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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Looks that way to me

In a column earlier this year titled  Days of Future Past  Jonah Goldberg included this:
All around the world, authoritarianism of one bent or another is in vogue. From Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s Egypt to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to the Communist party’s China, statism is an idea whose time has come, again. “Over the past few months,” New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote recently, “we’ve seen the beginning of a global battle of regimes, an intellectual contest between centralized authoritarian capitalism and decentralized liberal democratic capitalism.”

Of course, the yearning for authoritarianism is ancient. I would argue that it is baked into the human condition, which is why it must be constantly fought. But even this latest outbreak did not just emerge ex nihilo over the last few months. The heavy intellectual work has been done in plain view for years (indeed, I offer something of a survey of such impulses in my 2008 book Liberal Fascism). How many columns has Thomas Friedman written extolling the superiority of the Chinese way? “There is only one thing worse than one-party autocracy,” Friedman has written, “and that is one-party democracy, which is what we have in America today.”

How many times has Barack Obama, Friedman’s most influential reader, invoked China’s economic planning as something we need to emulate? How many remoras of the Leviathan have offered similar encomiums to statism? “The conservative-preferred, free-market fundamentalist, shareholder-only model — so successful in the 20th century — is being thrown onto the trash heap of history in the 21st century,” declared former SEIU president Andy Stern in the Wall Street Journal in 2011.

Again, this is nothing new. Similar sentences were written countless times in the 20th century, insisting that the free-market fundamentalism of the 19th century was being thrown onto the same trash heap. Anne Morrow Lindbergh famously coined the phrase “wave of the future” to describe the inevitability of collectivism in 1940. The lesson here is not that history proved them wrong, because history doesn’t do anything. They were proved wrong because people proved them wrong.

That is the lesson to take away: The wave of the future isn’t a wave at all, but an eternal tide that champions of freedom must fight against, constantly. For if they stop, even briefly, the tide will push them back to the shores of the natural human condition, and the state of nature is not liberal-democratic capitalism but tribal, thuggish authoritarianism. On this point Orban was absolutely right. “The point of the future is that anything can happen,” he said. “That means it could easily be that our time will come.”
In another column title  Freedom  he made the point: 
It’s a little bizarre how the Left has always conflated statism with modernity and progress. The idea that rulers — be they chieftains, kings, priests, politburos, or wonkish bureaucrats — are enlightened or smart enough to tell others how to live is older than the written word. And the idea that someone stronger, with better weapons, has the right to take what is yours predates man’s discovery of fire by millennia. And yet, we’re always told that the latest rationalization for increased state power is the “wave of the future.”

That phrase, “the wave of the future,” became famous thanks to a 1940 essay by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. She argued that the time of liberal democratic capitalism was drawing to a close and the smart money was on statism of one flavor or another — fascism, Communism, socialism, etc. What was lost on her, and millions of others, was that this wasn’t progress toward the new, but regression to the past. These “waves of the future” were simply gussied-up tribalisms, anachronisms made gaudy with the trappings of modernity, like a gibbon in a spacesuit.

The only truly new political idea in the last couple thousand years is this libertarian idea, broadly understood. The revolution wrought by John Locke, Edmund Burke, Adam Smith, and the Founding Fathers is the only real revolution going. And it’s still unfolding. (emphasis mine)

Blogger Bird Dog at Maggie's Farm  excerpted the following from Klaven  
Whatever its pretensions, whatever its claims, statism — progressivism, leftism, socialism — is based on the idea that a small elite intelligentsia can run your life better than you can. They know how to spend your money. They know how to educate your children. They know how to run your health care. They know how to protect you from yourself.

You do not have to talk to a statist very long before he will profess an intense dislike, distrust and even fear of ordinary people. Ordinary people spend money on what they want (TV’s restaurants and cars) rather than what the elite know they ought to want (aluminum foil climate change reversers). Ordinary people teach their children that God created the world rather than a random pattern of mathematic realities that came into being through another random pattern that came…  well, the elite know: it’s random patterns all the way down! Ordinary people will give jobs and business to those who earn them rather than those the elite, in their greater understanding, know are historically deserving because of past oppression. And so on.

Now, of course, with the very elite of the elite running the country, we find that — what do you know? — this statism dodge doesn’t really work all that well. And there are two reasons for this. The first is that the statist premise is wrong. In fact, ordinary people left at liberty to do as they will are actually better at running their lives and businesses and country than the geniuses in Washington. Central planning works great in the imaginations of the elite, but in the real world…  not so much.

And the second problem is that the elite are stupid. No, really. They’re educated and sophisticated and they dress well and speak well. They may even have high IQs. But in the immortal words of Forrest Gump’s mother: “Stupid is as stupid does.” And the elite are stupid.

 Even though I have plenty of friends who would consider themselves part of the elite, the ideas expressed above nail it!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Fragile knowledge

In an interesting article published last year, social psychologist Roy Baumeister addressed the question of free will.  After making a few clarifications he introduced a point made by Phillip Anderson: 
 There is no need to insist that free will is some kind of magical violation of causality. Free will is just another kind of cause. The causal process by which a person decides whether to marry is simply different from the processes that cause balls to roll downhill, ice to melt in the hot sun, a magnet to attract nails, or a stock price to rise and fall.
Different sciences discover different kinds of causes. Phillip Anderson, who won the Nobel Prize in physics, explained this beautifully several decades ago in a brief article titled “More is different.” Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture.

As Anderson explained, the things each science studies cannot be fully reduced to the lower levels, but they also cannot violate the lower levels. Our actions cannot break the laws of physics, but they can be influenced by things beyond gravity, friction, and electromagnetic charges. No number of facts about a carbon atom can explain life, let alone the meaning of your life. These causes operate at different levels of organization. Even if you could write a history of the Civil War purely in terms of muscle movements or nerve cell firings, that (very long and dull) book would completely miss the point of the war. Free will cannot violate the laws of physics or even neuroscience, but it invokes causes that go beyond them.

This reminds me of a point made in a TV interview by the late Richard Feynman back in the early 1980s.  His point was that most people have fragile knowledge. They do not know under what conditions some ideas are valid and when they are not, analogous to some mathematical techniques being applicable in limited domains.  They also don't know how ideas in general or in specific different fields relate to each other.  He also added the there were many pseudo-experts that were practising scientism rather than science.

Mr. Baumeister continues:
If culture is so successful, why don’t other species use it? They can’t—because they lack the psychological innate capabilities it requires. Our ancestors evolved the ability to act in the ways necessary for culture to succeed. Free will likely will be found right there—it’s what enables humans to control their actions in precisely the ways required to build and operate complex social systems.

What psychological capabilities are needed to make cultural systems work? To be a member of a group with culture, people must be able to understand the culture’s rules for actions, including moral principles and formal laws. They need to be able to talk about their choices with others, participate in group decisions, and carry out their assigned role. Culture can bring immense benefits, from cooked rice to the iPhone, but it only works if people cooperate and obey the rules.
Returning to the matter of free will, he concludes:
Self-control counts as a kind of freedom because it begins with not acting on every impulse. The simple brain acts whenever something triggers a response: A hungry creature sees food and eats it. The most recently evolved parts of the human brain have an extensive mechanism for overriding those impulses, which enables us to reject food when we’re hungry, whether it’s because we’re dieting, vegetarian, keeping kosher, or mistrustful of the food. Self-control furnishes the possibility of acting from rational principles rather than acting on impulse.

The use of abstract ideas such as moral principles to guide action takes us far beyond anything that you will find in a physics or chemistry textbook, and so we are free in the sense of emergence, of going beyond simpler forms of causality. Again, we cannot break the laws of physics, but we can act in ways that add new causes that go far beyond physical causation. No electron understands the Golden Rule, and indeed an exhaustive study of any given atom will furnish no clue as to whether it is part of a person who is obeying or disobeying that rule. The economic laws of supply and demand are genuine causes, but they cannot be reduced to or fully explained by chemical reactions. Understanding free will in this way allows us to reconcile the popular understanding of free will as making choices with our scientific understanding of the world.

Reiterating an earlier point:  "Physics may be the most fundamental of the sciences, but as one moves up the ladder to chemistry, then biology, then physiology, then psychology, and on to economics and sociology—at each level, new kinds of causes enter the picture."  The increasing complexity as one moves up that ladder has important implications in the policy arena.  As someone said:
It just goes to show that it's a lot easier to pull off impressive feats of rocket engineering than social engineering.  And yet the saying is "it's not rocket science" when implying something isn't all that difficult. Shouldn't it be, "It's not social science?" 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Congrats to India

India now has a satellite orbiting Mars:
India put a satellite into Mars orbit early Wednesday, the only nation to have done so on a maiden voyage and the first in Asia to reach the red planet.
 And unbelievably inexpensively too!
Mangalyaan, Hindi for Mars craft, cost $74 million ... [Prime Minister] Modi boasted in June that India had spent less than Hollywood had on producing the film “Gravity” to reach the red planet.
A second cost comparison is that $74 million could buy you (or them) about 50 cruise missiles.  The per mile cost is stunningly inexpensive; as Tyler Cowen points out, the mission was cheaper per mile than a cab ride in Delhi.

It just goes to show that it's a lot easier to pull off impressive feats of rocket engineering than social engineering.  And yet the saying is "it's not rocket science" when implying something isn't all that difficult. Shouldn't it be, "It's not social science?"

Sunday, October 05, 2014

Brouhaha in a Bottle

As is not atypical for me, I'm going to rush in where angels fear to tread and write about the somewhat recent uproar over a Forbes column by Bill Frezza titled "Drunk Female Guests Are The Gravest Threat To Fraternities."  I'd love to provide a link to the article, but I can't. Why?  Because shortly after it appeared, "[t]he column was almost immediately jerked from the site, and Frezza, who has written for Forbes since 2011, was summarily fired."  So the best I can do is provide a link to a different site that has apparently kept Frezza's column's contents around in order to criticize it.

I'm writing about this because Frezza is "president of the alumni house corporation of [his] MIT fraternity" and since I went to MIT and was in a fraternity (the coolest one ever, of course!), the topic is somewhat near and dear to my heart.

Frezza's title is clearly not the most politically correct thing ever written.  It's also not quite accurate. The gravest threat to fraternities is the problem that they are comprised of young, adult(ish) males who, more than occasionally, do really, really stupid things, as they have since the emergence of our species (and probably long before).  However, that problem can only be fixed by either eliminating fraternities, which would just mean the young males would just go elsewhere to be stupid, or eliminating males entirely, which might be bad for the species.

Frezza may, however, have correctly identified drunken females as a threat to fraternities, even if not the primary threat.  For example,
A recent incident at MIT’s Lambda Chi Alpha chapter in which a drunk female student apparently danced her way out of a window has, once again, resulted in a clamp-down on all fraternity parties.
Frezza's advice is, unsurprisingly, very, very fraternity-centric. After all, that's his job.  His advice includes things like:

  • Don't let male or female drunks into a party.
  • If someone at a party seems drunk and out-of-control, ask them to leave, pay for a cab to take them home, and if they refuse to leave, call the campus police to escort them away.
  • "Never, ever take a drunk female guest to your bedroom."
  • "Do not let a drunk brother take a drunk female to his bedroom."
Sounds like sound advice to me.  In fact, when I read his piece, I didn't notice any advice that I wouldn't advise my old frat to follow as well.

However, it didn't sound like sound advice to the folks who complained to Forbes and caused Frezza to be fired. For example, Austin Hess, the editor of MIT's student newspaper, The Tech, minced no words in responding:
Frezza’s sentiments are certainly not original — thinly veiled victim blaming is pervasive from students to politicians and sadly common among both men and women. What is far more troubling, however, is that he presents almost without pretense the fact that he cares far more about preventing the dissolution of his fraternity than preventing whatever sort of accident or incident that would cause such an outcome. [...]
An actual line: “Although we were once reprimanded for turning away a drunk female student who ultimately required an ambulance when she passed out on our sidewalk, it would have gone a lot worse for us had she collapsed inside.”
Portraying it this way, it seems that Austin also doesn't much care about "preventing whatever sort of accident or incident that would cause such an outcome."  Clearly he should be calling for changing the rules to NOT screw the fraternity if a drunken woman passes out on the premises since that would likely be better than her passing out on the street.  Then she wouldn't have been turned away.
I am somewhat glad the piece was published, after all, because it provides a grotesque caricature of the entrenched proponents of sexism more poignantly than any Onion article.
To me, the sentence above provides a grotesque caricature of "right thinking" and therefore, non-thinking, people.
But the fact that Frezza ever became the alumni president of Chi Phi begs troubling questions. 
Is Frezza’s concern for preventing suspension over preventing rape or fatal accidents shared by others in the MIT fraternity system?
Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. To me, Frezza's advice is very, very focused on preventing rape, sexual assault, unwanted advances, regret the morning after, and so forth. Let me repeat his advice: don't let drunks in, kick out-of-control drunk people out, don't take drunk girls to your room, don't let drunk brothers take girls to their rooms. Prevent rape, prevent suspension. Pretty straightforward.

Now let's backtrack and consider the title of The Tech article: "Can fraternities be feminist?"
Is it unreasonable to hope that fraternities adopt a strong stance — internally and externally — in favor of feminism? Not merely in platitudes and public statements, but in real, measurable actions?
Yes, it's very unreasonable, in my opinion. Organizations have primary missions and need to focus on those and leave other missions to their individual members and other organizations.  For example, the NRA doesn't take in homeless cats, the Bonsai Club doesn't host race car rallies, the Harry Potter Club doesn't maintain a fleet of yachts, etc. And none of those organizations are feminist either, though many of their individual members probably are. It is unreasonable for one of a fraternity's primary missions to be a feminist organization. Just keeping their members safe, doing well in school, and out of trouble is more than a sufficiently large agenda for fraternities.

I'm also lost as to which parts of Frezza's advice are sexist anyway? Why is worrying about possible events that may well cause suspension and dissolution of a fraternity sexist? Why is it bad or sexist to not take drunk girls to your room?  Why is it bad or sexist to not let drunks in the door (the message seems clear to me - you want to come to our party? Then don't come drunk - and that's a very positive message)? Why is it bad or sexist for an organization to make survival a top priority. Why is it the job of a fraternity to ensure that other people don't get drunk when not on its premises? Why is it the job of a fraternity to take care of people who got drunk illegally not on its premises? Why doesn't the author of The Tech article drive around in his car on weekend nights looking for drunken students in order to rescue them?  Why isn't it his job?

I have so many questions that my head is spinning (and no, I'm not drunk). I've never been so confused as I am by the reactions to Frezza and his article.

Wednesday, October 01, 2014

Ultimate Insurance

There have been recent breaches of White House security and the New York Times notes that:
...even opposition lawmakers who have spent the last six years fighting his every initiative have expressed deep worry for his security.
As an example of such an opposition lawmaker:
“The American people want to know: Is the president safe?” Representative Darrell Issa of California, the Republican committee chairman who has made it his mission to investigate all sorts of Obama administration missteps, solemnly intoned as he opened a hearing into the lapses on Tuesday.
The Times article's author seems to find it unlikely that the feelings are genuine: would not be all that surprising if Mr. Obama were a little wary of all the professed sympathy.
But whether or not you think Republicans would normally secretly (or overtly) wish for the President to be assassinated, you have to remember that Obama has something no liberal president has ever had, an insurance policy so powerful and so comprehensive, that no sane person (and/or Republican) would ever consider, even for a nanosecond, intentionally killing Obama.  And that something can be summed up in one word: Biden.

Monday, September 29, 2014

There is a Great Deal of Rot in a County

That the police shooting in Ferguson sparked riots isn't news to anyone.

I use the term "sparked" advisedly. Regardless of the facts of the shooting, which no one other than Officer Wilson knows for sure, it only brought to a boil black anger that had been long simmering.

For good reasons, it seems.

The Washington Post's Radley Balko filed an extensive story in the Washington Post about how many city governments were, and largely still are, victimizing their citizens.

Some quotes:

There are 90 municipalities in St. Louis County, and more in the surrounding counties. All but a few have their own police force, mayor, city manager and town council, and 81 have their own municipal court.

Some of the towns in St. Louis County can derive 40 percent or more of their annual revenue from the petty fines and fees collected by their municipal courts.

Local officials, scholars, and activists say that whatever happened between Brown and Wilson, St. Louis County’s unique political geography, heightened class-consciousness, and the regrettable history that created both have made the St. Louis suburbs especially prone to a Ferguson-like eruption.

Sales taxes are the primary source of revenue in most St. Louis County municipalities. Wealthier areas naturally see more retail sales, so the more affluent towns tend to be less reliant on municipal courts to generate revenue. In recent years a state pool was established to distribute sales taxes more evenly, but existing towns were permitted to opt out. Most did, of course. Perversely, this means that the collection of poorer towns stacked up along the east-west byways are far more reliant on municipal court revenues. That means they face much stronger incentives to squeeze their residents with fines, despite the fact that the residents of these towns are the people who are least likely to have the money to pay those fines, the least likely to have an attorney to fight the fines on their behalf, and for whom the consequences of failing to pay the fines can be the most damaging.

Clearly, there are certain things that need government: laws and their enforcement chief among them. Yet St. Louis county seems to be laced with town governments that have gone well beyond the necessary to the parasitic.

How did this come to be?

[Note: what follows is my summary of Balko's writing]

White flight, enforced first by race-restrictive deeds, then segregation, real estate pacts, and finally zoning laws. To keep blacks out, subdivisions incorporate themselves into towns, then these towns zoned themselves as R-1, barring construction of multi-unit public and low income housing.

St Louis county became a hop-scotch of whites building new subdivisions, zoning them into towns, and blacks eventually moving in, and whites out to build new subdivisions.

Consequently, there is a proliferation of town government overhead, each one of which is supported largely, particularly in poorer towns, by property taxes. So, in order to support the metastasis of bureaucracy, the town governments became parasitic: where property and sales taxes weren't sufficient, they turned to, essentially, extortionate legal impositions.

In the towns along the interstate and east-west highways, where blacks have been a majority for a longer period of time, they have much more representation in city government. But these are the same parts of the county where … there are just too many towns, too many municipal governments, too many municipal employees, and not enough revenue to support them. It doesn’t seem to matter whether those employees are black or white, they’re a legacy of segregation and structural racism, so they’re still reliant on extracting fines and fees from their residents in order to function. If anything, they’re more reliant on those fees, since there isn’t enough wealth to generate sufficient revenue from property and sales taxes.

The municipal parasitism, particularly in poorer communities, creates self-reinforcing cycles of fines upon fines; imposition upon imposition.

“There are incidents of police brutality here, like anywhere else,” says Harvey [a lawyer representing poor defendants]. “But the anger in Ferguson was driven by something much more common and pervasive. It’s the day to day harassment and degradation that this system creates.”

Balko's story has, for my tastes, too many emotive personal stories, and rather ignores that some of the things these people were arrested for were, by any measure, crimes: there are reasons for laws prohibiting driving unlicensed, unregistered, and uninsured.

That aside, I was getting pretty angry myself by the end of the article. No doubt, these people made poor decisions. Fine. But when municipalities pile on like they have, concerned far more with their own perpetuation than worried about leeching their citizens, then hostility shouldn't come as a surprise.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Stop the Insanity

A few weeks ago I did a first rate job of lacerating one of my fingers on a broken piece of glass. Since, absent direct pressure, the thing wouldn't stop leaking at a rather dismaying rate, there was nothing for it but the ER.

Over the course of three hours, a nurse stared at it appreciatively for a few seconds. A med tech spent a few minutes setting up a tray of what was mostly clearly identifiable as medical paraphernalia; the rest like it belonged at a quilting contest. An actual doc took fifteen minutes to douse the wound with mercurochrome, which is exactly as painful as it sounds; jabbing the area with a novocaine loaded hypodermic, which made me forget about the mercurochrome; then putting in four stitches, one of which was outside the novocaine's sphere of influence, but did have the benefit of making me forget about the mercurochrome and the hypodermic.

Got the bill last week: $1,115.

YGBSM. There is no way the cost of goods and services my accidental experiment in self-mutilation got anywhere close to that. If the doc's cost of employment was $500 per hour, with the nurse and the tech coming in at $100 each, then the services cost at a half hour total time was $350. I'll round it up to $500. In any sane world, the thread, novocaine, mercurochrome, and that wrist band thing would come to approximately chump change.

Where the hel* is the rest of it going?

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Long Winded Manual

I've often criticized the massively long bits of legislation like Obamacare that exceeded 2,000 pages and made it so "[w]e have to pass the bill so that you can find out what is in it."

But it turns out the Obamacare documents are puny relative to a reference manual I've recently had the opportunity (misfortune?) to encounter.  For one of our robot projects, we're using a small inexpensive Single Board Computer (SBC) called the BeagleBone Black, which retails for about $50.  On the BeagleBone Black, the processor is the Texas Instruments AM3358 Sitara System on a Chip (SOC) which retails for a little over $10.

The AM335x Sitara™ Processors Technical Reference Manual for this $10 chip is a whopping 4,966 pages!  I cringe to consider how long the manual for a $500 Intel chip is these days.  I do wonder, if like Obamacare, they had to build the chip to see what was in it!

The reason I was engaged in this light reading was that I was trying to figure out how to set the duty-cycle on the PWM subsystems and right there on page 2,329 was the information I needed:
The value in the active CMPA register is continuously compared to the time-base counter (TBCNT).
When the values are equal, the counter-compare module generates a "time-base counter equal to counter compare A" event.
This event is sent to the action-qualifier where it is qualified and converted it into one or more actions.
Unfortunately, I didn't realize that was what I was looking for as the term "duty-cycle" doesn't appear anywhere.  So I gave up trying to decipher the multi-thousand page manual and instead, I downloaded the source for the linux operating system and in /arm-kernel/linux-dev/KERNEL/drivers/pwm/pwm-tiehrpwm.c there appeared something much easier to understand:

 if (pwm->hwpwm == 1)
  /* Channel 1 configured with compare B register */
  cmp_reg = CMPB;
  /* Channel 0 configured with compare A register */
  cmp_reg = CMPA;

 ehrpwm_write(pc->mmio_base, cmp_reg, duty_cycles);

It's so simple! Just write duty_cycles to cmp_reg, which is either CMPA or CMPB depending on which channel you want to control.  A quick search showed that CMPA has an offset of 12 (hex) and voila, I had all the information I needed!  How exciting! (The sad part is that I really do find that exciting; perhaps you now understand why I so rarely write about technical topics).

I guess that's why I consider English to be my second language, with C being my native tongue, as it's easier for me to search through many tens of thousands of lines of code than to read a handful of pages in a manual to figure something out.  C (and math) are so wonderfully precise while English is mostly gobbledygook as far as I can tell.

Back to the processor. The reason the manual is so long is that the Sitara chip has a lot of random stuff. For example, I imagine that the PWM subsystem I'm using would qualify as random stuff to most people.  The chip has 3 such subsystems to control 3 motors and in this project I'm working on, it coincidentally turns out that I need to control 3 motors.  What are the odds of that?

The chip has all this stuff, but you can only access a fraction of the stuff at any given time.  For example, you can either access the PWM stuff or you can hook up a monitor, but not both.  So most normal people can use this board as an everyday Linux computer (Linux comes pre-installed) with their monitor, keyboard and mouse connected and I can control motors but we can't do both.  No matter what, a large part of any given chip remains unused.

All those logic gates sitting idle.  I find that painful.  A logic gate is a terrible thing to waste!

Yet I can see how it makes sense.  By throwing everything but the kitchen sink onto this chip, they make it so versatile that a lot of people can use it for a lot of different things and that pushes the manufacturing volumes up which pushes the cost down. $50 for a Gigahertz Linux system is pretty good. Right?

The answer is: No

A few months ago I rubbished the NYT's Claire Cain Miller for some rather uncritical #WarOnWymyn reporting. There have been several opportunities since, because the NYT is bound and determined to apply the same sort of objective rigor to the #WarOnWymyn they have made their hallmark in Globa … Climate Cha … Disruption.

But fair is fair, and I must note she has hit on an interesting question: Is owning overrated?

Things that you can now rent instead of buying: a power drill, a song, a tent, an office for an hour, a Prada handbag, a wedding dress, a painting, a dog, your neighbor’s car, a drone.

This new way of consuming — call it the Netflix economy — is being built by web start-ups that either rent items themselves or serve as middlemen, connecting people who want something with people who own it. They are a growing corner of the broader sharing economy, in which people rent out rooms in their homes on Airbnb or drive people in their cars with Uber or Lyft. Soon, tech entrepreneurs and investors say, we’ll be able to rent much of what we always thought we must own.

I'm betting some New York City provincialism is sneaking in there, but perhaps she is on to something. For things that are relatively costly, but have a low utilization rate, and the need for which is predictable, that sounds like making sense. Particularly when aggregators remove the research overhead required to find what's out there. After all, that is one of the primary benefits stores bring with them: they, too, aggregate. The downside, of course, is the paying full freight for something rarely used.

Tools are a good example. Ten years ago I built a deck. I bought a power planer I have used once since. As part of the Hand-Me-Down project, I bought a vacuum pump and manifold gauge set to diagnose the air conditioner.

I failed, by the way. Far smarter to have rented these tools than to have bought them. Along with a bucket-o'-clues.

Other things, not so much. Outside dense cities, where car ownership really can be occasional, Uber and Lyft are just taxi companies by a different name. The rental market for aspirational fashions beyond the self-obsessed blue enclaves isn't as robust as it might appear from New York.

Still, at first glance, renting in lieu of ownership might be an economic game changer. We wouldn't need so much consumption, which means the earth could start to heal, and the rise of the seas slow.

This is, after all, an NYT article.

Perhaps not, though. Ms. Miller has forgotten that there already is a rental market for many things — including the AC tools I bought. Which I can, in yet another now familiar arrangement, put into the serial rental market.

EBay. You may have heard of it.

My guess: companies like Uber and AirBnB are alternative ways of doing the what we have long done, whose effect will be to greatly expand supply while not changing amount. RenttheRunway can put women into designer dresses and accessories for one-off occasions, but only in specific locales.

Beyond that: nothing.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Funniest Amazon Review I've Ever Read

This one has gone viral (my wife saw it on facebook and forwarded it to me) so you may have seen it already.  But if you haven't, it's pretty funny.

The product is Veet for Men, the reviewer is A. Chappel, and his review is titled "A warning from across the pond..." It will very likely still be the "most helpful" review.


Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Say What?

I remain skeptical regarding an article linked by Instapundit a few weeks back titled "When Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men." The article states:
Yet today, the idea that men are more interested in sex than women is so pervasive that it seems almost unremarkable.
The article argues that this view is relatively recent and completely unfounded in the past.  I don't think I believe it.

But then I was thinking about it a little bit.  Perhaps it's modern day dress and hygiene that makes all the difference.  My female readers can't answer this, but for the rest of you, here's the question: which environment would make you more interested in sex?  One where all the women haven't bathed in, well, ever, and are dressed in clothing from biblical through puritan times as in the images below...

... or women in more revealing modern western dress as in the examples below?

Note that I could've picked much more provocative images, but the ones above are pretty typical for what I see wandering around San Diego.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Nice show you got here. Shame if something was to happen to it.

Trigger warning: The following contains graphic sexist, racist, and homoist slurs and violence. Non-progressives may react with dismay, disgust, and anger. Progressives, faced with an opportunity to learn about real slurs will react with a mental dial tone.

Note: obscenities redacted.

'Top Chef' Host Padma Laks and Crew Flambéed by Boston Teamsters

The Teamsters picketers were already mad. By the time Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi’s car pulled up to the Steel & Rye restaurant in the picturesque New England town of Milton just outside Boston, one of them ran up to her car and screamed, “We’re gonna bash that pretty face in, you [] whore!"

Angry that the show had not signed a Teamsters contract and that the production hired local PA’s to drive cast and crew vehicles, the dozen or so picketers from Boston’s Teamsters Local 25 kept at it for hours, raining down racist, sexist and homophobic threats and slurs as staffers came to and left the set that summer day. Jenn Levy, Bravo’s SVP Production, wasn’t spared. Arriving at the restaurant in her black SUV, she soon found herself running a gauntlet of vitriol. “She got out of her car in front of the location and quickly ran through the picket line,” a source said. “They were yelling, ‘You bitch! You slut! We’re gonna get you!’ It went on like that all day.

“As any employee of our show walked on or off set, the picketers verbally attacked us, calling the gays ‘fags,’ the blacks ‘niggers’ and most of the women ‘sluts and whores,’ ” the crewmember said. “It got worse as the day went on. They chased us down the sidewalk when we had to run from one end of the location to the next in the middle of our busy work day. They threatened to kill us, beat us, and said that they would find us and force us out of the city"

Remember to look for that Union Label.

Or else.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

That Sucking Sound is Your Brain on Journalism

I have a fair amount of expertise in a narrow field. Almost without exception, when I read a newspaper story related to aviation — typically tin-kicking — I come away knowing less than I did when I started. Okay, that's not exactly right. More accurately, if I replaced what I knew with what the story told me, then I would know less. And not just less, but opposite. I would replace knowledge with negative knowledge.

Michael Crichton called this the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect. (Presumably, this has some connection to Murray Gell-Mann, but for the life of me, I don't know what it is.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect works as follows. You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well. In Murray’s case, physics. In mine, show business. You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward — reversing cause and effect. I call these the “wet streets cause rain” stories. Paper’s full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story-and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read with renewed interest as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about far-off Palestine than it was about the story you just read. You turn the page, and forget what you know.

The NYT Op-Ed page perpetually gives me G-M Amnesia. Sometimes I can fight it. I know in advance that Krugman, for one notorious instance, routinely abuses reality. I dislearn less by, instead of reading him, staring slack jawed at lolcatz videos.

Other times, though, it is harder. Having been to South America all of twice, I'm very superficially aware of societies that are very different from the US, and they have some stark problems that the US doesn't.

All on account of, no doubt, reasons.

One problem that seems to be more or less endemic south of the Rio Grande is the truly jarring juxtaposition of sumptuous wealth with grinding poverty. In Buenos Aires a scarcely more than a mile is sufficient to make the journey from first world opulence to hopeless third world deprivation*. Of course, similar trips are possible in the US. Three miles is sufficient traverse the chasm between Grosse Pointe and Detroit.

The New York Times recently carried an Op-Ed about Brazil's unaffordable homes. In it, I learned prices in São Paolo have skyrocketed over the last half dozen years, to the point where "… a 970-square-foot apartment here costs the equivalent of 16 years of an average family’s total income. By comparison, this cost-to-income ratio is eight in New York, 6.9 in Berlin and only three in Chicago." Where purchase costs go, rents inevitably follow: those earning the minimum wage spend nearly all of it renting a Dantean shack in a seventh level favela.

Which can only mean one thing: Brazil has a severe housing shortage. (While that short drive from Grosse Pointe to Detroit is shocking enough, it is worth noting that at least no one is living in those Detroit tumbledowns, and they are the exact opposite of expensive.)

It’s no wonder we’re the country of favelas, urban slums built by desperate people using poor materials such as cardboard and tin. They pop up in areas without basic infrastructure or sanitation, and are sometimes vulnerable to landslides, floods and fires.

In early 2009, the government took note and began a program called Minha Casa, Minha Vida (My House, My Life). The public-private partnership aimed to reduce [the housing shortage] by facilitating credit and financing construction.

But from the beginning, it favored families that earned three times the minimum wage or more. As of 2012, after the first and second stages of the program, only 40 to 45 percent of all contracts were assigned to the poorest families. The program appeared to be more about improving the economy than helping the poor. Many critics also complained about the quality of the 344-square-foot houses destined for the poorest, which were built in remote areas without adequate infrastructure.

Highlighting mine, to indicate likely onset of G-M Amnesia.

Now as if all of this isn't bad enough, the housing industry is bound and determined to scotch any reforms because it has "… deep interests in sustaining the old urbanization model marked by segregation and inequality." What those interests might be, or why …?

[One of the strongest groups fighting these issues is the Homeless Workers Movement, which also] advocates the occupation of abandoned buildings or areas that are kept vacant by real estate companies (some of them bankrupt); the resistance of forced evictions; and the government expropriation of housing for, as written in our Constitution, “public necessity.” Its leaders also quote our Constitution when saying that “property shall observe its social function,” and that the economic order is “intended to ensure everyone a life with dignity, in accordance with the dictates of social justice.”

Unfortunately for the author, the entire rest of this Op-Ed piece drives home the contradictory point that saying so doesn't make it so. Therein lies a whiff of wet streets causing rain. But not nearly as much as the conclusory paragraph:

[The Homeless Workers Movement] claims that adequate housing is a human right and shouldn’t be ruled by market logic alone. That argument is convincing, especially when you look at the numbers: There are more than six million vacant housing units in Brazil — more than enough to cover our shortage.

Prior to reading this, I knew of, but nothing about favelas. Now, I'll bet I know even less.

*With time to kill in China, I thought I would finish this. Every time I come here, I'm appalled at how gooned up the internet is, and convinced it can't get any worse. Wrongo, wonderwings. Even getting something so simple as a map of Detroit, to fill a place name gap that, no doubt, came from reading too much Krugman, is impossible to get.

Thomas Friedman, here is a pro-tip: China's throttling the webz does not bode well for your collectivist fascinations.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Physics, and a Stroke of Luck

This morning I flew from Paris to Newark. Thanks to physics, I should probably change the spelling to "moooooooooooorrrrrrrrrrrrnnnnnnnnnnniiiiiinnnnnnnngggggggggg".

At that latitude, about 47 degrees north, the airplane's angular velocity (number of degrees longitude crossed per unit of time) is very close to the earth's angular velocity, but in the opposite direction.

One consequence is the apparent fixing of the sun in the sky. In this case, we had an early sunrise that lasted for seven hours.

Another consequence, if you time it just right, is you get to see the International Space Station.


Friday, July 25, 2014


And now for something completely different.

The man-child will be turning 20 in a couple months. So I started thinking about what he might like in the way of a birthday present. Since I am a mere guy, my gift ideas are typically late-to-need, and frequently rubbish.

But this time even my dodgy skills were sufficient to grasp the obvious: a car.

He goes to a large college, so getting out to do even simple errands like food shopping are a multi-hour chore involving schlepping groceries on public transport.

And dating. Feminism be damned, there are at least two things young women expect: the guy will drive, and he will be taller. At just a tick shy of six feet and still growing, my son has the latter knocked, but comes up short in the former.

As it happens, deciding on which was just as easy as what: a BMW.

Woah, Piketty fans. Calm down. You bangers on the inequality drum, you reflexive looters, give it a rest for a second.

Born in 1991, it is old enough to drink, which would bring a whole new meaning to DUI. TOSWIPIAW and I bought it before we got married. Both critters came home from the hospital in it. With more than 220,000 miles on the clock, it has traveled nearly the equivalent of going around the world nine times.

This thing is seriously old.

Since it is twice the age of the median US car it is clearly a rare survivor; the vast majority of its peers have long since gone to the knacker's yard. For those that remain, many, perhaps most, have emotionally attached owners.

I'm not one. Really. No, really.

Afflicted with a Mittyesque notion of being, except for profound deficits in bravery and talent, a Grand Prix race car driver, I have always been drawn to cars with sporting pretensions. And possessing a modicum of mechanical aptitude has meant I could make tolerable a series of cars that others with more sense would shy away from. In order, starting when I was in college: MGA, Porsche 911, Alpha Romeo, Mazda RX-7, Triumph TR-6, and another 911.

Average age when they fell into my grease stained mitts, 13 years. I kept most for six to 12 years (I held on to the Alfa for only six months; long enough to have my fun, dumping it before it caught fire.). The second 911 was 27 when I sold it in 2007. The reason in each case was clear: I was various combinations of unable and unwilling to pay for anything newer. (BTW, each was a daily driver.)

So this car, a 1992 325i, the first new car I, 37 at the time, had ever owned, is either another example of thrift, or further manifestation of illness. Also, and I'm not sure which theory this supports most, underneath its commonplace sedan exterior it is seriously fast, with razor sharp handling, brilliant brakes, rear wheel drive, and a manual transmission.

As if that isn't enough for a mere car, it also bears lessons in economics and social inequality. And road trip.

A car, like most material goods, is a wasting asset. Just driving one off the lot will take 10% off its resale value. Within a half dozen years, no matter how delicately driven and meticulously maintained, it will be worth about a third of the gaping hole buying the thing left in your wallet. This is why, in the mere terms of dollars and cents, it saves much more of both to buy a 2-3 yr old car; or, if one must buy new, to keep the thing a bloody long time.

Unfortunately, no matter how pristine even the most fastidious owner keeps a car, its market value will inevitably decline below the cost of a major repair. The critical problem here is that an old car with, say, a newly rebuilt engine is worth scarcely anything more than the same car with an old, but still functioning, engine. Spending $4,000 on rejuvenating that mechanical festival of suck-squeeze-bang-blow will be no help at all should you be rear ended by someone finding out they cannot, in fact, successfully juggle texting and driving. The imprudent juggler's insurance company will pay out the market value of the car, and not a dime for the engine.

And that is in addition to the more obvious accumulation of failures as a car ages. As the miles and years accumulate, decrepitude and increasing unreliability make the sum of remaining market value and ongoing repair costs better spent on selling or knackering the thing and replacing it with something newer.

The market obviously believes this optimum tradeoff to be at 11.4 years, hence the current median age for cars.

So how does keeping a car twice as old make any sense at all?

Without some backstory, it doesn't. When the car was seven years old, a mere child, I heard about premature water pump failures. Uncharacteristically and unfathomably, I didn't jump all over replacing it. I think I convinced myself the pump would give signs of impending failure.

It did. Just like an earthquake.

I paid the price, first with my very annoyed wife stuck on the side of the road. Towing: $60. Water pump: $35. Unfortunately, that isn't the end of it. Beknownst to me, the failure was fairly violent. The bearing had seized, bending the housing, shattering the impeller, derailing the drive belt and running the fan into the radiator. Far less obvious, a piece of the shattered impeller found its way into a water passage, insidiously causing uneven heating between the #2 and #3 cylinders, making them ever so slightly oval. Two years later, at 155,000 miles, and at least 75,000 miles before what should have been its time, the engine was junk. Since cars are designed to last about as long as their most costly component, at the time it still made sense to replace the engine. However, doing so threw a monkey wrench into the car's lifecycle.

Moreover, aside from big ticket items, I almost never have to pay a mechanic. That cuts maintenance costs by more than half. Add to that a reasonably finely tuned eye and ear for things getting dodgy, and a pilot's deeply ingrained preference, reinforced by experience, to replace things before they fail, this car reached its 22nd birthday in unusually good fettle. It wasn't an eyesore, had no accumulation of aggravating gremlins, and depreciation was a done deal.

With the critters gone at school, we had more cars than drivers at home. Rather than sell one just to buy another, I decided to give my son the statistical outlier. Makes sense, right?

Ummmmm, perhaps not.

Being blessed with a spacious garage, a reasonably extensive array of tools, and decades of learning from mistakes, I can take things as they come. However, since my son has none of those things, and goes to school 2200 driving miles from home (a great many bringing "trackless" to "wilderness"), I had to take a rather more comprehensive approach.

Because the engine in these cars has a life expectancy of about 230,000 miles, the rest of the car is designed with that in mind. Among other things, that includes suspension bits that most people never even think about: the bushings and ball joints separating modern cars' ride and handling from that of Conestoga wagons. Beyond that, the car's air conditioning had quit working several years ago. That verges on irrelevance up here in Alaska, but practically constitutes a life support system in eastern Washington, where temps are routinely in the high double digits from late spring to early fall.

Almost time to start setting money on fire.

Right about the point where we discover we need new half-shafts. Add 30% to project cost.

The parts list came to $3500. Brakes, struts, shocks, control arms, tie rods, unanticipated drive shafts, bushing sets, and an AC compressor (just to name the big chunks) have a way of adding up. Onto that monetary bonfire that would leave even Congress in awe, toss another $2500 for persuading professionals to dedicate their time, expertise and specialty tools to do things like pressing old bushings and bearings out and new ones in, and a four wheel alignment after it was all said and done.

Back together. All it took was dodgy economics and lavish swearing.

So how does putting $6,000 into a car worth only $3,000 to begin with make any sense at all, unless prefixed with "non"?

Especially since I have no affection for the thing. Really, I don't.

In pure monetary terms, it is looking stupid-ish. For $9000, there is a decent array of cars with half the mileage to be had. All gutless, mushy, slush box, front-wheel drive econoboxes, to be sure. Against that, all the running gear on this near-antique is now newer than than the econobox alternative. And it's a known quantity. So there's that.

But still, at best the margin is razor thin, and only a fool ignores loss risk. To balance the books, the car has to last 42,000 more miles, and have nothing more than normal operating and maintenance costs along the way. Why? That yields depreciation of 15 cents per mile, which is what it had going in.

Of course, mere dollars and cents are rarely the total measure of economic decisions. The joy of working with my son on an extensive and complex task is impossible to measure. And the knowledge he gained will save him buckets o' bux along the way.

So, (Dodgy Economic Decision) + (Unquantifiable Rationalizations) = TOTAL WIN!

Funny, that's how progressive math works. Start with the desired answer, and mathify as required.

Tying economics into car maintenance is obvious. But how can it possibly bear upon family inequality? That seems an awful lot to ask of wrenches, screwdrivers, and the occasional sledge hammer.

Never mind the money, this project took three solid weeks of physical and mental labor. As well equipped as my garage is by amateur standards, I don't have a lift. Jack stands give enough clearance to work underneath, but no more. Repeatedly getting off the floor, then right back onto it with yet another right tool this time amounts to a day long workout. Hauling on wrenches and twisting screwdrivers all day gives hands every reason they need to ache all night. Sussing a series of unfamiliar mechanical tasks left my brain as fatigued at the end of the day as my body was.

All on something I was going to give away.

There were some ulterior motives here, of course. Besides a chance to teach my son some of the manly arts, there was the pleasure I felt in his pride at making his own, substantial, contributions to the project. More importantly, he now has skin in this game: this car wasn't just something handed to him; rather, it contains a substantial amount of his own labor and ingenuity. As a young man, thoughts of his own mortality rarely, if ever, intrude upon his cortex. However, the thought of rendering pointless all his work just might.

Obviously, this isn't the sort of thing I'd do for just anybody. Certainly not for neighbors, or even very good friends. And while I thankfully don't have the first hand experience, I doubt very much I would do it for a stepson, or even perhaps my own son if I wasn't married to his mother.

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray made the case that America is suffering a moral decline encouraged by intellectual elites, but primarily affecting the less well off. The successful espouse, but do not themselves practice, social libertarianism. In contrast, the poor practice what the successful merely preach.

The consequence in microcosm is this car project. Through it, and other less ambitious examples over the years, my son has a huge head start. Compared to the children of single or remarried mothers, he has received a far more extensive ongoing education in self-discipline, planning, work, pride in a job well done, and an introduction to some very valuable skills that very, very few women alone can provide. Moreover, he knows he got all that because he very specifically matters enough for someone else to make the investment. This is not Julia's World.

The inequality that matters isn't merely, or even mostly, that of income and wealth. Rather, it is the inequality that comes about from the presence, or absence, of things which can't be measured monetarily. The former are ephemeral; the latter gifts that keep giving. To the extent US society is bifurcating economically, it is also doing so culturally. I was brought up by a single mother, and didn't have a dad to teach me what my son takes for granted. However, in the 1960s, single mothers were still a relative rarity, surrounded by intact families. Proximity enabled learning through osmosis: most of my friends had dads in the house.

Two generations later, it looks as if we are running a real risk of "coming apart". Entire zip codes have scarcely an intact family to be found, which means essentially no involved dads to hand down those manly arts. Family advantages my son didn't earn make him a social capital plutocrat. Family disadvantages others didn't deserve make them social capital poor. That's not "fair." Unfortunately, it is hard to think of anything more constructive to do in the face of that unfairness than throwing one's hands up in despair.

And that can mean only one thing: road trip.

Having dismantled and, ideally, reassembled all the bits that hold the car off the ground, and other things besides, it was time to shift the thing from Alaska to Spokane.

Where trackless meets wilderness.

Twenty-three hundred some-odd miles of shifting, to be sort of exact.

A few words about maps. We are jiggy with technology. I have an iPad and iPhone; the man-child a Samsung Imitator S3. That said, when it comes to a road trip, I'll take a good paper map any day over the digital version. When trackless meets wilderness, the landscape isn't exactly chock-a-block with cell towers, so forget about updating. Screens are hard to read during the day. And since a mobile screen is so much smaller than a map, it is like looking at the world through a soda straw.

Despite not having a map, we were pretty certain we weren't in Kansas.

Unfortunately, sometimes we ran into heavy traffic.

Mostly not, though.

Coincidentally, my son and I drove out of Alaska seven years to the day after first setting foot there. Some things have changed.

When I was a kid, getting driven across country on the actual Route 66, whenever we crossed into another state, I looked for the line the map said should be on the ground. Well, imagine that, here it is. (In the bottom picture, the state line is carved out of the forest all the way to the horizon.)

This is an aerial view of part of our journey (right about where the distance tag is in the map above). No cell phone towers, service stations, cars, towns, people. Instead, nothing but miles and miles of miles and miles and a 22-year old car. What could possibly go wrong?

Midway through the third day, we were reaching southern Canada, which stops being quite so devoid of cell service, service stations, cars, etc. We saw a sign indicating that a road looking like being much less traveled than the one we were on ended up where we wanted to go. Despite not having a map, on the spur of the moment, and spurning mapquest's directions, we took it.

Great choice, as it turned out. Considering the amount of traffic it was an incongruously well paved road winding through the mountains. It was a beautiful drive, open enough to go fast, yet winding enough to give our new brakes and suspension a workout.

As we started on this road, I noticed a car well behind. Despite our brisk pace, it was catching up. Hmmmm. Can't have that. So I went faster. And it kept catching up. And I went a faster. And it still kept catching up. And I went a little faster, then finally ran out of stones. And it still kept catching up, until it got close enough for me to suss the competition. What I assumed had to be a guy driving sports car turned out to be some late model Chevy. With a bike on top. And a blonde behind the wheel. I had a sudden flashback to my childhood.

Unfortunately, as with all good things, this road trip came to an end. Three days of scenery veering between spectacular and merely beautiful, followed by another half day through the wide open countryside of northern Washington took us to Spokane International Airport, and my flight home.

More than the road trip ended there. When my son dropped me at the curb, he said, simply, "Dad, thanks for everything", before sliding back into the car and driving off. That, right there, was the moment his childhood ended.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hey Skipper hits the Blogging Big Time

Granted, not very hard or noticeably, but still.

From today's Best of the Web (regrettably, behind a paywall), courtesy of your humble and obedient servant:

Two Magazines in One!

"Mangroves are on the march. . . . From 1984 to 2011, mangrove forests doubled in size at the northern end of their Florida range. What's enticing the mangroves north? Fewer cold snaps. These days temperatures rarely dip below 25ºF, a vital threshold for the trees."--Rachel Hartigan Shea, National Geographic, July issue

"The future of goliaths is also tied up in those mangrove nurseries, where the fish live around the trees' tangled roots until they are about five years old. Coastal development, agriculture, and pollutants threaten these shallow-water habitats. The current trajectory suggests 20 percent losses of remaining U.S. mangroves in the next 50 years--devastating for young, developing goliaths, which are already reeling from unusually cold winters that took out thousands of the fish from their juvenile habitat throughout South Florida."--Jennifer Holland, National Geographic, July issue

When I read the magazine a few days ago, I got to the second mention of mangroves and did a "Wait. Huh? Wot? In the same issue? YGBSM."

For NatGeo, warmenism is a religion. They accept it so thoroughly, so uncritically, that it explains everything. As it is for the vast majority of their readership who — aside from those getting as a gift that which they would never buy — are progressives.

And as good progressives, they no doubt sneer at fundamentalist Christians, while being completely blind to their own fundamentalism: that which explains everything, explains nothing.

Criminal Parenting

A number years back, I was sitting on the grass in a park by the boardwalk along Mission Bay in San Diego. I noticed this guy sprinting past me with panic in his eyes.  He abruptly changed direction and sprinted the other way.  I began wondering what was going on so I observed the scene and began laughing my ass off.

He had two children: one, roughly four years old, was on a big-wheel tricycle and that little boy was riding as fast as he could away from dad in one direction; the other, an approximately six-year-old girl, was clearly just starting to learn how to ride a bicycle and was heading for the water screaming, "help, I don't know how to stop!!!!"  I was laughing because there was clearly no real danger in the situation, yet if I was in the dad's shoes, I probably would've been a bit panicked too.

The girl, as was easily predictable, encountered the sand before the water which gently slowed her down and she fell over into the soft sand without a scratch. The mischievous boy kept riding, but was not even a hundred yards away when the girl was safely on the ground, and visibility was probably 5 times that.  The dad easily retrieved him and everyone was safe and sound, the dad a little worse off for the wear and tear, and much of the rest of us in the park quite entertained.

That was roughly the same era as when my daughters were two and five years old.  I was at a different park with them and was right next to my two-year-old.  My five-year-old had somewhat different age-appropriate playground interests and was maybe 30 feet away on the other side of the park.  A mother came up to me and scolded me for allowing my five-year-old to be "so far away."  She said, "somebody could snatch her, it's very irresponsible of you!" Yes, that's me - Mr. Irresponsible.  I apparently should've forced both my children to play within a 3 foot radius of me at all times.  And probably bubble wrapped them while I was at it.

It was then that I became increasingly aware of how bizarrely overly concerned with safety society was and is. Unfortunately, it's become far worse in the intervening years and perfectly adequate parenting (in my opinion), is now being criminalized.  You know that it's gotten really bad when even the NY Times starts to take notice:
For instance, they might have ended up like the Connecticut mother who earned a misdemeanor for letting her 11-year-old stay in the car while she ran into a store. Or the mother charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor” after a bystander snapped a photo of her leaving her 4-year-old in a locked, windows-cracked car for five minutes on a 50 degree day. Or the Ohio father arrested in front of his family for “child endangerment” because — unbeknown to him — his 8-year-old had slipped away from a church service and ended up in a nearby Family Dollar. 
Or (I’m just getting warmed up) like the mother of four, recently widowed, who left her children — the oldest 10, the youngest 5 — at home together while she went to a community-college class; her neighbor called the police, protective services took the kids, and it took a two-year legal fight to pry them back from foster care. Or like the parents from two families who were arrested after their girls, two friends who were 5 and 7, cut through a parking lot near their houses — again without the parents’ knowledge — and were spotted by a stranger who immediately called the police. 
Or — arriving at this week’s high-profile story — like Debra Harrell, an African-American single mother in Georgia, who let her 9-year-old daughter play in a nearby park while she worked a shift at McDonald’s, and who ended up shamed on local news and jailed.
I'm going to focus on this last one a little bit as I actually sent money to a legal fund for Ms. Harrell because I'm so unhappy with her treatment:
Here are the facts: Debra Harrell works at McDonald’s in North Augusta, South Carolina. For most of the summer, her daughter had stayed there with her, playing on a laptop that Harrell had scrounged up the money to purchase. (McDonald’s has free WiFi.) Sadly, the Harrell home was robbed and the laptop stolen, so the girl asked her mother if she could be dropped off at the park to play instead. 
Harrell said yes. She gave her daughter a cell phone. The girl went to the park—a place so popular that at any given time there are about 40 kids frolicking—two days in a row. There were swings, a “splash pad,” and shade. On her third day at the park, an adult asked the girl where her mother was. At work, the daughter replied. 
The shocked adult called the cops. Authorities declared the girl “abandoned” and proceeded to arrest the mother.
I think it was pretty cool of McDonald's to let the daughter hang out and use the WiFi.  It was also, I might've thought, pretty cool that there happened to be a park less than half-a-mile from where Ms. Harrell was working that her daughter could hang out at. I might've guessed that that was what parks with playgrounds were for.  I, of course, was wrong. I don't know what they're for, but apparently not for children to hang out at.

The "shocked adult" who called the cops explained her reason for contacting the authorities: "this day and time, you never know who's around. Good, bad, it's just not safe."  Not quite true.  You do indeed know that the government is around. And that they will snatch your kid and arrest you if you let your child go to the park by herself! From Ms. Harrell's point of view, is it really better that the child was basically abducted by the government and is on her way to the foster care system where abuses of all kinds are continually documented, rather than the extraordinarily small chance that someone not from the government might take her instead?

Who's better off here?  Certainly not the daughter who now doesn't have access to her mother.  Certainly not Ms. Harrell who now has an arrest record and needs to fight felony charges in court.  Certainly not society who has to foot the bill now for jail, court costs, foster care costs, and will probably end up with a basket case to deal with when the daughter gets through the foster care system.

Nobody's saying that leaving a nine-year-old at a park every day is the best possible situation.  However, given that Ms. Harrell was a low-wage McDonald's worker with limited day care choices, it may not have been a terrible choice, and almost certainly better than the government's choice:
You needn’t approve of the parents’ actions in any of these cases to understand that dumping them into the criminal justice system is a terribly counterproductive way of addressing their mistakes. ... The mere fact that state officials were essentially micromanaging these parents’ decisions is creepy enough. That the consequences for the “wrong” decision are criminal is downright scary.
I think that the Ms. Harrell might likely agree with Ronald Reagan that:
The nine most terrifying words in the English language are "I'm from the government, and I'm here to help."
She's certainly in a terrifying situation dealing with the government now.

Monday, July 14, 2014

How Many Ethnicities Are There?

The title of this post is a trick question. It depends on the subject. If the subject is culpability in killing people, Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club claims there are only two ethnicities: poor and non-poor.

Rule 1 is that if poor are killing other poor, nobody much cares:
The deep dark secret of media coverage is that poor people killing other poor people is page 20 news.
For example, he asks, how much did you hear about the poor-on-poor conflict called the Second Congo Civil war?
The Second Congo Civil war has killed more people than any conflict since World War 2, perhaps five million people, fifty times more than the combined US casualties of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Have you ever heard of the Congo Civil War?
I had to go to Wikipedia to refresh my memory. I vaguely remember hearing a little something about it, but I don't recall it being headline news:
By 2008, the war and its aftermath had killed 5.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation, making the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. Millions more were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighbouring countries.
Poor-on-poor killings within rich counties are page 20 news as well.  For example, can you remember seeing a news article about even one of the "260 [poor] schoolchildren who were killed in Chicago over a recent three-year period?"

That is in contrast with Rule 2, which is that non-poor-on-non-poor killings are front page news for days on end for each event.  Certainly you've heard of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and many other such massacres?  Even though the number killed during those events were tiny compared to the number of inner city poor children who were killed during the same period?

Rule 3 is that, at least at the international level, everybody roots for an underdog, so poor can get away with killing non-poor with limited or no condemnation.  For example, many twist rationality beyond recognition (to me) justifying Palestinians lobbing rockets from Gaza into Israel:
It’s those Palestinian rockets that that are dominating the headlines, and that cause even normally sympathetic progressives to waffle in their condemnations of Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of the 1.7 million people corralled in Gaza. Yet there is very little direct, probing discussion of the topic. Is the line between provocation and retaliation really that clear? Is the use of violence to fight violence by some Palestinians somehow abnormal or unique? And what proportion of the population in Gaza is actually involved in the rocket attacks or supports the practice?
But Rule 4 is that non-poor countries may not kill, even to defend themselves.  When Israel retaliates when rockets rain from the sky on their children, an awful lot of the world is outraged.  Yet it's clearly not about merely killing Palestinians as shown by the following graphic from the Belmont Club article:

Syrian civil war casualties vs Gaza

You've probably at least heard of the recent Syrian conflict. But given the vitriol directed at Israel relative to Syria, would've you guessed that almost 50 times as many people died in the Syrian conflict. It's an easy guess when you remember that Rule 4 is used for the Israeli conflicts while Rule 1 is used for the Syrian conflict. Therefore, the Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israel are intolerably outrageous, while the Syrian deaths are page 20 news.

There are, of course, many exceptions to these very general rules, but I find it interesting just how often they accurately predict the reactions to murder and slaughter.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Dust in the Cosmic Wind

In the middle of writing my post Creation Myth, big news was announced regarding the Big Bang Theory:
On March 17th researchers from the Harvard-Smithsonian Centre for Astrophysics, led by John Kovac, held a press conference at which they announced that they had discovered interesting patterns in the cosmic microwave background, a type of weak radiation left over from the universe’s earliest moments. They said they had spotted the signatures of primordial gravitational waves, ripples in space formed just after the Big Bang. 
The existence of such waves would give strong support for the theory of inflation, which holds that the early universe underwent a brief burst of faster-than-light expansion. Inflation was put forward in the 1980s by theorists as a way to resolve various knotty problems with the standard theory of the Big Bang. But although it is widely assumed to be true, direct evidence that it happened had been lacking.
Because of that announcement, I almost didn't bother publishing my post, but since my post was a light and humorous piece (filed under "chocolate" and "humor"), I decided to publish it anyway, even though the Big Bang suddenly had yet more compelling observations matching the theory.

And those observations may still be correct.  However, the claim was, according to The Economist, possibly a little premature:
This concluded that Dr Kovac’s data, which came from an Antarctic telescope called BICEP-2, may well have been contaminated by space dust, and that the purported gravitational waves may be much weaker than the team first claimed—if they exist at all.
Fortunately, the controversy should be at least partly resolved soon and I will no doubt report on it when the new data becomes available:
New data expected within weeks from the Planck satellite of the European Space Agency and other experiments should help clarify the situation, the authors say.
In other words, how much dust, if any, impaired the BICEP-2 observations? It must be a bit of a roller coaster for those working in the dusty field of the Big Bang Theory. One picosecond, compelling evidence is presented regarding inflation of the universe, the next picosecond the evidence deflates, and in the near future it might inflate yet again.

Not that it really matters.  Just because a theory can explain what's observed, doesn't mean that the theory does explain what's observed.  Turning "can" into "does" requires a leap of faith and there's no reason the Big Bang Theory faith would've been shaken for its adherents by this bit of dust in the cosmic wind.

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Is that not exquisite writing and insight?

The opening and closing paragraphs of this piece about the Hobby Lobby ruling are just beautiful:

 That's a pretty stunning display of sheer ignorance, or more likely deliberate mendacity.  The liberal response to Hobby Lobby is all about emotional exhibitionism, going over the top, conjuring a fantasy villain so everyone can join hands and sing "We Shall Overcome."  It's a hysterical release of energy, bottled up by frustration at Obama's disastrous second term and the looming midterm-election catastrophe.  The Left really needed a win here, but more importantly, they needed emotional validation.  They can still get that by squalling like babies with soiled diapers, and taking note of how many fellow travelers are squalling right along with them. 

Ben Franklin said his colleagues gave us a republic, if we could keep it.  A nation of adult babies and shrieking neurotics doesn't have much chance of hanging on to a republic... as you can see from the big push to abandon it, in favor of a benevolent-dictator Sugar Daddy model of the presidency.  Followers are encouraged to hold their binkies tightly as Daddy tells them another scary bedtime story about the evil corporations and nasty judgmental Bible-thumpers he protects them from.