Friday, June 30, 2006

Consumerism in Education, ala The Onion

by B. Strong

Professor Pressured To Sleep With Student For Good Course Evaluation

June 27, 2006 | Issue 42•26. (Link to article here.)

FAYETTEVILLE, AR—Alan Gilchrist, an associate professor of English literature at the University of Arkansas infamous for his tough grading standards and dry lecturing style, was coerced into sleeping with an undergraduate on Monday in order to earn a good course evaluation. "My tenure's on the line here, so I allowed a student to take advantage of me," said an emotional Gilchrist of the experience, which he hopes will earn him at least six "very much enjoyed" responses on the eight-item evaluation form. "I told myself it would be just this once, and that it would be over soon, and that it wouldn't be that bad, but I was used. And I can't stop showering." Sources said that the unidentified student is one of the most popular and charismatic on campus, raising questions about possible abuse of power.

Friday Nonrandom 25 29+: Back to the Eighties

by Tom Bozzo

It's widely agreed that the eighties music video link site is an upper-tier timesuck. Well, I'm here to tell y'all that that ain't half of it.

What that site represents is someone spending a lot of time trolling YouTube for eighties music videos. The immediate implication — combined with the old saying that Everyone's a Critic, and the newer one that cheap blog hosting makes Everyone a Vanity Publisher — is that you can waste far more time correcting the omissions of whomever is behind that site. Perhaps this is my sneaky way of sneaking Civilization IV into the house as a time-saver.

For instance, a mystery is why — links being essentially free and all — there's only one video linked per artist. Some of them, as I sometimes tell the radio when the eighties retro station is on, had more than one hit or other work meriting anachronistic revival.

(Note, any significant amount of time spent trolling YouTube will make you wish for a charity that delivers high-quality and relatively foolproof video codecs to the masses. This assumes, of course, that YouTube's 'substantial noninfringing uses' pass muster with the Kopyright Kops.)

So, test your tolerance with YouTube's pathetic search function and...

...stop wondering why someone would immortalize Duran Duran with "Wild Boys."
Duran Duran, "Hungry Like The Wolf" "Planet Earth"

...do something about the broken link for the Jesus and Mary Chain's "April Skies." Well, that one turns out not to be available from a cursory search. But try out:
The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Just Like Honey" "Never Understand" "Happy When It Rains" "Sometimes Always"

...see music video imagery that would scandalize these prudish Zilches, produced on behalf of our theoretically profit-seeking mass media.
Devo, "Whip It" (with energy domes!) "That's Good"

...don't wonder why the second version of the New Order "Blue Monday" video was chosen, and not the quaint first one.
New Order, "Blue Monday" (Original video, from the "Factory Shorts" collection. Note: Zaxxon as CGI animation!). For good measure, "Bizarre Love Triangle" "Regret"

...present the Who'da Thunk He'd Become a Space Entrepreneur award (see the cameo appearance):
XTC, "Generals and Majors"

...correct the criminal omission of the Kiwi indies:
The Chills, "I Love My Leather Jacket" The Bats, "Made Up In Blue"

...select more upbeat and/or rocking alternative tracks:
The Church, "The Unguarded Moment" "Tantalized" The Wedding Present, "Kennedy" Julian Cope, "World Shut Your Mouth" Wire, "Ahead" The House of Love, "I Don't Know Why I Love You" The Stone Roses, "She Bangs The Drums" The Cars, "Shake It Up" Echo & The Bunnymen, "Lips Like Sugar"

...bolster the collection of videos from the "shoegazing" movement:
The Boo Radleys, "Lazy Day" Pale Saints, "Blue Flower" Lush, "Hypocrite" Ultra Vivid Scene, "The Mercy Seat" Adorable, "Sunshine Smile" Catherine Wheel, "I Want To Touch You"

OK, a few of these are from the early nineties. Sue me.

Don't forget that videos are advertisements, and some bands (and labels) just give them away! See The Bangles, Cocteau Twins, 4AD Records.

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Private Social Security Accounts, The Need For Real Saving, and The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Returns

by Tom Bozzo

A big part of the Social Security "reform"ers' pitch to the public — especially in the flavor dispensed by right-wing think tanks — was fundamentally an appeal to greed: why settle for the measly return on Social Security tax payments when you could have the bounty of the Markets instead?

Well, of course 2000-02 happened, and enough of the bloom was off that rose that the '03-'04 partial recovery didn't do much to make lots of people roll the dice over what they'd be eating in old age.

Brad DeLong, meanwhile, reacts with some enthusiasm to plans that would bring additional revenue into the system in the form of funding for private accounts:
[P]rivate accounts as an add-on would be a fine thing for Social Security. Americans need to save more, both individually and collectively... The poorer half of Americans have no long position in the stock market. Given that the S&P currently carries a real [return] of 6%, that is a scandal and an outrage.
It's not totally obvious to me why you couldn't make some hay with the existing types of private retirement accounts — which are fairly widely held even among the poorer half (*). Otherwise, the situation actually is even more of an outrage than DeLong suggests. While about half of households in the second quartile of the wealth distribution (i.e., the richer half of the poorer half) have some sort of retirement account, the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances shows that you have to reach into the top 25% to see anything resembling significant account balances, and well into the top 10% to find amounts of money that could do more than modestly supplement one's Social Security check (**).

But this worries me:
My ex-student Konstantin Magin has long argued that the projected equity premium makes policies to boost investments by Americans in the stock market a winner, and has recently pointed out to me that the magnitude of long-run mean-reversion implied by current estimates of return predictability makes long-run passive investments in the stock market the closest to a sure thing of anything except running your own online poker site.
Now, I'm no finance guy, as may become obvious. But you call these returns "predictable" or "mean-reverting"?!
Picture 1
(Click to see a larger version.)

A question might be, reverting to what? The S&P rather underperformed that 6% for calendar year 2005 (~1.5% after inflation), and even getting in the ballpark (~4.3% above CPI inflation, which was 4.2% over the 12 months ending in May) over the year through the end of May is a matter of timing that emphasizes the moderately upbeat end of last year. Right now, we're on track for 2006 to be another lackluster year, as indicated by the returns of these Vanguard funds (add a couple points to the YTD returns for the stock funds, depending on the longevity of this afternoon's market euphoria over the latest FOMC statement):


Fund1-Year Return (through 5/31/06)YTD Return (through 6/28/06)
500 Index8.49%0.69%
Extended Market Index17.22%1.56%
Total Bond Market Index-0.59%-1.45%
Total Int'l Stock Index29.75%4.34%
Total Stock Market Index10.44%0.92%

So much for unrealized market gains making up for the low savings rate. House price appreciation has likewise slowed sharply; the latest reading for Madison-area sales showed the year-over-year change in the median price to be well below inflation. Heck, even if you happened to have placed timely bets in some hot sectors, the brakes seem to be on the gravy train (at least until the next major hurricane takes aim at the Gulf Coast hydrocarbon operations):


Fund1-Year Return (through 5/31/06)YTD Return (through 6/28/06)
Energy Fund47.09%12.21%
Pacific Stock Index34.79%-1.59%
Precious Metals and Mining82.78%19.95%

So, yeah, by all means let's bring more money to the table. The catch, back to DeLong:
Now it is possible to make Social Security private accounts a bad deal for everyone. And it is surely the case that the Bush White House's track record is such that only an idiot would sign on to any proposal designed and implemented by the Bush White House.
Damn straight. But then:
But if we were offered a slightly different pomegranate. If, say, we were offered a pomegranate that consisted of: (a) contribution increases, (b) well-designed, low-fee private accounts, (c) Treasury Secretary-to-be Paulson with the baton to make the detailed decisions and set the tradeoffs, (d) advised by an Assistant Secretary for Social Security Reform named Jagadeesh Gokhale, who (e) promised to retain enough social insurance in the system to preserve a substantial defined benefit component--then yes, I would eat that pomegranate. And I would advise Mark Thoma to eat it too. [link added]
Whuh?!? Is there really that much difference between the Bush White House and a marriage of the Cato Institute and the Bush Treasury Department (political division)? I can get on board with the Platonic ideals of (a) and (b), but what evidence at all is there that you can do more than wipe your bum with (e) given (c) and (d)? None that I can see.

-----------------------------

(*) It's just that typical account balances for those in the lower half lucky enough to have them are insignificant.

(**) Dig at more James Lileks wankery to come.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Inadequate Parenting of Superhuman Proportions

by B. Strong

"Mommy, where do animals come from" [points to Bugs Life wind-up toys]
"Those? Probably from a factory in China."
"No, not those animals, all animals."
"Well, they come from their mothers and fathers, who came from their mothers and fathers, and so on."
"But where did the first animals come from?"
[ohshitohshitohshit]: "Hmm. See, millions of years ago when the earth was very young, it just had rocks and water and algae and these tiny creatures called protozoa. The protozoa grew more and more complicated, until they looked like the animals we saw in the fossil at the museum in Seattle. Then those animals evolved into fish, and frogs, and dinosaurs, and birds, and eventually other animals."
"Oh. [pause.] Mommy, what does evolved mean?"
"Well, when an animal changes so that it can live easier in the world around it, that animal has evolved. So, evolve means to change."
"Are humans animals?"
"Yes."
"Oh. So, Superman evolves from Clark Kent?"
"Sort of, only evolution doesn't usually happen in phone booths. Well, except in New Jersey."

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

'Timesuck' Is An Understatement

by Tom Bozzo

I might be blogging Matters of Substance had Jeremy not pointed us to this site that hosts an eclectic collection of eighties music videos. Video quality (and even availability) is spotty, use of Flash instead of QuickTime leads to occasional strange playback behavior, and most of the stuff is total crap (it was the eighties, after all), but I have never before spent so much time in front of the computer with Suzanne, ever!

I didn't get to see MTV's "120 Minutes" very often in my youth, so quite a bit was new to me. Some highlights:

1. Sigue Sigue Sputnik, "Love Missile F1-11" Saw this crazy montage-style video exactly once in the U of D Student Center dining hall, blew our table of radio station dorks away. Not much of a song or a band, but fun.
2. My Bloody Valentine, "You Made Me Realise" Just a couple years later than S-S-S, in places makes the "Love Missile" editing look languid. Also totally rocks.
3. Devo, "That's Good" Old Letterman show appearance, no flowerpot energy dome headgear, evidently transferred from an old home videotape, spudtastic anyway. Believe it or not, I once had something very close to Mark Mothersbaugh's haircut.
4. Shop Assistants, "I Don't Want To Be Friends With You" In the early Jesus and Mary Chain style, but with the Reids (and Bobby Gillespie) replaced with women.
5. Pete Shelley, "Homosapien" What is this song about?
6. We've Got A Fuzzbox And We're Gonna Use It, "Love Is The Slug" Solid effort from this outlandishly coiffed and not excessively talented pop-punk quartet that later made the fatal mistake of trying to become popular.
7. The Timelords, "Doctorin' The Tardis" This novelty record did make it to #1 on the UK charts. As the account of its production goes, fame, fortune, and sex are extra.
8. The Primitives, "Crash" A great pop tune, college radio fare here; a top selection from the very pale blonde lead singer genre.
9. Toni Basil, "Mickey" I like this a lot more now than I did when the song was originally released.
10. Swans, "New Mind" Do I see a "VH1 classic" bug on this brutal industrial dirge? Highly disturbing.
11. Depeche Mode, "Just Can't Get Enough" A fun, blip-bleepy early number, what Jeremy might call "dork-joy-pop." Didn't want to leave anyone on a sour note.

Monday, June 26, 2006

'Ass' II: More Than Lileks Deserves

by Tom Bozzo

Stephen Karlson picked up and ran with the implicit challenge from yesterday's post. A mathematical singularity prevents me from calculating the resulting percentage increase in elevation of the conservative position in the debate over Lileks's original commentary. The title here is meant to keep the level of discourse bounded.

Prof. Karlson notes that he
...has burned a lot of neutrons on this site in defense of thethe somewhat crazier idea that higher education for the masses ought to be, well, higher education.
No argument there, though we observe that Lileks's neuron prefers to score cheap points at the expense of areas of higher ed that are soft targets for satire.

Karlson continues, offering some on- and off-topic objections. The latter focus on academic freedom.
Surely Mr (sic) Bozzo is not encouraging loyalty oaths for state university employees?
Surely not. He is as free to be a traitor to his profession as I am to be a traitor to my income tax bracket. For the time being, at least.

He stays on the academic freedom bandwagon for a while.
Or ought someone at the American Economic Review have recommended against publication of W. Lee Hansen's "Income Distribution Effects of Higher Education" ...because the knowledge that "higher education for the masses" was the slogan and "regressive transfer" was the reality was not something a beneficiary of the idea ought be making public?
Lee Hansen can research anything he wants to research (*) with my blessing.

Now, the reference to Hansen brings us to Karlson's substantive response to my main question, which is that Lileks's bleat is isomorphic to the question, "Why should college cost more?" He suggests that a legitimate reason is precisely the Hansen-Weisbrod research that purports to show that public higher ed subsidies are regressive. This is a potentially powerful appeal, since Marginal Utility tends to like policies that don't make society's rampaging inequality worse. That's why, for instance, we favor policies such as continued taxation of large estates. (**)

The Hansen-Weisbrod research isn't totally compelling, though. Thomas Kane's calculations from his 1999 book on higher ed finance show that (1) low-income students receive larger subsidies, conditional on attendance, but (2) low-income students enroll at lower rates and don't stay in school as long, so (3) they end up with about half the gross subsidy of high-income students. Which is to say, unequal opportunities for low-income students are to blame rather than a deliberate reverse-Robin Hood design of the system.

Even as an unintended consequences story, Hansen-Weisbrod says less than you might think about the net distributional effects, because it doesn't account for the source of funds for the public subsidies. As it happens, my Educated Conjecture from A Guy With A PhD that cost shifts in higher education on net shift tax burden from higher-income parents to their children has support from real research, see here if so inclined. UVa's William Johnson shows that since the subsidies are funded by progressive taxes, they are on net distributionally neutral to mildly progressive. (***) This, in turn, implies that unless subsidy cuts are targeted at higher-income students, the effect of following Karlson's argument as a policy prescription would tend to be to price lower-income students out of the market.

Karlson's other reasons are more conjectural:
Two, Cold Spring Shops maintains that the subsidies encourage inefficiently optimistic enrollment leading to an intolerably low completion rate. Three, the Wall Street Journal from time to time suggests a principal-agent argument, in which students are less likely to gripe about classes and textbook prices as long as somebody else... is picking up the tab.
Johnson offers some evidence on the "optimistic enrollment" front, showing that subsidies are strongly directed to higher-ability students as measured by standardized test scores. ("Efficiency" is a much more difficult question for which I don't offer an answer.) I have no opinion on what would constitute a "tolerable completion rate." My social libertarian side says that by college age, students should be free to flunk out. And, obviously, raising the net cost of school won't help with economic causes of non-completion.

I also wonder about Karlson's last point vis-à-vis his original, and totally legitimate, concern of the higher-eddiness of higher ed. From my much more limited teaching (and studenting) experience, I would agree that it's at least a plausible stylized fact that Kids These Days are more strongly inclined to treat instructors as customer service agents than Kids Back In My Days. However, another stylized fact would be that Kids These Days pay (at least relatively) more, not less, for their experiences. You won't catch me arguing causality out of any bivariate correlation, but I can imagine a mechanism for it.

-------------------------------

(*) Hansen's present interests relate to speech codes, race-based admissions preferences, and academic freedom. My two cents is that the first and the last are not among the more interesting questions in economics. My next two cents is that those suggest a possible political coloration that should be taken into account in evaluating Hansen's research.

(**) Distributional equity of public policy is emphatically not James "Waiting for the 'Income Confiscation Act of 2017'"Lileks's primary concern in life. See, e.g., here from 2002, where Lileks is stupid and lies in the process of trying to explain how politicians who oppose estate tax repeal are "stupid... or lying."

(***) For the flip side, consider: is Social Security regressive because is funded by a regressive payroll tax?

Sunday, June 25, 2006

'Party of Ideas' My Ass

by Tom Bozzo

Nobody should be surprised that it would come to this, but here anyway is James Lileks openly mocking liberal education:
"Cut College Costs." Why? Because it's the job of the federal government to regulate the cost of a four-year degree in English lit, with a minor in textile history.
Via Stephen Karlson, who adds, "Priceless." Uh, sure.

BTW, that's Prof. Karlson of Northern Illinois University, beneficiary of the late liberal society's crazy idea that higher education for the masses is worthwhile.

And therein we see that while the answer Lileks supplies to the "Why?" question is in line with a conservative tradition of disparaging anything other than vocational or technical education, it is — as the saying goes — not even wrong. English Literature and Basketweaving get the yuks, but when it comes down to pounding a nail, pushing paper, or selling stuff, even notionally respectable (*) subjects like economics might as well be philosophy of philosophy.

The bigger problem, which the Democrats actually manage to see and the other side has enormous difficulty maintaining a coherent message on, is it's supposedly the educated who will prosper in the globalized economy. (As Dean Baker might say, it would be more accurate to say that prosperity goes to skilled practicioners of non-tradeable services. So while Baker focuses on highly educated professionals in The Conservative Nanny State, the fuller view says that it's Rich Trethewey and Tom Silva who will eventually rule the earth — as long as the upper-middle to upper-classes provide them with enough customers.)

Anyway, demand curves sloping downwards and all, why would you want to signal — by exposing students to more of the cost of their education — that people should be investing less in their human capital?

This, admittedly, is an inversion of the standard wisdom. In line with the Republican Idea ("Every Man For Himself"), that's focused on extracting a portion of the private benefits of higher education, in effect shifting a tax burden to upper-middle-class youth from their parents. So Lileks is just advocating a youth tax — if not the largest such tax levied in the course of tax-and-spend Republicanism. What's up with that?

Don't expect to see a quote from Daniel Patrick Moynihan in the epigram space.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Silly me.

by Drek

Regular readers of this blog may remember a while back when I posted on a study suggesting that atheists are among the least liked groups in the United States. At the time this study hadn't yet been released yet so I attempted to give a preview of its findings using the GSS.

This post resulted in a set of companion posts from Kim and Tom that further discussed the issue. Yet, despite all of our analysis, we remained ignorant of the true contents of the original study. As I am no stranger to ignorance (as readers of my blog can confirm) this did not particularly bother me, but I suspect Kim and Tom have somewhat higher standards. So, I feel the need to revisit that old post now that the actual study has been published.*

So what does this study (Edgell, Gerteis & Hartmann. (2006) "Atheists as Other." American Sociological Review. 71(2). 211-234.) have to say? Was my earlier paranoia justified? Well, as it turns out, yes. If anything the analysis in my earlier post dramatically underestimated things.

In my original post I used a willingness to curtail certain civil rights (i.e. the right to speak publicly, to have a book in a library, and to teach. It should be noted that the question identifies "anti-religionists" rather than atheists per se, but it was the best I could do) of atheists as a measure of dislike for them. At that time I noted that while 85.9% of GSS respondents would not curtail any, approximately 3.6% would curtail all three. By comparison the equivalent figures for homosexuals were 89.7% and 3.2%. So, in short, it looked like more people wanted to cut atheist civil rights than homosexual civil rights. Moreover, there are more people who wouldn't curtail any homosexual civil rights than there are people who would choose not to reduce atheist civil rights. That is, indeed, a sobering thought.

Now, the Edgell et al. article doesn't use these measures, so their analyses are not precisely comparable to my own,** but their questions are quite interesting. They primarily examine two items, phrased in their instrument as follows:



(1) "Now I want to read you a list of different groups of people who live in this country. For each one, please tell me how much you think people in the group agree with YOUR vision of American society- almost completely, mostly, somewhat, or not at all?"

(2) "People can feel differently about their children marrying people from various backgrounds. Suppose your son or daughter wanted to marry [a person in a given category]. Would you approve of this choice, disapprove of it, or wouldn't it make any difference at all one way or the other?" [Pg. 217]


As you can see, these two questions deal with whether or not a group is seen as somehow belonging to a broadly-defined common culture, and whether or not there is marital prejudice against, or for, a particular group. So what did Edgell et al. find?

Well, they found that atheists are not popular folks. Fully 39.6% of the respondents answered that atheists did NOT AT ALL share their vision of American society. As a comparison, the percentages answering the same way for Muslims*** and Homosexuals were, respectively, 26.3% and 22.6%. If we look at how people responded for recent immigrants it gets even more absurd as only 12.5% said that they did not at all share the same vision of American society. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, that's right: three times as many people think atheists don't share a common vision of U.S. society, as folks who have just arrived in this country. Based on that, I think we can conclude that most folks would view my co-blogger the TDEC [the Total Drek European Correspondent, recently arrived in America —Ed.] as more American than me.

But it doesn't stop there- there remains the question about marriage. How does that turn out? As it happens- even worse. Fully 47.6% of the respondents indicate that they would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. That is, nearly half of those surveyed would disapprove if their child wanted to marry an atheist. Again, for comparison, Muslims and African Americans,**** earn the same response from only 33.5% and 27.2% of the population.

As I said before, my analysis if anything understated things. While it may be that relatively few people want to seriously restrict atheist civil rights, that doesn't mean that we're particularly liked by the rest. All this naturally leads to another question: who are these people who so dislike atheists? In my earlier post I argued that:

...they are relatively poorly-educated, older, disproportionality unlikely to be white, and female with relatively low household incomes. They are mostly Christian, especially Protestant, and attend church much more frequently than average.

If we throw all of this into a logistic regression model using atheist hating as our dependent variable, though, we find that only three things are significantly related to the likelihood of hating thy neighbor. These are education level (which reduces the likelihood and is significant beyond the .001 level), Protestant faith (which increases the likelihood and is significant beyond the .05 level), and frequency of religious attendance (which increases the likelihood and is significant beyond the .001 level).


This perhaps matches up with our commonsensical ideas, but how does it jibe with Edgell et al.? Actually, it matches up only semi-well with their superior work. They find (as do I) that being relatively poorly educated is associated with a greater chance of rejecting atheists, and that being female does not appear to have an effect. Being African American, however, does make it more likely that a person will reject atheists. This latter finding is reflected in my descriptive statistics, but not in my (admittedly crude) regression analysis.

In terms of religious identification, their analyses confirm mine. Greater levels of religious involvement, being a conservative protestant, and believing that god determines the life course are all positively associated with rejecting atheists. None of this should come as a surprise.

In terms of contextual variables, living in an area where many people are below the poverty line does increase the tendency to reject atheists and living in an area that votes predominantly Democratic reduces this tendency. Surprisingly, though, the rate of religious adherence in the area reduces that tendency, while diversity in the community as a whole increases it. At the same time, specifically religious diversity decreases the tendency to reject atheists. This latter pattern of findings is more difficult to explain, but it should be noted that the effect of community religious adherence is quite small.

Finally, in terms of values, valuing diversity, sympathizing with oppressed groups, belief that all Americans must follow the same rules, and support for the equal treatment of religions are all related to lower tendencies to reject atheists. A belief that civil law must follow god's law is related to a greater tendency to reject atheists.

Taken together, I would say that my analysis generally found the same thing, but in dramatically less detail. Their qualitative data, which I won't reproduce here, seems to show that people simultaneously view atheists as being part of a cultural elite disliked for its snobbishness, and as composing an amoral underclass that preys on regular people. Needless to say, I feel quite flattered.

Edgell et al. arrive at an interesting conclusion: that the cultural identity many Americans utilize includes religion as a sort of unifying element. It is okay to accept different ethnic groups, and religious groups, in this view because everyone believes in some sort of god. Such a view would explain why there is such a strong rejection of atheists: since atheists don't believe in any god, they are therefore incapable of being "real" Americans. What is truly remarkable about this is that even groups whose religions have been portrayed as hateful towards the U.S. (e.g. Islam) are viewed as more worthy of inclusion in American society for the simple reason that at least they believe in god. Such a view is apparent in the words of Star Jones (on whom I have previously remarked) who even after 9/11 argued that an atheist wouldn't be fit to be president since they don't believe in "eternal consequences." I don't want to hash that issue out again, but according to Edgell et al., slightly over 50% of Americans agree with her (pg. 215). Such a statement is remarkable given that it was made at a time when religious belief was thought to have been a significant motivator for the 9/11 attacks. When was the last time we had a wave of atheist suicide bombers?

Perhaps of greater concern, Bethany Bryson (1996. American Sociological Review. 61(5). 884-899.) has provided suggestive evidence that some groups may define themselves by rejecting certain things. Thus, your identity is determined not by what you like, but rather by what you do not like. By the same token, is it not possible that a culture like our own that strives to absorb so much diversity may come to define itself by what it is not instead of what it is? Based on this research, it would seem so. Given the recent battles over intelligent design, faith-based initiatives, and other attempts to mix religion with science and government I think we may be witnessing exactly such a phenomenon. It seems that for many Americans, this society is a melting pot whose cauldron is forged from religious devotion.

I am an atheist and have long prided myself on my regular donation of platelets, on helping my associates and neighbors whenever possible, on obeying the law, and on being honest and direct. I had always thought that these were my contributions to American society. Fellow blogger and atheist Shirley Setterbo is a long-time employee of the U.S. Prison System and is a decent and gentle person. She's tried to inject her compassion not just into the prisons, but into the daily life of those around her. I imagine she viewed these as her contributions to American society. It's a shame, but it's looking like our real contributions may have been providing everyone else with someone to reject, so they can all feel closer together.

Silly us.


* Yes, I know the study has been out for a while now, but I really doubt that everyone who reads this blog (much less stumbles in from the internet) also stays current with the American Sociological Review.

** That is to say, their analysis is better.

*** Keep in mind that this data was collected post-9/11.

**** The sample is representative of the U.S. population, and therefore predominantly white.

Tyler Cowen Parody Post (first of a series)

by Ken Houghton

There is currently a "package" across the street from my office. A few years ago, this would have kept me from working, the building being closed and all that. Now, however, through the glories of technology, I can login to my account via the Internet and telnetVPN into my machine in the office.

Advances in technology have caused a major increase in productivity. It's great to be me now, instead of twenty years ago.

UPDATE: Context for the above:
At one point there was a security cordon preventing people from getting into [our building], yet there was no evacuation of those who were already in the building. I know that this caused some of our people there to be concerned about the apparent contradiction, so I thought that it would be helpful for us all to know the reason for this action.

There was a small rollabout suitcase abandoned on the opposite side of Park Avenue. The authorities assessed the situation, and in conjunction with the building management decided that the in the event that the suitcase had turned out to be an explosive device, it would be safer inside the building above the second or third floor, than being out in the open on the street, hence the decision not to evacuate, and the size of the street level cordon.

At all times during this incident the [firm name omitted] security team were in contact with the building management group and the authorities, if they had believed that the wrong decision was being taken regarding evacuation, they would have been able to take independent action and evacuate our floors.

It transpired that the suitcase was full of clothes

I waited all day for the Times, the Post, the Daily News or NY1.com to mention it, especially since "the opposite side of Park Avenue" is a church, and the thing took several firetrucks, over one dozen cops, and impacted several hundred (possibly thousands) of people, since it closed the area from about 8:15 to 9:15. The only thing the Post wants to headline is the goofballs who wanted to attack the Sears Tower. Meanwhile, our already-reduced DHS budget is out several thousand dollars.

Fortunately, no one was injured.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Proposition

by Tom Bozzo

Merely mortal record collections cannot stump the Gracenote Media Database. (That's the source of the disc and track metadata that iTunes fills when you import a CD.)

It's not for want of trying. In an effort to get my FireWire CDRW drive out of the kitchen and to push my iTunes library over the 3,000 song mark (mission accomplished!), I imported a batch of rarities.

A 3" CD, given away with the defunct record collector magazine Spiral Scratch, containing a Pixies demo and a nice live version of the Mighty Lemon Drops' "Inside Out" — no problem.

Another 3"er, a Sire Records promo disc with tracks from Ry Cooder, 54-40, Erasure, and the pre-trip hop Soup Dragons — no problem.

Savage Republic's "Tragic Figures," 1994 edition of 1500 copies with a lovely Independent Project Records letterpress sleeve — no problem.

I give up. The database, containing nearly 63 million tracks, is just not in the league of the iTunes Music Store, which remains eminently stumpable with my collection of a few thousand songs selected for rarities centered on eighties indiepop.

I haven't posted one for a while, so without further ado, here's a Random Ten:

1. Ride, Kaleidoscope, Nowhere (1990)
2. Wire, Sand In My Joints, Chairs Missing (1978)
3. The Feelies, Everybody's Got Something To Hide Except Me And My Monkey, Crazy Rhythms (1980)
4. The Undertones, See That Girl, Cher O'Bowlies: The Pick Of The Undertones (1980)
5. Catherine Wheel, Show Me Mary, Chrome (1993)
6. The Chills, Rain, Brave Words (1987)
7. The Family Cat, Springing The Atom, Magic Happens (1994)
8. Serge Gainsbourg, Je suis venu te dire que je m'en vais (1972; title track)
9. Lida Husik and Beaumont Hannant, Starburst 7, Evening At The Grange (1994)
10. Lush, Baby Talk, Gala (1989)

This random ten has a higher-than-expected iTMS esoterica index of 60%.

Resistance Is Futile?

by Tom Bozzo

I'd had a brief exchange with Xtin of the brilliant Xtinpore over the merits of divulging the contents of one's e-mail to the Googlenet by using Gmail, where the quid pro quo is that Google's incipient artificial hive mind scans your e-mail and presents supposedly targeted advertisements. So what are the capabilities of Google's formidable computing cluster? I suggested it might be a fun blog feature to take a look at just what ads are being served up by Gmail.

To Xtin's credit, she did not actually say this was a good idea. But she has added a Question Hour post of her own, and I can't resist awarding a "Sorry I Wasted Your Time, Dude" prize. So here goes. Most of these are based on blog comments that get echoed to my Gmail account.

1. First, from "pose," proprietress of You Go Now:
I've never been able to stop in [at the iPod store on the west side of Madison] because they have really odd hours that don't allow us 9-5'ers to get there.
That gives four links promising assistance with elite university (Ivy League and Stanford) admissions. Like I'd be caught dead in one of those dumps. (Note, if you're an Ivy League administrator offering a named chair with tenure (*), JK!)

2. Elsewhere in that comments thread, I offered:
Daddy wants a MacBook Pro.
Hey, "free iBook G4!" Spam spam spam spam spamity-spam! And I said I want a MacBook Pro, goddammit!

3. Meanwhile, in response to Kim's post on how not to draw readers into your paper — and bad as Kim's example was, she obviously doesn't read the Journal of Econometrics — slumming-at-Harvard Jeremy writes:
I missed the first entendre.
This yielded truly bizarre results: a site for tracking one's menstrual cycle, another offering suggestions for dealing with a daughter's first period. While I expect that Julia will seem to have covered the next 11 or 12 years in what will seem to be a blink after the fact, this is not well targeted to say the least. I also wonder how such ads would play in the chastity-pledging belt.

4. Announcing his nuclear demolition insult of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, Corndog posted:
Because you asked so nicely and because Griffin pisses me off so much, I came up with a special edition insult over at my place.
Almost nada. The sole link offers me "Free Marginal Utility info from the experts at the Finance Encyclopedia." Thanks a lot.

5. In response to news of the end of Julia's overnight feeding wake-ups, Tina (late of Pub Sociology, RIP) says:
Bravo!!
Another oddity: "I Make More in a Day [link omitted] Than most people make in a month. And I can teach you how to do it." What is the borg thinking? Opera tickets aren't *that* expensive.

6. As part of an exchange cementing a permanent blog-exchange treaty, Drek wrote:
I've returned to the DrekCave and will probably resume blogging pretty soon.
The first link offers free space for my blog at Blogger. Fancy that. Score one for relevance, but +10 million for the "Sorry I wasted your time, dude" award.

7. Last but not least, in response to one of the posts on the Archmere controversy (which made it to ABC's Nightline earlier in the week, adding electronic media insult to the W$J's previous injury), "Ernie Chambers" notes:
The WSJ article pointed out that Ma and Pa Capano actually raised four criminals -- the murderer, the two accessories to murder (one of whom, Louis Jr., was also arrested years later for bribing a public official), and a son arrested for rape and subsequently convicted of lesser related charges.
Not a single sponsored link there, not even "Watch 'The Sopranos.'" Guess there's no commercialization of outright criminality. Archmere administration, take note. Please.

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(*) An irony of my present situation is that to replace my income with an academic job, I'd need to make full professor-of-economics money, but since my publication record befits a non-academic consultant, it's unlikely that a university that could afford me would have me.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

How to Lose Readers, Sociological Edition

by B. Strong

Tip #1: Begin the second sentence of your paper with, "to obtain a satisfactory fit to the data, Prior Researcher X had to add Parameter Y to Statistical Model Z."*

Even to someone who has (a) tinkered with Statistical Model Z; (b) knows precisely what Parameter Y does; and (c) has seen Prior Researcher X get absolutely smashed, it's a godawful boring way to lead off.

*I know that double-entendres about models are almost inevitable, but I couldn't think of another way to say this in the 20 seconds I wanted to spend on this post.

Faith-Based Defense

by Tom Bozzo

Gotta love the W$J today, luring innocent readers of its news coverage to the famously wingnutty op-ed page which wingnuttily proposes foiling a prospective North Korean ballistic missile test with our swell new ballistic missile defense system:
[W]e hope we'll also learn that the U.S. responded [to a North Korean missile test] by testing its newly operational missile defense system and blowing the Korean provocation out of the sky. What better way to discourage would-be nuclear proliferators than to demonstrate that the U.S. is able to destroy their missiles before they hit our allies, or the U.S. homeland.
We can only assume they expect the Spirit of the Gipper to guide the missile defense interceptors.

The Union of Concerned Scientists was unsparing in 2004. Discussing the value of previous test "successes," they say:
First, the test conditions have not been varied: The test geometries and closing speed and angle have been nearly identical. The tests have occurred at the same time of day, even though the infrared signal of an object in space depends strongly on whether it is in sunlight or in shadow. And in each test the target cluster included the same or similar objects...
Maybe the North Koreans will do us the kindness of sending the launch time and trajectory in advance of their test. They're reasonable guys, right?
[UCS, continuing:] The radars that will be part of the Block 2004 system will not be able to discriminate warheads from other objects (decoys or debris), so discrimination will rely on the kill vehicle alone. Yet no tests in which the kill vehicle relies on its sensor to discriminate the warhead have been conducted, and none are planned through 2007.

...[T]he goal here should be to demonstrate hit to kill under conditions relevant to intercepting long-range missiles. These tests have not done so because the endgame conditions have been unrealistic. Since the tests used a prototype two-stage interceptor, the closing speed between the kill vehicle and mock warhead was artificially low by as much as a factor of two. The defense used information from either a GPS receiver or a C-band beacon on the mock warhead to determine its position, and this was used to provide the kill vehicle with very accurate tracking data...

The new Pacific test bed, coupled with the new three-stage interceptor, will allow the MDA to conduct tests under more realistic conditions. However, the test bed alone will not address the lack of realism in flight testing, nor is it needed to address the key realism issues: testing without a priori information, under unscripted conditions, and against realistic countermeasures. The MDA flight test program through September 2007 will not include countermeasures that the Pentagon’s director of operational testing and evaluation has identified as simple for the enemy to implement. [Emphasis added.]

Don't believe those pesky scientists, who self-admittedly have an agenda of stopping the Department of Defense from wasting tens of billions of dollars that could be spent protecting us from actual terrorist threats? Here's the GAO from April 2004, "Missile Defense: Actions Are Needed to Enhance Testing and Accountability":
BMDS performance goals, such as the probability of engagement success, are based on assumptions regarding the system’s capability against certain threats under various engagement conditions. Neither the engagement conditions nor critical assumptions about the threat—such as the enemy’s type and number of decoys—used in establishing these goals are explicitly stated as part of MDA’s program goals. Without these implicit assumptions being explained, the operational capability of the fielded system is difficult to fully understand.
Great, $100 billion spent and the capabilities of the ballistic missile defense system are hypothetical.

What about the improved Block 2006 systems? Here's the GAO, again, from last month:
DOD has not established formal criteria for declaring that limited defensive operations or subsequent blocks of capability are operational... DOD has not done this because it is developing BMDS in a unique way and BMDS is exempted from traditional requirements guidance. Without specific operational criteria, the Secretary of Defense will not be in a sound position to objectively assess combatant commands’ and services’ preparations to conduct BMDS operations nor have a transparent basis for declaring BMDS operational, which will become more important as capabilities are added in subsequent blocks and Congress considers requests to fund operations.
But hey, if it doesn't work? No problem, according to the Journal:
Even a miss would be a useful learning experience all around.
Heh. All around, indeed.

Whole Foods in Madison Re-Revisited: The Self-Correcting Blogithingy In Action

by Tom Bozzo

A few days ago Ben at Badger Blues had caught a tiny Capital Times news item pointing to the likely resolution of the recent controversy over the relocation of our Whole Foods store to a much larger building in the otherwise new-urbanist Hilldale Mall redevelopment (*):
Joseph Freed & Associates is now looking at a 65,000 square-foot grocery with structured parking and condominiums along the University Avenue frontage, according to sources in the Hill Farms neighborhood.

Freed officials declined to comment Tuesday, saying they wanted to present their long-range plans to the neighborhood before making any statements.
I staked out the position in several posts that the additional amenities weren't worth the risk of pushing the store (and its traffic) into the 'burbs. I'm happy to say that my concerns seem to have been unfounded and that I'm happy that the Plan Commission and Council holders-out look to be getting a materially more desirable development for their efforts. (**) It hopefully would be clear to long-time readers that I don't think it's wrong in principle for the city to play hardball with developers.

The outcome isn't a huge surprise. My basic analysis was that Freed needed to bring the Whole Foods traffic to Hilldale more than Whole Foods needed that specific location. However, among places to relocate the store, Hilldale was probably the best option — and the one closest to the center of mass for the Whole Foods customer base. Revealed preference suggests Whole Foods told Freed to fix it rather than to go pound sand.

I would not expect neighborhood buy-in to be a problem, as I recall the neighborhood supported the previous plans, but securing it is an important step towards returning to the Plan Commission, if perhaps not quite a necessary one in the mathematical proof sense (***). Ben's analysis and mine assume, of course, that having acceded to the stated wishes of Plan Commission (and Council) opponents with both the structured parking and additional residential function of the building, that the Commission will actually approve the revised plans.

The ostensible loser is Tim Metcalfe, owner of the neighboring Sentry Foods grocery, who worked up some "grassroots" opposition from his customers that may have helped with the close Council vote. I could see this as the wages of sin — the guy with 70,000 square feet in a suburban-style mall complaining about the would-be crime against new urbanism — but I think Metcalfe would benefit more than he thinks from a healthier Hilldale. It would be an unambiguous plus for the other incumbent merchants.

Now, if I might suggest a tenant for one of the new retail spaces: Apple Store!

Meanwhile, we've seen a bit of collateral damage from the legislative reaction to the Kelo decision as a south side redevelopment project was abandoned for possible inability to uproot a convenience store.

---------------------------

(*) When Hilldale was built, it was basically in the 'burbs, but the westward component of Madison's sprawl now puts it in what you'd think of as a west-central location.

(**) In the interest of maintaining the blog and seeing my children grow up, I won't hold my breath waiting for certain law professors to admit that they squandered such intellectual credibility as they might have had putting lipstick on a pig.

(***) But if neighborhood buy-in weren't really important, there would be a Walgreen's instead of the Monroe Commons building in our neighborhood.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Technology, the Long Tail, and actual progress

by Ken Houghton

As a rule, I live in the Reality-Based Community. There is one exception, though, for the moment:

For the moment, it is the night of April 8th, 2006. In fact, it is the night I referenced in this post, back in the days before this blog "got ruined by folks like me."

Right now--and until I get on the train again tomorrow--there are just over ten minutes to go in the third period, with the Badgers leading 2-1.

The greatest thing about it: having been without Internet access for the day of the game and three or four following, and since it's not the World Cup or the NBA Championship or the World Series or the Super Bowl (a.k.a. Wife-Beating Day)--or even the Stanley Cup finals--I'm not certain who will win.

Last night, it was 1-0 BC. By the train this morning, it was 1-1 in the second period. On the way home, a late train gave me just enough time for it to become 2-1.

No matter that the game itself was played two months and twelve days ago.

This is what Isaac Asimov always argued books can do. You stop, you start again, and you're where you were. And you can back up.

All because of TiVo(R), which is one of the two things that has actually increased "productive" time.

More tomorrow...

Monday, June 19, 2006

Is the Bush Administration a Learning Organization?

by Tom Bozzo

Signs point to "no."

With a hat tip to Ken, via Sadly, No! ("Bush appointee..."), TBogg ("Houston, we have a moron") and Bob Harris ("Outer space: the new Iraq"), the Scotsman looks inside the decision to launch the :
During a weekend meeting at NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre at Cape Canaveral, Florida, Dr Griffin gave the final nod for next month’s mission, despite what he called an “intensive and spirited exchange” with senior colleagues who recommended a “no-go”. “We have elected to take the risk,” he said.
Oy. Someone at the Scotsman can read:
The Columbia Accident Investigation Board, which was set up to probe the reasons for the 2003 disaster, condemned NASA in its final report for a "culture of complacency" in which engineers' concerns were slapped down and debate stifled.
Yes, that's what the Columbia Accident Investigation Board report said — even in the Executive Summary, so there's no excuse for not having read it (if you're NASA Administrator):
Cultural traits and organizational practices detrimental to safety were allowed to develop, including: reliance on past success as a substitute for sound engineering practices (such as testing to understand why systems were not performing in accordance with requirements); organizational barriers that prevented effective communication of critical safety information and stifled professional differences of opinion... [emphasis added]
Impeach the entire Bush administration. Impeach them all now.

In the meanwhile, perhaps Corndog can queue (or tee) up Michael Griffin for his occasional series insulting Bush administration officials.

No Way To Run A Space Program

by Tom Bozzo

Around the time I'd first stumbled on my blogging buddy Drek's blog, Drek had posted an appreciation of the spacey computer strategy game Master of Orion II ("MOO II"), which was second only to Sid Meier's Civilization among my grad school time killers. MOO II puts you in charge of a civilization that starts with limited interstellar travel capabilities. (It could be boring if you had to wait hundreds or thousands of game-years for stuff to happen.) Late in a game, enormous starfleets zoom across the galaxy at astounding speeds, bearing horrible weaponry that makes the New Battlestar Galactica Cylons look like signatories to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. (*)

Even SF that doesn't rely on major violations of the known laws of physics to advance the plot, such as Ken MacLeod's recent (and Hugo-award nominated) Learning the World, often assumes that it will be possible to pack large numbers of actual biological humans into big spaceships and embark on multi-generation interstellar trips. Though since LtW is set more than ten thousand years in the future, short of the Rapture of the Nerds arriving in the near future, it's unlikely that MacLeod will be error-checked in 13,000 years.

For the more foreseeable future, it is looking like even human space travel among the planets — a baby step of which is part of George W. Bush's "vision" for space exploration — looks a lot farther off than it would seem, even if we didn't have to trust the Worst President Ever to get the job done. The British SF star Charlie Stross had a depressing little linkfest on his (old) blog detailing a daunting array of technological obstacles on the exploration end of the "vision."

The weak link is us. A recurring theme of Bob Park's space coverage at What's New is that robots happily do lots of stuff in environments where limits of science, technology, and politics must be stretched, if not broken, for people simply to survive. Close as Mars may be, a vicious cycle centered on our frailties makes getting people there with current technology a major challenge.

While mass is a cost enemy of space missions, an interesting point of an article Stross links in his comments is that the U.S. space program has been unusually profligate in launching dead weight into orbit. (The following discussion, I should note in the interest of not pulling an Ann Coulter on y'all, liberally adapts a number of posts at the astronautix.com blog.) In the origins of the Apollo program, GE (**) had designed an Apollo vehicle very similar to what would become the Soviet Soyuz (under development at about the same time). The GE Apollo design offered 50% more habitable volume than the NASA Apollo capsule for the same mass through a modular design that minimized the size of the re-entry vehicle. This in turn reduces the mass of heat shielding, etc. However, NASA had already settled on the Apollo capsule design by the time that it received contractor studies.

Throwing mass into orbit for little or no return really took off with the Space Shuttle. The Shuttle's empty mass of nearly 70T represents a 50-55T mass premium over a non-reusable alternative such as Stross's suggestion of adding a re-entry capsule to turn the ESA's 10T ATV into a passenger transport. The Shuttle's extra mass mostly consists of the airplane elements that allow the shuttle to be flown back to a runway landing and the Space Shuttle Main Engines. Forget about cost for the moment. Over 114 flights, that's nearly 6,000T — 13.2 million pounds — launched into orbit at the U.S. taxpayer's expense with nothing left in space to show for it. That goes some way to explaining why our presence in space is so much more lame than sixties-era visions anticipated.

As for the cost, it might have been justifiable had the Shuttle lived up to original expectations that the orbiters would fly very frequently with minimal refurbishment between flights. It's typical to see launch prices given as roughly $20 million per ton of payload delivered to low earth orbit on an expendable booster of western design; launches on Russian and Chinese hardware are cheaper. The Shuttle's average cost of more than $1 billion per launch has been much higher than that (assuming you wanted to recover the program cost through freight charges), though that's in part because up to 109T of orbiter is sent to orbit with the 23T maximum payload. The incremental launch cost — the cost of whatever you need to add an additional launch to the schedule — is far lower, since much of the program cost is in R&D and other "fixed" infrastructure costs. Somewhere inbetween is an average operating cost, whose magnitude suggests that fly-back orbiters are a dead-end, at least for now, because after 114 flights the Shuttle is much more X-plane than cargo liner.

One might ask what our MBA administration has done to improve things. They take the very MBA-ish approach of giving federal agencies color coded management performance grades, after all.

Do you really need to ask?

Despite having been given, in the Columbia disaster, a golden opportunity to stop throwing good money after bad by terminating the Shuttle program and accelerating the development of a follow-on system, they instead have been throwing billions at the Shuttle that can't be recovered over the remaining program life in the name of — prepare for mordant chuckle — fulfilling U.S. agreements with its international ISS partners (***). Nor have they been willing to mount the one Shuttle mission that might be worth the cost (if not risk) in science.

The Bush II space exploration "vision" theoretically envisions a return to the moon as a warm-up to a visit to Mars — the latter, perhaps, the one Bush I initiative from which fils hasn't made a show of running screaming in the opposite direction from père. My theory has been that the "vision" is substantially a ruse to crowd out significant portions of the NASA budget — the human spaceflight portion, of course, and to some extent also the science — and then present Congress with a massive bill for the exploration stuff that they won't be willing to pay in the name of fiscal rectitude.

As this analysis of contractor proposals for the CEV (the Apollo-like Shuttle follow-on) shows, the first step for this is repeating and even amplifying Apollo-era mistakes. Whether it's a matter of gold-plating, not-invented-here syndrome, or whatever, it's hard to disagree with Stross's assessment that the CEV and its launcher (****) will be behind schedule and massively over-budget.

That's without a dime having been spent on any of the Mars challenges. A lot of the long-lead research budget lines were proposed to be cut to provide Shuttle and CEV funding, despite human needs for air, food, water, gravity, and radiation protection being substantially undiminished. Nor has the administration followed through on its own space-based nuclear propulsion initiative, a gateway technology to some types of large-scale interplanetary missions including advanced robotic missions to the outer solar system (where sunlight is too weak for solar and for which radioisotope thermal generators provide insufficient juice).

The bottom line is that the arbitrary requirement that NASA live within its current budget ensures that hopes for space exploration breakthroughs are probably best pinned on the Allen-Branson-Rutan efforts. In the meanwhile, imagination and little plastic building blocks will get you as far into space as almost anything else.

Cross-posted at Total Drek.

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(*) For a quicker dose of the same, try my favorite space strategy game, Spaceward Ho! Ho lacks much of the superficial detail of MOO but fiendishly adds the complexity of requiring management of both renewable and non-renewable resources — not uncoincidentally making it an excellent test of one's ability to put standard economic models of resource extraction to a test.

(**) While you may not think of GE as a space contractor, one of their units built re-entry vehicles for nuclear missile warheads.

(***) Not to make too fine a point of it, the same international partners told to go jump in the North Atlantic over stuff like sending people off to Jeebus-knows-where for torture purposes.

(****) And while an antitrust exemption is pending to allow Boeing and Lockheed Martin to coordinate their space launch businesses in the face of weak demand, the CEV won't be compatible with their partly publicly funded boosters!

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Learning to Spell

by Tom Bozzo

Marginal Utility takes no responsibility for what might happen if you are drinking hot beverages while viewing this post.

The picture below — honest! — is the natural result of a preschooler obsession with sorting magnetic letters by color.

IMG_3618

Well, how do you think we got the preschooler in the first place?

While John is all about saying out the letters, thanks to Electric Company saturation, he hasn't tried this one yet to my knowledge.

Happy Father's Day to the blogging dad buddies — Ken, Brayden, Scrivener, Corndog, Mark, Lance, Max — and to the rest of ye blogging and non-blogging dads out there. Not to mention the family members without whom Father's Day would just be another day.

Friday, June 16, 2006

The best game of the tournament

by Ken Houghton

Those reading the title of my last post might think I dislike scoreless ties. Hardly. In fact, the best game of the tournament so far was a scoreless tie into injury time.

Admittedly, today's 6-nil Argie win was more fun--and the live commentary was marvelous ("53 mins - Riquelme nutmegs Kezman with conspicuous ease")--but Germany-Poland was thrilling and in doubt the whole way.

Cue the Angelic Choir!

by Tom Bozzo

Julia, a/k/a the girl who got all of her teeth in a grand opera of teething, slept through the night last night. So did we.

Regular blogging will resume once my brain is back in gear and my latest LEGO spaceship is completed.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Dialogues of the Toddlers: Tipping Point

by Tom Bozzo

Scene: End of dinner. An episode of The Electric Company was viewed before dinner to keep the children occupied while preparations were underway. That was on top of more Electric Company and Mr. Rogers earlier in the day.

J. I'm done...
D. Julia and I are still eating, so let's sit together for a couple more minutes.
Ju. Noodles. Ummm!
J. (repeatedly) I'm doooone.
D. OK, what do you say.
J. Please may be I [sic] excused?
Ju. Down!
D. Yes you may.
J. Can I watch something?
D. No big guy, not now.
J. I want to watch Electric Company!
D. We've watched enough TV for today.
J. (in ascending tone of voice) No! We have NOT watched enough TV!! (D. stepped right into that one.)
D. Well, you won't get any TV talking to me like that. Anyway, we've had enough. Do you want to go outside or color?
J. Um, color. On the porch!
Ju. Crayons!

And color we did...
IMG_3598

Proud Daddy says, yes, my 3-2/3-year-old can write his own name!
IMG_3599

Next: Wean your toddler from overnight nursing with only mild hearing loss!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Question Hour: No Creeps Left Behind

by Tom Bozzo

Lots of searchers (by Marginal Utility standards) have been looking for information on Archmere Academy's plans to name a building in honor of the parents of alumni who happen to have lots of money despite being, among other things, a convicted murderer and two accessories to murder (the latter turned state's evidence), plus a ne'er-do-well dropout with criminal law problems of his own.

If you're searching and a member of the Archmere community — other than a faculty or staff member who doesn't want to be fired, of course — I'd recommend signing the online petition at the Protect Archmere's Legacy website, for what it's worth.

The school's official statement demonstrates the sort of sensitivity that has successfully defused all of those clerical abuse problems. Shorter Archmere administration: "Show us the money!" The longer version:
Archmere Academy is guided in our decision-making... by our Heritage, our Mission, and our established policies. Additionally, we invite the opinions of our faculty, our alumni, and the families of our students about important decisions that affect many constituents.

We appreciate the great generosity of our many philanthropic donors. This includes the Louis J. Capano, Jr./III Foundation. Archmere has had a relationship with members of the Capano family for several generations [heh; see above -ed], including Louis Capano, Sr., for whom the building is named, and welcomes their continuing support.

With respect to the controversy about our decision to accept the Capano Foundation gift, we have consistently focused on the benefits that will accrue to our students – and the entire Archmere family.

We certainly understand the concern, and we respect the viewpoints of those who oppose our naming of the Student Life Center for Marguerite and Louis Capano, Sr.

It's probably for the best that they ended there without adding the implied "[buzz] off [unless you have a million bucks to give us]."

The Protect Archmere's Legacy folks entertainingly quote the school's student handbook, which lists among the Heritage and Mission to "refrain from vulgarity, arrogance and braggadoccio…" To (re)state the bleeding obvious, the whole naming rights market is a swamp of vulgarity, arrogance, and braggadoccio. Moreover, the school reportedly solicited the Capanos as people with the bucks to give a big boost to the capital campaign. Oh well.

The headmaster, Fr. Zagarella, meanwhile, told the parents that he's "somewhat surprised" at the outcry because the naming plans have been on file at the local galactic hyperspace planning council office at Alpha Centauri since the gift was accepted.

Well, guilty as charged. From my contacts in the Wilmington Catholic secondary education world, I knew about the Capano gift several weeks before the story appeared in the W$J and kept my shame quiet rather than blogging about it or writing a sharply worded letter to my former classmate the development director. Amazingly, it was the transition from private embarrassment to a nationally-reported debacle that changed my mind.

The problem, from the school's perspective, is a failure of communication; to solve the problem, they
have retained communication professionals familiar with this community to help us shape our messages to achieve shared understanding.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of professionals willing to apply lipstick to any imaginable pig.

(Question Hour is an occasional series of posts regarding search terms that lead visitors to this blog.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

France-Switzerland might have looked better

by Ken Houghton

Sometimes, the old technologies are best. This may not be one of those.
[S]ome enterprising Austrian Über-geeks have solved the problem [of how to watch the World Cup at work] nicely by creating a Telnet stream with, believe it or not, live ASCII footage of matches being played.

Simply fire up a command prompt and type “telnet ascii-wm.net 2006” and you'll find a live “video” stream from 10 minutes before kick-off (or should that be boot-up?).

Having suffered the crashing of Soccernet near the end of Brazil-Croatia, I'm willing to try this. The author of the article is not so enthusiastic.
Clearly this is what the internet was invented for! We look forward to a version of Wimbledon that resembles Pong.

Monday, June 12, 2006

The Other Reason I Continue to read Brad DeLong

by Ken Houghton

I really have to start posting more on weekends; seeing something midday Friday (especially when it was posted two days previously) and not saying anything about it until Monday night is forever in Internet time. (Not to think about: the time, on a long-past Network for Information Exchange, that I made a comment to which Patrick Nielsen Hayden took umbrage, and didn't log on again for several weeks--and many hundred messages.)

Anyway, give Brad DeLong credit for admitting, directly if obliquely, that his defenses of Greg Mankiw are despite Mankiw's inability to discuss the actions of the Administration for which he worked, and for some of whose economic ineptitude he arguably bears a significant responsibility.

Cue La Marseillaise

by Tom Bozzo

Are you reading Nina Camic's account of her springtime adventures in France? Why not?

From a recent dispatch:
Her daughter had done graduate work in San Francisco and so she knew the scoop. America, from a French person’s perspective: there is great concern that we do not use trains enough and that we lack bread stores in every village.
They know us all too well. This is as good of a time as any to add my little bit of linkitude to this gem from the Financial Times (subscription only; significant excerpt at Economist's View):
Our Martian friend scratches its heads. “When my economics professor last visited earth in 1945 he told me that the Europeans had just experienced a terrible civil war in which 36m people had been killed, including many of their most brilliant minds. Now you tell me that 60m French people produce almost as much economic output each year as 1.3bn Chinese, who have been the dominant economic power for most of your planet’s history. What is more, the French can do this while working 35-hour weeks and producing 246 different types of cheese. How did this economic miracle come about?”

The earthling economists stare at each other and then down at their feet. “We don’t normally look at things that way. We tend to say that Europe is suffering from ‘eurosclerosis’, you know, low growth, high unemployment, bloated welfare states and a looming demographic crisis.” “Maybe I need to talk to historians rather than economists...,” says our Martian friend...
The economics profession does a lot to abet politically motivated problematizing of things that don't resemble "free" "market" "capitalism" — the torrent of scare quotes are needed because, as Pietra Rivoli observes, more economic activity than you might think is organized to avoid exposure to competive markets — affordable and reliable electricity, being able to access whatever services you want on the Internets, etc.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Comment of the Week

by Tom Bozzo

Janelle Renée, on Kim's post on same-sex marriage tolerance in the GSS:
If you add up the strongly agree, agree and the neither agree nor disagree rows for 2004, gays are doing better than Bush's approval ratings.
L. O. L.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

A(nother) Floyd Norris "Why Oh Why" Moment

by Tom Bozzo

This arguably should provoke a stronge reaction than yesterday's from Brad DeLong (regarding which, see here from the Archives).

Here's Norris's lede, from this morning's NYT "Off the Charts" column:
The estate tax in the United States — called the "death tax" by its opponents — affects very few people, but many others have dreams of being rich enough to be covered by it. Perhaps that explains the vehemence of the opposition to it.
...or perhaps it's the concerted and highly mendacious marketing campaign waged by estate tax opponents. I probably shouldn't discount the strength of money delusion, but the anti-estate-tax movement is fundamentally about as grass roots as Hands Off the Internet. Here's Krugman, via Economist's View:
The estate tax is overwhelmingly a tax on the very, very wealthy; only about one estate in 200 pays any tax at all. The campaign for estate tax repeal has largely been financed by just 18 powerful business dynasties, including the family that owns Wal-Mart.

You may have heard tales of family farms and small businesses broken up to pay taxes, but those stories are pure propaganda...
And here's the GOP propagandist Frank Luntz, from the Frontline documentary The Persuaders:
Look, for years, political people and lawyers -- who, by the way, are the worst communicators -- used the phrase "estate tax." And for years they couldn't eliminate it. The public wouldn't support it because the word "estate" sounds wealthy. Someone like me comes around and realizes that it's not an estate tax, it's a death tax, because you're taxed at death. And suddenly something that isn't viable achieves the support of 75 percent of the American people. It's the same tax, but nobody really knows what an estate is. But they certainly know what it means to be taxed when you die. I argue that is a clarification; that's not an obfuscation.
The last sentence, of course, is a lie; Norris did get the "affects very few people" part right. From the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities:

Only 0.5 percent of estates now pay any estate tax whatsoever, and this number is falling.

  • The value of an estate that is exempt from taxation has increased from $1.35 million per married couple in 2000 to $4 million per couple in 2006, and will increase further to $7 million per couple in 2009. (The exemption levels are half these amounts for individuals.)
  • As a result of the increase in the exemption level, the number of taxable estates has dropped from more than 50,000 in 2000 to fewer than 13,000 in 2006, and it will fall to about 7,000 in 2009. In percentage terms, that means a little over 2 percent of all estates were subject to the tax in 2000, 0.5 percent are subject to the tax today, and by 2009 that number will fall to 0.3 percent, meaning only 3 out of every 1,000 people who die will owe any tax.
  • Proponents of estate-tax repeal frequently argue that repeal is needed to prevent large numbers of family-owned farms and businesses from having to be liquidated to pay the tax. A recent Congressional Budget Office study exploded this myth. It estimated that if the estate tax had existed in its current form back in 2000, 90 percent of the farm estates that owed estate tax that year — and nearly three-quarters of the family-owned businesses that owed estate tax that year — would have been entirely exempt from the tax. Had the tax existed in its 2009 form back in 2000, fewer than 100 family businesses and only 65 farm estates nationwide would have owed any estate tax. Further, CBO found that of these family businesses and farms, most would have sufficient liquid assets to pay the tax without having to sell any of the business or farm assets.
Norris offers an additional bonus in the second paragraph:
But the estate tax will return in 2011 if Congress does not act first, with just $1 million in assets protected from tax. [Emphasis added]
An exemption for "just" $1 million in assets would exempt the vast majority of Americans from the estate tax. Only around 10% of U.S. households have $1 million in assets; recall that the median household had a net worth of a whopping $93,100 as of the 2004 Survey of Consumer Finances. Net assets tend to peak just before retirement, unless you have Neutron Jack's employment contract, so many relatively well-to-do households won't die in posession of a taxable estate.

In the credit-where-due department, burial of the lede aside, Norris gets a point or two for mentioning the narrowness of the estate tax's incidence, and explaining why a double taxation argument advanced by would-be repealers isn't really true, either. So there's something — and Norris may well think he's doing God's work in putting those issues in the NYT business section. But there's no reason, leading off with the politics of repeal, that he couldn't have mentioned the actual politics of repeal.

Friday, June 09, 2006

A Reason I Continue to Read Brad DeLong's blog

by Ken Houghton

Not only are his defenses of N. Gregory Mankiw occasionally accurate, but there are the posts on not-necessarily-economic subjects such as coffee, which lead to another data point that may support my theory that the recent productivity growth in the U.S. economy is sparked not so much by IT as by the proliferation of the anti-coffee Starbuck's.
Caffeine is known to increase arousal, attention, and information processing....These results show that caffeine can increase the extent to which people systematically process and are influenced by a persuasive communication.

Can it be coincident that "Arabian Wine" arrived just before the Age of Enlightenment?

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Blogwhoring Interlude

by Ken Houghton

I really don't want to bump Kim's post from the top, but some notable things have occurred. In ascending order:

AngryBear is discussing the Postal Service,
Eric Boehlert has an important post at Crooks and Liars

and, most importantly,

Fafblog is back.

We now return to your regularly scheduled Easy Listening Music with Interludes of Optimism about Gay Marriage.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

The Gay Marriage Ban

by B. Strong

Much of the flap over the same-sex marriage ban has been over (a) what, precisely, Bush & Co were intending to accomplish, and (b) the results of the ABS news poll vs. the media interpretion of these results.

In my never-ending effort to clutter up Tom's blog with GSS data, I thought I'd see what My Favorite Online Survey of Public Opinion has to say about the gay marriage issue.

The GSS has one question pertaining specifically to gay marriage: "Should homosexuals have the right to marry?" Responses range from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".

It's not an ideal question, because it's framed in terms of rights as opposed to prohibitions (i.e., a constitutional ban on gay marriage). But it does have three advantages over the ABC news poll numbers: (1) it's been asked twice in the survey's history, so you can get some sense of change; (2) it's based on face-to-face interviews rather than telephone surveys; and (3) it's easy to look at how attitudes toward gay marriage differ across groups.

Here are the raw percentages, by year (n=about 1200 per year):



Gays have the right to marry

19882004
Strongly agree3.411.4
Agree9.018.2
Neither agree nor disagree15.014.6
Disagree25.720.3
Strongly disagree46.935.5


In 2004, the majority of GSS respondents (56%) didn't think gays should have the right to marry, whereas just under a third do think they should. Also, far more people were passionately against gay marriage than passionately for it, which presumably supports the "pandering to the rabid base" theory for GW & co's motivations.

Look, though, at the tremendous increase in the percentage of proponents of gay's rights between 1988 and 2004, and the correponding decrease in the percentage of detractors. It's dangerous to impute trends from two points, but still, if I were in charge of thinking of the long-term health of the Republican party, I wouldn't be willing to bet on gay marriage as the rallying issue.

So, who supports gays rights to marry, and who doesn't? I ran a quick little ordered logit, which is a fancified regression for ordinal dependent variables. The results don't show too many surprises:

  1. The more educated the respondent, the higher his or her (net) probability of supporting gays' right to marry

  2. The older the respondent, the lower the probability of supporting gay marriage

  3. As is true with most tolerance items, Jews are the most supportive of gay rights, followed close behind by respondents with no religion. Catholics and "other" religion tie for third and fourth, while Protestants are easily the most likely to oppose gays' right to marry. (Presumably, if I broke this down according to fundamentalism, you'd see the usual pattern, too.)

  4. Unmarried respondents are significantly more likely to oppose gays' rights to marry than either formerly married or married respondents.

  5. Women are far more likely to support gay marriage than men.


The only real curiousity in the results is the lack of a strong net race effect in support for gay marriage. Curious, that is, in light of the blog discussion about how the Republicans are trying to cater to the black vote.

Although there isn't a net race effect in the general sample, there is among people who voted for Gore in the 2000 election, with black Gore-voters less likely to support gay marriage than white Gore-voters. (The 2004 GSS was conducted before the Bush/Kerry election, so I can't look at Kerry-voters.) I have a hard time believing that blacks' average conservatism on the gay marriage issue is strong enough to overcome their liberalism on other social and economic issues -- after all, it certainly wasn't in the 2000 election, when the country was less tolerant of gay marriage.

But, I suppose this is precisely what the Republicans hope to accomplish.

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