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Sunday, January 29, 2006

How Safety Recalls Work

Forbes Small Business magazine of Feb. 2006 describes the fate of Boston Billows, the makers of a praised nursing pillow. Their product, filled with plastic beads, was making dents in the sales of larger, established producers. So, in 2004, an anonymous competitor "tipped" the Consumer Products Safety Commission to the danger (to their profits?) of Boston Billows' product. Although it had never been involved in any injuries or deaths, it bore enough similarity to some mattress that had been banned years before that the CPSC ordered a recall. Today, the company is on the verge of closing.

The article also mentioned that how the CPSC, "understaffed" and lacking knowledge, often relies on the large producers in a market to draw up the safety rules. The small players can't afford to pay an employee to sit around devising regulations, and -- surprise! -- the regulations get drawn up to favor the big guys.

Support the Troops?

Joel Stein has a great article on this. (Thanks to Rachael for alerting me to it.) I've thought long and hard myself about what I'd say if I were in a public forum and someone tried to corner me on this. (Because of course to just say "no" and move on would be bad.) The best I've got so far is to say, "Not all of them, do you?" and then get the person to deny support for torturers, etc.

(Oh, for you purists out there, I do support some of the troops--so my suggested answer isn't completely duplicitous. E.g. purely medical personnel, or translators, etc. OK, my response is still pretty duplicitous...)

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Concessions

Remember when the Iraqi interim PM chided Bush for calling the resisters in Iraq terrorists? (I can't find the article, it must have been too long ago.) Well, Bush changed his vocab, started saying "insurgents." So think about this: Bush is fighting a War on Terror. If all the violence coming from Iraqis isn't terrorism, what are we doing over there?

Quick Kids!

Be the first to find all eighteen errors (and we're talking logical, not grammatical or spelling you cheaters!) in Carl Milsted's "The Need to be Anarchists." Here's a few to get you started:

(1) Even if one agrees that the proper punishment for a thief is to pay double, it does not follow that "theft is morally acceptable if all victims are paid back double." (Try changing the crime to murder if you're not sure.)


(2) Now, suppose the majority assesses a tax on everyone to spread the burden of supporting the new defense system. This is theft of the minority. However, suppose that the economies of scale are such that this tax is less than half of what people would have had to pay for defense on their own. Now we have theft with adequate compensation.

Putting aside the problem about "adequate compensation," this overlooks the existence of pacifists in the community. It also makes the strange assumption that the Pentagon is a cost saver. I think I could defend myself from terrorism for a lot less than (Pentagon budget) / (# of US taxpayers).

(3) "We can apply this logic to other government services where the economies of scale are so compelling, such as for country roads."

Even if we ignore the problem about theft and compensation, and that economies of scale don't necessarily lead to cheap gov't provision, there is still the problem that the market could provide the service in question. National defense is a classic public good so one could argue the market wouldn't work. But country roads? C'mon.

He Loves Me / He Loves Me Not

Praise from "the people's economist." Less-than-praise from the people's biologist (I guess).

Musings on Abramoff

So on NPR yesterday they mentioned a (proposed?) Congressional inquiry into the Abramoff garbage, and speculated that Congress was going to crack down on donations by lobbyists.

So let me get this straight: Congress steals a bunch of our money at gunpoint. Some groups want to have less of their money stolen, or they want a piece of the action, and so they hire lobbyists to give bribes and other goodies to the politicians. To deal with the public's outrage over this, Congress decides to use men (and women) with guns to punish people who give them bribes in ways other than the prescribed manner.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thinking of Serving Pork Soup Tonight?

It could get you arrested in France.

Measuring Happiness

Will Wilkinson reports on the inconsistencies of a happiness researcher. At a seminar presentation on this sort of "data" at LSE, I commented that treating any such subjectively chosen "measures" of happiness, health, well-being, etc., as if they were real, physical measurements that could be statistically analyzed is scientifically on the same level as asking people if various objects moved "slowly," "moderately," "somewhat fast," or "shit-kicking fast," assigning an arbitray number to each answer, and then trying to formulate a science of dynamics based on those numbers.

I believe that the majority of social science "data" are examples of social scientists wishfully imagining that dealing in such meaningless "quantities" can raise the status of their discipline to that accorded the physical sciences. For example, Will critically notes that Oswald, his target, admits: "The key point is that we do not know the shape of the function relating ‘reported happiness’ to actual happiness. This is a serious problem when researchers try to make statements about the curvature of relationships — though not as serious when we talk, as most of the happiness literature does, about the direction of relationships."

But Will implicitly accepts the idea that there is some "function" determinately mapping reported happiness to actual happiness, and that there are meaningful ways to quantitatively measure either. Since 'happiness' is not a physical magnitude but a culturally defined concept, I humbly suggest that there is no way to coherently measure it at all. Consider, for instance, three hypothetical respondents to a survey conducted by a "happiness scientist." For one of them, happiness means thinking that she has helped "God's will be done" in the world. For the second, it means having achieved material plenty. For the third, "happiness" consists in having scored with many potential sexual partners. If each of them rates their happiness as "7" on a scale of one to ten, why in the world should we believe that "7" represents a scientific, objective measure of anything?

But hey, maybe I'm just overly anal about these things.

The Prime Directive for SWAT Teams?

Kill the dog.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

At Last!

Someone has used "Murphy's Law" in reference to me! I must be famous. (I am so defensive now after each article that I thought initially this was a critique.)

Yep...

...another ID article.

Monday, January 23, 2006

An Intelligent Player...

We were watching basketball the other day, and the announcer said, "Gansey may not be as fast as most players, or be a great jumper, but he's a really hard worker and a very intelligent player."

I said, "I don't know who Gansey is, but I guarantee he's white. That's sports announcer code for "White guy playing hoops." We looked him up on espn.com, and of course...

New Age Zoo

We were at the Bear Mountain Zoo the other day. At the entrance was a rule sign, the most prominent of which said, "No pets or animals allowed in the zoo." Now, I'm all in favour of the nice zoos where they give the animals bigger cages and stuff, but eliminating the animals outright seems to make the whole enterprise kind of pointless.

Why Is Economics Called the "Dismal Science"?

See Sheldon Richman for the answer.

Everyone Always Has Their Reasons

From The Devil's Disciple, by George Bernard Shaw:

The year 1777 is the one in which the passions roused by the breaking-off of the American colonies from England, more by their own weight than their own will, boiled up to shooting point, the shooting being idealized to the English mind as suppression of rebellion and maintenance of British dominion, and to the American as defence of liberty, resistance to tyranny, and self-sacrifice on the altar of the Rights of Man. Into the merits of these idealizations it is not here necessary to inquire: suffice it to say, without prejudice, that they have convinced both Americans and English that the most highminded course for them to pursue is to kill as many of one another as possible, and that military operations to that end are in full swing, morally supported by confident requests from the clergy of both sides for the blessing of God on their arms.

Who was right? Who was wrong? And how many died?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Dimkins

At the recommendation of a reader and a friend, I've been reading Richard Dawkins lately. In his favour, I'll say he is an eloquent writer who seems to know the broad scope of biology fairly well. On the downside, let me quote the man himself: "Where science scores over alternative world views is that we know our uncertainty."

So how does science "know" this uncertainty? Well, by scientific means, of course! In other words, Dawkins is saying that, judged by scientific standards, science is superior to other world views! Wow, isn't that a surprise! And you know what, judged by historical standards, history is superior to other world views, and judged by mystical standards, mysticism is superior to other world views, and judged by the standards of Biblical literalism, Biblical literalism is superior to other world views. The fact that Dawkins doesn't recognize that his argument has gotten him nowhere marks him as a philosophical nit-wit -- and that evaluation is confirmed at many other places in his work. It is a sad commentary on contemporary philosophy that some philosophers take him seriously.

(And lest you think I'm being a little harsh, realize that Dawkins' whole project is the ideological one of convincing people that they are of no more significance than a tapeworm or slimemold. Of course he is a hypocrite about it, and doesn't for a second believe it about himself, but he'd love it if you would come to believe it about yourself.)

Is Not Being the Dictator of a Third-World Country...

preventing you from making the money you want?

Then sign up for classes here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Trouble Finding Your Sausage in the Dark?

Try some from these pigs.

Collectives

I just finished Word Watching by Julian Burnside. One chapter discusses the 1486 Book of St. Albans, which was about "Hawkynge, Huntynge, Fysshynge and Coote Armiris." The book lists some names of collections you may have forgotten:
A skein of geese (in flight)
A gaggle of geese (on the ground)
A string of ponies
An exaltation of hawks
A skulk of foxes
A hover of trout
A drift of hogs
A bouquet of pheasants
A sloth of bears
A shrewdness of apes
A murder of crows
An unkindness of turkeys
An ostentation of peacocks
A parliament of owls
A barren of mules
A gam of whales
A murmuration of starlings
A mustering of storks

And for people, you have, of course, an eloquence of lawyers, a misbelieving of painters, a superfluity of nuns, and a worship of writers.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Why Quantities in Economics Are Not Like Quantities in Physics

Working on a paper the other day, I hit upon what strikes me as a good way of illustrating the fact that economic "quantities" are never the equivalent of the objective, time-invariant quantities used in the physical sciences. Let's say that we have something as objectively measurable as a person's horizontal leap. That measure would not, however, be any constant gauge of the jump's economic significance. A leap that one day would make a man rich, because it established a new world record, on a later day might gain him nothing, if a longer jump had been made during the time interval in question.

Another ID and Gov't Debt Articles

This one defending Intelligent Design from typical attacks must be really bad (good); I think I've gotten about 20 hate mails so far. (The best was the succinct, "You're an idiot.") For those who used to like my stuff but think it all went downhill once I became a Christian, read this article on government debt and maybe we can be friends again.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Who Is a Threat to Our Security?

The Quakers!

Better Money

I saw John Nash present his ideas on commodity-basket money (money that can be exchanged for a defined basket of commodities, e.g., an ounce of gold, barrel of oil, pound of tin, and a cord of wood) at the Southern Economic Association meetings a few years ago, a talk in which he credited Hayek as a forerunner. One person, during the Q&A, said that commodity had been "tested" and failed -- during the era of the gold standard, he claimed, the economy exhibited larger boom-and-bust cycles than it has with fiat money since.

Now, I don't want to claim that gold is an "objective" "measure" of value -- money doesn't measure anything, and all value is subjective -- but it just struck me that the change in question is as if a person, troubled by the fluctuations in his weight, decided that the solution was to get a scale that varied in the opposite direction of his bulk! When a recession hits, the government pumps fiat money into the economy, and then proclaims that recessions, as "measured" by the amount of that fiat money that changes hands, are milder than when they had been measured in terms of a money whose value the government could not arbitrarily alter. Now isn't that something to write home about?

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Finagling the Numbers...

on second-hand smoke.

Someone Has Missed Something

I ran across this:

"Back in August I had an interesting talk with Richard Maybury, an economist of the Austrian school and editor of the financial newsletter Early Warning Report. He is the author of a big idea, actually a model with which to help predict long term trends in global politics and finance. It's called Chaostan, and basically it means that enlighenment ideas of liberty and property never made it past Marx in Germany in their natural spread eastward..."

So, this fellow is supposed to be an Austrian, and he creates models that "predict" history and thinks that ideas have a "natural spread?!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

I Once Was Even Funnier

I went to my friend Stu Morgenstern's bachelor party Saturday night. For those of you who don't know just how damned funny I was when I wrote with Stu, here are some samples:
Elegant Living in Perilous Times

The Wizard of Is I Excerpt:
Vernon Jordan as the Good Witch:
She brings you good news
Or haven’t you heard
When she fell on the Starr
A miracle occurred
Monica Lewinsky as Dorothy:
It really was no miracle
What happened was just this:
My skirt began to hitch
My thong – a stitch
Bill was in the same hall
Feeling quite an itch
Just then – a glitch:
It was in Bill’s last twitch
Left a stain on my dress
Reported by a snitch
Media: And what happened then was rich!

The Wizard of Is II
The Wizard of Is III

(Then, in a tragic twist of fate, a woman ended it all!)

Web Tour

Gene Healy corrects Jose Padilla's pronunciation of his name. Reminds me of a Monty Python skit: "Mr. Norman Luxury-Yacht?" "No, my name is spelled Norman Luxury-Yacht, but it's pronounced Throat Warbler Mangrove."

MoveOn -- a cover for the Democratic Party.

Best Bushisms of 2005.

A rather nasty campaign from PETA.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Cell phones

I was looking at my cell phone the other day (hey, things were a little slow, OK?) and it struck me that it looked like a communicator from Star Trek. Then I found this:

"Star Trek's communicators are now called cell phones - and with web access and photo and video capabilities, are more sophisticated than what the writers of the TV series envisioned back in the 1960's."

So what we have is a situation where some writers dreamed up an imaginary future that contained these devices. Because people watched their show, they came to think of devices that looked like that as futuristic. Therefore, when companies wanted to make a product look cutting edge, they made it look like 40-year-old TV props!

Sunday, January 08, 2006

MMORPGs and Free Banking

There is a very interesting discussion going on over at the Mises blog. I would very much appreciate it if anyone with experience in both (a) online role-playing games and (b) Hayek's proposal for privately issued fiat currency would let me know if this would constitute a good experiment. Of course, I don't know that I could muster the courage to ask for a grant or sabbatical to play online games...

Friday, January 06, 2006

McCarthy Annoyed With Whiners

Every once in a while I go over to National Review to get my dose of anti-LRC. Andrew McCarthy's piece is great in this respect. He's totally right, the press would have gone nuts even if Bush had gone through the FISA courts. (The article is clever because he makes the fictitious text look like an actual news story.)

But on the other hand, why is he wasting his time making such a point?? That would be analogous to defending the cops who sodomized Abner Louima by saying, "Give me a break! All these ACLU types are up in arms about sticking a broom handle up his bum. But you know what? If the cops had shoved a screwdriver up there, these liberals would still be crying foul."

You Guessed It...

...another foray into evolution versus ID. (At this point some of you are getting suspicious. "Bob couldn't possibly be serious with this crap, could he? Surely he's just testing to see how long Gene will let this continue before revoking his posting privileges...")

Thursday, January 05, 2006

China: Our New Enemy

In response to my piece, "The Alleged China Threat," someone emailed me a link to this book. Maybe I'm just out of the loop, but I'd never heard before that China masterminded 9/11.

Yet Another Free Trade Article

When I'm not attacking evolution, I defend free trade.

Medical Marijuana

I think this is the way we're going to get a (de facto) end to the War on Drugs. The government will retain the laws in order to imprison anybody they feel like (just like you can lock up anyone on Wall Street if you want because he or she is undoubtedly breaking some regulation), but with the continued depiction in the media etc. of how harmless drug users can be, I think the public will become more and more tolerant. But it will be a long long time before a candidate for president vows to legalize heroin. (Oh, it was funny that the CNN correspondent I saw concerning this was named Bill [?] Puffer.)

The Famous Concession by Behe

Sorry folks, I've got this stuff in my system. In addition to foisting my online anti-government rants on you, I'll also be commenting on the ID/evolution debate for the next week or so. Anyway, I think here is a good illustration of the misrepresentation (deliberate or unintentional) of the ID proponents, and how--far from showing their dishonesty--their honesty has been used against them.

I refer to the apparent admission by Behe on the stand that (and I quote from an exchange I'm having on this very blog): "Now we have ID people who want to teach something they themselves admit is on the same scientific level as astrology."

This isn't just what one guy says on a blog, either. On the NPR account of the trial as it was unfolding, the reporter said something like, "Though on the stand during cross-x, Behe admitted that the scientific status of ID was that of astrology."

In this context, the innocent listener would conclude that Behe admitted that ID was just as plausible (at least if we rely on non-religious evidence) as astrology. But if you look at the relevant transcripts (just use your Find to search for "astrology" and you'll hit it, though you may want to back up to get the full context of the exchange), you'll see that Behe was just being honest with his definition of the word theory. He certainly wasn't admitting that ID was just as valid as astrology.

Now especially since he was on the stand and he knew how much publicity this trial had, that was a very courageous thing to do, in my opinion. He could've refused to answer the question and try to weasel out of it, but he didn't. He admitted that astrology would be a scientific theory under his definition, though of course a discarded scientific theory.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

The Freeman article on Katrina

I tackle Paul Krugman's ridiculous article (in which he blamed the FEMA disaster on 25 years of anti-government rhetoric) here.

The Brothers Grimm

I just watched this very good movie from Terry Gilliam. The plot revolves around the famed brothers getting sucked into a real experience that is like those from their tales. One critic I read complained that the movie was not an accurate depiction of the Grimms' lives! I hadn't seen the movie yet, but I wondered if this fellow had heard of fiction? Does he go see Hamlet and grouse that the play isn't historically accurate?

In any case, while the plot is as described above, the theme is German romaticism versus French rationalism, a feud in which the Grimms played a significant part. Well worth seeing.

New US Strategy in War on Terrorism...

is terrorism!

Also: Will Wilkinson on status.

Sheldon Richman on supporting the troops.

Jesse Walker reviews some great movies from past years.

And check out his amusing commentary on Santa.

Those of you who remember the Merry Pranksters may have been wondering, "What's become of Stewart Brand?" Wonder no more.

Doesn't Crash Landing have a lot of posts starting with "new" these days?

Sunday, January 01, 2006

New Year's Day Conundrum

Toboggan or not toboggan, that is the question
Whether ’tis nobler in the rump to suffer
The slings and narrows of outrageous snow trails,
Or to use arms against a sea of hemlocks,
And by opposing bend them. To slide; to slip;
And more; and by a slip to bruise my end
With back-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. ’Tis mode of transportation
Devoutly to be dodg’d. To slide; to slip;—
To slip? Perchance into stream! Ay, like icy tub!