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February 28, 2006
Even More Economic Illiteracy
This is going to have to become a category on its own.
The WSJ is reporting that a number of state legislatures are mulling over the notion that the answer to low supply is...to further depress supply:
With consumers in many parts of the country facing sharp increases in their electricity bills, officials in some states are considering rate caps or other measures that would beat back deregulation.
Some state officials are stepping forward to propose rate caps and other measures meant to hold down increases in electricity bills. But the proposed fixes could put utilities in a cost squeeze. Similar proposals backfired five years ago during California's electricity crisis, bankrupting the state's biggest utility. Critics also say the measures do nothing to fix the underlying problem of surging wholesale power costs.
We want more efficient plants. The public would almost certainly settle for more nuclear plants. Heaven forbid the energy companies be able to charge enough to cover the cost of new investment. No, no, much better to let the system crumble, and then, twenty years from now, ask what happened.
WaPo: US Opposes UN HRC Just Because
The Washington Post reports that the US is opposing the UN's feeble trotting-out of Commission in Council's clothing, but doesn't bother to explain why the proposal is worse that useless. ALmost 2/3 of the article is devoted to quoting the Council's supporters and describing the supposed "improvements," without any discussion of why these changes make things worse.
[Annan and other supporters] noted that provisions to subject all council members to scrutiny of their human rights record would discourage countries with poor records from joining. They also said that council members suspected of abusive behavior can be suspended by a vote of two-thirds of the U.N. membership present.
There is a provision for suspending a Council member that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights. But the step can only be taken with the agreement of two thirds of the members of the General Assembly. Fifty percent of the General Assembly could not even agree that Sudan was guilty of human-rights violations in November of 2005.
The new council would consist of 47 members selected by secret ballot on the basis of "geographical distribution" and committed to "uphold the highest standards in the promotion and protection of human rights."
Instead of a much smaller body designed to attract the best states from each regional group, the proposal merely reduces the number of members from 53 to 47.
The proposal significantly shifts the balance of power away from the Western regional group, including the United States. The African and Asian regional groups will hold 55 percent of the votes. The proportional representation of the Asian group will represent the greatest increase and the representation of the Western group the greatest decline.
Members would be elected for as many as two three-year terms at a time and would meet for at least 10 weeks throughout the year.
States which are elected must rotate off every two terms. The United States has been a member of the Commission every year since 1947, with one exception, and has played a leadership role in efforts to promote human rights throughout the Commission’s history, not to mention paying for 22 percent of its costs.
Special sessions of the commission can be called by just one third of the council's membership. Although this feature has been hailed as an improved capacity to deal with urgent human rights situations, the membership of the new council will make it more likely that special sessions will be about the United States and Israel rather than China or Sudan.
The Post reduces the US response is reduced to mere distrust and discontent, and allows Annan to take the high ground of opposing obstruction. While it's not the Post's job to act as a mouthpiece for the administration, it's hard to see how this article even approaches a fair airing of the facts.
So I'm tooling around the 24 website, and it turns out that the main set designer is answering questions on a design blog about why President
Weasel Logan's retreat looks as though they got the plans from a 1955 Popular Mechanics. They did. It turns out it's from something called "mid-century modern," which is supposed to be timeless, except that you immediately know what decade it's from. Sure, it's a better decade than this, but you'd think all that tax money would buy something a little more...distinctive.
In any case, it turns out that this site was merely the gateway to all sorts of design sites. Some of them will be permanent additions to the links. This site, for instance, devoted to typography. Except for the fact that they think Kerry lost in part because his campaign's typeface was too derivative. I think of that as a reflection of his whole persona.
MocoLoco is a blog devoted to modern design, is picture-heavy, and updated frequently. You know that Expedia commercial where the young couple is imagining their parents blundering their way through a way-too-modern Swedish hotel? This is the place.
IDFuel is apparently feeling the energy crunch, because it's not getting updated all that often. But the most recent posting is a field trip to one of my favorite companies, IDEO, so I'm hoping they'll rediscover the blog-spark.
The Vienna Public Library had furniture like this when I was growing up, including but not limited to the Men In Black test-taking egg-chair. Call it the Persistence of Banality.
Design Addict has a (somewhat thin) searchable database of design, but a really good links page to make up for it.
Red Dot is a German design site that runs an annual competition, with typically central-European self-important prose. Some of the stuff is cool. Other concepts make you understand why the Islamists are taking over.
February 27, 2006
Colorado Attorney General's Race
View From a Height has it from, er, reliable sources, that Boulder business attorney Fern O'Brien plans to enter the race for Attorney General as soon as this week.
O'Brien will run as a "privacy in health choices" candidate, code words for abortion, but will also seek to position herself as center-left, citing a long business career prior to entering the law. She's probably helped in that regard by the fact that, despite being from Boulder, she has a career practicing business law, not as a leftist activist.
It's not as though Suthers is walking into this race with a hugh war chest - a search of the Secretary of State's site shows little-to-no activity for 2005Q4. Look for fundrasing to pick up. Heh.
February 24, 2006
An Army of Daweeds?
http://toledoblade.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20060222/NEWS03/60222005I realize that the popular reading of the Toledo story is to lump it in with the Lodi "Send Your Son to Jihad Camp" story, but a somewhat closer reading suggests a fair amount of good news in it.
Sure, there's the typical CAIR-like statement about how this-isn't-typical-and-please-don-'t-judge-us-all. And the obligatory "he seemed like such a nice, quiet guy" quotes from the neightbors. But then there's this:
Authorities said they uncovered the plot with the help of a man who came to them 18 months ago. Code-named “the Trainer” in the indictment, he had been approached by Mr. El-Hindi to provide security and bodyguard training to the group.
Other members of the Muslim community had already gone to federal authorities with information regarding “violent and radical” statements made by the men. After the Trainer contacted them, law enforcement began actively pursuing him, officials said yesterday.
Isn't this sort of inside help exactly the kind of thing we've been looking for? And isn't it a relief to know that law enforcement actually took the tips seriously?
Secondly, note that these are Muslims, living in America, Land Of the Soft Target, planning to attack American troops in Iraq. Now, maybe this goes along with the typical jihadist death wish, but it also suggests that right now, Iraq really is the central front. They figured that the best move, the one best calculated to cause trouble for the Great Satan, was to attack us not at home, but at the front.
As a side note: while it does appear that "traditional" methods were used in taking these guys down, wouldn't you still like to know something about any international phone calls they made? Really? Yes, I thought so.
Finally, it's a little disappointing that we're treating this as a traditional criminal case, rather than something more, well, military. Perhaps someone with a fuller understanding of Hamdi can explain why this isn't being transferred to a military court, given the intended targets of their little operation.
February 23, 2006
Airports & Seaports
Peggy Noonan today says everything about airport security that we don't:
I gave the speech that night, and returned the next morning to the West Palm Beach airport for the flight home. Here, at 9:30 a.m., it was worse. Again roughly a thousand people, again all of them being yelled at by airport and TSA personnel. Get your computers out. Shoes off. Jackets off. Miss, Miss, I told you, line four. No, line four. So much yelling and tension, and all the travelers in slump-shouldered resignation and fear. The fingers of the man in front of me were fluttered with anxiety as he grabbed at his back pocket for his wallet so the woman who checks ID would not snap at him or make him miss his flight.
This was East Germany in 1960. It was the dictatorship of the clerks, and the clerks were not in a good mood.
We don't say it when we're in the airport, for fear of getting taken to a small holding cell and interrogated like Nina at CTU. We don't say it when we're home from the airport because we'd just as soon forget the whole thing.
I am almost always picked for extra screening. I must be on a list of middle aged Irish-American women terrorists. I know a message is being sent: We don't do ethnic profiling in America. But that is not, I suspect, the message anyone receives. The message people receive is: This is all nonsense. What they think is: This is all kabuki. We're being harassed and delayed so politicians can feel good. The security personnel themselves seem to know it's nonsense: they're always bored and distracted as they go through my clothing, my stockings, my computer, my earrings. They don't treat me like a terror possibility, they treat me like a sad hunk of meat.
I don't think most of us get extra screening because they think we are terrorists. I think we get it because they know we're not. They screen people who are not terrorists because it helps them pretend they are protecting us, in the same way doctors in the middle ages used to wear tall hats: because they couldn't cure you. It's all show.
It's not like this a secret.
As with the port deal, it's a matter of bureaucrats following rules. There's no more risk-averse group in the known universe than civil service bureaucrats. Nobody ever gets fired for following the rules, and the rules are entirely a substitute for judgment. There are no consequences to being wrong, only for being out of line.
I know everyone points to Israel, and the fact that despite being the terrorist target, Israel never gets its planes blown up for flown into Shalom Towers. Why? Because 1) they teach their screeners judgment and 2) their screeners care enough to use it.
TSA workers shouldn't be allowed to show up at the airport in uniform. They should have a locker room with a 24/7 continuous loop of 9-11, 7/7, Khobar Towers, the USS Cole, and the rest.
Then, like WWII parachute packers, they should be required to serve drinks on a 707 at least once a week.
February 21, 2006
Life Imitates Art
Hmmm. A guy named Bauer breaks up a terror cell with a guy named Marwan. What does that remind me of?
February 20, 2006
An Iran-China Internet Axis?
I had a chance to talk with Lance Cotrell, President of my new favorite company, Anonymizer.com, last week, in reference to his company's plans to circumvent the Great Firewall. He mentioned that his company initially had a contract with VOA to help mainland Chinese get around the firewall, but that given circumstances in Iran, work had shifted there, with some success.
Then, this point: that while Iran hadn't been as aggressive as China, they had recently been stepping up their efforts, becoming almost as active as the Chinese in recent months.
Think maybe they've been getting some help?
More Economic Illiteracy
When will we learn that there really is no free lunch? Some Colorado legislators, eager to throw yet more money at the teachers' unions, want to raise taxes on the booming oil and gas industry in the state. And for some reason, they don't think it will actually cost anything:
The proposal would increase by 1 percent the taxes oil and gas producers pay and would divert some federal mineral lease funding largely for school-building and renovations.
"It is our intention in this measure to make sure that we address the immediate health and safety needs in the poorest districts first," said Mary Wickersham, a leading supporter of the proposal and who works for the Donald Kay Foundation.
Because oil and gas prices are set by national and international markets, Wickersham said, the severance tax hike would not increase what Colorado consumers pay for gasoline or natural gas.
Well, if you spread the added cost over the entire worldwide oil & natural gas markets, I suppose that's true as far as it goes. But of course, it's only true as far as any cost doesn't really show up in the price, since prices are set by markets, not by sellers. It also makes Colorado marginally less competitive, since the competition isn't only straight drilling now, but also tar sands and shale oil. Which eventually will mean an equivalent number of jobs lost. Oh, we won't notice it now, only when we need the work.
Then again, what do you expect from someone who thinks that calling a wild pitch a ball means that the umpire is skewing the game?
View-Niece Hits the Papers
My niece, Jamie, is in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution this morning. She's spending a fair amount of her free time collecting hats for kids with cancer. (And an 11-year-old in a dual Hebrew-Secular curriculum doesn't have much free time.)
If you have any hats you want to donate, let me know, and I'll tell you the best way to get them to her.
February 19, 2006
And you thought this was another Cheney/Lawyer joke. Really, haven't we had enough of those already?
No, I'm spending the long weekend up here in Estes Park, and the town was the site yesterday of one of the local World's Strongest Dog competitions. I walked down from the motel to go see, and surprisingly, about 100 people had turned out to watch.
The idea is pretty simple: harness up a dog and see how much weight he can pull. Evidently, pretty much any dog will pull, although after the Shih-Tzus are finished, they use them as the incremental weights for the Labs.
Labs? Labs, you say? Yes. Labs. Sage would probably look at me and wonder why, if I wanted the cart over there, I didn't pull it there myself.
It turns out that the owner is allowed to stand at the finish line and encourage his dog, but can't actually touch the dog. (There's virtually no risk of injury; apparently a dog will run until his heart explodes, but won't pull a weight he thinks is too heavy, so he just sits down and waits for his treat.) The bull terriers and elk hounds and boxers waited until the owner got to the line.
The labs, as soon as they say their handler starting to walk away, started whining and crying and jumping up and down. "OK, fine, you want to be with me? Walk over here, then." At one point, the handler used the shopping mall trick, well-known to all lab-owners and parents of 5-year-olds: continuing to walk away.
One lab managed to pull 780 pounds. He can pull 2005 pounds on wheels. Evidently, dogs with severe separation anxiety do well in this sport.
February 15, 2006
Cartoons In Basra, Iraq
Interestingly, there's been almost no protest in Iraq over the cartoons. No street demonstrations, although the coalition has never prevented them in the past. No extra-special turban-shaped car bombs to send a message. No burning of Danny Kaye in effigy.
But an AP report on a sudden Pakistani aversion to high-fat foods contains this sentence:
The provincial council in Basra, Iraq, demanded the withdrawal of Denmark's 530-member military contingent from southern Iraq unless the Danish government apologizes.
This is bad. Basra has been stable on the surface, but a hotbed of Iranian meddling, terror, and subversion. The British seems neither able nor willing to do anything about it. One doubts that the entire Basra provincial council is infested with Iranian agents, but it's also possible that they're feeling the heat from below.
Someone needs to do something about this now.
February 14, 2006
Book Review - Analyzing Business Data With Excel
One more book review. This one, not so good. As always, you can read it below, or read it here.
I can't tell you how much I wanted to like this book. I've admired O'Reilly's technical books for years, and now that I've branched out into business applications, I was delighted to see that they had, too.
When I finished business school last year, one of the classes I had to take was in financial modeling, and it had a heavy Excel emphasis. We did a little bit with Macros and VBA, but the most complex model we did was nothing compared to what this book aimed for. Finally, I was going to get a chance to really gun the program up into 6th gear. Clearly, this was a book that wouldn't talk down to me.
First, even finding the spreadsheets online was a little bit of a task. The URL was only mentioned in the preface. A more prominent location would have saved me a lot of time. In fact, the data spreadsheets should be available without the code at all, just the data (in addition to the completed applications). Most people who want to learn are going to try to work through the application from the ground up.
Secondly, having an editor do just that would have helped immensely. I started on the first application (analyzing call center call volume), and couldn't figure out how the predicted values were arrived at. They weren't spreadsheet functions, just numbers next to the raw data. This pretty much stymied me right there, although I did go on to complete the application, skipping that part. Still, in a book as dense as this one is, where every piece represents a potentially useful application, leaving that much work as an exercise to the reader is unnecessary and confusing.
A minor detail: when using a workbook like this, I find it's much harder to do so if a screenshot isn't on the same page as its description. Flipping back and forth, again, in a book where every sentence matters, really slows down the process.
Finally, perhaps because of the above-mentioned problems, I found it hard to generalize from the applications presented. They seemed just a little too specific to the data.
I don't want to be too hard on O'Reilly. It's best-known for programming tutorials, and that's essentially what this book is trying to be, so the company clearly has the in-house talent to make this work. The book frankly has a lot of potential. About twice the exposition and forcing an editor to work through all the examples would make it incredibly useful. My guess is that it's about 80% of the way there. The problem is that the 20% that's missing makes all the difference.
Book Review - Learning to Read Midrash
Simi Peters of Nishmat has published a fine, fine introduction to reading Midrash. Read the review (below, or here), then, if you're at all interested in rabbinic Biblical interpretation, read the book.
The Biblical text is sparse. Read literally, straight through, you'd get the impression that P.G. Wodehouse wouldn't do well among the nomads. Even the strictly narrative portions leave out most of the story, and leave room for all sorts of questions. The Rabbis thought so, too. Enter the Midrash. The Midrash - stories recorded in the Talmud and in collections - are the rabbinic attempt to fill in the gaps.
Some of these stories are exceedingly well-known; better-known, in fact, than parts of Tanach itself. Nechama Leibowitz tells of asking a class to turn to the part of Bereishit where Abraham smashes the idols. The class flips back and forth in frustration, unable to find the text. It's a midrash, of course.
Remember that Star Trek:TNG where the crew encounters a culture that communicated entirely in metaphor? That's kind of how Midrash works, rendering proper reading of them no simple task. They're not only metaphorical, they're poetic and literary, often treating the Biblical figures as literary as much as historical. They draw on diverse source texts, the original context of which is often key to getting it right.
Inasmuch as the Midrashic interpretation is the dispositive one for traditional Judaism, understanding these texts is fundamental to understanding all successive rabbinic Biblical exposition. Simi Peters, of Nishmat in Jerusalem, has stepped into the breach with Learning to Read Midrash. She provides a solid methodology to follow, but not a recipe. She takes you step-by-step, laying out the interpretive process.
Beginning with simple mashal/nimshal forms - basically extended metaphors - Peters builds up to complex, extended midrashim, composed by many authors, often using different styles and format. What if part of the mashal (the comparison) are missing or unclear? For multi-part midrashim which offer competing interpretations, what does the ordering tell us?
From there, Peters ventures into narrative expansion. These are the trickiest, their connection with the text can be the most difficult to tease out. They also contain the most fantastic stories in rabbinic literature. The proper treatment of these stories has been the source of great controversy, but I find myself siding with the relentlessly logical approach of Maimonides.
In short, the questions is: how literally did the rabbis intend these stories to be taken? Maimonides comes to what I believe is the only reasonable conclusion: the rabbis knew as well as you or I that we shouldn't take the stories literally. Taking them as historically accurate turns you into a fool. Assuming that the rabbis thought they happened turns them into fools. It's simply most reasonable to assume that the rabbis included them in order to bring to life philosophical truths.
Peters approaches the text with true humility. She assumes that not only the Rabbis, but also her prior teachers, know something important, and aren't just making it up as they go along. Even when she disagrees with an approach, she gives it its due, and early on, provides a number of scholarly and rabbinic references of interest.
She uses fairly well-known subject texts, which serves two purposes. First, it's a text that you probably already know something about and feel comfortable with it, so examining it is less intimidating. As a result, the contrast between the before-and-after magnifies the effect of the midrashic interpretation.
Including the original Hebrew midrashim in the back is a nice touch. A nicer touch would be inter-linear translations, especially since translations are used in the chapters. And nicer still would be to include the source texts used in the midrashim and their contexts. It would add to the size of the book, but would keep you from need three or four separate books open at once.
Unlike many such attempts, Peters almost never left me scratching my head, wondering where that idea came from. The interpretation may not have been obvious going in, but afterwards, never appeared invented. Sometimes the clues aren't all there up front, , but I never felt cheated. That's what a teacher is for, after all. Writing with this sort of clarity, training minds rather than merely informing them, is a stunning achievement. I felt as though this was the book on midrash I had been waiting for, and it left me eager to start applying it myself.
February 13, 2006
Capitalism for Credit
Having been more or less driven off campus by the radicals, you won't really find too many college courses defending capitalism any more. Well, the Independence Institute has somehow managed to sneak a 2-credit course past the censors and into the CU system. While it's open to anyone for $75, college students are particularly encouraged to attend.
The reading list and syllabus look very solid for 15 hours of attendance, and you can register either through UCCS or the II itself.
Looks a little bit like a handy, bite-sized version of the LPR, and maybe it'll leave graduates wanting more.
View From a PDA
Now available on cellphones and wireless PDAs. I've added a link over on the left sidebar, but here it is, to bookmark right now.
It's basically the text of the postings for the last day, without any sort of formatting, sidebars, ads, or navigation. Hey, your cellphone web-minutes, aren't free! At least not yet.
Beer, Bands, and Blogs
A book review of the forthcoming Instabook, An Army of Davids over there. Read it here, read it there, but buy the book.
Prof. Glenn Reynolds, that's Instapundit to you, brews his own beer, has his own record label, and writes one of the most successful blogs on the planet. All of this is possible because of the massive increase of productivity in the last few years, placed in the hands of everyday people all over the world.
The great story, the great trend of the 21st century is going to be the 18th and 19th centuries - the movement of society from decentralized to centralized, and back to decentralized. It's a political trend that Michael Barone has been writing about for over a decade. Its most obvious manifestation has been blogging.
Reynolds's contribution is to show how the widespread distribution of advanced technology has profound economic and social consequences, far beyond the minute-to-minute politics that dominates the discussion. It's not merely that the big institutions are falling apart - it's that the big centralized institutions are being replaced, or at least finding competition in, huge decentralized institutions with greater power and flexibility. The really spooky part is that you ain't seen nuthin' yet.
An Army of Davids is divided into two sections - one on trends that are already underway, and another on technology that's just over the horizon.
Yes, Reynolds writes about blogging (including some tips on successful blogging). And he also discusses the irony that the only successful same-day response to 9/11 came from passengers with cellphones. That everyday citizens were able to react more swiftly and devastatingly than several large bureaucracies set up for the purpose has been noted before. Reynolds gives tips on how to make it work next time, too.
Still, I found the most interesting chapters to be on garage bands and Third Places.
The record labels have - as usual - missed the point. Napster was a diversion. The real threat was that music-lovers would form their own community, and that bands would be able to bypass the big labels to get exposure. Likewise, the presence of safe, well-lit, friendly places with WiFi is changing the way we work, but also has uncertain implications for public speech.
At some level, the Goliaths are more like dinosaurs, but expect some to adapt rather than fight. The Washington Post appears to be trying to do both, using Technorati to turn the blogosphere into its comment section, while at the same time libeling Bill Roggio, who's shown considerably more pluck than their own reporters. If the large record labels are the only ones able to guarantee airplay and fill colosseums right now, there's no reason that capability, too can't be rebuilt from the ground up, as well.
If the point of the first half is to make sense of what's happening now, the second half tries to prepare you for what's coming. Nanotechnology, feasible space travel, terraforming, are all on the way. And if you think you won't live to see their effect, think again - the aging process may not be a one-way deal for very much longer. Here's where Reynolds's enthusiasm really comes to the fore. By the end of this chapter, I was praying for the anti-aging drugs to show up tomorrow, so I could get into shape to go colonize Mars myself.
To some extent, while the second part is more imaginitive, it's also more limited. The effects of these technologies are much harder to discern, but thoughtful science fiction writers have tried. Reynolds might have relayed the more compelling of these. As it is, we get the following exchange with Aubrey de Grey, a leading anti-aging researcher:
Reynolds: What will life be like for people with a life expectancy of 150 years?
de Grey: [We will actually have indefinite lifespans.] Life will be very much the same as now, in my view, except without the frail people. People will retire, but not permanently - only until they need a job again. Adult education will be enormously increased, because education is what makes life never get boring. There will be progressively fewer children around, but we'll get used to that...Another important difference, I'm convinced, is that there will be much less violence whether it be warfare or serious crime, because life will be much more valuable when it's so much more under our control.
I'm not sure how de Grey squares "progressively fewer children" with "very much the same as now," on either social or economic levels, but I suppose it's a useful lesson that a brilliant scientific mind can be equally unimaginative in other spheres.
If you read Instapundit, some of the commentary will be familiar. Phrases he's made famous - if not invented - such as, "a pack, not a herd" appear prominently. These serve more to remind you that it's the same of InstaProf talking to you, and the book is anything but a recycling of the blog, or even the TCS columns.
Here's a book that shows what can happen when smart people spend time thinking about social trends, even when those doing the thinking are law professors. It helps, of course, if they're also science fiction fans and futurists.
Ask Not For Whom the Road Tolls...
Also last night, we talked about tolls on new roads and lanes as a possible answers to congestion and future needs. As my favorite local VC says, "I remain skeptical."
Tolls roads seem to suffer from the same inverted cash flow structure as, say, water. Almost all of their costs are fixed, while almost all of their revenue is variable. This puts the toll road operator in a bind where there are other alternatives, either existing routes or a boost in telecommuting. The operator presumably has set his rates at something close to the optimum level to begin with. Lowering rates will cause the very congestion his customers are paying to avoid, and raising them will either drive off traffic, or create resentment among increasingly captive commuters.
Just privatizing operations doesn't change the basic economics. And it's no good saying that the bonds are market-tested. Markets funded the dot-com boom as well. They may be the best system around, and in the long run, a pretty good one, but markets are still subject to fads, herding, and other mistakes. And don't underestimate the pressure that a financially-strapped government can bring to bear on the underwriting banks.
I remain not hostile, but skeptical.
February 12, 2006
Oil Reserves & Politics
Last night, one of the guests on John Andrews's show was Jay Lehr of the Heartland Institute, talking about our national "oil addiction." He made the perfectly good point that as the price-per-barrel rises, recoverable reserves rise as well. While the days of $20 per barrel are long-gone, at $50 per barrel, nobody's running out of anything for a while, and the US and Canada suddenly have the largest reserves in the world. So in a war or some other world crisis, we should be able to get our hands on enough oil to run the military without foreign help. (In the absence of a war, the US is still hooked into the international system, where transportation of oil is relatively cheap, and prices are set at world, rather than local, markets.)
That said, it's worth remembering that recoverable reserves are also subject to political as well as economic restraints. Much of the world's exploration and recovery is now being done by government firms, which tend to be less flexible, more protective of prerogatives, and less efficient. This can't help but decrease the recoverable reserves, if only by slowing exploitation, especially of the harder-to-reach reserves, which require more infrastructure.
In fact, it's also worth pointing out that even the surface oil takes a little while to get to, while rigs are built. Large-scale shale and tar sand recovery will take a while to get up and running, and until then, we will remain vulnerable to international oil shocks.
February 10, 2006
It occurs to me that Sunday night will be the Tu B'Shevat Show for Backbone Radio. There's absolutely no reason to take up air time talking about this, but that's what blogs are for.
Tu B'Shevat is, literally, the 15th of Shevat, and it's the New Year for Trees on the Jewish calendar. What on earth does that mean? Trees, they're so important, they get their own calendar? Well, it turns out that, not surprisingly for an agricultural economy, there are a whole lot of rules about produce, especially the kind that grow on trees. You can't actually eat a tree's fruit for its first three years, so Tu B'Shevat is meant to answer the question: when do we start counting the year?
Plant a tree before Sunday night, and on Sunday night it's one year old. Plant a tree after sundown on Sunday, and you're going to wait an extra year for those delicious peaches. Needless to say, if the weather was good, a lot of trees got planted just before Tu B'Shevat, earning it the nickname "Jewish Arbor Day," although not in Russia. Because of the ecological associations, it's gotten a lot of attention from environmentalist-types, and it's a little in danger of turning into Jewish Earth Day, which would be a shame.
There are no real rituals associated with the day, but leave it to the mystics and the Chassidic Jews to try. There was a somewhat neglected tradition of the Tu B'Shevat Seder that's come back over the last decade or so. It involves drinking grape juice (or wine) and eating a variety of tree-produce, like fruits and nuts, and it's popular even outside of California. Because it's one of the few areas of the religion that hasn't been tightly scripted, it's also one of the few areas where there's a fair amount of innovation, even among the Orthodox.
I guess I'll bring some trail mix to the studio, after all.
Another month, another LPR Friday. Blogging light with occasional flurries, tapering off by this evening.
February 9, 2006
Obligations, Not Rights
American law thinks in terms of rights. Jewish Law, halachah, is much more comfortable speaking in terms of obligations than of rights. In the case of the Danish Cartoons, I think there's something to be learned from the differences.
I would argue that the halachic concepts offer some advantages over the American ones. They could be compared to an intersection, where truck meets pedestrian. Under the American system, where each presses his rights, the truck driver frequently ends up in jail and the pedestrian in traction. Under the halachic system, with each mindful of his obligations, you may wear out your brakes a little more quickly, at the savings of a great number of collisions.
In American terms, there are two conflicting rights: freedom of the press and the "right" not to be offended. In Jewish terms, there would be two complementary obligations: the obligation not to offend and the obligation not to behave like a beheimah when offended. You could therefore argue, as Hugh Hewiit and other have, that both sides are wrong, although now with the die cast, we need to defend press freedom.
Or, you could argue, as I do, that that all works as long as you're in a civil society. But once one side starts to play chicken, pretending to step off the curb in order to get you to slow down, things change. There's no sanction for the other guys trying to enforce your obligations by denying theirs, to back you off by threatening violence. Muslim groups, even Western ones, have been playing chicken with the press and public officials for too long now.
To put it back in American terms, I'd take a third alternative: absolute right-of-way. At roundabouts, or traffic circles, one side has the absolute right of way. In America, if you're on the left, you win. It means you're in the circle, and you get to go where you want, ahead of the guy entering the circle. (Exiting, of course, there's no collision.) Since I don't really believe in the right not to be offended, I'd give full preference to free press, and to expect the insulted groups to get the address right for their protests.
Denver Papers Link to Cartoons
Since I live in the 21st Century, and read both the Post and the News online, I don't know if the papers have reprinted the Mohammed cartoons.
However, much to their credit, both Denver papers have linked to the cartoons online (although, regrettably, not to a local blog who put them up). It's true that at this point, that doesn't reach much of an audience who hadn't already seen the things. Still, the links are on the front pages of their respective sites, and appear to be linked to ongoing coverage, rather than to any specific article. This means that they'll stay there for the time being, rather than getting shuffled off to the archive.
February 8, 2006
If Austin Bay is right, then Hugh Hewitt is wrong. And so are the self-styled "Warriors of Civilization."
The Wall Street Journal reports that, in order to inflame Arab opinion, the radical Danish clerics running this show had to make stuff up:
Keen to "globalize" the crisis to pressure the Danish government, Mr. Abu-Laban and his colleagues decided to send delegations to the Middle East. They prepared a dossier to distribute during the travels. .... It also contained a group of highly offensive pictures that had never been published by the newspaper, including a photograph of a man dressed as a pig, with the caption: "this is the real picture of Muhammad."
Why? In the same issue, Amir Taheri comments that even the mildest supposed offense - portrayal of Muhammed and religious humor - are little more than politcally-invented nonsense.
And Iraq the Model notes that:
You know that those cartoons were published for the 1st time months ago and we here in the Middle East have tonnes of jokes about Allah, the prophets and the angels that are way more offensive, funny and obscene than those poorly-made cartoons, yet no one ever got shot for telling one of those jokes or at least we had never seen rallies and protests against those infidel joke-tellers.
So, the war-of-civilizationists are wrong, inasmuch as the actual number of Muslims involved in this rioting is fairly small.
But Hugh Hewitt is wrong, because since this is a pre-planned intelligence operation, supplemented by disinformation, virtually anything critical of Islam could have been used to set it off. Go look at the CAIR site sometime, and see the kind of normal, everyday kind of criticism that has them scurrying to their hate-crimes lawyers and other professional intimidators. John O'Sullivan's argument in favor of not letting someone else's reaction dictate our discussion becomes ever stronger.
In fact, I would argue that doing as I an Charles Johnson and other bloggers have done - reprint the cartoons so people like Iraq the Model can actually find them - is key to defeating this hostlie operation. When people haven't seen the cartoons, their imaginations run wild. When they have seen them, their first reaction tends to be, "this, this is what they're upset about?" And then, the addition of actually offensive material to the "dossier" makes sense.
Denmark in Denver
For those of you who want to find out what Danish products are available for purchase, according to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, the contact information for the local Danish Trade Consulate is:
Consul Nanna Nielsen Smith
5353 W. Dartmouth, Ste. 508
Denver, CO 80227
February 7, 2006
Most Disappointing 24 Revelation
Dennis Haysbert, who plays President David Palmer in Season Two, says in one of the special feature reels that he consciously patterned his performance after three men that he very much admires: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Colin Powell.
He then says that he didn't think that he could have played the role if President Palmer didn't have complete and utter integrity.
Can someone please explain the first two names on the list, then?
I'll be joining Krista Kafer as a co-host on John Andrews's Backbone Radio this Sunday evening from 5-8 PM Mountain Time. You can listen here.
In their book Spychips, Liz McIntyre and Katherine Albrecht raise the spectre of personalized pricing, done so that you would never know. As they paint it, the RFID-enabled store would read your store membership card, and if you were a bargain-hunter, would raise the price you were charged for the item. If you were a high-margin customer, say, one who didn't wait for the $2.50-per-twelve-pack for Diet Coke, they might give you a break. The advertised price is for the non-members, or someone without enough of a track record to
screw with analyze.
This strikes me as a singularly bad idea, albeit one unlikely to cost me much money.
Unlikely to cost me money, because even if King Sooper (that's "Kroger's" to you) decides that it doesn't want to sell me Diet Coke for $2.50, there are large companies (read: Wal-Mart, Save-On, Sav-a-lot, Target) whose entire business model is predicated on going after people like me. And if King Sooper stops selling me Diet Coke for $2.50, even though that's the sale price, they're going to lose my Empire Chicken business, too.
But it's also a bad idea for the economy. One of the great advances in western economies came with the advent of fixed prices. There was a time when, if Mr. Clean were on sale, we would have had to bargain with the merchant as though we were buying a new Jeep. Fixed prices are much more efficient, because the time wasted haggling over a few pennies is much better spent doing something else, like productive work.
Now, in addition to right-pricing the item, computer programs would have to be developed to right-price for any number of different sorts of customers. With both customer behavior and market conditions changing on a daily basis, it's hard to believe that the effort put into such software could actually be worth it. Worse, as a consumer - business or individual -, it becomes virtually impossible for me to know the price before I go to the store. If that doesn't reintroduce inefficiencies into the system, I don't know what does.
The book compares the chaos that would result to the pricing of airline tickets, except that that's not quite right. As Thomas Sowell has pointed out, you're not just paying for the ticket - you're also paying for flexibility. If you buy your ticket late, you're paying for the right to wait till the last minute, possibly in response to factors you can't control.
A better comparison is preferred-customer programs on steroids. Usually, you can see what points you've accumulated, and choose how you want to spend them. Even when the program results in an immediate price difference, it's usually infrequent, and presented as a reward or a bonus. It rarely factors into overall purchasing decisions.
I'm not big on intangibles and feelings when it comes to the market. But the reason the system works is that it's a system of contracts above (although exclusive to) personal relationships. If a store is going to routinely change prices just for me according to some algorithm I can't understand, the whole system starts to look as though it's reversing that precedence. And remember, every business is someone else's customer.
Which is why I don't think it'll catch on.
Well, sort of. Tom Howard and Craig Callahan have published an article in Investment Advisor ("Boxes Are Not Classes") based on research that I did for them last summer. The prose is mostly theirs, but the data and analysis come from yours truly.
Book Review: The Spychips Threat
It's up over at the book review site, but I'm going to try publishing them here as well, under the "Read More," to allow comments.
If Mesdames Albrecht and McIntyre are right, corporations and governments are conspiring, even as you read this, to bring on the apocalypse. Universal surveillance, in the form of nascent RFID (Radio Frequency ID) technology, is on the way, and they don't think you're going to like the results. They make a compelling and insightful case that RFID technology can put dangerous power into the hands of the government. But it's a case that's undermined - although not fatally - by overestimating the technology and misunderstanding how business works.
The principle behind RFID is simple: attach a tiny antenna to a tinier ID chip. Put the whole package on every item. Then, place readers at critical points in the supply chain. Bar codes can only tell that a Snickers bar is headed out the door; RFID tells you which one won't be going anywhere for a while. Businesses get not only perfect snaphots but also feature-length films of their supply chains.
So far, so good. But what if the supply chain doesn't stop at the store's exit? What if the item in question is your registered car or its tires? Or your clothing, bought with your traceable debit card? Or you? What if RFID could track the contents of your refrigerator, your medicine cabinet, or your house? So long, castle.
While supply chain applications end at he checkout line, post-purchase applications are sold as benefitting the consumer. Tagging cars is seen as an extension of the VIN to help prevent theft. Reader-refrigerators would let you know when your tagged food was ready for the kids' science fair. Reader-medicine cabinets would do the same for prescriptions, or warn you if you were about to mix heart drug A with diet pill B and give yourself a coronary.
Sounds cool. Until you realize that governments have a way of using technology in unpredictable and unwelcome ways. In the wake several high-profile data security breaches, the authors have imagined a number of threatening ways that ubiquitous tags could be misused. Placing RFID readers at key intersections and highway off- and on-ramps would be enough to track movements. The creation of uniform protocols actually makes rogue RFID readers easier to create, making it possible for thieves to know what's in your shopping bag, perverts to know your underwear, or terrorists to target a specific car. And they point out that small read distances actually work to the bad guys' advantage, avoiding signal clutter from a roomful of chips.
Still, while caution is prudent, Albrecht and McIntyre sometimes sound like Ida Tarbell gone nuts, demonizing perfectly normal business practices. They single out Wal-Mart for using its market power to push the new technology into the supply chain. But when they argue that some stores want to raise prices for bargain shoppers to discourage them, they forget that Wal-Mart's entire business model is predicated on attracting just those shoppers. They also tend to view any efforts to make RFID systems privacy-safe as a means to implementing a giant trap to be snapped shut on us at some future date.
Moreover, they wildly overestimate the current state of the technology. Certainly they've done their homework on patent claims (many of the most invasive proposed uses come straight from approved patents). But they take at face value the requirement that a patented product be able to fulfill its claim. An individual RFID shelf may be able to distinguish an in
February 5, 2006
New Book Review
A few years ago, John Keegan published a short biography of Winston Churchill. As an introduction to the man's life beyond the War, it's pretty good.
Missing the Point
My posting of the cartoons here is not an endorsement of their content. It's an attempt to actually report what the controversy is about, which can't be done in the absence of the original document.
The American media has been grossly negligent in their reporting of these cartoons by not reprinting them, and not linking to them in the online reports. Contrary to Fred Barnes's assertion on Hugh Hewitt's show, this is not to their credit, rather to their disgrace. Any informed opinion requires actual facts, and while even the grossest slurs don't justify embassy torchings and threats of violence, it would be nice to know just what set them off this time.
As WFB put it:
A quite natural curiosity attaches to how these twelve caricatures actually looked. One of them features Mohammed in a vaporous cloud addressing an assembly of suicide terrorists, with the caption that the heavenly kingdom has run out of virgins, so that aspirant debauchers simply have to lay off for a while. How was all that actually depicted by the cartoonist? Even the banal representation of Mohammed with a bomb replacing the turban on his head did not appear in the New York Times, the paper of record.
The offending cartoons have to be imagined.
And the imagination is usually worse than the real thing.
When Powerline reproduced cartoons showing the Star of David as walls in a prion camp, nobody thought they were self-hating Jews. Likewise, the press in this country needs to find the nerve to tell the story - to do their jobs.
Lord knows, they've spent enough time telling us whose side they're not on.
February 3, 2006
Mangled Cat Goes to the Movies
So Jonathan's parent company is going to be promoting films (can prizefights be far behind?):
I want to stop here for a moment and make it really clear that we are not investing in a movie and we are not getting into the movie business in a traditional way. What we are doing is leveraging our vast retail store footprint and the cultural relevancy of the Starbucks brand to bring film to the public in a new way during the time when the film industry has been challenged.
Starbucks will participate in all aspects of the marketing and distribution of this year film, and we will be an equity participant in the film's success, not only at the box office but through the sale of the sound track and the DVD in all retail outlooks including our stores. The soundtrack will be available in early April and we will carry the DVD along with other traditional retails, when it becomes available later in the year.
Through this venture, we are creating an economic partnership with the film industry that mirrors the structure we created in music with the successful later trail CD. Through the power of the Starbucks brand, we will create awareness and drive new Movie Goers to the film, something movie producers could not do on their own. We will introduce the film through a truly innovative and interactive in store marketing campaigns, which will provide customers the opportunity to experience the fun and inspirational feeling of the movie. Many of our store
partners will have a chance to view the film prior to its release and they along with strategic marketing materials with in the store will create enthusiasm in entries among our customers around the Akeelah and the Bee.
Even before I read the entire article, this made perfect sense to me. Starbucks has a history of this sort of opportunism. The CDs that they sell came from customer requests for the home-made mixes they were playing in their restaurants. The roll-your-own-CD machine that they have in Austin and Seattle is typical.
Starbucks isn't make the Sony mistake of getting into movie-making. It's just pursuing a logical extension of their current business model.
February 2, 2006
To answer Ron.
UPDATE: Courtesy of the American Kestrel, I have translations for the two untranslated cartoons. The one with the (rather odd) Stars of David and crescents translates as: "Prophet who has all kinds of silly thoughts going on in his head but keeps women under his foot." Apparently "The first part is a Danish saying having to do with a lid on a pot. And it rhymes in Danish. Loget is the lid on the pot and oget is a cattle harness."
The one with the police lineup translates as, "Hmmm. I'm not sure I can recognize him."
UPDATE: The Washington Post finally catches up with the cartoon story today, but remarkably, doesn't show the cartoons.
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Built to Last
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The Day the Universe Changed
The Multiple Identities of the Middle-East
The Case for Democracy
A Better War: The Unexamined Victories and Final Tragedy of America's Last Years in Vietnam
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Reading Levinas/Reading Talmud