Monday, October 31, 2005

Bathe Me!

Following in the footsteps of many of the bloggers I admire, I’m going to get into the meme game:

Behold, the Caesar’s Bath meme! List five things that people in your circle of friends or peer group are wild about, but you can’t really understand the fuss over. To use the words of Caesar (from History of the World Part I), “Nice. Nice. Not thrilling . . . but nice.”

1. Radiohead – this isn’t quite as relevant as it was a few years ago when every music magazine was proclaiming them the saviors of rock and roll and/or the greatest band in the world. But for a group that started off with a couple of pretty decent albums, they descended into a noisy world devoid of all rhythm and melody, which curiously coincided with their immense popularity amongst those with high opinions of their own taste in music.

2. Chocolate – for the millionth time, I don’t hate chocolate. I just don’t get off on it the way a lot of people (especially women) seem to. But let’s all be honest here: It’s not anywhere close to having sex, and it’s not (I presume) like a tasty form of legalized heroin. I would have said Chocolate and mint, together, but those two things are an unholy alliance that isn’t anywhere close to “nice”.

3. The beach – yeah, it can be a lot of fun if there’s good waves and you can find some personal space. But usually, it gets old pretty fast. It’s too hot, too crowded, you get sand everywhere, and you never actually go anywhere, you just sit there watching the ocean while getting a sunburn. It’s an alright way to spend a few hours, but it’s not the kind of thing I’d like to do for a week. As my dad says: life’s a mountain, not a beach.

4. Wes Anderson movies besides RushmoreRushmore was clever and quirky and funny, and that kid who played the main character was outstanding, but The Royal Tennenbaums and The Life Aquatic get way too much praise for what they are: boring, self-indulgent projects with not much going for them except they’re different than everything else. But different doesn’t equal good.

5. All-weekend-long drunkfests – I’ve had a great time at these in the past, but the feeling on day two just isn’t worth it anymore. I’ll still go away to the cabin with the guys, but I don’t have anything to prove anymore about how many beers I can drink in 36 hours. So shut up, I’m going to bed early and no, I’m not going to have beer and OJ for breakfast.

I'm sure I'll think of at least 5 better ones as soon as I post this, but these are the ones that came immediately to mind.

The tradition is to pass this along to three other bloggers, and since I really don’t know (m)any other bloggers personally, I’ll tag fellow former Huskies Garry, Hutty, and Jamie.

Friday, October 28, 2005

The Marijuana Miracle

As if there wasn't enough good news about the health effects of pot the past couple of weeks, a new study published in the Harm Reduction Journal indicates that marijuana doesn't have the same cancer-causing power of cigarettes. The exact mechanism is unclear, but it appears the THC in marijuana counterbalances the carcinogenic effects of smoking the drug. So the question now becomes: will THC administered via another delivery system reduce the effect of other carcinogens as well?

NJ School Bans Blogging

The principal of a New Jersey catholic high school has informed students that they must cease their on-line activities like blogs, myspace, and the like. Even at home. But it's all done for their protection, of course.

Mo' Kelo, MO Abortions

Tim Lee has an interesting analysis in light of the closure of the only abortion clinic in Springfield, Missouri. It is generally believed by most advocates for pro-choice that the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court would be a serious blow for women seeking abortions. Tim believes, and I'm coming around to agreeing with him, that just as the Kelo decision created a groundswell of legislative support for property rights, the reversal of the landmark 1973 Roe case may intice lawmakers to look more seriously at the issue rather than hiding behind the court-imposed right to abortion. While not cost free, this may, on net, prove to be beneficial for those who support abortion rights. Depending on who Bush nominates to fill the vacant could-have-been Meirs seat on the court, we may someday find out.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

DVDs are the new LPs

As the government continues to drag its feet on figuring out what to do with high-definition digital television (well, besides offering subsidies for those who have old TV sets), the battle over what will be the next generation of DVD's rages on. The trouble is, by the time it is sorted out whether HD DVD or Blu-Ray will inherit the earth, nobody is going to be using a physical format for video anymore - it will all be streaming over the internet or stored on your hard drive. So I think I'll hold off on accumulating a bunch of DVDs and get in on the next (r)evolution.

Giving the Poor, Huddled Masses...Digital TV?

If there is anyone in Congress happier to spend taxpayer's money in pointless ways than Ted Stevens (R-AK), I'm not aware of them. When he's not building bridges to nowhere or threatening to resign if the Senate dares say that there might be more important priorities than said bridge (which, surprisingly, wasn't enough to pass the amendment), he's making sure all Americans are given their fundamental right to digital television.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Still Stuck Riding the Bus, Even to Heaven

Tim Cavanaugh, the Nostradamus of editorial cartoons. Maybe it wasn't that tough of a prediction, but it's still pretty funny. Read this first, and then this, posted about 10 hours later.

Leopard-Skin Pill-Box Tax

Matt McIntosh makes what in my mind is a pretty sensible tax proposal: have the equation for the tax rate directly tied to the size of the federal budget. This way, as soon as the government goes on a spending spree, individuals immediately (or within the next year at most) feel the pinch of this on their taxes. This accomplishes two goals: it creates greater accountability for politicians, as their spending habits are indexed into the tax equation, which would definitely grab the public's attention. Additionally, it serves as a great reminder that all the things we like to think are "free" are really being paid for out of our own pocket via the government. Like many others, Matt also suggests that we should get rid of the various tax "brackets" we have now, which create ridiculous leaps in the effective marginal tax rate, and move to a simple smooth equation that rises with income. Good ideas, all.

Bring on a Brand New Renaissance

A rainy Tuesday seems a good time for a post that will rise the ire of my Canadian friends. It seems that the Canadian government is not satisfied with their present ability to regulate the content of cultural productions consumed by Canadians with Canadian content regulations and the like. As a result of Canada's initiation, the UN has recently approved a convention that would attempt to stop the “cultural invasion” that results from globalization. While it is doubtful that this act will be anything more than symbolic, it does represent a chronic misunderstanding of globalization and contempt for the individual choice that is one of the foundations of modern societies.

France and (sadly, but unsurprisingly) Canada sponsored the convention, which was supported by 148 countries and opposed by just the United States and Israel, with four countries abstaining. The clear problem with this kind of cultural protectionism is that it undermines that ability of individuals to choose what kind of culture they like, or how to spend their time and money on entertainment. Just how (both practically and ethically) do you police what is on someone's iPod? Furthermore, in a more connected world the boundaries of what constitutes a work of art from a given country will become blurred – is The Lord of the Rings an American movie? Or is it better described as coming out of New Zealand? Or Great Britain? Although I’m not a big fan of cultural subsidies, as it just brings art into the political world, I prefer them immensely compared to limitations on what can be imported in the cultural realm, which limits the options of individuals to appreciate culture as they choose.

Canadians (and presumably, people in many other countries as well) consistently vote with their remote controls and movie-going dollars, and for the most part they see American-made products. This may be a shame, but I don't feel it passes the test for government intervention. Those of you that would support these kind of restrictions should answer this: did YOU attend any Canadian movies in the past year? Can you even NAME a Canadian-made movie produced in the past year? Actually supporting these products with your money will do more to "protect" Canadian culture than a hundred toothless UN conventions. While some will point out that the fact that most Canadians couldn’t answer these questions in the affirmative as confirmation that these types of protections are necessary, I think it demonstrates a market functioning as it should. These consumers are demanding the movies and TV shows they want to see. When a high-quality Canadian-made product is available, people will gladly support it (i.e. the various Degrassi series, Corner Gas, The Tragically Hip, etc…). If we (Canadians) want to "protect" our national culture, then we need to get serious about it and put our money where our mouths are, instead of blaming America for being cultural imperialists. Or even better, people can get over their xenophobia and just appreciate culture as produced by individuals, as opposed to countries.

Bulls on Parade

Despite the apparent (but questionable!) market value of this thing, I think I'll hold on to it for now...but I could entertain offers if there is a willing buyer out there!
Just out of curiosity, I put Instapundit's URL into the program. According to Technorati, Glenn Reynold's very popular blog is worth about $3.8 million! And Daily Kos is valued at $5.7 million!

Monday, October 24, 2005

Body Worlds

As someone with an intense dislike of those medical procedure shows, I wasn't sure what I would think about this, but my curiosity got the better of me. I checked out the Body Worlds exhibition at the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia yesterday, and it is indeed as impressive as it appears to be. Through an innovative technique called plastination, anatomist Gunther von Hagens has managed to preserve all the tissue of real human bodies and display them in various poses in order to show different aspects of the body's systems: muscular, circulatory, nervous, etc. A couple of things that struck me: we are really packed full of stuff inside - there's absolutely no empty space in there. And the fact that you're looking at the insides of real people who were once alive is a little creepy (for some reason it was the teeth that solidified the fact to me that these weren't just models), but the educational aspects make it extremely worthwhile, not to mention the sheer macabe fascination of the whole display.

It's not cheap (understandable given that it takes 1500 hours of labor to prepare one body) but for any of you in the Philly or Toronto areas (where it's also on tour), I would highly recommend it.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Buildings and Bridges Were Made to Bend in the Wind

There is an amedment on the senate floor as we speak to remove especially pork-y funds from the recent highways bill and redirect it to rebuilding the Gulf Coast. The bill is being sponsored by Tom Coburn (R-OK) and has attracted support from a very diverse group, ranging from liberal blogger kos, the Club for Growth, and the Sierra Club (my kind of unholy alliance!). This amendment would specifically cancel the "Bridge to Nowhere" and Don Young Way in Alaska and would direct $454-million to the Katrina reconstruction. A similar amendment proposed by Coburn and directed at projects in Rhode Island, Washington, and Nebraska was rejected by the senate (roll call vote here).

Apparently, Ted Stevens (R-AK) has said he will resign if the amendment passes. Now, I'm not normally one to pray...

UPDATE: Sadly, the amednment has failed, 15-82. Here's a list of senators with the balls to stand up against government pork:

Tom Coburn (R-OK), Russ Feingold (D-WI), Jon Kyl (R-AZ), Jim DeMint (R-SC), David Vitter (R-LA), Mary Landrieu (D-LA), John Sununu (R-NH), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Richard Burr (R-NC), Wayne Allard (R-CO), Jeff Sessions (R-AL), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Mike DeWine (R-OH), Kent Conrad (D-ND), George Allen (R-VA)

The rest of them were too scared it would open the door to them losing their own pet projects.

Pass the Doritos, Man

Scientists have finally answered the question that has plagued mankind for centuries, or at least since the golden age of Up In Smoke: what gives people the munchies when they smoke pot? Researchers have identified the area in the brain where THC is active in stimulating appetite. And this isn't just useful as as an interesting tidbit to impress your stoner friends - they anticipate using this knowledge in designing drugs to combat obesity and anorexia.

Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Giving Peace a Chance

Now, more than any other time over the past 12 years, we are living in a peaceful world. And I would also argue that the long term trend away from war is strongly positive. Researchers at the University of British Columbia found that:

Since the end of the Cold War, the number of armed conflicts has declined by more than 40 per cent, while the number of the deadliest conflicts -- those involving more than 1,000 battle-related deaths -- has dropped by 80 per cent.

Similar to how most people thing crime is getting worse, even though statistics clearly show that violent crime is way down over the past 20 years, our pessimism about society separates myths and reality. They do note increasing concerns about terrorism, but the number of people actually dying in terrorist attacks remains relatively low, especially compared to militray combat.

And quick, what country has been involved in the most wars since 1946? Ready? Answer: The U.K., with 21. France is next with 19, and then the U.S. with 16 (!). Russia is fourth with 9.

A New Kind of French Maid

A guy in Vernon, B.C. has started a housecleaning service that features topless housekeepers. Via the Calgary edition of the Dose (see page 6), we also learn of the inevitable blowback from such a move. The Vernon Women's shelter is calling for the city to revoke their business license, saying it exploits women. As far as I can tell, no one is forcing the women to work for the company, and the pay ($30/hour) seems pretty good to me. I think the (presumably) male clients are the ones getting exploited, as paying $85/hour for nude housekeeping services surely reveals a lack of character and/or brains.

Oh, wait, nobody's holding a gun to their head, either - maybe nobody's getting exploited, and some people just have different preferences and values than others. But we can't have that!

Monday, October 17, 2005

A Cop With Both Brains and An Op-Ed

Although this blog is fast becoming a drug-war rant, I must link to this op-ed in the LA Times by former chief of the Seattle police deptartment, Norm Staper. He begins:

Sometimes people in law enforcement will hear it whispered that I'm a former cop who favors decriminalization of marijuana laws, and they'll approach me the way they might a traitor or snitch. So let me set the record straight. Yes, I was a cop for 34 years, the last six of which I spent as chief of Seattle's police department. But no, I don't favor decriminalization. I favor legalization, and not just of pot but of all drugs, including heroin, cocaine, meth, psychotropics, mushrooms and LSD.

I had no idea there were cops out there who felt more stongly about this than I do. This article is spot-on. Staper addresses both the philosophical problems with criminalizing responsible drug use by adults and the massive unintended negative consequences of the drug war. This nicely coincides with the FBI's yearly crime stats: a new record of 771,605 people arrested in the US for marijuna-related offenses in 2004. And over 80% were for simple possession.

Staper does point out one of the big drawbacks to legalization: the creation of some huge government buraucracy to deal with it, but the inconvenince of dealing with the Drug Control Board seems like a positive trade-off compared to prison time. I don't know if the "no advertising" thing is appropriate, but this guy is saying things that need to be said in every police department and legislature in the country.

You absolutely must read the whole thing.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Women in the Workforce

After two straight posts on mind-altering chemicals of both the legal and illegal variety, I thought it was time to write about a topic with a little more intellectual rigor.

While looking into potential paper topics for students in my economics class, I came across this old article from Slate that looks at what caused the increased participation of women in the workforce. The research indicates that theincrease in women working outside the home can be traced largely to the widespread availability of household appliances like electric irons and washing machines.

Reading this reminded me of a question I have long pondered - what has the greater presence of women in jobs receiving paid wages (and therefore recorded in GDP statistics) done to economic growth over the past 50 years? We're in the midst of a long trend of pretty significant growth in material wealth over that period, while at the same time we've had huge increases in the number of women working outside the home. The fact that 50% of the population is now much more directly involved in the formal economy is bound to create significant multipliers. The question is, how much of the gowth is due to the presence of women in the workforce, and how much would have occured anyway? And perhaps more importantly, what are the economic costs (in terms of missed opportunities for growth) for countries and societies that do not have widespread participation of women in the formal labor market?

Ideally, one would like to compare the economic data from two countries with relatively similar economies except for the participation of women in the workforce and see how their economic growth has differed over time. This is something I would like to spend some time looking into when I get the chance. If anyone has any insights or is aware of any research on this topic, send it my way.

EXCLUSIVE - College Kids Engage in Drinking Games

As a one-time member of a beer pong championship team at a weekend-long bachelor party, as well as being on the losing end (which is a relative term in drinking games, of course) many other times, I was elated to see beer pong featured prominently on the front page of the NY Times (web edition). Much to my surprise, it seems that many college kids are playing drinking games like beer pong and another personal favorite, flip cup (to which we gave the moniker of "Tippy Cup"). These games are even drawing in big business as beer companies and others try to get in on the act. Which of course, leads to the inevitable hand-wringing about the encouragement of binge drinking on college campuses and front-page articles in the NY Times. The appeal of drinking games is summed up ver well in the story by a senior at Drexel:

"If you win, you win. If you lose, you drink. There's no negative."

Well said.

However, many feel that drinking games are a big concern. For example:

"When you play drinking games, you're not really in charge of how much you drink," said Brian Borsari, a psychologist at the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. "Your drinking is at the whim of other players, which can be very dangerous, especially if you're trying to fit in."

Which of course avoids the fact that generally people who play drinking games choose to play them and fully understand the consequences of losing. In fact, those consequnces are precisely why people want to play drinking games in the first place.

Sure, there are bound to be occasional problems when anyone is drinking excessively. But people drink themselves into stupidty without drinking games, and they'll do it with the games, too. And if you try and ban certain drinking games (as some universities have tried to do), students will just create new, innovative ways to make drinking more enjoyable. We came up with The Barnyard Game, which is as stupid (and fun) as any drinking game out there. And as for encouraging binge drinking, the rediculous drinking age regulations in this country do far more to assist in that problem than drinking games ever will. Play on!

Friday, October 14, 2005

Pot Grows Brain Cells!

Well, maybe not quite. But researchers at my old alma mater, the University of Saskatchewan, have found that giving rats marijuana that is 100 times stronger than regular pot actually stimulated the growth of new neurons. If finding ends up being confirmed, does that mean the government should be paying for our weed?

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Locking the Door Behind Them

The NY Times address the issue of using zoning laws to slow down growth in New York City. Residents of less densely-populated neigborhoods are pressuring the city to place tighter restrictions on development, particularly the type that will increase population density. The article is suprisingly balanced, giving time to both those who support restrictions to protect the character of neighborhoods and those who feel that increasing the population density of the city is a positive move. What is left out of the discussion is the economic effect these types of zoning regulations. New York is already one of the most expensive cities in the world in which to live, and my high school economics students will be able to tell you that by reducing the supply of places to live in a given location, you are going to drive up the price. This will also force people who work in the city to live further away and endure long commuting times, increasing traffic congestion, pollution, and demands on transportation infrastructure. Furthermore, there is undoubtly an upper-class welfare angle to this issue. The people pushing for these zoning bylaws are by and large on the upper tier of the socioeconomic totem pole. Zoning laws, while made in the name of preserving "neighborhood character", are a convenient way for people to lock the door behind them by the neighborhood in questions too expensive for the vast majority of citizens, while driving up their own property values. This type of rent-seeking by the politically-connected class of society is all too common and although I completely understand the desire of city dwellers to maintain their neighborhoods as they are, I can't support the consequences of these types of policies.

UPDATE: See here and here for more commentary on this issue.

A Brick From the Wall, Pt.1

Some shockingly sensible news out of the FBI today: officials for the bureau are now saying that they are considering overlooking some minor past illegal drug use when considering new hires. It seems the strict policies currently in place are forcing them to overlook some highly (!) qualified candidates. As casual and responsible drug use has become more common, it's getting harder and harder to find a college-educated person who hasn't at least experimented with illegal drugs to some degree. If this kind of mentality can start to expand into other areas of governance and policy, we could see a welcome shift in the "offical" attitude towards drug use.

"What people did when they were 18 or 21, I think that is pretty irrelevant," said Richard A. Clarke, a former top White House counterterrorism adviser. "We have to recognize there are a couple of generations now who regarded marijuana use, while it's technically illegal, as nothing more serious than jaywalking."

You're preaching to the choir, baby.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Nobel Prize in Economics

The Nobel Prize in Economics (or more accurately, The Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel) was awarded today to Thomas Schelling and Robert Aumann for their work in game theory. That's three Nobel prizes in economics over the past 11 years for research related to game theory (Nash in 1994, Smith in 2002). Here's the story from the NY Times and Fox News. Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution has a couple of posts (with lots of links) on both Aumann and Schelling.

Saturday, October 08, 2005

The Ottawaman Empire

I'm up in Ottawa, Ontario for the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend to visit my good friend Garry and his girlfriend Bonnie, who has just started a PhD at the University of Ottawa. Yesterday we hit the new Canadian War Museum, and today the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Both were excellent: educational, thought-provoking and emotion-inducing for this ex-pat.

Besides that, I've managed to find time to worship at the Church of Tim Horton's every morning:
And I learned how to drive a Southeast Asian taxi at the Canadian Children's Museum:
I need to go back there when I won't have to fight for the best toys with a bunch of 6 year olds. Those kids were totally hogging the crane.

Finally, we made it to the Parliament Buildings and I got to express my feelings on the performance of the government:
Tomorrow I'm off to Montreal for a quick visit with my high school friend Chris, who's a sleazy banker or something there. All in all, it's been a great weekend in Ottawa, and now were getting ready to have a Thanksgiving dinner that can't be beat.
Thanks guys!

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Fishing for Fischer-Tropsch

Brian Schweitzer, the govonor of Montana, had an op-ed in the NY Times this past week advocating the use of synfuels to get us off our dependence on foreign oils. The chemistry behind turning coal into sythetic fuels like gasoline and diesel is called the Fischer-Tropsch process, after the German scientists who developed it. The F-T process is already well-established on a large scale, but is hampered by high capital costs, high operation and maintenance costs, and (until recently) the low cost of crude oil. The use of new high activity catalysts and improvements in the reaction kinetics have brought the price down, and now that crude has been $50-60+ per barrell, the argument for using America's vast coal reserves to create an additional source of gasoline is more appealing. The main problems are going to be the huge start-up costs, which will most likely require government subsidies, and the cost of the energy needed to run a synfuels plant. There will also be environmental-regulatory hurdles to overcome, but if oil prices remain high we could see synfuels coming online in the next decade.

Back to Sweating

It's been a good while since I posted anything about sweatshops and globalization, but I ran across this old article by liberal economist Paul Krugman today and couldn't resist posting it. No matter what you feel about the ethics of cheap third world labor, you have to look at the data: countries that have embraced globalization (and hence, the cheap manufacturing jobs that people love to complain about) have done far, far better economically then countries that have resisted an influx of foreign (i.e. American) corporations. As far as I'm concerned, the results are in, and it's pretty hard to look at them and say globalization is a bad thing. It may leave in a bad taste in your mouth, but it works at making the poor people of the world better off.

Monday, October 03, 2005

Coffee for Common Good

The Canadian government is currently reviewing a proposal by Starbucks to open a music store in the Toronto. They need to determine, of course, if this will be a "net benefit for the country". The level of cultural protectionism entrenched in the Canadian government seems to get more excessive all the time. How about letting the consumers decide if the store is a net benefit to them?

Laptops for Everyone

The day of the $100 laptop is here. Beyond lowering the barriers to entry into the digtal world for the poor in this country, this could prove to be a great opportunity for developing countries, as the laptops are designed to be powered by a hand crank to give it the juice to run. This kind of invention will work to narrow the "technological divide" that makes it more difficult for those without computers and internet connections to keep up with the pace of society. Just think about how difficult it would be for you to find a job without the internet. And if the vision of the inventor comes to fruition and these are indeed distributed to the developing world, these $100 laptops, connected to the ideas available on the internet, could do more for the "spread of democracy" (or even better, the spread of markets) than a dozen military misadventures.