Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Tom Toles is a National Treasure; Mark Thoma is Priceless?

by Ken Houghton

We have Toles on 26 February.



We have Thoma, with the full articles here (11 Feb) and here (20 Feb). Excerpts:

I would be very pleased to find out that growing inequality is not a problem. However, despite the attempts of Alan Reynolds and a few others to argue otherwise, the preponderance of evidence and of professional opinion clearly indicates that inequality has been rising since 1988, and that the trend toward widening inequality has been present for much longer than that. The question is what, if anything, to do about it. If we can get past the attempts to cloud the issue, perhaps we can proceed to more important discussions. [11 Feb]


There is a role for skeptics, but there is also a time to accept that the preponderance of evidence points in one direction and to begin to think about and implement corrective measures. I believe an important question is how we respond to inequality – will it be through progressive taxation, minimum wage legislation, changes in the structure of health care, investments in education and retraining programs, wage insurance and so on, or will we do nothing? [20 Feb]


I report. You decide.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Those Who Consciously Ignore the Past Condemn Us to Repeat It

by Ken Houghton

Byron Calame undermines his declaration of his paper's Intelligent Skepticism:
Mr. Gordon has become a favorite target of many critical readers, who charge that the paper’s Iran coverage is somehow tainted because he had shared the byline on a flawed Page 1 W.M.D. article. I don’t buy that view, and I think the quality of his current journalism deserves to be evaluated on its own merits.

Or as a certain Leader of the Free World said, "Fool me once, won't get fooled again."

Spam, Spam, Spam...Management

by Ken Houghton

From the comments to a post at Making Light, platedlizard notes:
Whenever I get suspicious email supposedly from ebay or Paypal I always report them to those companies. spoof@ebay.com and spoof@paypal.com. Spam in general should be reported to spam@uce.gov

Pass it on. Do it. The only way to produce data-driven results is to present data.

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Personality Crisis

by Ken Houghton

Courtesy of The Divine Miss J, I learn that I don't answer this type of quiz well:

You Are Bert

Extremely serious and a little eccentric, people find you loveable - even if you don't love them!

You are usually feeling: Logical - you rarely let your emotions rule you

You are famous for: Being smart, a total neat freak, and maybe just a little evil

How you life your life: With passion, even if your odd passions (like bottle caps and pigeons) are baffling to others
The Sesame Street Personality Quiz

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Friday, February 23, 2007

I Gave at the Office -- You Don't Need to know what

by Ken Houghton

It's a catty summary, to be certain, but not an unfair one in this Self-Delusional NYT piece. First admit the truth:
Today’s decision, which followed months of study by a presidential working group, reflected both the strong antiregulatory philosophy of the administration and the formidable new clout and influence of the wealthy hedge fund industry. Three of the major economic policy makers in Washington — Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Robert K. Steel, who is the under secretary of the Treasury, and Joshua Bolton, the White House chief of staff — are all alumni of Goldman Sachs, which in the last decade has evolved into perhaps the most significant player in the private equities market.

And only then get around to letting readers know that the games are being played with Other People's Money:
Millions of Americans do not qualify to make investments in the funds, which are pools of largely unregulated assets, but they are unknowingly exposed to the risks associated with hedge funds through their pension and retirement accounts.

James Hamilton at Econbrowser—one of the premier analytical economists in the country, and perhaps the closest thing to my political and temperamental opposite in all of the blogsphere (Tom's mileage likely varies significantly)—thought about hedge funds and, instead of leaping to a likely conclusion, examined the available data. The scary thing is that he comes to the same conclusion I do:
When I heard about the disastrously irresponsible investments made by the Amaranth hedge fund, my first reaction was, who would be so stupid to have put up the margin requirements for such a scheme? The answer turned out to be found in my own backyard-- the San Diego County Employees Retirement Association apparently donated over a hundred million dollars to this worthy cause.

He follows this will three paragraphs of fascinating detail; follow the link above. His conclusion from those 'grafs is:
But as far as I'm aware, there's no place you can go to find an audited statement of the assets and liabilities of these "alpha fund managers", so there's no way to verify exactly what the nature and magnitude of the risk is that's being palmed off on the county. We have only the word of the county fund managers that they're doing something smart. They in turn are likely basing their own confidence primarily on the word of the alpha fund managers. At least in the case of Amaranth, we know how much that word is worth, and it ain't $233,830,268. [emphasis mine]

He has a specific recommendation as well:
But when the buyer is acting on behalf of the government, to me it seems very appropriate for the government to set statutory limits on the extent to which managers' interests can be permitted to deviate from those of the beneficiaries. Specifically, I recommend that California's County Employees Retirement Law be amended to specify that if one calculates the sum of all investments, pledges of collateral, financial liabilities and exposures, and margin deposits and calls made by a county retirement fund in institutions for which there are not publicly available annually audited balance sheets of those institutions' assets and liabilities, the sum of all such commitments across all such institutions can not exceed 10% of the retirement fund's total gross assets.

On one side, we have James Hamilton, stating that there is not enough transparency in the hedge fund industry to allow unlimited investment by government-run funds in hedge funds. On the other side, we have "[t]he Bush administration and senior regulators."

Anyone else feeling less well about their 401(k)/403(b)/IRA??

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What About the Metropolitan Opera Broadcasts?

by Tom Bozzo

Toll Brothers 1Q Profit Falls 67 Percent.

We hope the Toll brothers really love opera.

Now that we've been in the "new" house for 2-1/2 years, I'm just about spending a rational amount of time looking at real estate listings (which is to say, very little). A casual glance suggests that our little corner of the existing-house market is looking like a microcosm of overpriced markets elsewhere and has a long way (down) to go. MLS inventories in our zones roughly quadrupled from the maximum-price-increase period to the peak, and have since come down about 25%. But the apparent rate of inventory turnover doesn't look like it's improved much. Then there are the empty houses...

As we sometimes say, Good Luck Chairman Ben. Whereas Barney Frank gave him an earful for the Fed being too concerned over inflation vs. full employment, I've thought the Fed actually having has been a bit soft on inflation given their stated targets, and they've been engaging in some wishful thinking that slower economic growth will do its thing on inflation without flushing them out into a position that leads to interest rate increases that really send the housing sector down the drain.

(The problem, from this microeconomist's perspective, is that the macroeconomy isn't macro — we have interest rate-sensitive sectors in more-or-less sharp declines while others are doing better. The monetary policymakers appear to be short of at least one lever to pull.)

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

What Does al-Maliki Say Now?

by Ken Houghton

I've been avoiding commenting on the Rape of Sabrine, mainly because I have nothing to add to Riverbend's posts, Shakespeare's Sis, and multiple other blogs, save the comment that al-Maliki clearly learned his governance procedures from the curent Administration:
Iraq's prime minister has sacked an official who demanded an international enquiry into the alleged rape of a Sunni woman by Iraqi security forces.

However, al-Maliki's claim that "the accusations in the [Sabrine] case were fabricated by Sunni groups trying to undermine the Shia-dominated security forces" now seems rather undermined:
Four Iraqi soldiers have been charged with raping a Sunni Muslim woman in Talafar, northern Iraq, officials say.

Brig Gen Nijm Abdullah, who acts as mayor, said the men had confessed.

Somehow, I doubt the argument that soldiers prefer 40- and 50-year-old victims to 20-year-olds will sit too well.

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How to Reach 21,500

by Ken Houghton

Change the rules in midstream, add more drug users, and, most of all, disrupt lives and leave the States less able to manage an emergency:
National Guard officials told state commanders in Arkansas, Indiana, Oklahoma and Ohio last month that while a final decision had not been made, units from their states that had done previous tours in Iraq and Afghanistan could be designated to return to Iraq next year between January and June, the officials said.

The unit from Oklahoma, a combat brigade with one battalion currently in Afghanistan, had not been scheduled to go back to Iraq until 2010, and brigades from the other three states not until 2009. Each brigade has about 3,500 soldiers.

Indiana and/or Oklahoma may just have become "in play" for 2008.

But, don't worry, it doesn't mean the troops will be any better supplied:
Capt. Christopher Heathscott, a spokesman for the Arkansas National Guard, said the state’s 39th Brigade Combat Team was 600 rifles short for its 3,500 soldiers and also lacked its full arsenal of mortars and howitzers.

And even the Guard leaders realise this is not a good long-term plan:
Of particular concern, he said, is the possibility that the prospects of going to Iraq next year could cause some Arkansas reservists not to re-enlist this year. Over the next year roughly one-third of the soldiers in the 39th will have their enlistment contracts expire or be eligible for retirement, Captain Heathscott said.

After three decades of success managing a volunteer Army, the past four years appear to not only be destroying the superstructure, but the infrastructure as well.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

In the Grand Tradition of Chuckles's Death, No Laughing Matter

by Ken Houghton

Some jobs (keyboardist for the Grateful Dead, lead guitar for The Pretenders, etc.) are legendary for their relatively high mortality rate. (See This is Spinal Tap for the parodic version.)

Add to the list: Circus Clowns performing in Cucuta, Colombia
Two circus clowns have been shot dead during a performance in the eastern Colombian city of Cucuta, police say....

Last year, a prominent circus clown, known as Pepe, was also shot dead by a unknown assailant in Cucuta.

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Random Bullets of Dumb and Dumber

by Tom Bozzo

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

7,000 Troops to Come Home; 3,000 by Xmas

by Ken Houghton

However, they will be British, not American:
Mr Blair is due to make a statement about the 7,000 British troops serving in Iraq at the Commons on Wednesday.

The BBC's James Landale said 1,500 troops were expected to return home in months, rising to 3,000 by Christmas.

Continuing my effort to calculate the actual increase, I believe that cuts the number to 18,500. Will someone—presumably Australian Prime Minister John Howard, be sending more troops to make up the difference?

UPDATE: Denmark to pull 450. Where are the Aussie replacements?

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Security is one thing, campaign contributions quite another

by Ken Houghton

Via my local community forum comes this piece fromWonkette:
GOP moneybag Abdul Tawala Ibn Ali Alishtari was indicted Friday for trying to send $152,000 to terror-training camps in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Alishtari is a member of the White House Business Advisory Committee and a “U.S. National Republican Senate Inner Circle Member for Life.” He’s aDoD/Homeland Security contractor, obviously, and he claims to be best buddies with Dick Cheney!

The CBS version of this story downplays his affiliation with the Republican Party and the Administration.

I haven't seen a NYT version yet, but it's likely I just missed it, since he is from Westchester and the indictment was three days ago. (UPDATE: The Times has the AP feed.)

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I Guess I'll Have to Go Linux, AFT edition

by Ken Houghton

Paul the Spud at Shakespeare's Sister notes Sean Hannity and Neil Boortz's latest entry in the "Worse than Al Qaeda" derby.
BOORTZ: Right. Look, Al Qaeda, they could bring in a nuke into this country and kill 100,000 people with a well-placed nuke somewhere. Ok. We would recover from that. It would be a terrible tragedy, but the teachers unions in this country can destroy a generation.

HANNITY: They are.

BOORTZ: Well, they are destroying a generation.

HANNITY: They are ruining our school system.

What Paul doesn't note is that Steve Jobs agrees with them:
"I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way," Jobs said.

"This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy."

At various pauses, the audience applauded enthusiastically. [Michael] Dell sat quietly with his hands folded in his lap.

But when he spoke, he Spoke Truth to Power:
Dell responded that unions were created because "the employer was treating his employees unfairly and that was not good.

"So now you have these enterprises where they take good care of their people. The employees won, they do really well and succeed."

Dell also blamed problems in public schools on the lack of a competitive job market for principals.

Tell me about it. There's nothing like living in a city with a bloated, capricious Administration that decides teachers shouldn't have a contract and students should suffer for their incompetence to remind you that the contract-negotiating AFT is the sole check on abusive management.

So Dell scores well there. Has he also learned the other reality (via /.)?

The top six requests at Dell's new Customer Service website (number 1 is by a WIDE margin; see link above):
  1. Pre-Installed Linux | Ubuntu | Fedora | OpenSUSE | Multi-Boot
  2. Pre-Installed OpenOffice | alternative to MS Works & MS Office
  3. NO EXTRA SOFTWARE OPTION
  4. linux laptop
  5. No OS Preloaded
  6. Have Firefox pre-installed as default browser

Apparently, the power of the "free" market has been tethered for quite a while by the power of the monopoly. Will be interesting to see how this plays out.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Program Note

by Tom Bozzo

It shouldn't surprise anyone that I haven't been feeling very bloggy lately, to the point of not replying to Ken's request for blogging on the Edwards blogger debacle — though the nucleus of a rant is here in the comments.

This has partly been due to minor flu complications, spotty internet access (though I'm on unexpectedly free Wi-Fi at a snowbelt airport this afternoon), and a Super Secret Project to assemble an iDVD of the children from accumulated digital video in time for my grandmother's 85th birthday (both easier and more time-consuming than I'd expected). Since my sinuses are once again no worse than normal, the video is done, and 'net access should be nominal, I hope to be rejoining Ken shortly.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

HIllary Reads the Script Badly

by Ken Houghton

Some few obsessives We all remember the scene: candidate Jed Bartlet answering a question in NH about why he voted—multiple times—against a bill to support dairy farmers.

He says, roughly, "Yep, I really Rogered you on that one. Wouldn't blame you if you don't vote for me, but ONE in FIVE children in the United States can't afford to eat, and I won't do anything to make it more difficult for them." (I can't find the video on YouTube/Google Video; it's from this two-part episode.)

It's that moment that convinces Josh to join the campaign. A Presidential candidate who stands up and says, "Don't vote for me if you want; here's why I did what I did."

Hillary Clinton understood half of that, with a comment that earned her a Shakespeare's Sister Quote of the Day post.

She just didn't bother to say why she did what she did; there is no statement of principle, no indication of a conscious decision-making process.

"I weighed the choices, and couldn't do what you wanted because this is more important" is a decision, an answer. "I was fooled; if you don't like it, don't vote for me" is an invitation to your own political beheading.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Annals of My Switch to Google Reader, Part 2

by Ken Houghton

I am not what you could call an "early adapter." (Working with IT people can cause that, as can having children [reducing disposal income, or changing utility preferences, depending on your perspective].) So it took me until a couple weeks ago to start using the various "readers."

I've settled, at least for now, on Google Reader, it being easy, accessible from the office, and not requiring data duplication on multiple machines. And it has affected my blog reading; blogs that do not offer any feeds—I'm talking to you, AngryBears; note that several others are several steps further along —are, probably, checked less often, while I may miss a day or two of the NYT cartoons.

Overall, though, it has offered more information more efficiently. And, contrary to the claims of some, it has also produced some interesting juxtapositions.

This piece, for instance, projects great patient benefits:

Patient Safety Through Technology

while the following piece noted how those benefits might be taken away by technological advances of another type:

Growth Drug Is Caught Up in Patent Fight

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Post in progress; Thought-Experiment

by Ken Houghton

I mentioned this EnvEcon post earlier. It assumes several things:
  1. That the status quo is efficient (the market is at equilibrium)
  2. That the quotes from the article—all of which are from smokers and their suppliers—indicate what will happen (e.g., that a store where 70% of its revenues are from cigarettes "might just have to quit selling cigarettes.");
  3. That those quotes and the localized result are representative of the overall state, and, most importantly,
  4. That the Kentucky tax is also optimal for that state.

(In fairness, Dr. Whitehead does note that "an increase in Indiana's gas tax might encourage Indiana smokers to support their local smoke shop." But one suspects he does not mean this as a policy proposal so much as a snipe. He also provides some back-of-the-envelope analysis at the bottom of the post that indicates that he knows the quotes do not represent the expected behavior of the total population.)

Now don't get me wrong; this is a traditional Marginal Utility analysis—but it is applied to a smaller sample and tacitly assumes that all changes to the status quo should be not just optimal, but Pareto-optimal.

Let's now also look at this:
West Virginia and Kentucky, states known for high levels of obesity,diabetes and smoking, have the highest proportion of people with heart disease in the nation, health officials said Thursday.

From a Utility point of view, the costs of behavior should cover the incremental cost of participating in that behavior. (a variation is the Pigouvian Tax argument) Otherwise, we must conclude that there is a "free rider" issue (or, a subset of same, that "externalities" are not being covered).

Given that the prevalence of heart disease, per the CDC study mentioned, is 2.0% greater in KY than that in Indiana, perhaps the argument should be that the KY tax is too low (does not cover the full social cost of smoking) rather than that the IN is or will be too high?

After all, consider workers at a KY-based firm against those at an IN-based firm. If insurance costs are calculated optimally, it will be less expensive to do business in IN. However, non-smokers (the large majority of the population) in both states will pay a higher premium solely because their coworkers are more likely to require costly care. This is, of course, no less of a "tax," but the worker is provided with an even lower Utility.

(In fact, if we look at the county-by-county maps of deaths from heart disease in Indiana for the 1990s (from this CDC site), we can see that the area discussed in the article cited by Professor Whitehead is the highest in the state, matching the legendarily-dangerous and dirty steel-processing area around Gary. So IN workers treated as a whole are paying extra for the "free riders" on the KY border, whose behavior is clearly not socially optimal.)




Also, given the incremental costs, and absent charging full costs for behavior, is this not a reasonable alternative step?
After being thwarted for years, a bipartisan group of members of Congress reintroduced legislation yesterday that would allow the federal government to further regulate the tobacco industry by cracking down on marketing aimed at young people and requiring that reduced-risk tobacco products back up their claims with science.

The Altria Group, the company formerly known as Philip Morris, is among the bill’s biggest supporters.

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Pitchers and catchers report...

by Ken Houghton

if you know the rest of that sentence and read this blog, Have I Got a Book for You.

(Yes, this is another promotion of a book I haven't read.)

J. C. Bradbury, an economist (see, it's MU-related) who runs the brilliant Sabernomics blog, has a book, The Baseball Economist: The Real Game Exposed, analysing baseball from an economist's point of view, discussed today in the Science Journal section of the WSJ (free link). For instance, the neoclassical-economics-centered claim that HBP rises if the DH is in place turns out not to be dominant:
[R]etaliation explains only part of the NL/AL difference. The NL hit-batter rate equaled, and sometimes exceeded, the AL's after expansion years (1993 and 1998). The presence of more wild pitchers in the NL (which had more new teams) swamped the deterrent effect of possible retaliation, which turns out to be only a minor factor in the hit-batsman rate.

Where the review fails (though I suspect Dr. Bradbury doesn't) is in trying to elide the "small market disadvantage":
After St. Louis won the 2006 World Series, you'd think fans in small cities would stop grousing that major-market teams have a built-in edge. Should any of you not be inclined to concede error, economist J.C. Bradbury [notes] that, while big-market baseball teams win more than small-market teams do, market size explains only part of the differential.

Let's ignore that they call St. Louis a "small" city; it has a very large historic fan base, and just look at Bradbury's analysis of that "built-in edge" that fans grouse about:
Oh, and the big-market/small-market question. Every 1.58 million residents produces one extra win per season, Prof. Bradbury calculates, using data from 1995 to 2004. Based on population alone, the Yankees should win 10.61 more games than Milwaukee.

That's not a small hole; it's more than 6% of the season lost before you reach the starting line—or that you have to make up with superior scouting, management, and luck (e.g., injury-avoidance). The budget restrictions of the smaller (assumed) fan base and (real) local media revenues mean your people have to be better than Theo or Brian or Omar* just to break even. Which means management differentials can be made clearer:
Calculating "population-adjusted wins," he shows which teams did better than their city's size predicts -- and which did worse. I'm talking about you, Kansas City, Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay and Milwaukee.

No one who even cursorily follows baseball should need Bradbury's book to tell them that; three of those are well known to be deliberately mismanaging their teams (definition of mismanagement is that they are not trying to win, just to capture the most monies in the short term).** It will be interesting to see if Bradbury identifies this correctly as a misalignment of incentives (the owner has the ability to make more money while producing a less valuable product).

Either way, it looks to be a book worth reading if you care about economics or baseball.

*General Managers of high-market teams: Epstein (Boston), Cashman (NY Yankees), Minaya (NY Mets), respectively.

**I don't pay enough attention to Tampa Bay to know whether it is just chronic bad management; the others are all trying to extort their localities for more money and/or deliberately targeting the relatively recent revenue-sharing monies without using those funds to try to produce a better product on the field.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

The CSM attempts to become the WSJ

by Ken Houghton

I generally appreciate the reporting of The Christian Science Monitor; maybe it was that high school must-be-inside lunch period when, especially in a month when I'd finished Analog (under Bova), it was one of the few periodicals to give a good sense of what an alien world must be like.

But the falsehoods and elisions of this editorial there make me think that, as with the WSJ, I might be better to skip the Opinion columns.

I'll leave it to Tom or someone else (subtil, no?) to expand on the number of lies and omissions in the piece; I don't think there are more of those than there are sentences, but it's close.

UPDATE: Lance comes through with flying colors on the even more odious piece of tripe George Will published. See Tom's comment in comments, with his hint of more to come.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Thinking about al-Aqsa

by Ken Houghton

The renovations around the al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem continue,
somewhat abated.

We went to see the Mosque, and the Dome of the Rock, during our trip through Israel in 1999. Unlike Ariel Sharon a year later, we went to see the beauty of the site, which includes the Dome of the Rock and some glorious calligraphy. (Muslim tenets forbids representation art in religious sites.)

What I remember as well is the question of seeing it. The Mosque and the Dome of the Rock are only open during certain hours, so we didn't know if we would be able to see it.

First, we asked someone stationed at the Wailing Wall. He was brusque (even for the country) and said he had no idea.

Then we walked toward East Jerusalem, and saw a Palestinian guard near the entrance. He immediately told us the hours, and appeared delighted at the idea that we would want to see it. (Certainly, he knew we had just come from the Wall.)

So it was very easy to plan the rest of the day so that we could visit, after finding the right person.

But the feeling that our first contact would prefer the Mosque didn't exist was palpable even for a tourist, let alone people whose families have been living "in Israel" for nearly 40 years. As Matthew Price of the BBC notes:
From around the Muslim world came condemnation. An Israeli colleague of mine - standing next to me watching the diggers do their work - simply didn't get what all the fuss was all about. "It's just a ramp," he said.

But it is not just a ramp. Yesterday I stood inside the Old City as Palestinian youths and Israeli police squared up to one another.

The lanes are narrow, like a maze, and you feel pretty vulnerable at such times, trying to keep an eye out to the left, the right, in front and behind all at once....

The walkway in question leads up to a small gate in the western wall of what is known to Muslims as "al-Haram al Sharif". It translates as "The Noble Sanctuary".

The huge golden dome of the mosque in the centre of the vast plaza is a magnificent example of Islamic architecture.

When I'm driving past the Old City I always try to get a glimpse, and I always catch my breath - partly because it is an awe inspiring sight, and partly because of what it symbolises.

TECHNOLOGY TO THE RESCUE: On of the immediate suggestions—put cameras up to show everyone exactly what is being doing and where—is going to be implemented.

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The First Encouraging VISTA note on this blog

by Ken Houghton

In my deep, disreputable past, I worked as a Stage Manager for a VERY
Off-Broadway Theatre Company. One of the shows we did was an original musical,
where the composer/arranger/pianist was a Shaker Heights native and recent Yale graduate named David Pogue.

Yes, that David Pogue.

Via Slashdot (/.), I see that he has written "[t]he only reference source you'll need to learn Microsofts [sic] Vista."

Good to see the boy making good, but I'm still not "upgrading" to it. At least Phantom Scribbler will have some guide, should she choose that option.

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The BBC is our friend

by Ken Houghton

First note the lede:
The US is to take in another 7,000 Iraqi refugees over the next year amid rising international concern over those fleeing the insurgency, officials said.

The number represents a huge increase on the 463 refugees the US has taken in since the four-year-old war began. [emphasis mine]

Only then, mention the size of the problem created:
The UN estimates that up to 50,000 Iraqis flee each month and that 3.8m (that's 3,800,000, in case you're wondering) have left since the war started. [ibid]

Now, as Environmental Economics would note, it is certainly true that 7E3/6E5 is a greater percentage than 463/3.8E6, so I supposed we should applaud the, er, effort.

And, just to confirm that this is part of an international effort:
The UN has called for $60m (£30.5m) from nations for a global resettlement programme. The US is expected to pledge $18m.

Which means we're planning to contribute 30% of the budget. Just as we're only contributing 30% of the troops. Right, Prime Minister Howard?

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

We're Number 2!

by Ken Houghton

UPDATE: Melissa weighs in, punchier and with more context. (See Paul there as well.)

The BBC headlined that UNICEF reported that the UK is 21st of 21 industrial nations for child well-being.
The UK was in the bottom third for five out of the six categories. It was placed in the middle third of the table for health and safety.

Needless to say, government officials are up in arms:
A spokesman for the UK government said its initiatives in areas such as poverty, pregnancy rates, teenage smoking, drinking and risky sexual behaviour had helped improve children's welfare.

Welfare Minister Jim Murphy said the Unicef study was an "historic" report, which used some data which was now out of date.

Which, if true, doesn't bode well for the second-worst country:
1. Netherlands
2. Sweden
3. Denmark
4. Finland
5. Spain
6. Switzerland
7. Norway
8. Italy
9. Republic of Ireland
10. Belgium
11. Germany
12. Canada
13. Greece
14. Poland
15. Czech Republic
16. France
17. Portugal
18. Austria
19. Hungary
20. United States
21. United Kingdom

Shira may be closer to right than we think

by Ken Houghton

It's no secret that our children go to sleep late (and I sometimes later). Which puts the burden on Shira, who has commented recently that, after the past week of sleep deprivation, she "has no brain."

She's surely exaggerating—but maybe not by so much as we think.

The BBC reports that No sleep may mean no new brain cells:
The researchers compared animals who were deprived of sleep for 72 hours with others who were not.

They found those who missed out on rest had higher levels of the stress hormone corticosterone.

They also produced significantly fewer new brain cells in a particular region of the hippocampus.

When the animals' corticosterone levels were kept at a constant level, the reduction in cell proliferation was abolished.

And getting back to a normal sleep pattern doesn't solve the problem:
Sleep patterns were restored to normal within a week.

However levels of nerve cell production (neurogenesis) were not restored for two weeks, and the brain appears to boost its efforts in order to counteract the shortage.

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Amanda Resigns; Melissa Remains Too

by Ken Houghton

And the Edwards campaign loses a major resource.

UPDATE: Make that two major resources.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Programming Note

by Ken Houghton

TiVo permitting, I'll be live at Mannion's place tonight, trying to explain why pc = wL + V s.t. T = L + l does not apply to Studio 60.

The comments are usually interesting, at least. (Occasionally moreso than the episodes.)

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For Tom

by Ken Houghton

The Secret of Newton's Laws Explained with Lego

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Insert Inappropriate Joke Here

by Ken Houghton

Stem cells used to boost breasts
[Kotaro Yoshimura, a surgeon at the Tokyo University medical school] said he believed the stem cell and fat combination, which can increase a woman's cupsize by two sizes, was a success.

"There have been no serious complications," he said.

During the operation, surgeons suck fat cells from the stomach or thigh, and this "slurry" is enriched so that there are higher numbers than usual of stem cells.

These are "master" cells which are capable of making new fat cells.

With the obligatory disclaimer:
However, Adam Searle, past president of British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons said the development should not be dismissed.

"The stem cell 'soup' is too non-specific to really focus on what you want."

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Sunday, February 11, 2007

Whatever happened to parental invincibility?

by B. Strong

J: I'm off to play poker.
Q: Tell us who wins ...
J: OK, I will.
Q: ...and then tell us where you came in.


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Saturday, February 10, 2007

LEGO Star Wars Nerds, Please Sit Down

by Tom Bozzo

Millennium Falcon. 5,000 pieces. U.S. price TBA (GBP 350 in the UK, ouch!).

(Faints...)

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Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday Night Palate Cleanser

by Tom Bozzo

Julian Cope, "World Shut Your Mouth"



Unfortunately, frackin' Viacom's copyright action at YouTube prevents me from dedicating Pete Shelley's Homosapien (audio excerpt here, Java req'd) to Bill Donahue. But here's to you, Bill!

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Risk Shifting has Consequences

by Ken Houghton

It appears that, in the new Russia, buying software from a vendor makes you entirely liable if it turns out not to be legal.

The reaction in the Russian educational community is as should have been expected:
Rather than attacking mobsters who peddle pirated copies of Windows directly to companies, the Russian [police] decided to lock up aSepich headmaster who bought hot Windows software which came from Perm region’s Capital Construction Administration.

Microsoft says that the incident has nothing to do with them, but it appears that Russian schools in the area are so scared about being shipped off to a Siberian Gulag, that they are buying Linux gear instead.

Memo to Mr. Gates. The next time Mikhail Gorbachev asks you to intervene, a response of "don't blame us" probably won't be considered responsive. As we noted in the case of Romania, the pirates of today are the developers of tomorrow. (And, as Emil-Nicolaie noted in comments to that post, MSFT did themselves no long-term good in Romania either.)

UPDATE: The Russian court system does the right thing; it is left as an exercise to the reader whether MSFT should consider the case "trivial."

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The Continued Mainstreaming of Stephen Colbert

by Ken Houghton

Those in NYC may (or may not) wish to attend the gathering this coming Monday of Columbia University's Cafe Science series, in which Sylvia Nassar (author of A Beautiful Mind, which was adapted into an obscure art film) interviews mathematician John W. Morgan.

But it's the description that is eye-catching:
WHEN MATH MAKES HEADLINES OR HOW THE POINCARÉ CONJECTURE WOUND UP ON THE COLBERT REPORT

He got a Ben and Jerry's ice cream. And now he's being used to promote talking with a mathematician.

In some obscure corner of the universe, Richard Cohen is turning over in his grave.

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For the Real Deal, Turn To An SFF Author

by Tom Bozzo

Dean Baker complains that this NYT article on the screwed-up state of British passenger railways fails to mention the privatization that is, in no small part, responsible for the mess. For the unvarnished version, turn to China Miéville in the Socialist Review (writing about New Labour's nascent effort to revive the British space program; via Making Light):
Thanks to privatisation, getting a train from London to Birmingham is such a lunatic thicket of contradictory rules, cancellations and deals it's easier to walk. Tube maintenance is handed to Metronet, whose performance is so crap that even the official arbiter of "public-private partnerships" is compelled to tantrums. This is the "transport vision" of a government and its corporate pals that now want to get a rocket to the stars. I wouldn't trust them to push a wheelbarrow to a shed.
Where's Sir Topham Hatt when you need him?!

BONUS: Charlie Stross, from The Atrocity Archives...
[L]o, in the thrusting entrepreneurial climate of the early nineties a new government came to power with a remit to bring about the triumph of true socialism by privatising the post office and air traffic control systems, and DERA didn't stand much of a chance.

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Annals of Creative Financing (Housing Bubble Edition)

by Tom Bozzo

Yesterday's Wall Street Journal 'style section' featured an article on the coming adjustable-rate mortgage storm — borrowers scrambling, and increasingly failing, to get out of the "creative" mortgages they took to make their peak-of-the-bubble purchases look affordable. (See Calculated Risk for the big picture.)

The ingredients are predictable: borrowing more than the house is worth (take your pick of fantasy valuations or outright appraisal fraud for the enabling technology), prepayment penalties (whether unwisely accepted or shoved down the borrower's throat), and lenders exercising damage control by tightening lending standards.

What blew me away was one of the anecdotes: a borrower was considering taking out an auto loan to pay the mortgage down to a point at which it could be refinanced, presumably now at only about 100% of some more-realistic valuation. I've had a tough time figuring out how that could be worthwhile other than as a sign of buyer's remorse on the "creative" ARM. After all, if recession looms larger among the usual macroeconomic risks, holding an ARM that's due to reset isn't necessarily a bad thing. If anything, the rush for the ARM exits (with nearly half of resetting ARMs to be refinanced, per the W$J excerpt at Calculated Risk) should be a pie in the face to housing analysts who suggested, in the not-too-distant-past, that the explosion of creative financing was Just Fine and Dandy because everyone rationally weighed the risks vs. conventional mortgages.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

George W. Bush is Against "Terrific Steps Forward for Medicine"

by Tom Bozzo

In today's Capital Times, Judith Davidoff offers this misleading lede:
While social conservatives were expected to fight the mandatory vaccination of young girls against a sexually transmitted virus that causes cervical cancer, the loudest opposition in Wisconsin is coming from a more unlikely source: pediatricians.
A state Senate co-sponsor of legislation to require the HPV vaccine says:

Echoed [Robert] Wirch: "Cervical cancer is a preventable cancer, and we should do everything we can to get rid of this terrible cancer."

But the pediatric community is balking.

If not for those meddling pediatricians!

WTF?! said I, father of a two-year-old daughter... fourteen paragraphs into the story, it turns out that the pediatricians are not actually opposed to requiring the vaccine per se:

The objections are not about the vaccine itself, [James] Conway [of the Wisconsin Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatricians] stressed: "I don't think anybody from the medical side of things would dispute that the preliminary data and the design behind how they actually developed this vaccine is a terrific step forward for medicine."

It is about the implementation, he said.

While insurance companies are pledging to pay for the costly vaccine, Conway questions who will cover the vaccine for the underinsured and uninsured. He said the federal program that covers vaccinations for children without insurance can now barely pay for the other vaccines that have come on the market in recent years.

Now, according to the story, even at the stiff monopoly price of the vaccine (about $360, per the story), the cost of treating cervical cancer runs to the tune of more than 10 million annual doses of the vaccine. The economic case for vaccination looks clear enough. (Something Gov. Doyle might consider before throwing around more questionable tax expenditures.) A smart policymaker would cough up the money to make the AAP (fully) happy.

The George Bush/Heritage Foundation method? Not so much. The fundamental of the Bush "plan" is that the vaccination decision should be made on individual assessments of willingness to pay the $360 in a world (ideally, in that view) of high-deductible insurance that covers little routine care. Some people — probably concentrated in high-risk, low-income demographic groups — will choose "wrong" and society will pay for avoidable cervical cancer cases around mid-century.

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

Herein lies the rub of the Edwards-Blogger business. Any of the major Democratic contenders are smart enough to pass on the opinions of certain "sensible" economists and consign health care a la the WPE back to the right-wing think [sic] tanks. Then again, so were John F. Kerry and John Edwards, and they lost to the WPE and the MEVPE (*) in part because their campaign was fatally slow in the face of the right-wing noise machine's onslaught. People with better policy ideas than George W. Bush or the Republican '08 field are a dime a dozen; people who can win a campaign which, as John Rogers rightly observes, will be a "f***ing knife fight" are not.

(An additional curiosity is that this particular kerfluffle seems to have been an attack on the rapid-response mechanism itself. Amanda Marcotte being the Edwards campaign's blogger-in-chief and Melissa McEwan the netroots coordinator, they'd have presumably coordinated the response had the targets been anyone else on Edwards's staff. As Waveflux observed in Shakes's comments, the progressive blogs stepped into the breach and arguably saved the Edwards campaign from the influence of the "elite punditocracy" with its civility-over-substance bias and showed the value of campaigns having key netroots staff whose bloggerly charisma actually motivates the netroots.)

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(*) Most Evil Vice Preznit Ever.

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Honorary Wanker of the Day: David Broder

by Ken Houghton

For his tech "reporting" this time.Did Gates fib about H1-B business?

Unfortunately for Bill Gates, when a corporation sponsors a green card, they must publish the actual salary along with the application.

From the graph above and the table below, only 3.3%, or 40 employees, of the 1,202 total green card applications submitted by Microsoft had wages above $100k.

In fact, more applications, 8.3%, or 92 employees, were paid salaries below $60k. Most of the jobs titles of the 1,202 applications were Software Engineer, an entry level job indicator.

The median salary for all was $71k, well below the $100k that Bill Gates touted in his claim of a great shortage of "talent" in America (read cheap, controllable and young).

Broder published fact-free content. Whodda thunk it?

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

What Tom Said

by Ken Houghton

UPDATE: The Edwards campaign does the right thing, making clear the difference between the personal and the professional, and making clear that the deliberate misinterpretations are precisely that. The Right has consistently referred to this as the type of "Sister Souljah moment" they so desperately want in a candidate. I'm not holding my breath waiting for their groundswell of support for Edwards.

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

Sadly, I had believed that, having weathered all of the "jacuzzi case" bullshit in 2004, Edwards would be ready this time. (In fact, one of my reasons for supporting him in 2004 was that, having lived and working in NC for part of 2002-2003, I heard about the Senator and the case from the locals—all of whom spoke admiringly of him for having done the Right Thing.)

I have spoken fondly of Edwards, often touting him as the ideal Democratic candidate in comments at Melissa's blog. One of the reasons for this is that he knows (should know) what will be thrown at him. He lived through the "Swift Boat" Swiftboating. He saw disembowment turned into jacuzzi. He saw Obama turned into Osama. He has seen the coverage of his campaign.

We thought he was experienced. It is starting to appear that we were wrong.

Is it really going to be true that Hillary is the only who can face the onslaught? Or is Chuck Hagel the only one who knows that it will be a Republican winner again in 2008, and that that person will have to deal with the mess of the past eight years, making George H.W. Bush's following of Ronald Reagan seem a cakewalk by comparison?

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Standing With our Blog Pals

by Tom Bozzo

I like a lot of what John Edwards has to say, voted for him in the 2004 presidential primary (and again in the general election), and might have considered doing so again in '08. But if he's inclined to leave his campaign staffing decisions to lunatics like the perpetually aggrieved Bill Donohue and Michelle "Internment of threatening ethnic groups is a good idea" Malkin, probably not so much.

That the use of R-rated language on blogs by Amanda Marcotte and Melissa McEwan (a/k/a Shakespeare's Sister) should be newsworthy at all should be taken as a sign of impending doom. With thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars down the Iraq hole, not to mention the prospect of breaking the planet, and a host of "little" policy matters like the Bush administration's insistence that our lives are made better if more of us weigh the price of an office visit before taking our kids in to be checked out for ear infections, it's hard to think of a subject that is less in need of mass-media airing (via Digby) than the language used at Pandagon and Shakespeare's Sister — both linked in the sidebar.

Shouldn't Dick Cheney's famous F-bomb have eliminated this fake controversy once and for all?

Addendum: If you are going to imply, like commenter "Some" (and from a position of anonymity [*]), that given the state of the world it is somehow worth your while getting worked up over what Some Blogger says about the Immaculate Conception, you are making my point.

* To be clear, the commenter was in compliance with our occasionally stated blog policy that commenters need only identify themselves with a handle. Trolling comments (particularly of the anonymous ad hominem form) are subject to deletion at my sole discretion, signed or unsigned.

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For Gary Farber Readers, and those who know Security by FUD

by Ken Houghton

This report on Bruce Schneier's take on Security methods (via Slashdot), we find why MSFT dominates AAPL in the market (ignoring those reasons-of-monopoly, of course):
There is a “feeling versus reality,” Schneier said. “You can feel secure but not be secure. You can be secure but not feel secure.”

The primitive portion of the brain, called the amygdala, feels fear and incites a fear-or-flight response, he pointed out. “It’s very fast, faster than consciousness. But it can be overridden by higher parts of the brain.”

The neocortex, which in a mammalian brain is associated with consciousness, is slower but “adaptive and flexible,” designed to work toward confronting fear and making decisions to promote security, Schneier said.

The battle in the brain for rational response often plays out in ways that people “exaggerate risks that are spectacular, rare, beyond their control, talked about, international, man-made, immediate, directed against children or morally offensive,” Schneier noted, pointing to lists of exaggerated and downplayed risks.

Rational Expectations Revised, anyone?

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Global Warming Villainy: Is There Nothing to be Done About CO2-Spewing Jets?

by Tom Bozzo

After surviving the shock of Extreme Closeup Condi on the cover of this week's Time, I made my way to Bryan Walsh's "Greenhouse Airlines," which recounts some enviro-bashing of Prince Charles's air travel and comes around to offer this "well, duh" line:
On an individual level, a single long-haul flight can emit more carbon per passenger than months of SUV driving.
A single long-haul flight carries a passenger a distance which, on the ground, would require months of driving.

The article cites an estimate that a round-trip flight from New York to Tokyo would lead to emissions of 5,200 pounds of "carbon" [sic, I assume Walsh means carbon dioxide]. But a New York-Tokyo roundtrip is roughly 22,000 km, or 13,600 miles. If you hypothetically drove the distance in an American car of middling fuel economy, you'd emit roughly 200 grams of CO2 per km of driving (*) — or 4400 kilograms (9680 pounds) for the trip. On a per-km-driven basis, the SUV driver isn't off the hook.

Needless to say, if a roundtrip to Tokyo took a couple weeks en route instead of a day, many of the passengers wouldn't make the trip in the first place. Those emissions result, in effect, from an interaction of the relative convenience of transonic air travel — encouraging actual presence in far-flung locations — and the "cheapness" to the air traveler of the greenhouse gas emissions.

Walsh states that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regards the growth of air travel as a relatively intractable problem lacking a "technofix."
As messy a source of pollution as electricity generation and ground transportation are, technologies do exist that could drastically cut carbon from power plants and cars. Not so for planes: the same aircraft models will almost certainly be flying on the same kerosene fuel for decades.
Walsh continues
Nor is there any replacement for long-haul air travel itself. I can take a train from Boston to Washington, but until we can figure out how to travel via fireplace, Harry Potter--style, the only way I'm getting from Tokyo to New York City is in aircraft [that emits lots of greenhouse gases].
This understates a variety of substitution possibilities. Declining costs of telepresence would tend to put pressure on business travelers to stay put (other things equal). We can go back to the future with more technofixable high-speed electric trains and airships. The main thing with the former is that it requires considerable advance planning and capital investment, since in my part of the carbon dioxide-spewing world, there is no intercity passenger train service of any sort worth mentioning. You see the latter crop up in science fiction here and there (e.g., Neal Stephenson's The Diamond Age), but whether or not we end up in solar-electric zeppelins, it bears noting that a lot of our supposedly indispensible airliner fleet could end up parked in the desert southwest along with many of their otherwise airworthy siblings consigned there for reason of fuel-diseconomy and/or excess supply of airliners given a suitable adverse turn of the oil market, a fresh round of security-related lunacy, or whatever.

In fact, my inclination would be to take on the long-haul travel last, since the capital investment/substitution fix is available for lots of short-haul air travel. There's the equivalent of a transoceanic flight or two's air mileage (**) flown daily between Madison, Minneapolis, Detroit and Chicago; thanks to security and air traffic control delays, those trips occur at speeds attainable by modern ground transportation — assuming someone has the foresight to make the intermodal links to long-haul flights at the big U.S. airports a la CDG.

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(*) We'd previously found a figure of about 218 g/km for the E46 3-series (EPA mileage ~20 city/30 highway).

(**) There are lots of trips, but with small planes.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

Another Reason for Phantom Scribbler to Go Linux

by Ken Houghton

It's one thing to release a new OS. It's quite another to sell a new OS without a valid installation key:
Microsoft says, "This is a known issue and has been escalated to the program manager." When asked what could be done I was told, "I can take your name and number and call you back when there is a solution. If that is not acceptable, I can cancel your order and issue you a refund." I was also told, "There is no expected time period for a fix at this time."

Saturday, February 03, 2007

I Bet Drek Could Score 100%

by Ken Houghton

Continuing in the tradition of Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber, PZ Myers at Pharyngula, and Zeno at Halfway There, I must confess to a "misspent" youth that included Bible reading:

You know the Bible 96%!
 

Wow! You are awesome! You are a true Biblical scholar, not just a hearer but a personal reader! The books, the characters, the events, the verses - you know it all! You are fantastic!

Ultimate Bible Quiz
Create MySpace Quizzes

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Before Reading My Flu-Finally-Fading Posts Below

by Ken Houghton

Check out some of the brilliance of Lance Mannion.

(Yes, this is a placeholder because I want to do variation on two of those posts; but the first is a primer to netiquette, and I only skipped the Lenny Briscoe post because I am and will be speechless, being able only to refer everyone to Madeleine's post on Jerry Orbach's death at her own blog before she basically moved to Eat Our Brains and Deep Genre.

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Pornography and Early Adapters

by Ken Houghton

There's an apocryphal sex-over-the-internet encounter which well
highlights the central issue of whether producers
should href="http://www.nytimes.com/2007/01/22/business/media/22porn.html?ei=5070&en=1896d7bef628c11a&ex=1170219600&pagewanted=print">Use
High Definition in Making X-Rated Films. There are some
additional costs:
The studios said their
experience using the technology gives them an advantage in
understanding how to cope with the mixed blessing ofhypercrisp images. Their techniques include using postproduction tools that let them digitally soften the actors' skin tone.

"It takes away the blemishes and the pits and harshness and makes it look like they have baby skin," said the director known as Joone,
who made "Pirates," one of the industry’s top-selling videos. It will
be available this month in high-definition.

My viewer's opinion is reflected by actress/writer/director Stormy Daniels's comment:
'I'm not 100 percent sure why anyone would want to see their porn in HD," she said.

But that's for aesthetes and connoisseurs of the porn market, which I don't pretend to be.

What
is interesting is that Sony may be making the same mistake now that it
did with the VHS/Beta battles, lo those many years ago:
The pornographers’ progress with HD may also be somewhat slowed by Sony, one of the main backers of the Blu-ray
high-definition disc format. Sony said last week that, in keeping with
a longstanding policy, it would not mass-produce pornographic videos on
behalf of the movie makers.

The decision has forced pornographers to use the competing HD-DVD format or, in some cases, to find companies other than Sony that can manufacture copies of Blu-ray movies.

The
inevitable result of this is to href="http://www.cepro.com/news/editorial/17379.html">drive that
segment of the industry to Sony's competitors:
If you thought all the Blu-ray and HD
DVD action was at the Consumer Electronics Show, then obviously you
didn't visit the show-next-door, the Adult Entertainment Expo,
sponsored by Adult Video News.

There, where at least three production houses touted HD DVD, was not a Blu-ray logo in sight.

I
have already reported that Digital Playground, one of the most highly
regarded producer of adult videos, recently shifted loyalties fromBlu-ray to HD DVD.

As one of the purveyors notes, not only is Blu-ray more restricted, it also has a higher marginal cost:
[Tom] Funk [principal of HighDefXXX] speculates that Digital Playground simply could not find a facility that would replicate porn on Blu-ray
discs. "Most replication services are either owned by Sony or have ties
to Disney," he says. Neither organization, it seems, wants to tarnish
its family-friendly reputation by cranking out dirty movies.

In the end, though, he says it boils down to cost. Blu-ray movies are considerably more expensive to produce in part because Blu-ray production requires brand new equipment, while HD DVD discs can be produced by simply upgrading existing DVD replication gear.

Even those who initially saw advantages to Blu-Ray switched to HD DVD:
Last year, I spoke with Digital Playground founder Joone--that's the whole name, just like Cher--after reading that his company would support Blu-ray.

"First and foremost," he said during the interview, "you get more space with Blu-ray. You usually run out. A person could buy a DVD, and there might be four movies on it. They could just pay to unlock them."

At the time, he also cited the security of Blu-ray, supposedly superior to HD DVD.

Yet, Digital Playground just announced its first four HD titles, and they're all in HD DVD.

And,
while we might be willing to consider the porn market marginal, its
demographics resemble the target of all those classic-rock stations:
Some
$4.28 billion worth of adult videos were sold or rented in 2005,
according to Adult Video News. About 1 billion adult videos were rented
in 2005. And statistics show that there is affluence among porn
aficionados. Some 35% of them have incomes over $75,000. That's enough
to buy a high-def DVD player or two.


9
February UPDATE: Newsweek, in a "web exclusive," "discovers" that href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17033892/site/newsweek/">privately-held
companies may exaggerate their revenue claims, and leverages
this to claim that href="http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17033892/site/newsweek/page/3/">HD DVD's competitive advantage will not be enough.

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Tell Me Again that Gore and Bush Were "No Different"

by Ken Houghton

While this WSJ piece (free) speaks as if it is a good thing, one would think the "state's rights" people would see this as Yet Another Federal Intrusion:
Today, there are 47 people on federal death row -- more than double the number six years ago -- and Mr. Wilson this week became the seventh sentenced in a state without a death statute of its own since the federal death penalty was reinstated in 1988.

Let's put that 47 into context:
In 2000, there were 18 inmates on federal death row, but none were from a state that disallows capital punishment.

So there has been more than a 150% increase in Federal death penalty convictions in the past six year. Which means a lot more funds being spent on relatively few cases (since death penalty cases cost more to prosecute, regardless of whether they are successful; this, by the way, is a Good Thing); even Becker-Posner would likely view this as suboptimal resource allocation.

And who was the driving force behind this expansion. Why, the man who lost the 2000 Missouri Senate election to a dead man:
Things began to change in 2002, when federal prosecutors secured a death sentence in Michigan, a state without a death penalty. A year later, Mr. [John] Ashcroft ordered U.S. attorneys in New York and Connecticut to seek death penalties against 12 defendants even though prosecutors handling the cases had recommended against doing so or decided not to pursue capital charges. At the time, the Justice Department said there shouldn't be "one standard in Georgia and another in Vermont."

"There's all this talk about how death row is declining, but that's not true for the federal system," said Ruth Friedman, director of the Federal Capital Habeas Project, a federally funded program that assists lawyers in the post-conviction stage of capital cases.

Anyone who thinks the break date being 2000 is coincident should be strongly disabused:
Eric Holder, a former U.S. attorney in Washington who was deputy attorney general during the Clinton administration, said that in the 1990s, he and then-Attorney General Janet Reno weren't as likely to override a local federal prosecutor who didn't think a crime warranted capital punishment.

Overriding local federal prosecutors "was relatively rare during the Clinton years," Mr. Holder said. "Having both been local prosecutors, we really deferred to our U.S. attorneys' understanding that they knew their local situations."

The Justice Department declined to comment on this point.

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How an Economy Really Gets Developed

by Ken Houghton

I can't find the reference now, but there was one of those "which developing countries have growing technology-based economies and which don't" surveys about a year ago where the list of "successes" looked very familiar.

In fact, it was pretty much the list of countries known for pirated software as presented in Bruce Sterling's sickly subversive Islands in the Net.

Now (h/t Boing Boing) comes more evidence that first-generation piracy leads to second-generation development:
ROMANIAN PRESIDENT Traian Basescu [said] that his country's IT industry would be nothing if it was not for pirated Windows software.

Basescu said, during a joint news conference with [Bill] Gates, that piracy helped the younger generation discover computers. It set off the development of the IT industry in Romania.

It also helped Romanians improve their creative capacity in the IT industry, which has become famous around the world. He claimed that all this piracy "ten years ago" was an investment in Romania's friendship with Microsoft and with Bill Gates.

The Underground Economy/"black market" tends to be viewed as a bad thing by economists, one suspects because measures of it generally cannot be done accurately or directly, though there has been some recent interesting work in that direction. But the reality is that being able to overcome "barriers to entry" does not just apply to a firm; it is a prerequisite for working in a market, and not being able to work in a market rather clearly means you cannot participate in it.

Follow-up note from the WaPo version of the Reuters article:
Foreign investors say Romania's IT sector is one of most promising industries in the fast-growing economy thanks to high level of technical education in Romania, low wages and the country's thriving underworld of computers hackers.

That seems like a fairly direct utility function; treating the third as part of an error term would be an error in itself.

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Friday, February 02, 2007

The Other Answer is "ConAgra"

by Ken Houghton

In response to the question, who gains from the much-discussed ethanol subsidy, here is one of the two answers:

Quarterly Profit a Record for Archer Daniels

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Tu Stultus Es?

by Tom Bozzo

I think this is a joke, mainly because of this (not to mention the publication it appears in).

But such is actual wingnut behavior that I can't tell the difference. Damn you, WPE!

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

Annals of Price Discrimination

by Tom Bozzo

At MacWorld news, Peter Cohen reports that the license for the "Home" editions of Windows Vista forbids its use with virtualization software:
“USE WITH VIRTUALIZATION TECHNOLOGIES. You may not use the software installed on the licensed device within a virtual (or otherwise emulated) hardware system,” reads the EULA.
What this means is that you can't install a home version of Vista on an Intel-based Mac using the superlative Parallels Desktop for Mac software, but you may do so using Apple's "Boot Camp" dual-boot software. (*) The virtualization-friendly license is part of the $70-$200 upgrade to the "Business" and/or "Ultimate" versions of Vista.

To my admittedly non-legal mind, it's a test to see whether some gullible judge would uphold Microsoft's arrogation of the right to prevent Vista from being installed on a computer by method A (dual-boot) while permitting installation on the exact same hardware by method B (virtualization).

Microsoft's statement is:
Home users have rarely requested virtualization and so it will not be supported in Microsoft Windows Vista Home Basic and Home Premium SKUs.
This is true but misleading. For home users, virtualization used to mean using expensive emulation software to run essential Windows applications on non-Wintel PC hardware v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y. Today's virtualization software is something completely different.

Back in the day, I used SoftWindows (purchased at an educational discount) to play Civilization II on my 100 MHz Power Mac 7500 long before the Mac version of the game came out. The PowerPC chips were pretty hot for the day (1996) and so Civ was more-or-less playable until the display had to scroll because some unit was moved off-screen. At that point, the game slowed down to an extent that it felt like a monkey with an abacus was doing the computations.

In contrast, Parallels only costs $70 (plus the price of the copy of Windows) and works so well that few users thereof — hardcore PC gamers being a notable exception — would ever want a stinkin' PC after seeing a Mac do its stupid computer trick.

Ben Rudolph of Parallels told Cohen that Microsoft may well lose some sales for its efforts:
“To me, this strategy could hold back users who embrace cutting-edge technologies like virtualization, which means they won’t upgrade to Vista. This means that Microsoft has effectively lost an upgrade customer (in the case of Windows PCs) or an entirely new customer (for Mac and Linux users),” writes Rudolph.
Cool as Parallels is, I have it on the MacBook Pro mainly because I work in an otherwise all-PC shop, and we have Windows-only licenses for some job-critical third-party software. My home needs to run Windows are extremely limited, and adding the price of a big LEGO set to that of legally using Windows under OS X via virtualization pretty much ensures that Bill Gates would get nothing out of me.

This is not the only attempted exertion of market power via EULA. At the Toronto Star, Michael Geist writes that Microsoft is attempting to constrain user behavior in some novel ways:
[T]he terms and conditions [of the Windows Vista license] remove any doubt about who is in control by providing that "this agreement only gives you some rights to use the software. Microsoft reserves all other rights." For those users frustrated by the software's limitations, Microsoft cautions that "you may not work around any technical limitations in the software."
The frightening thing is that there probably are judges out there willing to enforce such terms.


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(*) The other potential target is businesses who would want to run multiple virtual Windows PCs on powerful server computers, though why such businesses would want to save money by running crippled Windows "Home" versions is unclear.

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Someone Didn't Think This Through

by Tom Bozzo

This was in my e-mail inbox this morning, from the American Economic Association:
The Fidelity Research Institute has created a new research award, the Pyramid Prize (SM). The $50,000 financial award will be presented annually to the author(s) of published, applied research that best advances the Institute’s goal of helping Americans achieve life-long financial security, whether through new retirement income approaches, innovative healthcare financing strategies or other financial initiatives. [Emphasis in original.]
Avoiding pyramid schemes is a good start.

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