Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Here I Come

An opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (sorry, no link) cites a poll conducted by the University of Maryland on the economic views of people from various countries around the world. In one part of the survey, the following statement was made, and respondents could either agree or disagree: "the free enterprise system and free market economy is the best system on which to base the future of the world." The results were perhaps somewhat surprising: the country with the higest support for this position was China, at 74%! The Phillipines and the US were next, with 73% and 71% support, respectively. Only half of French citizens supported this viewpoint.

Despite their oppresive government, the Chinese clearly seem to have their eyes looking in the right direction to continue their strong economic growth. This market is going to be huge, and getting into it as soon as possible is essential for investors and entrepreneurs. Personally, I don't know how you could argue with the logic of this statement. I mean, what are the other alternatives that might do a better job? Look at the history of the 20th century, and it's pretty clear that hitching your horse to capitalism is a great idea. The fact that the Chinese are seeing this reality is outstanding, and it makes me even more excited for my upcoming trip to China in March. I'm very curious to see how capitalism and globalization are becoming integrated in China (especially in areas outside of the major cities).

Via EconLog.

Tax Cuts Spur...Not Much?

The Economic Policy Institute has an interesting snapshot on job growth under Bush. What they find is that because of Bush's insane policy of coupling tax cuts with increased government spending, the observed job growth over the past five years is due to more government jobs, rather than the stimulation of private investment, as economic theory predicts. I'm generally in favor of tax cuts (although I'm more in favor of reducing spending), but this is an interesting piece of information. In order to get a better idea of what's really happening, a more in-depth analysis would be required, such as correcting for the economic depression that accompanied the start of the Bush administration.

On Lateness

Here's one for those of you, like me, who think we should make it fashionable to be on time.

Klosterman XL

Via To The People, I learn that author/sports fan/music critic Chuck Klosterman (whose excellent books include Killing Yourself to Live and Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs), is writing a blog about his experiences in Detroit in the lead-up to the Super Bowl (and presumably, the game itself, although that's of course tangential to Klosterman's analysis). He's one of my favorite writers, so it will be a treat to read his thoughts this week. He's hilarious, so check it out if you like football in particular, sports in general, or just enjoy laughing at pop culture.

Friday, January 27, 2006

The Long Tail, Revisited

The Stalwart, one of the blogosphere's finest sources on markets and investing, raises a valid objection to the love-in over the long tail. Some evidence from NetFlix indicates that the most popular movies (i.e. the "head" of the sales graph) don't get rented as much because the physical supply of the hottest DVDs can't keep up with the demand, which flies against the theory behind the long tail. However, to be fair to Chris Anderson, he is pretty clear on the point that sales can't be all "tail" - a strong head is necessary as well, as he notes when discussing the failure of MP3.com:

By contrast, the success of Netflix, Amazon, and the commercial music services shows that you need both ends of the curve. Their huge libraries of less-mainstream fare set them apart, but hits still matter in attracting consumers in the first place. Great Long Tail businesses can then guide consumers further afield by following the contours of their likes and dislikes, easing their exploration of the unknown.

So while the long tail may not provide the revolution some have bestowed upon it, to say that its proponents are missing the importance of the hits is somewhat disingenuous. What would be (and will be) interesting to see is how the demand for hits and misses changes when it's all available through streaming, thereby cutting out the physical component and theoretically allowing for a more accurate representation of consumer preferences. Will the most popular movies prove to be even more popular, or will demand for titles further down the tail remain strong? Another aspect of the NetFlix situation that might be interesting is the role of price sensitivity on demand for movies, both mainstream and not. Would people be willing to pay more for the movies with higher demand? Would a lower per-unit price change the demand for less-popular movies? (Obviously, this kind of tinkering would be a profound alteration of NetFlix's business model, so it's primarily of academic interest).


Obviously, I'm not a big fan of Google's decision to allow the Chinese government to censor the results of searches at the Chinese version of the world-beating search engine, although I wonder if getting a foot into the Chinese market will actually assist in changing these types of policies in the long run. Either way, I was discussing the practical implications of the restrictions with a student today and had to plead ignorance as to knowing how this will actually affect searches at the Chinese site. Luckily for me, Clara from Liberty Belles is on the case:

Here's the results of a U.S. Google image search for "Tianamen". Now compare those to the results of the same search on the Chinese site.

Pretty interesting.

Outsourcing Torture

Either I've been under a rock (perhaps true) or this story has been very underreported by the North American media. Allegations and investigations are flying in Europe, however, about the CIA secretly transporting prisoners captured in the war on terrorism to Eastern Europe (bypassing customs and immigration in the process) and having them tortured there. The process involves moving suspects to jurisdictions where harsh interrogation tactics are permitted, thereby sidestepping US law (and/or public opinion) about the treatment of prisoners. Human rights groups are of course jumping with glee/outrage at this, and while these people are often too quick to criticise the US while defending those who might be close to indefensible, I think they are bang on in this case to draw attention to this situation.

The Great Divide

In a post about HSA's, Adrienne Aldredge has to respond to a comment that includes the following:

I get the sense that the fact that people are pleased with their HSAs, that they want them and can have them, is a good reason for their existence (if not the reason). We aristocrats know better, and I’m not being the least bit sarcastic. Letting regular people make decisions about their health care, even if HSAs create incentives for them to spend more time researching their options, is a really bad idea. That’s why I prefer the Cuban model.

The "we can't let people make their own decisions [about X]" line that I've been confronted with quite a few times when debating a number of issues, and I really don't know how to respond to it, because it means there's a pretty huge chasm between your beliefs and mine. Irreconcilable differences. Adrienne responds appropriately:

Well, if you’re being honest, then we’ve arrived at an impasse. I complete disagree that letting regular people make decisions about their health care is a bad idea. As long as you and I fundamentally disagree on that point, it’s almost pointless for us to discuss health care reform.

What's one to do?

Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Real World

The Globe & Mail has an interesting article about recent evidence that rather than the internet compromising our personal relationships, as some have feared, it strengthens them. What isn't discussed is the quality of the relationships we have - and I would argue that the web has allowed them to be more fulfilling, as we are more easily able to connect with people who closely share our interests, tastes, quirks, and passions.

This touches on something that I've pointed out before: why is it that technological pessimists tend to denounce internet experiences or relationships as being less 'real' than our encounters outside the digital realm. It's not so much that I have a problem with criticsm of an internet-dominated lifestyle (although I think these criticsms are misguided), it's the semantics surrounding the world real, as if sitting in front of computer isn't as 'real' as talking on the phone or sitting across a table at a coffee shop. Yes, it is different, but it's merely a different reality than what we conceive of as traditional human interaction.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Blogs Can Be A Mind-Expanding Experience

The little spat over abortion going on between "Jane Galt" of Asymmetrical Information and Peter Northrup at Crescat Sententia is a great example of why I love blogs. I'll admit that Jane Galt is one of my favorite bloggers, and she has has made some of the most reasoned and reasonable positions on abortion I have read. But to see her get taken down a notch (wrongly, I would argue, and with incredible sarcasm) by NYU grad student Northrup and then read her excellent response was both extremely entertaining and very intellectually stimulating. I probably got more out of this discourse than I would get from reading a year's worth of newspapers covering the abortion debate. If you go to the Asymmetrical Information main page here, you'll be able to follow it all if you click the links on the three most recent posts as of Wednesday afternoon (the comments are definitely worth reading, too). The permalinks to the relevant AI posts are here, here, and here, while the dissents from Northrup can be found here and here. Enjoy.


As you may be aware, a number of jurisdictions have moved cold medicenes containing pseudophedrine behind the counter, in an effort to curb production of methamphetamine in home-based labs. As anyone with a passing understanding of the drug war (or just anyone who had seen the movie "Traffic") could have told you at the time, these laws were likely to be ineffective at actually decreasing the use of meth due to the introduction of alternative supply chains to meet the demand, would be an annoyance to consumers of cold medicenes, and would carry with them a string of unintended consequences.

Now, via today's NY Times, we see confirmation of those beliefs. Law enforcement officials in Iowa (and elsewhere) are admitting that the decreased supply of meth from home-based labs has been more than made up for by an increase in imported meth from Mexico. And the imported crystal meth is more pure than the domestic variety, which may result in a high addiction rate (although I would propose that this "cost" is more than offset by the greater purity causing less unexpected consequences resulting from taking drugs with unknown content). Furthermore, the Mexican meth costs a lot more than the home-cooked stuff (due to a high risk premium associated with importing an illegal drug) which has increased the crime rate as those who once cooked at home on the cheap to support their habit are now resorting to theft in order to pay for the drugs.

Pretty standard issue stuff in the never-ending war on drugs. Trying to stop drug use by cutting out suppliers is like the game of Whack-a-Mole: as soon as you stamp out one of them, another pops up to replace it. And the new supply lines might be carrying some pretty nasty baggage along with it. It is absolutely clear a new method is needed to fight the drug war: why will the law enforcement establishment and the government refuse to see this? (I ask this rhetorically, of course. We know why: a lack of willingness to admit when you've been wrong about something, and the fact that so many jobs in the police force and the DEA are dependent upon the indefinite continuation of the status-quo war on drugs.)

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Long Live the Long Tail!

The graph that is helping to revolutionize the world:

This week in Economics class we've been looking at the idea of The Long Tail, and it's pretty exciting. The basis of the long tail is that digital technology and the internet is changing our economy in a profound way, and creating whole new niche markets for off-the-mainstream music, movies, and books that were simply unavailable or very hard to find when physical retailers were the foundation of the entertainment industry. Because the costs of storage and distribution are so much lower at hybrid stores like Amazon (with large warehouses rather than physical retail stores), and especially, at pure digital stores like iTunes or Rhapsody, selling less popular fare has become profitable. For example, Wal-Mart carries about 40,000 songs in its physical stores, whereas Rhapsody has a catalog of 1.3 million songs. Barnes & Noble has 130,000 titles, compared to 2.3 million at Amazon. Or a Blockbuster with 3,000 DVD's competing with NetFlix 25,000 DVD's. In all cases, they both carry the bulky part of the sales chart (the hits), but only the non-traditional retailer can offer the long tail (the misses). The implications for culture are pretty amazing, as unique tastes and preferences can be better catered to, rather than fitting everyone into the most popular parts of pop culture. It means fewer Beatlemania-like events, but it will help create a diversity of entertainment options. Seems like a great thing to me.

If you're interested, the original Wired article by Chris Anderson on The Long Tail is here, and a beautiful souped-up version with graphs of the same article is available here (he's writing a book on the subject that will be available in June). Wikipedia has an excellent entry here.

Super Mario

One of hockey's greatest players and finest ambassadors, Mario Lemieux, has announced his retirement (for the 2nd+ time). This is a little outside of my usual subject matter here, but Lemieux's outstanding career and determination deserve mention. His stats are untouchable by pretty much anyone but Gretzky, with a points per game of 1.88, just behind Gretzky's 1.92, by my calculation. His commitment to the Penguins and the city of Pittsburgh has been unending and that's something very rare in today's professional sports. The guy is the Lance Armstrong of hockey, having fought back from Hodgkin's disease to return to the NHL. And his leadership for Team Canada has elevated some of the best players in the world to achieve great things in international competitions - the 1987 Canada Cup final is one of my earliest enduring memories of watching sports, and Mario was there right up to the big Olympic gold medal victory in 2002 (let's hope for more of the same next month!). A tip of the hat to Mario Lemieux, a true class act.

The Real Class Divide

It lies between the political class and the rest of us. Today's case in point is the injunction against Research in Motion, the company that makes the BlackBerry. Many BlackBerry users are worried that they will soon lose service due to a court order shutdown in a copyright dispute. The kicker? An injunction would not affect BlackBerry products used by U.S. federal, state, or local governments. Because they're so damn important, while the rest of the world can languish in a state of disconnect.

Question, Part Deux

What is it about the NDP (and Jack Layton in particular) that so many young people I know find so appealing? Is it the moustache? The casual tie-less wardrobe? Is it due to the remnants of college-age social activism, yet to be displaced by the economic realities of adulthood? Really, I'd like to know.

Reasons to Celebrate

What are the things I'm most happy about resulting from yesterday's election? Well, I think there are a number of reasons to be positive, at least from my perspective:

1. A shift in the balance of power towards the West. As a die-hard supporter of the interests of Western Canada, I welcome a government that will (likely? hopefully?) be less centered on Ontario and Quebec. For pete's sake, it's about time we elected a prime minister from outside of the province of Quebec! How long has it been (ignoring the mini-leaderships of Joe Clark, John Turner and Kim Campbell)?? The answer: since 1968, when Trudeau was elected, every "non-interm" legitimate PM has been from Quebec - Trudeau, Mulroney, Chretien, Martin. People my parent's age have essentially never had a PM from outside Quebec since they were old enough to vote. Lester B. Perason was the last one. Crazy.

2. The invigoration of new ideas regarding the proper role of government. Stephen Harper is ideologically a small-government conservative, and I look forward to seeing if he advances these ideas on a country that is under the impression that government can (and should) be all things to all people.

3. The Liberals plus the NDP together have enough seats to surpass the Conservatives on any really objectionable pieces of social policy (although I doubt they will try to pull much of this anyway), thereby holding in check my main concern with the Tories.

4. The setbacks suffered by the Bloc. Reducing the influence of the sepratist movement on federal politics can only help the functioning of the government. Duceppe's head will probably roll for their failures, which is a shame because he seems like a smart and balanced politician.


Who are the 3,000+ people who voted for the Communist Party? Do these people have no knowledge whatsoever about the history of the 20th century? Maybe they were being ironic.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Live Election Blogging

It's about 15 minutes till results should start coming in (10pm EST), and I will be trying to give some of my analysis as they roll in, and if all goes well I'll continue updating this post tonight.

10:19pm - the percent vote is pretty even right now (about 35% for both Liberal and Conservatives), which is somewhat misleading because it will be skewed towards eastern results

10:21pm - the Green Party is leading in one riding right now, which would be a great statement if it held. The GP advocates a pretty balanced approach, actually (they are vastly more reasonable than the NDP, and less captured by the unions). Sadly, the Libertarian Party has only found 239 supporters!

11:08pm - The NDP appear to be big winners, going from 19 seats in '04 to a predicted 32 this year. However, their popular vote is only up a couple of points (from 15% up to 17%), so they are clearly just siphoning off a few close seats from the Liberals (~10). The rest of the Liberal seat losses (~20) have gone to the Tories. Interestingly, the Bloc has actually lost seats (54 in '04, down to 50 this year), which doesn't bode well for the sepratist cause. I'll be interested in seeing their spin on that. Even the Conservatives have picked up seats in Quebec.

11:11pm - The Green Party has lost their potential seat in the one riding where they were previsouly leading. Too bad, I would have liked to see them with a spot in the House.

11:14pm - I expect the Conservatives will be disappointed with the outcome of this election, with the recent talk of their opportunity for a majority. It's a victory, but it rings fairly shallow. It really reveals that Canadians were, on the whole, much more interested in punishing the Grits than endorsing the Conservatives.

11:35pm - Nettie Wiebe is leading in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar (my hometown riding). My Mom will be pleased. Although the polls from the Conservative-leaning rural areas are likely still to come in, which may move things in favour of incumbent MP Carol Skelton (Conservative).

11:38pm - Surprisingly, Nunavut is going Conservative. I was under the impression that the territories always went Liberal.

11:42pm - Correction from above: Carol Skelton has indeed taken the lead in Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar and has been declared elected.

11:44pm - Anne McLellan, who has managed to hang on to her Liberal seat in Edmonton Center by the skin of her teeth the past couple of elections, has been defeated. Fairly easily, too, by Conservative candidate Laurie Hawn.

11:55pm - The Bloc can take 10.5% of the national popular vote and win 50 seats. The NDP takes 17% and wins 30. The Green Party can take 4.5% of the popular vote and win zero seats. Incredible. I don't necessarily think this is "wrong", but it's time to give proportional representation or some kind of mixed system some thought. The mix of seats in the House of Commons is clearly not representative of what Canadians want. Or an even better idea: an equal, elected Senate!

12:10am - Well, it appears that things have gone essentially as expected: A Conservative minority government will preside over Parliament for the next few months, until we're forced back to the polls again. Overall, I'm satisfied with the result, given the political climate of the day - the Liberals will need to regroup and clean up their act, and hopefully the Conservatives will do some positive governing on economic issues (supported by... the Liberals?), while being constrained by the other 3 parties on making any objectionable social policy.

8:24am - This morning I see that Martin has stepped down as leader of the Liberal Party - not really a surprise there. I feel badly for him, though; I was always a big fan of his work as Finance Minister and wished he could have gotten a better chance to do the same as PM. One thing that's interesting about how the numbers split is that the Conservatives plus the NDP still don't make enough for a majority, falling one seat short (although I have no idea what issue they would build an alliance over). Andre Aurthur, the lone independent MP elected (in Quebec) could play an interesting role.

8:28 - Also, we see this morning that, in contrast to what I wrote last night, Nunavut did vote Liberal, while the NWT went to the NDP.

Happy Election Day, Canada!

Enjoy exercising your 'civic duty' today, my Canadian friends.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

The Meth 'Epidemic'

or is that the 'Meth' Epidemic?

Jack Shafer's serious debunking of the latest survey on meth use is must-read. He very nicely exposes the fact that this fails on almost any measure what constitutes a good social science survey. These studies about meth use are almost uniformly crappy, and do much to fuel the hysteria over the supposed 'epidemic'. And yes, meth use does cause terrible consequences for many individuals and their families. But that doesn't make if defensible to overstate how widespread the drug's use is across the country.

More on the media's sky-is-falling excitement over meth here.

Keep the Government off Your iPod

The Senate, in their boundless wisdom (while, of course, bowing down to the big businesses interests of the entertainment industry) are putting a bill on the table that will lead to FCC oversight on digital media technologies such as iPods, PSPs, and TiVo. The proposal would mean that the use of these techologies must be certified by the government as not being disruptive to the business model of the entertainment industry. I am strongly supportive of intellectual property rights, but this is not the way to protect artists - creating copy-proof digital information is a futile goal:

Governments that try to protect businesses that demand copy-proof bits are like governments that try to protect businesses on the sides of volcanoes, who demand an immediate end to business-disrupting lava. If the current entertainment companies can't or won't adapt to a world of bits, that's too bad. Let them die, and let new businesses that thrive in the new technological reality take their place. If you can't stand the heat, get off the volcano.

The industry needs to stop fighting progress by using political lobbying, and work on changing their business model so it reflects the new reality. This bill will limit the ability of consumers to use new media technology (for example, by making it difficult to convert files so you can put them on an iPod). The Electronic Frontier Foundation has an action center here, where you can send a message to your Senator urging them to oppose the bill.

via H&R

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Kudos to Google

As if I don't already have enough good things to say about Google, now they are showing that they'll stick to their principles and stand up to the federal government. The Department of Justice has issued a subpeona to Google, ordering that they hand over search records. Unlike AOL, Microsoft, and Yahoo!, Google has challenged the demands of the feds, stating that these records are private. So what are the feds looking for? Information on terrorist groups? Nope. Pornography. That's right: they need to subpeona Google's search records to find out there's porn on the internet. As Jane Galt asks at Asymmetrical Information, don't they have computers over there at Justice?

In a related story, it appears that Google's stock price has taken a hit since this has hit the news, as investors may be fearing that Google is now in the crosshairs of the DOJ. It's sad that Google may have to spend their time defending the company and their user's privacy rather than creating cool stuff like this.

Memo to UN: Grow Some

The UN has once again proven that it is an organization without the balls to tackle controversial issues that may "offend" member states. Despite the laudable intentions of the UN's creation, it has become completely lacking in principles and merely exists as a group of enelected, unaccountable elites who refuse to take a real stand on human rights abuses around the world. Today's example that has me irate is the story that they have cancelled a talk by Mukhtar Mai because the Pakistani government opposed her speaking to the UN. Mukhtar Mai is a woman who was sentenced by a tribal council in her village in Pakistan to be gang-raped for crimes committed by her brother. Rather than commit suicide in this situation, as usually occurs, she challenged the rapists in court, and won a settlement. The UN demonstrates it's illegitamacy by refusing to unqualifiyingly condemn this action, and by placing the feelings of those supporting barbaric, outdated practices above the feelings of a woman raped by order of the court. I can't imagine it could be any more clear as to which side is "right" in this situation. And spare me any discussion about cultural differences and moral relativism: practices like these are wrong, and any country that refuses to put a stop to treating women in ways like these has no business being part of the UN.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Drawing Parallels But Missing the Point

At Reason, Julian Sanchez draws attention to Bush's strange comparison of prohibition to illegal immigration. Bush makes a very good point: alcohol prohibition was a miserable failure, as it created a horrible black market for something that people were going to find a way to get whether it was legal or illegal. Interestingly, he completely misses the obvious parallel to the drug war and instead compares this to illegal immigration (which is also true, of course, but not quite as tight an analogy). Julian sums it up this way:

Sound point, sound point. Except, I've got a niggling feeling that this analogy is even more apt for some other public policy question... what could it be, what could it be?

Hm. I'm stumped.

Can the Beaver Change Its Spots?

I haven’t been blogging much at all recently (work has been very busy), but I due to popular demand (!) I can’t resist making a post updating my views on the Canadian federal election. I have been following the progress of the campaign in the newspaper, although I wish I could have been able to watch the debates on television this week.

It appears at this point that the Conservatives are poised to snatch victory out from under the noses of the Liberals. How do I feel about this?

First off, I’ll get this off my chest: I’m not voting. As much as I would like to make a principled stand against the Liberals for their arrogance and entrenched corruption, I can’t bring myself to support one of the other parties. Also, the logistics are obviously a bit more difficult for me this year, and it’s tough to bother going through it when I don’t feel strongly about the outcome. I can live with either of the two conceivable outcomes: a win for the Liberals or the Conservatives. I am, generally speaking, not unhappy with most of the policies of the Liberal party - there are no issues besides the scandals and a general distrust of a one-party state that would cause me to vote Conservative. I like many of the Conservative economic policies, although I’m not convinced the GST reduction is a better tax-reduction scheme than lowering income taxes (I cautiously supported the latter a few weeks ago on this blog). I find Liberals ingrained anti-Americanism very distasteful, for obvious personal reasons as well as the fact that it is not doing any favours for the economy. Like it or not, our economic well-being is inextricably tied to the economic situation in the States. I know the lack of movement from the Americans on softwood lumber is extremely frustrating for Canadians, and the US position is undoubtedly 99.9% wrong (even for the vast majority of Americans) – but the rage over this issue that is directed towards Americans in general is unfair (it is completely off the radar screen of the general public down here) and should be focused on the trade negotiators representing the US (and really, the problem is a symptom of the incredible power of tightly-focused political advocacy groups in US politics rather than any specific individuals – Canada is just on the losing end of this system, while usually it is the rest of the American people who are getting screwed).

With respect to the notwithstanding clause brouhaha, I think Paul Martin is making a mistake to suggest removing the possibility of a parliamentary opt-out. There’s good reasons to have a (rarely-used) check on judicial authority. If you want to avoid entering into the kind of battles over Supreme Court nominations that are the norm in the US, this is a decent, if imperfect, means to keep the highest court from becoming the final arbiter on policy. That said, I am extremely opposed to using the notwithstanding clause to sidestep progress on gay marriage. Stephen Harper now says he will not use the clause to avoid this outcome, and while I don’t think he really wanted to say that, I believe him – the political fallout from moving from this position would be immense, and I think he is a shrewd enough politician to realize that committing political suicide isn’t worth it on an issue that will end up going against you sooner or later, anyway.

It is starting to look like a Conservative government will form on January 23rd. If it’s a minority one, I’m not entirely displeased with this, although I’d probably prefer a Liberal minority (Frankly, if it wasn’t for these every-18 months elections, I’d like ALL governments to be of the minority variety. Let’s save that discussion for later.). But there are some positives to the Conservative-minority outcome: first off, it pokes the Liberal party into regrouping and proves they are not heirs to the throne of Canadian governance. Second, there may be some improvements in economic policies, and (potentially) a willingness to be more creative with solutions to issues surrounding health care. Third, a more positive relationship with the United States (or at least one where reflexive anti-Americanism is not part of the party culture) should result. Now, there are definitely some concerns: will this more cozy relationship lead us into military adventures around the globe, accompanying our neighbours to the south? (I hope not). Also, what will happen to social policy under a Harper government? This I am actually not overly concerned about, especially if they only form a minority. It will be extremely difficult to move social policy to the right by bringing in members of the Liberals, NDP, or the Bloc (especially the latter two parties). This then minimizes my biggest concern with the Conservatives.

So to sum it up: Harper seems to me moving towards the center on a few issues, or at least realizing he won’t ever form a government by sticking with his right-wing instincts. Has he really changed? I doubt it, but I can deal with a Conservative minority, and can even find some reasons to be optimistic about it. I sincerely hope Stephen Harper does not make me eat my words.

UPDATE (9:00am, Friday): The G&M now has a story this morning that the Conservatives are getting close to hitting majority status, based on seat projections (which are notoriously problematic). I would prefer to see a Harper government constrained by the other parties...is a strategic vote in order?

Saturday, January 07, 2006

In Defense of Procrastination

This week's running theme seems to be challenging traditional notions of personal virtue (first: naps = bad, now: procrastination = bad). As one of the most committed procrastinators I know, I was very pleased to read Paul Graham's defense of "good" procrastination:

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

That's the "absent-minded professor," who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he's going while he's thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it's hard at work in another.

That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They're type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What's "small stuff?" Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It's hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there's a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes-- anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

Read the whole thing. Virginia Postrel has some thoughtful comments on the subject, including making the point that someone has to take care of at least some of the errands sometime, which means you have to either do them yourself, hire someone else, or (the historically preferred option) get married. An agument for time-saving devices around the house! She also asks, and in doing so, answers, the question Sir Francis Bacon asked 400 years ago: why have so many of the most important contributors to human progress (technologically, at least) been childless?

Sometime, I'll get around to thinking about how that thought might affect my life. But I'll do it later.

Chock Full of Truthy Goodness

Lingusits have deemed "truthiness" as the word of the year for 2005. According to one lexicoligist, it means "truthy, not facty". It reminds me of what we used to say in college: "irregardless, it doesn't negify the fact...". Other gems from the year in the opinion of word experts were "whale tail" (the appearance of a thong above the waistband) and "muffin top" (the bulge of flesh often seen hanging over the top of low-rise jeans).

Friday, January 06, 2006

Friday Fun

Via Don Boudreaux at Cafe Hayek, a great political cartoon:

F the FDA

A good number of bloggers are rightly unhappy with the Food and Drug Administration for their decision to take Cylert off the market. It's a drug that helps those suffering from narcolepsy, but because it has been implicated in liver problems in some people, the FDA has pulled the plug on it completely. The inherent problems in the whole FDA approval process is exposed very well by Eric Raymond, who notes that if we choose to live by government regulation, than we also choose to die by government regulation:

The Cylert ban isn’t an accidental failure of the system, it’s an essential one. It wasn’t perpetrated by villains, but by well-intentioned people working the levers of a system designed to elevate “public safety” above individual choice. That system functioned as designed; it’s the design that’s broken.

Julian at Reason also points out that we as individual consumers are better able to make a personal risk assessment than the government:

The FDA's reason is that it has determined "the overall risk of liver toxicity from Cylert and generic pemoline products outweighs the benefits of this drug." Except, of course, that Teresa Nielsen Hayden obviously thought the benefits outweighed the risk. And, of course, there isn't really such thing as the "benefit" or "risk" of a drug in itself, but only the benefit and risk to a particular patient—not just because of physiological variation between people, but because of how we differently value the same sets of positive and negative effects. A sane FDA would give us the information and let us decide for ourselves which way the balance came out.

As they say, Asprin would never get through the current FDA approval process.

The Coffee Question

My good friend Garry, who drinks a lot of coffee, was very intrigued by Tim Harford's Slate article on Starbucks economics. Here's my take on the issue, similar to the comment I left on Garry's blog:

As a non-coffee drinking pseudo-economist, I was interested in this and actually used it as a lesson on price discrimination in my econ class when I first read about it in Harford's book "The Undercover Economist" (a great read, by the way). What the hip Starbucks-bashing coffee drinker should remember is that this practice is not at ALL unique to Starbucks, and is actually extremely common in almost every retail/service industry, and like every other retailer, Starbucks is merely attempting to capture as much of their consumer's willingess to pay as possible.

All that's really happening is that they are charging over their marginal costs for the large coffees - as with most beverages, there is a volume discount (the price per mL is lower in the bigger sizes), but because most of the costs of producing that cup of coffee are fixed (rent, wages, marketing) and independent of the size you buy, the seller has very small marginal costs for producing the larger size, yet can charge a substantial amount more. Fair? You decide. I have no idea about what tastes better, because I can't stand coffee at any size. So either way, I'm sticking with Pepsi.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

All Aboard!

This week's sign that blogging is long past being cutting edge: the NCAA now has it's own blog:

The NCAA's new blog -- the Double-A Zone -- offers an inside look at all things student-athlete. The blog will bring a unique perspective to the connection between academics, athletics and other issues central to the mission of the Association.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

A Canadian Winter Tradition

From the My-Weather-Is-Worse-Than-Your-Weather Files, read this.

Sweet, Glorious Naps

I'm back, with an Ode to Naps. (This seems like an appropriate topic for my first day back at work after a great holiday. Regular blogging should recommence soon.)

I have been an enthusastic advocate for napping for years. College really got me hooked on them, as I would almost always come home from the class day for a nap before practice, and working full-time jobs in the summer always cramped my style because it often precluded the mid-to-late afternoon nap. They work well for me because I'm a night owl and am much more productive late at night (which could be an effect of the napping, of course, rather than justification for it). Luckily, I now have a job where I can (sometimes) fit in a nap during the day, allowing me to (on a good day) sleep when I feel I need it most and get my take-home work done from 11:00pm - 1:00am at night, or thereabouts. Not for everybody, of course, but it works for me. Now, I've long tried to justify my napping with various scientific data. For example, our internal clocks run on a 12-hour cycle, so it makes sense to wind down in the mid-afternoon. Also, almost all other primates have regular naps, so there is clearly a evolutionary component to the practice. And I heard somewhere, years ago, that an hour of sleep during the day is worth three hours at night. Don't know if that last one is true, but I do know that I love naps. Crawling into bed or onto the couch during the day is one of the best feelings I know of, and as I am all for maximizing personal fulfillment and happiness, I hereby pledge to stop trying to justify napping. I do it because I like to, not because it might be good for my health.

How's that for a New Year's Resolution?

Hat tip to Michael at 2blowhards for the inspiration, and a post with lots of good nap-related facts (including an endorsement of napping by the rocket scientists at NASA!).