Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Best Birthday Present Ever

After months of waiting and uncertainty, George Mason sent me a letter accepting me into their Master's program. Woot!

Monday, May 30, 2005


Whoa I totally missed it. A week ago today marked my one year anniversary at LL&L with this post. We've come a long way since then and to be sure, there's more to come. Thanks for reading everyone.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

The Bad Boy of Europe?

Today France became the first country to vote against the new EU constitution. Since all members need to ratify the charter to make it a reality, the results single a depressing defeat for the organization. NPR predicted the outcome this morning and speculated its importance, calling France the “undisputed bad boy of Europe.”

The vote was certainly significant, but “undisputed bad boy?” France? France hasn’t been a bad boy since the Napoleonic Wars, and all that instigator got was an ice cream and a psychological complex. (Fun fact: Napoleon was actually slightly taller than the average man of his era; his popular 5’2 was actually measured in French feet. By English feet, his height was just over 5’6.)

So what inconceivable event rocketed a people better know as chefs and surrenders to a nation of bad boys? The short answer is overwhelming statism. The new law restricts immigration barriers and better politically integrates the EU members. The far left complained about overwhelming capitalism, the far right spread fears about loosing national sovereignty, and with it, cultural identity. But it’s nothing more than hype and fear.

Like nature itself, economies and cultures are evolving bodies. They operate best in climates favoring freedom: climates of adaptation. History’s peaceful changes have always been generated by the people and by their will alone. Those who wish to deny economic or cultural evolution deny their fellow man fundamental freedoms, even if they deny it to themselves.

It’s far too easy to reject something when you don’t know what you are missing. So let me illustrate how unreliable paranoid statism can be with a historical example.

Over a hundred years ago, a nasty-looking structure rose above the skyline of a major city. The city wanted it torn down after it served its purpose, a feat belayed as engineers discovered it was ideal for radio transmissions. Otis Elevator Company (an American firm) built the machines that let people explore the building with ease, increasing its popularity. The construct I’m talking about is the Eiffel Tower, France’s best known symbol. If the naysayers had their way in 1889, there would be no Eiffel Tower or at least it would be a bitch to get to the top.

It’s easy not to see glorious possibilities and only fall for reactionary scares. It’s easy to forget centuries of history and progress just to embrace the latest call for authority. It’s easy to treat your fellow man as ingrates that need to be controlled instead of people that want to be liberated. These are the acts of cowards, not bad boys.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Legalizing Responsiblity

No one likes to see people get hurt, especially kids who are at the prime of their life and have so much to experience. That’s why the flurry of car accidents in Maryland last year was so tragic. But instead of encouraging parents to take an active role in their kids’ lives the Maryland legislature is just passing a matching flurry of laws to try to change behavior.

The basic result will bar countless high schoolers from driving themselves teenagers now require at least sixty hours of practice.

Here’s where it gets interesting: according to existing law, the minimum driving age is 18 but parents can sign a waiver so their children can get a learners permit at 15. Most do. The parents are saying they want their kids to drive which means one or more of three things:

1. The parents want their kid to drive themselves because they feel the teen is responsible enough to handle it and wants to allow for real world experience.
2. The student is involved in extracurricular activities and this level of independence makes it easy or possible to continue these activities.
3. The parent is irresponsible and signs the wavier even though the teen isn’t ready to handle driving.

The law makes things worse for all these families. The first two possibilities mean the law takes away freedom and opportunity unjustly. In the last scenario, the law sends a message to the parents and kids: you don’t need to be responsible; the state will take care of that.

And while I’m sure most of the criticisms of the legislation come from those of the first two categories, I’m more concerned about what the last means. It is merely a small piece of a much larger message: Trust must be enforced and not earned. A responsible citizen is a law-abiding citizen. Only the legislators can make you safe, happy and free.

Is that really the message we want to send to our kids?

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Just Turn the Page

Friday’s Des Moines Register published this editorial by Clarence Page where he claims that immigration is only sort of good for the American economy, but controls need to be put on it in order to protect our low-wage jobs.

I never thought I’d hear someone say wages need to be kept low, but there are surprises around every corner.

These low wage jobs are disappearing, but being replaced with higher wage jobs. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more positions will be added to the top quartile of wage earners than all other quartiles combined over the next seven years.

This is happening because our economy is, on the whole, still free and nimble. Entrepreneurs and inventors create new ideas and constantly allow participants to do more with less. Every person adds to that capacity in ways we don’t always see or understand. Page wants our immigration to be “controlled and orderly;” hardly words that fit in with a dynamic, successful economy.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Forging Our Next Second Class Citizen

It begins with a reasonable law, or well-sounding claim. It begins with a call to protecting someone else, someone with a person connection to the people, or the people themselves. It begins with seemly justified paranoia.

Oklahoma just passed legislation requiring all convicted sex offenders to wear GPS bracelets for the rest of their life so law enforcers can track their every move. Even if we go on the rather ridiculous assumption that every single one of these felons really was guilty, they are still citizens of this country and have done their time. Don’t we have a law against cruel and unusual punishment?

Senator Myers defends the law, saying it will make their other laws “faster and more efficient” to implement. If we only cared about our justice system being fast and efficient, we’d just execute all the guilty.

Law, Legislation and Special Effects

There are aliens at the theater.

No, not just the foreign kind, the green-scaled kind too. While all you in the big cities began seeing the Star Wars fanatics form a movie line weeks ago, the local news reported that ours started today. And the only thing more over the top than the costumes is the attitudes.

Most of the public is guarded, but optimistic. But the fans—the hard core fans—have predetermined that this will be the greatest movie in the last several years. These are the same fans that thought Episode II was pretty good and Episode I wasn’t that bad. Why are they not willing to admit the third time is rarely the charm?

Hardcore fans’ relationship with their object of worship is similar to politicians’ relationship with their pet legislation. They trump it whenever they can. They are most likely to dress up for it. They have a hard time admitting when it’s crap. When they do admit it is crap, they always insist it’s because of relatively small problems.

Thus Star Wars fans blame Jar Jar Binks for the poor quality of Episodes I and II just as lawmakers blame legal wording for the failure of their laws. But the problem is always more fundamental. Laws rarely do what they are supposed to do and often make a matter worse. Politicians rarely have the capacity to recognize when a law goes too far (which is most of them). Laws are a hammer and everything looks like a nail.

George Lucas is a poor director and a poor writer. He’s obsessed with special effects and thanks to CGIs, he stuffs them into everything he touches. He spends more time on getting the lightsabers to look right than he does smoothing out dialogue or keeping the plot moving. And because thirty years ago these options weren’t available, Lucas had to focus on the parts that make a good movie good. Ego inflated after decades of constant praise, he has become his own biggest fan, incapable of acknowledging the fundamental mistakes he makes.

Special effects, like laws, have their place, but are devastating in the wrong hands. Those who put them on pedestals are doomed to witness them become untoward. Those who are unwilling to recognize that problem are doomed to repeat it. If special effects are the legislation of the movie world, than its characters are surely humanity and its plot, their everyday activity. That’s what we should focus on: not making it look good with rules and explosions, but by freeing up those core elements that make a movie worth watching, and a society worth living.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Still Nothing On....

Congratulations to MTV for launching its 100th channel (MTV Africa)! I just saw an ad for the celebration. My studies and constant exposure to free markets has really raised my expectations but one hundred channels for one brand name? That’s impressive. Now if only they would play some videos.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Prediction: UK Blackouts In the Next Twenty Years

Greed. For countless people worldwide the word can’t be said without a sneer at free markets and an implicit call for government regulation. Technically meaning “desire beyond need” or “desire beyond merit,” today’s commentators have mutated it to “desire beyond some arbitrary point.”

No where is this more clear than at the Isle of Man Today Newspapers where a recent article trumps new laws that cap power prices. The article demonized producers, calling them “greedy suppliers” after “excessive profit.”

What the article fails to tell you is that this will likely lead to an England energy crisis similar to the one we saw in California a few years back. You probably heard that those blackouts were actually caused by deregulation and corporate greed. You were wrong. While the wholesale price of energy (the price companies charged one another) was deregulated, the retail price (the price consumers pay) remained artificially deflated. Companies did not have a reason to build new power plant (not that other regulations made such construction viable).

I have no idea where this line is that makes legitimate compensation “excessive” or “too much.” I don’t even know why wanting more than what you have is inherently evil. I do know that greed generates the incentive to keep the power flowing. If you think capping energy prices is going to help a country’s most downtrodden, then you better be ready to sit in the dark.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Someone Get Me Some Advil

I try to imagine how much time and money go into fighting the War on Drugs and every time I do, I get a headache. In this opinion piece from Keeping People Connected News of northeast Indiana, the author trumps a new law the governor recently signed.

The law makes it more difficult for people to legally purchase substances that could be used to make meth. Note I said “legally purchase” and not “obtain.” The new law will certainly makes these components more expensive on the black market, but the kids will still use them.

The law puts limits on the amount of ephedrine or pseudoephedrine a person can purchase in a week, requires identification and creates a database of such people for inspection by police. Civil rights arguments aside, the author makes the counterintuitive claim that this will make the community safer. It seems it is more important to do thousands of background checks—most of which are on senior citizens—than to catch murderers and rapists.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Creepy Words of Wisdom

I was wandering around on the White-Wolf forums today when I noticed a user called “DEVONBIRKENEAU” uses an example as his signature to distinguish between “terror” and “horror.”

“Terror is being stabbed to death by a hulking serial killer.
Horror is waking up the next morning, realizing you were self-identifying with another one of your victims...”

Has nothing to do with economics, laws or anything else I usually ramble about, but it’s pretty damn cool.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Cranial Coverage Generates Disorder

In every society, there are people who want to control it so they concoct the most insane relationships of cause and effect and then regulate the “cause.” The most recent example is Tony Blair’s support for laws that ban “hooded tops and baseball caps from the Bluewater shopping centre in Kent.”

Hooded tops, or hoodies, are sweatshirts with hoods. Baseball caps are those rimmed hats associated with one of America’s boring pastimes. It seems these insidious devices cause anti-social behavior orders (asbos) and engender yobs (a British slang term for rowdy, aggressive and violent young men).

I suppose next, the government will suggest everyone wears a uniform to prevent theft.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

An Iowan Design Cartel

So much for my back-up plan to design rooms in my hometown.

Iowa Governor Vilsack signed into law last week a new requirement that interior designers have to be legally registered in order to “protect the citizens of Iowa because they will know if an individual entrusted to create their interior spaces meets baseline professional standard,” said Anita Baltimore, president of American Society for Interior Designers. Apparently, the only way to know about health and safety issues is to be sanctioned by the government after six years of training and experience.

Here is where you can contact the ASID to tell them how they should be ashamed of themselves. I did. Here’s what I wrote.

I have a problem with your organization encouraging useless legislation in Iowa, recently signed by Gov. Vilsack, which requires all designers to have six years of education and experience.

Claiming it is the only way to ensure quality (including in safety and health issues) is a logical fallacy and disproved by centuries of free market activity.

This attempt to form a government monopoly will raise the price of design and encourage consumers to do it themselves. By definition, they are most likely to commit the mistakes that endanger their health and safety.

Since most of your members, no doubt, already meet the registration requirements, your organization clearly does not think they are good enough to compete on a level playing field.

Thus I will endeavor to hire a non-licensed designers (and encourage my friends to do so) for not only will they be less expensive and better at what they do, they will almost certainly be less corrupt.

Sampling the Laws

This is a great example of how one over arching law lends to the creation of a myriad of other legislation. Wouldn’t it be easier to drop the age minimum for drinking? Europeans did and their society isn’t falling apart (well, their economy sort of is, but not their society as a whole).

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Jesus Christ in Legal Battle in W.Va.

You have to take a look at this. It’s too funny.

Job Search Job

Job had a pretty bad run of luck: boils, the death of his wife, and more importantly, his sheep. I am tempted to feel sometimes that my job search is plagued by Job-like pestilence: few call backs, a lack of experience, two cars, neither of which is reliable, and even a little religious discrimination thrown in for good measure. But alas, Job’s fortune turned around, and so will mine…eventually.

But the job market is a reliable indicator of the need for labor in the larger market. It tells consumers and investors alike what areas are in need (higher wages, less wait time to get a job) and what area are saturated (lower wages, more wait time, greater selectivity). It could be worse. I could be fighting an economy like Germany’s that just introduced mandatory minimum wages, or like some other countries that track you into your job, have industry quotas, and all the rest. I may not like having to scrounge for a while, but scrounging remains preferable to bureaucratically controlled placement. So while I am apt to complain that I have not been hired in record time and at a record starting wage, in the bigger picture I am not so upset.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Faking Private Ryan

It’s good to know that the government is so concerned about our safety they are willing to lower their standards to make sure they have enough bodies. The military is one of the few things government should do; shouldn’t they do it right?

Revenge of the Phantom Clones

The first one sucked. The second was painful. And while Star Wars fans the world over anxiously await the final installment of Lucas’s vision I remain suspicious despite the glowing reviews.

Tyler Cowen cites Variety’s praise of the movie and mentions the magazine’s reliability in this matter. What he fails to mention is that three years the same reviewer of Revenge of the Sith called Attack of the Clones “a grand entertainment that offers a satisfying balance among the series' epic, narrative, technological and emotional qualities.” (To his credit, the reviewer didn’t like The Phantom Menace but because I don’t have a subscription to Variety, I don’t know the details of his analysis.)

Friends point out that the preview looks great and the film will answer a lot of questions, but the last two previews looked great and the last two films answered a lot of questions (some poorly, some not worth answering). I implore everyone to remember that the first trilogy (which is really the last trilogy) was not directed by Lucas (except Hope), while this trilogy was. That makes a galaxy of difference in itself.

I mentioned in an earlier post that judging a movie before you see it is a process of tacit knowledge and by no means a science. So while I may be wrong, let’s get real for a moment. Reliable signs suggest RotS won’t be worth the price of admission. Unless you’re risk-loving, save your money and watch one of the earlier chapters (which are really the later chapters). At least you’re guaranteed a good time.

Four Slots and Seven Cards Ago

People hate change, even good change. They even can be surprisingly stupid when it comes to their own values.

Take last week developers unveiled plans to build a casino a mile and a half from the Gettysburg battlefield. The uproar was immediate as historians condemned the idea as insulting the memory of fallen soldiers. According to prize-winning author and Civil War authority James McPherson, “It would be a desecration of their memory and sacrifice to establish such a tawdry, tasteless enterprise next to their fields of honor.”

Let us set aside the fact that a mile and a half doesn’t constitute as “next” and the casino wouldn’t even be visible from anywhere on the site. Let us also table the reality that the casino would not it have a Civil War theme (hardly desecration). Let us even ignore that “tawdry” and “tasteless” are mere matters of opinion because in light of all of those things, McPherson is still wrong.

I suppose it is the unfortunate tendency of historians to put their area of expertise on such a high pedestal, they loose touch with the real world in some kind of reactionary attempt to return to the period in question. Because casinos were never in Gettysburg during the Civil War, McPherson reasons they should never be, even if people want them. Even if it could help raise money to save other historical places, as one preservationist pointed out.

In his obsession for authenticity McPherson has lost sight of the ideas behind the Civil War. There were lots of reasons for the War, but there was a central theme of liberation (either from government or from slave masters backed by government). If I were a fallen soldier, I’d be more insulted by attempts to curb others’ liberty than people freely contributing a service to society.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Helping to Stave Off Rotten Luck

Mike sent me a link to this site to help out in my movie-going quandary. It certainly looks like it makes going to movies less risky—and here’s to anything that betters our lives—but we agreed movies are still a roll of the dice.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

When Caution Goes To Far

The Airbus A380 is the world’s largest commercial airplane ever built. Completed earlier this year, it stretches nearly 240 feet long and almost 80 feet high. It can seat 555 passengers on two decks and carry them up to 8,000 nautical miles. By any measure it is a marvel of engineering.

Imagine filling five of these planes to the brim with children—most four years old or less. Now crash them all. Do it every day: seven days a week, fifty-two weeks a year. That will give you an idea of the African death toll thanks to malaria.

Today the World Health Organization and UNICEF jointly released a report on the disease, concluding malaria kills a child every thirty seconds and siphons off 1.3% of economic growth from the worst affected countries. To combat the disease, the report suggests a variety of methods, including pesticide spraying which admits is the most effective method.

The report even points out the most controversial chemical in this regard—DDT—was principle in eliminating malaria in the West. According to one graph, the sixties witnessed the some of greatest decline in malaria and was the height of DDT use. The WHO still recommends the insecticide for the worst afflicted countries.

But it does not recommend its widespread use. It’s not even mentioned in methods for improving the situation. DDT—a chemical that is safe enough to eat and cheap enough for the struggling countries to afford—is Africa’s greatest hope. But greens continue to oppose it based on the precautionary principle: it might hurt the environment, though there is no evidence that it would. The concerns are unfounded. The consequences are real. DDT could save more lives than a cancer vaccine and make a big step to pulling an entire continent from gut-wrenching poverty. How can we even pause?

In A World of Asymmetric Information....

The summer movie season is looming and thus the burning question every movie-goer must ask: which ones will actually be good and which ones should I avoid completely?

Not just a case of adverse selection, movie quality is a matter of taste and preference. Attempts to create a symmetry of information can never be consistently applied. If I bring a mechanic with me to buy a used car, he could give me all the information the dealership has: this part needs replacing, this part is good, that part is wearing. It’s not a matter of debate.

But suppose I consult someone with better knowledge about the movie, such as the director or screen writer. Assuming they are honest (a problem in itself), any opinions he has about the thing that matters—the quality of it—is subjective. Any objective information (such as the details of the plot) could be helpful to assess its quality, but it could ruin the movie. More information would not only affect my opinion of how good the movie is, it could actually decrease my opinion of the quality. Thus creating symmetric information while changing the value of the good as little as possible requires a delicate balance of conveying personal opinion and relevant fact. Rarely can these requirements be separated for one is embodied in the other.

Consider the movie trailer. It is meant to transmit the objective fact of what the movie is about. Thus it always has to give away information, but it passes on as little as possible to maintain the potential entertainment value. And yet it embodies personal preference, just as a journalist passes on their opinion by how they report the news. Scene selection, voice over dialogue, visual order—all of these are meant to engender a positive opinion of its quality. But ultimately it is not of the movie, but of the trailer. Trailers are not enough to judge quality with certainty.

So we hear/read reviews, where a critic (or a friend) consumed the good and reports on the quality. Assuming you can find someone you consistently agree with (a feat in itself), exceptions always loom as objective changes (such as the plot or style) dramatically affect the subjective conclusion. A local critic once gave a bad review of Jurassic Park, a movie most would consider phenomenal. It was clear from that review she simply didn’t like science fiction.

Sometimes a good indicator of movie quality is the basic information about how the movie is made. Who is the director? Is it a remake? Who stars in it? But none of these are consistent. Sometimes remakes are good (The Italian Job), sometime they are not (Planet of the Apes). Some directors are usually great (Tim Burton), but they have their dismal failures (again, Planet of the Apes). Sometimes Bruce Willis is in a good movie (Die Hard), sometimes he’s in a crappy one (Armageddon). A consistently good director can make a poor movie (Steven Spielberg’s AI) and a first time director can make a wonderful movie (Troy Duffy’s The Boondock Saints). There are no hard-fast rules.

I would love a reliable way to judge movie quality, but there is none. It ultimately comes down to considering all three categories and making a judgment based as much on instinct as information. But it takes a lot practice before you get any good at it. So before you go to the movies this summer, do your homework and think about the information you get. Realize the trailer isn’t the movie. Take all critics’ claims with a grain of salt. See how the movie is made. Who knows? You might just get lucky.