Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Current Number of Unused Gmail Invites

48. If you want one, let me know.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Defending the Tyrants

Mike sent me this link to a commentary by Tina Rosenberg about China's role in the internet for its citizens.

Its immense, compulsive, authoritarian role.

Because the country's such a powerful potential market, many companies (Microsoft, Yahoo, etc) are setting aside basic rights and ethics in order to stay in the market. For example, the government asked them to reveal names of those reporting on stuff they don't want reports on. One such person (Shi Tao)--who used a Yahoo e-mail account to e-mail a story to a friend--now sits in jail.

No doubt these companies are doing crappy things, but are they the root cause? Rosenberg thinks so: "It was the force of capitalist profits, not Communist law, that compelled Yahoo to hand over Shi Tao."

What? Let's read that again.

"It was the force of capitalist profits, not Communist law, that compelled Yahoo to hand over Shi Tao."

That's right; she's blaming the companies, not the government, for putting an innocent woman in jail. It's the government that's to blame. In the heavily competitive world of a globalized economy, a company's long term future's at stake if they don't get in on the big markets. I'm not defending what they did, just explaining why they did. The Communist Party, however, has no excuse and they are the ultimate cause.

The claim gets even more inaccurate when you understand what capitalism means:
an economic system in which all or most of the means of production are privately owned and operated, and where investment and the production, distribution and prices of commodities (goods and services) are determined by the influence of supply and demand in a market, rather than by the state or the collective [Emphasis added]
Thus when the government tells private citizens how to run their company, that portion of the product (in this case privacy) isn't really capitialism.

Rosenburg is making the classic mistake of equating the pursuit of profits with free market economics. It's sloppy and she should be ashamed of the Orwellian government she implictly defended.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

It's Almost As If Climate Is a Dynamic System

Jason at Productivity Shock did some research about hurricane activity over the past seventy years. The downward trend from the 60s to the 90s is most telling.

Note that in the original data, even the 60s didn't have two close together, suggesting why we are having an "epidemic" all of a sudden. Some one should tell climatologists that one decade does not indicate a trend.

What I'd really like to see is data for all hurricanes. But so far that search is not yielding data...

Full Nelson

The sheer plethora of ways economic idiocy manifests is astonding. Consider Willie Nelson's appearence on Real Time with Bill Maher.

According to Prof. Nelson, the key to any economy is their production of raw materials: food, oil, coal, and so on. To ensure the existence of these industries, government must fund them; the more taxpayer money they get, the better off we all are. Nelson goes so far as expressing anger that "only" 60%-70% of our farmers' income comes from taxpayer money.

It's a load of crap, but not an unfamiliar load. Nearly every yahoo who thinks they understand the economy points to one key industry that makes "the whole thing work." Some praise the holy tech sector. Some idolize Manufacturing. Some bow down to the Almighties of finance and savings. Willie worships the God-like power of raw materials.

To be sure, raw materials are important, but they are not everything. Gas is useless without the tankers to transport it. Food won't do a lot for someone who has cancer. Coal mines need phones to communicate with power plants. It's all connected; artifically bloating one sector puts strains on all the others without adding anything.

The key is that everything has costs. Unneeded farmers don't stare into the abyss; they do something else, filling in gaps that previously existed. Giving them a reason to do otherwise not only pulls them away from a valuable function, it puts resources (people, time, money) into something we don't need. And we don't need more food.

Friday, September 23, 2005

When The Pen Picks Up The Sword

Guilds rarely work well with freedom. Concentrated power leads to pride and with it a desire to undertake zero-sum games. I recently learned of the growing legal battle between the Authors Guild and Google Print. Here's the e-mail I sent to the Guild:

Dear Authors Guild,

I was very surprised to read your press release concerning your recent legal action against Google Print. Your claims are misleading and inaccurate. For example, you say "Google is reproducing works still under the protection of copyright [which is] a plain and brazen violation of copyright law." That's not true. Reproduction of copyrighted material is perfectly legal under many circumstances, including excerpts. This exactly how the company publishes such material barring expressed permission from the author. You should be happy Google is making it easier for people to access the written word; real writers want their works read. Instead, you are betraying the craft by attempting to extinguish the free flow of information.

As an aspiring author and an avid reader myself, I want to let you know that I will never join your organization because of this disgraceful stunt. Whenever I consider purchasing a book, I will reference your site and firmly boycott any publication devised by one of your members. I will pass on this advice to my fellow Ph.D. students and I am certain many will follow my lead.

Your actions make me ashamed to be a writer.

David Youngberg

I, of course, sent it using my gmail account.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

To Anyone Who Thinks Companies Don't Care About Safety

Look at Jet Blue. Today they were on the news because one of their plane's couldn't land right and their stock plummented. Then we hear there are no deaths--not even injuries--and survivors praising the pliots and stewardesses for their competence. Their stock gains back all its loss.

Even if Jet Blue was careful just to keep its stocks strong, so what? I'd take assertive self-interest over complacent altruism any day of the week (and I'm looking at you, FEMA).

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Why the NYT Won't Shut Me Down

Citing cuts at the New York Times, in part due to internet and blog-related substitutes which crowd out their circulation, CF wondered what would happen if newspapermen started behaving like lobbyists, constructing barriers to entry. She proposed two tactics newspapers could employ: promoting a fee for spreading information or endorsing a sort of licensing for publications.

The lobbyist logic is sound but I doubt we'll see either of those problems any time in the near future for three reasons.

1) Publications benefit from blogs just as they are harmed from them. Let us never forget that journalists have gotten pretty damn lazy over the decades; removing blogs would deny them one of their prime sources for information.

2) Newspapers aren't stupid and surely many are aware that these rules would be impossible to police. Like CF, I could re-create the blog and e-mail under an assumed name. Charging me would become impossible as would shaking me down for a license.

3) For as long as the First Amendment's been around, newspapers have been citing it as a hallmark of freedom and democracy (and to defend their industry). In way they are now victims of their own success; if they start screaming information should be controlled, the bullshit will be clear even to the public.

Of course in the long run, any or all of these could fall to the wayside. But for now, let's enjoy it while it lasts and not worry.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Fake News Gets More Fake

Let me start by saying I love the Daily Show. It's funny, it's insight and it's smart.

But sometimes it's not so smart; take last night's piece by new correspondent Dan Bakkedahl on "Bumvertising."

What the hell's bumvertising you ask? Developed by Benjamin Rogovy, bumvertising involves renting the space below the signs homeless people hold on street corners. Just under the "Will work for food" on cardboard, you'd see a glossy, green poster with "PokerFaceBook.com: Meet players, find games, get connected."

The ads work--PokerFaceBook's sign ups noticably increased with bumvertising--and since it's not much more work for the homeless, they gladly accept the three-dollars-a-shift pay. Rogovy even thinks there may be spillover benefits. "Bums will incur higher revenues from donations after showing the initiative to seek out semi-legitimate employment. Many of the vagabonds of PokerFaceBook.com's Bumvertising campaign remark that they are receiving more comments and questions than ever."

The new guy had a problem with this. He brought on some kind of homeless advocate to attack the idea of the destitute working for the money that goes in their pockets. He found it "exploitive" and not what they needed. With a mixture of seriousness and humor, Bakkedahl called the process "sucking the blood of the poor." (Granted, I'm paraphrasing, but it was something to that extent.)

What amazes me is that the homeless advocates clearly don't know what the homeless want. If it was degrading and evil, then why are the poor participating? If it is so horrible for them to do it, why are they doing it? Don't we want the poorest people to get jobs and contribute to society? Isn't this better than simply begging?

That's a "No" to Bakkedahl and the other guy (yeah, I can't remember the pro-homeless guy's name). They think the homeless are too stupid to make their own decisions. They think everyone else should give out of pity. How degrading.

RSS Feed

An inquiring mind wanted to know why we don't have an RSS feed. The short answer was, "wtf?" The longer answer is "I have no idea what that is." I think I know now: a way to be included in a single page people go to in order to read all the new articles of their list of blogs.

Or something like that.

Anyway, I signed us up and our feed is http://feeds.feedburner.com/ LawLegislationAndLunacy

Thanks to Jaka for the help.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

My Shoes Fit Fine

I decided a while ago that my disseration for getting my PhD will involve the Ansari X-Prize as a model for technological growth. I don't plan as of yet to stray from this path but my relatively recent interest in Wikipedia has called into question my chosen path.

One of the core questions is "How do economists decribe phenomena that were once only available as a profit-making opportunity for a firm now made available through a free, decentralized spontaneous order?" Examples include file sharing, Wikipedia and Slashdot--all done by no one individual and all individuals who do it, do it for free.

Well, a Yale law professor beat us to the answer: he calls it peer production.

What a great name, because that's exactly what it is. Equals working together and taking on roles firms once did, producing what firms once produced. But you can tell Yochai Benkler isn't up on his economics, saying "it's an uncomfortable shoe for economists."

Not so. Just because it's done for free doesn't mean economists have trouble working with it. In fact, a lot of this stuff falls under the category of non-rivalrous. My consumption of Wikipedia doesn't prevent you from looking something up (sort of...Wikipedia's having bandwidth trouble due to its popularity but that scarcity is nothing compared to, say, buying a book). If I copy a music file from you, others still can, too. Technology has allowed this non-rivalry to propser on a level unlike ever before. Extra demand costs practically nothing.

The other piece of peer production includes supply items that aren't that scarce. Most people like to talk about stuff they know, thus they are willing to write for free on Wikipedia. When my computer isn't using a big chunk of its computing power, I'm fine with other people using it in the form of SETI or Skype Technologies. There's no cost (indeed, sometimes there are benefits) from producing.

The same can be said of air. For all practical purposes, air is non-rivalrous--when I enter a room you are in, you don't start gasping. It's also plentiful, produced freely by plants in abundent quantities. Thus, it's no wonder we don't pay for air. (Technically, all you need is a lack of scarcity to eliminate prices but I include non-rivalry because it really makes the abundance happen. I may like writing blog articles about economics, but I wouldn't want to write the same thing over and over again, each for a different reader.)

Peer production is a fantastic name for the many free services the Internet is providing. But it's not so new economists have to go back to the drawing board.

EDIT: I was recently informed that Slashdot writers get paid for their services. Thanks to the ever alert Mike for the heads up.

Friday, September 16, 2005

With A Snap of My Finger....

Willie L Brown Jr., former Mayor of San Fransisco, did an amazing thing tonight on Real Time with Bill Maher. He solved the poverty problem.

"If the poor people of this country," he said (and I'm paraphrasing here), "had the same resources as the corporations and Haliburtons of this country, they would not be where they are today."

No shit. If poor people had billions of dollars at their fingertips, they wouldn't be poor anymore. And if we could create money by snapping fingers, that would be a reasonable plan. But it's just a pipedream. In the real world, prosperity doesn't come from altruism. The pie doesn't get bigger because some gave their money to others. Economic pies grow when people create more; not when they are given more.

Thus the good news. The nation's down-trodden have a long list of institutional advantages that most of history's poor never had. A stable, peaceful government. Well defined private property. Easy access to employment. Easy access to entreprenuial activities. Freedom of movement (from neighborhood to neighborhood, region to region). Freedom of association. Freedom of speech. Freedom of religion. All of these translate into profit making opportunities (some more than others).

Immigrants understand this well. Most poor Americans don't, not because of their race or because they're stupid, but because they get welfare. Let's not kid ourselves; work is hard--that's why they call it work--and while there are many that take that money to move out of welfare, many others don't. That's what happens when you pay people not to do something they don't want to do.

I would like to believe, like Brown surely does, that we could pull the poor out of poverty with a snap. But Q is just a Star Trek character and despite what some may tell you, he's not real. Pretending that he is doesn't make the poor better off; it does them a disservice by telling them they are victims, not masters of their future.

Roll For Delaying Your Action

Somehow I doubt that when I get married, my wife won't accept a conditional gift on our anniversary.

But that's exactly what President Bush gave the world when he addressed the UN on their 60th anniversary yesterday. When I first read it, I was so excited. "The United States is ready to eliminate all tariffs, subsidies and other barriers to free flow of goods and services..."

Then I read the condition. "...as other nations do the same."

What a load of crap. We all know damn well that one country taking the initiative on that would be astounding. A whole region, a miracle. But everyone has to do it and they all have to do it at the same time? That's like Bill Gates saying he'll give all his money away on the condition that everyone in the world runs naked through the streets on a common day. It's what you say as a sarcastic joke. "Oh yeah, I'll eliminate all tariffs; when the rest of the world does, too!"

Take the initiative, George. Show world leaders that their economy won't collaspe if they eliminate their precious subsidies. Stick your neck out and set the example; that's what good leaders do. Don't hide behind a condition you know will never happen.

Please forgive the dorkiness of the title; I just couldn't resist.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Technology Is Fruit

Daniel Drezner's concerned; the OECD released it's education report today and the US education system in science and math, well, sucks compared to other countries.
In science and math, the U.S. is ahead of only the really poor OECD countries -- Turkey, Mexico, etc. So yes, there is reason to worry.

Worry about what? If Dan has anything in common with Thomas Friedman, he's concerned about technology loss.

Theory is if Americans don't invent the "next big thing," we'll lag behind the rest of the world. In order for us to benefit from technology we have to create/own it. That's akine to thinking that if oranges aren't grown in the US, we won't get them.

The key is trade. It doesn't matter what nationality owns technology (though it does matter for government, but that's another story); it only matters if there's free trade. Suppose Korea invents the flying car and we don't. Does that mean we don't get the benefits of them? Not if there are few barriers to trade. And if we get the benefits, who cares who owns what? Do bananas stop being bananas if they are grown on foreign soil? Of course not.

Trade, of course, requires that we have something to give up in return, but that thing could be anything the Koreans marginally value more than we do. It could be art or McDonald's or Google ads. As long as we are free to trade, relax and stop scaring everyone!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A Negative Times A Negative Is A Positive

Sometimes government ineptitude can be a good thing.

Last month I mentioned that Hawaii will be issuing price caps on the wholesale oil. I vowed to keep track of the prices and luckily I found a site that did that for me quite nicely.

After Katrina hit, I noticed something strange. Go there right now and look at the chart. Compare Hawaii's prices with the national average; notice that they don't skyrocket as the mean does even though the law went into affect the first of September. Also notice that while the price of oil does go up, it quickly goes back down. Strange because the economics suggest prices should be leaping.

Then I noticed this article. Here's a telling line: "The governor admits she's not sure the gas cap is forcing up prices because the companies are keeping their wholesale prices secret."

That's right. The goverment was able to create a law telling companies what to charge, but they have no way of knowing if the law is being followed. Thank God they are staying busy pushing string--means they can't do real harm.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Market Object Lessons

About three weeks ago, on my first day in Washington, a pick-up truck smashed into my parked car while I was looking at an apartment. I got the license plate, writing it down after begging some kids returning from school for a pencil, and contacted the police.

After they did some heavy police work (looked up the plates, contacted the house) they discovered that some unlicensed kid took his mom's car out for a wild ride that Sunday. I talked to the mom--who was very nice--and we decided not to contact the insurance agency. She didn't want to deal with the higher rates and would pay for the repairs; I didn't want to operate on the insurance company's schedule. Thus we settle a different way. This is what we call a substitute. To those that think people have to get insurance, remember that.

While I waited for the parts to come in, three different strangers offered to fix the damage. Even though the mother found a place to get it fixed, I have to appreciate how the market steps in just in case I didn't get the plate. Soon I will need to make a trip to the DMV. Somehow I imagine that if I wore a shirt that said "I need to get a Virginia license and registration," government workers wouldn't be offering to set up an appointment while I'm getting gas.

Currently my car is being repaired and I am discovering how much I hate taking the bus.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

How Black Society Hurts Black Society

Everyday we encounter random laws that make us stop and ask, what the hell were bureacrats thinking? Today was no exception because I learned about a Virginia adoption law (which my source says is a common in other states) that says adopted kids have to racially match with their adopted parents. Thus white kids can only be adopted by white parents and black kids by black parents.

Before you claim that the KKK is far more powerful in modern society than anyone thought, understand that white people didn't advocate the law; black people did. Or more specifically, the National Association of Black Social Workers who advocated the creation of the law in early 1970s. The NABSW continues to support the policy as they stress "placing children of African ancestry with relatives or unrelated families of the same face and culture for adoption" despite the estimated 222,000 African-American foster children living today.

The claim is culture; black people have their culture, white people have theirs and NABSW would be damned if it let the two mix. But culture is a living thing and it is not up to the NABSW to say what changes and how. Moreover, they are harming black culture; foster children who hit the 18-year-old mark are thrown out in the cold world without a dime to their name. I guarentee you they don't become doctors. Out of neccessity, gangsters and low-wage workers I would bet are the most common career choices. The culture the NABSW is trying to defend is very one most foster African Americans probably don't want; they are hurting the people they are trying to protect. It's shameful; shameful and selfish.

Justice, Inc.

I was reading the Tyler/Alan e-mail exchange on slate.com concering Barbara Ehrenreich's new book Bait and Switch. Then something Alan wrote popped out: "I know no corporations interested in spreading justice."

How about all of them? On an everyday level, companies want to those that steal from them to be punished. That spreads justice. They want anyone that backs out of a contract to pay for it; that spreads justice. If the mafia (or similar organization) threatened them with violence to extort payment, they'd demand the extorters are arrested. That spreads justice. (This is why Tony Soprano doesn't have a lot of Manhattan business.)

On a more general level, companies want a safe society. Communities that are prone to theft, war, murder, lying and corruption (directed at the company or not) are not good places to run businesses. Certainly there are firms that do nasty stuff with the institutions that protect them, but that unfortunate activity shadows in comparison to the benefits they gain through an evenly weighted legal system. Spreading justice increases the number of places companies can operate safely and profitably.

To say that corporations aren't concerned about spreading justice is the same as saying drivers aren't interested in building roads.


As of Tuesday, September 6, 2005 at 11:50am, I am a PhD student at GMU, having transfered from the master's. This is what happens when you pester the right people enough.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Let's Take a Trip!

The administration spin machine must have been asleep when the Red Cross posted this answer for why they weren't in New Orleans:

The state Homeland Security Department had requested--and continues to request--that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city.

Yeah if I knew that some people were giving out drinking water in a flooded, soon to be disease-infested hell hole, I'd be first in line.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Unscientific Method

Tonight on Real Time with Bill Maher, Bill talked to climatologist Stephan Schneider via satillete and they discussed how Hurricane Katrina was beefed up by global warming.

The logic seemed sound--more heat means bigger storms--but they made the rather hasty jump from global warming was akine to steriods for the hurricane to the human race was the steriods. In other words, we're causing the heat.

Consider this:

1) Understanding climatology cannot use controlled experiments because there's no control. We only have one planet to work off; we can't burn fossil fuels on one and not on the other and then see what happens.

2) Understanding climatology is incomplete. It's a huge, dynamic system with countless elements that top scientists have acknowledged they don't understand.

3) Climatologist generally agree that burning fossil fuels are causing global warming.

I can understand suspicious or potential avenues of inquiry or even red flags. But if you can't figure out how the world works, either through inductive reasoning (number one) or deductive reasoning (number two), then you can't claim to have a scientific conclusion.