, so there may be some pictures up later.
Tuesday, December 27, 2005
I really shouldn't be whining today. It's our fifth wedding anniversary! (For regulars, the real thing; we celebrated early in Chicago.) I wonder how five years could have passed, but yesterday we visited with one friend I've known for 27 years, with another friend of college vintage which is (gasp) 20 years ago, and today ran into a third friend of comparably long tenure whose two boys were remarkably big.
I blame the time acceleration that accompanies child-rearing.
December 27, 2000
Dubious Achievement Awards
I don't have the bandwidth handy to upload the pictures for Christmas Part 3 in finite time, so instead here's a possible entry for the second Whining Carnival.
1. The "DVD Menus Should Be Seen And Possibly Heard, But Probably Way Less Than The Menu Designer Thinks" Award.
"New Friends For Thomas & Other Adventures" Whatever you might think of Thomas the Frickin' Tank Engine (TtFTE), this DVD truly features the main menu from Hell's tenth circle. In addition to the common annoyances of corporate logos and dire copyright infringement warnings that can't be skipped or sped through, the second-rate Thomas DVD menu narrator (certain parents will know what I mean) explains each menu item, seemingly unskippably, before any of the options can be selected. This takes what seems like an hour in the presence of a jittery three-year-old.
In contrast, "Percy Saves The Day" can be set to playing before Sir Topham Hatt can say "Sir Topham Hatt."
2. The "You Need A Better Reason Than This Not To Adhere To Standards" Award
It's become clear that the distinction between the TtFTE wooden trains and the die-cast "Take-Along Thomas" lines is lost on many casual observers. Heck, I have to look carefully even when wearing my glasses. None of this would matter if the damned things were compatible. Instead, they're just the slightest bit incompatible, so they'll couple together (magnetism not obeying marketing imperatives, one assumes) though not strongly, and the slightly smaller Take-Along vehicles will just stay on the wooden rails, but not well. The only saving grace is that the distinctions are also lost on John, except when one of the aforementioned near-incompatibilites leads to a major train wreck and a bigger toddler tizzy.
This award must be shared with the product planners of the otherwise sainted LEGO Group who decided that the Duplo TtFTE trains should employ a different gauge than the regular LEGO 'hobby' train sets. This decision is all the sillier as there will apparently be low-cost all-plastic LEGO track that's the same gauge as the expensive part-metal stuff used for the 9V electric stuff.
3. The "Is This Behavior Really Profit-Maximizing?" Award
The winners are the chiseling "legacy" airlines and their extra-charge snack boxes. May one or more of you find yourselves before "The Liquidatin' Judge" and bring the low-fare carriers to the northern provinces sooner rather than later.
Seriously, I'm not inherently opposed to extra-charge in-flight meals. I just see it as (if nothing else) good customer relations, for businesses that rely heavily on customer loyalty for profit, that the extra-cost food should be marketable to someone who was not trapped for two-hours-plus in a bouncing aluminum can packed full of Midwesterners. My helpful suggestion: Sell the equivalent of the first-class meal to all passengers at the time of the reservation. Among other advantages, the revenue is collected up front, freeing flight attendants from a lot of cash handling, and real food can probably be sold at a higher markup than awful pre-packaged snacks.
Monday, December 26, 2005
Expanding the Musical Horizons
Much as I enjoy playing Friday-Stump-the-iTunes-Music-Store with the detritus of my college-radio days, I do actually want to listen to new things once in a while. So, folks who follow the Marginal Utility tens (or don't, but have an opinion), what should I be listening to that I am not?
1. The Decemberists, Scrivener's favorites.
2. The Arcade Fire, from the Pub Sociology family. And I should add Rilo Kiley, considering Brayden's celebrity crush on Jenny Lewis. Or maybe Electrelane? (Four!)
Today Is The First Day Of The Rest Of The Christmas Shopping Season
...which means I'll be on the prowl for cheap LEGO sets, and will also try do something about the little "problem" that John got two Henrys (the Big Green Engine) and two copies of the "Percy Saves The Day" video. If only all children had such problems. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, consider yourself the non-parent of a train-obsessed child!
Meanwhile, unless/until I snag a broadband connection somewhere, blogging will be light. You all probably weren't exactly dying to hear about our ride on the Vomit Comet (*) and our recovery to dig in to Christmas dinner.
(*) We assume that Virgin Galactic will provide its passengers with nothing but the best in motion-sickness medication.
Sunday, December 25, 2005
Christmas Part 2
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all of you reading blogs today.
There's much to wish for, including:
- Peace on earth, of course.
- A healthy arrival for Cousin #4, my sister-in-law's imminently due baby boy.
- Good luck to Ben Bernanke. He'll need it.
- Collapse of the Republican revolution under the weight of its own internal contradictions.
- Another year of excellent blog-pals and lots of stuff to blog about.
- Fill in your own intercession here ______________________ .
Shock and awe. He didn't have much trouble with the haul being divided 15 ways.
Julia says, I will not cede the cuteness space to the new baby!
The women are happy.
The Thomas zombie with Henry, trucks, and pretzels.
Saturday, December 24, 2005
Shining Efforts in Journamalism
While the Kos diarist who ran the story of the "Little Red Book" hoax blames the UMass Dartmouth professors for the incident, the blame is more properly placed with the journalists who reported and published the poorly sourced story in the first place.
In the original account, it's reported that the professors had been contacted to comment on the bigger domestic spying story:
The professors had been asked to comment on a report that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to spy on as many as 500 people at any given time since 2002 in this country.And assuming this is accurately reported, they had one heck of an anecdote to relate to the reporter. The question is, what should a good reporter (and the reporter's editor) have done with it?
Well, for one thing, obtaining a firsthand account would have been useful, even if there was no reason to believe that the professors were misrepresenting what they'd been told. The original reporting said that the student had not been directly contacted for the story, which was a major defect. That would have given the reporter a much better chance to collect verifiable details of the story and to determine if they held water — in this case, they didn't.
There was also no report of the reporter obtaining, or attempting to obtain, a statement from DHS. An official denial, yes even from a Bush agency, should carry some weight against a second-hand story of a civil liberties abuse.
In short, the reporter didn't do enough reporting, and his editors didn't seem to require it, before running with the story. Moreover, the journalistic failures are gross enough that it's hardly necessary to convene a blogger ethics panel to figure it out.
As for us monkeys with keyboards, skepticism of stories that are too good to be true is , of course, essential. But it's not as if the original source was a student blog transmitted up through the MSB and diffused from there. It's garbage in, garbage out. Since things that happen in the provinces will often be reported first by papers not unlike the Standard-Times, it would be nice if what they reported weren't garbage.
One For The Urban Legend File
That college student reportedly visited by the Feds over an interlibrary loan request for Mao's "Little Red Book," wasn't.
Evidently, the student's story changed while discussing the matter with one of the professors quoted in the original article, leading to the unraveling of the hoax. More details are at Daily Kos. For the record, I'd been skeptical of the sketchy sourcing of the original article.
I have no desire to propagate urban legends, even those that confirm my priors. Reality is more than sufficient to ensure that I maintain an ample supply of tinfoil around the house.
Friday, December 23, 2005
Christmas Part 1
The first of our three Christmases was also the first we've had round our own tree, and it felt very grown up to be setting out the presents for the kids.
While there's no doubt that we could have bought a lot more stuff for the kids than we actually did, we nevertheless got them a Good Amount of Stuff. The question of whether the amount of stuff was optimal was quickly answered when John opened his first gift, Edward the Blue Engine, then promptly abandoned the rest of the spread so he could take Edward down to the basement to shunt some trucks. Will we learn? Probably not.
Nothing like a new crayon. Other stuff a plus.
Julia was basically along for the ride. Here, crazy-haired Daddy helps her with some unwrapping.
Meanwhile, the inter-Christmas period has given the kids plenty of time with their cousins.
Julia and cousin Sam.
Cousin Al cracks John up.
I face unforeseen competition from Frosty the Snowman.
Did I mention it was 43 degrees? Woohoo! I don't think I'd been outside without a coat (for any appreciable amount of time) since mid-November.
Dialogues of the Toddlers: Facts Of Life To Be Taught Edition
One of Julia's presents from Christmas #1 (*) was the DVD of the 1974 children's classic Free To Be You And Me, which has temporarily replaced the all-Thomas-all-the-time video programming. Though the kids and the grown-ups are fascinated by the "When We Grow Up" duet with Roberta Flack and pre-freakshow Michael Jackson for different reasons.
John tends to watch new videos in expanding chunks (and he'll turn the TV off when He's Done, increasingly to Julia's annoyance), so we'd made it to a segment where the newborn puppets, voiced by Mel Brooks and Marlo Thomas, are joined by a multicultural group of other newborn puppets for a song-and-dance number, and John said:
J: "Look, there are brown babies."Oy. Madison is waaay too white.
S (following directly): "Babies come in many colors."
(*) An upshot of our holiday odyssey is that Santa Claus will show up no fewer than three times for our children, the first having been 12/18 as that was our opportunity to hang out in our jammies and open presents around our own tree. Pix have yet to be extracted from the camera.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
The Road To A Holiday Card: Herding Cats
"Would you take Thomas out of your mouth, little boy?"
Um, Julia, could you look at the camera?
Could you both look at the camera (and not Mr. Rogers)?
I'll take this "say cheese" business under advisement.
Amazingly, a picture that was, if not suitable, then at least a superior alternative to sending out holiday=Easter/Passover cards, did get taken. Holiday card pixies should see something in the mail no later than the first week of '06. If you are not a holiday card pixie but would like to be one, leave a comment or send me an e-mail.
Wednesday, December 21, 2005
I Whine, Therefore I Blog
My very good blog-pal Phantom Scribbler, proprietress of one of the friendliest spots on the Internets, hosts the long-running weekly catharsis, "Wednesday whining," where the elite meet to gripe in search of the coveted Play-Dough violin of the I Love To Kvetch Out Loud Award.
She's now launched the Whining Carnival in hopes of collecting some of the best examples of kvetching outside her own comment section. You'd never think cat pee and sick children could be so bloggable. I like the 12 Days of Whinemas from Lucy of Always Listen To Your Pig-Puppet myself. Go check it out.
At Least I Agree There's A "Domestic Intelligence Crisis"
From Ken Houghton, Feb. 11, 2005:
I swore off [the Becker/Posner Blog] when I realised that Marginal Revolution was at least willing to defend its politics and leaps of logic, instead of the Becker/Posner "we rule by fiat."That's a comment as relevant today as it was ten months ago, as it turns out.
Richard Posner, Dec. 21, 2005:
These programs (*) are criticized as grave threats to civil liberties. They are not.Well, that clears up everything. Thanks!
I'm sure that Judge Posner's personal opinion would never affect his rulings over there at the seventh circuit court of appeals, because that would be judicial activism.
(*) The NSA's extra-FISA eavesdropping, the Pentagon's CIFA program, the Pentagon's charmingly-named "Information Dominance Center."
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
The WOPICUSHION Meme
As suggested by Oscar Madison, and just in time for the Festivus Airing of Grievances, post your six favorite reasons why George W. Bush is the
WOrst President In Combined United States History In Our Nation.
(Hey, sometimes you need to break some eggs to make an acronym.)
Mine, in no particular order:
1. Bin Laden Determined To Strike In U.S. Bush determined to clear brush in Crawford. It's been all but forbidden to explore the could-have-beens, but what if they'd pounded the need to watch for suspicious behavior down the law enforcement chain of command when the Colleen Rowleys of the world were ferreting some elements of the plot out?
2. The Iraq war. Where to start? Tens of thousands of lives and nearly a half-trillion dollars spent on the neocons' idée fixe have bought us Saddam in court proceedings that only underscore the desirability of trying such criminals before the International Criminal Court, and some good, clean elections. Bush is also given excess credit for the as yet incomplete effort in Afghanistan, the launch of which was so near consensus that only the most ardent pacifists would have opposed removing the Taliban. Meanwhile, Afghanistan has a weak central government, ongoing violence, and is a leading narco-state. By the way, where is that Bin Laden guy?
3. The end of fiscal conservatism. Deeply misleading budget accounting rules can barely conceal the black hole into which the federal budget is headed, not least thanks to degenerate Republican tax discourse that can't acknowledge the possibility of raising revenue to meet spending obligations that nobody is willing to forego. The only solutions profferred by the Bush economic "policy" team? More tax cuts! I'm glad it's Ben Bernanke and not me who has to figure out how to keep the U.S. economic imbalances from blowing up in our faces.
4. The Republican war on science. Kudos to Bush appointee Judge John Jones for seeing "intelligent design" theory for what it is: Creationism in a cheap tuxedo. That's just about the end of the good news. Otherwise, from global warming to drug approvals to biomedical research policy to space exploration, science is valued no more than its ability to advance Bush policies politically, which is not often much.
5. Heckuva job, Brownie. Important jobs in the bureaucracy go to political hacks, who then rise to the challenges of their jobs by writing e-mails to their staff about their fashion divinity while cities drown, etc. And let's not forget that senior administration officials who failed us before 9/11 and were instrumental in misleading us into the Iraq war were rewarded with promotions.
6. Stasi lite. The unprecedented war on freedom: Rendition, torture, indefinite detention of citizens without charge, domestic spying that we know about and probably lots we don't. 'Nuff said.
If you've wondered enough about some of the crazy stuff in the [Random/Nonrandom] Ten playlists posted to this blog to try to obtain some of it, a good place to start is a recent Rhino Records 100-song box set, "Children Of Nuggets: Original Artyfacts From The Second Psychedelic Era 1976-1995," with a hat tip to the Onion's musical year in review. "Nuggets" was a series of Rhino vinyl compilations of garage, grunge, and psychedelia mostly from the second half of the sixties.
The commercial end of the "Children" package includes tracks from the Bangles, the Dukes of Stratosphear (a.k.a. XTC), and Primal Scream from before their rave-influenced days, which is to say it doesn't waste any space on especially well-known cuts just to get a TV soundbite or two. Among material that would be difficult to obtain otherwise, it nicely incorporates a number of choice tracks of British indie neopsychedelia as well as Australian garage-grunge a la the Hoodoo Gurus and The Died Pretty, much of which can't be had through the iTunes music store or other legal web services.
This set might even make it to my post-holiday shopping list, as it compiles a bunch of tracks that I either don't have in my personal collection, but recall somewhat fondly from my radio days, or that I'd have to laboriously convert from the vinyl.
Hey Mr. Thought Policeman!
Something, like the desire not to have to apply tinfoil to the underside of my swell hat with the ear flaps, makes me wish that this widely-blogged story from the New Bedford (MA) Standard-Times — about a courtesy call paid by federal agents to a student who requested Mao's "Little Red Book" through inter-library loan for a political science class assignment — were an urban legend (*). [Update 12/24/05: The student admitted to fabricating the story.] Sadly, there isn't any question that the feds are poking through some academics' reading material, as Juan Cole notes in his take on the story.
Also scary are the activities of the DoD's Counterintelligence Field Activity (CIFA) unit, some of whose broadening internal security remit, carried out nearly without oversight, are described in a sobering piece by Walter Pincus in the Washington Post (printed on page A10 of the dead-tree edition). Those, notoriously, have included collecting information on peaceful domestic protests — including a small rally in Madison — and retaining the information when Pentagon regulations would have required it to be destroyed.
I've seen a couple visits on the Site Meter reported as originating in the cifa.mil domain, and have been curious to know whether the visitor(s) have looking for subversion in the left blogosphere or just blowing some of the 'black' budget surfing the web like normal folks. Again, much as I might like to think the latter, I can't help but suppose that there's a database entry somewhere describing this site as "citizen exercising Constitutional rights" — or, at least, they're my rights for now.
But wait, there's more! The FBI is in on the action, too. Eric Lichtblau reports in the Times:
Counterterrorism agents at the Federal Bureau of Investigation have conducted numerous surveillance and intelligence-gathering operations that involved, at least indirectly, groups active in causes as diverse as the environment, animal cruelty and poverty relief, newly disclosed agency records show.Sure. Since the architect of the plan was John Ashcroft, noted defender of Justice (or at least coverer-up of her boobs), you'll forgive me if I don't give this much more credence than if it had come from J. Edgar Hoover.
F.B.I. officials said Monday that their investigators had no interest in monitoring political or social activities and that any investigations that touched on advocacy groups were driven by evidence of criminal or violent activity at public protests and in other settings.
There is some pure comedy gold in the files, reportedly:
Another [FBI] document talks of the Catholic Workers group's "semi-communistic ideology."Maybe the agents involved forgot that Christianity's founding ideology is, well, quasi-communistic.
One problem, for people who care more about security than liberties, is a variation on Scrivener's critique of the NSA spying: Fishing expeditions with possible (or probable) political motivations waste resources that could be used to find the real terrorists. If anything, FBI agents' investigative skills are a scarcer resource than the NSA's capacity to intercept, if not to interpret in a timely manner, electronic communications. With 9/11 being invoked so often in Bush's defense of his illegal exercise of powers as to make a very dangerous drinking game, it's necessary to set the way-back machine to the summer of 2001 and mention a couple of politically incorrect truths. (**)
Without any expanded powers of the new era, various investigators managed to stumble upon some of the 9/11 plotters. They were stymied by feckless managers in the federal law-enforcement bureaucracy as much as some obvious failures of information-sharing among agencies. But that fecklessness could have been overcome had the people who since have been promoted to higher positions in the diplomacy and national security apparatus — not to mention re-hired as president — actually given a crap about the terrorist threat when it mattered, like this Richard Clarke guy. In which case, those managers might have decided that the correct CYA decision was more, not less, investigation.
Why Russ Feingold's original vote on the USA PATRIOT Act was the right one is that it was never shown that unconventional methods that assail basic civil liberties are necessary or even helpful in the effort against terrorism. (See Vladimir Bukovsky at the link provided yesterday.) Criticizing the law enforcement approach to combating terrorism may be a fashionable theme for the right, but it's nothing more.
(*) Among the story's weaknesses, the reporter did not actually speak to the student in question, nor was there a report of a perfunctory "no comment" brush-off from the Department of Homeland Security.
(**) Which, I'm surprised and disappointed to see that the usually perceptive Jim Kunstler has forgotten in his admiration for Bush's "hard-boiled" remarks versus the public's "short memory." (Or, he's using irony on such an unsubtle level that I can't detect it.) The shady companion to the mantra that 9/11 changed everything is a direct campaign to see that pre-9/11 efforts weren't reviewed too critically, or more precisely in a manner calculated to yield a "mild pox on all their houses" conclusion.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Holiday Music Time and The Monday Nonrandom Ten
We interrupt the regularly scheduled outrage to bring you this important holiday music note. (Actually, I saw Tbogg's immortal holiday ten and felt, for no reason of real connection, like I had to reconceptualize what would have been Friday's playlist.)
Holiday music is occupying four of the five slots in the kitchen/dining room CD changer, and here are my Helpful Suggestions for the holiday music collections of people who have such things.
These discs are worth having:
1. The Roches, We Three Kings. John loves their fractured rendition of "Frosty The Snowman," but it's not just a comedy album.
2. Shawn Colvin, Holiday Songs and Lullabies. Unfortunately, this seems to be out of print. There may be ways of getting a copy anyhow.
3. Charpentier, Pastorale sur la naissance de notre Seigneur Jésus-Christ (H. 483), Les Arts Florissants/William Christie. For Baroque music fans, this is excellent if you have seasonal Handel fatigue. The single CD version I have is also out of print, but the 5-CD Charpentier collection on Harmonia Mundi would be a steal at twice its $40 direct price.
This disc will, despite its mellowing aims, drive me cuckoo bananas if I hear it one more time:
1. George Winston, December. Total. Crap. And I do not respect people who request Pachelbel's Canon in D major from Ruthanne Bessman on WPR's "Classics By Request."
Meanwhile, I offer this playlist from which a pattern may be detected.
1. Band Of Susans, Where Have All The Flowers Gone?, Hope Against Hope
2. Galaxie 500, Snowstorm, On Fire
3. Biff Bang Pow, She Shivers Inside, The Girl Who Runs The Beat Hotel
4. Charlatans, Polar Bear, Some Friendly
5. The Chills, Night Of Chill Blue, Brave Words
6. Modern English, After The Snow, After The Snow
7. The Jasmine Minks, Summer! Where?, Scratch The Surface/Another Age
8. Felt, I Worship The Sun, Crumbling The Antiseptic Beauty/The Splendour Of Fear
9. The Jesus & Mary Chain, Surfin' USA, Barbed Wire Kisses
10. The Sex Pistols, Holidays In The Sun, Never Mind The Bollocks
Worthwhile reading, courtesy of the incomparable MaxSpeak.
Vladimir Bukovsky, Torture's Long Shadow.
So, why would democratically elected leaders of the United States ever want to legalize what a succession of Russian monarchs strove to abolish? Why run the risk of unleashing a fury that even Stalin had problems controlling? Why would anyone try to "improve intelligence-gathering capability" by destroying what was left of it? Frustration? Ineptitude? Ignorance? Or, has their friendship with a certain former KGB lieutenant colonel, V. Putin, rubbed off on the American leaders? I have no answer to these questions, but I do know that if Vice President Cheney is right and that some "cruel, inhumane or degrading" (CID) treatment of captives is a necessary tool for winning the war on terrorism, then the war is lost already.
Harold Bloom, Reflections In The Evening Land.
Huey Long, known as "the Kingfish," dominated the state of Louisiana from 1928 until his assassination in 1935, at the age of 42. Simultaneously governor and a United States senator, the canny Kingfish uttered a prophecy that haunts me in this late summer of 2005, 70 years after his violent end: "Of course we will have fascism in America but we will call it democracy!"
There is now a parody of the American Jesus, a kind of Republican CEO who disapproves of taxes, and who has widened the needle's eye so that camels and the wealthy pass readily into the Kingdom of Heaven. We have also an American holy spirit, the comforter of our burgeoning poor, who don't bother to vote. The American trinity pragmatically is completed by an imperial warrior God, trampling with shock and awe.
Read the rest!
Sunday, December 18, 2005
Behind The New Iron Curtain
Ten and a half years ago, I enjoyed an expenses-paid trip to Berlin to give a job talk, and in some of my down-time, I took the bus from the might-have-been office to the Alexanderplatz for a quick Fassbinder tour. The first thing I noticed upon arrival was that the Alexanderplatz had already been colonized by TGI Friday's. I thought, the Cold War is over, and corporate America won.
It's ironic that at this point, we seem to be turning into the old East Germany, but with better cars, as old Dubya flexes his authoritarian muscles in response to the domestic spying bombshell. I'll be blunt: If our public laws and freedoms are only window dressing for a secret set of laws delineating our real freedoms, then our putatively free society is a sham.
It's bad enough when the secret law is an ostensibly trivial regulation, like the rule requiring passengers to present photo ID at airport security checkpoints, that's kept secret seemingly out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Once it's accept that executive authority alone is sufficient to turn the intelligence agencies into the Stasi Lite (with 1/3 less torture!), rule of law is out the window. That's why the story matters.
Of course, the whole affair is not appropriately considered the tip of the iceberg, so much as maybe the 10% below the 10% just under the metaphorical water, following as it does the administration's efforts to assert unlimited power in its torture (link via The Sideshow), rendition, and 'enemy combatant' detention outrages.
Impeach George W. Bush. Impeach Richard Cheney. Impeach them now.
Saturday, December 17, 2005
Suggested Wanker of the Day
So many choices, what with Bush yanking the crown clean out of the Pope's hands and all. But the timing dictates a nod to...
Rudy "Three Cheers for Fascism" Giuliani. (Nickname swiped from Atrios.)
Short subtext of the op-ed: "If we don't volunarily cede our civil liberties, the Bush administration will just arrogate the authority to take them from us anyway."
Observation #1: Inserting "potential" between "grave" and "threat" has the effect of vastly understating the gravity of the implied threat.
Observation #2: Depending on just how well your potential opponents' campaign strategists channel the ghosts of Lee Atwater and Karl Rove, good luck getting past the South Carolina primary, philandering New Yorker with gay pals and Vagina Monologuist ex-wife.
Thank You, Russ Feingold
Granted, the revelation of the administration's latest (and among the least deniable) criminality seems to have put a wind at the back of the effort to stall the reauthorization of the USA PATRIOT Act (*). Still, you gotta think that Feingold's original and sole opposition to the act, and subsequent electoral demolition of an opponent whose national security platform was more-PATRIOTic-than-thou, planted the seed that it was politically feasible to stand in its way.
Indeed, I'm so thankful that I can forget about the occasional cognitive dissonance pertaining to certain Bush appointees whose commitment to preserving those rights is, or was, suspect to say the least. It's certainly less problematic than the anti-civil-liberties pandering of a junior senator from New York who should stick to her day job.
(*) From a framing standpoint, I'm opposed to shortening the short title to the less acronymic-looking "Patriot Act," with its obvious implication that opponents are less than patriotic.
Friday, December 16, 2005
The Rich Are Undertaxed, Part CXLVI
Is hymen reconstruction surgery "the ultimate gift for the man who has everything," as one Jeannette Yarborough — who'd spent $5,000 to give her husband an extra special surprise for their 17th anniversary — told the Wall Street Journal (via Battlepanda, Pandagon, and elsewhere)? Is it anything other than a Sign of the Impending Apocalypse (with extra hoofbeats!) that the answer isn't self-evidently "No"?
The post's title, an occasional refrain here at Marginal Utility, formed the nucleus of a comment at Battlepanda, where I first caught the item. Needless to say, a follow-up comment from one "Cornelius van Vorst" sought to put me in my place:
Yes. People who buy things you wouldn't should have the money taken away from them... What's the smiley for rolling your eyes?Hummers are things that people buy that I wouldn't. Ice sculptures of David peeing vodka are, by the slenderest margin, things that people buy that I wouldn't.
Say, if you will, that it's the exception that proves the rule, but there's no way that the government couldn't make better use of $5,000 than someone who would use it to play pseudo-virgin for a day, even if it's just to stave off the unsustainability of the federal deficit by 0.75 second.
Days until the winter solstice: 5.
Heating degree-days, normal month-to-date (12/15), Madison: 588.
Heating degree-days, actual month-to-date (12/15/05), Madison: 733.
Price of natural gas (NYMEX Henry Hub Future): $13.38.
Remaining tolerance for winter: 0%.
Number of times my car has gotten stuck in the snow within 100 feet of the driveway, despite electronic driveability doo-dads: 4.
Time until new all-wheel drive car arrives: Not soon enough.
Sight of John decorating graham cracker cottage at Nursery School, licking icing off: Cute!
Sight of John projectile-vomiting said icing across kitchen, all over Suzanne: Not cute!
Sight of mommy and daddy joining John in the stomach bug derby: Just pathetic.
Thursday, December 15, 2005
More on the Alternative Minimum Tax
Max Sawicky has a pretty good post enumerating some reasons why the Alternative Minimum Tax should be disliked, along with an unimpeachable prescription that the revenue should be replaced by other means (the government needs the money, m'kay?).
I do think a couple of Max's arguments are mildly overstated. The main quibbles:
First, he complains that AMT is child-unfriendly. This is true to the extent that size of the AMT's zero-rate bracket (the first $58,000 of AMT-taxable income) doesn't depend on the number of dependents, unlike the conventional income tax. With the $58,000 exemption, though, you have to have a large brood for this to matter. However, AMT does not take away all child-related tax expenditures. In particular, the child tax credit is subtracted after the AMT calculation, though a lot (if a decreasing share) of current AMT payers will have incomes well into the credit's phase-out territory.
Second, he complains about the AMT's higher rates. This is a more normative matter, but I've previously noted that the 26% and 28% marginal rates are hardly confiscatory, especially considering that the AMT rate is zero over a range where conventional income tax rates are 10%-15%. Plus, something like 70% tax filers fall in the AMT's zero bracket. I think a better liberal AMT rates complaint is that the top rate isn't high enough, so AMT doesn't collect enough from the very well-to-do.
One of Max's other commenters rightly notes that what moves the AMT debate from quasi-farce to an insult to the intelligence of anyone who's been following the Bush tax "cuts" odyssey closely is that all of this is happening by design. Cutting the upper conventional income tax rates while leaving AMT rates unchanged (and its brackets unindexed for inflation) in the initial round ensured that AMT would take away much of the out-year "cut" for the upper-middle class, and thus made the loss of revenue look much smaller for plausible deniability of fiscal conservatism purposes.
The nudge-and-wink, of course, was that the Republicans weren't really going to stiff the upper-middle and lower-upper classes, though clearly Frist has insufficient political acumen and/or capital to pull that off. I would be remiss to note that the AMT design is such that being "stiffed" is more of an annoyance than anything. Had the temporary AMT relief not been in place last year, I'd have had roughly a $1,000 AMT bill, but my total Federal income tax still would have been less than 10% of my AGI.
That leaves me in substantial agreement with Ken Houghton, who commented yesterday that he'd be happy to pay AMT, if needed, as long as the much richer beneficiaries of the other atrocities — e.g., the capital gains and dividend rate reductions — have to pay too.
As it happens, yesterday I'd read somewhere that the latest tactic was to uncouple AMT relief from the rest of the package, so rich-state Democrats would help it through, while ramming through the rest of the package under filibuster-proof rules. That's Republican fiscal responsibility in action!
Wednesday, December 14, 2005
Isthmus of Evil
My friend Tom C. in New York points me (*) to this Media Matters item informing me that Falafel Bill "One Good Reason Not To Waste Money On Cable TV" O'Lielly said this about Our Fair City:
O'REILLY: Now, this is a conservative city, Richmond. I mean, this is not Madison, Wisconsin, where you expect those people to be communing with Satan up there in the Madison, Wisconsin, media.Well, quite. That's about the only thing that explains this from our larger-circulation daily, whose editorial opinions can resemble a small-town version of the other WSJ. Then again, the State Journal's publisher unloaded on the legislature's paleoconservative leaders today, so maybe redemption is possible after all:
Here's some advice for the Republican leadership in Wisconsin's Legislature: get serious.
When I look at the legislation proposed by the Senate and Assembly Republicans I see an apparent obsession with matters trivial, wrongheaded or positively harmful to the well being of Wisconsin combined with a conspicuous avoidance of legislation on issues of actual importance.
Let's review the dog's breakfast of bad legislation the majority has recently attempted to foist on the state:
Concealed carry. Just what we need - our streets, shopping malls and workplaces thronged with citizens packing heat. I'm sure there are worse ideas than this, but I can't think of one right now.
A ban on same sex marriage. Already illegal. This is a frivolous waste of time.
Limits on stem-cell research. Great idea. Let's strangle one of the state's growth industries in its crib.
A prohibition on University Health Services dispensing morning after contraceptives to coeds. Guaranteed to stop premarital sex dead in its tracks. Not.
I consider the gay marriage amendment to be far worse than a frivolous waste of time, but you get the picture. [Addendum: From O'Reilly's perspective, clearly, this would simply prove that even WSJ management are wearing pentagram T's under their suits.]
Oh, and I probably know as many Madison Wiccans as I know Madison Jews, and I've been known to stay up all hours playing Diablo II. Diablo II is, of course, all about slaying demons, but I'd think the distinction would be lost on a Fox News personality.
On the plus side, at least O'Reilly didn't suggest that terrorists should bomb the Overture Center.
(*) He's also the source of the post title.
The Audi R8 race car, first fielded in 2000, has been the dominant endurance racer since. It's successor, the R10, was just unveiled, and the surprise is that its engine is a diesel. It's even equipped with particulate filters!
Unlike, say, a 1980 Olds Toronado, this one should achieve greater-than-dead-moose pickup as it makes 650 horsepower and 1100 Nm torque (~810 lb-ft for the non-metric world). Fuel consumption is an issue in the selection of diesel power, though the Audi press info notes that racers take about 3/4 of the Le Mans circuit at full throttle, where diesels have less of an efficiency advantage over gasoline engines, reducing the diesel's advantage in that department.
It would be an entertaining eco-stunt, though, to run the car on vegetable oil.
Strategery of the Frist: The Case of the AMT
The Majority Leader discovers a tax cut he can't commit to cat-herding through the Senate:
New York Times: Cut In Minimum Tax Not Likely: Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, said Tuesday that Congress was not likely to act this year to shield millions of middle- and upper-income taxpayers from a larger income tax bite as lawmakers moved into the final days of the session with many major issues hanging in the balance.In some ways, this could be worse:
In laying out what he hoped to accomplish before adjourning for the year, Mr. Frist, Republican of Tennessee, said that "in all likelihood" the Senate would not try to reach agreement with the House on competing $30 billion plans to reduce the impact of the alternative minimum tax. The tax, originally created to prevent the rich from escaping tax liability, is expected to reach another 15 million Americans next year because of inflation.
Mr. Frist's position means it is likely that Congress will also delay until 2006 a larger debate over nearly $100 million [sic; billion is meant] in tax breaks that Republicans say are essential to economic growth. But the House and Senate have taken different approaches on tax relief, with the House extending lower tax rates on investments while the Senate balked because of opposition from Democrats and Republican moderates.The rest of the Republican tax package is pretty much an unmitigated atrocity, particularly when paired with the otherwise symbolic spending cuts directed at such groups as the sick, the hungry, and college students, as my good friend Drek recently observed. AMT incidence, at least, is predominantly upper-middle-class instead of upper-class. Politically, the extension is a no-brainer: While the tax bills won't appear until spring '07, segments of the working well-to-do are swing consitutencies and balking on relief cedes tax-cutting ground to Democrats like Chuck Schumer, who managed a pretty good sound bite:
"This should have been our No. 1 tax priority and instead, because of right-wing ideological objectives, the middle and upper class will suffer and only the very, very wealthy will benefit."My #1 tax priority would be raising the money the government needs fairly and efficiently, but hey.
The president of Iran is batsh*t crazy.
Tuesday, December 13, 2005
Schelling's Nobel Lecture
See the video here (via Mark Kleiman). The joyful lunchtime thought from Prof. Kleiman:
Here Schelling is back to arms control, and he's about as cheerful and playful as a wolfpack: grimly satisfied that, surprisingly, we've gone sixty years since Hiroshima and Nagasaki without seeing nukes used in anger again, and grimly determined, though only cautiously optimistic, about keeping that record going.
The take-home point: The nuclear taboo might never have been created, but now that it exists we should all treasure it. We all need to hope that the Iranian mullahs are as wise as LBJ and not as batsh*t crazy as John Foster Dulles, and the United States has to learn what it means to be deterred.
That's partly why I'd be happy to try to distract Dr. Strangelove types by throwing them the bone of nuclear-powered space probes to explore the outer Solar System. Though I fear that the truly batsh*t crazy types who want to have things like "little" nuclear bunker busters handy are beyond simple distraction.
It's The Price Of Natural Gas, Too...
Mark Thoma finds Krugman explaining Bush's popularity bounce in terms of moderating gasoline prices.
Economist's View: It's The Price Of Gas, Stupid!:This does not bode well for Bush's popularity as more heating bills arrive. My recently arrived bill from Madison Gas and Electric features a fuel price 51% higher than last year ($1.23/therm vs. $0.82/therm), partly offset by a decline in the distribution price per therm (which I don't expect will recur), for a net 36% increase year over year. This graph shows the basic trend, though not the extent of the fall carnage. Don't expect any significant relief this heating season.Paul Krugman: The latest polls do show some improvement in peoples' perception of the economy, although it's still strongly negative. But there's no mystery there: it's all about gasoline prices. It turns out that there's a stunningly close relationship between short-term movements in Bush's approval rating and changes in the price of gasoline. You can see it for yourself at an interesting web site, Professor Pollkatz's Pool of Polls. (The site is very anti-Bush but provides interesting data analysis whatever your politics.) In fact, given the fall in gas prices back to pre-Katrina levels, the surprising thing is how little of a boost Bush and his economic performance ratings have received.
The gas price surge increased the gas bill $44 year/year — $48 for fuel alone. Even controlling for the weather, the hit is still around $40, or a bit more than a tank of gas for one of the cars, which basically takes away the gasoline price retreat from the post-Katrina peak. That slide doesn't seem likely to continue any further, as oil prices stick around $60 and our OPEC pals decide they might actually like to see prices firm up in that vicinity. (Local gasoline prices just ticked up about a nickel from the recent relative lows.)
On the plus side, we generated more than 0.1 meganegawatt-hour of electricity through a program of compact fluorescent installations and policing the use of incandescent lighting. That will, unfortunately, be offset by the addition of some spot electric heat to keep the family room from freezing. It would be Really Nice if dimmable energy-saving bulbs were readily available, in which case we could pretty well offset the electric space heater. I also look forward to MGE reducing its wind power surcharge to reflect what I'd have to assume to be a decreasing differential between its gas-fired and wind generation costs.
Monday, December 12, 2005
George Will: An Attractive Man, But Not All That Bright
The Washington Post's Technorati trackback feature shows a variety of mostly conservatives and conservatarians swooning over George F. Will's column decrying the "entitlement" to digital TV just passed by the Republican-led Congress.
Conventional analog TV broadcasting is to end in the spring of 2009. This will free up the electromagnetic spectrum for other uses, which is a revenue-producing development. It affects people like me who choose not to spend money on cable TV but can afford it, as well as many people who don't have the choice. There are also, in all likelihood, a lot of secondary sets that aren't hooked up to cable or satellite receivers in households that use those services. All together, some tens of millions of people will at least be inconvenienced by the switchover.
Remedying this is "filigree on the welfare state" according to Will. Granted, his "No Couch Potato Left Behind" characterization of the situation is catchy, though it mainly illustrates Kramer's view that Will is attractive but not all that bright.
Matthew Yglesias has a reasonably solid takedown at Tapped, pointing out that the broadcasters themselves would like to hold onto the analog TV spectrum, so the digital receiver give-away isn't really economically inefficient in that it cuts through the main sources of political opposition and makes the large payoff to the government available as a practical matter. This cuts at Will's main economic point (derived from Heritage Foundation article that he references):
Because the government may get $10 billion from one transaction, taxpayers are unburdened by government's giving away $3 billion with another transaction. Such denial that money is fungible fuels the welfare state's expansion.In this case, appealing to the "fungibility" of money is vacuous; it's the causality between the two transactions that's important as Yglesias recognizes. What, otherwise, is the likelihood of lawmakers of either party voting to take TV away from 45 million people, even if those people don't tend to give lots of money to the Republican party?
Still, Yglesias doesn't quite do justice to everything that's wrong with Will's column.
First, it's damned cheeky for a guy whose market value as a print pundit has been massively increased by his TV punditry, mainly for a broadcast network that's in turn been massively subsidized through grants of free analog broadcast spectrum, to suggest that without TV people who'd be left out in the metaphorical cold might engage in "such eccentric alternative pastimes as conversation and reading." As is often the case, crude moralism is pseudo-libertarianism's backhanded slap when necessary. Where, you might reasonably ask, is the disapprobation for the upper-middle class 500-channel couch potatoes?
Second, I can't believe that no conservatarian has recognized that forcing the digital TV transition would amount to a TV tax. The horror! Will writes:
...the digitally deprived could pursue happiness by buying a new television set, all of which will be digital-capable by March 2007. Today a digital-capable set with a flat-screen display can be purchased from -- liberals, please pardon the mention of your Great Satan -- Wal-Mart for less than $460.For those of us eccentrics who have managed to be satisfied with analog broadcast TV, buying the digital TV would involve a twist of the arm from the state, if little lingering harm. It's acute millionaire pundit disease to suggest that everyone can just pay $460 or so for a new TV without consequence, though. Will's invocation of low TV prices at Wal-Mart is off-base, too. While small HDTV "monitors" are available in the $500 price range, those sets require set-top boxes to receive digital broadcast signals. Taking that shopping trip now would solve the problem not in the least. In fact, partly due to wrangling over some broadcast standards issues, lots of the expensive HDTVs in the world themselves lack digital tuners, so it's disingenuous of Will to suggest that since "the transition to digital has been underway for almost a decade" the holdouts are Luddites who deserve the forced upgrade. (Maybe Will's technical editor and John Tierney's drink together.)
Third, and not least, Will's founding premise that the U.S. "is suffering an entitlement glut," while a purely normative statement, is nevertheless highly questionable. Or, at least, people probably think they're entitled to a lot more than they actually are. The big bucks are spent on the likes of retirement income security, health care for the poor and elderly, primary and secondary education, unemployment insurance, and food for the poor. (*) Is eating, reading, and trying to keep people out of the poor house the slippery slope to a Lexus in every garage? C'mon.
(*) Tax expenditures such as the mortage interest deduction disproportionately benefit the well-to-do and are at least de facto entitlements. Additionally, Federal civilian and military employee benefits are formally entitlements, but are better considered compensation costs for federal employees.
Get Fooled By Randomness!
Via Marginal Revolution, here's a web survey run by a couple of University of Basel grad students that tests the ability to discern graphs of actual stock prices from artificially-generated "random walk" processes (i.e., the price changes are random). Like Alex Tabarrok, I did well, but then again I wrote my dissertation in part on the behavior of a type of random walk, so it would be embarrassing if I didn't do well. Try it out!
(Warning, spoilers ahead!)
I would put my secret in invis-o-text, but I think enough regulars use aggregators that throw away formatting information that I won't bother. The secret, put somewhat loosely, is that you should look for an absence of mean reversion. Depending on the exact generating process of the steps to a random walk, they can move quite rapidly in one direction or another, and stay there (since that's the conditional mean of the subsequent path). But it's very unlikely that a true random walk will move predominantly in one direction for a long time — that would be like flipping a coin lots of times and getting all heads; that's not impossible, but it's sufficiently unlikely that after a while you might consider nonrandom causes.
Sunday, December 11, 2005
Spotted Along The Side Of The Road
Actual radio station tagline from billboard near O'Hare Airport: "Liberals hate it."
Actual radio station call letters: WIND. Indeed. Flatulence at that.
Roundtrip toll to Chicago (via the Northwest Tollway), time immemorial to sometime last year: $4.
Subsequent roundtrip toll to Chicago (ditto), with additional Wisconsin border-crossing tax: $4.20.
New roundtrip cash toll to Chicago, soak the out-of-staters (*) and other casual users without I-Pass edition: $8.40. (I-Pass users pay $4.20.)
Can we, as Lyric Opera subscribers who also occasionally head to the Windy Apple for other reasons, take the hint? Yes.
Also, the tollways will take a big step into the RFID future as I-Pass users will be subjected to "open-road tolling" — the center sections of the toll plazas will be removed and sensors above the roadway will permit I-Pass users to pay their 40-50 cents without slowing down — as part of a tollway congestion relief plan. (I am curious about the mechanism used to enforce the tolls against non-I-Pass-using cheats.)
This will be great... next fall. Until then, it's a big flunkin' mess.
(*) While many local conservatarians are so upset about Wisconsin taxes that they want to take the TABOR (sic) plunge even after a majority of tax-loving citizens of the People's Republic of Colorado tried it and decided they'd had enough, hitherto one of Wisconsin's nicer features has been much lower than average reliance on user fees and other tax-like charges.
Friday, December 09, 2005
Friday Random Ten: See You Soon Edition
Blogging will be light-to-nonexistent for the next couple days as Suzanne and I are getting a head start on our fifth anniversary celebration with a trip to see Sir Michael Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage at the Lyric Opera of Chicago tomorrow. This also will give us a chance to play grown-ups for more than a couple hours at a stretch, since needless to say opera and toddlers don't mix.
Meanwhile, here's this week's dose of strange rock'n'roll...
(Artist, Song, Album)
1. The Chills, You Can Understand Me, Sunburnt
2. Joy Division, Insight, Unknown Pleasures
3. The Clean, Tally Ho!, Compilation
4. The Go-Go's, How Much More, Beauty and the Beat
5. Dif Juz, No Motion, Lonely Is An Eyesore
6. The Primitives, Across My Shoulder, Lazy 86-88
7. Elliott Smith, 2:45 A.M., Either/Or
8. The Lyres, Not Like That Other One, On Fyre
9. The Misfits, Hollywood Babylon, Misfits CD
10. The Smiths, Barbarism Begins At Home (don't it ever), Meat Is Murder
A surprising absence of Smiths catalog at the iTMS keeps the Esoterica Index (100% less the percentage of songs available on the iTMS) at a relatvely strong 60%. Though it's fun to note that the 1987 4AD Records compilation Lonely Is An Eyesore's availability means that Colourbox's great montage-style Hot Doggie — a direct predecessor of the widely disseminated Pump Up The Volume (M|A|R|R|S being a joint venture between Colourbox and the more arcane A.R. Kane) — is available for download, just 99 cents!
Thursday, December 08, 2005
A Day In The Life Of A Meme
Janelle Renée of Just Thoughts tagged me with this chestnut, which many of you regular blog-followers may have seen elsewhere:
1. Go into your archives.
2. Find your 23rd post.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your blog along with these instructions.
5. Tag five other people to do the same thing.
This is easy for Janelle, whose posts happen to be sequentially numbered. I had to count, and barring any mistakes on my part, the 23rd Marginal Utility post is from September 26, 2004, when I was writing to nobody in particular. (I don't have the Site Meter data for that week, but I averaged three daily visits the week before and six the week after; the 7-day moving average is 118 as of this writing.) The post consists of five sentence fragments. The fifth is:
"Friday night, Monroe Street near Edgewood College."
The location is here. The context is here. Check out the archive links in the sidebar if you care to see more of my youthful blog-optimism.
I'm not sure if I have any other meme-friendly blogpals who haven't already done this one, but you know who you are.
Wednesday, December 07, 2005
Wednesday Baby Extra: Look Ma, No Hands!
Growing Up (Wheels Dept.)
One thing I've never done before is soon to be crossed off my list: I'll soon have a four-door car for my daily driver. In 21-1/2 years of driving, I've always driven coupes or three-door hatchbacks. I even bought a coupe after child #1 was born. However, a freakish hatch glass failure that's put Suzanne's wagon out of service for a week has thrown into sharp relief the non-operability of having the other car be one that only I can drive. So, I get to join the workaday world of sedan-driving dads.
Unlike some other bloggers I won't name who've feigned an interest in reader feedback when the decision was made all along, I'll tell you that I've already made up my mind as to make, model, and color. I'm getting one of these in Matador Red with black leather (the build-your-own color simulation totally sucks, so don't bother). Olé!
It's interesting to see what formerly sybaritic luxuries can be found in the near-luxury car class these days — the new car will be a little cheaper than its predecessor in nominal terms. It has basically the only sensible implementation of the now-trendy engine start/stop button, which is that you don't actually need to extract the key from your pocket to be able to press the button to start the car. If you have to stick the key-like electronic device in the dash (as with the new 3-series and VW Passat, among others), you might as well turn the darn thing and dispense with the playing of Schumacher. It also has heated and cooled seats, so I can take my solar heat gain in the winter without roasting my backside on those hot days that I'd like to believe will come around again.
Oh, and it has an automatic so that my beloved sweetie can easily drive it. At least the paddle shifters are there for my Schumacher-playing pretensions.
Tuesday, December 06, 2005
Capitalist Pigs In Space
Or, the "Is John Tierney smarter than a computer-simulated crustacean?" watch
Sure, Donald Luskin may be the stupidest man alive, but surely John Tierney deserves some award for testing the limits of what an 'elite' op-ed page can tolerate on a regular basis before it loses its status.
One of his early Times columns made an, er, brilliant case for U.S. Social Security privatization on the grounds that Chilean privatization worked out great for a friend of his in Chile. Following in that tradition, today he argues (Times Selecters read at your own risk) that since the Ansari X Prize worked out so great in getting Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne rocket-plane to an altitude of 100km, it would be great to have NASA compete with private industry over prizes for the implementation of far more extravagant space projects.
As is often the case, the mere concept of using awards to spur innovation is not totally stupid in itself. It's ancient, if much less extensively used than the main alternative systems: Monopolies granted to innovators through the patent system, and direct funding of research through contractual mechanisms. Tirole's Theory of Industrial Organization (MIT Press, 1988 [*]) notes that awards have the potential advantage over patents in that they don't create monopolies, though there are substantial disadvantages, notably:
The award system is difficult to implement. First, the government must be highly knowledgeable about the feasibility of various inventions and the demand for them. Information about demand is crucial for determining the size of the award, which, in turn, influences the research incentives. Generally, firms are better informed than the government on these matters, so a less centralized solution (such as the patent system) is preferable. Indeed, one advantage of the patent system is that monopoly profits are correlated with (although different from) the social value of an invention. (p. 401)So that's the serious case. Then there's the Tierney version:
[Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic] has ordered five spaceships and plans to send more than 700 people into space in the first 18 months, which is more than all the government-sponsored space programs have sent in history.That's nearing whopper territory just out of the gates. A Russian site lists 442 people who have flown in space, though the top 30 frequent fliers alone have 157 trips among them. The endurance record holder, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev, has individually spent over 800 days in space, which is a solid order of magnitude more time than Virgin Galactic's first 700 passengers will spend in Galactic's brief suborbital flights.
The new Virgin Galactic spaceship will be a larger eight-person version of the ship that last year won the $10 million Ansari X Prize for a reusable spacecraft. Its designer, Burt Rutan, backed by the billionaire Paul Allen, spent over $25 million to beat two dozen competitors.
While there is clearly a small space adventure travel market at six- to eight-figure price tags, $10 million in revenue (not counting the X Prize) against more than $25 million in cost just for the proof-of-concept vehicle doesn't suggest that this market is more than a very expensive plaything of the very rich for the foreseeable future.
That's the beauty of offering prizes: a little money buys a lot more R.&D. than you would ever get by giving the funds to NASA. Prizes spurred Charles Lindbergh and others to quickly turn aviation from a stunt into an industry. Competition inspires innovations that would never be approved by bureaucrats - like modeling a spaceship on a badminton shuttlecock.
Now, Tierney is starting to getting silly. Remember, market demand plus the award size determines the research incentives. The potential success of the prize approach depends on a certain configuration of knowledge between the awarding entity and the competitors; there is nothing magical about the prize mechanism. Moreover, the "bureaucrat" slur makes it look like Tierney hasn't followed aeronautical history very closely at all. X-planes flown by NASA (and predecessor agencies) pioneered flight decades ago in regimes where private industry is just now headed; in the real world, acknowledging Burt Rutan's cleverness need not be at the expense of that legacy.
Rutan's spaceship, unlike NASA's space shuttle, doesn't need elaborate tiles as a heat shield because it re-enters the atmosphere much more slowly. Before returning to Earth, it changes its streamlined shape by folding its wings, enabling it to descend relatively gently, like a shuttlecock.
This is beyond silly and well into sheer stupidity. SpaceShipOne doesn't "need" an elaborate thermal protection system because it doesn't get anywhere near velocities at which it would need them. It reaches maximum speeds just north of 2,000 MPH, against orbital velocity of roughly 17,500 MPH. SpaceShipOne's Wikipedia entry usefully notes:
The achievements of SpaceShipOne are more comparable to the X-15 than orbiting spacecraft like the Space Shuttle. Accelerating a spacecraft to orbital speed requires more than 30 times as much energy as lifting it to 100 km.
Or, as I said a year ago:
But the SpaceShipOne design, in being cleverly geared towards the suborbital flight profile required by the X Prize, effectively punts on the major challenges that currently make spacecraft capable of reaching orbit expensive and/or dangerous: obtaining sufficient performance from rocket engines to reach orbital speeds, and then dissipating the energy on re-entry. Spending the price of the median Dane County house on a few minutes' high altitude weightlessness sounds like a little less than a space tourism revolution.
Tierney does take a quick detour into the realm of agreement among reasonable people:
Now that Rutan and Branson and other entrepreneurs are entering space, there's no need for NASA to poke around in Earth orbit with the space shuttle and the space station. Nor does it need to return to the Moon. Rutan figures that private spaceships will be going there before long, so he'd rather see NASA concentrate on ways to reach Mars.
Sending people into low-earth orbit (LEO) is, indeed, an increasingly futile effort, particularly with funding for such research as can be done on the International Space Station on the chopping block. Since that money has much more scientifically productive uses elsewhere (even staying in space), there seems to be little harm in leaving civil flight to LEO to SpaceShipThree — Virgin Galactic's currently-hypothetical first orbiter — such time as Sir Richard can spare a few billion euro for the RDT&E.But then, of course, there is Tierney's Cunning Plan:
So would I, but not all by itself. Instead of just financing NASA's plans for Mars, Congress and the White House should make it compete against engineers like Rutan. It could offer a prize, to be awarded by the National Academy of Engineering or the National Research Council, for the best plan on paper for a manned mission to Mars.
Branson told me he'd be willing to enter that competition for a prize of $10 million - a pittance next to NASA's $16 billion annual budget. Robert Zubrin, the president of the Mars Society, said he'd enter it, too.I'll bet they would. Is it necessary to offer Zubrin $10 million to re-write The Case For Mars?
An even better idea would be to offer prizes for making actual progress on a Mars mission, not just drawing up plans. Zubrin suggests that the federal government get entrepreneurs started by offering a $5 billion prize for the first flight of a vehicle that can lift 120 tons into orbit.This looks like an even bigger waste than $10 million for a paper plan, as NASA could fly (almost) 120 tons to low-earth orbit with an actual rocket 38 years ago.
I've suggested that the price tag for the Bush human exploration "vision" is part of an effort to gain political cover for excising a chunk of NASA's current funding. Given penny-pinching on other programs, in addition to the likelihood that a Mars landing would be the best use of $30 billion in space science money, it's not obvious that there's even $30 billion for the endeavor in the first place.
There could also be a grand $30 billion Mars Prize for getting a human to Mars and planting the American flag. That would be a bargain compared with the current plans of NASA, which wants to get to Mars by first spending $100 billion just to reach the Moon.
That, at least, is just like the Bush administration.
A Mars Prize would have one wonderful political advantage over doling out money to NASA. Today's politicians could announce the prize without scrimping to pay for it in any budget anytime soon. They would get the immediate glory of inaugurating an interplanetary quest, and someone else would get the bill.
(*) A text which is now dated by the selection of computers as an example of an industry in which patents "play a minor role."
Monday, December 05, 2005
Bigger Straw, Please
Cementing my view that free public wireless internet would be a good idea, I recently fiddled around with my telephone service, incorporating an upgrade to the 768Kbps DSL we've had since shortly after John's arrival.
The performance range for the improved DSL service was reported as 1-4Mbps down by my CLEC's non-ironically friendly customer service representative. We seem to be getting in the ballpark of 1.3 Mbps down (net of overheads) and 600Kbps up, which at least is both within the quoted range and a material speedup for the likes of big software updates and the RSS aggregation feature in Safari. Plus, 802.11g is now evidently cheap enough that the new DSL modem has an unadvertised 802.11g access point built in. Security paranoia and a technical Mac networking issue keep the second wireless router disabled most of the time, but if there's ever a blogger dinner over here again, it does give me the option of activating it to provide an open access point to guests w/o having to mess around with the security settings on the primary router.
Still, I can't help but be disappointed as I'm an urban dweller a mile from the campus of a Large Research University and a good bit less than a mile from the remote terminal that helped bring DSL to our old and new neighborhoods.
One might just think that cable internet service (which our lack of a cable TV subscription makes less financially appealing per Mbps) puts insufficient competitive pressure on the telcos to deliver decent broadband service at a low price. For would-be free marketers, consider that the city can almost surely deliver wireless at lower cost than low-quality wireline services, sending the signal that incumbent wireline carriers had better put some frickin' fiber in the loop to deliver a material service quality improvement that isn't otherwise easy to provide, or else.
Book Club, Mk. 2
It's been the best of days and the worst of days, and the Blogspot outage further impedes a substantive post — or at least my motivation to complete one. When the blog is back up, this will simply be to announce to book club participants that I've finished Charlie Stross's Accelerando and will post some additional reactions soon. (Maybe the Arizona contingent of the audience could nudge Kieran Healy to nudge the other Crooked Timberites to recruit Stross for their next SF/fantasy "seminar.") In the meanwhile, I'm starting Chris Mooney's The Republican War On Science.
Nominees for the reading material to follow Mooney are welcome. Mine are Susanna Clarke's Hugo-winning Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and Jared Diamond's Collapse, neither new to the leading edges of the blogiverse but neither necessarily exhausted by pre-existing blogging.
Sunday, December 04, 2005
On The Length Of The Workweek: Don't Fight The Patriarchy, Join It!
In comments, 'Novanglus' pointed me to this recent Fortune article describing how some workplaces — including traditional bastions of high pressure and long hours — are ditching long hours in part because even high-achieving men don't like working themselves to death. (Fanfare, and people inclined to conflate feminism with emulation of the stupidest things men do take note.) Interested parties should give the whole thing a read, but here is the bottom line:
...But while some CEOs assert that every time a top job opens up, a phalanx of "24/7" people is waiting in line to take it, most companies cite a shortage of talented leaders as one of their biggest constraints. Rethinking senior jobs and careers can help solve that, says Jeanie Duck of the Boston Consulting Group, who specializes in organizational change. "It's a myth that companies are filled with highly capable people who are willing to work 24/7," she says. "It's not true. The companies that crack this will have their pick of talented people."
What will it take to make headway on this agenda? Business leaders need to do four things. First, quit defining the desire for doable jobs as a "women's issue." Men want this too. Second, start viewing efforts to humanize senior jobs as a competitive advantage and business necessity, not as one-time accommodations for the CEOs' pets. Third, realize that progress is actually possible; there are examples to show that work at the top can be retooled. Finally, make it safe within companies and firms to talk about these things. "Businesses need to be 24/7," says Xerox CEO Anne Mulcahy. "Individuals don't."
...So what do men really want?
Our new survey of senior FORTUNE 500 male executives offers surprising answers. Fully 84% say they'd like job options that let them realize their professional aspirations while having more time for things outside work; 55% say they're willing to sacrifice income. Half say they wonder if the sacrifices they've made for their careers are worth it. In addition, 73% believe it's possible to restructure senior management jobs in ways that would both increase productivity and make more time available for life outside the office. And 87% believe that companies that enable such changes will have a competitive advantage in attracting talent. Other interviews suggest that the younger a male executive is, the more likely he is to say he cares about all of this.
Of course there's a roadblock to reform: fear. FORTUNE's survey found that even though most senior-level men want better options, nearly half believe that for an executive to take up the matter with his boss will hurt his career.
Still, two things seem clear. First, men and women are far more alike in their desires than the debate over these issues has assumed. Second, as talented men raise their voices with women who have been irate about this for decades, the 24/7 ethic is pretty clearly on borrowed time. [Emphasis added.]
Saturday, December 03, 2005
Raising Two Children Isn't That Much Harder Than Raising One
Getting a good picture of both of them in the same frame, however, is another matter entirely.
We attended my firm's holiday party this morning, and having the Adorable Offspring dressed up seemed like a good opportunity to get a picture suitable for the holiday card. The combination of shutter lag and squirmy-worminess got in the way. Here are the two best pictures:
Good one of Julia, but John would surrender neither Thomas the FTE nor the balloon dog that the magician guy made for him.
With "Santa" (the college-age boyfriend of a colleague's college-age daughter, who's been Santa two parties in a row). We're headed towards naptime, so Julia is fading. This is several feet closer to Santa than John was willing to get last year.
Note to blog pals: If you are not on our holiday card list but wish to receive a piece of postal mail with an image of our Adorable Offspring and possibly a letter describing all the fun, excitement, and really wild times we've been having (if, that is, I can think of some to write about), e-mail me with an address.