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Sunday, August 31, 2008

Gov't Prohibits Private "Regulation"

Hey it's a new week so I am allowed to link to Free Advice! In the "Legalize Murder!" thread, John Goes pooh-poohed my private alternatives to government handling of violent criminals (and what a fine job they've been doing on that front). John argued that my proposed private mechanisms could exist today, and so their absence shows that they really aren't a workable solution to the problem of violent people.

I confess I don't know all the specifics, but I think there are government measures that prohibit competing, private sector agencies that perform traditional government services. I discuss a beautiful illustration over at Free Advice today. A meat packer wanted to test all of its beef for mad cow disease, and the government said it can't. An excerpt from the WSJ article on the story:

A federal appeals court said the government can prohibit meat packers from testing their animals for mad-cow disease.

Because the Agriculture Department tests only a small percentage of cows for the rare but deadly disease, Kansas meatpacker Creekstone Farms Premium Beef of Arkansas City, Kan., wants to test all of its cows. The government says it can't.

Larger meat companies worry that if Creekstone is allowed to perform the test and advertise its meat as safe, they could be forced to do the expensive test, too.


What more evidence do you people need? Every single thing the government touches, it makes worse. We all* know that if the government expanded into areas that it currently leaves alone, that those areas would be worse, even from the point of view of the alleged reason for the intervention. So the same holds in reverse: If you started hacking away at the government's interventions, things would get better.


* Except for two obvious libertarian counterexamples, who think the politicians will side with Bengalis against huge corporations.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pre-emptive Strike Against Protesters in Minneapolis

Ah, the heavily armed SWAT teams just keep pushing the boundaries back little by little. Apparently they are raiding houses--and doing standard procedure of coming in with semi-automatic weapons, cuffing everyone and putting them on the floor for a half an hour at a time, you know--where people are planning to protest the upcoming Republican convention. The people who were raided claim that they weren't planning anything illegal, and were just going to exercise their rights in this free country.

But that's what you expect lawbreakers to say.

Glenn Greenwald was actually there, interviewing people after the fact, but the videos are kinda boring. You should read his (short) article though to see exactly what I am talking about.

We're getting there, folks. They started doing SWAT raids like this on citizens' houses because of the possibility of armed drug dealers, and nobody cared. "Hey, I don't deal crack out of my living room. They won't knock down my door!" Sure, they burned a bunch of religious nutjobs to death. "But I don't go to church in a polygamist compound, so it's all good." And now they are raiding people's homes because they are planning to protest a political convention. "Eh, I'm not a pot-smoking antiwar activist. Doesn't chafe me."

We're getting there, folks.

Query: How Did Luther Resolve This Bit?

Since various Protestants have been known to frequent this blog, maybe they can clear something up for me: Luther famously held Scripture to be the sole guidance to the true Christian ("sola scriptura"), always trumping the supposed authority of the Church. But, of course, just what Scripture consisted of had been decided by... the authority of the Church! (There were many candidates vying for inclusion in the status of being scriptural books, and hot debates about which ones would be so stamped with approval.)

So, once Luther rejects the authority of the Church, how can he insist on just those four gospels being scriptural? What if a Protestant wants to follow, say, the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of James, the Gospel of Judas, the Secret Gospel of Mark, the alternative Gospel of Luke, the Diatessaron, or the Gospel of Peter? They all had their adherents back in the day, but were declared infra dig by the authority of the Church. So on what basis can Luther criticize a Protestant who finds one of them "more his style"?

The Pre-Christ

My classes first assignment was Phaedo by Plato, and I must say... well, I had heard/read many times that Christianity was the child of the marriage of Jerusalem and Athens, but I was stunned by how much "pre-Christianity" was in this dialogue: monotheism, the immortality of the soul, turn the other cheek, a disdain for "the world" and devotion to spiritual purification... even the phrase "through a glass darkly"! Of course, you also get a doctrine -- indeed, what Socrates holds to be a proof -- of re-incarnation, which we don't get in Christianity, but, as I understand, that was actually a disputed point early on, and apparently we easily could have had a Christianity that embraced the idea.

UPDATE: By "easily could have" I mean, of course, from an historian's point of view. If you believe the Church Father's were divinely guided and re-incarnation a false doctrine, then, of course, the rejection of it was inevitable.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Is the Falling Dollar Good for Economic Growth?

I tackle this and other questions in this Free Advice post.*


* I promise to limit the cross-blog contamination to about one post per week. But in truth I better understood the flaws in the typical press coverage about recessions after typing out the post linked above.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Everyone Needs a Hobby

And mine of late has been salting slugs. These little, slimy %$@^%#$%$^%@ have just been destroying a dozen or so plants in my garden, so I've taken to going out at night with a flashlight and salt shaker, and gleefully watching them dissolve. I'm reminded of reading about the British philosopher F.H. Bradley, of whom, the piece in question said, while he never taught at Oxford, he did like to go about the campus at night and shoot cats.

Death and Dying

I've started teaching my course on death and dying, and assembling some Internet resources for use in the class.

Any suggestions for more good material?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Panda Bob vs. Komodo Dragon

Many of you have wondered what sort of posts I would reserve for Crash Landing, now that I have a "serious" blog. Well start your engines...

This article on Komodo dragons in the WSJ really got me mad. First, I was incensed at the arrogant Western environmentalists who screwed up this island's ecosystem and frankly don't give a dang. This is presumably the angle that the WSJ editors were foisting on us, and it worked (on me at least).

But I also got mad at these villagers, and especially this father:

A year ago, a 9-year-old named Mansur was one such victim. The boy went to answer the call of nature behind a bush near his home in Kampung Komodo. In broad daylight, as terrified relatives looked on, a dragon lunged from his hideout, took a bite of the boy's stomach and chest, and started crushing his skull.

"We threw branches and stones to drive him away, but the dragon was crazed with blood, and just wouldn't let go," says the boy's father, Jamain, who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name.


Are you freaking kidding me?! Your 9-year-old son gets bitten by a huge lizard--and then it starts smacking his head against rocks, as the article described earlier--and your response is to throw branches and stones at it?!?!



These things typically weigh about 150 pounds. As far as I know, their claws aren't as scary as those of, say, a tiger (but I could be wrong about that). I realize I shoot my mouth off a lot where it's safe on the Internet, but there is no doubt in my mind that I would at least grab that monster's head so it couldn't smack my kid's head against the rocks.

If a guy can rescue his nephew from a shark, a father should be able to save his son from a Komodo dragon.* He should at least try something besides throwing sticks and rocks at it.

*In fairness, these people might have ascribed religious significance to the animal, and that may have influenced their response.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Gov't Screwup Again Cited as Proof of Need for Gov't

In an intentionally provocative post, I called for the legalization of homicide, meaning that the government should stop using its armed agents (paid for with stolen tax dollars) to harass people it classifies as "murderers." (Read the post if you want to see my reasons.)

In the comments, someone calling himself "oj" said:

Son,

This is an excellent proposal!

I assume it will apply retroactively?


That's funny--it made me chuckle--but does everyone see that it proves my point? This is so typical when a libertarian calls for something to be privatized. People point to outrageous things that happen under State monopoly, as evidence of why the State needs the monopoly.

For example, Paulina Borsook ridiculed the idea of abolishing food safety inspectors, and her argument was that people in fast food restaurants had gotten sick the month before she wrote her op ed. See? The government needs to protect us from bad food, because people got sick under the government's protection.

Of course, just because bad outcomes occur in a certain system, doesn't prove the system is bad: People will get sick, and some murderers will fail to be caught, in any human organization. My point in this blog post is to stress that the failures of a system shouldn't be taken as evidence in its favor. Obvious point, but one that people violate all the time.

One last example: Whenever a plane crashes, or whenever journalists uncover rampant safety violations by airlines, the public flips out over the "unregulated" private sector and calls for a bigger FAA budget. Huh?! Suppose for the sake of argument that the government shouldn't be regulating air travel; now what would that world look like? Wouldn't there be plane crashes, lax inspections, etc.?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Crooked Dilians

Which species is a closer relative of an alligator: a turtle, a snake, a lizard, or a hummingbird? answer may surprise you.

He's All Grown Up Now!

My little boy, off on his own! But he promises that when he has something trivial to post, he'll still show up here.

UPDATE: OK, OK, so Bob posted this below! But it's not official until I post it.

Which Freeman Writer Put the Reagans to Sleep?

Check out the photo below. I always thought it was cute that Nancy was cuddling up to the Gipper. But then I realized that whatever article Ronnie is holding up, apparently knocked them both out. I can't make out the issue number, but I have my suspicions.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

My Python Boot Was Too Tight

http://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/wildlife/article782162.ece

Were there sufficient demand for python boots, the spread of the python would not present a problem.

Iraq Isn't a Mess?

Francis Fukuyama paid $100 to the Wall Street Journal's Bret Stephens on a bet that Iraq would be a "mess" five years after the invasion. Although Fukuyama conceded he had lost on the "narrow terms" of the bet, he still writes that the invasion was a mistake.

What's odd is that this mess-less Iraq is also a place where, we learn in a different WSJ op ed (August 22) written by Michael Cohen and Maria Kupcu, that "U.S. Contractors Shouldn't Face Iraqi Courts." According to these writers:

However, placing contractors at the mercy of an underdeveloped Iraqi legal system is not a solution. Greater liability for PSCs will also bring a higher price tag. Furthermore, PSC ranks will become deprofessionalized, as many of the most experienced contractors may decide that the risks of being thrown in an Iraqi prison are not worth a paycheck.
...
Even with a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq, American diplomats will need protective security for the foreseeable future -- a capability that currently does not exist in the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.


So, this mess-less country is still so bad that, five years after we rained bombs on them for their own good, the place is still such a hell-hole that the U.S. government can't protect its own personnel, and the Iraqi courts can't even be trusted to prosecute accused murderers in a fair process.

That last point is significant. It's not that Cohen and Kupcu are alleging that the Iraqi government is corrupt, and, say, shakes down big corporations for bribes to avoid being harassed by the tax authorities. No, Cohen and Kupcu are saying the Iraqi legal system is so bad, you could be thrown in prison for murder even if you are innocent.

Again, if George Bush had remotely described the situation of post-invasion Iraq 1, 2, ... 5 years after the liberating troops went in, no American would have supported it.

You Will Receive This Message Only Once

In an effort to exceed the riches and popularity of Tyler Cowen, I have started a new blog, Free Advice.

Also, in a futile attempt to strangle rumors in their infancy, let me state for the record that I am not breaking up with Gene Callahan. We still go to the movies, spend Saturdays at the roller rink, play 45s while sitting on the roof gazing at the stars, etc.

I will still blog here at Crash Landing, but most of my "professional" commentary will be shunted over to Free Advice.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Legalize Murder!

In having an email discussion/argument with Silas, he argued that, if the science behind anthropogenic global warming is correct, then the government capping total emissions would be no more objectionable than the government enforcing laws against murder.

Now, I myself have long thought that sure, the government does some horrible things that would NEVER occur in a free society, but some of its activities are closer than others. It's crazy when cops hunt down a kid for growing a (pot) plant in his backyard, but (I thought) it's not so bad when cops arrest somebody for homicide.

I now believe that this is completely wrong. When the government bans alcohol selling, what happens to the profession of alcohol sellers? Do they become more or less dangerous to society--even from the point of view of their product's effects, i.e. ignoring all the gangland killings?

But that's what happens when government enforces laws against murder: It makes the group of people, "murderers," much more dangerous.

If I told you that the government were going to monopolize the supply of milk, to make sure that everybody got a fair amount and to ensure its quality, wouldn't you poop your pants?

So imagine we're initially in a free society, and then you hear that the government is moving in to town in order to monopolize civil society's possible responses to murderers. Are you going to feel safe to walk the streets now? Are you confident that a serial killer will be stopped as quickly as humanly possible?

Government prisons are awful institutions that on net create more brutal crimes than would occur in their absence.

If you wanted to design a system that created the most awful criminals to date, what would you do? Well, you would want a way to get the most likely candidates for you to train. Maybe you would pick the young people who had been in fights, run from the cops, etc. Violent kids who aren't afraid of authorities, yeah, that's the ticket.

Now that you've got this fresh crop of kids, what you do next is throw them into a confined area with a bunch of career criminals, the worst people your government has ever laid its hands on. And it's fine to let these older guys rape and kill a few of the new recruits; that's great for our ultimate goal, which is to produce a record crop of criminals who are more brutal than any previous crop.

I think you see where I'm going with this...

LEGALIZE MURDER, and all else follows. How could the government continue to prosecute anything else, if people could say, "C'mon, murder is legal, and yet very few people do it. It would wreck your credit score! Who the heck wants that?!"

Rush Misremembers Ultimatum to Saddam

Wow. I was just listening to Rush dissect Obama's "moral equivalency"* of the Russian invasion of Georgia to the US invasion of Iraq.

Anyway, Rush explained that the US had a coalition (whereas Russia did not), etc., and then said something like this (not an exact quote but close):

"...For heaven's sake, we didn't do this like the Russians, under the cover of darkness. There were 14 UN resolutions. There was a long build up. Saddam had a year and a half to show the world he had no weapons of mass destruction" (my bold).

Wow. That's actually not what the ultimatum was. According to George Bush's pre-invasion State of the Union Address:

Almost three months ago, the United Nations Security Council gave Saddam Hussein his final chance to disarm. He has shown instead utter contempt for the United Nations and for the opinion of the world.

The 108 U.N. inspectors were sent to conduct--were not sent to conduct a scavenger hunt for hidden materials across a country the size of California. The job of the inspectors is to verify that Iraq's regime is disarming.

It is up to Iraq to show exactly where it is hiding its banned weapons, lay those weapons out for the world to see and destroy them as directed. Nothing like this has happened.



Now in fairness to Rush, if you go and read further in the SOTU address, Bush does say things like, "Saddam has given us no evidence that he has destroyed [the anthrax, etc.]." But Bush also complains of the wild goose chase that weapons inspectors had been on.

As many brave writers (such as Jude Wanniski, who was way ahead of the curve) asked, "How is Saddam supposed to prove a negative?" If the inspectors were sure he had massive stockpiles, and he really didn't (at that point), wouldn't the other side suspect Saddam of leading the inspectors on a wild goose chase in a region "the size of California"?



* The link is to a Sean Hannity forum, which gives you the basic idea.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is George Reisman the Richard Lindzen of Economics?

For those who are amateur "skeptics" on global warming* like me, guys like Richard Lindzen are heros. Yeah they might be off a little bit, and maybe they overgeneralize, but we think they're basically right and the rest of their field are not nearly as bold.

It occurred to me that perhaps George Reisman plays that role for the economics profession, including Austrian economists. Reisman offers some very bold arguments in his treatise Capitalism. For example, he argues that the notion of "opportunity cost" is a mirage. Really, some radical stuff in terms of economic theory.

Yet nobody has adequately dealt with his critiques. I think he's wrong, but I'm not very confident in my conclusion--do you want to blow off a guy who controls the website Capitalism.net ?? At the very least, we should publish why he is wrong.

(This is a self-congratulatory post, since I am currently working on a 3-year-old article that I had started as a college professor and then life happened.)


* Yes I know the preferred nomenclature is anthropogenic climate change. Now do ya love me?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Post Involving Chocolate Penises

My wife just relayed a potty-mouth joke she had heard, and chortling over it led me to make an observation that is interesting, though probably not new.

Anyway the joke: Some girl's mom said to her something like (I believe in consolation): "Don't talk to me about a perfect man, because I've never met one with a chocolate dick that ejaculates money."

So anyway, this got me thinking about stereotypical roles, hunter gatherer cavemen grunt-like-Tim-Allen kinda thoughts.

And it's true that women tend to favor guys who have money, just like guys tend to favor women who have looks.

Now the reason men tend to earn more, I think, is ultimately that they are more competitive. (I'm sure there are 15 other reasons, including unfair expectations, but I'm picking what I think is the most significant reason, at least in a market economy.)

What's great about the market economy is that it channels such manly ego-stroking into a wussy task (and that's why the proud Nazis looked down on mere shopkeepers) of pleasing your customers.

I mean think about it: Men are real tough guys at the bar, talk sh** on the basketball court, kill each other with abandon if someone will give them legal immunity and air support.

Yet when these macho men become businessMEN, what are they forced to do? They grovel and beg for your money. They become obsequious to the point of embarrassment. And in a market less and less protected by government regulations, only those who keep their customers happy, make more money than the next guy.

The Hockey Stick Debate, Clima(c)tic Conclusion

(The "c" is optional, get it? Heh heh d*mn I'm smooth...)

In a previous post, I gave a dumbed down version of what McIntyre and McKitrick did to blow up Mann et al.'s hockey stick (featured again below, because pictures are so good to break up the monotony of this site--seriously Gene, let's hang up a portrait or something!).



(One other loose end: I emailed McKitrick and there wasn't a mistake in his description of what happens to the variance when you use Mann's algorithm. It's not worth getting into--and frankly I don't fully understand it yet myself, I need to print this thing out and really study it--but suffice it to say, McKitrick didn't get the direction mixed up, as I had speculated.)

Now then on to the fun stuff. So at RealClimate--the premier anti-denier website--one of the Real Climate Scientists has a "official" response to the hockey stick stuff. (There are plenty of other posts at RealClimate on this issue.) For the response I'm focusing on, the guy's strongest point is, "Hey Mann et al.'s mistakes don't affect the policy debate, because other scientists have produced similarly hockey-stick-shaped graphs."

But I don't care right now about the big important issues; I just want to focus on this tiny little throw-away quibble that the RealClimate guy here uses. To understand what's he talking about, we need to review that McKitrick claimed in his explanation of the whole hockey stick brou ha ha (pdf), that the reason the whole episode is important is that it shows how flawed the quality control is on the IPCC, and it shows that the mainstream journals were not bothered by what had happened.

Specifically, when M&M wrote up their results--which showed that even random data fed into Mann's algorithm would have generated a pronounced hockey stick over 99% of the time--and this was the graph featured in the IPCC Third Assessment Report--this is how the oh-so-self-correcting body of careful scientists responded:

We submitted a letter to Nature about this flaw [that it took any data and turned them into a hockey stick--RPM] in the MBH98 procedure. After a long (8-month) reviewing process they notified us that they would not publish it. They concluded it could not be explained in the 500-word limit they were prepared to give us, and one of the referees said he found the material was quite technical and unlikely to be of interest to the general readers. Instead Mann et al. were permitted to make a coy disclosure in their July Corrigendum. In an on-line Supplement (but not in the printed text itself) they revealed the nonstandard method [of standardizing using the mean of the 20th century, not of the whole series--RPM], and added the unsupported claim that it did not affect the results.

OK everyone get that? I mean look, the IPCC did in fact remove the Mann et al. graph from the report; it's not featured in the AR4 version. So that means M&M were basically right. That's...kind of a big deal. So if the above description of how the huge journal Nature reacted to this (what should have been a) bombshell, then that's pretty sobering.

Now then, the guy at RealClimate responds to McKitrick's version of what went down. This is from his MYTH #4 about the hockey stick debate:

False claims of the existence of errors in the Mann et al (1998) reconstruction can also be traced to spurious allegations made by two individuals, McIntyre and McKitrick (McIntyre works in the mining industry, while McKitrick is an economist). The false claims were first made in an article (McIntyre and McKitrick, 2003) published in a non-scientific (social science) journal "Energy and Environment" and later, in a separate "Communications Arising" comment that was rejected by Nature based on negative appraisals by reviewers and editor [as a side note, we find it peculiar that the authors have argued elsewhere that their submission was rejected due to 'lack of space'. Nature makes their policy on such submissions quite clear: "The Brief Communications editor will decide how to proceed on the basis of whether the central conclusion of the earlier paper is brought into question; of the length of time since the original publication; and of whether a comment or exchange of views is likely to seem of interest to nonspecialist readers. Because Nature receives so many comments, those that do not meet these criteria are referred to the specialist literature." Since Nature chose to send the comment out for review in the first place, the "time since the original publication" was clearly not deemed a problematic factor. One is logically left to conclude that the grounds for rejection were the deficiencies in the authors' arguments explicitly noted by the reviewers].

Does everybody see what this guy did here? McKitrick reported what he said actually happened to him, what he saw with his own eyes. And this guy "mike" is doubting what McKitrick said--and it's not like he said elephants flew out of his left nostril, ya know--and his reasons for basically calling McKitrick a LIAR are:

(1) I looked at the official policies of Nature, something that maybe only 130 other geeks on the planet have ever looked at, and

(2) I logically conclude (mike's words) that you must be a liar (or can't read, or have a really bad memory, etc.).

Folks, this is very similar to what is going on in the big picture. There are lots of experts in various areas who say that the official "consensus" story doesn't really fit in the (non-essential) part where it rests on their area of expertise.

And when you really boil it down, the response of the official climatologists is: "Oh yeah? Well in our models--which are extremely complex and would take you 5 years of training just to be able to manipulate them and know what you were doing--we can only match the observed temperature of the 20th century if we assume CO2 and other GHGs have been the driving forcings, and that the climate has high feedback loops with warming. In fact, we defy you to build a model as complicated as ours are, and show that natural forces alone can yield the temperature we saw in the 20th century. And don't give us some half-*ssed regressions, we want an actual model of the entire planet, including the oceans and atmosphere, that obeys the laws of physics. Until you do that, we have nothing more to say. And if you disagree, I'm going to assume you either hate life or are getting paid by Exxon."

Am I exaggerating? Sure. But just go reread the above post. Those things really happened. That guy mike really did give that argument to challenge McKitrick's recollection of what had occurred.

The FBI Is So So Bad

Folks, if you haven't been following this stuff with Bruce Ivins, I strongly encourage you to read this Glenn Greenwald article. It is really bad. The FBI leaked what seemed to be a damning fact about Ivins' leaving work one day, but then bloggers pointed out that the fact actually gave Ivins an airtight alibi (for that day). So then a week or so later, the FBI leaked a different story, saying Ivins mailed the letters the next day (compared to their original theory that bloggers had debunked the previous week).

And mind you, this changing of their basic theory as to how he actually mailed the packages--a fairly important part of their case against him, you would think--occurred after they had scared him to death (presumably) by telling him he was going to be charged with killing those people, and basically ruining his life.

What's really creepy--as GG emphasizes--is how the press just keeps reporting whatever the latest "details" are in the FBI's leaked case, without even acknowledging that the theory of Ivins' guilt changed very crucially within the space of a week, and only after critics pointed out inconsistencies in the original theory.

I'm not saying the FBI is covering up a false flag operation or whatever. But they picked their guy (for whatever reason), and now they are doing everything they possibly can to convince the public that Ivins was guilty.

Isn't it depressing that we have to sit around and speculate as to just how awful the FBI really is--i.e. where the best explanation is that "OK maybe they just jumped the gun and are now covering up their screwup since the guy killed himself"--rather than this agency actually, you know, using its millions of dollars and investigative powers to find the real killer(s)??

Now I know I link to GG a lot, but really, if you follow any link I give you this month, try this one. It's just a great great article.

Fibonnaci Again

Some facts are instances of a Great Principle, while others Just Are. Here is a nice example I take from a book by Martin Gardner, the great popularizer of math and science--Mathematics Magic and Mystery (Dover, 1956):

Write down the first ten terms of any Fibonacci sequence, e.g.: 7,2,9,11,20,... Their sum is 11 times the 7th term. This is easily proven by brute force: 1st term a, 2nd term b, 3rd term a+b, 4th term a+2b, etc. The sum of the first ten terms is 55a+88b; the 7th term is 5a+8b.

This just is. Examine the first few terms of ths sequence and you will not find more instances of like behavior.

What does philosophy have to say about this sort of thing, I wonder?

Updating Bayes

I got a clearer handle on exactly what was wrong with Bryan Caplan's post on Bayesian updating, and, indeed, the general application of Bayesian updating to scientific theories, while reading The Drunkard's Walk. On pages 110-111 Mlodinow discusses the original example Bayes used to illustrate his theory. You have a table onto which you can roll balls in such a way that they have any equal probability of arriving at any point on the surface. You roll out one ball. Now your job is determine how far that ball lies from the left-right axis. You do that by rolling more balls, seeing whether or not they lie to the right or the left of the original ball, and using Bayesian updating to refine your idea of where the original ball lies.

This works fine if your initial model of the situation you face was accurate; in this case, the table is unbiased and each ball toss is random. But it just doesn't apply to situations where what you ought to be doing is throwing out your model! For instance, let's say the first ball obviously lands far to the left side of the table, and yet every subsequent toss lands to the left of that spot. That doesn't mean you should decide a position that's clearly on the far left of the table is really on the far right! No, you should abandon your assumption that the table is unbiased. But you can't use Bayesian updating to do that -- at least not your original updating scheme -- since that was an assumption you used to set up the updating scheme in the first place.

So, within a well-understood context Bayesian updating is a good way to determine the values of variable parameters of the context. But it's not useful when you are trying to figure out just what your context is -- and that's what the entrpreneur, contra Caplan, is always trying to do.

Wow, That's Some Curse!

I cracked up reading David Freedlander in AM NY about the "uncanny" results of the curse of being on the cover of John Madden's football video game:

"But the results are uncanny. In 2000, star running back Barry Sanders was on the cover, and suddenly retired soon after the game appeared. In 2006, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb, suffered a sports hernia in the first game of the season and missed half the year. Last year, football fans in San Diego started an online petition to keep star running back LaDainian Tomlinson off the cover."

What an amazing string of... Wait... one guy retired, because, you know, he wanted to, not because something bad happened to him. One set of fans freaked out about the "curse" and undertook a silly campaign... and nothing bad happened to the guy on the cover. And one guy got hurt. Which, as you know, has never happened to anyone in football who was not on the cover of the Madden NFL game.

Must have been a slow news week at AM NY.

"Is My Bank Safe?"

I don't know, but Robert Wenzel shows us how to start answering the question.

Starting from Berkeley

Starting from Berkeley

Starting from Berkeley, walking,
You will come upon a monument to certain dead people.
“This is all that is left.
“They were beautiful.
“They mattered.
“They excelled.
“Do not forget them.
“They fought the”
I don’t know. Did we win?
And then, some of us are still alive.
So, under a basic limitation,
Autobiography is all I have to offer.
Driving, starting from anywhere,
It is a symphony crossing the Golden Gate
And Van Ness Avenue,
Soon to smell the eucalyptus. Thus,
I come to Berkeley to be happy,
But I find, in early Summer,
Not everyone is simple.


Copyright (c) 2008 by Walter Bloch. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Stealer of Names

Excerpts from a long discussion of codes and ciphers, keeping our codes-and-ciphers-loving friends at bay...

"...and also perhaps easy to nail as all created by the same person, so I guess I won't be using very many symbols." This is a common direction of attack on codes and ciphers, as testified by stories of the WWII years; messages in the process of decryption would be filed with other messages presumed by analysis to have come from the same author's cleartext, or coding habits. Thus one typical paradox: versatility, or optionality, in encrypting, intended to make code more diverse and therefore harder to decrypt, often made it easier by admitting the deadliest of vulnerabilities, the dirty living human mind.

My father used to demonstrate one of the characteristic weaknesses of the human mind. He would invite students up to the blackbroad, er, blackboard and ask them to write down out of their heads a string of random digits. When they began show signs of extreme fatigue (almost always within a hundred digits), he would have mercy and then immediately show a dozen or more patterns.

Yet, again, paradoxically, choice could avoid problems: perhaps more than any exploitation of weakness in cracking codes and ciphers in WII against them (against us, I'm sure, as well) was the repitition of messages or key parts of messages because of technical difficulties in transmission or reception. Again, the paradox: If the exact same message was retransmitted, obviously, if we had the entire message already, we learned nothing. But, usually, protocol required that this transmission required use of Book 093253, rather than the previous Book 772514. This was frequently invaluable, given the hypothesis that the clear was the same.

"I am sorry that having received that...system from you--which you designed especially for my requirements and capabilities!--I am instead using one that could be invented by a four-year-old child and deciphered by another. However, I need it to be this easy. As Theodore Sturgeon or someone like that once said, if I take more than a few seconds to enter the system, it's as if I wrote of a lover rushing up the street to his lady friend's house, trying to maintain a firm hold on a bottle of Chartreuse and two dozen yellow roses, imagining the delights that lie ahead--and then explaining the workings of the doorbell he presses to get to her."

"...for all I know, you've had experiences like mine with Yahoo, where my suggested login of desuetude was rejected because someone had that! Who, in the 21st century, other than me, would ask to be named desuetude on Yahoo? I could, and should, write to the guy and ask him how he happens to know the word. This might very well make for a good story. My guess is that someone had had kageyama and had very recently let it expire, which a logon does if you don't use it for six months. As Nabokov says in Lolita, 'With a drunken sob of gratitude, I accepted it.' (Are you aware that a major reason why the movie of Lolita is so good is that Nab insisted on writing the screenplay himself? If you haven't seen James Mason's face conveying that drunken sob of gratitude, it's worth the price of admission.)" (Yes, I am.)

You're quite right. No one would have asked to be named desuetude on Yahoo in the 14th Century. They might, however, have viewed a request to any instrumentality outside the Church for any boon having to do anything with names almost as a signpost plastered with the word "SATAN," and you had been toast (literally).

"Someone had tried to hijack kageyama! Inexpertly, though. An attempt of this clumsy sort had been anticipated. Obviously, this guy would have had to ask that he himself be sent the URL for the unique little web site at which he would substitute his password for mine. However, when the original request goes to the admins, they simply glance at it, understand that someone wants a password changed, and send something very like the email they sent me to the email address (which is invisible to the hijacker) associated with the username. So much for Stealer of Names, a fine old Arabic cognomen that loses nothing in translation. I should use it for a gmail account."

PPI Hits 27-Year High

In July the Producer Price Index went up 1.2% (over a 15% annualized rate), and yr/yr it had risen 9.8%, the biggest annual rise since 1981. Details (and scary graph) here.

So Dr. North, when is that deflation kicking in? If I understand your position, we should expect massive inflation in the future, when Bernanke lets it all hang out. But right now we're supposed to be experiencing falling prices, I thought...

Monday, August 18, 2008

Justin Raimondo Puts His Finger On Something

This has been percolating for a while in my head, but Justin pins it down:

...the Russophobes have developed an entirely novel theory of political economy, which is an outgrowth of the environmentalist fad and the extreme nationalism of our ruling elites. It is the absurd idea that any and all countries that depend on oil to generate the bulk of their national income are unnatural, inherently flawed, and even intrinsically aggressive and a threat to the security of the West. Oil-producing states are inclined, by their very nature, to authoritarianism, they argue, although somehow I don't think they mean the state of Texas.

The full column is here, and HT2RW.

BTW, in reference to my last LRC article on Russia and Georgia, I got two complimentary emails (meaning they gave compliments, not that they were free) and about 8 accusing me of hating Russia and serving the Elders of Zion. The problem was my line, "I have no doubt that Putin is an evil man who would conquer the world if he had the ability." I would probably say the same of 75% of the mayors in the US. You have to be seriously tightly wound to read my article and come away thinking it was a hit piece on Russia.

A Depressing Story About Customs at JFK

Any of our international travelers want to comment on this? Unfortunately if you're not dark-skinned and traveling to/from the Middle East, you might not really be able to say if this lady's tale is accurate. (HT2LRC)

I Am a Wise Aleck, But I Am Not "alec"

I grant you that this sounds like something I would write, but I promise this reader comment from "alec" on MarginalRevolution is not from me:

I thought the subtitle of this blog was "Small steps toward a much better world", not "Irrelevant Facts While I Do An Imitative Freakonomics Jig". (I would also accept "Small steps towards overanalyzing small things" or "Relevant economics is dead and I intend to prove it")

Although the telltale signs are there, I always capitalize my name. (I am "bob murphy" in Blogger but I don't know what happened there. I don't remember setting it up like that...)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Spot the Funny

It's late so maybe this isn't so funny after all, but the following statement (from a government FAQ on global warming) generated mirth for me:

With now 28 years of reliable satellite observations there is confirmation of earlier suggestions of an 11 (and 22) year cycle of irradiance related to sunspots but no longer term trend in these data.

The Real Meaning of Michael Phelps

Pat Forde explains at ESPN:

"As with the Miracle on Ice team in 1980, everyone was rowing in the same direction on this one. It wasn't your team versus my team. It was Our Michael versus Their Mortals."

So, "everyone" -- of any importance, that is -- means Americans. "Your team versus my team" divisions are petty -- unless my team is America and you team is the rest of the world, because then it's a contest between ubermensch and mere mortals.

God damn, we should just get it over with and clear the planet of all those other inferior races, then America can rightfully win every gold medal at the Olympics!

Philosophical Question

If there's a big storm and a tree falls in my back yard, but my wife and I act like we don't see it or hear it, then did it really happen?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Riddle CMXLVIII

How do you get a one-armed Polish tree-sitter out of the tree?

How to Extract the Cube Root of Two in your Head

2 = 128/64 ~ 125/64.
Therefore 2^(1/3) ~ 5/4 = 1.250.
The above error in 2 is -3/64, therefore
The proportional error in 2 is -(3/64)/(128/64) = -3/128. Therefore
The proportional error in the cube root is one third,
Namely -(3/128)(1/3) = -1/128. Therefore
The absolute error in the cube root is approximately -(1/128)(1.250) ~ -0.010.
Adding back the absolute error of the first approximation:
2^(1/3) = 1.250 + 0.010 = 1.260.

The Hockey Stick Debate

I have been reading up on the "hockey stick" debate, which refers to the graph of estimated global temperature featured not in the most recent, but the previous IPCC report (TAR--third assessment report).



As the graph above makes clear, the hockey stick was a decisive point in favor of the theory of anthropogenic global warming. (I.e. Al Gore is right.) The team responsible for the above graph was Mann et al., who published it in a 1999 paper.

However, the latest version of the IPCC report (AR4) doesn't feature the above graph. This is (I gather) due to the scathing critiques by co-authors economist Ross McKitrick and a sharp guy Steve McIntyre who (I think) is just a veteran of the mining industry.

Anyway, if you want to get more into the climate debate but you're not sure how to sift the evidence, and you don't want to waste your time with a bunch of blowhards one way or the other, then I suggest McKitrick's 18-page essay on, "What is the Hockey Stick Debate About?" (pdf). At times McKitrick's analysis gets a bit technical, but it's always in short bursts and you can suck it up and read it, and get the gist.

(In contrast, McIntyre's award-winning site ClimateAudit is a bit too detail-oriented for me. You could spend three hours there and not really come away with anything for the larger policy debate.)

Anyway, in the remainder of this post I want to (1) very briefly recapitulate some of McKitrick's best points and then (2) highlight a very interesting part of an official response to M&M at the "consensus" site RealClimate.

FIRST:

M&M couldn't reproduce Mann's hockey stick graph. They finally got their hands on his computer code, and realized why he was getting such striking results when they couldn't.

The problem was in how Mann was handling different series of temperature records. They had estimated temperatures for each year going way back, but they were drawing on multiple data sets. E.g. tree rings from one area covered a certain number of years, while in more recent times they have ocean buoys, and maybe even satellite data in there.

So the problem is, how to take all this different information, to come up with a single graph of temperature going back (and maybe with confidence bands). My understanding (which is surely a little simplistic) is that the following occurred:

When people in this field aggregate series that are in different units, they want to put the different types of data on the same footing. Typically they go through and subtract the mean and divide by the standard error, transforming each separate series into one with a mean of zero and a variance of 1.

Yet when Mann et al. did this transformation, for some reason they didn't subtract by the series mean and divide by the series standard error. Instead, they subtracted (from the whole series!) the mean of the 20th century portion of the series, and divided by the standard error of the 20th century data points.

Now for those series with no unusual trend in the 20th century, this difference in transformation didn't matter much. The 20th century mean was close to the mean of the whole series, etc., so the final product looked pretty similar to what the standard procedure would have yielded.

However, some of the series (for whatever reason) had sharp spikes in the 20th century. For these series, Mann et al.'s unconventional transformation would decenter the series and give them higher variances than the series with no spike.

(NOTE: I believe I have faithfully reproduced McKitrick's explanation, but as-is the above doesn't make sense to me. I would think the proxies with 20th century spikes ought to have transformations with lower variances, because you would be dividing through by a larger standard deviation of the 20th century sample. I'll see if McKitrick responds to emails...)

Now we're finally ready for the punchline: When putting all the different series ("proxies") into one master series, the researchers have to decide how much weight to give each individual proxy. Since the objective was to get a final, single series that replicated as much of the variance as possible in the proxies, the rule gave more weight to those (transformed) proxies with higher variance.

Ah, but this meant those series that had (for whatever reason) spikes in the 20th century, were given far more weight in Mann's finished graph than the proxies that had no unusual spike in the 20th century. It is not surprising, then, that Mann's finished graph looked the way it did.

In fact, M&M showed that if you used randomly generated data series, Mann's technique would generate a "pronounced" hockey stick 99% of the time!

I think that's enough for now. In a subsequent post I will explain the response from RealClimate, and why one portion of it is very ironic/revealing.

In the meantime, those of you who are mathematically inclined, please tell me if I'm hand-waving on anything in the above. When Crash Landing's readership exceeds 30 unique visitors per week, maybe I will be more anal and fully vet everything before posting. But for now, we're all friends here...

Townhall Critique of Pelosi on Energy

Shooting fish in a barrel, but you have to keep the pressure on. The Congressional ban on offshore drilling expires on September 30. That means the Democrats have to figure out a way to reinstate it, without being obvious (hence the Gang of Ten plan). Go gridlock!

Georgian President Saakashvili, Welfare King

I explain here.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Who Knew?

Rep. John Boehner writes here:

"Since Democrats took control of Congress in January 2007, the energy crunch has been swift and severe. Gas prices have risen from an average of $2.33 per gallon in the first days of the Democratic Majority to $3.78 per gallon today, while diesel prices – particularly important for school transportation purposes – have risen from $2.44 per gallon to $4.47 per gallon today. No matter how you slice it, the surge in energy costs has been dramatic, and with fall and winter right around the corner, the pain will not just be felt at the pump, but in heating bills as well."

So the cause isn't speculators, increased consumption, disruption of supplies, or any of those things... it's Democrats!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pilots for Truth?

I don't know anything about flying a plane, but these two guys are either the real deal, or excellent con men. They sure sound like pilots who are matter of factly saying there's no way amateurs were flying the planes on September 11.

Has this thing been debunked, the way the conspiracy stories from the engineers and architects has (apparently) been matched point for point?

And then you read something like this, and really get worried.

(BTW I skipped ahead to about 3:00 in this interview, and don't think I missed much. It gets really good near the end.)

The Best Article I Have Ever Read on Climate Change

I bet some of you think I am linking to my own piece. Nope this is Jim Manzi at Cato. This is really a tour de force, except for the wussy concessions at the very end. (HT2MR)

L & A

L: There once was a man from Peru
Who mistook his wife for a shoe
Olver Sachs
Wishing to wax
Said that god-damned title won't do!

A: When life gives you a bowl of cherries, make lemonade out of them.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Murphy Talk in the Bahamas

I will be giving a talk in the Bahamas on oil prices, on September 11 (really).

I have been considering the following threads for the talk:

1. Godel's Incompleteness Theorems: Is the second a trivial corollary of the first?

2. If someone were traveling at .99c and began reading Marginal Revolution, would he learn anything besides jargon?

3. Should the audience members at my talk have to pay a surcharge for the higher fuel prices needed to get me there?

4. Why are speculators driving up oil prices and down financial stocks? They can make guaranteed money either way, so why rub our noses in it?

5. If Tyler Cowen is right about climate change, will he sell me a promise that he will never compete for after-dinner talks in island nations?

6. Albert Einstein once said, "God does not play dice." Discuss.

"Parking Garages Make Crazy Cash!"

In the spirit of Gene's post below, I observe that I have often heard people confidently say that parking garage owners must be rich, especially in a big city. The evidence is that they charge outrageous rates even for a half hour to park your car.

Fair Trade

By me, in the Christian Science Monitor.

"He Must Own the Building!"

I hear this often, in reference to a shop owner who keeps a low-traffic shop open in a high-traffic area. People say, "He must own the building, otherwise he couldn't afford the rent!"

It's the economic fallacy of confusing money costs with real (opportunity) costs. It doesn't matter whether or not the man owns the building -- it's costing him just as much to run the business there either way. Let's say he's making $1500 a month in a site that could (or does) rent for $2500. I f he rents he is obviously losing $1000 per month. But if he owns, he could rent the space for $2500 instead of drawing $1500 profit from it -- for a loss of $1000! It's the same result.

The truth behind this mis-perception is that to subsidize a money-losing business takes some wealth -- and owning a building is one form that wealth could take. Additionally, the building owner may be able to hide his loss from himself" more easily than most -- the $2500 he could have gotten doesn't show up on his books anywhere.

Live It Up, the Dollar Is Dead?

In this piece I argue that you shouldn't pay down your credit cards. Am I pulling a Paulson? On the contrary, I am giving very unpatriotic advice.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Home Sweet Home

OK after about 6 months of ignoring it, I finally fixed up my homepage. (There had been a hacker attack last September, and my host hadn't backed up my index page, and the emails they sent to me must have gotten filtered because I never saw them. And that week they were always busy when I called, no doubt because everybody's site was messed up.)

Deep Thoughts for the Day

The reason you shouldn't lie is that doing so makes it easier for you to lie to yourself. And when you can't even trust yourself for an accurate assessment of the situation, how can you possibly be happy with life?

I have obeyed my Christian instructions and can say that I love the war hawks in Washington. You know how the media portrays them as compassionate, concerned about collateral damage, outraged at the suggestion of lying the country into war, etc.? Well that's how they view it too. Why wouldn't they believe their own PR? It's so much easier than doing the "moo hoo ha ha!" when the cameras go off. I don't hate Don Rumsfeld, I want to ruffle his hair and say, "What were you thinking? Come here you! I think somebody needs a hug!"

My Commentary on the Short-Sale Restrictions

Details here. So what do you think, kids? Will the SEC extend the restrictions, which are supposed to expire tomorrow?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

WSJ One-Ups the New Deal wrt Housing

One UPDATE below.

So you know how during the New Deal they had federal agents go around and tell farmers to overturn crops, etc.? (I haven't actually looked this up myself, but I bet that the famous scene in The Grapes of Wrath where they douse oranges with gasoline, was not really a market phenomenon. And I don't just mean, because the Depression was caused by the Fed.)

Well, Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., in a July 30 op ed, said that one solution to the housing mess would be to blow up some of the excess housing to bolster prices. No, this is not The Onion, and I think Jenkins was being serious:

So far, Washington has put its political capital into trying to refinance salvageable homes for unsalvageable homeowners, when a relevant policy would consist of judiciously [!] buying unsalvageable houses and demolishing them. Fannie and Freddie's strength is software: They could be put to work devising a least-cost, maximum-bang strategy for demolishing unoccupied homes to preserve as much value as possible for the homeowners and mortgage creditors who remain.

OK first of all, what's wrong with this? It's even cruder than the broken window fallacy. Jenkins isn't saying, 'Let's blow up some houses to give work to the homebuilders.' No, he's saying, 'Let's blow up some houses because otherwise the price of houses will continue to fall.'

You don't make a country richer by destroying houses. If you were going to disassemble the houses, and redirect their lumber, nails, wiring, etc. into other lines, then maybe that could make sense. Or, if we wanted to use the land on which these houses stood, in order to hold an apartment unit, a shopping mall, a factory, etc., then that could make sense.

But to simply reduce the housing stock, when those houses are at this point sunk cost, is insane. I can't believe the WSJ didn't at least ask him to put in a paragraph dealing with this type of objection.

Think of it this way: Suppose you personally were given a newly built house in an neighborhood stuffed with McMansions etc. The donor said, "Now look, you're gonna have a tough time selling this. When I put down the money to have this thing built, I was hoping to unload it for at least $250k in 2007. Well it's been on the market for 15 months now, and not a bite. I even lowered the price 3 times, and nobody's is even looking at $200k."

Do you really think you'd tell the guy, "No thanks. If you gave that to me, I'd just end up knocking it down and selling the plot of land. With all the hassle and possible lawsuits from neighbors, I don't want to deal with the headache."

No, I don't think you'd do that at all. You'd take it, and drop the price until it sold. (Or, you'd sit on it for a few years waiting for the market to recover.) If it's in a residential zoned area next to 30 other houses, the only thing that land can be used for is to hold a house. So unless there was some fundamental flaw in the architecture, there's no way the real estate can be worth more w/o the house than with it.

Even if you had to drop the price down to $50,000 to sell it, you would still be up a lot of money from the whole deal. You would want to kiss that donor for giving you a gift of $35,000 (netting out closing costs and your headaches).

Of course, if you sold it for $50,000, that would bring down the official property values in that area. But so what? Market prices communicate information. If the market is so bad that what used to sell for $250k now only sells for $50k, people need to see that and adjust their plans.

Final point: Here's the real interesting question. Suppose that Fannie and Freddie followed his advice and set up a sophisticated computer program with all the variables including time-indexed supply and demand functions for housing, a general equilibrium model of the economy and housing sector, production functions for new housing, etc. etc. Do you think if the programmers were competent, the answer would pop out:

THE OPTIMAL NUMBER OF HOUSES TO DESTROY: 0


UPDATE: I just realized that that's not what would happen. Really the answer would be negative; i.e. the computer would tell them that the economy would benefit from the further construction of houses. (And, as Jenkins notes, that's exactly what's happening right now--building continues in some areas.) The programmers would be stunned, and then if they put in a non-negativity constraint, the answer would then be zero. At that point they would probably start looking for the bug in their code, since they were expecting a positive number.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

The Count of Monte Cristo

I'm watching the movie right now -- and if I didn't have my wonderful new remote setup, I wouldn't be making this post! -- but I'm really enjoying the movie, while, when I attempted the book, and just couldn't get into it. The movie has made me realize why -- books like this were the best escapist action-adventures possible before cinema, but now, having experienced cinema, I read them and just wind up feeling "This really should be a movie, not a book!" What I look for in a book is what movies can't give us, which to put it simplistically, is more narrative and less action -- a movie does action better, while a book better handles interior monologue, metaphorical descriptions, philosophical digressions, and so on.

New(ish) iMac Review

I just picked up one of the current iMacs, including the wireless options, and man am I impressed!

The best thing about this machine is I can get away from the computer with it. I can lounge on my couch and type as thoughts come to me while reading, instead of having to choose whether I'll be researching comfortably or sitting typing for a long stretch of time. A laptop doesn't permit this -- still too big and clunky -- but the Apple wireless keyboard can be stowed easily alongside your body while you read or watch TV -- I mean here, between your body and the couch back (with you reclining on the arm), and not taking up a seat beside you. Since it weighs a couple of ounces rather than 10 pounds, you don't need to shift positions to pick it up and make a note.

"OK," you ask, "but that certainly doesn't solve what to do when you have to reach the mouse and need a flat surface, does it?" Well, let me tell you, I can literally mouse with no difficulties at all using my leg as the "mouse pad"! The remote mouse is the best I've ever used.

The Apple remote controller is a wonder in simplicity. The whole thing works to control iTunes, DVDs, iPhoto, and more, with only six buttons! (Think of the number on your average TV remote.) What Apple seemed to realize is that a lot could be gleaned from context, e.g., you don't need 4 buttons to move up and down through a menu and raise and lower the volume -- when you're in a menu, you're not listening to anything, and when you're watching your movie, you're not scrolling through a menu! A pair of up/down buttons suffice four all 4 tasks.

The last thing I'll mention is the wonder of iMac setup. When I brought the computer up, I was asked, right away, if there was another computer I wanted to get settings and/or files from? Or, perhaps, a backup disk? I had my external Time Machine hardrive sitting on the same desk, I clicked yes. I went through a couple of screens deciding what to fetch from the old Mac, clicked "Go," and in one hour, my new computer looked exactly like my old one -- every user account, all my preferences, my bookmarks, my contacts, my photos, my songs, my network settings, my papers, etc. You may say, "One hour to set up!" But no, it was about two minutes to set up, and then I walked away for an hour while over 100 GB of data transferred over a USB cable. I have never, ever, since my first PC (where I had no data, programs, etc. and could just start figuring out what the hell it was right away), been up and working on a computer so quickly and painlessly.

Excellence in Namedropping

I have been doing a lot of self-promotion lately (and another post is in the works--it will be a "promote myself, rip Tyler Cowen" combo!), and so I hesitated to mention that Rush Limbaugh mentioned me on the air Friday. (It's at the bottom of this transcript, and I think you can listen to it if you click the links at the top of the page.)

But then Pepe convinced me otherwise when he reminded me: "C'mon, it wouldn't be Bob if there wasn't namedropping."

No joke, when Gene first asked me to blog here, I was reticent to even post links to my articles, because it was so narcissistic. I've come a long way, baby.

Friday, August 08, 2008

My Special Skill

Wabulon once told me that he'd always felt everyone has a special skill in life, but it took him until 50 to discover his, which was knowing what's in other people's pantries. And boy, is he good at it -- when he's stayed over, I can call home and ask, "Wabulon, do w have black beans?" and he'll respond (without looking) "No, you used the last can on Tuesday" -- and be right.

Well, I'm happy to have found my own skill at a (slightly) younger age then Wabulon -- helping people to avoid stepping in dog poop. I'm really good with my kids, but I'll also often steer perfect strangers around a big, steaming turd.

I'm also not bad at spotting animals near the road. I'm often the passenger in a car, spotting many creatures the driver has missed, like a big buck that had been considering crossing.

Both skills seem connected to peripheral vision.

Mises and Wenzel vs. Gene and Bob

I'm not going to dig up the links, but Gene and I have been arguing with Robert W. about whether we can truly have "facts" about the world, which are themselves not dependent on our antecedent theories. In stressing the a priori nature of economics, Mises apparently sides with RW:

The application of spurious economic theorems results in undesired consequences. But these effects never have that undisputable [sic] power of conviction which the experimental facts in the field of the natural sciences provide. (emphasis original, Human Action, Scholar's Edition, p. 858)

I Give Up, part 345

(We also would have accepted, "Release the Hounds, part 319.")

I know some of you have so much free time that you actually come here, looking for links to arguments Gene and I get in on other blogs. Well here ya go. It starts out with me high-fiving Alex Tabarrok, then trying to help Rex understand the flaws in Keynesianism, but somehow by the end I've got Odograph telling me that it's human nature to have government-owned bridges (and that US foreign policy was good from 1975-2000, I think), and some guy meter using four-letter words to describe CEOs.

My work is done here.

OK I'm Not Crazy, Sullivan Changed His Mind

I thought I was going nuts, because lately Andrew Sullivan seems dovish, but I thought I had earlier pegged him as a hawk. But as Justin Raimondo reminds us in the postscript to this article, Sullivan was rather aggressive before the Iraq invasion. Below are Justin's quotes from Sullivan's 10/31/01 blogging:

Andrew Sullivan: The sophisticated form of anthrax delivered to Tom Daschle's office forces us to ask a simple question. What are these people trying to do? I think they're testing the waters. They want to know how we will respond to what is still a minor biological threat, as a softener to a major biological threat in the coming weeks. They must be encouraged by the panic-mongering of the tabloids, Hollywood and hoaxsters. They must also be encouraged by the fact that some elements in the administration already seem to be saying we need to keep our coalition together rather than destroy the many-headed enemy. So the terrorists are pondering their next move. The chilling aspect of the news in the New York Times today is that the terrorists clearly have access to the kind of anthrax that could be used against large numbers of civilians. My hopes yesterday that this was a minor attack seem absurdly naïve in retrospect. So they are warning us and testing us. At this point, it seems to me that a refusal to extend the war to Iraq is not even an option. We have to extend it to Iraq. It is by far the most likely source of this weapon; it is clearly willing to use such weapons in the future; and no war against terrorism of this kind can be won without dealing decisively with the Iraqi threat. We no longer have any choice in the matter.

...

Slowly, incrementally, a Rubicon has been crossed. The terrorists have launched a biological weapon against the United States. They have therefore made biological warfare thinkable and thus repeatable. We once had a doctrine that such a Rubicon would be answered with a nuclear response. We backed down on that threat in the Gulf War but Saddam didn't dare use biological weapons then. Someone has dared to use them now. Our response must be as grave as this new threat.


Although Justin doesn't say this, I think it's clear that Sullivan doesn't think we should nuke Bruce Ivins' neighborhood. And not just because the FBI is probably framing him.

If That's Not Dirty, Then...

Ovoer at UO Threau (who seems to have devoured what started out as Jim Henley's blog from the inside the same way Bob has done to mine -- for which I love him, btw), posts on animal sex. So I thought I'd raise him one. Did you know there are flowers that disguise themselves to look and smell like bugs' booga-woogas -- typically just before the female hatches -- so that the tricked insect will come along and... well, you know, it does the dirty with a flower! And then another and another, spreading pollen all the while.

Folks, that ain't just bestiality, that's inter-kingdomality. Isn't there some law to stop them?

Over at Fire Megan McCardle...

Bob linked to it below -- scroll down you lazy so-and-sos -- one of the polls has "Megan McArdle - Teh Atlantic."

Crimminy, I know I've complained about it before, but folks, this joke where you misspell 'the' has been posted on the Internet like 46 million times now, and it's not F^&%&^!@%^CKING FUNNY ANYMORE. No joke is funny when you've heard it 46 million times.

USSR Forever!

I just read Isaac Asimov's Fantastic Journey II -- not a bad book, about what you'd expect from Asimov. (Yes, 350 books is fantastic output, but quality does suffer a little along the way.) But what really struck me is that Asimov, writing in 1987, saw the USSR still around 100 years later, still operating much as it did in 1987, just a few years before its complete disappearance from the scene.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

More Hobnobbing With Politicians

A California representative (who was at my flat tax luncheon) mentions me in a political rag. (It's about halfway through the article.)

Fire Megan McArdle!

The only good to come out of Cowen's narcissistic post was someone's suggestion that this website was the winner. Now it's a bit ridiculous to devote an entire website to mocking a lady, but still, this made me laugh out loud twice. Be sure to scroll down and check out the polls on the left hand side.

I'm Thinking of a Number Between 0 and 100...

...what is it? The first person to guess gets an autographed copy of my latest book.*

* Not really, and I'm just making fun of Tyler Cowen in this post.

Wall Street Gold Hustlers?

So there are these things called Exchange Traded Funds (ETFs), which allow investors to gain exposure to non-stocks (like oil, gold, bonds, Asian market, etc.) with the ease of stocks. What happens is that you buy a share of the ETF, and then the ETF invests its money such that its own share price (in theory) mimics the thing you are ultimately trying to invest in.

Now oil ETFs, for example, don't actually buy and hold oil. (At least, not the ones I've researched.) Presumably this would be too costly. Instead, they buy futures contracts on oil, and then roll them over when the delivery date approaches.

But when it comes to gold, both the GLD and IAU ETFs claim that they invest in physical gold. GLD (not sure about IAU) also says that its investors can redeem shares of GLD for the equivalent amount of physical gold at any time.

Well I was talking with a guy who works for "an investment counselor in Switzerland" (the term he asked that I use), and he said that his firm wanted to test this redemption clause. The people running GLD came back and said something like, "We prefer that you continue to hold the shares. The amount you want to redeem is too small."

So at this point, I thought, "Oh OK, they wanted to get $2,800 worth of gold, and the ETF didn't want the hassle of redeeming that. No big deal."

But no, that's not it at all. The Swiss firm was trying to redeem about $30 million worth of GLD shares!!!

So they sold their shares, used the proceeds to buy actual gold bars, and are storing them in a Swiss bank.

This guy seemed intelligent, truthful, and non-delusional. (He thus passes Carlin's test.) Can anyone in the finance world comment on whether this story sounds plausible?

Two Observations on John, Chap. 6

Well, a while ago I started blogging on the gospel of Luke. It's not that I stopped reading it, but what happens is that I (try to) read a chapter each night before I go to sleep, and then the next day I don't blog about what I had read.

Anyway, now I am up to John chapter 6. I have two observations:

(1) There is a big divide between Catholics and Protestants over the route to salvation. Catholics think you have to do good works; good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell. Protestants (at least some subset of them, not sure if all) believe that man can't please God with his works; you have to accept Jesus and that's it. To the delight of atheists, there are strong New Testament passages for either interpretation. (I.e. the Bible seems to contradict itself on this issue.)

For a while I have thought that this was a false dichotomy. And then it seems Jesus confirms this in verses 28-29:

Then they said to Him, "What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?"

Jesus answered and said to them, "This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He sent."



(2) I think I have blogged about this before, but so what? It's neat. The passage John 6:66 reads: "From that time many of His disciples went back and walked with Him no more." (There are no other 6:66, or 66:6 for that matter, in the gospels.)

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

"You're Two Hours Late...

and now dinner is ruined."

I hear something like that quite often on TV shows. And you know what's funny? I cook a lot, and yet I've never had occasion to say that to anyone. Why? Because I stop cooking the food when it's done, not when the other person shows up. Then, if they still haven't shown up, I put it in a Tupperware and in the fridge. What are these people on TV cooking all the time, soufflés?

"Klingon Watch"

I take it that this guy, Captain Quirk, has it in for economists like me, but even so I find his bio intriguing:

According to Memory Alpha, an online reference for everything Star Trek, Klingons are a fictional warrior society, aggressive, holding an "intense belief in expansion and conquest in order to survive." Here on earth, in the reality based community, economists--in particular a class of economists--often act in that role. They too are also obsessed with expansion, aggression, and conquest. And similar to the Klingons, this particular breed of economists have acquired a nefarious cloaking technology, in the form of specious arguments, allowing them to slip their unfounded ideas undetected into media commentary and analysis, private and public policies, and our every day walking-around consciousness. This blog--Klingon Watch--guided under the watchful eye of Captain Quirk, is dedicated to detecting and uncloaking Klingons--and their dangerous misleading arguments-- wherever they may be found.

The Toad Song

The Toad Song

After me and twelve other chillun,
My pappy, who was a fatuous villain,
Said to my momma, go and get your tubes tied.
Momma said, shove it up your ass.

When I was three my momma done told me,
Son, she said, you was borned a toad.
Maw, I said, I allus knew I’s different,
Still I guess that’s a heavy load.

But I was young, so I got used to it,
Had a lot of fun,
Sittin’ in the swamp in the mud up to my ears
Growin’ warts and croakin’ in the noonday sun.

When I was seven I left home
‘Cause my pappy didn’t like to have a toad in the house.
Goodbye Maw, ain’tcha gonna kiss me?
Mamma said, shove it up your ass.

© 2008 by Walter Bloch, all rights reserved.

Oil Speculators: The Geek Version

OK here is the geekiest version yet of my views on oil speculation. I go through this one pretty slowly, step by step. I deal with some of the complications brought up by our good friends at MarginalRevolution etc., and show that they don't change the conclusion that speculators don't seem to be responsible.

There will be a punchier version (which deals more with the policy implications, rather than the boring economics) in an upcoming Freeman.

Gov't Screwup: Proof of Market Failure

Once again, the government royally screws up and someone calls this "laissez faire." Check it out. (Here the issue is the bogus warnings about tomatoes.)

California's Spending Binge Breaks Budget

Details here.

Happy A-Bomb Day!

Ralph Raico--the Don Rickles of Mises Institute events--offers his characteristically definitive views on the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Minnesota Chris Makes Murphy Compilation

"Minnesota Chris" (I'm assuming that's not on his birth certificate) sent me the following compilation he'd made of my Congressional testimony. Thanks Chris!! (Note that the "joke" starts around 4:15 on the first clip. It doesn't seem very funny here, but at the time it was pretty good I thought. Especially since Chris edited out the rambling answers of the first two guys.)

In Part 2, you can see my response to the Congresswoman who wants to lower the speed limit.



Tuesday, August 05, 2008

FBI's Weak Case Against Ivins

Good ol' Glenn goes through the FBI's flimsy (leaked) case against Bruce Ivins, the government scientist and alleged anthrax mailer, who just killed himself. (So far no one has speculated that he was killed by the government. C'mon guys, where's the imagination?) I haven't been following this too closely, but if Glenn is even 50% right, this is yet another outrageous example of the FBI framing somebody.

The Oddest Justification Yet for the Iraq Invasion

In his August 5 WSJ op ed, Bret Stephens argues that, "The war in Iraq is over. We've won." (He has in mind the low troop fatalities.)

We can argue whether or not that is accurate, and whether or not he might look foolish in 12 months. (Remember the "Mission Accomplished" fiasco.) But the real contribution is his list of reasons why the invasion was a success:

Here's a partial list: Saddam is dead. Had he remained in power, we would likely still believe he had WMD.

Is anyone else amused/horrified by that second reason for invading another country? Rather than, "Oh my goodness, we killed a bunch of people on the basis of bad intelligence!" Stephens has turned it into, "Phew! We killed a bunch of people, but at least we corrected our bogus intelligence."

Obama's Tell?

I've noticed that a lot of the time, when people ask Obama his position on something, he'll say, "As I've said numerous times before, I support blah blah blah..."

At first I thought this was just political schtick to combat the charge of flip-flopper. But now I wonder, is this his tell? I.e., if he doesn't want to actually answer his true opinion on something, he can truthfully say, "In the past I've said that my position is..."

This way, he can minimize the number of lies he has to tell. He does it once in a prepared speech, and then in informal interviews he (perhaps subconsciously) falls back on a truthful reference to his speech.

Remember, Obama hasn't been in politics as long as someone like Bill Clinton. Blatant lying might still be hard for him.

I Woke Up This Morning

and I got myself a gun.

Yeah, I've been watching the Sopranos, so sue me if I play too long. (What's that from, hey?)

Monday, August 04, 2008

Mary-Kate Olsen Knows the Policeman Is Not Your Friend

My wife alerted me to this news story. Mary-Kate Olsen wisely insists on immunity before discussing Heath Ledger's death with police. Maybe she saw the video I discussed earlier where a law professor explains that you should NEVER talk to the police without getting immunity.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Sex, sex, sex

OK, I know, we've been remiss here in revealing the "sex secrets of the Himalayan masters". But, although I won't be revealing those here, I do want to talk about sex. Specifically, did you know:
* The male boar releases 85 billion sperm in a single act of copulation?

* The guppy can switch sex so quickly that, if two female guppies "in the mood" meet, they may frustrate each other by repeatedly becoming male, then female, then male again, each switch taking only a few seconds?

* Schistosoma haemaatobia develops with the female already embedded in the male in a kind of permanent sexual embrace?

* The blue whale gives birth to young weighing 15 tons and already 2/5 of her length (i.e., her baby is bigger than an elephant at birth)?

* Madame Feodor Vassiliev of Russia gave birth to 69 children, 16 twins, 7 triplets, and 4 quadruplets?

* Worms mate by mutually penetrating their partner's vagina with their penis while their own vagina is similarly penetrated?

* Ragweed plants may emit up to 1.6 billion pollen grains per hour?

These facts are drawn from a fascinating, if deeply flawed, book, entitled The Seven Mysteries of Life. The worst flaw in the book is the author's insistence on dividing life into animal and "vegetable" kingdoms, extending so far as to call paramecium animals and bacteria "vegetables". Quite to the contrary, "vegetable" is not a biological classification at all, but a culinary one -- mushrooms, which are fungii, not plants, appear in the "vegetable" section of the supermarket.

In fact, biologists now recognize the three main branches of multi-cellular life, the animals, the plants, and the fungi, as mere stems on the more major branching scheme -- they represent the eukaryotes (creatures whose cell has a nucleus). The other major forms of life are the bacteria -- whom, lacking a nucleus, are no more "vegetables" than are paramecium -- and the archaea. The fascinating thing about the archae, for those who might suspect science is "almost done", is that, 40 years ago, the existence of this form of life was entirely unsuspected, whereas now, scientists think that the archaea may be as numerous as the members of the other two great kingdoms.

It was once thought that life only existed down a far as the topsoil extended. But now life has been found to exist as far down as any sampling of the earth's crust has reached. And it is the archaea whom occupy those depths.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Batman Question

I am going to tuck this question as the first comment on the post. (I don't want to give a spoiler to the movie.)

Friday, August 01, 2008

David Henderson Outs Tyler Cowen

Hey I didn't do it: David Henderson calls Tyler Cowen a big sellout wuss (or something like that). I add my two cents at the end, but I think most of the MR crowd has moved on at this point. Heh heh this way I get the last word, albeit spoken to myself.