Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Hack or leak?--information emerges about Climategate

Visit this thread and scroll down to number 13. Gavin Schmidt--a fairly reliable source on the matter--says that his information is that the files were not leaked but taken by a black-hat hack of the backup mailserver.

In other words, not a leak, let alone the "whistleblower" fairytale that emerged in the denialosphere.

Hmm...if anyone did that to Morano, Michaels, and Macintyre, we'd probably learn who was responsible. Not that I advocate black-hat hacking or anything!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Is California limiting speeding through "social engineering"?

Driving I-5 from LA to the Highway 152 exit for Pacheco Pass/Silicon Valley in the early hours of the morning, I noticed that the near-broke State of California has installed shiny new "radar enforced" signs in the zones that previously were aircraft-only.

The aircraft signs, to some of us, said "If you don't see an airplane, drive a safe, reasonable speed of your choice." I didn't see a single Highway Patrol on my route, but was more reluctant to go more than 9 over than usual. (After going 100 miles without seeing a patrol car, I ceased letting it stop me.)

Was this the point of installing the signs?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Evil, stupid, or neither?

From his yurt near Ulan Bator, the anonyblogger known as "CLS", who largely posts what could be called "human interest" libertarianism on the Classically Liberal 'blog, put up a post today about a tactic he calls "argument from intimidation," an idea he openly borrows from Ayn Rand.

CLS claims that this is a major and perhaps the primary political argument of today. Rather than try to summarize, I quote it below. From Rand:

There is a certain type of argument which, in fact, is not an argument, but a means of forestalling debate and extorting an opponent’s agreement with one’s undiscussed notions. It is a method of bypassing logic by means of psychological pressure . . . [It] consists of threatening to impeach an opponent’s character by means of his argument, thus impeaching the argument without debate. Example: “Only the immoral can fail to see that Candidate X’s argument is false.” . . . The falsehood of his argument is asserted arbitrarily and offered as proof of his immorality.

and from CLS:

What concerns me is that the Argument from Intimidation is often accompanied by the most dangerous political view around: that those who are the object of one's ridicule must be either stupid or immoral. This sort of black/white fundamentalism, in any field, is implies that all dissent is fundamentally immoral, of at best, the sign of a inferior mind at work. Consider the ramifications of that perspective for a moment.

It is an interesting line of thought, for sure--and almost Hansonian in a backwards way--but it's also something that could easily be invoked too often and out of proper domain of applicability to stifle discussion, dodge criticism, or de-legitimize ridicule. There's a time to be logical and meet another as an equal and there's a time to say "pull your head out of your ass" or "don't bother with that guy's take on 'photons' as he admits to not knowing any quantum mechanics." (That is, by the way, based on a real example.) I cannot say whether or not CLS agrees, but I'm fairly certain the would-be philosopher (or, pace John Hospers, the Continental-style "philosopher"/critical theorist) who divided other thinkers into "mystics of muscle" and "mystics of mind" and was known for browbeating people about their supposed irrationality would agree.

The real danger here is invocation of the term by people who are being either fatuous or wicked. Picture the new wanker tactic: the retort to "X is immoral" becomes "yeah you're just arguing from intimidation." Invocation of "argument from intimidation" can be every bit as much an avoidance tactic as the real thing.

I suspect--there are a few cute hints dropped through the post--that I'm the inspiration for CLS taking up this topic, even though he veers away from my personal habits and towards broader relevance in the final portion. In particular, I've browbeat CLS a bit--perhaps in language that's a bit too strong, but readers of Goldwater State and this 'blog know I don't dress things up--lately about modesty, respect for truth, and intellectual due diligence. I also made a statement someplace quasi-private about not being able to tell whether or not the leaked CRU e-mails, like the Geoclimatic Studies hoax, are a test of honesty or IQ or both, which (also privately) seemed to have irked our yurt-dwelling 1970s-era libertarian. (I'm reminded a bit of the account of Emperor Julian writing a play because his beard was mocked...)

If this isn't the case, then I'm being presumptuous. But if it is the case: What CLS doesn't get--and what separates my behavior and that of the many others (see comments on e.g. RealClimate) who see this the way I do from Ayn Rand's "argument from intimidation"--is that we are considering not the conclusion but how it appears the object of our scorn got there.

The Geoclimatic Studies hoax is perhaps the paradigm case. We had a fake paper in a fake journal, written by nonexistent authors from nonexistent academic departments (albeit at real universities) full of obvious nonsense, including mathematical formulae that were difficult to distinguish from random typesetting of symbols. This fake paper happened to claim that global warming had been completely misattributed and was consequently echoed by hundreds of websites (including Reason Magazine's "Hit and Run" in what must surely be the publication's all-time low) and even a few radio shows.

"Stupid and a bit evil" is a more likely descriptor of the hoax's victims than outright evil. Outright evil would be to know that the paper was nonsense but to promote it anyway, for purposes other than exposing the credulous nature of the self-labeled "skeptics". (Whether or not that, too, is evil is a matter for another time.) "Stupid" is to miss that the hoax article was nonsense. Those pseudo-equations were a dead giveaway. The small evil on top of that is to pass the paper on and make a strong claim for it when one doesn't understand. "I don't understand this, but the part that's in plain English supports my pre-determined position, so I will promote it as though it is true" almost epitomizes intellectual dishonesty. "I don't get it" should be a stop sign, not a green light.

I'll admit presently that I have difficulty sympathizing with "I don't get it" as I suspect others experience it. I can't picture how some common mistakes are made. I understand why students often come into introductory physics believing half-consciously in impetus theories of motion. To discern why impetus theories are wrong from everyday experience--or to apply inertial theories to everyday experience--is a tremendously subtle matter. But why someone would even want a classical theory of the photon, or how someone could confuse global warming and ozone depletion is a mystery to me. There are plenty of things in this world I don't understand (from a certain perspective, most things!) and I avoid voicing--I try to avoid holding!--strong opinions on such matters. If I think I understand and I actually don't, I'd appreciate someone telling me, and if I'm arrogant about it, unlike CLS, I'd actually welcome a (metaphorical) brick to the head like Ignatz Mouse would throw at the oblivious Krazy Kat. The most awkward aspect of my lack of sympathy is an inability to understand what it is like to be incapable of understanding or to not know how to bring myself to understand. Skills and arts are one thing, but science, social science, or ability to comprehend philosophers' arguments is another. There are few things I think I would not be able to bring myself to understand were I to care enough--and I know in most instances where I'd start. But I get the feeling that to many, real papers are as nonsensical as the Geoclimatic Studies article. Perhaps in the context of a liberal "democratic" society it is not reasonable to expect someone who thinks he can't understand something or just plain will never be able to understand something to keep his opinion to himself. That's a question I don't purport to answer.

A second paradigm case is that of Ian Plimer, author of Heaven and Earth, which famously claims that volcanic emission of CO2 dwarfs that of human activity. This time around, "not stupid just evil" comes to mind. Given what Plimer does for a living, and the quality of his previous output, one has a hard time thinking it likely that he confused "million" and "billion". Moreover, given that he wrote an extensively footnoted book, it's hard to believe that he didn't know where to look to find information on relative contributions nor to learn the several different ways in which we know his claim is not so. It's more likely that he made the assertion without having researched it at all--something that,being an academic, he would know is wrong! The real problem with Plimer, however, is that even when corrected, he continued in his position, without explanation. To make a mistake is one thing, but to leave it to stand without acknowledgement shows a simple disregard for truth itself.

Plimer's behavior--neither explain nor acknowledge nor apologize for one's mistakes--is fairly typical among climate contrarians, and if I had to choose the reason they're ordinarily regarded as evil, that would be it. As noted earlier, the reason is behavior and not the position.

Perhaps the second is the behavior known as "denialism". There are a few honest contrarians out there, but many will use bad argument just as well as good if it will convince another that the scientific mainstream is wrong. Ross McKitrick, for example, tried to pretend that the lack of abstract existence proofs for solutions to the Navier-Stokes equation had implications against the scientific consensus. That level of sophistication is not needed: so seemingly random and bizarre are the bad arguments that one gets the impression that the average contrarian 'blogger or commentator will point to a baked potato as evidence against AGW if he thinks it will convince someone, especially if he heard someone else do so as well. To a denialist, no argument is bad enough and as soon as an argument seems OK it's ready to send out. An intellectually honest person doesn't stop when he arrives at a result he wants--he's self-critical: skeptical.

Which brings me back to my beef with "CLS". Recently, in reference to the stolen private CRU e-mails, CLS tried to parlay the ordinary process of recommending referees when one submits a journal article into an active effort to corrupt the review process. Moreover he twisted correspondence between scientists concerning the Climate Research scandal into having evil motivation. Scientists standing up for integrity in the peer review process are, to CLS, scientists trying to suppress dissent--a church or religion! That they were protesting the publication of a paper that made claims in its conclusions that could not be drawn from its body is ignored.

It's possible that CLS didn't know the context of these e-mails. In that case, he should have waited, or perhaps just searched using Google as explanations were up by then. But denialists stop and broadcast when convenient, not when appropriate. In this case it was with no regard for the seriousness of the accusation being made. "Forget that reputations could be harmed unfairly, I'm going to stop here and spread my opinion because this is a convenient place to stop." And like Plimer, CLS didn't acknowledge his mistake even after it was pointed out by at least two different people. The lack of acknowledgement makes it seem less like a sincere (if not honest) mistake than like willful disregard for the truth.

Is it "argument from intimidation" to mention this? I don't think so. Is it "argument from intimidation" to recommend the following to CLS and similar characters?: Pull your head out of your ass--it's your behavior, not your position, that draws our ire.

Which is a pity, really, as he's not ordinarily an evil guy. Neither are the folks at Reason who promoted the Geoclimatic Studies paper. There's something about this issue that brings out the worst in many people.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Silly web-writer tricks.

Having been a DMOZ editor for over ten years, I've seen plenty of silly schemes webmasters put together in attempts to increase traffic. Mirror sites, "informative" webpages that are pitches for online pet shops (etc), and the like, submitted thinking that someone editing the Open Directory would be stupid enough to take them for "real" webpages, list them, and boost the search engine page rank for whatever listing counts for these days.

Web writers are picking up some of the same habits. Today I rejected for inclusion something apparently put together by's "Raleigh Libertarian Examiner": a "'blog" consisting of nothing except the first couple of hundred words of each of his Examiner articles, followed by a link to the page.

Maybe it'll fool Google, but it's obvious to a human.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A series of tubes, leading to Lake Wobegon

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, on a five-star scale, the average rating given by a reviewer on the World Wide Web is 4.3. Despite the Web's reputation for rudeness and hostility, the average rating given to goods and services is above average.

Thinking to my experiences as an contributor and ChefMoz editor, 4.3 sounds about right. If people like something, they tend to give it maximum or near maximum rating.

That there's a filtering step keeping most truly lousy products out of the hands of Web reviewers would seem at first to explain this, but it isn't compelling. Yes, consumers--unlike newspaper and magazine writers--tend only to review products they buy, and that they have thus already researched, but this should drive expectations down, certainly not up. Consider that the filtering-by-research means that the average product a savvy customer sees is better than the average product being sold. If we knock all of the one-star products out, the scale we're left with centers on 3.5 stars. If we expect product ratings to follow a Gaussian ("normal") distribution up to the limits posed by the discretization and boundaries, this will bias slightly to the left of 3.5, but the point still stands. Filtering can't explain pervasive overrating.

The U.S. school grading custom, in which scores between 70 and 80 points out of 100 are supposed to be the average, may have something to do with it. Products may start out in people's minds with 5-star ratings, with stars being knocked off for lousiness. That's quite a different thought process than considering 3 stars as average, 2 stars as below average, one star as lousy, etc. Perhaps, as is speculated at the end of the WSJ, the ability to be meaningfully negative--or just to shed Lake Wobegon Syndrome--may come with experience; willingness to give five-star ratings to mediocre goods and services could be simple naivety.

Before adjusting a few Epinions ratings (downward, very slightly), I computed my average rating: 3.18 on a scale from 1-5. That's above 3, probably statistically significantly so, but not by much, and I've been reviewing "great stuff" lately. That the number is close to 3 is reassuring. Then again, when clicking the Haloscan stars on 'blogs, I'm so consistently a downrater that I didn't need much reassurance at all.

If you don't mean to say that something is great--not good, not "great!" like "pizza tonight?--Great!, I want anchovies...", but better than good, one of the best in its area, a real standout, please don't give it five stars.

HT: Mark Stevens

Monday, September 21, 2009

Good cult, bad cult.

Cults, or "New Religious Movements", are as American as baseball, blues, and apple pie, going back almost to our legally tolerant Republic's founding. A slew of prominent ones come to mind: weird messianic offshoots of Christianity like Oneida or the Shakers, oddball sci-fi groups like the Scientologists or Heaven's Gate, Mormonism and Christian Science that became more or less mainstream, and several, like Trascendentalism and Ayn Randist "Objectivism", the practitioners of which insist aren't even religions. I suspect that there's something about American culture that encourages formation of cults as an expression of religiosity--and even if belonging to one is still weird, I'm confident many readers know someone who is a member of one.

This seems mostly like harmless fun. Consider Arizona's Church of Cognizance, which I first heard of due to a recent state Supreme Court decision. It seems to be a group set up so that members have an excuse for smoking cannabis. Maybe the belief is sincere and maybe it isn't--if it was a mere scheme it was clearly poorly thought out given the results in court. I have to remember to forget my Catholic upbringing and not to intellectualize it. "Pot is the key to enlightenment, and the Avesta rocks because it says so too, here and here and here..." is probably closer to the story than "let's find a religious scripture that maybe supports our smoking, so we have a better case." Cults mostly take weird people and give them a framework for their weirdness. I know a person who thinks lizard men are part of a conspiracy to dominate the government. He's also very much into neo-Vedanta.

"Mostly" is the key. Clara Rose Thornton, a Vermont freelance journalist (and former Chicago South Sider) recently went to live with a group called the Twelve Tribes to learn organic farming and reported that the group maintains that servitude is good and proper for people of African descent.. The whole article is one of the better examples of independent journalism I've seen in a long time--not the non-analytic, flaky, affectedly-breezy stuff usually found in alt-weeklies--and is worth a read from front to back.

Freedom of religion is an interesting thing in a free society. Adults converts will believe what they want to believe and it takes nothing short of psychosurgery to get them to stop. Nothing we can do about it. But teaching children things that go against the very foundations of liberty--such as that some are to be subordinate to others due to the location of their ancestors' homeland--presents a conundrum. The children get no choice in the matter, yet teaching religion to children has always been considered part of the adult's freedom of religion.

I'd like to think it doesn't matter because groups like the Tribes are small, but larger religious groups for a long time promoted the subordination of women and some reasonably socially acceptable ones would have God hating homosexuals and somehow it therefore being OK for Man to abuse them, too. And there's a continuum from harmless beliefs--God loves you and you will even get to live with him because his son, who is God too, was a Jewish man executed by the Romans, or we must all go to Mecca and walk around a big rock within our lifetime if we can, or "Mu...and at that moment grasshopper attained enlightenment--to mostly harmless beliefs--you are one of the Chosen People, or conquer the infidels and tax them if they don't convert, or smoke all the weed you like--to harmful ones like the blessing of Châmites is to be servile.

Maybe we've struck the right balance, but when I consider how many people think that scientists must be wrong about global warming because God would never let that happen I have my doubts.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Empty-head syndrome and Facebook memes.

Stupid is as stupid does, but what's obnoxious is intelligent people, people one knows to be capable of analytic, critical thought, being willfully stupid, or at least glib, their head emptying out unpredictably when certain topics come up. Given the current public discussion of health care and health insurance reform, it's an everyday occurrence. This isn't the "why are these people ignorant of free market reform proposals to the point where they think people who oppose their scheme support the status quo" gripe. This is worse.

Circulating on Facebook today as a veritable "Internet Meme" is what seems to be a sort of credo in unum deum for supporters of a broadly leftist agenda for health care reform. (Let's get something straight right now: Virtually nobody is "anti-reform"; most opponents of the "public option" plan support fixing the market.) As follows:
No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick. If you agree, please post this as your status for the rest of the day.

This sounds nice, but let's think about it for a moment.
  1. "No one should die because they cannot afford health care" ("one...they" is grating to the eyes, but that's not the trouble.) The trouble is that this is unattainable unless we go down really nasty paths. There are a few ways to interpret this statement.

    One is as an expression of dissatisfaction with living in a world of finite abundance. Our grandparents are older than molecular biology. Things are getting better and less expensive, but we would always wish them to be better still. This doesn't have any policy implications for health care reform aside from preventing government from thwarting progress by breaking the mechanisms which drive it. It's more of a pro-market than an anti-market sentiment.

    The other way to interpret it is as a call for market abolitionism. I'm not saying that the people posting this this are old-time socialists. It's more slouching toward market abolitionism. Everyone should be entitled to all lifesaving treatments. There should be no way of obtaining lifesaving treatment by paying, because that means that some will go without lifesaving treatment because they cannot pay. This entails a ban on paying for new and better care. Rationing, in other words.

    And don't be so glib to say "but insurance companies ration already." They don't. An insurance company cannot forbid one from paying for treatment. (I support very drastic insurance reform, which would have us shopping around for policies with less uncertainty in what is covered, but that's neither here nor there. I say it because some jerk will say something stupid, nasty, and bizarre if I do not. Times are strange and ideology clouds minds!)

    If you do not support a ban on paying for care, you should not have posted this statement.

  2. "No one should go broke because they get sick." "Fewer people should go broke because they get sick" is something I could sign on to. Get rid of every silly mandate that makes it difficult to purchase cheap health insurance. Mandatory purchase of insurance is something I'm ambivalent about. On the one hand, if someone chooses to not purchase something and assume risk himself, that should be taken seriously. On the other hand, Americans are not going to let people go without basic treatment even if they chose to not hedge against risk, so mandatory purchase may be better than free riders.

    But here's something to consider: What if I get sick and I choose to go broke to purchase the newest, best treatment? Should I be forbid from doing that? Should the State step in and subsidize my choice, transferring from others to me to support a luxury?

The lesson? Think hard before making statements about "no one". More often than not they are far too strong and have you committed to things you probably don't support.

My posted response:
No one should die because redistributionism prevented development of care that could have saved his life. Nobody should go without treatment due to rationing intended to prevent bankruptcy of a government monopsony. Nobody should go bankrupt becaus...e the government prevented purchase of affordable insurance. If you understand this--even if you disagree--you are approaching health care reform intelligently.

Not as catchy, but at least one other person picked up on it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Lying about open carry: if the small lie doesn't work, switch to a big one.

First there was talk of an "assault rifle", now the popular press is making claims that people have been brandishing firearms at the so-called "town hall" meetings concerning health care reform?

What next? Will the word "discharging" be used for carrying? "He discharged his assault rifle into the crowd"?

There is plenty of footage of most of this open carry, and there have been hundreds of witnesses. So far, neither film nor witness reports show that anyone at these events has brandished a weapon.

An assault rifle is by definition a switchable full automatic. And to brandish one must by definition take the weapon into hand. That's not disputable; these are the common meanings of the terms and to use them any other way is to report falsehoods, that is, to lie. End of story.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The most ridiculous health care protest yet.

Proponents of the Obama Administration's plan for crowd-out of private health insurance, the "public option", and wacky positions even farther to the left (single-payer, Europe-style price controls with a market veneer, etc.) are now calling for a boycott of Whole Foods. Phoenix "Liberal Examiner" Marlene Phillips has the best Web article on of the subject.

Apparently, they're upset about Whole Foods CEO and co-founder John Mackey's recent Wall Street Journal guest opinion calling for market-based reforms and private generosity instead of the Democrats' crowd-out plan. (Mackey has remarked on the public response, too.)

That Mackey is and has been for a long time what could be called a "libertarian"--of what variety, I don't know--is old news. See, for instance, his exchange with Milton Friedman (in which T.J. Rodgers also participated by foaming at the mouth about Mackey's "collectivism" like your average Libertarian Party meeting nutcase). Note that the exchange is about the social responsibility of business, and that Mackey's position is probably close to that of the boycott proponents.

I suspect that the lefties proposing a boycott feel somehow betrayed, expecting Whole Foods higher-ups to believe the same as they do about politics. The vulgar leftist thinks that his politics are the necessary consequence of his values. If these characters took the time to learn the "whys" of Mackey's position it would do them well. A person with humane values who understands economics tends toward economic liberalism, that is to say, toward support of free markets. That concern for others that has some of the leftists supporting greater government intervention has people like myself and Mackey instead calling for less.

If you would like to just try to make the world better for people, don't learn economics, and don't be surprised if someone like me calls you on confusing righteous intentions with right action. If you would like to learn how to actually help people, learn economics. Figuring out why Mackey supports what he does--a little bit of Google is all it will take--is a good way to start.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Top article on Google News for a hot keyword.

This is a good feeling! Search Google News for and my Nolan article is at the top. For some reason they're giving the wrong author name, but who cares?

A summary: I recommend reporting all "fishy" left-wing claims about health care or health care reform to and suggest a few to watch for. Follow the above link to read the whole thing.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Yglesias presents an intelligent libertarianism. There's a problem:...

In response to a remark by Tyler Cowen, left-"progressive" 'blogger Matthew Yglesias presents an intelligent libertarianism.

It is an intelligent libertarianism, albeit a somewhat loopy one, that has libertarianism as an esoteric doctrine so as to benefit from gains from widespread belief in capitalist meritocracy. It also shows Yglesias to be either much more of a pessimist or much less versed in basic econ. than I suspected.

The trouble is, although it is an intelligent libertarianism, it's not a libertarianism in which any libertarian I can think of believes. Cowen's take on "progressivism", on the other hand, was an idealization of the real "progressive".

Most of the really vocal and obnoxious libertarians (e.g. the Lew Rockwell crowd) do not believe in an intelligent libertarianism, but those whose libertarianism is intelligent believe something quite different than Yglesias's sketch. They do believe that growth makes most concerns about the justice of the current distribution misguided. (Considering the sum of wealth to be static is perhaps the unifying error of left-wing thinkers from Rawls forward.) But they also believe that people can or ought to be able to get ahead by doing well for others--that laws and regulations ought to be ordered to bring this about--not that people merely derive benefit from believing this. Think, for example, of Mises's remark that profit is obtained by doing in the marketplace what others want.

There is, of course, more to any intelligent libertarianism (e.g. Richard Epstein's, Will Wilkinson's) than this, but it's fairly common.

A remark at the beginning of his post is independently worth considering:
It’s initially tempting to respond to that by listing the intelligent points that I’ve heard made by libertarians, and then explain how a sound progressive politics conducts by incorporating those critiques and moving forward to a higher synthesis.

This is also how a sound libertarianism is constructed. We're seeing this happen: the libertarianisms of Will Wilkinson, Tyler Cowen, Richard Epstein, and Brian Holtz (and myself) are all heavily influenced, in different ways, by the left-liberal and left-"progressive" critiques of old libertarianism. This is a major source of conflict in the movement--the old folks don't really know what to make of it. To them modern libertarianism is "watered down"--the young folks really believe exactly as they do but "compromise and conceal" it. To modern libertarians, however, the libertarianism of Dave Nolan or Jacob Hornberger is a degenerate folk-libertarianism full of ignored subtleties and cognitive dissonances. (Don't ask me in what camp to place the aretaic theories of Rasmussen and Den Uyl; I don't know.)

Monday, July 20, 2009

We will go back to the moon.

I've been extremely busy in the last few weeks, but, strangely, Man's long-term future has occupied many of my idle thoughts--in other words, it's been on my mind--and not because the 20th anniversary of the moon landing has been in the news, either.

We'll go back to the moon as a matter of course. Getting off of Earth and establishing colonies elsewhere is, in the long view, a matter of simple survival. Sol is heating up--and we can move the Earth to compensate, and this is not the cause of short-scale global warming--and will eventually go dim.

But we have to think of it this way: We're a mere sixteen generations, give or take, from the dawn of quantitative science, and only a couple more from nearly universal rule by warlords. Our practical macroscopic theory of electricity and magnetism had its final piece put into place around 1905 and quantum mechanics as we know it is only about eighty years old. We've come a long, long way in a very short time. We're in no rush.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Iran's revolution is poorly reported in the traditional press, but...

Iran's revolution is being poorly reported in the traditional press (and the newspapers' and television networks' Web sites); turn to the 'blogosphere for coverage.

Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish is a great place to start. He has easily trumped CNN, the Chicago Tribune, and the New York Times.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Subtlety: something rarely seen on an editoral page.

"The court in D.C. v. Heller erred in finding an individual right in the Second Amendment, but it would also err in not applying this to the states via Fourteenth Amendment incorporation", goes the argument by the the L.A. Times's editorial writers.

I expect such subtlety from The Economist, perhaps, but not even from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Chicago Tribune; it's thus surprising and somewhat refreshing to see it in the L.A. Times. Its readers would do well to learn from the example: "Is it Constitutional" is a wholly different question from "Do I like the consequences?"

Damon Root, writing for Reason, has given a brief but thorough argument for incorporation. Please point me to law review articles if you find them.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

If I pick my own pocket, I have change in my hand.

From a KGUN 9 (Tucson) report on a health care "town hall" meeting put on by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords:
Rebecca Wilson is a physical therapist. She thinks if we help doctors cover the cost of medical school they won't have to charge such high fees.

"The ones that do go into these kinds of professions that are coming out of school with 100 thousand dollars of debt or more they have to be motivated by money."

They don't require much economics training or analytic thinking in general to be a physical therapist, do they? "Motivated by money" is usually a good thing; we want more people supplying high-priced services, as it makes them cheaper. (Ponder that for a few days, Ms Wilson!)

Moreover, since when was the price of health care--or health insurance, which isn't the same thing--high because med school is expensive? But even if this were the case, it doesn't become cheaper to subsidize medical doctors' tuition fees with taxes, which is presumably what is meant here by "we help". To first approximation, the price of medical services would be offset by the amount of the subsidy. There would be a redistribution from patients to non-patients, a sort of forced insurance-like spreading, but not weighted by risk, which is what these people are calling for anyway, but there'd be no reduction of total cost. When one considers that the med schools will be able to charge more, because more physicians will be able to afford a higher tuition fee once there is a subsidy, it's evident that such a scheme would drive costs up.

Magical thinking abounds. Some people think we can become wealthier by picking our own pockets.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

I'm surprised he's still called "Shorty";

I'm surprised he's still called "Shorty"; I'm not surprised to see him interviewed on

As part of a feature on New Orleans's annual jazz festival, has posted an interview with Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, a New Orleans jazz musician who is today what Jason Marsalis was ten years ago when I moved to the city: the wunderkind who seems to be everywhere and working with everyone.

I caught a very early gig of his at the Maple Leaf in the spring of 2002. (It was early enough that at the beginning of the show, the audience consisted myself and of a few of my friends, there on a whim, and "Shorty"'s brother Jason Andrews.) He and his bandmates were quite good for high-school students. The riffs were all hackneyed, and the improvisation less daring than that of older players, but they played tightly and knew how to structure a show. I've seen the name tossed around the Internet in the last few years--it seemed that the kid stuck around--but, having left New Orleans in 2003, I haven't heard any of the music. Everyone talks about how much they love New Orleans-style jazz, but nobody seems to give it any time on the radio. After reading the CNN piece, I'm inclined to look for a recording or two.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Thanks for the idea!

The quasi-anonymous "CLS", 'blogging on Classically Liberal, reports on a complaint brought to a Neptune, NJ residents' association meeting about "flags being displayed...declaring the occupants' sexual orientation or proclivity — not just the multicolored "gay' striped flags, but also banners indicating fetishes and or other "lifestyle' choices."

No such thing, but I'm reasonably certain that a good marketer could sell them. "Hmm...the frotteurism people don't have a banner yet...and what about the guys who like old-fashioned stockings? And a box of the special lolicon pennants are ready for shipment to Japan!"

Not my line of work, but I wouldn't be surprised to see these appear, thanks to a suggestion from a New Jersey busybody. Ahh, the beauty of the Internet Age!

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

What Donny Ferguson actually wrote in the 23 February Monday Message.

Someone named David F. Nolan has thought it alright to change a single word in Libertarian Party Communications Director Donny Ferguson's 23 February "Monday Message" in order to stir up some action to undo the positive reforms made in that organization over the last few years. It's much more convenient to condemn Ferguson if he is advocating pandering to the voters than if he is advocating winning the libertarian vote!

Pasted below, verbatim, is the message that got Nolan's panties so bunched up. Judge for yourself.

Subject: LP Monday Message: Is the LP really an 'alternative?'
Date: Monday 23 February 2009
From: "Libertarian Party"
To: (scratched by BSK)

Feb. 23, 2009

Your Monday Message From the Libertarian Party:

Dear friend,

Backed by a growing swing vote that decides elections and support for its
economic plans, the Libertarian Party is not an "alternative" political

"Alternative" implies something outside the mainstream or an unconventional
choice. The Libertarian Party, with its sensible balance of fiscal
responsibility and social moderation, is, in fact, the nation's only
mainstream political party.

In a nation where a vast swath of the electorate define themselves as
generally fiscally conservative and socially liberal, it is the Democrat,
Republican, Constitution and Green parties that find themselves isolated on
the extreme left and right. Not only are these the voters who decide
elections, poll after poll finds these voters generally agree more with the
Libertarian Party than any other.

In their 2006 study of the American electorate, The Libertarian Vote, Cato
Institute scholars David Boaz and David Kirby find between ten and twenty
percent of the electorate is generally fiscally conservative and socially
liberal -- in other words, libertarian. A 2006 Gallup Governance Survey puts
the "libertarian" vote at 21 percent, tied with the "liberal" vote and behind
only the "conservative" vote at 25 percent.

That growing libertarian vote is getting close to the same percentage as those
describing themselves and liberal or conservative and large enough to
assemble a winning coalition in election races. Many of the "unaffiliated"
or "non-ideological" voters agree more with libertarians than with
conservatives or liberals.

So why haven't Libertarians won more elections than they already have? With a
renewed focus on winning the LP did win 200-plus races in 2008 and increased
its presidential vote total for the second straight election, but there is
room for so much more growth.

Much of the blame lies with ballot access laws placing an intolerable burden
on citizens who wish to vote for something other than Republicans or
Democrats. The Libertarian Party is hard at work in state legislatures
across the country changing those laws.

Right now is a great time to be a Libertarian. Voters cite economic issues
and job growth as their top concerns in poll after poll, both Libertarian

Those same polls show majorities support the libertarian solution of reducing
the size and government and expanding regulatory and tax relief for
employers. They know it does more to create jobs and renew faith in the
economy than spending $30 million on the "salt marsh mouse," as Democrats
propose, or spending $700 billion bailing out unsuccessful businesses and
trillions more expanding government, as the past big-spending Republican
administration and Congress did.

They're looking for someone to let them know that, if elected, they'll focus
on their concerns by sticking to proven solutions that create jobs and get
capital flowing. Libertarians are the only ones who agree.

The Libertarian Party is not an "alternative." It is the only mainstream
political party in America. That's why it is up to you and me to listen to
those voters, learn what they want us to do and promote solutions voters
agree on.

With optimism,

Donny Ferguson
Director of Communications
Libertarian Party

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Opening a car.

Losing my keys somewhere on the China Lake Naval Reservation, hundreds of miles from both home and my destination, is no fun, but there was a side benefit: I observed for the first time a locksmith at work.

The object is to obtain a code for the car's key, then to cut a new one. It would seem that this is ordinarily done by a sort of bootstrap procedue. First the interior of the car is opened by slim-jimming the lock if possible. Mine was already open. Then, the trunk is opened from the interior, by pulling the lever next to the driver's seat. That is, unless the trunk is in lockout mode, which mine was.

If the side door is not openable by slim-jim or the trunk is unopenable by lever, the alternative is to make a key by impression. The locksmith wiggles a blank in the lock, leaving impressions where the tumbler pins are. Cuts are made in the blank with a rattail file, and the process is repeated; the pins stop leaving marks when the cuts are of proper height. The door or trunk can be opened with the new key, usually with a bit of wiggling as the fit isn't exact.

What follows is removal of a lock cylinder, on which a code is printed that the locksmith can then look up in a reference manual and use to cut a proper key. Some cars--such as, unfortunately, my 2000 Mitsubishi, require a third step: resetting a code in the computer. Many newer cars have a reprogrammable RFID tag in the key that needs to send the right number to the computer in order for the car to be started. No code, no spark. The locksmith has a device not unlike an engine scanner which can reprogram the computer to match the new key; old keys can be reprogrammed using a less portable device.

Interesting stuff. $300 worth of interesting? Maybe not. The Coso Petroglyphs--the reason I was there in the first place--are worth seeing and, as the American Altamira or Lascaux, less well known than they ought to be. Photos to be posted after everything is processed and scanned: so far only my Fuji Acros is back from the lab.

A worthwhile climate lecturer.

Paul Kushner of the University of Toronto gives a truly outstanding hour-long introduction to climate modeling for the scientifically literate audience, managing also to slip in some of his current work, for illustrative purposes, near the end.

I got a chance to sit in on it earlier today, while visiting Stanford University. I recommend him highly as a speaker, if you get the chance to invite him.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

An Epinions shout-out for

Epinions's promotion next month will be contributions to a charity to be selected by member voting. I put in a good word for, managing to name-check Julian Simon, Peter Bauer, Milton Friedman, and Manmohan Singh in the process.

If you write for Epinions, it wouldn't hurt for you, too, to write a review in support of Kiva. If you don't write for Epinions, it wouldn't hurt for you so sign up, write a few beer reviews, and then put in a good word for Kiva, either.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Epstein is probably wrong about the Employee Free Choice Act

Richard Epstein, perhaps the most important legal scholar of our time and certainly the most exciting, has come out strongly against the so-called Employee Free Choice Act, which would establish card-check as a procedure by which labor unions could be recognized.

Epstein studies the law, and I am a physicist, so ordinarily when I disagree with him on law it is because he is right and I am wrong. (Likewise were he to disagree on natural science, it's probably because he is wrong and I am right. To his credit, and unlike many in his region of the political spectrum, he's quiet on the matter.) But this time around, I'll stick my neck out and say that he's probably wrong about the First Amendment implications of the EFCA, although he's right about two important categorical questions: is it harmful, and is it unConstitutional?.

In a recent Wall Street Journal guest opinion, Epstein argues that because employers can currently speak out against unionization, the "clandestine" nature of card-check organizing drives removes their guarantee of free speech. That is ostensibly wrong: one doesn't have a First Amendment right to be heard.

This smells much more like a Due Process matter; employers can find themselves without common law right to contract in the blink of an eye if union salts wage a successful card-check campaign. "Due process" is replaced by no process at all save "we decided and you shall comply."

I find myself wondering if this line of argument would carry any weight in court; I don't recall any cases against the NLRA or agency fees on behalf of either employers or workers who'd rather contract independently in which the Fifth Amendment argument was made. If any readers can point me in the right direction, please do!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Film is dead? Long live Autochrome!

Before there was Technicolor or Kodachrome, there was Autochrome, an additive, nonlayered process involving dyed starch grains and tar on glass plates and later on film. If you've seen color photos of World War I, they were invariably taken using this process.

Neil Burger chose to emulate the unsaturated, fuzzy, somewhat dreamy look of Autochrome in 2006's The Illusionist, a connection lost on most of the audience including myself at the time. French artist Frédéric Mocellin has gone one better and, using factory notes, duplicated the long-lost Autochrome process, albeit on polyester sheets; the results are posted on his website.

Film is dead, they say, surpassed except in large format by high-end digital. I shoot film--I shoot film exclusively--and hear more and more remarks about being "retro", even more when I mention that I prefer Kodachrome 64 to some technically superior E-films in many situations. The reason is simpler, however: I like the look of film--the analog shoulder, the color balance, the grain. I even prefer what happens when film goes wrong to what happens when a CCD is misexposed. And digital is what I deal with at work; film is for fun!

Why would Mocellin revive Autochrome in the age of medium format Ektar and the 20 megapixel CCD? For the same reason artists didn't abandon paint when the Lumière brothers invented Autochrome. It's yet another medium or method for the artist to express his idea. I'm not very worried about being able to purchase film a few years from now. When paints can no longer be found, then perhaps I'll worry. But if all else fails, I can start dyeing potato starch.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Noncyclical Asset

Spending and thrift may come in cycles, but people will turn to product reviews either way and perhaps more when they're pinching pennies; are Epinions reviews a noncyclical asset?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Epstein is at least as impressive in person.

The Goldwater Institute hosted an all too short lecture by Richard Epstein yesterday, for which I made the nearly two hour drive from Tucson.

It was well worth my while; Epstein is at least as impressive in person as in writing, lecturing off-the-cuff with dexterity and humor. The day's stated topic was "The Coming Constitutional Crisis" but the real topic was the administrative state, the substitution of experts and bureaucracy for functions better kept to the judicial and legislative branches. I took notes so as to write a full summary on Associated Content, but they wandered off while I was asking a question in person afterwards. At least one thesis was that the problem is not a lack of judicial restraint nor a complete abandonment of duty but rather that the courts tend to show restraint when they should intervene and vice versa. The opening thought, that most modern Constitutional lawyers concern themselves with questions of institutional competence, kept creeping in as, of course, did Epstein's revolutionary ideas concerning takings.

Much fun for the audience, and I got more than I expected--and by that I don't mean an autograph in my copy of Skepticism and Freedom, although that was nice, too--in answer to a question afterwards about Cass Sunstein's "libertarian paternalism". I asked whether it was a way to "Brer Rabbit" our way away from the administrative state; Epstein replied by illustrating where the idea works (e.g. pension contributions) and doesn't work (e.g. at-will vs with cause termination) and remarking on "Which Sunstein" he'd like to see in the Obama administration.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Capone and Daschle

When they finally got Capone, it had to do with tax evasion. While I don't think that disqualifies someone from serving in Cabinet, I'm happy to see Daschle go. A "Federal Health Board" isn't a fix, it's hoke.

Two worthwhile new climate websites.

The Institute for Environment and Society and the Climate Assessment for the Southwest, both projects of the University of Arizona, have established a website, the Southwest Climate Change Network to better educate the public concerning the effects of climate change, largely tied to global warming, on the Southwestern U.S. and Northern Mexico. It's approachable but with very close connection to rigorous science, something with which we can hit think-tank pseudoscholars over the head when they claim, again, that Global Warming is Totally Made Up, and It's Good for Us, And It's the Sun, Stupid.

But if they remain so obstinate as to not read anything past the third-grade "USA Today" level, send them over to This is Reality, a website devoted to combating the myth of clean coal. No rigor here, at least not on the page, just quotations from publications and a sign-up for mythbusting alerts to be sent when yet another fossil fuel industry whitepaper has the noise machine a-going.