Tuesday, February 28, 2006
(From Arlington, Virginia) Oh, Business Travel!
I am here on the second trip of what looks to be an odyssey the end stage of which is some combination of burnout, renewed ability to pack light for an overnight trip, and a return to Gold Elite status on Northwest and its Sky Team partners — assuming NWA's financial-labor relations woes don't kill the airline first, that is.
The outbound leg had the usual share of air travel banalities. This ticket, just over half the price of the last one, puts me on flights that were much more crowded. So, instead of the pair of seats I had on the CRJ nonstop two weeks ago, I was crammed into an exit row window (not as spacious as it otherwise might be) getting elbowed by a late middle aged guy whose suit fabric said Highly Paid D.C. Attorney, reading a fascinating if a bit choppily-written Journal of Econometrics article on the Engler v. Oprah beef disparagement litigation (lesson: test your distribution assumptions before calling data points nonrandom outliers) that recently bubbled to the top of my reading stack while I was cleaning out my old office.
But the nonstop flight is so fabulous, touching down — a bit early, today — about when I'd be starting the schlep to the connecting gate in Detroit on the next available one-stop. Getting to fly directly to places would be, for me, be one of the better features of a hypothetical return to big city life. Then I remember what house prices in East Bethesda are.
I was foiled earlier in an effort to dress for the trip in Business Semi-Formal Cozy (wool trousers, camel hair or cashmere jacket, dress shirt and tie) thanks to an article of clothing left in Minneapolis at Christmas. D'Ohh. Then, the step down from 20 monthly trips to the gym in November and December to 15 in January to 10 in a quite busy February turned out to have the implication that my workhorse dark blue suit had made its way to the just-unpleasant side of snug in two frickin' weeks. The manifest defectiveness of the early middle-aged human body being the evidence du jour that "intelligent design" is a crock. That left me with the black suit obtained primarily for my wedding, and more commonly trotted out for dressier Lyric Opera days since. I was a bit concerned that the suit with a blue button-down collar shirt and red power tie was a mixed message — undertaker meets politician? — but it worked well enough in the end. Tomorrow's shirt and tie combination will be a bit more on-message ("I wish I hadn't left my camel hair jacket at my mother-in-law's house").
I am only here, in Arlington, instead of across the river in D.C., because something or other is eating up all the hotel rooms in town, or at least just about all of them that are both centrally located and under $400. Big convention, maybe?
The place I usually try to stay, because of its proximity to Kramerbooks & Afterwords (*) and P Street NW's Pizzeria Paradiso (Obelisk if there's an occasion), is closed for renovations, which has sent me to two Hilton-branded properties in as many weeks. Last time, I really felt like I was in Walter Kirn's "Airworld," as with the curtains drawn and the TV off, you'd need GPS to know whether you were in Washington or Chicago (**). This place is a little downscale relative to unmodified-Hilton decor, which makes it fascinating to observe that the high-speed internet that's a profit center downtown is an amenity included in the room rate here. Though the microwave and mini-fridge in the room would lead me to believe that this particular variation on the theme is tilted a bit more to businessfolk on longer stays; they might riot without data access.
I did, at least, manage to eat a bit better this trip. Though the comparison is to a Subway in Capitol Heights, Md., this is not meant as damnation by faint praise. I met up with a friend from grad school at Red Sage, which has had its ups and downs. As had the meal. I chose a bit better, with a yummy grilled chicken-stuffed roasted poblano chile, with a wild mushroom tamale for a side. My friend's (special) grilled tuna fajitas were a bit light on the tuna; stick with the regular menu item if you are so inclined. With chips and salsa, some of which I managed to dribble on my tie.
Fortunately, I have a different tie to wear tomorrow.
Which will be a sixteen-hour day. Oh joy.
(*) Where Monica Lewinsky bought a copy of Nicholson Baker's Vox for you-know-who; I worked in the restaurant's back office on weekends for a while during grad school.
(**) Even if you're watching national media, D.C. TV advertising is much denser with trade association and Federal contractor PR hoping to snag a decision maker or two than the provinces, which gives away the location. U.S. Telecom Assn. members are ready to provide super duper "TV freedom" if only our telecoms laws are modernized! Lockheed Martin is so proud to be the government's leading IT services provider! The American Petroleum Institute reminds us that they really aren't making that much money, proportionally, and are investing so much in our energy future (twice; derisive snort each time)! Bad Bush administration cuts in hospital funding affecting the most vulnerable — that's a real problem, for sure, but I couldn't decode the sponsorship of the ad.
East Washington Avenue Redevelopment: What Are They Thinking?
Apart from the big building at the end of the street, a visitor taking a first drive down Madison's East Washington Avenue could be forgiven for wondering if he or she had made a wrong turn and ended up in Rockford instead. It doesn't look like much, unless by "much" you mean that it looks like a mix of postindustrial blight, car sales lots, parking lots, hardscrabble strip malls, and the architecturally no-account headquarters of everyone's favorite business lobby, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.
The city and state have been dumping a lot of money into a reconstruction of the road and landscaping (the slow-loading picture on the project's web page puts about as bright of a spin on it as framing techniques allow), but what's really needed is redevelopment in the corridor.
So it's a head-scratcher, to say the least, that the first major redevelopment project to reach a late planning stage, proposed by developer Gary Gorman for a car lot a few blocks from the Capitol Square, has apparently foundered over $2 million in disputed tax incremental financing subsidy. Brenda Konkel, who represents the area on the city council, is understandably irritated. Pissed, even. As Konkel describes, it's a model for infill development. It is well-scaled to the site (unlike the absurd Archipelago Village skyscraper proposed for a nearby block), looks sharp from the Avenue, has been well-received by the neighbors, and won't displace anyone who won't voluntarily leave the block (i.e., the car dealer currently there).
This seems to be a good opportunity for Mayor Dave Cieslewicz to lead, knock some heads together on both sides of the process, and get the damn thing built.
On the city's side, I can't see how the risk of being on the hook for the disputed $2 million is worse than the risk of leaving a prime infill site undeveloped. Nor is the city taxpayer's interest served if all the money dumped into the Avenue merely makes the roadway smoother for east side commuters. If the TIF for Monroe Commons is justifiable — which I think it is, to keep a pocket of blight from hollowing out the upper Monroe Street commercial strip (n.b., I'm in the neighborhood) — it's a slam dunk over there.
Likewise, I'd think Gorman could take cues from Cliff Fisher, who has managed to build Metropolitan Place on West Washington without subsidy. Prices at Metropolitan Place ended up higher than in original plans that assumed a subsidy — Suzanne had a deposit on a unit in the first phase before we met and bought our Old House — but it's hard to see how the needed 2-5% price increases to eliminate the need for the disputed TIF could render Gorman's project non-viable; that's all but rounding error in real estate pricing.
My helpful suggestion: split the difference, stop fussing (yes, I know this is Madison), and move on.
Monday, February 27, 2006
Even More Corporate Axis of Evil
1. Paul Krugman: Graduates Versus Oligarchs (Times Select subscribers):
The idea that we have a rising oligarchy is much more disturbing. It suggests that the growth of inequality may have as much to do with power relations as it does with market forces. Unfortunately, that's the real story.Additional excerpts at Economist's View.
Should we be worried about the increasingly oligarchic nature of American society? Yes, and not just because a rising economic tide has failed to lift most boats. Both history and modern experience tell us that highly unequal societies also tend to be highly corrupt. There's an arrow of causation that runs from diverging income trends to Jack Abramoff and the K Street project.
2. NYT: Army to Pay Halliburton Unit Most Costs Disputed by Audit:
The Army has decided to reimburse a Halliburton subsidiary for nearly all of its disputed costs on a $2.41 billion no-bid contract to deliver fuel and repair oil equipment in Iraq, even though the Pentagon's own auditors had identified more than $250 million in charges as potentially excessive or unjustified...If the issue with the Halliburton contract is "imperfect" performance, then I'm an oligarch.
Under the type of contract awarded to the company, "the contractor is not required to perform perfectly to be entitled to reimbursement," said Rhonda James, a spokeswoman for the... United States Army Corps of Engineers... where the contract is administered.
(Observations pertaining to this post.)
More Corporate Axis of Evil
Little Ricky Pick-Pocket and the synthetic [sic] fuel boondoggle.
(An observation pertaining to this post.)
Sunday, February 26, 2006
The 'Corporate Axis of Evil'
This post, "Life Takes (plenty of bullsh*t from) Visa," at The Columnist Manifesto is a great "Oscar Madison" rant, with an arc from the "nauseating contradictions" shot through Olympics sponsorships, to the petty annoyances of credit card terms that mean big money for card issuers, to the legal ramifications of the microscopic print in the card agreements, and finally issuers' need to act as easy credit pushers to maintain their profits. I encourage you to read the real thing, and not just my summary.
Oscar concluded by nominating an "axis of corporate evil" consisting of:
- Big petroleum
- Big pharma
- The banking industry
Oscar responded with a post featuring his indictment of the pharmaceutical industry:
We know tobacco companies push a product that causes harm when used as intended; the evil of pharmaceutical corporations is more insidious and wide ranging, and largely off the radar screen. Let's start with their live human subject testing on unsuspecting people in Africa -- see The Constant Gardner. And their aggressive use of patents, the effects of which will not fully reveal themselves for years to come. Let's talk about their manipulation of consumer consciousness promoting widespread experimentation with drugs by millions of people in our society, their brainwashing of the medical profession, their hostile takeover of objective scientific research, and their dominance of health care policy. I'm certainly speculating here, but in 50 years, they're going to make the tobacco companies look puny.In this, and a comment that much of what you'd think of as beneficial banking instruments existed when the industry was more stringently regulated than it is now, I think this debate is onto the meta-truth of the situation. These corporate "evils" have, as a common thread, a failure of society, through government, to impose sensible restrictions on corporate behavior.
Looming particularly large in Oscar's accounts are the combination of deregulation and weak enforcement of competition laws. A lot of corporate "evil" amounts to firms doing what comes naturally when they have market power to wield. Allow formerly competitive industries, like credit cards, to consolidate into oligopolies, and it should be no surprise that fees and contractual terms that once didn't exist, everyone finds annoying, and have no obvious connection to costs aren't competed away.
Oscar's point about Big Pharma's patent monopolies is a good one. The standard defense of the high (relative to competitive market) drug prices is that they're necessary to fund pharmaceutical research. That argument barely passes counterfactual muster. It's really only true to the extent that there's no choice but to incur the large fixed costs of drug R&D and testing privately, in which the pharmaceutical firms must recover their costs to stay in business. Of course, when needed, it basically serves as a threat as well as a PR pitch.
There's a good case to be made that the patent quid pro quo is failing — Dean Baker makes it, noting that we pay about $80 billion in monopoly profits to drug patent holders in return for a bit more than $20 billion in actual research, some of which is wasted (from society's perspective) on copycat drugs. That the distortion is so large suggests that it might be a good idea to regulate drug patent monopolies.
Government and foundations already spend at least as much on pharmaceutical research, and I've noted that there's little reason to believe that government funding directed through university research labs couldn't play a much bigger role in the process. A good point Baker makes is that if the high prices were due to an explicit cost recovery tax, conservative and libertarian economists would be turning themselves inside out decrying the magnitude of the market distortion. I have a hard time believing that our hard-working academic researchers would need anything near $80 billion to provide that $20 billion in research.
Corporations are not as blameless as Jessica Rabbit — "I'm not bad, I'm just drawn that way." At least pending the arrival of the DVD of The Corporation from Netflix (#2 in our queue), my inclination is to liken corporations more to an underparented toddler or, perhaps, a carnivorous wild animal. Who's really to blame when a wristwatch gets flushed down the toilet or a leg gets bitten off?
In this case, the blame traces back to the corporatist-deregulatory revolution that began to gather in the seventies — airline deregulation happened under Carter — though it was in Reaganism that the ideology of laying off corporations for the laissez-faire vision of the greater good receieved an enormous boost. Having moderated a bit under Clinton, who had to battle the Gingrich Congress and still was too corporatist for a good chunk of the left (leading, in part, to the Nader disaster of 2000), it's under Bush that the project has reached its apotheosis.
In the executive branch, corporate flacks and lobbyists occupy appointed positions overseeing the firms and industries they once worked for, and will work for again. In the legislative branch, the "K Street Project" of DeLay, Abramof, and other Republican miscreants set up a cycle of not especially legal bribery in which campaign contributions and executive perks for legislators were traded for the opportunity for corporations to write their own legislation.
With the $20 bill dropped on the sidewalk, should we be surprised that it's picked up?
This could be regarded as weak on corporate amorality. Indeed, it doesn't take a PhD in ethics to figure out that there's a difference between pricing a luxury car according to what the market will bear, and pricing a life-saving medicine that way. My point is that society should no more trust corporations to internalize the social externalities of all forms of profit-seeking behavior than you should trust a tiger not to eat you. But we are awash in messages that corporate interests are the true democratic-social interests (cf. Thomas Frank), and it falls to the likes of The Onion to sell "I Just Love Corporations" T-shirts by way of satire. Bushism and Reaganism make it a self-fulfilling prophesy.
(See also here and here.)
Saturday, February 25, 2006
Saturday Preschooler Extra: Now I Know My ABCs
Survey Of Consumer Finances: An Income Anomaly
One oddity of the Survey of Consumer Finances release was that between 2001 and 2004, median "real" household income went up, very slightly, while the mean declined. It is possible to read too much into the result, as the difference ($1,700) is statistically insignificant (about 0.72 standard errors). The $700 difference in the median is also statistically insignificant. Still, it's unusual given the rich-get-richer story one usually tells about Bushonomics, as Matthew Yglesias notes at Tapped.
Mean incomes are influenced by the enormous incomes earned by the very rich. That is, there are hedge fund managers who make a thousand times more money than a typical upper-income professional, who in turn only makes a couple to a few times more than a white collar office drone or a skilled tradesperson, etc. The mean of my income and that of a successful hedge fund manager doesn't give a very accurate reading on how well I'm doing. The median, as a "robust" statistic, gives a better indication of how a typical household is doing when incomes are highly skewed. The implication of an increase in the median accompanied by a decrease in the mean, then, is somewhat reduced income inequality.
The result is clearly driven by declines in median income among high income and wealthy households. The average income of households in the top ten percent of the income distribution fell from $322,400 in 2001 to $302,100 in 2004; similarly, the top ten percent of households in net worth saw average incomes fall from $273,100 to $256,000.
So is the conventional wisdom wrong? No.
First, the survey data show that the wealthy (top 25%) are the only groups exhibiting increases in median real incomes. The lower three quartiles (bottom 75%) each show decreases in both the mean and the median. This suggests that the sampling variation issue with the overall median and mean may indeed be driving the anomaly.
Also, Income tax data suggest that income from realized net capital gains may be driving the mean income decline for the wealthy. They own most financial assets — as of the 2001 survey, the top ten percent held 88% of individual stocks, 79% of mutual fund balances, and 72% of all financial assets (the comparable 2004 data are not yet available). Between 2001 and 2003, there's a decline in reported income that is driven, in large part, by lower reported capital gains and related income categories — the Bush tax complexification makes exact comparisons a bit difficult. That's true even though 2003 was a good year for the stock market. That decline appears to be concentrated in returns that report high incomes.
Last, the rich have managed to get richer despite the income blip, with a larger increase in mean real net worth (~6%, to $3.11 million) than the median (~3.1%, to $1.43 million) for the top 10% of the net worth distribution.
So no tears.
Friday, February 24, 2006
The 2006 Movies
I've been falling down on the job of going out with Colleague A and Colleague B to see movies so far this year, but I really want to see Richard Linklater's adaptation of A Scanner Darkly (QuickTime MOV preview), done in the style of Waking Life.
I did add Good Night, and Good Luck to the '05 film viewing last weekend — appropriately the evening before Paul Krugman's "The Mensch Gap" column, in which the Shrill One wrote:
Maybe it's the result of our infantilized media culture, in which politicians, like celebrities, are judged by the way they look, not the reality of their achievements. Mr. Bush isn't an effective leader, but he plays one on TV, and that's all that matters.That is all.
The Wealthy Are Doing Well. The Rest Of You, Don't Quit That Day Job
Here are some charts of the latest distribution of wealth data, from yesterday's Federal Reserve Bulletin article [PDF] reporting results from the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances. The headline result was that median net worth, measured in 2004 dollars (i.e., adjusted for inflation), rose from $91,700 in 2001 to $93,100 in 2004; the differences are not statistically significant.
The upper percentiles do so well, relative to the rest of the distribution, that it's nearly impossible to pick out variation in the lower wealth groups. Here's the portion of the graph excluding the top and next-to-top groups (i.e., the 95th and 82.5th percentiles, respectively).
What's clear is that notwithstanding the housing boom, there has been nearly no qualitatively significant increase in wealth for any group outside the top between the 2001 and 2004 surveys. That's Bushonomics for you. The bottom line, the 12.5th percentile (i.e., the median net worth for the bottom quartile) remains as close to zero as makes no odds.
Friday Nondrandom 24
So far, I am very happy with the new wheels. Still, there is one feature of the old car I really miss — the hard-wired iPod connector, and the related ability to control the iPod with the steering wheel buttons. I find it to be extremely dangerous to try to navigate the iPod while driving otherwise. Worse than talking on a cell phone, even, insofar as it's nearly impossible to keep your eyes, let alone attention, on the road.
That's created a market for car-friendly playlists, and here's the latest one I devised: About a CD-R's full of stuff. The trick is that the tracks are alphabetical by title.
Song, Artist, Album
1. 50 Shades of Blue, Edwyn Collins, Hope and Despair
2. A Gentle Sound, The Railway Children, Reunion Wilderness
3. A Wish Away, The Wonder Stuff, The Eight-Legged Groove Machine
4. Ace Tone, Holiday, Holiday
5. Airplane Gardens, The Family Cat, Magic Happens
6. All Around the World, The Jam, Compact Snap
7. All This And More, The Wedding Present, George Best
8. Baby Maker, Pale Saints, In Ribbons
9. Beautiful Day, U2, All That You Can't Leave Behind
10. Before the Day, The Bats, Silverbeet
11. Blade of Grass, Versus, The Stars Are Insane
12. Boston's Daily Temperature, Damon and Naomi, More Sad Hits
13. Breaking Lines, The Pastels, Up For A Bit With The Pastels
14. Broken Chair, Luna, Rendezvous
15. Creep, The Chills, Brave Words
16. Cut Me Deep, The Jasmine Minks, Another Age
17. Demarest, Grenadine, Goya
18. Distant Mother Reality, Eric Matthews, It's Heavy In Here
19. Do It Anyway, The Woodentops, Well Well Well...
20. Don't Say If, The Flatmates, Love and Death (The Flatmates 86-89)
21. Dreamwalk Baby, The Primitives, Lovely
22. Elephant Stone, The Stone Roses, The Complete Stone Roses
23. Fabulous Friend, The Field Mice, Snowball + Singles
24. Far Gone And Out, The Jesus & Mary Chain, Honey's Dead
This mix has an ITMS Esoterica Index (1 minus the fraction of songs available in the U.S. iTMS, with half-credit awarded if the band but not the song appears in the database) of 46%.
Have you been mystified by the Friday mixes here? Looking for a quick education in (mostly) late?
Well, if you make a (tax-deductible) contribution of $25 or more to the Children's Organ Transplant Association campaign for liver transplant patient Annika Tiede, I will happily burn you a copy of this or any other playlist posted to this blog. Send me a request with sufficient contact information to the address in the sidebar. For more information on Annika's situation, see here, here (her mom's blog), or here (chez Phantom Scribbler). Just please don't expect label artwork or the like. My ancient laser printer barely knows it's hooked up to our household network.
Thursday, February 23, 2006
Preschool Appearance Update
I survived, with help from John's teacher Sue, who is a real pro and — sweet though the class is, and even as I grumble about the pending increase in preschool tuition when John moves up to the three-day-per-week program — is obviously massively underpaid.
Showing the elements of the address side of a letter from John's great-grandmother to Suzanne worked well with the story, which involves transmission of a letter from Betsy Bear to her grandmother, as did showing some different kinds of mail.
A gallery open house announcement from semi-local artist Martha Hayden (whose work graces our house in a few places) with an colorful expressionistic lower Manhattan landscape was OK. The best, though, was a small package from the LEGO company sending the replacement to a part that arrived bent in the new Star Wars A-Wing Fighter set. I opened it live for the preschoolers, and making a LEGO brick appear did get a bunch of jaws dropping. Magic!
Distribution of Wealth Update!
I just got an e-mail notice that the Federal Reserve is releasing a Bulletin article on the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances today. The most recent data previously had been from 2001. If you're interested in such things, get it here (444 KB PDF). Commentary to follow, once I've had a chance to read it.
Update: From a quick scan, the headline result is that between 2001 and 2004, median net worth increased 1.5%; mean net worth increased 6.3%, adjusted for measured inflation. Those represent sharp declines from the 1998-2001 and 1995-1998 increases. Among households with holding financial assets, the median real value of the holdings fell from $29,800 to $23,000; the percentage of households with financial assets of any type rose fractionally, from 93.4% to 93.8%. Here's the authors' gloss:
Three key shifts in the 2001–04 period underlie the changes in net worth. First, the strong appreciation of house values and a rise in the rate of homeownership produced a substantial gain in the value of holdings of residential real estate. Second, despite the general recovery of prices in equity markets since 2001, the direct and indirect ownership of stocks declined, as did the typical amount held. Third, the amount of debt relative to total assets increased markedly, and the largest part of that increase was attributable to debt secured by real estate.The lower real holdings of financial assets are particularly worrisome should housing see a less-than-soft landing. In Madison, where the local economy has been pretty good overall, a lot of people selling upscale houses (here, concentrated in the $400-$600,000 range) have seen 10% or more knocked off what they thought their gross real estate wealth to be on paper; many more would see it if they tried to add to the inventory of listings.
Also, the low official savings rate, which gets pooh-poohed in some corners, does seem to have translated into the more tangible weak results for holdings of relatively liquid financial assets.
Mark Thoma has some key graphs and an excerpt of the Wall Street Journal's story at Economist's View. A couple previous posts of mine based on 2001 SCF data are here and here.
Another Update: I assembled two graphs showing the evolution of the wealth distribution here.
Wednesday, February 22, 2006
What Did We Do Before Digital Photography? (Not Quite The Subject of the Post)
We didn't blog so much, for one thing.
In recent semi-random Web surfing, I saw that the Imperial War Museum at Duxford is having a hush-hush event for Mother's Day, which is March 26th in England. I won't risk a Larry Summers moment by speculating as to whether this is a good idea for a Mother's Day activity, not least because if you are a woman and are reading this not by accident, you probably possess at least a tolerance for the geeky sidetracks here. Rather, it is not a good idea because much of the museum's impressive collection of British aircraft will be off-limits while construction is completed on their new home.
My interest in postwar British aviation goes back to childhood air-and-space nuttery, reinforced by research from my academic days on how de facto technological standards arise, and possibly over-fond memories of UFO — especially the moonbase staff. British aviation history is relatively dense with forms of jet aircraft that have since largely been pruned from the evolutionary tree. For that reason, many British planes from the fifties and sixties are unusually cool-looking. This makes them good retro-futuristic design fodder, perhaps most notably in Chris Weston's artwork for Warren Ellis's recent alternative-history graphic novel Ministry of Space. This site offers a lot of information and images of a range of postwar British warplanes that appear to have provided some inspiration to Weston.
Nostalgia sent me searching for my pictures from a visit to Duxford, which having been taken almost 13 years ago by my reckoning, were of course non-digital pictures the hard copies of which I had to try to find in the notoriously disorganized playspace that John and I share. With help from Suzanne, who somehow knew where they were, I found 'em, and I scanned 'em. So if you're curious, you can see skinny and young grad student me with the museum's English Electric Lightning and Handley Page Victor. The latter, among the V-bombers (with the Vickers Valiant and the Avro Vulcan, a trio of transonic bombers that once formed the air leg of Britain's nuclear triad), is particuarly evident as a source for the MoS artwork.
The question, or bleg as it were, is whether there are devices that are particularly useful for scanning the likes of old snapshots into happy digital usability. The traditional flatbed scanner in the office does what it has to do, but I wouldn't exactly call it convenient. I am prepared to accept that converting from the analog will be a pain in the butt similar to that of digitizing the vinyl.
Returning To The Academy
John's preschool days are organized around periodically changing themes. The current theme is "post office." They have little mailbags, play with letters, etc.
Insofar as I am something of a postal economics specialist in my other life, Suzanne thought it would be cool if I volunteered to go to school and talk to John's class about my job. I thought that was pretty rich, seeing as my job is nearly impossible to explain to well-educated grown-ups, who default to wanting to ask me about what I think about the direction of interest rates, or other headline macroeconomic topics about which I'm really a casual (if educated) observer. Or, more annoyingly, "Oh, so you're responsible for the 39-cent stamp, heh heh heh." Colleague C once summed up the job as "turning people's numbers into other numbers," but with my marketing hat on, I insist on saying that we turn our clients' numbers into better numbers.
Not having said a firm "no" means, of course, that I was drafted to appear tomorrow morning. I must say that the lesson plan that was drafted for me is workable. I shall read the "Mailing a Letter" (Amazon account required to follow the link) story from Richard Scarry's excellent What Do People Do All Day? It provides a reasonably accurate account of the former manual sorting environment, apart from the anthropomorphized critters. Then I'll spend a couple minutes trying to describe the automated equipment that does nearly all of the sorting in the modern mail processing environment: the blur of the letter mail flying through the OCRs and barcode sorters, the mechanical dance of the new robotic feeders on the automated flat sorter. Perhaps I'll answer a couple questions. Then I'll bask in the sort of daddy adulation that is usually reserved for the commissioning of a new LEGO spaceship.
That's the theory, anyway.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Tuesday Space Extra: The Whirlpool Galaxy
Via the indispensible Sideshow (stop looking at the Bra of the Week, guys)...
Our occasional roundup of search terms that bring people here...
1. solar system galaxies hyperdrive
I don't know what the visitor was getting at with these widely varying scales, as galaxies are millions of times bigger than the solar system. An article on an obscure physical theory that appears to enable a working hyperdrive (i.e., method of faster-than-light space travel) mentioned the possibility of using the hyperdrive to do things like nip over to Mars, Jupiter, or other Solar System destinations in spans of time associated with air travel. Bob Park was not optimistic:
New Horizons, which is on its way to Pluto, is the fastest spacecraft ever built. Even so, the trip will take nine years. At the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics meeting last year, an award was given for a paper about a new propulsion system that could do it in a day. So why are we doing it the old-fashioned way? Because it works. There are two worlds. There is the world that sends robots to explore Mars, finds a vaccine for cervical cancer, unravels the structure of DNA, invents Global Positioning, etc. And then there is an alternate world that discovers cold fusion, homeopathy, the Podkletnov gravity shield, hydrinos, and the Heim space drive. Inhabitants of both worlds speak similar languages, look alike, even have identical DNA. It's not just that things don't work in the alternate world, that can happen even in the real world. But in the alternate world it doesn't seem to make any difference.And, indeed, an argument from revealed preference doesn't look good for the Heim hyperdrive as a simple means of very fast interstellar transportation. Which goes to show, if you're going to dream, you might as well dream big. Crossing galaxies in non-geological time, not to mention crossing the voids between galaxies, represents a sufficient leap that you might as well allow (as in, for instance, Revenge of the Sith) effectively instantaneous intragalactic travel when the plot demands it.
2. utility of open mindedness in leadership
Seems obvious, eh? A big part of the problem with Bushism, from my perspective, is that what passes for policies are actually idées fixes presented as universal solutions to any problems. See: Tax cuts, invading Iraq. Open-mindedness is a necessary condition for admitting data that can stop leaders from resolutely leading us into bottomless pits.
3. owner occupier what does it mean (from Sheffield, England)
This is a real estate term of art for a person who owns the house in which he or she lives; non-owner occupiers are better known as renters.
4. wisconsin smoking ban
Not yet. But if Ireland can survive it, surely we could, too. As it happens, contending state legislation would partly overturn relatively strict bans such as the city of Madison's
5. personal chef pregnant madison wi
Is there a neologism for a search term that yields a large number of Google hits (147,000 in this case), all of which are apparent busts as far as the intended information is concerned? In this case, I show up as a high-ranking hit because of my occasional references to local chefs and the presence of Angry Pregnant Lawyer in the blogroll. The actual purpose of the search is all but unfathomable.
6. marginal utility cripple
marginal utility smaller than cost
stealing in terms of marginal utility
marginal utility- rational consumer,no matter how much income he has (this, from UIUC)
Searches of variations on "marginal utility" are common. Some, like the occasional "marginal utility bozzo" may even mean to get here. Others are, as the saying goes, in the weeds.
7. gm's escalade economics
Old economics: Appeal to the desire of the moderately wealthy to project in-your-face attitudes normally associated with more-or-less minor young celebrities! New economics: Steal market share from the Lincoln Navigator while possible.
My take: Advantage Escalade, but someone should have a word with Bob Lutz about the porthole fad.
8. medicare part d price comparison
The Medicare web site notionally lets beneficiaries compare the out-of-pocket costs of various Medicare prescription drug plans, but the comparisons are of little use without detailed information on the drugs beneficiaries use, or may use in the future, because of widely varying formularies and coinsurance terms among plans. People with access to the W$J might take a look at today's story (sorry, subscribers only) on the front page of Personal Journal to the effect that many potential beneficiaries are better off with generics, physician samples, and Canadian pharmacies.
9. Bush 22nd amendment
This establishes term limits for the president; it still applies to him as far as I'm aware. If Bushism is to continue as of Jan. 20, 2009, it will be under the banner of a new frontperson. Checking other search returns for this query, it appears that Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-MD) sponsored a measure to repeal the 22nd amendment. The handful of cosponsors include southeast Wisconsin's own
10. frist and rice
11. marginal revenue product for television show friends
If we take the marginal product to be an additional episode of the show, then the marginal revenue product basically has these components: The revenue from selling the episode for original broadcast, the revenue from the selling the rights for the eternal rebroadcasts in various outlets other than NBC (syndication), and the revenue from selling the episode for home video. The syndication component is basically zero until the show accumulates a long enough run, but it can be very large for a very popular and long-running series.
The upshot is that the marginal revenue product for the starring cast can be very large in the late run of a series: A hold-out can either prevent production of additional episodes, or force the substitution of a qualitatively different product (the same show with a different cast). So the stars are worth a lot of money to someone — I take no position on whether they're worth it in any other sence — and from a sufficiently strong negotiating position can capture much of the surplus they create for themselves.
12. "sweet child o mine" "quicktime"
This is what I get for blogging about my not entirely ironic later-in-life appreciation for a song I would not have admitted to having heard once upon a time.
Monday, February 20, 2006
Monday Toddler Extra
The 'Blade Runner' City of the Future Arrives Elsewhere
It may have been a Flight of Fancy for the "Blade Runner" designers to suggest that mid-twenty-first century Los Angeles might look like this. However, it would be remiss, not to mention overly North America-centric of me, to fail to mention that there are far-flung cities turning into forests of futuristic skyscrapers almost overnight. Case in point: The United Arab Emirates.
Pluvialis describes the phenomenon at Fretmarks (*):
I love the way that Emirates projects like this seem totally pie in the sky. Until they're built. Quietly, the future appears, and just sits there. While we in the UK fret over faux-georgian shopping centres, someone builds an underwater hotel. Or a kilometre-long hotel with a ballroom the size of Wembley stadium. With unlimited financial resources, a tradition of spectacular display, an unconcern about matching vernacular architecture and a desire to create a city of the future, Dubai's baroque modernism grows and grows. It all seems unstoppable; reminiscent of the nanotech assemblers of The Diamond Age or Mona Lisa Overdrive.And, sure enough, the Dubai skyline could look like this five or six years from now:
Which shows two towers taller than 700 meters, compared to l'edefice le plus élevé au monde at a mere 553M over there in Anglo Canada. One, the stepped-back tower in the background a bit right of center, is the Burj Dubai, planned for 705M but which may reach nearly a kilometer. Its core is presently about thirty stories out of the ground. The foreground tower is a possible 750M competitor called Al Burj.
Two additional factors deserve mention: Apparent unconcern about the security ramifications of super-tall buildings — see Freedom Tower — and a supply of inexpensive macroassemblers, more commonly known as cheap labor. The upshot of the latter is that the Skidmore, Owings, and Merrill-designed Burj Dubai will get to 705M or better for about what some bad-hair guy's in-progress SOM-designed addition to the Chicago skyline will cost to reach about 345M (to the roof; add 70M for the spire).
Local pride does make part of me hope that the Calatrava-designed Fordham Spire survives any landing of indeterminate hardness for the near North Side condo market, even though it isn't so much as 500M to the roof.
Addendum: Darn, almost forgot about the Space Adventures spaceport.
(*) Located while clicking through newer blog pal Xtin's sidebar.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
At The Model Railroad Show
My mother and I took John to the Mad City Model Railroad Show this morning. About all I can say is that 2-1/2 hours is a lot of time for a 3-year-old to stay (mostly) on his feet.
OK, I can say a little more. We probably could have just let John watch the first display, a layout of vintage American Flyer S-gauge toy trains, for the duration, and it would have been fine with him. After that, a curiosity was that he was more interested in the extremes of scale, with HO drawing much less attention. Except, that is, for the HO TtFTE, which he was happy to drive.
Indeed, a layout with a tiny Z-gauge (1:220) Santa Fe passenger train with the classic 'warbonnet' F7 was captivating if for nothing other than the teeny couplings. And one of the garden train layouts was at a convenient height for preschooler viewing.
And, of course, we spent a lot of time at the LEGO train layout, even though it wasn't remotely as elaborate as some of the LEGO train clubs stage elsewhere. In fairness, it seemed to be the work of one youngish guy who may not have exactly been made of bricks, and it did have an impressive set of robotic track, train, and signal controls driven by a ThinkPad. Seeing a LEGO Santa Fe passenger train (with two more cars than we have, plus a nice custom B unit to go with the official F7 A unit) did NOT make him remotely interested in transferring the light and motor from the High-Speed Train over to the Super Chief. Ah well.
After the LEGOs, the boy was starting to flag, and things went a little south from there. He was eager to go on a circus train ride, which he did all by himself, and remained pleased with himself for the first few laps of the track. The last couple loops had him asking to get off even more loudly than he nixed changes to the trains in the basement. Fortunately, there was a big garden train layout nearby with room to flop.
Then, he discovered that there were vendors selling Thomas trains, and lots of 'em. In a parenting move I may regret later, a relatively calm exit from the show was purchased with the promise that I would extract Murdoch from the heretofore super-secret Strategic TtFTE Train Reserve upon our return to the ranch. There are times when you do what you have to do.
(Note to my grandmother: Most of the links in the post are to other pictures of John.)
Fictional "Science" For Fictional Policy
The NYT reports this morning on Fred Barnes's account of a Bush meeting with "novelist" (*) Michael Crichton over Crichton's State of Fear:
Mr. Barnes, who describes Mr. Bush as "a dissenter on the theory of global warming," writes that the president "avidly read" the novel and met the author after Karl Rove, his chief political adviser, arranged it. He says Mr. Bush and his guest "talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement."Just remember, kids, Bush is drowning those polar bears in the name of courageous dissent from that oppressive scientific establishment.
Mr. Crichton, whose views in "State of Fear" helped him win the American Association of Petroleum Geologists' annual journalism award this month, has been a leading doubter of global warming and last September appeared before a Senate committee to argue that the supporting science was mixed, at best.That says something about what it takes to be a "leading doubter" of global warming. Fiction writer and a president whose "1-1=5" budget policies make Richard Cohen look like a math professor. The tactic of putting real scientists before congressional panels against opinion fabricators like Crichton is a big part of the Republican war on science, vividly described in Chris Mooney's eponymous book.
"This shows the president is more interested in science fiction than science," Frank O'Donnell, president of Clean Air Watch, said after learning of the White House meeting. Mr. O'Donnell's group monitors environmental policy.If we're going to have science-fictional policies, couldn't it at least be good science fiction? Evidently not under Bushism.
Addendum: Michael Bérubé has some of Crichton's greatest hits.
(*) I can't say that I go out of my way to read Crichton, and it was so long ago that I read The Andromeda Strain that I have no recollection of the style. From having read Jurassic Park and Airframe off others' shelves in the '90s, you can't help but struck by the artlessness of his style — as if the slightest figurative or subtextual element would have halved the mass-market paperback sales.
Saturday, February 18, 2006
Saturday Space Blogging: The Little Spaceprobe That Could
Call me crazy, but I find the Where Is New Horizons? page highly addictive. Now there's less than 4.7 billion km to go!
Fun fact from the 2/9 PI's Perspective: At ~30 million km from Earth, they're able to download data at 104kbps, which is much better than the sub-dialup speeds planned. The plan for Pluto is 0.7-1kbps, so they're hoping they'll do much better out there, too. Either way, that's better over billions of km of space than my first modem could manage back in the early eighties.
Saturday Space Blogging: So Much For Science
Last September, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said that NASA would live within a $16 billion (constant dollar) budget, "and not 'one thin dime' will be taken from science projects."
I said at the time that there was no way the Bush Administration could advance its human spaceflight "vision," stay within its (arbitrary) budget limit, and maintain funding for NASA's science projects:
[G]o figure: by advanced mathematics [*], NASA will need more money or the science budgets will be raided. Or, the science budgets will still be raided and it'll be determined that there's no way Congress will shell out $100 billion to go back to the moon.Yesterday, Gary Farber's big roundup of teh science found Griffin singing a different tune before the House Science Committee. The New Scientist lede:
Human spaceflight is NASA's top priority and must take precedence over science in the agency's budget, NASA chief Mike Griffin told a US congressional committee on Thursday.Sherwood Boehlert states the obvious:
Griffin defended the agency's 2007 budget proposal, announced on 6 February, at a hearing before the US House of Representatives' science committee. The $16.8 billion budget includes $5.3 billion for science in 2007 but calls for $3.1 billion in cuts to science programmes by 2010 compared to projections made in the 2006 budget request.
"It basically cuts or de-emphasises every forward-looking, truly futuristic programme…to enable us to do what we are already doing or have done before," he said. "If science becomes secondary, if scientists leave the agency, if new missions don't keep young researchers going, then it will be hard to leave this pattern."The relationship between Bushism and science being what it is, the only thing missing is an administration response of, "Your point being?"
Gary observes one thing that makes me alter my probabilities over the likely outcomes a bit. There seems to be more concern than one might suppose among those who control the pursestrings that we avoid a moon rocket gap with China. That might — depending on the magnitude of new messes forthcoming, including the post-Bush fiscal hangover — keep a moon program alive, though possibly with the science package limited to what can be fit inside the flagpole.
(*) Unless you're the Washington Post's Richard Cohen, and are feeling in a clownish mood, in which case the result is obtained by boring and totally useless mathematics.
The Insulation Value of Construction Paper
One of the Joys of Owning an Older Home (U.S. Midwest edition, in case anyone residing in earlier-settled parts of the world need to calibrate what counts as "Older" — think early-Depression era) is that bits and pieces of the place have gone missing over time. In this case, it's one of the glass panels for the triple-track storm window on the dining room's side window. We really ought to do something about that.
As the outside temperature was -15F/-26C at the time of the photo, John's mitten painting was a good enough insulator to allow the humidity in the house to turn to frost underneath it.
A quick check of the climate records shows this morning, which bottomed out at -17F/-27C, to be the coldest since February 1996, when the February record low for Madison of -29F/-34C was set.
Friday, February 17, 2006
When Good Insurance Isn't Good Enough
There was a lot going on on the high cost health care front this week.
An NYT article on the stupendous prices being set for certain cancer drugs made an excellent case for Dean Baker's modest proposal to nationalize pharmaceutical research. Genentech is planning to charge about $100,000/year for new applications to lung and breast cancer of its blockbuster angiogenesis inhibitor Avastin, "citing the inherent value of life-sustaining therapies." Which is a polite way of saying that Genentech would like to capture more of the value of sustaining life as profit. The catch is that the price is so high that it induces sticker shock even for patients with relatively good insurance (i.e., low co-insurance rates, as in the 5% coinsurance for "catastrophic" costs in Medicare Part D). Genentech also appears to be entering something of a game of chicken with insurers, which (as Paul Krugman repeatedly points out) maintain large bureaucracies for what amounts to the purpose of denying expensive coverage.
In the battle of the Medicare Part D pathologies, the worse policy error here is preventing Medicare from using its purchasing power to negotiate the price of the drug. Since the marginal cost of a patient-year of Avastin for is reportedly very low, a buyer with market power could readily foil Genentech's pricing plans, make the drug available to more patients (demand curves slope downwards!) and transfer some of the surplus from Genentech and parent Roche executives' wildly overpaid hedge fund managers to very sick people and their families.
Joan McCarville, an area dairy farmer, 44 and a mother of two, made the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal when it appeared that the state's Health Insurance Risk Sharing Plan would not cover a lung transplant — which would be her third (*) — under a one-transplant-per-organ policy. In the absence of coverage, UW Health had insisted upon an advance payment or guarantee of $330,000 for the procedure. As she wrenchingly put it, "It's cheaper for me to die than it is for me to live. That's what it has come down to." HIRSP relented, in part since the previous transplants were performed prior to the establishment of the current policy, though the cost McCarville's ongoing treatment means that the pending procedure will likely exceed the HIRSP lifetime cap in this case.
Along similar lines, the Phantom Scribblersphere went into action to help in the case of Annika Tiede (whose mother blogs here). Annika is five and has had two liver transplants to treat a rare bile duct disease; the harrowing story is here. A recent hospitalization caused Annika's $1 million/year cap on insurance payments to be exceeded, making a financial disaster most of us are really fortunate never to have to face. This page:
suggests several ways (including tax-deductible donation methods) to help. Please consider helping.
It's important to keep in mind that these disasters are happening despite insurance — even relatively good insurance.
A couple observations on the economics. As with drugs subject to patent protection, it's important to keep in mind the difference between price and cost for hospital services. The difference between the two, whether to cover drug R&D (and marketing) costs or the 'fixed' costs of the hospital, leads to a 'static' inefficiency — the price induces people to forego treatment whose benefits exceed the marginal cost of provision — that is hoped to be offset by 'dynamic' efficiencies. Drugs get developed, hospitals can stay open. That doesn't automatically imply that it makes sense to expose individual consumers to non-cost-based prices, which is a gist of the Health Savings Account nonsense. Indeed, for lots of consumers, a tax deduction for routine health expenses is worth less than an insurer's power to obtain discounts from the list prices of services. See also Alan Schussman, who has an excellent post on the absurdities of trying to turn individuals into health-care bargain hunters via HSAs.
Also, the "stop loss" provisions for the insurers — the annual and lifetime caps that Annika and McCarville face — seem higher to the relatively (or currently) healthy than they really are. For example, our policy has a $2 million lifetime benefit limit. That seems to be an effectively infinite pot when it's just $150 doctor visits chipping away at it, but when you have a combination of the prices charged for expensive treatments far exceeding their economic costs, and an outcome when caps of typical magnitudes of premature death, disability, and/or bankruptcy of the patient's family, it's conceivable that the caps are much too low. The value of a "statistical life" is typically measured to be several million dollars (the amount may vary over the life cycle), which may be lost because market failures prevent patients from obtaining treatments that cost, say, only a few hundred thousand dollars. This is to say nothing of the value of the actual lives facing the dilemma.
One of the underlying problems is inadequate risk pooling, even at the level of state pools such as the Wisconsin HIRSP. This is why proposed reforms such as Kerry's national reinsurance plan would constitute significant improvements to the U.S. health insurance system, even if they're less bold than might be warranted.
(*) The first having failed due to a poor match with the donated organs, i.e., through no fault of McCarville's.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
Because All The Cool Kids Are Doing It...
...I set up a Johari window for myself (seen via Phantom Scribbler and others). Go ahead, click through, pick some terms that you think describe my blog persona, and give me a blog-existential crisis.
Or, perhaps more likely, don't click through and give me a different kind of blog-existential crisis. We'll see...
Dog Shoots Man
Just goes to show, you can't criticize the boss.
Dog Bites Dog Food
The obesity epidemic spreads to pets.
(Whistling a happy tune.)
That was a flash of lightning I just saw!
There's nothing like 6-8 inches of snow followed by a weekend of bitter cold to welcome your mother to Madison from the (also recently very snowy) mid-Atlantic.
Addendum: Ben notes the rarity of thundersnows at Badger Blues.
A Little Like Alaska, Only With More Killer Robots and Mutant Dinosaurs
A side effect of the efforts of the maker of my toy of choice to survive by focusing on its core audience of pre-teen boys is that its representations of people are getting a lot more gendered than they used to be. A pack of 31 'community workers' is scandalously short on women (depending on what you surmise is under hats and helmets, as the figures all have the generic smiley face), and that's actually directed at grown-ups with big towns to populate. Elsewhere in the line, gruff and unhinged-looking male faces are increasingly dominant.
So it was with some amusement that, while assembling this little set for John earlier, I found that the face on the included figure would make a decent Dame Edna.
The forward-looking situation is relatively grim, though, as the '06 assortment offers Catwoman (who does come with an expression that should make someone a good Lego avatar someday), Princess Leia (in enslaved-by-Jabba the Hutt form), and Hermione Granger. Hm.
Wednesday, February 15, 2006
A Major Pathology Of Insurance "Donut Holes"
Here's another observation for the old debate with Jeremy over the pathology of the Medicare Part D donut hole. Kate Steadman of Healthy Policy (h/t Ezra Klein) caught a Health Affairs article by Harvard's Meredith Rosenthal on the economics of donut hole policies — alas, no publicly accessible version of the paper is available from Rosenthal's homepage — showing that donut hole plans shift risk to consumers and cost to the relatively sick, relative to plans with "first-dollar" deductibles that are equally costly to the insurer.
The issue is that unless everyone's expenses put them past the donut hole (making the donut hole, in some ways (*), a de facto first-dollar deductible), the donut hole deductible has to be much larger than a conventional deductible — about twice as large, in fact, depending on the distribution of claims and some other factors — to have the same cost for the insurer.
So, while a donut hole policy tends to appear attractive because of relatively low first-dollar costs, anyone unlucky to be sick enough to hit the 'catastrophic' territory beyond the donut hole will end up paying roughly twice as much out-of-pocket as they would have with non-donut hole insurance that would have cost the same to provide. And, of course, seniors with big prescription drug expenses are not exactly the best positioned to bear the greater cost individually.
Now, Jeremy had noted back when that there is a legitimate policy interest in getting people to sign up for the program, so an appearance of benefits to all is not irrelevant. (Less clear is whether the donut hole is a better way of doing this than fiddling with coinsurance rates.) However, having individuals bear risk instead of the government makes next to no sense as public policy. Government is the institution best positioned to bear, and to diversify most fully, health outcome risks.
(*) But not all. For instance, the cost signal for the first dollar of expense would be different.
Tuesday, February 14, 2006
Blue's Clues: Bring It On?
Via Mark Thoma, new research suggests that boomers who watched lots of TV didn't have lower test scores or materially worse labor market outcomes.
I'd be more convinced if the authors had done some research on Generations X and/or Y as well. The last forty to fifty years have seen some qualitative change in television, after all, and whereas the adults of the fifties and sixties might not have had an Arrested Development to be murdered by careless Fox programmers, children didn't have to watch Action Figure Man: The How To Buy Action Figure Man episode, either. I'd also be curious to see how the quantity of viewing has varied by generation.
More: One of the paper's more freakonomic results, not mentioned in the abstract, is that the effects of watching TV differ based on the extent to which the subjects parents read to them as children. Specifically, TV watching has a larger positive effect for children who aren't read to; the effect is negative (if small and insignificant) for children with more exposure to books.
I think a reasonable explanation can be concocted. Consider the annoying e|i bug. It might take a PhD in marketing to find the educational content in some programs so labeled, but the content rationalizations may actually have some substance if the alternative is a media void: Even "Three's Company" (or, given the time period covered by the study, "Gunsmoke") "teaches" story comprehension. On the other hand, if kids who could be reading books (or having books read to them), get some slightly better-quality time crowded out by TV. At least, given suitable choice of content, that turns out to be not so bad.
Valentine's Day Toddler Extra
I just can't stand the cuteness, even though those Stride-Rites are not as cute as a suitable pair of Robeez would be.
Cyber Space Warps
A fun thing about the 'five things' meme is that it shows, with a little help from the link trackers (*), blogs a few links removed from one's taggers and taggees — a space that's extremely difficult to explore otherwise, given the ratio of potentially interesting blogs to time in the day (**). It's even more amusing to see the chain of tags just about loop back on itself.
Without doing the math, this has to be in the category of something that may not be common for any given tag (depending on the insularity of one's blog-social circles, how carefully taggees are chosen for likelihood of doing the meme, etc.), though given the number of blogs and chain letters in circulation, must happen all the time somewhere...
Meanwhile, Altmouse should get a Pierre Menard Award from someone for this complaint about a post, ahem, parodying Altmouse. (See also Ocean.) For the masochists among you, I have two lengthy, serious, and somewhat related posts from a year ago, musing on the organization of the blog hemispheres, here and here.
(*) It's interesting to note that in its rollercoaster ride of relative usefulness, Technorati seems once again to be straining under its load.
(**) Until, of course, our superintelligent software agents let us paraconsciously follow everything we might possibly follow.
Monday, February 13, 2006
Friends of Italian Opera
We was at Rigoletto's yesterday for a little pre-Valentine's mommy and daddy getaway, with no massacres observed at any of three downtown Chicago parking structures.
This new Lyric Opera production plays the opening bacchanal in the Duke's palace in all the (literally) bodice-ripping depravity you could ask for — more, perhaps, if you were of a mind with Suzanne. For that matter, some of the costume design was drawing a fine line between wardrobe function and malfunction. This was in fairly sharp contrast to the 2000 revival which, as I recall, was staged to suggest the moral black hole at the center of the story. I tried not to remember that there was a nun in traditional habit sitting directly behind us. Things settled down once the scene shifted to Rigoletto's house.
We both judged the singing to be especially strong, particularly Dina Kuznetsova's as Gilda; she had excellent control through her full range amid a lot of acting requiring her to sing in a variety of horizontal and twisted positions. There are only two remaining dates left, this Wednesday (2/15) and Friday (sold out), should any Chicagoland visitors want to catch it — which I'd highly recommend. New York readers can catch Carlos Álvarez (Rigoletto) and Frank Lopardo (the Duke of Mantua) at the Metropolitan Opera in the near future.
Sunday, February 12, 2006
Saving the Internets As We Know Them
Construction of Madison's municipal wireless network kicked off last week, and where it's available, the network will be open while the build-out and testing are underway.
A while back, I'd agreed with Ben of Badger Blues that free universal data access is a justifiable use of tax dollars. (The Madison project, it should be noted, is a public-private venture that is planned to be supported entirely by subscriber fees.) This led to a brief exchange with my conservative friend Joe Malchow, who strongly opposes 'Uncle Sam as ISP,' on whether I trusted government not to "Solomonize" Net access, or to provide better than the sort of service typical of DMVs. (Joe wisely left the U.S. Postal Service, about which I know infinitely more than I can blog, out of it.)
It's a fair question, but my reply, as the large telecommunication service providers are trying to wiggle their way out of their obligations as common carriers, is whether anyone should trust business not to divide the 'nets into a collection of feudal businesses, with their CEOs trying to play the Olsonian 'stationary bandits.'
Frank Paynter has already written a good chunk of the rest of the post for me over at Sandhill Trek:
A battle of Star Wars proportions rages around us and we, the people, the consumers of Internet services at the edges of the net don't even know it. I'm not sure who plays Yoda, but the four panelists on yesterday's call are certainly among a ragtag band of Jedi knights who have our best interests in mind. The forces of "the empire" have several faces and a monolithic interest in controlling content. They include both cable and telephone companies, companies like Comcast, Time Warner, AT&T, Bell South, Charter, Verizon, and Qwest. While the giant cable companies and telcos battle each other for the broadband market, we - the consumers - are likely to get trampled.Yes, you should read the rest.
As Frank notes, letting carriers discriminate among internet content by charging for bandwidth usage is part of a quid pro quo where users ostensibly would get improved quality for certain types of broadband services. Our existing mediocre data services, however, can already be viewed in part as the failure of another quid pro quo that should have delivered us broadband of the sort that French or South Korean users take for granted. And establishing toll roads for content clearly has an enormous risk of unintended adverse consequences for content providers and consumers alike.
Frank also quotes a libertarian counterpoint from Martin Geddes, which is that government imposition of common carrier obligations, often termed "network neutrality" in this context:
...messes up freedom of contract, freedom of association, and property rights.Over at Marginal Revolution last month, Tyler Cowen noted that it wasn't objectionable in (economic) theory to charge bandwidth hogs. Commenters there and at EconLog, where Arnold Kling concluded that (and I'd like to agree in a perfect world) setting up preferred content fiefdoms would be an unintentional suicide move, quickly noted that the bandwidth hogs are already paid-for in various ways. The most important way, arguably, is that the very bandwidth hogs from which the telcos wish to extract more revenue are the services that motivate consumers to pay for premium-priced higher-bandwith data services in the first place.
Geddes, moreover, takes an overly narrow view of "freedom of contract," "freedom of association," and "property rights."
That is, the more important "freedom of association" is not that of the telcos and their preferred content providers, but of individuals and the information services they wish to access. We shouldn't forget that users of commerical ISPs pay for the capability to access those services, so it's not exactly like we're being done a favor.
If telcos exercise their purported "freedom of association" to limit access to non-preferred contract, they're unilaterally altering the (possibly implicit) terms of the (possibly implicit) contracts with their subscribers, who can be expected to value the new arrangment much less than the traditional one — clearly, this is a big part of Kling's unintentional suicide story. (Consider how much you'd be willing to pay for a telephone service that couldn't access, or charged a premium for access to, some large fraction of phone numbers.) That alternative providers such as municipal wireless networks would become much more attractive alternatives to commercially crippled wireline services, of course, helps explain why big telcos have been working vigorously to foreclose public competition through political channels.
Last, the claim that common carrier obligations infringe telcos' property rights would be much stronger in my view were the telcos first to repay their accumulated monopoly profits to the public.
The danger, given the current political climate, is that "network neutrality" has a constituency that's virtually every end user of the internet, but that doesn't matter because the key moneyed interests are on the other side (another h/t to Frank):
There were strong Network Neutrality words in draft telecom legislation before the U.S. House Commerce Committee, but these were removed in a second draft, because, according to Chairman [Joe] Barton [R-TX], “Nobody I talked to liked the first draft.”You can just imagine to whom Rep. Barton talked.
Saturday, February 11, 2006
Electronics for Toddlers: That Fine Line Between Clever and Stupid, Again
A somewhat hand-wringing NYT article this morning noted that several companies are introducing advanced electronic devices for the preschool set at the upcoming Toy Fair in New York (the toy industry's big annual trade show). The development is presented as a breach of a wall between play and adult technology, which anyone with children and adult technology around the house realizes is about as impenetrable as a stockade fence facing down an M1 tank. Someone might have thought of that nine zillion electronic noisemaking toys ago — more than a few of which are/were marketed as interactive learning gadgets.
The focus is on a couple of Fisher-Price gadgets: a simple and rugged digital camera and a simple and rugged MP3 player.
The camera strikes me as a halfway decent idea for the upper-middle class preschooler who otherwise has everything. It's not like kids aren't drawn to complicated and non-rugged digital cameras, though I haven't detected in ours a specific interest in photography that the camera with the little clown that pops out from behind the lens doesn't currently satisfy.
The MP3 player, on the other hand, is at least two kinds of stupid. First, it's hard to imagine how it could be a good idea to get one's preschoolers to tune out any more than conventional electronic babysitters already provide. Or, they promote a "solitary pattern of play." Second, taste in putting noise-making devices in, over, or even close to one's ears seems to be something that kids grow into; a large chunk of the target market wouldn't let the 'phones near 'em even if their parents otherwise were blockheaded enough to buy it.
We will, of course, be sticking to LEGO and trains, plus whatever (else) Julia settles upon.
Saturday Toddler Extra: Best Pals
Friday, February 10, 2006
The Power of LEGO
This is the most viewed picture in my Flickr photostream. According to the latest Flickr statistics, it's been viewed 80 times by people other than me. Apart from tagging the image "Lego," I've heretofore done nothing to draw attention to it.
This, at the Brickshelf gallery site, has been viewed 529 times (the folder, 997 times), as of this writing. I've done nothing specific to draw attention to it, either.
It seems that posting pictures of LEGO creations is the next best thing to posting pictures of yourself (or a suitably hot friend) in a compromising position.
Q: Could John McCain Be A Bigger Jerk?
Note: For the benefit of family readers, I avoided using the sort of language tha McCain deserves in the post's title.
Malcolm Gladwell's Revenge
A copy of The Tipping Point was floating around my mother-in-law's house when we were there over Christmas week, there so we could take a look at its analysis of Sesame Street and Blue's Clues — in particular, how the latter encourages and inevitably gets verbal participation by viewers. Gladwell of course was referring to the intended verbal participation by child viewers. To which I said, "Ha, Mr. Canny Observation Guy! My kid doesn't talk back to Steve (thank goodness)."
Famous last words.
Thursday, February 09, 2006
The Sensor That Cried Wolf
At the end of the brief Post story on a scare at the Russell Senate Office Building, evacuated yesterday due to an alarm from a nerve agent sensor:
Capitol Police said in 2004 that its hazmat team responded to three to 10 false alarms daily on Capitol Hill involving hazardous material scares.That's a lot of false alarms. The preceding paragraph:
Authorities were treating the threat with urgency, but they had not ruled out the possibility that a cleaning agent could have triggered the alarm.Cleaning agent, nerve agent... they're both agents!
In my Secret Factfinding Mission, I had (incidentally) observed a piece of biohazard detection gear, and it was made clear that it would be a Big Deal if it were to go off — which IIRC has happened (false positives) a few orders of magnitude less often than the jumpy Capitol Hill kit.
Update: Steven Stehling of Standards and Grudges provides his experience from his time on active duty in the comments. Snark aside, I agree with his conclusion that the chemical and biological detection systems are better than nothing. From seeing reactions to non-drill fire alarms in office buildings, what seems like an overreaction may be what is necessary to get people to pay attention to the alarms at all. The catch would be if incessant false alarms convince someone to pull the plug on a perceived nuisance.
Anyway, I am in D.C. now, was slogging through Capitol Hill traffic with clients not long before the alarm. As "security theater" goes, the hazmat alarms aren't remotely in the same league as such efforts as banning the public the Department of Energy's Forrestal cafeteria.