Thursday, June 29, 2006

Setting Free the Bear

An alternately sad, then wonderful, yet potentially tragic story about nature’s greatest animal: “Boo”, a grizzly bear living in a wildlife refuge in British Columbia, has escaped for a second time in order to pick up chicks. To do so, he broke through a 180kg (about 400 lbs) steel door and stormed over a 4m (over 12 ft) high electrified fence, an enclosure that was thought to be escape-proof. The 480kg (over 1000 lbs) bear is certainly determined to get some action, as he was recently spotted from a helicopter in the company of another bear (who is undoubtedly a female).

How many times did something wrong happen here?

1. Somebody illegally shoots Boo’s mother, making him an orphan. (Incidentally, if I knew who did this, I’d put them in an “enclosure” with Boo, no guns allowed.)
2. They take Boo and put him in captivity, and keep him there indefinitely.
3. After escaping one time, the capture him and put him back in captivity.
4. They say stupid things like “Boo didn’t know how good he had it.” Like they know what’s good for a bear. I imagine if he wanted to get out so badly, it wasn’t that great living in an enclosure without any females. This is like telling a convict “you don’t know how good you’ve got it here in prison.”
5. They propose castrating the bear if they catch him to remove his temptation to escape.

I hope they never find him.

God Spoke To Obama and Said “Bring My People to the Democrats”

Barack Obamalamadingdong goes wrong in two ways with his calls for Democrats to bring more evangelicals into the fold. First, aren’t the Dems supposedly the ones who support keeping a distinct line between church and state? Sure, he’s calling it “faith” here, but we know what that means. Second, isn’t the idea of pandering to religious people for the expressed purposed of getting more votes just kind of icky?

The Charity of Night

Much has been made of the massive donation ($30-ish billion or so) Warren Buffett has made to the Gates Foundation, and it is indeed admirable that he is willing to donate this sum of money to charity. (Best line about it goes to Stephen Colbert: “Warren Buffet is so rich he just hired Bill Gates to spend his money.”) But two points arise from this story that put it into perspective:

1. Not to take anything away from Buffett’s philanthropy, but as Greg Mankiw points out, the current proposal to reduce trade barriers (that is almost certain to fail) at the Doha round of trade talks would produce global gains of about $54 billion annually. So these improvements (lowering tariffs, cutting domestic support payments, elimination of export subsidies) would give the world every year almost double what Buffett can give once after a lifetime of being the world’s most successful investor. Makes it pretty clear: lower trade barriers.

2. I had the pleasure of meeting Don Boudreaux today, chair of the very libertarian economics department at George Mason University (one of the perks of working for a free-market think tank). In addition to meeting with us in the Cascade office this afternoon, he gave a public speech in the evening on the economic foundations of liberty. One interesting point he made was that if you wanted to measure what Warren Buffett has contributed to the world, his charitable donations would pale in comparison to the positive macro effects his brilliant investing has had on global wealth (Boudreaux didn’t have concrete numbers for this, but estimated that this would fall upwards of $100 billion based on standard multipliers used in economic models). With Buffett’s investments in successful ventures, he has given people capital which they have used to create wealth, and we shouldn’t ignore this even in light of his recent altruism.

(K)not Tying

I think Bonnie must have a brick loose, but hey, congratulate these two awesome kids anyway!

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Seantors Attempt to Burn Bill of Rights in Order to Stop the Burning of Flags

A bunch of idiots "patriots" will be attempting to pass a flag-burning bill today (it's actually an anti-burning amendment, but this is how it's usually referred). Tragically, unlike the other stupid amendments that have been proposed recently, this is more than just a political stunt and tragically, actually has a chance of passing. Cross your fingers that this one fails.

UPDATE: In a vote that was too close for comfort, the bill failed by one vote. Apparently 66 senators don't give a damn what the Constitution says (or at least they care about it much less about their re-election chances).

Hip-Level Burns

In my opinion, that sounds more sexy than scary. But this letter to the editor (scroll down) in the NY Times exposes the health risks associated with walking the sidewalks of New York City. For instance: the pesky hip-level cigarette burns and the inescapable clouds of secondhand smoke. Now, I've never found these clouds to be a problem on the street, but I think the letter-writer misses the bigger picture about the health concerns from walking. Yes, it's convenient and perfectly acceptable to rip on smokers, the most indefensible of minority groups. But, I just have to ask Emily Barsh of New York - have you ever noticed something else around the sidewalks that just might be producing about a thousand times more pollutants in a few minutes than smokers produce in an entire day?

[HT: Rogier van Bakel at Nobody's Business]

The Regressivity of Carbon Policy

A story in today's Oregonian on the difficulties facing local hunger-relief organizations due to high gas prices spotlights one of the problems with measures to combat global warming. A carbon-emissions reduction policy will raise the price of energy, which will hurt poor people the hardest. While the upper class can 'afford' an increase in their heating bills and transportation costs, those living on the margins are going to suffer as the price of everything increases. Anyone proposing strong policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions should have to answer this criticism. I am not necessarily saying that a carbon tax (or whatever your preferred policy might be) is something we definitely shouldn't do, but that we need to be aware of the costs and benefits of these policies and who they end up helping and hurting.

Root for the Home Team

Congratulations to the Oregon State Beavers, winners of the College World Series!

Monday, June 26, 2006

Quote of the Day

Jeff Taylor, writing in Reason, comes up with this gem:

Nothing is more dangerous than a lunatic with government letterhead.

Enemy of the Establishment

Oh, Jesus: Richard Morin is worried that Jon Stewart may be “poisoning democracy” by injecting young people with cynical views about politics and politicians, which may lead them to (gasp!)not bother voting. He is so, so wrong: someone being openly critical of the laughable antics of the elected officials in the swamp formerly known as Washington, D.C. is the best thing that’s ever happened to democracy. Hopefully the next generation of voters won’t swallow the crap the politicians try to feed us and will recognize the hypocrisy that emanates from their every move.

[HT: Brian Doherty at Hit & Run, who once penned a fine, inspiring screed on the upside of not voting.]

Private Property Commands Respect

One of the most common defenses of property rights is the idea that when people have ownership of something, they’ll have an incentive to look after it. What’s not mentioned as often is the role that strong property rights play in creating law-abiding citizens among the non-owners. While hiking through some federal land this weekend in the beautiful Mount Hood National Forest, I was reflecting after seeing a sign regarding fishing regulations in a relatively difficult-to-reach stream (i.e. catch and release only, no live bait, etc.). And I thought, “I wonder how many people actually follow those regulations? Would they be more apt to do so if they were fishing on a privately owned stream?” And my conclusion is this: ownership not only confers a sense of responsibility to the property owner, but also commands the respect of non-owners. Most people are much more likely to respect someone else’s property rather than follow guidelines for “public” places. While it’s obvious that people steal other’s private property, there seems to be a genuine and widespread belief that this is inherently wrong. On the other hand, there are many, many people who feel that cheating the government is not at all wrong (some even going so far as to say it is one’s duty). We seem to have a built-in belief that public property is not as worthy of respect as private property: witness the all-too-common vandalism of public spaces, while there appears to be a taboo about doing the same thing to someone’s house. So what this means is that while there are clear reasons to prefer private ownership because of the owner’s sense of guarding over the property, there are also some real and potentially significant benefits to strong property rights because other people will respect those rights. This idea contains a faint echo of the words of Hernando de Soto:

"If you take a walk through the countryside, from Indonesia to Peru, and you walk by field after field--in each field a different dog is going to bark at you. Even dogs know what private property is all about. The only one who does not know it is the government."

The lesson to would-be manipulators of behavior is this: you’ll get a lot further by bestowing property rights to individuals rather than creating rules guiding appropriate use of public land.

Some Whine To Go With Your Gift Card, Sir?

The 21st century's version of the "I-don't-give-a-damn-diploma", the gift card, is under attack in Ontario. Some consumers are upset because they've got gift cards that have expired, and now they're worthless. Which, I agree, really sucks. But assuming that the fact that it expires is written on the card somewhere, or in the agreement the buyer signed to get the card (I can't imagine a corporation missing this step), I see absolutely no reason for the government to step in to answer this "consumer concern". Memo to government: just because people don't like something, doesn't mean that it's your job to step in and try to correct it. Gerry Phillips, the minister responsible for consumer affairs, had this to say:

“I'm not sure they've got a really good defence of why there needs to be a short expiry date on those things."

Um, Gerry, they don't need to defend it - that's the product they sold and the consumer willingly paid for it. But at least he's not as bad as the consumer critic for the (surprise!) NDP, who said "It's highway robbery. It's a scam and it has to be stopped," calling for the government to completely outlaw the practice.

And the comments on this article are just terrible. Most people seem to passionately believe that this is a "scam" or even outright "theft". They clearly have no idea how free enterprise works or even consider the fact that maybe it's their responsibility to read the fine print before they buy something. It's amazing to see that so many consumers think it is "theft" if they can't use a product exactly the way they thought they could, despite the fact that the product obviously has some conditions associated with it. Caveat emptor, people.

The Anthem Disease

I’m not exactly sure where this idea that we need to sing the national anthem before a sporting event came from (my guess is it originated during WWII or the Cold War), but I personally hate it. It just reinforces blind, totalitarian patriotism – something we could do with less of. Like the Pledge of Allegiance, it makes me think of a bunch of Soviet or Chinese kids being made to salute the flag every morning. What exactly does a football game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Chicago Bears have to do with national identity? I can understand it at international competitions such as the Olympics, where the athletes are actually representing their country, not a business that is typically associated with one city. (Let's start hearing the Civic Anthem! At least that makes sense!) And when leagues with multiple countries such as the NHL involved do it, it’s even more frustrating and just encourages people to associate a city’s team with the nation it’s in, despite the where the players are from (gotta cheer for the "Canadian team" in the playoffs). Example: are the Carolina Hurricanes actually an “American” team? Their roster has the following national breakdown:

Canada: 11
United States: 7
Czech Republic: 2
Russia: 1
Ukraine: 1
Sweden: 1
Switzerland: 1

A bunch of Canadians and Europeans (and lots of Americans, granted) playing for their country? No, they’re playing for their team and for their salary, and to a lesser extent the city that is home to the organization. The recent ‘booing’ of national anthems of the opposing “country” at these types of events adds credence to the argument that the anthems play to us at our nationalistic worst. Let’s stop the fascist tradition of playing the anthem before games, and just try to imagine what it might be like.

The Truth About Janeane Garofalo

I have been listening to some “progressive” talk radio out here, and two things that came to mind are worth mentioning:

1) Janeane Garofalo is just awful. Beyond terrible. She makes Sean Hannity (!) sound like a witty, well-prepared, thoughtful professional. (!!) In two hours, she made not ONE constructive or interesting comment on the topic being discussed, and couldn’t even come up with one useless factoid to throw into the mix. Basically, she spends here time taking the topic at hand and throws a “Republicans are evil, sadistic bastards who will eat your babies” spin on it. The liberals get more respect from Rush Limbaugh, and that’s saying something. So calling those at Air America: remove her from the airwaves, pronto – she’s got that perfect mix of annoying and embarrassing that just hurts to listen to.

2) One of the things I find most frustrating things about American culture is the fact that (in many, many circles at least) it is absolutely impossible to discuss an aspect of society, culture, the arts, etc., without somehow framing it in a partisan political manner. You take a genuinely interesting-sounding movie like “The War Tapes”, and you just have a bunch of pseudo-pundits using it as a means to prove their overarching thesis about the wicked ways of George Bush (despite this not being at all the subject of the movie). And there are numerous examples from the right, as well: How can this story be used to discredit the liberals? How can we criticize this movie so as to avoid it making ripples in the minds of voters? And so on, and so on... ensuring that no actual constructive discussion about what a movie like this might have to teach us. Please people, try and just let go for at least a few minutes a day and enjoy the world around you. Brian Doherty nails it in what is one of my favorite pieces ever: “one of government's most pernicious effects is the way it colonizes our consciousness, in a manner deeper and more significant than advertising or markets ever manage.” Read this article - it will make you feel good, and probably sums up my feelings on 'politics' better than almost anything out there. And then ignore the people scoring points for their side in the political game for a few minutes and look around. You’re bound to see some great things out there: people teaching, learning, living, loving, and creating – just as it should be.

Friday, June 23, 2006

The Hitler vs. Coulter Quiz

This is really, really hard.

UPDATE: In the name of political neutrality (so I can make everyone mad), here's a similar one with Al Gore vs. The Unabomber. And how about tackling computer programmers vs. serial killers?

These things are essentially meaningless (unless you're trying to make a really childish partisan political point), but they're kind of funny.

The 10 3 Commandments

A Friday Fun Link:

Stephen Colbert, the king of political satire (he’s certainly been funnier and more interesting than Jon Stewart of late) is right in his sweet spot discussing with Rep. Westmoreland (R-GA) a proposal to have the 10 Commandments brought into the House of Congress. How many can you come up with, Congressman?

Polarized Wages

A proposal to raise the federal minimum wage is creating much debate and silliness in political circles, on the talk shows, and in the blogosphere. It seems like pretty much everyone splits on this issue along party lines, with Republicans opposing it and Democrats supporting it. My question is this: do most conservatives actually know or understand the economic argument against raising the minimum wage? How many will actually say that the artificially-increased price of labor will cause a decrease in the demand for labor, thereby putting many low-income earners out of work, rather than making minimum wage? Or will most make some grousing about “those people (mostly immigrants, no doubt) don’t deserve a raise”? On the other hand, are any liberals actually able to rebut this argument on economic grounds? Think many have even considered the fact that increasing the minimum wage may lead to increased unemployment? Or will most ignore supply and demand and just plead that “these people deserve a living wage”? I’d be shocked to hear your average bleeding-heart liberal give the sound economic rebuttal that if there are monopsony conditions for low-wage workers, the imperfect competition could mean that an increase in the minimum wage will not lower employment and can actually raise efficiency. People are very eager to truncate the debate, but it's clear that it can get complicated (and passionate).

The lesson? Confirmation bias is alive and well, it seems. And I this might be a perfect example of the outsourcing of political decision-making. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it doesn’t bode well for those of us who want individuals to take more responsibility for themselves and their opinions. Freedom’s tough, because it requires some thought.

These Working Conditions Are Too Good

Few organizations have as little credibility to me as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). These people want to control what you are allowed to put into your body - and it certainly should never have fat, salt ("the forgotten killer"), sugar, alcohol, or caffeine in it. In what has to be one of their looniest moves yet (and there's been lots of them), they have teamed up with the union representing some Starbucks employees:

The union contends that Starbucks staff gain weight when they work at the chain. They are offered unlimited beverages and leftover pastries for free during their shifts.

That's correct: Starbucks is being criticized for giving free stuff to their employees. And the union doesn't like it!

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Rich, Fluffy Insanity

In a tasty update on a story I mentioned earlier this week, the Massachusetts legislator who proposed cutting Fluff from schools is now backpedaling, saying he's not "anti-fluff". The best part is that now another state senator has offered up new legislation that would designate the Fluffernutter the "official sandwich of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts":

"I believe we need to preserve the legacy of this local delicacy," Reinstein wrote in the letter to fellow lawmakers. She noted Fluff is free of artificial preservatives or colorings. In an interview, Reinstein said she felt the need to defend the honor of Fluff, protect the rights of parents, and protect a local company. "I'm going to fight to the death for Fluff," Reinstein said. "It's out of control. It's ridiculous that with all the things going on in the state and in the world, we're having this conversation. It's insane." [emp. added]

Indeed it is. Roughly as insane as having an official state sandwich.

Thanks, But If You Don’t Mind I’ll Do the Harm to My Unborn Child Myself

[via H&R]This is too good not to pass along…

On a related front, a recent NY Times article drawing attention to some public health officials comparing not breastfeeding your baby to smoking while pregnant is pretty seriously debunked by STATS at George Mason University.

Global Warming Hysterics

The debate over global warming is an excellent example where the preconceived notions of those involved tends to have a profound influence on the conclusions they draw. For instances, it often frustrates me to see very intelligent people who have a free-market/libertarian perspective on economic issues vigorously challenge the possibility that global warming is happening and that humans are at least partly responsible. What is interesting is that this is exactly the conclusion you would expect them to have, based on their feelings about government regulations and capitalism. Because, let’s presume global warming is real, and is going to be as bad as some people say – this would potentially require a massive, coordinated international effort, with big government involvement and lots of restrictions and regulations on carbon emissions. Which is exactly what lassiez-faire advocates hate. So it’s very convenient to debunk global warming when it will challenge your worldview. On the other hand, there’s a bunch of people out there who love saying that human beings are messing up the planet, capitalism is awful, and who have long strived for more government controls. For these types of people, global warming is the perfect opportunity for them to take power away from the individuals and place it in the hands of governments and academics, who will solve our problems. In both cases, the perspective just reinforces their already-in-place worldview, which many believe in like a religion.

What’s frustrating about this is that it makes reasoned debate rather difficult. Skeptics don’t want to admit that global warming could be “real” because then the other side will say “gotcha! Now let’s talk about restrictions on free enterprise!”. And those with a more environmentalist bent don’t want to admit that there are fairly substantial uncertainties about what the actual costs of global warming will be, or what possible mitigation strategies will cost. It’s amusing that the cost estimates for avoiding global warming generally very nicely follow the ideological foundations of those creating the reports: those who believe strongly in global warming think mitigation will be relatively easy and inexpensive, while those who are more skeptical find that it will be difficult and expensive. Surprises? None. It’s like the “debate” over evolution – conservatives love to poke holes in the unknown aspects of evolution because if evolution is real, it will seriously challenge the basis of many of their beliefs.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

When The Pork Hits the Baby Diapers

One of my favorite blogs is the hilarious To The People, although it's admittedly not for everyone. Since I'm plugging them today, I thought I would do my part to popuralize an expression one of their bloggers came up with a while back. The goal is to rid the world of the utterly lame and overused expression "we can put a man on the moon, but we can't do X"

(With "X" being "cure cancer", "eliminate poverty", "put the Dukes of Hazard back on TV", you name it).

Inspired by a speech on border security by Congressman Patrick McHenry (R-NC) that concludes:

"Mr. Speaker, you are telling me, this report tells me that the Border Patrol can stop 2 pounds of pork in a diaper from entering this country, but we can't stop $58 billion worth of illegal drugs and half a million illegals crossing the border each year? This is crazy. We must fix this problem before people start smuggling themselves in diapers."

Cicero of TtP proposes the following:

Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to popularize this expression. I want to hear a character on TV say "We can find pork in baby diapers, but we can't find a cure for cancer" by the end of the year. Get to it! I know you can make this expression popular. Don't make me have to say, "we can put a man on the moon, but we can't popularize the baby diaper expression."

Perhaps the Empty Base Symbolized The Lack of Support For Arts Funding in Public Schools

As some of you know, I'm pretty critical of so-called "modern" or "pop" "art" (apologies for the gratuitous use of quotations). Today, I happened to come across two outstanding little snippets about the subject that made me delirious with glee.

First, in what is the perfect story that reveals how the pretentious art establishment looks at what they do, comes this story from England. The gist of the situation is that the Royal Academy received a plinth (which I just learned is the term for a slab on which a sculpture is placed) separately from the sculpture that was intended to rest on it. So they judged the pieces separately - and the base was put on display, while the scuplture itself (of a human head) was rejected. Because the base had, you know, "artisitic merit". It goes to show you can find art anywhere, especially if you're looking hard enough. And some people argue that art critics don't excessively "read into" the meaning of various works of art? No matter what your views on modern art are (and above all I think that everyone is entitled to their own opinions about what makes good art), you have to admit this is pretty funny.

And to top off my cynicism about "art", my favorite crude and offensive libertarians at To The People had this to say in a pretty much unrelated post:

Andy Warhol getting shot was the only thing that made his life interesting. It's a Campbell's soup can. I get it. If you have to say something is a commentary on something, it sucks.

Toyota, I Love What You Do For the Automobile Industry

In the Baltimore Sun, Steve Chapman makes the case that global competition (see, it works!) has driven the incidence of problems with new cars down by 80% since 1980. In fact, today's least reliable automaker compares favorably with the best from back then. And these better cars are getting cheaper, relative to inflation. To sum up:

Capitalism and globalization create fierce, relentless pressure for companies to give consumers what they want, which in this market has been more-reliable vehicles for less money. Modern automakers have to operate by two simple rules: Be good, and get better.

Read it, and bask in the glow that comes from living in the golden age of automobiles.

On a related front, Toyota is poised to become the world's largest auto manufacturer sometime soon. More shameless plugging here.

Monday, June 19, 2006

The New Microsoft iPod

I had seen this a while ago, but it was brought to my attention again tonight. For those of you with a bit of an appreciation for the Mac vs. PC war, and an understanding about the differences in (ahem) "marketing strategies", this old video is worth a look. Maybe it's the post-losing-game-seven (plus associated beer) talking, but I think it's hilarious. The best thing about it: it was made by Microsoft employees. It's nice to know they've got a sense of humor.

Blogs Have Ruined Me!

First time in a few years, I’m writing a research report, and to be honest I now find it very difficult to write a quasi-academic/policy paper without the benefits of hyperlinks. I keep wanting to put them in the report I’m writing here at Cascade, thinking "oh, people might want to read a little more background info on this", but it's not really within the scope of the paper to include a paragraph about it. It's surprisingly frustrating, and I definitely feel that it reduces the overall richness of writing (and removes the fun of the hidden surprises behind all those links). It's amazing how limiting NOT being able to do that feels after a year of blogging. I've been saying for awhile that it's only a matter of time until we move to HTML-syle text for pretty much all non-fiction writing (and maybe fiction, too) due to the immense advantages it has over static text. My current experience simply makes this much more apparent. Footnotes, suddenly, seem incredibly lame and out of date.

Trading Down

If you're at all interested in international trade, and specifically George W. Bush's absoutely horrible, no-good, dispicable record on free trade, this excellent article by Bruce Bartlett is highly recommended. Who will be the first elected official to have the balls to stand up to corporate subsidies and say "no more", and then actually follow through?

The End of an Era

As of today, my parents are moving from the house where I, for the most part, grew up in (seen here from the back, to draw attention to my Mom’s gardening talents). It’s a little sad to think that I won’t again be able to run around the place that feels more like home than anywhere else. So long, 3310 Dieppe. It’s been grand.

(That said, I’m excited about their new place.)

The War on Fluff

This won't mean much to the Canadians in the audience, but those who grew up in the States (especially, curiously, those from Massachusetts, for some reason) really love Fluff, which is a marshmallow-like spread. And now, of course, a state senator in Massachusetts wants to ban it from schools. Will our homes be next?

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Give It To Them Straight Up

Jim Henley makes a timely post (for me personally, at least) in light of a discussion we had in our office on Friday about how some libertarian opinions scare off a lot of people who might otherwise join the cause. While referencing the Hudson decision, he then points out that the drug war (well, ending it) is the big issue for libertarians:

...It’s the “realistic” so-called libertarians who show up in one or other forum to chide the movement for marginalizing itself by pursuing the “fringe issue” of drug prohibition. But realistically, drug prohibition is the whole political ballgame. It drives the aggrandizement of police power and the paring of civil liberties. It establishes precedents that generalize to other law enforcement issues. It exemplifies and undergirds the principles of the Loco Parentis state. It is everything any libertarianism worthy of the name must not only oppose, but make central. There is no area of American life where the state said more clearly, “We must be free to kill you with impunity to protect you from making bad choices.”

Amen. I refuse to water down my principles just to make the libertarian tent a little bigger. That's what the mainstream parties have been doing for years, and it's created a political system where anyone with a chance of winning stands for absolutely nothing outside of an extremely narrow band of 'safe positions'. I'd rather state my beliefs clearly and have it repel some people then welcome them in by not admitting that ending the drug war is a big deal if you care ONE BIT about civil liberties. I'd rather be on the outside looking in then sell my soul to the median voter in hopes of gaining entry to a party where unwarranted power, control, and corruption carry the day.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Knocking No-Knock

Every summer it seems like the Supreme Court arrives at a couple of infuriating positions. Last year, it was Kelo and Raich, and this year they're off to a ominous start with Hudson v. Michigan, where they declared that evidence aquired in a no-knock raid can be used in trial against the defendent. Which in theory I suppose isn't completely awful, except for the fact that this is pretty much the lone means of defense we've got against discouraging aggresive police tactics. In light of the numerous innocent people who have been injured and killed (not to mention extensive property damage, which is usually uncompensated) with the paramilitary tactics favored by police these days, this is a very distressing decision. If you want to learn more about this case, Radley Balko is probably the best place to start, and you can also read some opinions here and here.

The Joy of BBQ

If, like me, you believe that pretty much everything is better when it's cooked outside, you'll enjoy this mouth-watering dialogue on grilling over at Slate, featuring some real pros of the trade.

If They Put an Orgy on TV and Nobody Watches It…

…does the network get fined $3.3 million because people complain?

The answer, of course, is yes. 4,221 people associated with the Parent’s Television Council (pretty much the only people who complain about the appropriateness of any TV programming) contacted the FCC about offensive content in a recent episode of Without a Trace. The catch is (besides the fact that the FCC shouldn’t be regulating content anyway) that only two (yes, the number 2) of the people bitching about it actually saw the show – they just heard about it from a PTC e-mail. In a commendable move, CBS is fighting back, calling the claim invalid. I really liked Kerry Howley’s take on this:

It's amazing how 4,221 people can manage to avoid watching such programming, even as our all-powerful CBS overlords strap us down, tape our eyes open, and beam offensive images into our soft brains.

All this comes on the heels of Bush signing a new bill today that greatly increases fines on broadcasters for showing 'indecent' material (whatever that might mean). And, incredibly, as he's signing this bill, our moralist-in-chief had this to say:

"In our free society, parents have the final responsibility over the television shows that their children watch, or the websites they visit, or the music they listen to. That's a responsibility of moms and dads all across the country, to make sure their children are listening to or watching the right kind of programming."

Exactly. So remind me again why do we need a bill like this?

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


Well, we've finally reached the point of complete stupidity where absolutely every behavior is classified as a mental disorder. The straw that broke the camel's back? Now psychatrists say road rage is actually "intermittent explosive disorder". Since this is now a "disease", does treatment for it get covered by medicare? To The People rightly dumps water on the idiotic psychiatrists suffering from Perpetual Diagnostic Disorder both here and here.

Speaking of driving, I'll be enroute to Portland, OR, for the next few days - I start my internship at the Cascade Policy Institute on Monday. So I'll probably back to regular blogging in about a week.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Let A Hundred Flowers Bloom Get Stomped On

Via H&R come two excellent YouTube videos on one of the world’s most interesting and enduring civilizations. The first is a montage of shocking and violent shots from the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, called "Not Settled?. It is simply unfathomable to think that this is a government acting against its own people. The second is a moving piece called "A Short History of China (1949-1989)" . Both videos culminate with the legendary scene of the Chinese student standing down a row of tanks, which is definitely one of the most amazing and powerful images ever recorded.

Terrorism in the Great White North

Kudos to Sgt. Preston and Dudley Do-Right for foiling a terrorist plot in Canada. My question for my Canadian readers is this: does this make you more supportive about the "war on terror" in general, knowing that this isn't just a problem that occurs "somewhere else" (namely, the U.S., although the attacks in Madrid and London should also serve as a reminder that it is not strictly an American problem). As chilling as this discovery is, it's reassuring that the Mounties/CSIS/etc managed to avert the attack before it happened.

But there's other important things going on this week, too. Go Oilers!

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Always Look on the Dark Side of Life

As you may have heard me mention before, I tend to believe that things are pretty good in the world right now and overall things are trending upwards. In particular, I think young people today need to be more appreciative of the amazing time we live in and the wonderful opportunities that we've got these days. However, of course many 20-somethings disagree with me. One who definitely does is Anya Kamenetz, author of "Generation Debt". She's of the whine-me-a-river perspective, and her most recent NY Times column is critical of the abundance of unpaid (or paid very, very little) internships that many people get when they are fresh out of college. As someone who's doing an unpaid intenship myself this summer (albeit partially funded as professional development by my present employer...hey, I'll admit that I'm really, really lucky), I was interested in this article. However, as you might expect, my take is substantially different than Anya's. She sees these opportunities (surprise!) negatively, referring to them as corporate welfare and the interns themselves as the equivalent as illegal immigrants. What's nice, however, is how many young bloggers that I respect call her out on this piece, from all sides of the political spectrum. See here, here, here, and especially, here for some responses - they all do a far better job of critiquing her arguments than I ever could.

USA #1!

In prison population, at least. Another fringe benefit of the "war on drugs", as Radley Balko explains here.

Thank You, Drug Prohibitionists for Making the Problem Worse

It's a well-accepted fact (or if not, it should be) that prohibition of drugs and the subsequent creation of a black market for these illegal products makes them much more dangerous than they already are. The criminal element associted with drugs make violence in dealers much more common (how often are liquor store owners shooting each other?). Furthermore, you never really know what the hell is in the drugs, which some heroin users in Chicago recently discovered by ending up dead.

Homogenous Mixtures Make Boring Stories

Why would anybody be surprised that "Black men in America today are deeply divided over the way they see themselves and their country."? Wouldn't you expect some vast differences in opinion anytime you poll large groups of society that cuts across swaths of geographic regions and economic classes? Why does there seem to be an unspoken assumption that "black men" must have homogenous perspectives on themselves and the society around them?

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Fattest Athlete in the Room

Why do so many people criticize golfers, certain baseball players, and so on, for not being “real athletes” when it is these athletes who have achieved what they have through hard work and dedication as opposed to purely natural gifts, which come into play to a far greater degree in more “respected” sports like football, basketball, or hockey?. Most people could, given enough practice, become relatively good golfers (or so I believe). But there is simply nothing that is going to make anyone except a very elite few able to run 100 meters in less than 10 seconds. If you’re not born with the physical capabilities to do that, all the training in the world won’t make you that fast. But many people (and funnily enough, it seems to especially come from people who don’t do these “non-sports” like golf, curling, etc.) heap far more praise on these athletes who’s success has been more the result of genetics than hard work. To clarify, I’m not trying to say that people who are amazing quarterbacks and point guards shouldn’t be praised for their accomplishments, because they have worked hard to reach the top of their sport – but perhaps we need not be so quick to make jokes about athletes from sports that are less dependent on unique and rare physical attributes.

From an evolutionary psych perspective, perhaps our admiration of elite athletes is just left over from when innate physical gifts were more for survival than they are today. And no matter what, it's still pretty amazing and beautiful to see someone with incredible natural talent as well as practiced skills do something that no other human being on Earth is capable of doing.

The Non-Information Superhighway

While obsessively reading a spat between the libertarians at Reason and some left-leaning types who really fucking hate libertarians at Sadly, No, I came across a frequently-heard argument in support of government that I’ve always found somewhat misguided curious. Inevitably, when these types of discussions occur, the point is made that “government has made lots of really valuable things, just look at the interstate highway system”. This piece of information is always assumed to make an unimpeachable case for government. However, there are two assumptions made when making this statement, both of which are suspect:

1) Why could the interstate highway system not possibly be created by private companies? Given that they’re pretty much all controlled-access highways, it would be relatively easy to make the interstates toll roads (many of them already are), which could create an incentive for private investors to build these roads. Surely, in the absence of interstate road-building by the federal government, someone would have take seen the demand for a high speed road between major US cities and tried to make some money off it. Yes, it may not be as extensive as the system we currently have, but that brings me to point #2…

2) Why is the interstate highway system automatically assumed by everyone to be a good thing? (and this is especially interesting for left wing/environmentalists types). The interstate highway system is basically a subsidy for private automobiles. When these people look to Europe as a model of urban form and public transportation, keep in mind that the interstate highway system has merely made trains, etc. less attractive and more expensive compared to cars for long distance travel. It has encouraged sprawl (which I personally believe to be a ‘problem’ that is greatly exaggerated , but it’s widely derided among those worried about Americans’ dependence on cars).

In sum: while I readily admit that I personally love the interstate highway system, I think it’s far from a slam dunk in terms of it being either uniquely provided by public institutions OR being a net benefit to the country. Without it, the country would definitely look different, but it’s a matter of opinion whether we would be better off. You’d think that people who spout off about how terrible cars are would realize that interstates have merely encouraged the use of private cars as a means of transportation by artificially lowering the marginal cost of travel. If you are going to defend public roads (particularly long-distance highways), you should at least be prepared to accept that they have created some distortions in the urban, suburban, and rural forms in this country, and perhaps not for the better – especially if you use some of the negative indicators on sprawl, public transit, etc. that are popular with the same people who are defending government using the interstate highways. Interstate highways are awesome, but they shouldn’t be paid for using tax dollars – use the government to plan them, sure, but these should be privately-operated, user-pay roads.

And whatever happened to the term “Information Superhighway”, anyway? There's some short-term nostalgia for you.

Friday, June 02, 2006

The Pride of New Jersey

Is now 13-year-old Katharine Close of Spring Lake, who edged out a Canadian (?) to win the National Spelling Bee. Spelling bees are a big deal these days, it seems. Which I don't get. But I'm terrible at spelling (but all you need to do is get close these days, right?...Word will do the rest). Regardless, congratulations to Katharine on the big win.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Bayesian Stats and the NSA

One of the things that always amazes my Environmental Science students is the incredibly high number of false positives you can get when doing tests for diseases that are very uncommon in nature, even if the test itself is relatively accurate. The same idea, using Bayesian statistics, can be applied to the questionably-legal wiretapping/data mining done by the NSA to show that the old saw “if you’re not doing anything illegal, you don’t have anything to worry about” is total bunk.

To illustrate, we’ll need to use some numbers (sorry…exams are over and I’ve actually got time to do this now!). Let’s assume that the test has a 99% accuracy rate for finding terrorist activity when it’s there – in other words, the false positive rate is 1% (1 in 100). Now let’s also assume that the false negative rate is 1 in 1000 (i.e. 99.9% accurate). [Sounds like a pretty accurate test, right?] Finally, in order to apply Bayes’ Theorem, we need to make an assumption about the background incidence of what we’re looking for (this is known as the prior probability). For the sake of argument, let’s use a very aggressive prior: we’ll assume that 1 in 1,000,000 conversations are actually discussing terrorist plots (surely, given the sheer number of conversations going on in the U.S. in any given day this is much higher than the actual rate, but it will prove the point very well. Now we can apply a formulation of Bayes’ Theorem to find what the probability is that a positive result has actually found a terrorist.

[P(TD) x prior] / [(P(TD) x prior) + (P(TD) x (1-prior))]

which is:

.99 x .000001 / (.99 x .000001) + (.001 x .999999)

like you cared about those details.

Now, if the test raises a red flag for a certain person, what is the probability that the person is actually involved in terrorist activity? (Hint: it’s not 99%). By solving the above formula, we get this answer: It’s 0.000989, or 0.0989%. It’s incredibly small. Less than 0.1% of conversations giving a positive result actually involve terrorist activity. In other words, 99.9011% of the people flagged by such a super-accurate system are completely innocent. To put it another way, for every one person they successful arrest using such a program, they’ll have arrested over 1000 innocent people. And that’s using some pretty optimistic numbers for accuracy and a fairly high rate of incidence of threatening conversations. In reality, the numbers are probably much, much more damning…like one in millions and millions if you raise the background rate to a more realistic number (there's probably actually something like a trillion pieces of data to get mined every day).

This is an inherent problem when testing for something that is really rare – your test, no matter how accurate it is, is going to turn in a lot of false positives. This raises all sorts of questions about both the expense of such a data-mining system, and whether the results it churns out are worth the price. Furthermore, it puts the problem of civil liberties in a whole new light, as it’s clear that many, many people will be harassed completely unnecessarily (at least let’s hope it’s just an inconvenience, and not time it Guantanamo Bay).

What all this means is that perhaps computer-guided data mining is not the right method to discover terrorist activity. It’s a great idea for credit card companies, where the costs of all those false positives are small (a simple phone call from the company to check if your recent purchases are legit), or with medical testing, where you are willing to put up with a lot of false positives if it means you can have a very low incidence of false negatives (which you definitely don’t want). However, in this case the resources of the police will be spent investigating thousands of false alarms, wasting time trampling on the civil liberties of ordinary Americans, rather than using their human experience and intelligence to uncover potential terrorist plots.

[Hat tip: Bruce Schneier's article in the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune.]

Update on 'Racism' in Seattle Schools

A couple of weeks I go I ran this post, which brought up a very strange definition of racism being used in Seattle's public schools. Now here's an update on the story, which created a minor fiasco in the blogosphere. There wasn't much written about it in Seattle's mainstream press, but today the Cato Institute's Andrew Coulson had a piece in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that looked at the issue. And faster than you can say "I'm pulling my kid from Seattle's public schools", the page with the interesting definitions of racism is gone from the school district's website (although you can still see it here with Google cache). Pretty funny stuff.

If you're looking for an independent education in Seattle, you might want to look here. It's somewhere I'm keeping in mind as a potential future employer.

Death By A Thousand Cell Phones

There’s some hilariously ironic hand-wringing going on over at DailyKos over a proposal to introduce cell phone coverage to Yellowstone National Park. While I was a late-comer to the cell phenomenon and a pretty recent convert to thinking their useful, I think they receive way more scorn than they deserve. This thread illustrates my point very well. You’ve got someone waxing philosophically about how the National Parks should transport us to a different time, and therefore, cell phones are an abomination, because they might hinder your ability to find the simplicity and peacefulness of nature. And then come the comments, where various people are complaining that they don’t want to have to listen to people babble on cell phones while they’re in Yellowstone (how is this different from just hearing other people talking?) and we also see this little gem of policy analysis:

Do you know what the Park Service's founding document, the Organic Act, says? It charges the NPS to leave parks "substantially unimpaired." The massive and UNNECESSARY noise pollution of cell phone chatter directly violates that charge. (emphasis in original)

I acutally agree with most of this, to a point. But come on, 99.9% of park visitors are driving in cars to Yellowstone on paved roads, eating pre-packaged food, etc., etc., and you’re sitting here complaining because you might have to hear someone TALK while you’re looking at a geyser and that will ruin your "wilderness experience", or that the "noise pollution" of these people talking violates the mission of the National Parks, while all the other infrastructure put there by the NPS doesn’t do that do a far greater degree?. Give me a break. If you don’t want to hear cell phones, or you actually want a wilderness experience that might put you somewhere in a "different time", try to hike more than 3 miles from the parking lot. Or just don’t go to Yellowstone, for god’s sake! The place is a zoo!

The Right to Rock

One of the fundamentals tenets of rock and roll is challenging authority and the status quo. From the original days of the genre, rock that was too close to the mainstream didn’t stay popular (or at least cool) for long. The reinvention of the sound to challenge the old guard is an essential part of rock music’s legend. Therefore, a list of the Top 50 conservative rock songs almost seems a little like an oxymoron. If rock is anything, it’s not supposed to be “conservative”, no matter the politics of the maker (i.e. Ted Nugent). Besides, some of the inclusion on the list are a little curious: Ben Folds? Because “Brick” shows the darker side of abortion? It’s a stretch, considering Ben Fold’s own pro-choice stance. The whole process has the fishy smell of trying to make conservatism seem way hipper than it actually is.

Anyway, maybe this list signals the end of rock as an opposing force to mainstream culture (if that didn’t already happen long ago). Everyone knows that the real music of youth and rebellion now is rap, while rock is for aging hippies and post-grunge hangers-on like me. So in 30 years are we going to see a list of the Top 50 “conservative” rap songs?