Friday, March 31, 2006

Smoke Yourself Thin?

by Tom Bozzo

Yesterday was Journal of Health Economics day at the office, and I couldn't resist picking up Jonathan Gruber and Michael Frakes's "Does falling smoking lead to rising obesity?" (Vol. 25 [2006], 183-197. This has evidently been available online for a few months, but without academic-style access to online journal archives, I have to wait for the dead-tree edition.)

Gruber and Frakes, in large part, are re-assessing the analysis from a 2004 JHE paper (*) that attempted to establish a causal relationship behind the correlation between falling smoking rates and rising obesity rates. The earlier study had, in fact, purported to find an underlying causal link, which Gruber and Frakes do not confirm. Not unsurprisingly, this turns on a few econometric specification decisions that differ between the two studies.

As it turns out, one specification restriction, which Gruber and Frakes relax (at the cost of some degrees of freedom), accounts for roughly half of the previously measured effect, and makes the statistical significance of the effect go away. There is a minor kitten-fight of a reply from the authors of the 2004 paper.

As for me, I'm skeptical about this causality claim. Self-help videos hosted by Troy McClure aside, factors other than smoking must be the drivers of increases in child obesity rates, not to mention that among the nonsmoking majority. So while it's possible that reduced smoking could lead to society-wide weight gain, it's hard to imagine how the causal effect could be very large.

(*) Chou, et al., "An economic analysis of adult obesity: results from the behavioral risk factor surveillance system," JHE 23, 565-587.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Economics' Really Useful Concepts and the Patent Mess

by Tom Bozzo

One of my grad school advisers would say that he wanted any fancy economic theorizing to be articulable, at some level, as an equation of marginal benefits and marginal costs, or else it wasn't really economics. In other words, if a social science problem isn't reasonably modeled as (constrained) optimization, it properly belongs to another social science. That's arguably a bit restrictive, but not obviously worse than making economics the mother of all social sciences by casting every decision as an economic decision.

A slightly different concept of economics (that not beholden to, though also not orthogonal to marginalism) is as the social science that studies how people respond to incentives, especially pecuniary incentives. And, at lunch with non-economist Jeremy Freese a few days ago, he was saying how he found the idea of alignment of incentives to be an economic concept he was finding Really Useful. (*)

As with many Really Useful Concepts, alignment of incentives is an idea that's totally obvious in a simple statement, yet thousands of careers are launched fixing (or exploiting) the rampant screw-ups that follow from failure to align incentives. Here's the idea in a nutshell: If you want people to do A, make sure their (usually financial) incentives are to do A. Or, if people should be doing A but aren't, a detailed examination will show that their incentives are leading them to not-A. Again, it's just shocking how often policymakers forget (if not willfully violate) the principle.

I would submit that the patent system mess, the subject of a lot of blogopsheric and mass media commentary over the last couple weeks, is best understood as an epic case of incentive misalignment in the granting process. Good reading is "The Monopoly Factory," an excellent Washington Monthly article from last year by Zachary Roth. While the incentive-alignment meat doesn't begin until about halfway through the article, Roth convincingly argues that the Patent and Trademark Office is operating with incentive structures — via its funding method, the result of what is likely to be regarded by economic history as a seriously misguided effort to take the costs of USPTO off the backs of taxpayers, and the approach to evaluating the performance of individual patent examiners; patent litigation "reforms" are an additional complication — that are all but guaranteed to promote the approval of patents with attenuated social value.

It follows that efforts to solve the problems of "patent trolls" by restricting the rights of certain patent holders — make sure you're sitting down before I note that anti-trolling reforms would particularly benefit large corporations, some of which have questionable trolling histories of their own — at best would treat a symptom. If one were to ask, as here at Conglomerate, whether the patent system should be organized to limit the rights of non-practicing patent holders, the short answer is probably not; doing so would ostensibly limit the monopoly profit incentive to the subset of innovations that have immediate commercial prospects, which are arguably less in need of patents to come to fruition. It would be better to attack the problem at the source, which is to say by making the USPTO a stingier maker of monopolies.

It would be over-romanticizing to sugges that the main victims would be prescient individuals working in their garages (or attics, as the case may be); it seems more likely — depending, of course, on the details of any reform — that outfits like the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation would take the collateral damage.

(Full disclosure: While my primary area of expertise is postal economics, my employer has a patent litgation support practice in which I occasionally consult.)

(*) At this point, I resisted the temptation to pull a hood over my head and say something to the effect of, "Excellent — your journey to the Dark Side is nearly complete."

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Quote of the Day

by Tom Bozzo

Max speaks:
The White House Chief of Staff has been replaced with a leading architect of our budget and economic policy. What else is there to say. I guess Michael Brown was busy.
(No choice but to extract the whole post, but the hypertext content is added.)

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Program Note

by Tom Bozzo

It so happens that I am so insanely busy at work that the usual (surprisingly time-consuming!) posting schedule has been disrupted in favor of the quick little shots to let you all know that I'm still kicking. I'm arranging for some guest-blogging to keep up appearances, but appreciate your patience in the meanwhile.

Quote of the Day

by Tom Bozzo

For those of ye who read neither The Poor Man nor Daily Kos, Joseph Wilson!
[Y]a know Wayne [LaPierre, of the National Rifle Association], I’ve finally come around to your way of thinking. I agree, I think every single person in this nation should be armed with a gun … to protect us from these assholes you keep in power.

Happy Birthday To Me

by Tom Bozzo

Subtract 38 years from the time stamp of this post, and shift the scene from the west side of Madison, Wisconsin to Summit, New Jersey, and you could find me getting ready to be born.

As for those 38 years, I can't complain. Sure, Xtin's reflection on Roger O Thornhill reminds me that I could have a daintier nose, impeccably tailored suits, encyclopedic knowledge of the correct gratuity for every possible interaction with service industry employees, and the ability (not to mention opportunity) to survive multiple-martini lunches with my professional reputation intact. (*) Still, there are a lot worse things to be than an upper-middle class millennial American liberal.

Since we're going out to Harvest with friends this evening, we had cake with the kids yesterday. I got a swell haul of presents from them and Suzanne.
Clockwise from top left: Ken MacLeod's Hugo-nominated Learning the World; a box of marzipans and a chocolate computer from our friendly neighborhood chocolatier; car wash coupons for my no-longer-silver and therefore-shows-dirt ride; card decorated by John; book of Madison-area bike ride paths (much better shape will be required for 50-mile loops!); high-visibility windbreaker to reduce the risk of running afoul of giant SUVs on rides to work; new LEGO set.

Material goodies pale, of course, in comparison to these:


Not to mention good friends (and seldom-photographed loved one, naturally caught in mid-blink):

And more friends, furry and otherwise:

Not to mention all of you blog-pals out there as yet unmet in the "real" world!


(*) A runner-up in the 'film character I'd like to be' department would be Jack Lemmon's Stanley Ford from How To Murder Your Wife. Ford, a comic strip artist, has an impeccable midtown Manhattan townhouse and the services of Terry-Thomas to ensure his martini glass is always properly chilled. For the benefit of certain readers, I admit that How To Murder Your Wife is badly marred by a lame-even-for-1965 misogynistic third act, and is only partly redeemed by the happy ending. I tend to compensate by skipping the offending material entirely when re-watching the film.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Paraphrase of the Day

by Tom Bozzo

From the NYT article on the latest prewar memo to leak out of the UK:
Mr. Bush predicted that it was "unlikely there would be internecine warfare between the different religious and ethnic groups."
What's the chance that Bush, who has difficulty using the words "Federal Reserve" extemporaneously, actually said "internecine"? (*)
Mr. Blair agreed with that assessment.
A-plus to both of them for their forecasting skills. Wankers.

(*) Unless it was his Tetrasyllabic Word of the Day.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Quote of the Day

by Tom Bozzo

Talor dispera,
Talvolta affanna
D'una tiranna
La crudeltà!

Ma poi la pena
Oblia l'amante
Nel dolce istante
Della pietà!
–Amore, in Orfeo ed Euridice, Act III, Scene III

(See here for an English translation.)

Friday, March 24, 2006

End-Of-The-Week Conversation

by Tom Bozzo

Suzanne: You must be disoriented...

Me (in my jammies): Uh, yeah.

[Conversation about friend who has had distressing health problems since having been caught up in the Milwaukee cryptosporidosis outbreak 10 years ago.]

Suzanne: By the way, I corrected a typo on your blog.

Me: Oh, thanks.

Suzanne: It was just so obvious and it was easy to do.

Me: That's true.

Suzanne: But I would never change a whole word without asking...

Me: If you want to do that, you should start your own blog.


Suzanne: Would you like some coffee? A martini?

Me: Maybe both. A coffeetini!

[Note: I went for just the martini.]

Quick Observations

by Tom Bozzo

I'm headed to bed (and yes, the time stamp on the post reflects more-or-less real Central Standard Time), but before I collapse:

1. Washington Metro trains are luxury liners compared to the CTA's. However, the CTA's price is right from O'Hare to downtown; probably more so than the future Dulles Corridor Metrorail expansion.

2. While "coach," applied to a vehicle one might otherwise call a "bus," is intended to connote greater luxury than "bus," it actually does a decent job of reminding one of the actual comfort level of pre-motorized coaches.

3. Notwithstanding #2, it's better to fold one's self into a sub-coach class seat in a motor "coach" than to try to drive 2-1/2 hours from Chicago to Madison after pulling a crazy work all-nighter.

4. I don't understand how workers of routine 60+ hour/week schedules do it without going insane. My prior, in fact, is that such workers are, or have gone, insane.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Madison: Being Madison

by Tom Bozzo

Sure, I realize that Whole Foods Market, a.k.a. "Whole Paycheck," is a big corporation that's friendly to its workers to the extent they don't get any ideas about forming unions.

However, the Plan Commission's vote against the store's relocation to the Hilldale redevelopment strikes me as medium-box wise and big-box foolish. As reported by the Cap Times (and Ald. Konkel), considerable disappointment had registered that, in contrast to the pseudo-new urbanism of the rest of the development, the new store would be a reasonably large box surrounded by a reasonably large amount of parking.

At this point, Sam Kinison would loudly remind everyone that Whole Foods is a F***IN' GROCERY STORE!!!! And, for that matter, Hilldale remains a f***in' mall.

Then there's the matter of what's there now. There's tired, vacant, low-rise offices with no serious future other than the wrecking ball. There's a McDonald's and a strip center fronted by a Pizza Hut across the street, plus the tired and mostly vacant office building in which I work. The blocks between Hilldale and the current Whole Foods location are not exactly postcard material. So it's not like a neighborhood of adorable Tudor Revival bungalows is going to be despoiled by approving the development.

The proposal was also panned for lack of a traffic management plann for that part of the development. But to the extent that's really a concern, then — a fortiori, even — so should the likely alternative that the Whole Foods decamps to someplace on the suburban fringes where it'll generate more and longer trips, particularly for the dwellers of the new condos adjacent to the property, and also for many near-west side dwellers for which the existing store is a not inconsiderable retail amenity.

(In that regard, while I don't think Ald. Webber is necessarily out of touch with her constituents in the broader sense, I'd like her to assemble a random sample of them in person and then say, "If we lose Whole Foods, we lose Whole Foods. But there are plenty of other groceries around there.")

Last, if these concerns were applied retroactively to Madison's hideous quasi-suburban fringes — or if anyone had shown signs of giving a crap when something could have been done about it — you'd have to tear everything down and start over, as it's all big boxes and gallows humor for traffic planning. Just saying.

So a good resolution to the situation would be to take the project to the whole city council, passing it by any margin, and moving on.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Quote of the Day

by Tom Bozzo

The corporation is an externalizing machine, in the same way that a shark is a killing machine. There isn't any question of malevolence or of will. The enterprise has within it, and the shark has within it, those characteristics that enable it to do that for which it was designed.
–Robert Monks, in The Corporation

All Hail The Oil-Burners!

by Tom Bozzo

The Audi R10 Le Mans prototype, powered by a turbocharged V12 direct injection diesel engine, won a 12-hour race at Sebring, its first outing.

(Its gasoline-burning predecessor, the R8, has been the dominant endurance racer over the last few seasons.)

Waking Up To The News

by Tom Bozzo

George W. Bush (actuality in NPR news break): ...and one of the reasons why it's important for me to continue to speak out and explain why we have a strategy for victory, why we can succeed. And I'm going to say it again: If I didn't believe we could succeed, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't put those kids there.

Suzanne (remarking upon the president's unsettling tone of voice): Did they speed up the tape?

Me: I don't think so.

Suzanne: I wish they had a lie detector on him.

Me: Heh.


Memo. The question to which the actuality was a small part of the "reply" was:
QUESTION: You've said throughout your presidency that you don't pay that much attention to the polls, that... There was a handful that have come back, and they [the polls] all say the exact same thing; that a growing number of Americans are questioning the trustworthiness of you and this White House. Does that concern you?
Would you trust George W. Bush to spy on you?


Bonus Rude Pundit rudeness!
In his entire scripted speech... in Cleveland, President Bush mentioned 9/11 one time, in a comparison between mosque bombers and plane crashers. However, once he went off script and started taking questions, he contextualized his answers through 9/11 another ten times. It was a psychotic moment, like when you tell a four year-old not to say "Shit" after she hears Mommy yell it in traffic and then that's all the four year-old can say for the next three days...

But, as ever, it's not the fact that Bush didn't answer the questions people in the Cleveland crowd asked; it's the way that he didn't answer. Right out of the gate, someone asked, "Do you believe this, that the war in Iraq and the rise of terrorism are signs of the apocalypse? And if not, why not?" Not once in his entire endless goddamn answer did Bush address what the Clevelander wanted to know, other than "The first I've heard of that, by the way. I guess I'm more of a practical fellow." And then blathering on about his job is to protect us, September 11th, and using "diplomacy" before the military.
See also from 3/21:
QUESTION: I'd like to ask you, Mr. President -- your decision to invade Iraq has caused the deaths of thousands of Americans and Iraqis, wounds of Americans and Iraqis for a lifetime. Every reason given, publicly at least, has turned out not to be true. My question is: Why did you really want to go to war? From the moment you stepped into the White House, your Cabinet officers, former Cabinet officers, intelligence people and so forth -- but what's your real reason? You have said it wasn't oil, the quest for oil. It hasn't been Israel or anything else. What was it?

BUSH: I think your premise, in all due respect to your question and to you as a lifelong journalist -- that I didn't want war. To assume I wanted war is just flat wrong, Helen, in all due respect.


BUSH: Hold on for a second, please. Excuse me. Excuse me. No president wants war. Everything you may have heard is that, but it's just simply not true.

BUSH: My attitude about the defense of this country changed in September the 11th. When we got attacked, I vowed then and there to use every asset at my disposal to protect the American people. Our foreign policy changed on that day. You know, we used to think we were secure because of oceans and previous diplomacy. But we realized on September the 11th, 2001, that killers could destroy innocent life. And I'm never going to forget it. And I'm never going to forget the vow I made to the American people, that we will do everything in our power to protect our people. Part of that meant to make sure that we didn't allow people to provide safe haven to an enemy, and that's why I went into Iraq. (CROSSTALK)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

(From Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport) Tom’s Small Steps to a Better Air Travel Experience

by Tom Bozzo

1. Waiting area seats should have cupholders and/or small tables.

Many of us sleep for crap while on travel, and compensate with caffeine. Once arrived in waiting areas, the unappealing beverage storage choices include the floor and the palmrest of one’s laptop. The spillage risks are obvious.

The interior designer for the Madison airport’s renovation was kind enough to supply little tables between some waiting area seats.

2. The Passenger Facility Charge should pay for wireless internet access.

I suppose that a lot of users avoid the high day-rates from the hotspot concessionaires through subscriptions to other commercial access providers. That does the likes of café non-denizen me no good at all. Insofar as I’m paying to be here and am basically captive, being held up at the gateway to sweet, sweet data is a greater annoyance than facing padded but easily avoidable prices for stuff at airport retailers.

3. The layout of Kansas City International is brilliant. Or stupid. Maybe both.

MCI (*) has horseshoe-shaped terminals dating from the early seventies that feature remarkably short distances from curb to gate. A byproduct of the arrangement is that there is a low ratio of gates to security checkpoints. However, there are no services inside the checkpoints. The devil is in the detail of how well the TSA staffs and thereby maintains flow through the checkpoints.

Interestingly, the philosophy at MSN seems to be to make the additional dwell time inside the checkpoints relatively pleasant. (In the good old days, it was all about easy-in/easy-out) In particular, the Great Dane brewpub’s new airside location seems to be doing quite well. However, it would enhance local pride if the Wisconsin-themed shop could display higher-class merchandise than “Nothing Tips Like A Cow” T-shirts.

(*) KCI’s airport code, which dates from the days when it was known as Mid-Continent International. In a curious case of shortage-of-imagination, Wichita’s airport is called Wichita Mid-Continent Airport (code ICT).

(From Kansas City, MO) George Stephanopoulos: Lickspittle

by Tom Bozzo

Something I do much more when on the road than at home is watch the morning network "news" programs. On "Good Morning America," a story unironically presented unsourced claims from White House staff that George W. Bush is engaged and on his game fielding questions inside the West Wing, and so is turning a new leaf in engaging with questions from the "public" at his notoriously access-controlled experiences.

Reinforcing the party line with a performance that was alarmingly evocative of Tom Tomorrow's conservative vox pop guys was good old George, saying 'you bet it's different from those fake town halls.' I had to remind myself that he was an ex-Clinton hand, though those of you with good memories might recall that he'd purchased a building in the block of Connecticut Ave. just NW of Dupont Circle in the early nineties with a loan made on terms that might not have been available to the general public.

I suppose Alexandra Wentworth is asking Schmoopy for a big house on the Potomac.

Local jargon watch. Suppose you need to regularly distinguish between the Kansas Cities. What might you call the lesser partner? Try "Kan-Kan."

What John Doesn't Know He's Missing...

by Tom Bozzo

Spotlighted at LUGNET:

"SCLTC (*) Brings the Island of Sodor to LEGOLAND California"

March 25-26.

The more serious train clubs can really go nuts with their layouts. The good kind of nuts!

Program Note (from Kansas City): Substantive posts are unlikely to resume until this evening.

(*) Southern California LEGO Train Club

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Defining Fundamentalism Down

by Tom Bozzo

Go read Lance Mannion's excellent post on the media distortion of Christian fundamentalism into the mainstream form of religiosity. That's a companion phenomenon to having televised political commentary come from a Republican, a different kind of Republican, and a Libertarian. "Intemperate" but true:
But for the last 35 years or more, that loudmouth minority of self-styled Christians has been pushing their way into the political debate, pushing aside political debate, insisting on having their beliefs be everyone else's beliefs "because God says so," and doing their best to end liberal democracy in this country and replace it with an illiberal theocracy. They want to convert all the rest of us at gunpoint.

And I'm not saying that as a figure of speech. The guns are holstered and in the background, on the hips of the cops who would enforce all the theocratic laws these people would enact.

Would enact?

Are enacting.
While Lance singles out truly intemperate comments from a Nightline appearance by Franklin Graham, I've been more interested (car crash and train wreck dep't) about mass media regular and right-wing Catholic blowhard William A. Donohue. Donohue's hypersensitive ability to find anti-Catholicism in jet contrails seems to make him the media's go-to guy when "traditionalist" Catholic outrage is required, though a Media Matters profile from December '04 indicates that Donohue actually isn't on the broadcast networks very often — it just feels like it.

More interesting was the biographical detail that Donohue is an ex-sociology professor — Ph.D., NYU (1980). How many non-ex sociology professors would be caught dead saying things like this (via Media Matters)?
[Donohue:] Now they're saying [The Passion of the Christ is] fascistic queer-bashing. That kind of language would ordinarily get somebody taken away in a straitjacket and -- put you in the asylum. I don't know what about -- the queer-bashing is all about. I'm pretty good about picking out who queers are and I didn't see any in the movie. I'm usually pretty good at that.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Two Anti-Whines

by Tom Bozzo

1. A visit from the bandwidth fairy

Late last year, I had revisited our internet plan, since our CLEC/ISP was offering speeds of "up to" 4 megabits/second for what we were paying for our no-longer-that-fast 768K DSL. The nice new modem (with built-in ethernet hub and 802.11g Wi-Fi) arrived, and it turned out that "up to" meant about 1.5 Mbps. Not bad, but I was a little disappointed.

After returning from the week's bandwidth-limited travels, I noticed that a big download was moving along much more rapidly than usual. Some testing revealed that the 1.5 Mbps was now 3-3.5 Mbps. Woohoo! It's still subpar by the standards of the international crème de la crè of internet access speeds, but it will increase the temptation to fill in my viewing of the new Battlestar Galactica (saw the season finale on the road) from 'net sources before the discs start arriving from Netflix.

This firm, in an effort to rid itself of dependence of the new AT&T's wireline loops, offers a WiMax service elsewhere in the state — same "up to" speed, $20/month less than 4 Mbps DSL — and is in the process of building a wireless network in Madison for the same purpose. Good for them; competition is a good thing.

2. An airline seating anti-whine.

Yes, you got that right.

For one thing, I remain so pleased with the ability to get to Washington in two hours that I've mostly stopped thinking what the CRJ would be like if it were outfitted with ~12 seats instead of 44-48. Even when those 44-48 seats are jam-packed. (The high load factors suggest that the flight won't get canned for reason of insufficient loads.)

I'd been alerted to the new NWA premium seat-selling deal while rearranging my seats for this week's return flights via internet check-in. For an exit row aisle, $15 is not unreasonable — I'd go further to endorse Michael O'Hare's legroom premium proposal — though I happened to be flying on a fare that allowed me to select an exit row aisle for no additional charge.

Then, on a "completely full" flight, the middle seat ended up being unoccupied.

I thought, for a moment, that we were going to pick up a woman who announced herself to the cabin crew as a "furloughed flight attendant," but she took the window seat in the row behind me. The fellow sitting next to her must have asked something about NWA's labor challenges, as she described the basic doomsday scenario in which the airline voids the pilots' and/or flight attendants' contract ostensibly to save the airline, then the subsequent strike kills the airline.

But that was not all! The furloughed flight attendant did not stop talking the entire trip. You might say, raving. At first, she suggested that NWA management, a la Frank Lorenzo, would be just as happy to liquidate NWA and cash out with whatever they've arranged, rather than try to make a profitable concern out of it. That, at least, is in the possibly, if not exactly self-evidently, true department.

However, this particular flight attendant must have watched a few too many "X-Files" repeats, as somehow the airline finance train jumped the tracks and she was onto a conspiracy to murder JFK (Sr.) over his supposed plans to fold the Federal Reserve system, shutter the CIA, and get the U.S. out of Vietnam. Videotapes and an alleged girlfriend of LBJ were mentioned by the time the engines mercifully spooled up and drowned her out — for me, anyway. Next time I heard her, she was saying something about the sinking of the Titanic.

The present environment may well be blurring the lines between matters warranting healthy distrust and raving paranoia. But not that much.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Airline Pension Obligations: Is "Zombies Walk the Earth" Good Policy?

by Tom Bozzo

An "even the Bush administration thinks it looks bad" moment. From the NYT:
The Labor Department is investigating whether Northwest Airlines systematically shortchanged its employee pension fund over three years, then avoided having to make a $65 million payment to the fund by filing for bankruptcy protection just one day before the payment was due.
The underlying problems include managment's conflicting responsibilities to shareholders and pension program participants, divided regulatory oversight responsibilities, and of course the inability of the industry to sustain break-even fare levels, particularly in an era of expensive oil.

The proposed solution, on the other hand, is basically wait-and-pray:
Northwest received a waiver from the I.R.S. in 2003, allowing it to reschedule that year's pension contributions over five years. Since then, it has been seeking additional ways to reduce or postpone its contributions for 2004, 2005 and beyond. Some of the delayed contributions are now starting to come due, and the airline has been lobbying Congress to give it still more time. The Senate has passed a measure that would give Northwest and the other major airlines 20 years to catch up on their pension contributions — nearly three times as long as most companies would get under a major revision of the pension law that has been passed by both houses of Congress.
The fear is that pressing the airlines will lead them to dump their obligations on taxpayers, but one might wonder whether this is a delay of the inevitable without real structural reform of the industry. Is there much reason to believe that the money to catch up the pension fund contributions will somehow show up over the course of the catch-up period? Imagine what the industry's finances would look like if demand for air travel at current fares were weak for cyclical or geopolitical reasons.

I see a small measure of karmic payback for tut-tutting of Japan over institutional arrangements that extended its period of malaise by deferring the tough job of stopping technically insolvent 'zombie' firms from walking the earth. We may not be in that position economy-wide — at least not yet — but mere malaise would probably seem like paradise to airline employees.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Cubicles and Unintended Consequences

by Tom Bozzo

Here's an interesting find, via the Postalnews blog : A recent Fortune article presents a brief history of the cubicle.

As conceived at Herman Miller in the late sixties, it was meant to be a humane alternative to "open bullpen" office arrangements (i.e., where everyone except the managers, who have offices, works at desks in an open office area; cf. The Apartment). The original vision, however, went more-or-less to the same junkyard as the funky lounge areas in widebody jetliners — Sir Richard's Upper Class being the exception that proves the rule.

Some of the would-be alternatives, it must be noted, have been pretty stupid:
Having taken over the world, the cubicle defeated several attempts to dethrone it. One of the most ambitious assaults came in 1993, when Jay Chiat, chairman of ad agency Chiat/Day, declared a sort of Bolshevik revolution when he moved his employees into newly renovated space in Venice, Calif. The design "was loungy, like Starbucks," remembers Stevan Alburty, then head of technology. "It was 20 years ahead of its time."

But it had a fatal flaw: No one had a fixed place to work. Employees were expected to park their belongings in lockers and check out laptops every morning as if renting a movie at Blockbuster. It quickly sparked a counter-rebellion--many employees simply stopped coming to the office, preferring to work at home. After the firm was acquired by an advertising conglomerate, employees got workspaces again.

I use and endorse offices with walls, windows, and a door.

There's also a more-tendentious-than-it-looks quote from Rep. Frank Wolf, whose northern Virginia district includes some of Washington, D.C.'s western exurbs:

"There is nothing magic in strapping ourselves into a metal box every day only to drive to an office where we sit behind a desk working on a computer."

That's true to some extent. But I can think of two significant objections right off the top of my head.

First, many jobs do benefit from face-to-face interaction with colleagues. (Oops, I mean colleagues.)

Second, and apropos of the annual hand-wringing over supposed productivity losses due to the NCAAs (or substitute any other Big Event), telecommuting seemingly open ups nearly limitless avenues for time-theft by employers who can effectively have employees on call all the time. Either that, or it's a step towards a capitalist reification of the old saw about pretending to work for pretend pay under communism.

More seriously, the freely chosen option of telecommuting is undoubtedly valuable. Shifting the cost of maintaining a workplace onto employees, less so.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Quote of the Day

by Tom Bozzo

"There is only one sure means in life," Deasey said, "of ensuring that you are not ground into paste by disappointment, futility, and disillusion. And that is always to ensure, to the utmost of your ability, that you are doing it solely for the money."
–Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

(From Wilmington, DE) 'I Read Your Blog'

by Tom Bozzo

I spent the bulk of the day in a series of seminars given by a professor in an area in which I've spent a solid chunk — almost surely a majority — of my work time over the last 9 years and 9 months. No comment on the substance of the exchanges.

Why? My policy of not blogging subjects on which I'm likely to be required to render a professional opinion did sort-of pay off, as I'd heard from an attorney who works for the Postal Rate Commission's Office of the Consumer Advocate that the URL of this blog had been passed around the Commission at some point. Hopefully, they won't think less of me the next time I'm in the witness hot seat.

In other news, I was hoping to taking a joy ride on the Acela Express from Washington to Wilmington, but the non-reimbursable price differential led me to settle for the Acela Regional, which uses equipment I knew as the "Metroliner" in my semester of commuting between Wilmington and College Park (go ask Stephen Karlson for the full trainy details, I'm tired). Interestingly, the reserved fare on the Regional was only about $5 more than I remembered the Metroliner fare to be back in early '96. The Metroliner was only a modest splurge over the unreserved local N.E. corridor trains back then. Now, the walk-up-at-3:30 one-way fare for the 4:00 Express was a whopping $75 premium over the Regional. Yeah, I'm sure I could have been even more shocked walking up to certain airline ticket counters. But I don't make nearly enough money to justify the Express's premium to arrive 20 minutes earlier in Wilmington. So for now, the latest in higher-speed U.S. train sets remains a mystery for me.

A PR Commerical's Answer To My Internet Bandwidth Shortage

by Tom Bozzo

(The distinguishing feature of TV in Washington is an eternal campaign of issue ads and PR spots meant to buff the images of major federal contractors.)

A cable industry association ad this morning blames the telcos for cruddy communications services. Fancy that.

The ad shows someone dialing a number on a rotary payphone on a desert-y roadside, while the voiceover slams the telephone industry for deploying innovations only in selected decades.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Program Note

by Tom Bozzo

I am at 11th and L Sts. NW in Washington, D.C., sipping data through a 26.4 kbps straw mere blocks from the center of U.S. government power. Why exactly are we a second-rate power from the standpoint of internet access?

It's been amusing to observe the explosion of construction in this neck of D.C. I'd guess it's mainly sprawl from the D.C. office boom. Lobbying firms don't just house themselves, after all.

There's a crane up next door to the Cato Institute's Borg Cube of a headquarters for a luxury condominium (TenTenMass) in the early stages of construction, which is kind of funny as this stretch of Massachusetts Ave. was not where one would necessarily want to have been out walking as recently as my grad school days, at least if you didn't want to be in the position of explaining yourself to the Metropolitan Police.

I also couldn't help notice that there were — considering the very warm day here — fewer homeless people than usual in Samuel Gompers Park (across Mass. Ave. from Cato), perhaps making the Catonians think the libertarian paradise is arrived. But it probably was just normal variation.

Work and data access limitations will likely prevent substantive posting until tomorrow evening (3/14) at the earliest. That may change if I find an open wireless network, but don't count on it.

The Second Whining Carnival

by Tom Bozzo

Without further ado, here is the second Whining Carnival. If you have a late contribution, leave a link in the comments, and I'll add it to the Carnival when I have a chance.


The Joys of Home (Ownership)

Scrivener's weekend is interrupted by the discovery that his house is sheltering some of the neighborhood wildlife. Warning is hereby given to anyone sensitive to the treatment of rodent squatters. The good news is that the squirrels were evicted without excessive violence. The bad news is this, yikes!

Broken glass always ends up in finer shards than you can imagine, according to Purple Kangaroo. Getting it up — before the baby vacuum cleaner — will help get seldom seen corners of the house clean, though.

Yuck! Square Plate encounters disgusting evidence of the extremely drunk transiting her parking lot.

Our Four-Wheeled "Friends"

Car troubles and the financing of the repairs lead Rev. Dr. Mom to explore the classic whine/anti-whine form.

Janelle Renée takes her snappy red sports car into the shop and leaves with a... Buick "Rendez-yuck." (Ed. supplied anti-whine: At least it wasn't an Aztek.) Then it goes back in, and Janelle gets the purple heart courtesy of the wonky doors of another frickin' SUV. Anti-whine #2: Third time is the charm, a Porsche Cayenne loaner.

The Academy's Inhumanity to Academics

Xtin takes a break from a crash dissertation-writing effort to deconstruct language in boilerplate communications to academic job-seekers.

Square Plate finds that wine tastings and undergraduate papers in need of grading don't mix, and finds a root of procrastination in a job that no longer fits so well.

A dead laptop, an unloved conference paper, and the struggle to recover teaching mojo leave Lee Scoresby in need of a good pseudonymous blog whine.

Dr. Brazen Hussy enumerates five ways adjunct professors face a hostile work environment.

Space, Please

A student enters Square Plate's radius of comfort without leave, leading to the question of why don't the close-talkers/workers/kick-boxers get it?

Purple Kangaroo encounters the tactlessness of strangers, in particular showing amazing restraint after being called "Little Miss Suzy Homemaker" by a Wal-Mart checker.

We Do Love Our Kids

Purple Kangaroo is really worn out on the occasion of her Baby E's six month birthday. Really, really worn out. But Dear Husband provides a little respite at exactly the right time.

Spring break is great. When it's your break, that is. Scrivener reminds us that caring for children, however fun and adorable are the kids and rewarding it is for the caregivers, is work.

Camera Obscura wonders whether there will be net labor savings from teaching the kids the basics of housework. The logical conclusion: "Skilled slave labor is better than unskilled."

Beyond Classification

Allergy suffer Scott of Semiquark reports that the War on Meth makes it illegal, in the state of Illinois, to purchase more than one adult's supply of pseudoephedrine decongestant per month.

Last, Phantom Scribbler, the sovereign of the Carnival, ranges over an array of whine-inducing topics, including toddler weight gain, playgroup angst, cranky Web browser software, and much much more.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Saturday Baby Extra: Learning To Color

by Tom Bozzo

Julia is learning to color, with a little help from Big Brother John.

Hilarity ensues... or is it fighting over a crayon?

Carnival Is Go

by Tom Bozzo

The last call for submissions drummed up enough posts that I'm declaring that the second Whining Carnival will arrive on Monday, March 13. More fine whines are always welcome, so if you wish to join in, you may (at your option) e-mail me a link, leave a comment, or make use of the whining-carnival tag.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Our "Old" House, For Sale

by Tom Bozzo

Looking for a swell little house in Madison? We lived here from 2000-2004, before decamping down the hill. Were the bedrooms a bit more equally-sized, we might still be there, since we paid $160,000 for it six years ago. The lot is great, and it has a Rare Nakoma Two-Car Garage; I'm currently looking forward to spending big bucks to get the Even Rarer Dudgeon-Monroe Two-Car Garage at the "new" house.

When we sold, we had a contingent offer in on present residence, and so we weren't remotely inclined to push the frontiers of 3 BR, 1 BA house pricing. It'll be interesting to see what our successors end up getting vs. the $285K asking price. It's a little aggressive, maybe, though it's interesting to note that an average 1949 house like that has features (real cedar siding, skim-coat plaster walls) that would be luxuries in new construction. It may still put them in the relatively fast-moving end of the market — and they seem to have taken a cue from neighbors a couple doors down, who priced a similar house similarly without encountering any significant price resistance.

It's Stata Upgrade Day!

by Tom Bozzo

This came for some of us a while back, but we don't all have a Special Relationship with StataCorp.

Quantitative social science geeks in the audience may whistle at hearing that this will be a colossal upgrade step — from Intercooled (*) Stata 6 to Stata SE 9. With full documentation!

Colleague D and I are so excited that Colleague B has been looking like he's ready to have us committed.

(*) A silly name made sillier by the factoid that Intercooled Stata is, contrary to the implication that it's better than Naturally Aspirated Stata or even just plain Turbo Stata, the base product for non-educational users.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


by Tom Bozzo

Local edition: Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce

The State Journal reports proposed Madison sick leave ordinance was changed in an attempt to mollify critics and reduce the potential cost to small businesses. Among other things, the revised proposal reportedly allows employers to meet the leave requirements by rescheduling work rather than necessarily offering paid leave. The Chamber's reaction?
"It's still clearly a mandate and that's not acceptable," chamber President Jennifer Alexander said of the revised proposal.
I've previously noted that the Chamber's position is totally incoherent, insofar as the infamous study it commissioned contended that offering sick leave is good for businesses... but a "mandate" would be Bad Nasty Bad. Plus it wouldn't be fair for government to level the playing field between smart businesses that offer leave benefits and the Neanderthals that don't. You follow that? I am not especially kidding about this line of argument.

The real message, of course, is "Chamber to workers: screw you!"


National edition: Jacob Weisberg

Calling Ann Altmouse! You're being parodied again.

This is a classic phoning-in of the Big Media metanarrative on the Democrats. Is the problem that George W. Bush is metaphorically driving a Ford Excursion through the Harbor Tunnel while talking on a cell phone and therefore failing to notice the gasoline tanker stopped in traffic just ahead? No, it's those darn Democratic party leaders.

Sure, they may have saved us from Social Security and tax "reform" by holding their caucus together in a government (h/t Ken for the pointer to another Toles gem) that, of course, gives them exactly zero chance of enacting any major legislation, but do they have to be so shrill and partisan about it? Or maybe they need to be more partisan? Not to mention never say anything that might be the least bit off-key or possibly unsupported by the evidence. And that Howard Dean, he's so crazy. And partisan!

I'll grant that a coherent program from the Democratic leadership would be nice. But what does Weisberg offer? An ejaculation of straw men:
Democrats need to demonstrate they won't just cut and run from Iraq, that they see security as more than a civil liberties issue, and that their alternative to tax cuts isn't just more spending on flawed social programs and unchallenged growth in entitlements.

Via Phantom Scribbler, who I wish had found it in herself to distinguish Weisberg's bullshit from serious stories about our actual sexist theocratic authoritarian overlords.

Thursday Space Blogging: "Mission To Nowhere"

by Tom Bozzo

For you NASA budget junkies out there, I composed a little post on the NASA funding situation in response to a request for a guest post from my pal Drek of the suprisingly fine Total Drek.

OK, it's not really little; it's actually rather long.

You may consider my Total Drek guest post to be part of an ongoing series on the Bush "vision" for space exploration. My overarching thesis is that close examination of the Bush NASA budget requests suggests that adherents to the conventional wisdom that the administration is gutting space science funding in order to return astronauts to the moon and then send them onto Mars are being optimistic about the moon and Mars bit.

I also note that NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's CV, which includes stints with the Strategic Defense Inititative Organization (the original Reagan "Star Wars" project; 20 years and still no "peace shield") and the Bush père Mars project, perhaps uniquely qualifies him to take NASA nowhere under the Bush administration. But that's all the way at the end, so please do read the whole thing.

For some bonus material, you can get a small file with some of the proposed budget figures to which I allude here (19K .xls spreadsheet).

Things That (May) Sound Worse Than They Are

by Tom Bozzo

One of the gamelets at involves sorting pink underwear into a laundry basket held by Elmo, to a soundtrack that can only be described as stereotypical pr0n movie.

Officially, this is called the "laundry game," but John calls it the "shooting game." That is especially disturbing because John has never, to our knowledge, been exposed to an actual shooting game.

He also says "game" with about the same accent as Natascha McElhone in Ronin (*).

(*) McElhone, who is English, plays Deirdre the beautiful IRA terrorist with a heart of gold.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Underappreciated Band of the Week

by Tom Bozzo

The Church.

Disc 3 of the highly recommended Children of Nuggets box set leads off with their second (*) single, "The Unguarded Moment," released in Australia shortly before my 13th birthday way back in 1981. It's synth-free but actually strikes me as something more of a piece with some early eighties English new wave. I was not exactly listening to that sort of stuff at the time, alas.

By the time I was, they were not quite tough enough for my tastes. That didn't stop me from picking up a couple of 45s from their highly polished mid-to-late eighties work, but the bulk of my Australian rock collection in Radio Birdman descendents and influencees.

I'll have to remedy the earlier error and try to find copies of The Church and Heyday (check out those paisley shirts).

(*) The official discography differs a bit from some fan sites.

Stupid Free (sic) Tools!

by Tom Bozzo

The site meter hasn't registered a visit since around 6 A.M. CST. But people have commented since, and additionally a little self-experimentation indicates that visits should have been recorded. Weird...

How is a boy to follow his blog traffic obsessively?



Update: The site meter seemed to have hiccupped. Crisis averted!

Dialogues of the Preschoolers: International Trade Edition

by Tom Bozzo

John (swooshing the toy airplane given out as favors for children at the Jet Room): Hey, Daddy, "airplane" starts with "C!"

Daddy: Oh, really? I think 'airplane' starts with "A" — "â," "airplane."

J.: You're right! "Airplane" does start with "A."

D.: Yes, very good, big guy.

J.: C-h-i-n-a. Airplane!

D.: You know what, John, C-h-i-n-a spells "China."

J.: Oh.

D.: China is a country far away, where the airplane was made.

J.: Oh, I see... (*)

(*) "I see" with the emphasis on a drawn-out "I" is something I'd picked up from my Sainted Dissertation Adviser and which John picked up from me.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Call For Whines

by Tom Bozzo

The Second Whining Carnival bandwagon is slowly picking up momentum, with submissions now in from five six seven! sources not even counting me. I am convinced that there are more fine whines out there, so leave a link in the comment or send an e-mail to atbozzo -at- gmail -dot- com for inclusion in the Carnival. If all goes well, it'll re-launch this coming week.

Note to users: Scrivener has helpfully set up a whining-carnival tag, addressing the problem that many non-Carnival posts are tagged with "whining." The e-mail and comment routes for entry are still open, of course.

Note, I have played with the posting time and date to keep this on top for a while.

On the AT&T Acquisition of BellSouth: Expert Opinions, Disclosure, and the New Corporatism

by Tom Bozzo

My mind has been blown by the latest step towards the recombination of the old AT&T under the auspices of the new AT&T. That the deal is at all conceivable speaks mainly to the Bush administration's lax approach to antitrust, which is rather emphatically not the impression Stephen Labaton's article in this morning's NYT would have given you. The lede:
New York Times: Is Antitrust No Longer The Issue? As head of the Federal Communications Commission during the Clinton administration, Reed E. Hundt killed talks about a possible merger in 1997 when he said that a proposed deal between AT&T and SBC would be "unthinkable" under antitrust laws.

Last year those two companies combined with little resistance. And on Monday Mr. Hundt said that AT&T's proposal to buy BellSouth for $67 billion was "eminently thinkable," and that if he were still at the commission, "I would bless the deal."
The impression this provides is that allowing this deal is not just a matter of laissez-faire indifference to the accumulation of market power. Why, even a Clinton-era ex-regulator thinks it's kosher! It might have been helpful if Labaton had provided some indication of Mr. Hundt's post-FCC situation. From the Intel web site (Hundt is a director and chairs the Intel board's compensation committee):
Mr. Hundt is a principal of Charles Ross Partners, a private investor and business advisory service. He serves as an independent adviser on information industries to McKinsey & Company, Inc., a management consulting firm, and to The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm.
This is not to suggest that Hundt is offering a dishonest assessment, of course. But the investment advisory, private equity, and management consulting hats also make Hundt something other than an eminence grise called out of retirement for an expert assessment. It would have been appropriate for the Times to note Hundt's present employment situation.

Some interesting perspective on the proposed merger can be found at Oligopoly Watch (h/t Antitrust Review). Certainly, there are important changes since the nineties both in what would be the forward-looking technology for basic telephony and data services (both would presumably be IP-based), and the lineup of non-telco competitors in some reckonings. But there are important market segments where it's important to remember that cable-telco duopoly is not obviously tantamount to perfect competition.

But, to reiterate a point underlying my rant of a couple weeks ago, it's hard to see a deal like this passing muster in any less corporatist regulatory environment.

Extraordinary Claims Vs. Evidence

by Tom Bozzo

If you want to establish the proposition that the housing boom has been a relative bust for the real estate selling trade (summarized here at the Freakonomics site), you might just want to characterize:
What's arguably a more interesting implication of the real estate sales employment boom, given how we've lately been regaled with tales of the deleterious effects of professional licensing requirements — which, often, I see as a "stationary bandit" function of government — is that the combination of state licensing requirements and a trade association in antitrust trouble hasn't done more to restrict entry. This is actually a puzzle noted in this research (props to Levitt and Dubner for providing a public link to the background research). It seems fairly obvious, though, that the association-level (and arguably real estate firm-level) drive would be to preserve the size of the pot of commissions by defending the traditional commission rates.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Tom Toles Is A Priceless National Treasure

by Tom Bozzo

See here.

One more: here, too.

Busy day today. Talk amongst yourselves.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Tom's Top Ten Films

by Tom Bozzo

In lieu of Academy Awards live-blogging, here are my top ten films of 2005, in alphabetical order.

1. Brokeback Mountain
2. Broken Flowers
3. Capote
4. Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room
5. Good Night, and Good Luck
6. Junebug
7. Mad Hot Ballroom
8. March of the Penguins
9. Serenity
10. Wallace and Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Usual suspects not yet rounded up: The Constant Gardener, Crash, King Kong, Match Point, Munich, Murderball, The Squid and the Whale, Transamerica, Walk The Line.

Least Useful Clarification?

by Tom Bozzo

On the Washington Post's page for the Best Director nominees, an anecdote contains the parenthetical note that Ang Lee and Spike Lee are no relation.

Grown-Up Toy Stories, III: Timesucks and the Division of Labor

by Tom Bozzo

Especially now that Julia is fully mobile, we maintain the peace in our household in no small part by maintaining the semi-finished end of the basement as a playspace that's exclusive to John for the time being. Since my record collection and the LEGO collection are down there, as is the turntable and the home networking gear, it's also my playspace. I know this may come as a shock, but it had reached a State which led Suzanne to suggest that significant brownie points could be earned if I were to tame the sprawling stuff. (*)

Now, I am not a natural at organizing my physical environment. And sorting LEGO pieces takes a combination of patience, including tolerance for repetition and tedium, manual dexterity, and a sharp eye (**) which, posessed in abundance, are the sort of things that one might think would predict success in skilled trades. My marginal utility of money is now in the territory that rather than cultivating such skills as I might possess, I prefer to cultivate relationships with skilled tradespeople.

So when I had finished with John's bedtime routine, with Suzanne out with friends and a plan of making a little headway on the basement and then settling in with the Harry Potter I DVD to fill in what I'd missed prior to the latest film (***), I went downstairs only to look up at the wall clock and think that somewhere along the way I'd accelerated to a large enough fraction of lightspeed to experience significant time dilation. Needless to say, less was done than one might have thought, and I ended up substituting the balance of a Mr. Show DVD (****) after assessing my ability to stretch my own bedtime.

Interestingly, the market does allow some division of labor between people who have comparative advantage in LEGO sorting and those of us who don't, in the form of BrickLink, the unofficial online secondary market. It had achieved some notoriety over the case of William Swanberg, who was accused of stealing $200,000 worth of LEGO sets from Target and possibly other big-box retailers via a complicated scam that involved replacing UPCs for expensive sets with UPCs for cheap sets and betting on the inattention of checkout clerks — not quite inattentive enough, as it turns out.

The M.O. of typical BrickLink sellers is to make use of the fact that there's a segment of the LEGO community for which the sum of the parts is worth more than the whole: Builders of large creations that require more copies of certain parts than can be economically collected from the wild. The sellers get paid, in effect, for specializing in sorting pieces. (Trolling for legitimate bargains increases their margins, of course.) It probably would be efficient for me to trade my unsorted parts for a credit at someone's sufficiently well-stocked BrickLink outlet, but at least on the scale of my problem, that market effectively is missing.

Dark Forces...

A little bit of John's mess, much more of mine...


(*) This is a prelude to a future trip to Ikea to obtain storage furniture to replace a motley crew of tired Billy bookcases that have been with me since college and a surplus Techline cabinet from the office (whose shelves are not quite robust to a full load of vinyl records), and to accommodate a variety of stuff that have been sitting out in various types of storage containers. This is in lieu of fully fiinishing the basement, which would unduly delay the project that would encompass construction of a garage.

(**) Try telling the old light gray apart from the new light gray in imperfect light.

(***) Up to the trip to see the latest film, I was in the position of knowing less about Harry Potter than just about anyone not living in a mass media exclusion zone. Most of my HP knowledge derives from LEGO set descriptions and Phantom Scribbler's Huge HP Spoiler Thread.

(****) David Cross is a f***ing genius.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Impending End of Civilization Watch

by Tom Bozzo

The subhead to this morning's lead story in the Capital Times (link pending):
Cafes and comfy furniture help keep UW libraries viable
Not, you know, learning.

Update: Here's the link to the story. Here's the central end-of-world passage:
Many stodgy, book-heavy university libraries have used business models to retool their product for a new, technologically savvy generation. Although libraries do not have to make a profit, they do need to justify their existence to state policymakers, campus administration and, increasingly, private donors.
State policymakers may well be as dumb as rocks, depending on the state and policymaker. But campus administration? Call me old-fashioned, but I recommend that any campus administrator who thinks "stodgy, book-heavy" libraries need to justify their existence should find a new line of work. Hopefully it's just TCT's Aaron Nathans getting a little carried away with his theme.

That isn't to say that I don't wish I had access to JSTOR.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Grown-Up Toy Stories, II

by Tom Bozzo

This one is about LEGO.

Seven new stories from the Rev. Brendan Powell Smith's Brick Testament. Amazing what the good Rev. does with the range of emotions now shown on minifigure faces.

Grown-Up Toy Stories

by Tom Bozzo

Not about LEGO.

A few of you might have some recollection of the Porkbusters project, in which a couple of Blogistan's (*) brighter lights each contributed their brain cell to the task of listing seemingly wasteful Federal expenditures. One of those was an item to direct some transportation funds to Madison's bike path network — a trivial amount, of course, compared to road-building funds directed at cars and trucks. The brilliant rationale? Wisconsin cold! Who ride bike in Wisconsin cold?!

This is just to stress the importance of the depth of local knowledge. Yes, Madison is cold. It also features a remarkable number of year-round bike commuters, whose flashing LED headlights you'll see in the snow and bitter cold when fair-weather bike commuters such as yrs. truly are thanking the FSM for heated seats and all-wheel drive.

Bike commuting is, not surprisingly, easiest for people headed to UW-Madison. Campus is the nexus of the trail network, and notoriously short on parking — in contrast to my alma mater, say, where if you were dumped, blindfolded, in to certain parts of the campus outskirts, it could take days to figure out that you were not on the property of the biggest megamall in all of Sprawliana.

Hardcore bike commuting leads some riders, who at the risk of stereotyping look likelier than normal to be engineering professors, to choose various alternatives to the standard diamond-framed two wheeler for their rides. In fact, one of our local bike shops has an entire location devoted to recumbents and other non-conventional bicycles.

Of the recumbents, it's the grown-up trikes that are the coolest-looking, even if the low-slung riding position requires some trust that drivers of giant SUVs are not eating breakfast, reading the paper, and talking on their cell phones at the same time. There are, in fact, a lot of varieties out there, though these Australian models are what I think of as the canonical big kid trike:

...not to mention that they offer an aspirational level of later-middle-aged fitness.

Then I looked at the prices, figured that they were not quoted in Australian dollars (A$1 is about 0.75 USD at present exchange rates), and concluded that I have not cultivated sufficiently expensive hobbies in my life-to-date.

I can only imagine what this baby:

which looks more fin-de-siècle than anything, would set me back.

Maybe if I commuted by bike enough to return to economy car land...

(*) Per Max Sawicky, the conservative part of the blogiverse.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

My Preschool Teaching Career...

by Tom Bozzo one picture, for the Flickr pixies, here. (Apologies in advance for the dust on the scanner glass.)

N.B., the linked photo is not publicly viewable as it depicts preschoolers other than my own. If you are an unofficial Flickr pixie (i.e., a Flickr account holder in the MU extended family who isn't one of my Flickr friends or family members), which you are unless you are one of the two Flickr pixies at present, just do the contacts thing and I'll add you.

Dept. of Too Much of a Good Skill

by Tom Bozzo

Spot a massive outlier among the credit card transactions online (I was looking up an amount for a travel reimbursement). Spoil birthday surprise.

That is all.

Have They No Decency?

by Tom Bozzo

Apparently not.

George W. Bush: Liar.

Samuel Alito: Wingnut.


That is all.

Re-Learning Things From My More Agentic Early Career

by Tom Bozzo

Start of workday yesterday (Arlington, VA): 8:30 A.M. CST

End of workday yesterday (Madison, WI): 11:20 P.M. CST

What? This. (PDF that probably won't mean anything to you unless you have a pre-existing fascination with U.S. postal cost measurement.) I didn't have to give the presentation, but the arrangements ended up putting me in front of the chairman of the Postal Rate Commission, a good chunk of the Commission staff, and representatives of various mailer groups, and needing to speak with Authority for a substantial amount of time. So the sober yet stylish black suit ended up being the appropriate choice of attire after all.

Anyway, I'll be back when my brain is back in gear.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Society and Preferences

by Tom Bozzo

Big Questions for the morning: How do you hold together a society consisting of actors with different preferences over how society should be organized? Particularly when the distribution of the preference characteristics is weakly correlated with things like geography that might permit orderly sorting into national groups? What are the stable outcomes, if any?

1. E-mail exchange with Jeremy over the meaning of people having different "marginal utilities of income." The bigger social science research question is how do we most usefully characterize differences among agents that are relevant for economists' and sociologists' explanations of the phenomena we study.

2. Brad DeLong's excellent summary of the forces behind Paul Krugman's Monday column. (See also here and here from this blog).
Say, rather, that five things are going on:
1 The rise of a very powerful, successful, exploitative upper class.
2 Further increases in inequality as the tax and transfer system becomes less progressive.
3 Increases in risk that threaten to move middle-class families sharply downward in the wealth distribution.
4 Skill-biased technical change that sharply raises the benefits to education.
5 Holes in the safety net--the fall in the value of the minimum wage, time-limited welfare, and so forth.

3. In the FT, via Economist's View, a broadside aimed at the European welfare state courtesy of Swedish libertariana:
What, then, are the failings of the big state? The answers include: fiscal unsustainability; mediocrity of provision; slackening work effort; slowing productivity growth; resistance to economic adjustment; flight of valuable economic resources; difficulties in absorbing immigrants; and even the undermining of the family. A social system that protects people from the consequences of their own decisions is rife with moral hazard: in the long run, it changes not just behaviour but even values in a less productive direction.
(As an exercise, try stripping away the market utopian frame from that. Slacking is bad, m'kay, but isn't the provision of market work effort notionally something people should be able to choose? And on "mediocrity of provision," evidently, Euro libertarians don't fly and haven't dealt with the customer service functions of large U.S. telecom providers.)

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