Monday, November 19, 2007

Market failures

Slate has an article discussing the ways that Adam Smith's "invisible hand" of the free market can be very bad at providing goods and services that are outside of the norm.

This brings us back to Nike's new shoe. Foot Locker is full of options that fit me and most other Americans. But American Indians make up just 1.5 percent of the U.S. population, and with feet on average three sizes wider, they need different-sized shoes. If we had all voted in a national election on whether the Ministry of Shoes should make wide or typical-width shoes, we surely would have chosen the latter. That's why Friedman condemned government allocation. And yet the market made the same choice. If Nike's announcement looks like a solution to this problem of ignored minority preference, it really isn't. The company took too many years to bring the shoe on line, and according to the Associated Press, the new sneaker "represents less of a financial opportunity than a goodwill and branding effort."

The Wall Street Journal is reporting on a different sort of market failure: the ever-increasing gap between rich and poor. This might be defensible if the rich were getting richer and the poor richer too -- in fact I remember being suckered into believing this myth as a teenager, but as the WSJ explains, in fact the poor are getting poorer, the middle class are treading water to keep from sinking, while only the rich are moving ahead. America hasn't been so unequal since the 1920s.

Share of national income going to the richest 1%

Sunday, November 18, 2007

If Rudy Giuliani is Ras Al Ghul, is John Edwards Batman?

Ezra Klein suggests that Rudy Giuliani is really Ras Al Ghul:

Our society has reached its peak of decadence, imperialism, and corruption. By appealing to those worst excesses of the American psyche, Giuliani will get elected, and blow up the world, thus wiping our unsalvageable civilization from the map, and bringing the global order into balance. In other words, Rudy Giuliani is really Ra's Al Ghul. Discuss.

Over at Making Light, Teresa Hayden writes a long post about Giuliani. If you thought he was the hero of September 11, "America's Mayor", you couldn't be more wrong: Giuliani is the classic example of the incompetent, selfish, arrogant politician gaining political rewards for dealing -- badly -- with the problems that he himself caused in part.

Most people don't realise just how much of the disaster that was 9/11 was caused by Giuliani's decisions, starting with his decision -- against the advice of anti-terrorism experts -- to site the Emergency Command Centre in the World Trade Building, in a building that had already been attacked, so it would be convenient to City Hall. A nice short walk for Rudy.

There's more, much more. No wonder the New York firemen blame Giuliani personally for the deaths of so many of their fellows:

On 9/11 New York was left without an emergency command center because Giuliani, going against the advice of both the police and fire departments, decided to locate the center conveniently near City Hall in World Trade Center building 7, along with tanks containing tens of thousands of gallons of diesel fuel—in direct violation of New York City fire laws. This was despite the 1993 WTC bombing that proved it to be the number one terrorism target. It was this decision that put him on the street on 9/11 instead of inside a command center coordinating operations. Ironically, this also put him in front of hundreds of media cameras, sparking his image transformation into a “hero.”

While our “hero” was posing for the cameras, however, there was no communication possible between the police department and the fire department, whose REAL heroes were rushing to their deaths inside the towers. And there was likewise no communication between the police officers who identified an open stairway for escape from above the fire zone and the 911 phone operators who were telling soon-to-be-dead office workers to stay put and wait for the firefighters. Giuliani had been aware of the inadequacy of the emergency services’ communications equipment for many years, but did absolutely nothing about it. This criminal negligence also doomed hundreds of firefighters that were unable to hear orders to evacuate the north tower prior to collapse.

Whatever possibility existed for communication between the police and fire departments, whose radios operated on different frequencies, evaporated when Giuliani visited a makeshift fire/police command center that had formed in his absence. There he ORDERED THE POLICE BRASS TO LEAVE and accompany him uptown. This “heroic leadership” effectively put the fire department and police department commanders in different physical locations with no communication possible between them.

Present Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated that he doesn’t have any idea who was in charge on 9/11 because Bernie Kerik and all the top chiefs in the police department basically acted as bodyguards to Giuliani and no one was running the shop.

[Source: The Myth of Giuliani and 9/11]

Those wacky Republicans

It certainly seems to be a pattern... Republican politician makes a career out of discriminating against gays, then gets caught in some sordid, dirty, anonymous tryst with another man.

Last time it was Bob Allen; before him it was Larry "Wide Stance" Craig; and now, Representative Richard Curtis -- what is it with men with a personal name as a surname? -- finds himself in a gay sex extortion scandal after allegedly promising a young man $1000 for unprotected sex, then claiming he only had $100.

Curtis denied he paid the man for sex, and said he had given him gas money.

Now, I don't really care what body parts people insert in other body parts, so long as everybody involved is a consenting adult, but this is newsworthy because Curtis has a history of voting against bills giving homosexuals equal protection under the law: in both 2005 and 2006, he voted against granting civil rights protections to homosexuals, and then in 2007 he voted against a bill creating domestic partnerships for same-sex couples.

Update: Tom's Modern World has a good cartoon covering my thoughts on this issue:


Making Communist Yugoslavia look good

It's certainly very special when the Home of the Free makes Communist Yugoslavia under a despotic totalitarian government look good, but the experience of photographers in the USA is doing that.

Avram Grumer explains:

Back in the ’80s, my parents (who are Balkan folk dance enthusiasts) visited what was then the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, a Communist nation. While there, my father photographed a picturesque lake. He snapped off a shot or two, and was interrupted by a government official who told him that photographing that lake was forbidden, due to the presence of some militarily sensitive facility (I forget what; a power plant or something). My father put the camera away, and that was it. They didn’t confiscate the camera or the film, didn’t make him expose the roll to the light, didn’t haul my parents off for an interrogation. A print of the photo hung on my parents’ wall for years; no sort of industrial facility is visible in it. It’s just a photo of a pretty lake.

Compare that with the treatment this Japanese tourist got at the hands of Amtrak and the New Haven police:

The Japanese tourist was ordered by a conductor on an Amtrak train from New York to Boston to stop taking photos of the scenery "in the interests of national security", and threatened to confiscate his camera. The tourist, who spoke little English, complied with the order and put the camera away in his bag. Nevertheless, at the next stop, the train was bordered by police, who threatened to remove him with force:

The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. [...] The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, "is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

To add insult to injury, it turns out that Amtrak has no such policy prohibiting photography on their trains.

The witness to these events wrote:

It doesn't take more than five minutes, in any airport in this country, before I hear the loudspeaker, "The current terror threat is elevated." We hear “terror” endlessly – traveling, at home, on television, in the news. Recent political campaigns have reminded – no, badgered – us, to be very afraid. What did Franklin Roosevelt say, that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Terror. Paranoia. We can no longer differentiate between terrors. Is this our generation’s enlightened contribution to American culture?

Watching police escort a visitor off the train, I felt anger, not comfort. This action was beyond irritating. It is intolerable, unacceptable. If it bothered me, it paled in comparison to the way it inconvenienced, and will long trouble, this visitor to our country. We disrupted his travel plans and family reunion. Even greater than the psychological damage we inflicted is the harm we’ve done to ourselves. We missed an opportunity to show kindness, to be ambassadors of goodwill. The visitor will return home. He will indeed impress many people – not with pleasant memories and pictures of a quiet morning trip along the New England coast, but with a story of being removed and detained by American police for taking pictures. Do we imagine we’ve gained anything because a single visitor returns home with stories of mistreatment?

Such blatant attempts to intimidate photographers aren't limited to tourists or Arabs. Avram Grumer links to a number of sites documenting these incidents. At one of these sites, "C.E." explains that he's been a professional photographer for thirty years, been taking photos all over the world, during martial law, before and after military coups and terrorist bombings, and even once accidentally inside a military base, and he's never been subject to as much harassment as he receives in the USA. And he is an American.

I think the best, or at least the most amusing, comment explaining why these events are becoming more common came from Chris Waller, talking about the similar situation in the UK:

Increasingly in Britain a lot of overweight young men of low intelligence who are otherwise unemployable are being stuffed into ill-fitting uniforms and given the idea that they are saving the Western world from sinking into chaos as a result of terrorism.

Follow that spam!

Make Wade over at the CA Security Advisor Blog decided to find out what happens when you buy from a spammer.

Our journey begins outside of Washington, DC. I am sitting at my desk, going through my SPAM filtered email, when I see one that catches my eye, “Dreams can cost less repl1ca w4tches from r0lex here”. Sounds interesting I thought, and I could use a new watch. Knowing the harmful effects of opening unsolicited email, I decided to open the email in a controlled virtualized environment.

It seems that the spam most likely originated in a small church in Washington State, probably from a malware-infected computer used by Cheryl Neff, the assistant to the senior pastor. Mark followed the link in the email to a professional-looking, but temporary, website. Using a credit card opened specifically for the experiment, he then purchased a set of earrings for $77 including postage and handling.

Mark followed the money, from websites in China and Korea, through a series of shell companies starting in Las Vegas, and finally ending up in Cyprus where the money was collected. Surprisingly, the earrings may have been shipped from China, but if they were, they got lost in the mail, because the parcel never arrived.

I'm fascinated by the fact that spammers can actually find any buyers at all. Economists will often talk about trust issues. For example, banks tend -- or at least they used to, before the economic rationalists moved in -- to go for big, imposing, expensive buildings, with high ceilings and marble floors and Grecian columns as far as the eye could see. The more risky the industry, the more important to convince people that you are trustworthy by showing commitment. "You can trust us not to take your money and run, because we've invested a lot in this business and we won't be going anywhere for a long time". And yet this seems to go right out the window when it comes to on-line purchases, at least for those who buy from spammers. Most spam websites are active for only a few weeks, before they are close down and re-open under a new name. But there seems to be an never-ending stream of buyers.

It's tempting -- oh, so very, very tempting -- to just put it down to pure, unadulterated stupidity. But that's a simplistic answer. Many buyers are hardly stupid: they have good white-collar jobs, educations, can walk and chew gum at the same time.

So what's going on? Is it that buyers are so naive that they can't recognise that they're being scammed? Is spam just the 21st century version of the old con of selling the Brooklyn Bridge to some country bumpkin, still with hayseed in his hair, visiting the big city for the first time?

I think there's more to it than that. For various reasons (advertising, welfare, the legions of pop-psychology books...), we live in a society that encourages a sense of wishful thinking, that wanting something to be real makes it real. Not that Homo sap needs much encouragement to wishful thinking and delusion. Rather than "if it seems to good to be true, it probably is", too many people act as if "if it seems too good to be true, it will be true anyway just because you deserve it".

Add to that the widespread use of credit cards, which encourages people to act as if money didn't matter even when it does, at least until all five of your cards are maxed out. Since you're not really paying for the goods, the credit card is, the risk is minimal -- or so seems to be the perception.

But one thing that doesn't make any sense to me at all is that people can take seriously any advertising written as shoddily as "repl1ca w4tches from r0lex here". This is worse than Greengrocer's Apostrophe; worse than VCR instructions translated into English from Chinese by a Korean. Not only does it look careless and incompetent, it is a deliberate attempt to bypass software that filters out spam. That screams "Deceit!". Why would anyone choose to buy from somebody who as good as says "Hey, I'm lying to you right now"?

Monday, November 12, 2007

They make it hard to do the right thing

Studies into file-sharing patterns at American universities repeatedly show that the major factor involved is less price and more convenience. It's often been said that you can't beat free, but in fact you can: it's worth paying something for fast, reliable, good service.

There aren't a lot of television programs I watch, but there are a few. I have most of them on DVD box sets, but for the couple remaining, what to do? I for one would never Break The Law, but it gets tiresome watching the latest episode of Heroes by remote viewing: psychic powers are notoriously fickle and unreliable, and can sometimes be slow and flakey.

So I was very excited to receive an email from Amazon telling me that, as somebody who had purchased the Heroes Season One DVD, I might be interested in purchasing Season Two episodes for just ninety-nine cents. Would I ever -- with the current exchange rate, that's around the "sweet spot" that I'd be prepared to pay for Internet downloads.

Alas, it is not to be. They don't want my money:

Before you can download your Unbox video, you need to install the Amazon Unbox video player. ... Currently, the Unbox video player only works on PCs running the Windows XP operating system (see all system requirements) and is only available to our customers located in the United States (see all terms of use).

This is wrong in so many ways...

  • There are standard, open formats for video that are viewable on any computer fast enough to deal with video. Your old Apple II won't make the cut, but there's no technical reason for restricting users to only people using Windows XP.

  • Bittorrent and other file sharing technologies don't restrict users to those in the United States. If the studios want to compete, they better start learning that the marketplace is now global: 95% of potential viewers are not in the USA.

  • Don't try to lock people into your shoddy, proprietary technology: I expect to use the browser and video player of my choice (within reasonable technical restrictions) to watch the videos.

Get with the program guys. You can compete with free, because people do want to pay for the videos they watch. You just have to make it easy for them to give you money, and provide a good service.

Internet tutorials

Justin a.k.a. _harlequin_ on LiveJournal rants the good rant about technical Internet tutorials:

I've been reliving this experience recently by trying to learn to program AVR microcontrollers in C from internet tutorials for "beginners", written by adults with mental capabilities similar to those of the ten-year-old, who hadn't yet grasped the concept that beginners (funnily enough) don't have an expert’s vast array of existing expertise.
It’s cute in a ten-year-old. But coming from an adult, it makes you want to hit them.

Adding insult to injury, they focus on explaining the obvious as if you are a moron rather than a beginner, whilst being completely oblivious to the number of advanced, unexplained steps they unthinkingly used to get there. If these people wrote cooking tutorials, they would go something like:

First, we start with some flour. This is flour [example of flour]. It is white and powdery. You can buy it at a place called a "shop", or a "supermarket", trading for it using a thing called "money". Next, the muffins come out of the oven, cooked and ready. You tell when they are baked correctly because they are brown. Not too brown [example of too brown], and not too light [example of undercooked muffin], just right.

And now you know how to make muffins!


Thanks to Mrs Impala for pointing me at this one.

Secrecy is like a weed

Unless you take steps to keep it under control, it spreads and takes over everything.

The Bush government has been one of the most secretive ever, for less reason than ever before. This stain has started spreading to even scientific organisations like NASA, which has refused to release the results of a survey into airline safety.

Anxious to avoid upsetting air travelers, NASA is withholding results from an unprecedented national survey of pilots that found safety problems like near collisions and runway interference occur far more frequently than the government previously recognized.

NASA gathered the information under an $8.5 million safety project, through telephone interviews with roughly 24,000 commercial and general aviation pilots over nearly four years. Since ending the interviews at the beginning of 2005 and shutting down the project completely more than one year ago, the space agency has refused to divulge the results publicly.

Just last week, NASA ordered the contractor that conducted the survey to purge all related data from its computers.

The Associated Press learned about the NASA results from one person familiar with the survey who spoke on condition of anonymity because this person was not authorized to discuss them.

A senior NASA official, associate administrator Thomas S. Luedtke, said revealing the findings could damage the public's confidence in airlines and affect airline profits [emphasis added].

Heaven forbid if the airlines profits were hurt because people could make informed decisions. That's not the capitalist way!

Secular Party of Australia

Thanks to PZ Myers:

Or see the Secular Party of Australia on YouTube.

Bush elephants

Bush elephants

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Raising our kids to be sheep

One of the side-effects of the utterly moronic "Zero Tolerance" policies of many schools and governments is that it is teaching our kids to be sheep, devoid of moral sense or an understanding of consequences. What else did we expect to happen when we teach our children that taking a butter knife to school is as worthy of punishment as taking a shotgun?

From Berkeley County, Amber Dauge was expelled from school for accidentally taking a butter knife to school:

"I know I made a really stupid decision but I don't think I should be expelled for it," Amber Dauge said.

Amber says that stupid decision was taking a butter knife to school. She ran out of the house to meet the bus while making a sandwich, when she realized she had the knife. She put it in her bookbag, then she put it in her locker at Goose Creek High school. She forgot it was there until a few weeks later when the knife fell out of her overstuffed locker.

"A kid behind me yelled out a comment that I was going to stab someone with the knife and everyone started laughing and the teacher saw it," Amber told us.

You got that everybody? Taking a butter knife to school is "a really stupid decision".

(Putting aside that it was hardly a decision as such, just a spur of the moment thing.)


Voting for a political party that plans to strip you of your legal protections is "a really stupid decision". Taking a third mortgage on your house to buy shares in a company selling paper clips on the Internet is "a really stupid decision". Putting weed killer in a Coca-Cola bottle and then storing it in the kitchen is "a really stupid decision". Using a lit match to look inside your car's petrol tank is "a really stupid decision".

Kicking kids out of school, destroying their chances of getting educated and condemning them to a life as an angry, bitter second-class citizen is "a really stupid decision".

Taking a butter knife to school is so trivial it doesn't even show up on the radar. As sins go, taking a butter knife to school is up there with such heinous crimes as scratching your ear or eating a boiled egg on Tuesdays.

Supporters of Zero Tolerance actually consider the injustice it results in as a plus. The so-called reasoning behind that is that because the rule is inflexible, those at risk of breaking the law are forced to take even unreasonable steps to avoid breaking the rule.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy talk. This puts obedience to the law above the consequences of the law. It is no virtue to obey bad laws, although it may be the path of least resistance. Any law that requires unreasonable steps to avoid breaking it is an unreasonable law, and an unreasonable law is unjust and therefore a bad law.

Some might argue that if the consequences of the act are sufficiently terrible, then unreasonable steps to avoid it might be needed; but that's simply stupid. By definition, if the steps required to avoid breaking the law are unreasonable, either they cause more harm than breaking the law, or they are impossible or impractical to do. Otherwise they would be reasonable!

If obeying the law causes more harm than the thing it is trying to prevent, then we would be better off without the law (it's a bad law); and if it is impractical or impossible to obey the law, then no matter how much you punish people the law will still be broken. A law that can't be obeyed is also a bad law, because we're better off without it: we'd still suffer the consequences of the bad actions, but we'd avoid the needless and pointless punishments. Whipping a baby for wetting itself doesn't stop it wetting itself, and it harms the baby for no good reason. Needless to say, not only are bad laws useless, they can even be counter-productive: people can be driven into socially harmful behaviour.

Whether they are Politically Correct liberals, or conservative god-botherers like "Louisa" who wrote:

I think the School did the right thing the school's laws were made to be obeyed by all students. If the school was to compromise for one, {after all even a butter knife could kill someone}then the next incident? the student would expect the same. Compromise is not the answer. God Is!

they're all moral midgets who shouldn't be trusted with deciding what underwear they wear, let alone something important like the education of our children.

    "Zero Tolerance" in this case meaning "We're too stupid to be able to apply conscious thought on a case-by-case basis". -- Mike Sphar

Grass jelly

Note to self: it doesn't matter how tasty it looks on the label, or how fascinating and exotic it sounds, grass jelly is not fit for human consumption, no matter what millions of Asians say.

Or maybe it's just that I have a surfeit of yin and need more yang in my diet.

Scrumping for loquats

Some of my favourite fruits are loquats. I have fond memories from my teens of climbing loquat trees on my parents farm and gorging myself on the fruit. Since moving back into the city, it's been very hard for me to find them: although there are trees dotted around Melbourne, they have a short season and I haven't seen any greengrocers selling them.

Loquat fruit on tree
So I was especially pleased when Mrs Impala found a tree overhanging a lane way not too far away, and last Saturday we went scrumping. We collected about two kilos of loquats. Yum!

For those who have never tried them, they are a little larger than cherries, yellow when ripe, with between one and four large seeds. They are mostly sweet, although the skin can be a little tart. The flesh itself has a flavour vaguely like a cross between lychee and cantelope.

Top cop criticises war on drugs

Sometimes I think the only people who support the War on Drugs must be on drugs themselves. Never have I seen such a long-lasting, counter-productive policy that is so much worse than the thing it is supposed to be curing.

The Agonist reports that UK Chief Constable Richard Brunstrom took a swipe at the drug war recently:

[Brunstrom says:]
Some say legalization is immoral. That’s nonsense, unless one believes there is some principled basis for discriminating against people based solely on what they put into their bodies, absent harm to others.

This phrasing presents as unpalatable the idea that taking some drugs is intrinsically immoral. However I think it is a moral position held, consciously or unconsciously, by a large fraction of people. Fundamental moral opposition to drug taking may underly some of the difference in the way society treats recreational drug use compared with other risky activities pursued purely for pleasure such as scuba diving or handgliding. Many factors contribute to peoples moral opposition to drug use, some well considered but also some which are ill thought through and have their roots in less salubrious areas of human nature and history.

It is important to examine the roots of commonly held moral beliefs surrounding drug taking because they form the social background to media and policy on the subject. The dramatic changes in policy towards homosexuality in Western democracies in the 20th century could not have occurred without corresponding shifts in moral beliefs in those societies. One key component in ensuring we have better drug laws in future is to raise the standard of the moral debate about drug use from its currently often infantile level.

One of the things that strikes me is the inconsistency in the conservative position on drugs compared to much of the rest of conservative policies.

The stereotypical conservative supports a hard-line prohibition on drugs -- at least, some drugs: I've written about the hypocrisy of anti-drug pundits like Rush Limbaugh and politicians like Jeb Bush before. One of the major arguments supporting that hard-line is the idea that people are weak-willed and easily manipulated into taking drugs against their better instinct. In the conservative mind-view, people are easily manipulated into acting against their own better interests and against their own wishes -- but only when it comes to drugs. When it comes to nearly everything else, the modern conservative position is that people are in full command of their actions: there's no suggestion that (e.g.) advertising might manipulate people into needless consumerism or eating unhealthy junk food.

While progressives like myself have a nuanced view of human nature, that our actions are caused by a mix of factors, some internal and some external, the typical conservative view is schizophrenic: it flip-flops between treating people as masters of their own destiny and slaves to temptation, depending on whom they wish to punish.

Here's a lawsuit I'd like to see

Nicolle O'Neill, of Los Angeles, is suing heiress Paris Hilton for billions of dollars for stealing her look.

According to MX on 1st November, page 3, O'Neill filed a suite claiming "emotional distress" because Hilton ripped off her "stiling" [sic] tips. O'Neill claims that Paris Hilton got the idea to expose her "je-streeng underware" [sic] from her.

And they say MX doesn't cover the important news...

Why the writers are striking

Thanks to Bek for pointing this out to me:

Or go here to see it on YouTube.

I've often said that there are copyright thieves and pirates, and most of them work for the studios. I for one have all but stopped watching television. I have my DVD collection and *cough* off-site backups, and while I'm sorry that the strike will interrupt Heroes and Battlestar Galactica, I support the strike whole-heartedly.


I came across this fascinating little snippet of Australian tax law:

For the purposes of making a declaration under this Subdivision, the Commissioner may:

  1. treat a particular event that actually happened as not having happened; and

  2. treat a particular event that did not actually happen as having happened and, if appropriate, treat the event as:
    1. having happened at a particular time; and

    2. having involved particular action by a particular entity; and

  3. treat a particular event that actually happened as:
    1. having happened at a time different from the time it actually happened; or

    2. having involved particular action by a particular entity (whether or not the event actually involved any action by that entity).


It's good to be back

Between all the extra hours I've been putting in at work, and a few distractions in my private life (good friends going overseas, snakes in the house, house-sitting for other friends, and my brother's future self sending him messages by hologram), I haven't been able to do any blogging. Let's hope I can keep up with all the things I want to write about.

Thanks to Neuromesh for his gentle ribbing about my lack of blogging. (BTW, I love the new banner at the top of the page. Well, I say "new", but it's probably been there for months. Years even. But it's new to me.)