Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Another Reason to Buy a House

Megan McArdle points out some reasons to buy a home--such as avoiding costs to moving and having the freedom to customize your space--but she forget a key issue: avoiding horrible landlords. While buying a house comes with the risk of getting a lemon, landlords can be the same way. They can be behind on repairs, rude, or lax on the law (which can cause many problems for you later). In one place I lived, a surprise investigation revealed that one of the rooms was not legally occupied since it lacked the proper amount of window space. A huge headache followed, eventually resulting in the occupant leaving the house.

There's something to be said for removing another person from the upkeep equation. While you lose the chance of professional specialization, you also remove the possibility of negligence which often accompanies a new (or even experienced) landlord. Many of these problems go away when you own your own home (sure, the plumbing still needs fixed, but now you're depending on the plumber instead of depending on the landlord who's depending on the plumber).

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Santa the Slaver

In countless Christmas movies, we get the impression that the elves of Santa's workshop are happy, joyful people who do all their work for fun. It's part of the myth: who would want toys from a man who forces elfin creatures to do his bidding only to then give away all of their hard work to strangers and force them to start all over? The more you think about Santa, the more I realize those elves are his slaves.

(1) Santa has no income. Maybe all those fake Santas which crowd the malls bump up part of their paycheck to the big man (think of it like a franchise), but that wouldn't be enough to cover the cost of materials, let alone labor.

(2) There's no way that the North Pole is the elves' natural habitat. They don't have the fur needed comfortable survive there. Typically elves live in the forest. Now, obviously, Santa wants to be isolated from the humans which is why he lives in the North Pole. But there are plenty of other places he could be, places more hospitable for his elves (here's a map of the world based on how long it takes to get to a major city). The Amazon is quite isolated, as is the Sahara Desert. The Himalayas are warmer than the North Pole if you don't go too high. All are viable candidates. But Santa picked one of the most inhospitable places on the planet for one reason: to keep the elves indoors. If he was in the Amazon, in a place they were comfortable in, they might run outside instead of working. Not only did Santa kidnap them, he's trapped them in a work camp.

(3) But if they like to work, then it's ok, right? Well, if they like to work, why do they need Santa? Why not just stay in their natural habitat and send toys out into the world? Hauling cargo is work, too. Yes, they won't have Santa's magical powers to deliver them all on Christmas Eve, but so what? Unless you're talking about something that could spoil or die (which accounts for a tiny fraction of presents), they can be delivered weeks or even months in advance. It's more likely that after Santa kidnapped them, he lied, claiming the presents had to come out on the 24th and only the 24th, thus "justifying" the kidnapping.

(4) But what about all the shots from movies and television with the happy elves? For one, that's fantasy and you're mistaking what's fake for what's real. (Grow up, seriously.) Besides, Santa's an all powerful being (which brings up the question of why he doesn't make the toys himself): he brain-washes them.

An Item From Santa's Lap

Paul Krugman applauds the Senate health care bill for, among other things, forcing insurance companies to cover patients with pre-existing conditions. This has been a long standing point of reform: why should a family be forced to cover the expenses of a medical problem when they had no role to play in the development of the condition. It's not as if they're smokers suffering from lung cancer. And many families can't afford the very expensive treatments that come with such conditions. But insurance companies can and so, the argument goes, they should pay.

For one, I'm not sure they can, but there's a deeper point. A pre-existing condition is tragic, doubly so if burdened on a family who cannot afford to properly address the issue. But that does not translate into forcing someone else to shoulder the burden, whether the target is insurance companies, hospitals, or the U.S. government (though the last is most justified since, in theory, it works for all of us). Some believe that doesn't matter; covering such individuals is the right thing to do. But that misses the larger picture. Even if they could afford it and even if they could continue to afford it for the foreseeable future, it would be ethically wrong to force one group to shoulder the problems of another group. Yes, I know we do this a lot already, but that's hardly grounds to keep doing it.

Here's an analogy. Some people are born ugly, or stupid, or socially awkward. Such people have difficulty getting dates or maintaining friendship. While befriending a person with such a pre-existing condition just to be nice would be seen as an admirable act of kindness, no one would agree to a policy which forces people to befriend or date such individuals. It would be seen as unethical, even if the individual is not able to "afford" such loneliness (i.e. they are suicidal).

It's all well an good to ask for things but you have to think about where they come from.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Patent Number 5,547,091

When I shop for toothpaste, I prefer the caps with the flip top so I don't have to remove the cap when I brush my teeth. I usually forget to look since I tend to forgot to buy it in the first place but today I remembered. In my search for the flip-top cap, I discovered only one brand, Colgate, has them. Moments after I thought that was strange, I suspected the answer. A search at the PTO website confirmed my suspicions. It's patent number is 5,547,091. Here's the abstract:
A closure for a container having a dispensing nozzle include a central aperture to receive the nozzle. In one embodiment, the nozzle extends through the aperture and projects upwardly from the base cap. The base cap further includes a top wall inclined with respect to the central axis of the base cap to assist in dispensing of the contents of the container. A cap lid is hinged to the base cap by a snap hinge assembly.
The patent was issued on August 20, 1996. Thus, on 2016, the "who didn't replace the cap on the toothpaste" arguments will evolve into "who didn't shut the toothpaste" arguments. And we'll all be happier for it.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Darwin Zero

I found this post via Megan McArdle concerning the data surrounding climate change in the wake of "climategate." It's an interesting post but it's long. It's a case study on a temperature record station, Darwin Zero, and how climatologists adjust the raw data to something that is consistent across the past century. There's good reason to have adjustments (changes in station location, instruments, time of temperature recording, etc) but the adjustments to Darwin Zero are very...strange.

From the author:
Yikes again, double yikes! What on earth justifies that adjustment? How can they do that? We have five different records covering Darwin from 1941 on. They all agree almost exactly. Why adjust them at all? They’ve just added a huge artificial totally imaginary trend to the last half of the raw data! Now it looks like the IPCC diagram in Figure 1, all right … but a six degree per century trend? And in the shape of a regular stepped pyramid climbing to heaven? What’s up with that?

This doesn't mean that all adjustments are suspect or that climatologists are lying or even that these are falsifications (though you can bet I'd like to know the reasoning behind those adjustments). And over the years, I've become more sympathetic of climatologists' claims (decentralized researchers all saying about the same thing is a good litmus test for truth). But it does highlight the need for publicly available raw data and comprehensive explanations for all the adjustments. If the scientists really want to convince people, transparency is key.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Ten Red Balloons

DARPA's awarding $40,000 to the first person or team to find ten red balloons which were spread all over the country on December 5th. The goal is to learn how people organized in large teams use computers to socially network. What software will we see? Will there be spying? Attempts to misinform other teams? I'm not clear how they will measure all they want to measure, but the prospects look very interesting.

December 5th was the 40th anniversary of Arpanet, the Internet's precursor.

HT: Alex Tabarrok

Update: Here are the results.