Archive for December, 2013

The South, The Jews, and Christmas

From Eli Evans’s The Provincials, his half-memoir/half-history portrait of the Southern Jewish experience:

The most dismal moment came during the sixth-grade assembly at the annual presentation of the Christmas pageant, when the choir would recite all the verses of Matthew while the rest of us acted out the drama.  The teacher assigned me, the only Jewish boy in the class, the honor of playing Joseph, the number-one boy’s role, but I knew right away I couldn’t go through with something that close-in to the manger.  I worried for days what to do, not telling my parents because they might pull me out of the play altogether, and call too much attention to me.  Finally, I dredged up the courage to talk to the teacher, and carefully explained that I didn’t think this was such a good role for me and, though I was honored to have been chosen, I would be just as happy as a shepherd boy or as the Star of the East.  No, she thought, they were somewhat religious roles too, and she would try to think of something more secular and less objectionable.  I ended up, typecast no doubt, as the tax collector, the heartless representative of King Herod, pounding the table, demanding oppressive taxes from poor pregnant Mary and dutiful Joseph, thus forcing them to leave town for this historic rendezvous.

I played the role with verve, in Arab headdress made from a bath towel.  At the performance, under brilliant direction, I was so excessive that I got the biggest laughs of the day.

My own school experience, while not as Christmas-immersive as Evans’s, included being excused (with little if any commotion) from singing Christmas carols in 4th grade music class, and having to figure out during the Cub Scout Christmas event that it was ok to march around with the other kids and just smile during “Come, All Ye Faithful,” since nobody was going to notice, anyway.

Obviously, over time, I’ve made my peace with Christmas, choosing the enjoy the secular arm that it’s developed (to the dismay of grinches like Mr. Keillor) and the mutual religious respect (from a distance) that has been the ongoing societal miracle of my lifetime.

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Duck Dynasty, Free Speech, and Cable Unbundling

I’m not the first one to make the connection.

That’s not surprising.  What is perhaps surprising is that we’re not the first generation to have the debate over what free speech means.  In fact, the very first generation of free Americans had this debate.  This same exact debate.

I read Pauline Maier’s remarkable Ratification in 2011, but this stayed with me.  On p.71 – 75, she has a section on “Freedom of the Press.”  Surprisingly, the context is very much the same now as it was 226 years ago.

Threats…encouraged writers to continue the standard practice of publishing essays under pseudonyms.  In Boston, however, Benjamin Russell, published of the Massachusetts Centinel, announced in early October that he would print no essays that raised objections to the Constitution unless their authors left their names “to be made public if desired.”  That would clearly discourage critics of the Constitution from speaking out.  The local tradesmen and artisans (known as “mechanics”) who strongly supported ratification, “had been worked up to such a degree of rage,” one Massachusetts official noted, “that it was unsafe to be known to oppose [the Constitution] in Boston.” … Other commenters, however, charged Russell with violating freedom of the press since his policy would curtail the range of arguments available to the public.  In Philadelphia, a writer who took the pen name “Fair Play” answered the threats leveled against those who criticized the Constitution by insisting “that the LIBERTY OF THE PRESS — the great bulwark of all the liberties of the people — ought never to be restrained” (although, he added, “the Honorable Convention did not think fit to make the least declaration in its favor”).

The freedom such writers defended went back to an earlier time, when colonial printers had to appeal to a broad range of readers to stay in business; they took a neutral stand and justified necessity by defining a “free press” as one that was “open to all parties.”  That way of operating came under pressure as the market for newspapers grew and the Revolution raised doubts about giving “all parties,” including Loyalists, ready access to the reading public.  State partisan divisions during the 1780s also made it difficult, and sometimes unprofitable, for printers to remain impartial.  On the other hand, the establishment of a republic, in which all power came from the people, gave the argument for a press open to all parties a new ideological foundation: To exercise their responsibilities intelligently, the citizens of a republic had to be fully informed of different views on public issues.

That concept of a free press was, in any case, different from the standard Anglo-American understanding of “freedom of the press,” which referred to the freedom of printers to publish whatever they wanted without “prior restraint” by the government….The emphasis was on the freedom of the press to monitor and criticize persons in power and the policies they adopted.

In the end, proponents of the Constitution found an effective alternative to threats of tar and feathers and other forms of physical punishment: They could influence editorial policy by cancelling or threatening to cancel their subscriptions to “offending” newspapers.  Advocates for freedom of the press could insist that the American people needed access to the full range of opinions on the Constitution. But were individual subscribers…obliged to pay for newspapers that published essays they considered profoundly subversive of their own and the country’s best interests?

Men like Oswald were rare.  Only twelve of over ninety American newspapers and magazines published substantial numbers of essays critical of the Constitution during the ratification controversy…. If printers were “easily terrified into a rejection of free and decent discussions upon public topics,” [New-York Journal Thomas Greenleaf] wrote in early October 1787, the “inevitable consequence” would be “servile fetters for FREE PRESSES of this country.”  Greenleaf promised to give “every performance, that may be written with decency, free access to his Journal.”  For their persistence, Oswald and Greenleaf suffered verbal attacks, cancelled subscriptions, and threats of mob violence.  Their insistence on maintaining what they understood as a “free press,” that is, one that presented the people with criticism as well as hallelujahs for the Constitution, helped start a widespread public debate on the Constitution, which they they kept going. (Emphasis added – ed.)

Just because the government’s not involved doesn’t mean it’s not a free speech issue.

Arguing over whether this is a legal or a strictly First Amendment issue is the reddest of red herrings.  I suppose there’s some possibility that some judge will decide that if a baker and a photographer can be forced to provide services for gay weddings, then A&E can be forced to employ religious Christians, but absent that, it’s unlikely this will be decided through the courts.  And certainly nobody on the right is calling for a return to the bad old days of the “fairness doctrine,” which wouldn’t apply here in any event.

For most libertarians and conservatives, that’s ok.  But we can’t let it end with that.  We can’t short-circuit them by dismissing them because there are no legal implications.  As Mark Steyn points out, if we want civil society to be where these discussions take place, then we have to ensure that civil society is a place where we can actually have these discussions.

Right now, it’s difficult to tell A&E, and only A&E, that you’re unhappy with their editorial decisions, because if you want to buy A&E, you’re also forced to buy a whole package of other cable channels, not all of which are even owned by the same companies.  The most effective way to enable us to hold A&E accountable is to unbundle these offerings, and allow me to choose, a la carte, what channels I want to receive.   There’s a bill pending in Congress to do just that, and Canada has already taken that step.

In the end, even though there’s an excellent chance that unbundling will mean higher, rather than lower cable bills, it may be the best means of sending the market signals that prevent an enforced conformity.  Right now, more channels just look like a dizzying array of sameness, with those channels of communication that “appeal to a broad range” of viewers, readers, or listeners, being dictated to by bullies who cannot stand to hear that someone disagrees.

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Daily Glimpse December 21, 2013

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • The Redemption of E.D. Hirsch, Jr.
    Sol Stern, at the City Journal site.  His experience with the much-lauded P.S. 87 and its progressive curriculum was, shall we say, unsatisfactory: I soon received a crash course in educational progressivism. Many of the school’s teachers were trained at such citadels of progressive education as Columbia University’s Teachers College and the Bank Street College of […]

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Daily Glimpse December 18, 2013

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • Nice Little Insurance Company Ya Got There
    Shame if anything happened to it. “We are considering factoring into the [qualified health plan] renewal process, as part of the determination regarding whether making a health plan available…how [insurers] ensure continuity of care during transitions,” they write. Which is kind of like the Mafia saying that it will “consider” the amount of protection money […]

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Daily Glimpse December 17, 2013

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • Balance of Power in the East China Sea
    Via Lawfare, a post by Oriana Skylar Mastro, on China’s ADIZ over the Senkakus: Before creating the Air Defense Identification Zone, China’s leadership would have weighed the possibility that Japan and the U.S. might defy it. China most likely expected exactly the response Washington and Tokyo are giving it. This is the problem. China has […]

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Greg Smith, and PERA’s Survivability Analysis

Last Thursday, Colorado PERA Executive Director Greg Smith gave his annual SMART Act testimony to the Joint Finance Committee of the Colorado General Assembly.  Since 2012, all departments of the Colorado state government have been required to testify during the interim concerning their operations, their efficiency, and the degree to which they are fulfilling their mission.

PERA recently changed its assumed long-term rate of return from 8% to 7.5%.  In light of that change, its amortization period – the time when PERA will have no unfunded liability, assuming a constant rate of return – has grown from 30 years, probably to something near 40 years.

During the Q&A session, State Rep. Lori Saine (R-Dacono) asked Smith about using a Monte Carlo simulation to test PERA’s long-term soundness.  As described in more detail here, averaging a given return over a period of time isn’t the same thing as getting that rate of return every year.  PERA’s portfolio might well average 7.5% over 40 years, and still go bust because its returns in the next few years are below average, leaving to try to make up the difference from a lower balance.  Rep. Saine was asking if PERA did or could run a simulated 40-year set of returns, and see how often the fund went bust and how often it stayed solvent at the end of that 40-year window.

Mr. Smith replied that yes, they do Monte Carlo simulations, and then proceeded to describe not those, but instead a sensitivity analysis available in the Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (CAFR).  The sensitivity analysis is something else altogether.  It looks as what happens to PERA if the returns over 40 years are 6.5%, 7.5%, 8%, up to 9.5%, but it still assumes a constant rate of return.  This is a completely different analysis, one that admits the possibility of lower-than-expected long-term returns, but ignores the danger in a few years of very low short-term returns, or even a couple of years of severe losses.

Monte Carlo simulations model the year-to-year variability in return that is an inherent function of risk.  As a result, even funds that appear to be well-funded, or that appear to have a long-term path to being fully-funded, can show low likelihoods of staying solvent through their amortization periods.  Doing such an analysis helps to prevent unpleasant surprises, and is to be preferred to a simple sensitivity analysis such as the type PERA performs and publishes.

Regardless of one’s preference, the two shouldn’t be confused for each other.

You can hear the entire exchange here:

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Daily Glimpse December 15, 2013

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • Solar Convection Cells Confirmed
    By a team using data from NASA: Besides proving theory correct, identifying giant cells on the sun might help to better predict solar events that have a direct impact on us—solar flares, coronal mass ejections, etc.—all can wreak havoc on man-made electronics. Figuring out how to predict such events and to determine their size in advance could go […]
  • A New Challenge for Deer Creek
    A quadricopter drone survives a hit, and the loss of a propeller: As demonstrated in this video created by researchers at ETH Zurich, normally when a quadcopter loses one of its propellers it’s game over. The software on board that keeps the craft stable doesn’t have a clue how to compensate, and down it goes. […]

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Daily Glimpse December 14, 2013

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • Google’s API Victory over Oracle In Danger
    A federal appeals court looks as though it may overturn last year’s ruling allowing Google to copy the structure of Oracle’s API, while writing different underlying code to solve the problems. Circuit Judge Kathleen O’Malley said the fact that Java is freely available and widely used by programmers doesn’t mean the code can’t get copyright […]
  • Exploding Exotic Cars
    With a cool, how-he-does-it video:
  • Nanotechnology – Time To Productize
    That’s the claim of a new paper, which also argues that the hold-up is manufacturing processes.  Producing nanostructures is hard; you can either whittle away larger blocks of material, or build them up atom-by-atom, or molecule-by-molecule.  Productizing the technology is going to require manufacturing processes that scale.
  • Federal Agency Still Uses Floppy Disks
    Yes, you read that right: Floppy disks, whose use peaked when MTV still played music videos, are no longer featured in any of today’s (or yesterday’s, or last week’s) computer hardware. But still, the Government Printing Office, which runs the Federal Register, accepts documents on CD-ROMs and floppy disks, but not flash drives, SD cards, […]
  • Someone’s Been Siphoning Data Through a Huge Security Hole in the Internet
    A hole that had been explained five years ago, no less: The traffic hijack, they showed, could be done in such a way that no one would notice because the attackers could simply re-route the traffic to a router they controlled, then forward it to its intended destination once they were done with it, leaving no one […]

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Daily Glimpse December 13, 2013

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • Patent Trolls Under Siege
    Patent reform is getting a boost in Congress and, possibly, in the Supreme Court.  The House voted 325-91 last week for serious reform, beating back a number of Democrat amendments that would have gutted reform. Passage of the bill is a big step for patent reformers, which would have been hard to imagine even one […]
  • Han Solo’s Blaster For Sale
    Via Design Taxi: Those familiar with the Star Wars franchise will remember the scene where Darth Vader uses the Force to get a hold of Han Solo’s DL-44 Blaster. Now, this iconic pistol will be up for sale on 21 December 2013 via “I know you’ve got a certificate and a great story, but I need to be […]
  • Raul Candy Store
  • Ah, Reform, Peking Style
    Not exactly encouraging: When the screening in Jiangsu ended, state media reported, local party chief Luo Zhijun exhorted the assembled officials to “correctly understand the lessons of history.” The film’s message: The Soviet Union didn’t fall apart because of the communist system itself, but because of individuals who betrayed it, especially Mikhail Gorbachev. The film […]
  • Science of Snowflakes
    A profile of Kenneth Libbrecht, the man who wrote the book on snowflakes (literally, as BoingBoing points out). Over the course of his research, Libbrecht’s work has grown to encompass art and science. He’s produced both scientificpapers and hundreds of beautiful photos of natural snowflakes (which he’s published in severaldifferentbooks and had featured on U.S. postage stamps), and also devised ingenious ways […]
  • Sean Trende Offers Hope for Colorado Republicans
    Even with a contentious Senate primary getting underway for the Republican nomination, some are writing off the seat and conceding it to Udall.  Sean Trende, not so much: If Republicans had a stronger field, this race would probably move up a tier. But there’s no doubt that Udall is benefiting from a field of relatively […]
  • 50 Years, 50 Toys
    What people who can’t afford authentic Star Wars memorabilia have been buying for the last half-century:
  • Saving = Happiness?
    Yes, you’d expect a bank to say that.  But isn’t savings actually earned success for most people?  I know it makes me feel happier.
  • Climate Deniers
    That would be James Hansen, last seen “adjusting” historical climate data to show the “correct” increases.  He’s still at it, plugging away, claiming that while we’ll have to suffer through 1-degree changes, we have a moral obligation to cripple our economies to prevent 2-degree warming. The new study is a departure from the typical climate science […]
  • Detroit, Illinois, Colorado
    Yes, pensions.  No, we are not Detroit or Illinois, and won’t be for some time, even if we left things as they are.  Still, our problems are far from solved, and rather than writing foolish columns about what Detroit could have learned from PERA, we’d do better to learn from Detroit and Illinois. Eileen Norcross from […]

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Daily Glimpse December 12, 2013

Daily Links From Glimpse From a Height

  • Libertarians For (and Against) Safety Nets
    In particular, some form of the Basic Income.  Matt Zwolinski of Bleeding Heart Libertarians makes the case for, including a couple of different forms it might take, and quotes from both Friedman and Hayek in support of the idea: Both Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek advocated for something like a Basic Income Guarantee as a proper […]
  • A Detailed Explanation of the Bitcoin Protocol
    We posted a video last week about the basic principles of Bitcoin.  Here’s a detailed explanation for the layman of how Bitcoin’s cryptography works. Understanding the details of the Bitcoin protocol opens up otherwise inaccessible vistas. In particular, it’s the basis for understanding Bitcoin’s built-in scripting language, which makes it possible to use Bitcoin to […]
  • FSA Commander Flees Syria
    According to the Wall Street Journal: Islamist fighters ran the top Western- backed rebel commander in Syria out of his headquarters, and he fled the country, U.S. officials said Wednesday. The Islamists also took over key warehouses holding U.S. military gear for moderate fighters in northern Syria over the weekend. The takeover and flight of […]
  • The Fourth Branch
    Jonathan Turley, the liberal law professor who spoke of Obama’s being “the threat the Constitution was designed to prevent,” wrote about the rise of the bureaucratic state earlier this year: This  growth since the founding has led to increasing power and independence for agencies. The shift of authority has been staggering. The fourth branch now […]
  • Access to a Waiting List
    That’s what happens when 70% of doctors don’t join your exchange: An estimated seven out of every 10 physicians in deep-blue California are rebelling against the state’s Obamacare health insurance exchange and won’t participate, the head of the state’s largest doctors’ association said. … “Enrollment doesn’t mean access, because there aren’t enough doctors to take […]
  • Floating House
    Also, some instruction on camera angles and perspective.  Shot from a distance, I think it might look bleaker and less pleasant.
  • Should Queens Tear Down the 1964 World’s Fair Pavilion?
    The latest Preservation Battle at Gizmodo: Last month, officials in New York determined that it would cost $53 million to fix and restorethe New York State Pavilion, the series of hulking space-age structures built in Flushing Meadows Corona Park during the 1964-65 World’s Fair. Should these deteriorating ruins be preserved? That seems like a lot of […]
  • An Affordable Metal 3D Printer?
    So far, they’ve been plastic.  The results are pretty robust, but metal is a whole ‘nother ballgame: Now, scientists have built an open-source 3D metal printer that costs under $1,200, sharing their design and software with the maker community. “We have open-sourced the plans,” in the hopes of accelerating the technology by allowing others to build upon […]
  • An Internet Radio From 1969
    Who knew Al Gore was so into transistors?
  • Sub-Launched Drones a Reality
    The US Navy has launched a drone from a submarine platform.  No word on whether they’re naming it after the birds that Noah sent out.
  • Earth’s Gravity Scarred By Earthquake
    The ESA GOCE satellite maps the earth’s local gravity, and shows that the March 2011 Japan earthquake left detectable changes in the earth’s gravity there.
  • Four Social Security Reforms
    Courtesy of the e21 Project at the Manhattan Institute.  Basically they amount to making marginal systemic changes now in order to avoid crashing the system just in time for me to retire.   They’re good ideas. Much of Paul Ryan’s budget strategy centered around getting discretionary spending off the table so we could focus on […]
  • Modern SF Loft
    Brick-and-Wood at its best: Two problems: first, it’s in San Francisco, which means it’s completely unaffordable unless you own Oracle;  second, as with so much modern interior design, it’s beautiful because it’s empty.  Nobody actually lives this way.
  • Notes on Israeli Income Inequality
    From Tyler Cowen: The bottom decile actually has done quite well in terms of rates of change, but the 6th through 8th deciles have done especially poorly (same link).  That source serves up the intriguing hypothesis that the disappearance of middle class-earning middlemen in the Israeli economy is due to the disintermediation of the internet, […]
  • Maybe They Just Don’t Like Wal Mart Because It’s a Meritocracy
    A new Wal Mart just opened in Washington, near the old downtown shopping district.  They get 38 applications for every position, and Mark Perry notes that it’s more from hope than desperation. Too bad, though, that they didn’t take Garfinckel’s old location.  Would have driven people like Jonathan Singer up the wall.
  • How to Bend Markets
    Innovation, of course: The WSJ has an article today about innovation blowing up the commodity industry…. The price of nickel, a metal used to make stainless steel for everything from sauce pans to guitar strings, spiked past $50,000 a metric ton in 2007 from less than $10,000 just a few years earlier…. The innovation has sent nickel […]
  • Jewish Democrat Foundation Makes It Official
    From The Jewish Week‘s Gary Rosenblatt: Several weeks ago the Nathan Cummings Foundation, a stalwart in the Jewish philanthropic community for 25 years, announced that its new strategic plan calls for focusing on two specific areas: inequality and climate change…. In the past, about 20 percent of those funds were designated to Jewish groups and […]
  • First Books, Now Newspapers
    Millennials Still Want Their Newspapers.  I think the headline overstates this considerably.  Of those from 18-34, 56% are reading their local paper online or in print, and 60% of that self-selected group consider it trustworthy.  Those are ridiculously low numbers compared even to 20 years ago, never mind 40 or 60.  It’s taken a long […]
  • What Industries Are Driving Denver’s Bounce Back?
    Tech, oil, and…lawyers? I don’t know if 33rd in the country is “impressive, though.”
  • National Geographic Maps Meet Google
    National Geographic Google-Maps 500 of its own maps.  You can search on a location, and then zoom in and out.  The link has a couple of maps to explore, but it’s unclear how you get to the other maps they’re digitizing.  
  • Harold Edgerton, Call Your Office
    From Hi Fructose: Alan Sailer, a microwave engineer and photographer, creates remarkable photographs that capture, with incredible precision, the explosion of several objects as he shoots them with a pellet rifle.
  • The 3D Pen
    An Engadget review is lukewarm: Drawing on a flat surface is simple enough, however, and tracing seems a pretty good place to get started with the new tool. Lay a thin piece of paper over a well-defined image and go to town…. The trouble starts when you attempt to draw in the air. You’re essentially […]

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