January 31, 2009

Freemium content

Chris Anderson looks at the "Economics of Giving It Away", the move to free digital products:

Over the past decade, we have built a country-sized economy online where the default price is zero — nothing, nada, zip. Digital goods — from music and video to Wikipedia — can be produced and distributed at virtually no marginal cost, and so, by the laws of economics, price has gone the same way, to $0.00. For the Google Generation, the Internet is the land of the free.

Which is not to say companies can't make money from nothing. Gratis can be a good business. How? Pretty simple: The minority of customers who pay subsidize the majority who do not. Sometimes that's two different sets of customers, as in the traditional media model: A few advertisers pay for content so lots of consumers can get it cheap or free. The concept isn't new, but now that same model is powering everything from photo sharing to online bingo. The last decade has seen the extension of this "two-sided market" model far beyond media, and today it is the revenue engine for all of the biggest Web companies, from Facebook and MySpace to Google itself.

Economies of scale still apply — in fact, they may apply more in a digital sense — the minimum numbers are still not trivial. For example, this site is not ad-supported, largely because the traffic is not high enough to make it worthwhile for advertisers to place ads here: the tiny proportion of visitors who might click on an ad make the potential revenue smaller than the (admittedly tiny) administration cost to track and account for.

In other cases, the same digital economics have spurred entirely new business models, such as "Freemium," a free version supported by a paid premium version. This model uses free as a form of marketing to put the product in the hands of the maximum number of people, converting just a small fraction to paying customers. It's an inversion of the old free sample promotion: Rather than giving away one brownie to sell 99 others, you give away 99 virtual penguins to sell one virtual igloo. (Confused? Ask a child: This is the business model for the phenomenally successful Club Penguin.)

Variants of this model have been in use for quite some time. One of the very first software packages I used was a word processor called PC Write by Quicksoft, which was a very early version of the "Freemium" model: there was no charge to use the product1, but by paying extra you got additional features, a printed manual, and free technical support. For the early 1980s, it was a radical business model (and an excellent quality product for the time).

Many iPhone applications have both a free "light" version and a paid "full" version: the installed base is now large enough that it is a very successful model for the producers.


1 Actually, not quite true: in those far distant pre-broadband days, most people got their copies of PC Write by paying a nominal sum to have a diskette mailed to them directly. The past really is a foreign country.

Posted by Nicholas at 01:26 PM | Comments (0)

P.J O'Rourke on what to expect from the Obama administration

P.J. O'Rourke may be recovering from the malaise of the Bush years (where he seemed to have difficulty being as funny as he was in the Clinton era), as evidenced by his introduction to the Obama years:

The killjoys are back in charge — the mopes, the fusstails, the glum pots. Their wet blanket has been thrown over the White House and Congress. They're worrying up a storm. (Good thing that George W. Bush is no longer in charge of the weather and FEMA the way he was during Hurricane Katrina.) America is experiencing a polar ice cap and financial meltdown, causing sea levels to rise and sending cold water flooding into Wall Street where the rapidly acidifying ocean is corroding our 401(k)s and releasing mortgage securities full of hot air into the atmosphere until our every breath is full of CO2 especially when we exhale, which should be banned when children are present lest their uninsured health care be harmed by second-hand greenhouse gases that are causing endangerment of plant and animal species (Republicans are extinct already), leading to a shortage of green, leafy vegetables vital to the fight against America's growing epidemics of obese hunger and housing foreclosures on the homeless.

You remember the killjoys. They've been all over liberal Democratic politics like ugly on an ape since the Carter administration. They are the people who conceived the late, little-mourned, double-nickel speed limit, which is doubtless now rising undead from its grave to turn us all into road zombies dragging ourselves down I-70 numbed to a state of murderous catatonia by our 55-mile-per-hour rate of travel.

You'd almost think he's been holding back on criticizing his own team during the last eight years, wouldn't you? Perhaps the muted criticism also muted the humour?

He's clearly on happier terms slashing away at Democrats than Republicans:

Being a poke-nose, a nanny-pants, and a wowser satisfies the pathetic need of the political class to feel self-important and powerful. Banning paper and plastic and making shoppers carry their groceries home in their mouths like dogs is just the thing to make a little tin humanist in the Obama West Wing think he's admiral of the Uzbek Navy.

Not that Pecksniff Buttinskiism is a strictly partisan matter. Long-lipped howler Republican Drys teamed up with spigot-bigot William Jennings Bryan to enact Prohibition. The GOP is home to blue noses of a size as if room had been made on Mt. Rushmore for a bust of Andrew Volstead. Meanwhile Democrats do have their pleasures — drinking bong water at gay weddings and so forth. Plus there is the Kennedy family to be considered, with their penchant for exciting risk — skiing into trees, sleeping with the babysitter, and claiming entitlement to New York Senate seats.

See! It is possible to poke fun at the Kennedy family without making jokes about bridges!

Republicans stick their schnozollas into other people's underpants and stashes (but not gun cabinets). In the matter of scolding foreigners and muscling in on the governance of lesser breeds without the law, Republicans are a regular pain in the atlas. But it is the Democrats who've learned to make political honey out of minding other people's beeswax. Not satisfied with mere bossy irritation of the public, Democrats have created whole branches of government — the Department of Labor, the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Education, the Department of Tofu and Sprouts. Democrats have opened barrels of (USDA inspected!) pork sufficient to feed all of their high-binding and wire-pulling friends, relatives, cronies, and the state government of Illinois. Democratic wisenheimers have managed to get themselves elected Big Chief Itch-and-Rub of every worry and to be appointed Pharaoh of Fret for every concern. They are the Party of Eliot Spitzer. And we the citizenry are Eliot Spitzer's wife.

Welcome back, Mr. O'Rourke.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:50 AM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2009

QotD: Springsteen at the Super Bowl

ST: Why has the Super Bowl become a de facto national holiday? Do you watch it and prepare a table of fast food and snacks, and do you care who wins? And do you think people who say "I only watch the Super Bowl for the commercials" are full of shit?

NG: I have never quite gotten over losing a $5 bet to my father when I foolishly bet on the Redskins to beat the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl VII (that's 7, for those folks like me who have trouble with regular math, let alone Roman numerals). Why would anyone, even a stupid 10-year-old kid, ever bet on Billy Kilmer to win anything other than a hot dog eating contest? That stupid fucking one-bar facemask! Like the rest of America, I walked away from that game a huge Garo Yepremian fan.

Now I watch the Super Bowl for wardrobe malfunctions. I mean, who doesn't want to see Ken Whisenhut split his pants? I think America lost its innocence when we witnessed Justin Timberlake touch a woman, any woman. It was like staring directly into a total eclipse of the sun, the heart, you name it. And it started the current cycle of FCC mania about protecting TV viewers from anything other than really shitty halftime shows.

In short, watching the Super Bowl is a great way to kill some time. Just make sure your bungee cord is secured properly and don't stint on the Tostitos.

ST: Are you as appalled as me that Bruce Springsteen, that Philip Berrigan kind of liberal who eschews materialism, is playing the half-time show at the Super Bowl?

NG: Why Springsteen? Is Gary Glitter still stuck in Thailand? Is Buddy Holly not returning the NFL's phone calls?

I grew up in Monmouth County, New Jersey, which contains both Springsteen's hometown (Freehold) and his early haunt (Asbury Park), so I can't stand him in the same way that only a New Yorker can really, really hate the Yankees. I'll say this much about the Boss: His output over the past 25 years or so would make even Beethoven nostalgic for the first few albums. Springsteen is in that elite group of rock stars who have objectively sucked two, three, or even four times longer than they were ever any good (are you listening Sting, David Bowie, R.E.M., Patti Smith?). That, and in the video for "Glory Days," he had the worst fake baseball throwing arm since Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees. Which is saying something.

Watching Springsteen perform at the Super Bowl — and before him, rock mummies like Tom Petty and Rolling Stones — let's just say I'd rather go straight to the Bodies exhibition, where at least no one is pretending that the corpses on display aren't actually dead.

Nick Gillespie, interviewed by Russ Smith at Splice Today, 2009-01-30

Posted by Nicholas at 03:42 PM | Comments (0)

The return of the revenge of the Interior Desecrators

James Lileks has reposted the original Interior Desecrators site:

Lileks_Interior Desecrators.jpg

Tired of your dated, hippie-crap wallpaper? Here's how to get it off for nothing! Invite over a really straight friend. Slip some LSD in her drink. Put on a 45 of "White Rabbit" and set it to play over and over and over again. Just when your friend starts to trip, say "This is what the inside of Jerry Garcia's prostate looks like." Then leave the room and lock the door.

Come back in an hour, and she'll have scraped all the wallpaper off with her fingernails! Works better than messy solutions or steamers, and the blood washes right off.

Or it blends in with the furniture!

Posted by Nicholas at 02:23 PM | Comments (0)

Condell says "Shame on the Netherlands"

Posted by Nicholas at 11:34 AM | Comments (0)

The British Army under strain

A lengthy piece in the current Economist discusses the current state of the British army after lengthy deployments to both Iraq and Afghanistan:

[S]ince 2006 Britain has run two protracted and often intensely violent operations. Units routinely breach guidelines designed to give them time to minimise battle stress. The strain on soldiers, says General Sir Richard Dannatt, the army chief, is "unacceptable". Britain has struggled to maintain two long supply routes, dividing scarce helicopters, engineers and medics. Aircraft are wearing out faster than planned. "The British army is like an engine running without oil. It is still going, but it could seize up at any moment," argues Michael Clarke, director of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank.

These troubles are made worse by a chronic shortage of manpower. On October 1st the trained strength of the British armed forces was 173,270. This is 3.2% below the official requirement, but it understates large gaps in some areas — especially infantry units. Most battalions are 10-20% short of their required numbers; if those deemed unfit to deploy (due to, say, battle injuries) are factored out, they are as much as 42% under strength. So when battalions are preparing for war, they often regroup soldiers from their four scrawny companies into three, and then bolt on a fourth from another unit. To support current operations, the army has cut back training and lowered readiness; instead of having roughly a brigade at high readiness to deal with a crisis, sources say, there is "less than a battle-group" (a 1,500-strong formation).

This is disturbing: Canada, with a much smaller base to draw upon, is still able to maintain a battle-group in Afghanistan. Britain's other commitments are clearly overstretching what remains of the army's capabilities. Of course, that's not to say that Canadian troops can be maintained there indefinitely (and the government has been pretty clear that there will be a full withdrawal at the end of the current commitment).

Withdrawing from Iraq will relieve some of the strain. But operations in Afghanistan alone, involving some 8,000 British troops, arguably are already more demanding than the structure permits — and many expect Britain to send another battle-group to support the American reinforcement there. Generals want the army to grow. Yet it struggles to recruit, train and keep enough soldiers to fill its existing quota. An acute problem is the large "wastage" of recruits. Last year 38% of those in training either gave up or were thrown out — a bigger share than in the American army. Britain gets by in part thanks to foreigners: Commonwealth citizens (who made up more than 6% of soldiers in 2007), Irish recruits and Gurkhas. The top brass hopes the recession will encourage more to join and fewer to leave. But more soldiers cost more money, and that will be in even shorter supply in a downturn.

Plainly, Britain's military resources do not match its commitments. Three ex-generals have said that Britain's "unusable" nuclear weapons should be scrapped. But Sir Jock reckons that any money saved would almost certainly go back to the Treasury, not the conventional forces.

That's an even more disturbing thought: the nuclear arsenal is almost the only thing left keeping Britain at "the head table", internationally speaking. To scrap it (whether the savings go to conventional forces or not) really would mark the final decline of Britain from the most powerful nation on the planet 100 years ago to (at best) a middleweight, unable to project power beyond its own coastline.

This, however, is perhaps the worst long-term indicator:

On December 11th the government announced a delay of one or two years in building big new aircraft carriers, and the deferral of a new family of armoured vehicles. Even so, insiders say there is still a £3.7 billion ($5.2 billion) hole in the budget for military equipment over the next four years and procurement costs are still rising. The bill for the 20 biggest weapons projects is now £28 billion, or 12%, over budget.

The carriers are the last gasp of the Royal Navy: without them, there's almost nothing left. The government has already pared back the surface fleet to the point that even calling it a "fleet" is incredibly misleading. The carriers — should they ever be launched — can't operate without sufficient support, and based on current trends, that support will not be available either.

I should run a pool on when the British government announces a further delay, and then when they announce the cancellation altogether. On current trends, it's no longer an "if".

Posted by Nicholas at 11:23 AM | Comments (0)

January 29, 2009

QotD: The end of Canadian Conservatism

Say what you like about the Tories: they don't do things by halves. When they spend, they spend. When they go into debt, they do it $100-billion at a time. And when they decide to put an end to conservatism in Canada — as a philosophy, as a movement — they go out with a bang.

We can safely say that the strategy of incrementalism, at least, has been put to bed. With this historic budget, the Conservatives' already headlong retreat from principle has become a rout: a great final leap into the void. For there will be no going back from this, for the party or for the country. Whatever the budget's soothing talk of "temporary" this and "extraordinary" that, and for all its well-mannered charts showing spending obediently returning to its pen, deficits meekly subsiding, "investments" repaid in full, we are in fact headed somewhere we have never been before. We are on course towards a massive and permanent increase in the size and scope of government: record spending, sky-high borrowing, and — ultimately, inevitably — higher taxes. And all this before the first of the Baby Boomers have had a chance to retire, and cough up a lung.

Andrew Coyne, "Budget ‘09: Tories take a final leap into the void" Macleans, 2009-01-27

Posted by Nicholas at 12:29 PM | Comments (0)

"There is no disagreement . . ." oh, yes there is

Hundreds of economists beg to differ with this statement by President Obama:

There is no disagreement that we need action by our government, a recovery plan that will help to jumpstart the economy.

Details here.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:03 PM | Comments (0)

January 27, 2009

Today's Budget Speech

Finance Minster Jim Flaherty is speaking in the house at the moment, but the National Post has already posted the highlights:

The measures in the budget appear designed to both address pressing economic concerns and ensure the support of the Liberal opposition in the House of Commons. Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff has said he will announce on Wednesday his party's intentions.

Most of the tax relief will go to individuals and families, amounting to $20-billion in personal tax cuts over this and the coming five years.

It will include a 7.5% increase in the amount Canadians can earn before paying any tax and in the ceiling on the two lowest tax brackets. It also raises the amount that can be earned before child tax benefits are phased out, doubles the tax relief for low income workers who find work, and gives seniors an extra $150 in tax savings and reduces the amounts they must pull each year out of their retirement savings plans.

The spending stimulus, most of which was announced over the past week by a variety of ministers, includes $12-billion in investments in new and existing infrastructure across the country, and $7.8-billion to stimulate housing construction, including temporary renovation tax credits and more financial help for first-time homebuyers.

As well as tax cuts for individuals, the budget offers $8.3-billion for skills training, including extra support through a more generous employment insurance program for people who lose their jobs.

That last item is of some interest here . . . even though I'm still waiting to find out if I'll be entitled to benefits from EI. The Bloc has already announced they're voting against the budget . . . nice to see that they're consistent.

Update: More details on the tax reductions: they're not as dramatic as the headline rates would indicate (seriously, is anyone surprised by this?).

Update the second: Whaddaya know? The NDP don't like the budget either. NDP press release headline: "BUDGET FAILS TO PROTECT MOST VULNERABLE, CREATE AND SAFEGUARD JOBS". Given that governments aren't in the business of creating jobs, this is also not much of a surprise.

Posted by Nicholas at 04:16 PM | Comments (0)

TurboTax's fine balancing act

Having recently had to pay a large sum of money to the Canadian government because the software we used to file our 2007 tax returns didn't correctly account for RRSP withdrawals (and/or my employer didn't withhold as much as I requested them to), I'm actually somewhat sympathetic here:

If you're an executive at Intuit, which makes a substantial chunk of change filing people's tax returns, you probably don't want to anger the future head of the Treasury — which, of course, contains the Internal Revenue Service, the ultimate consumer of your output. On the other hand, you don't want to imply that your product is capable of screwing up peoples' tax returns.

Witness the verbal gymnastics of Dan Maurer, Intuit SVP, as he tries to absolve both Tim Geithner and his firm from the mistakes on Geithner's return . . .

Posted by Nicholas at 03:52 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: "The real scandal is what's legal"

I still can't understand how AIG, beneficiary of $152 billion in federal subsidies and loan guarantees, could get away with giving management $400 million in year-end bonuses for a year in which management did one of the worst jobs in financial history. That money was forcibly removed from your pocket and placed into the pockets of incompetent scoundrels — yet Congress does nothing! Now it turns out federally subsidized Merrill Lynch, the Bank of America subsidiary given $20 billion of your money two weeks ago, lost $15.3 billion in the fourth quarter of 2008, and yet handed its senior managers $4 billion in bonuses. Four billion, not million, forcibly removed from your pocket — or borrowed, with the bill handed to your children — and put into the pockets of scoundrels who did a terrible, horrible, awful job. Merrill Lynch managers must be laughing out loud: They screwed up in a major way, and for screwing up were lavishly rewarded, while blameless federal taxpayers were punished. Why isn't our Democratic-led, supposedly populist Congress incensed about such abuses?

Unfortunately, I do understand — because Congress is to blame for the abuses. Congress enacted October's $700 billion bailout of banks and Wall Street without including fraud provisions. At the moment of maximum leverage with banks and Wall Street, Congress simply handed over vast sums of your money without getting any accountability concessions in return. If a Pentagon contractor abuses federal money, if the vendor who supplies staplers and paper clips to the National Operational Hydrologic Remote Sensing Center abuses federal money, federal prosecutors move in, because contracts issued by federal agencies have fraud clauses. The October deal by which Congress handed over hundreds of billions of dollars to banks and Wall Street doesn't contain fraud clauses!

The AIG and Merrill Lynch top dogs may be despicable, but it's legal for them to stuff your money into their pockets as bonuses. As Michael Kinsley once said, "The real scandal is what's legal." That billions of the $700 billion bailout fund are being looted directly in front of our eyes is legal, owing to the carelessness of Congress.

Gregg Easterbrook, "Super Bowl Pick and Unwanted All-Pros", ESPN Page 2: TMQ, 2009-01-27

Posted by Nicholas at 12:15 PM | Comments (0)

Transporting the Vega to market, 70's style

In their first attempt to move into the small car market of the early 1970's (dominated by Honda, Toyota, and Datsun), GM produced the Chevy Vega. In spite of being named Motor Trend's Car of the Year for 1971, it wasn't a runaway success.

John DeLorean wrote disparagingly about the Vega:

[On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors] published by John DeLorean in 1979, who was president of Chevrolet at the time of development, indicated that the prototype car literally fell apart just eight miles (13 km) into its first road test. DeLorean criticized the Vega as a poor design developed by central corporate GM engineers rather than Chevrolet engineers and said that the car had been forced upon a disgruntled Chevrolet by GM management. He also criticized the engine saying that it was "a relatively large, noisy, top-heavy combination of aluminum and iron which cost far too much to build, (and) looked like it had been taken off a 1920 farm tractor..." and "Chevy engineers were ashamed of the engine."

Moving the Vega to market called on the railway industry to come up with some more creative ways of packaging the cars for safe transport from the factory to dealerships. From the Wikipedia article:

One innovation of the original Vega was that it was designed to be shipped vertically with its nose down. For example, the battery had fill caps at the back to prevent leakage during transit. Special rail cars known as "Vert-A-Pac" cars were built with hangers to carry the first Vegas to market in this vertical arrangement. One of the notable locations where these cars were unloaded was at the now defunct Sawtell Auto Ramps in Atlanta, Georgia, located on the former Southern, now Norfolk Southern mainline to Macon.

Frank Greene provided some photos of these unusual railcars:


He notes for this image that in the background "are Stac-Pac containers for loading Cadillacs, another idea that came and went in about the same 1970-1977 time frame."


A row of Vega hatchbacks ready to be backed off the doors.


Showing the specially equipped forklift operating the door/ramp.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:24 AM | Comments (0)

January 26, 2009

Damian's patrol experience, part 2

Damian "Babbling" Brooks records the next stage of the patrol he's tagging along with:

The Centre was bigger than I had imagined it to be. A big plot of mud, enclosed by a high concrete wall topped with razor-wire and cornered by guard towers, with two decent-sized buildings in the middle. One was an ANP building, and one was the administrative building for the local government. Both were enclosed by a shrapnel-pockmarked wall that had served to protect a much smaller compound before the new perimeter had been constructed. Short months ago, a suicide bomber had somehow made it past the ANP guarding the outer wall, and detonated near the inner gate. I was told that the blast shattered windows in the admin building. Looking up at the distance from the gate to the windows, I got a sense of just how powerful the explosion must have been. The self-immolating zealot/idiot didn't have nuts and bolts or ball-bearings or any such shrapnel-enhancing paraphernalia in his vest, but as you can see in the photos below, he still made quite the impression on the surrounding infrastructure.

A reminder: Damian is out-of-pocket for this trip, not being sponsored by a media organization. If you can afford to help out, please do hit the ChipIn tip jar at the site.

Posted by Nicholas at 03:56 PM | Comments (0)

Invest wisely

Michael Pinkus offers some sage financial advice in these tough times:

If you had purchased $1000.00 of Nortel stock one year ago, it would now be worth $49.00. With Enron, you would have had $16.50 left of the original $1000.00. With WorldCom, you would have had less than $5.00 left. If you had purchased $1000 of Delta Air Lines stock you would have $49.00 left. On the other hand, if you had purchased $1,000.00 worth of wine one year ago, drank all the wine, then turned in the bottles for the LCBO recycling REFUND, you would have had $214.00. Based on the above, the best current investment advice is to drink heavily and recycle.

Amusing, but I suspect that the quality of wine you could buy that would return $214 in bottle deposits would more than counteract any pleasure you might feel in being so economical. (20 cents deposit per bottle, so over a thousand bottles . . . retailing for less than a dollar per bottle! Your liver would never forgive you.) I suspect a decimal place got moved in the original calculation . . . perhaps after a few too many under-a-dollar bottles of wine?

Posted by Nicholas at 03:04 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: The Bush Legacy

In a way that was inconceivable when he took office, Mr. Bush — the advance man for the "ownership society," smaller and more trustworthy government, and a humble foreign policy — increased the size and scope of the federal government to unprecedented levels. At the same time, he constantly flashed signs of secrecy, duplicity, ineffectiveness and outright incompetence.

Think for a moment about the thousands of Transportation Security Administration screeners — newly minted government employees all — who continue to confiscate contact-lens solution and nail clippers while, according to nearly every field test, somehow failing to notice simulated bombs in passenger luggage.

Or schoolchildren struggling under No Child Left Behind, which federalized K-12 education to an unprecedented degree with nothing to show for it other than greater spending tabs. Or the bizarrely structured Medicare prescription-drug benefit, the largest entitlement program created since LBJ. Or the simple reality that taxpayers now guarantee some $8 trillion in inscrutable loans to a financial sector that collapsed from inscrutable loans.

Such programs were not in any way foisted on Mr. Bush, the way that welfare reform had been on Bill Clinton; they were signature projects, designed to create a legacy every bit as monumental and inspiring as Laura Bush's global literacy campaign.

The most basic Bush numbers are damning. If increases in government spending matter, then Mr. Bush is worse than any president in recent history. During his first four years in office — a period during which his party controlled Congress — he added a whopping $345 billion (in constant dollars) to the federal budget. The only other presidential term that comes close? Mr. Bush's second term. As of November 2008, he had added at least an additional $287 billion on top of that (and the months since then will add significantly to the bill). To put that in perspective, consider that the spendthrift LBJ added a mere $223 billion in total additional outlays in his one full term.

Nick Gillespie, "Bush Was a Big-Government Disaster: He expanded the state, and the sense that the state is incompetent.", Wall Street Journal, 2009-01-24

Posted by Nicholas at 01:47 PM | Comments (0)

A Fisking! A Fisking!

It's been a while since anyone has done a proper Fisking, so up steps bold Nick Gillespie to fill the void:

Nobel Prize-winning economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman doesn't just accuse people who disagree with him of bad economics but of bad faith: "Any time you hear someone reciting one of these arguments" against various stimulus proposals coming out of the Obama admin, writes Krugman, "write him or her off as a dishonest flack."

Among the lies masquerading as arguments? "That the Obama plan will cost $275,000 per job created." In fact, says Krugman (without bothering to explain why his supposedly more accurate figure is so damn great):

The true cost per job of the Obama plan will probably be closer to $100,000 than $275,000 — and the net cost will be as little as $60,000 once you take into account the fact that a stronger economy means higher tax receipts.

That is incredible savings ($215,000 per job!), even before the first Obama stimulus dollar has been spent! Another bad argument, says Krugman, is the idea that

It's always better to cut taxes than to increase government spending because taxpayers, not bureaucrats, are the best judges of how to spend their money.

Here's how to think about this argument: it implies that we should shut down the air traffic control system. After all, that system is paid for with fees on air tickets — and surely it would be better to let the flying public keep its money rather than hand it over to government bureaucrats.

I do not follow the implication above (or is it an inference?). Beyond the weirdness of talking about air travel in this instance, wouldn't people stop flying if there were no air traffic control system? Hence the airlines would have some incentive to provide an ATC system even if the government weren't doing so (and in fact, that's effectively what other nations such as Canada do, where the ATC system has been corporatized). I think the argument that taxpayers are better at spending their money implies that people are not complete fucktards, while the long list of shovel-ready, job-creating pork projects compiled by the U.S. Conference of Mayors drives home what most of us know from daily experience: That other people spend your money less carefully than you usually do.

Krugman concludes, "It's clear that when it comes to economic stimulus, public spending provides much more bang for the buck than tax cuts...because a large fraction of any tax cut will simply be saved." I'm not sure what that means, exactly, either, especially if taxpayers saved the cut in, like, you know, a bank, which might make it available to people with businesses or mortgages or what have you. An odd side note to all this: If massive government spending grows the economy, then we should all be millionaires after eight years of Bush rule, shouldn't we?

Posted by Nicholas at 12:48 PM | Comments (0)

January 25, 2009

Archimedes, near-inventor of Calculus

An intensive recovery project on a 700-year-old prayer book has revealed previously undiscovered mathematical work by Archimedes:

For seventy years, a prayer book moldered in the closet of a family in France, passed down from one generation to the next. Its mildewed parchment pages were stiff and contorted, tarnished by burn marks and waxy smudges. Behind the text of the prayers, faint Greek letters marched in lines up the page, with an occasional diagram disappearing into the spine.

The owners wondered if the strange book might have some value, so they took it to Christie's Auction House of London. And in 1998, Christie's auctioned it off — for two million dollars.

For this was not just a prayer book. The faint Greek inscriptions and accompanying diagrams were, in fact, the only surviving copies of several works by the great Greek mathematician Archimedes.


An intensive research effort over the last nine years has led to the decoding of much of the almost-obliterated Greek text. The results were more revolutionary than anyone had expected. The researchers have discovered that Archimedes was working out principles that, centuries later, would form the heart of calculus and that he had a more sophisticated understanding of the concept of infinity than anyone had realized.

Archimedes wrote his manuscript on a papyrus scroll 2,200 years ago. At an unknown later time, someone copied the text from papyrus to animal-skin parchment. Then, 700 years ago, a monk needed parchment for a new prayer book. He pulled the copy of Archimedes' book off the shelf, cut the pages in half, rotated them 90 degrees, and scraped the surface to remove the ink, creating a palimpsest — fresh writing material made by clearing away older text. Then he wrote his prayers on the nearly-clean pages.

Very, very cool. It's amazing to think what else may yet be rediscovered, thanks to the paper-saving efforts of medieval monks and the high-tech investigative tools available to modern researchers.

Posted by Nicholas at 01:02 PM | Comments (0)

Summer, 1979

Well, it is true: you can run, but you can't hide. Paul Tomblin was a member of the Lorne Scots (Peel, Dufferin, and Halton Regiment) and took part in the summer training program. This wouldn't be too noteworthy, except he's posted incriminating information — including a photo — on his site.


Prizes will not be awarded for locating me in the front row of the photo (I'm the geek at the right end of the row).

Paul includes a key to the photo, identifying the troops, and there's a short "what happened to him/her" summary in the comments from Alex McKelvey.

The cryptic "loses breech blocks" note after my name needs a bit of explanation. I was the storesman for the course, responsible for issuing and receiving equipment the troops needed on a daily basis. One of the primary items of issue were the individual weapons (in those days, the venerable FN C1A1).

Because we were training in a suburban armoury, there was rarely any need for ammunition . . . and given that most of the troops were just starting to master the basics of drill (and the fine points of hating their drill instructors), they were already dangerous enough with unloaded weapons. For security, the weapons were stored separately from their breech blocks.

One fine morning, ten breech blocks turned up missing. As the course storesman, I had some 'splaining to do. To the best of my knowledge, they never did turn up, but it was sufficiently damning to derail what little military future I may have had. I wasn't formally disciplined for the loss (as I didn't have physical control over the building from which they went missing), but it became quickly apparent that I'd never need to worry about achieving higher rank or responsibility in the regiment. I lasted another four months before leaving the unit.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

Dude, where's my sidebar?

Hmmmm. It's not your imagination . . . my sidebar has gone missing. Well, not quite missing, just displaced to the bottom of the current postings. "Why?" I hear you ask. Beats the heck out of me. I haven't made any template changes for weeks, so there's no reason I can think of to account for the sudden misbehaviour.

MovableType gurus (gurim? gurii?) are welcome to offer suggestions on what I might need to do to fix the problem . . . comments are open on this posting.

Update: Many thanks to Lance (of Catprint in the Mash) for pointing out the unclosed <DIV> in the embedded code on the post "Corrupt and lightweight". That has certainly fixed the problem in Firefox and Chrome (the two browsers I use most frequently).

Posted by Nicholas at 11:37 AM | Comments (1)

January 24, 2009

Back to the future, auto style

Posted by Nicholas at 09:36 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Why men don't like spas

Then there's the overwhelming feeling of disappointment and pointlessness that comes when you get a masseur who doesn't work your soft bits hard enough. You know this from the very first touch when his/her pressure is akin to a tentative stroke of a friend's new puppy. Great, you think. Now I am going to have to lie here for the next hour, with no trousers on, basted like a Christmas turkey, bloody Enya simpering away in my ear, while some failed hairdresser rhythmically tickles away at my flabby parts as if petting a consumptive hamster.

[. . .]

Why don't men know how to spa? Well, we feel awkward, adiposal and clumsy. We feel vaguely absurd, incongruous and, frankly, rather appalled that we have surrendered to that chink in our masculinity that is required to get us through the door of one of these establishments.

If we sign up for treatment at a mixed facility, the experience is never anything less than sweat-inducingly humiliating. The girls on the reception desk appear to be making fun of us as we fill in the health questionnaire, the throwaway sandals are at least four sizes too small, and the gown is comically short in the leg and arm. We don't have the nous to say exactly what we want because we don't want to appear overly expert in such arrant girliness.

It is almost impossible to make things pleasurable for any man who isn't a spoilt, self-serving, over-indulgent Premier League footballer. The environment is skewed towards the type of narcissism that makes most men squirm. We simply do not know the form, and to cover our arses (quite literally, in those shorty gowns), we start to act like nervy, cowed saps, doing as we are told and never asking any questions.

We certainly can't relax. If it's a massage that we are in for, we are concentrating so intently on not farting or entering a state of visible arousal that our bodies tense up like England footballers during a semi-final penalty shootout. That is bad enough if the person doing the massage is a woman. If it's a man's fingers on us, the tension is trebled.

Simon Mills, "Why real men don't like spas: Ill-fitting gowns, whale songs and lavender candles... no wonder many men struggle with the spa experience", TimesOnline, 2009-01-24

Posted by Nicholas at 04:27 PM | Comments (0)

Reminder: comment policy

I had to turn off comments across the blog due to overwhelming spam comment bots attacking the blog: it was so bad that I literally couldn't delete them fast enough to stay ahead. However, I like and encourage comments. To do this, as soon as I get a valid comment emailed to me (Quotulatiousness AT gmail.com), I will open that item for further comments.

Posted by Nicholas at 03:19 PM | Comments (0)

January 23, 2009

Damian joins a patrol to "Double K"

Damian "Babbling" Brooks posts about a patrol he was able to join, visiting a village with an unpronounceable name:

The format was reassuringly familiar, but with wall-sized maps on the table and walls, and a huge whiteboard filled with information, it was far more detailed than the Field Message Pad scrawlings I remembered, huddled around a red light on one knee. Of course, my memories were of a bunch of Officer Cadets training in the woods on exercise. This was The Real Fucking Thing, with experienced, hardened, professional soldiers who knew all too well the reality that they were headed into, so the plan was the best they could devise.

I found it a bit odd that the Sergeant was going to be leading a patrol with three Warrant Officers and a Major on it, but it was explained to me that Maj Vance White the PAffO was just there to babysit us journos (spit), WO Barry Bastow was CIMIC (Civil-Military Cooperation), and WO Eric Dagenais was SET (Specialist Engineering Team). It seems the third Warrant, WO Keith Dubé from the Force Protection Company (mostly from Golf Coy of 2RCR, but with a healthy sprinkling of reservists) was giving the Sergeant a leadership opportunity. That was quite the reminder for me of just how professional our military is: the CF never stops developing leaders, even in he middle of a war zone.

The mission had two main objectives. The first was to do a village assessment at Double K, a collection of mud walls and muddier fields whose unpronounceable name was, as you might expect, made up of two words that started with a K. While other forces may have entered the tiny hamlet before the CF arrived in Kandahar, this would be the first visit by Canadian troops. The second part of the mission would be to attend the weekly shura at Dand District Centre, a fortified administrative compound that served as the seat of government for the district. And then, of course, to get home in one piece — that's a given.

Damian, should you not remember, is my friend who is visiting Afghanistan (details reported here) on his own resources as an embedded blogger. If you can afford to help out with his expenses, please do hit the ChipIn jar . . .

Belated link to his first post from Kandahar:

I've got stacks of stuff to talk to you about. What I don't have is the time to write about it right now. I've resigned myself to the fact that I'll run out of time here long before I run out of stories to tell.

But one more thing I must mention before I sign off and hit the rack: I need to thank each and every one of you who have hit that "Chip In" button in the sidebar. I took a financial leap of faith taking this on, and your help is most appreciated.

Posted by Nicholas at 03:36 PM | Comments (0)

Corrupt and lightweight

Cop Eats Pot Brownies, Freaks Out, and calls 911

H/T to Craig Zeni.

Posted by Nicholas at 02:38 PM | Comments (0)

China's economic situation

There's an article at The Economist today that shows a touching belief in the magic of the Chinese economy. The reported Gross Domestic Product has fallen to "only" 5.8%. The Economist's writer spends much of the article worrying about this gloomy report:

New figures show that China's GDP growth fell to 6.8% in the year to the fourth quarter, down from 9% in the third quarter and half its 13% pace in 2007. Growth of 6.8% may still sound pretty robust, but it implies that growth was virtually zero on a seasonally adjusted basis in the fourth quarter.

Industrial production has slowed even more sharply, growing by only 5.7% in the 12 months to December, compared with an 18% pace in late 2007. Thousands of factories have closed and millions of migrant workers have already lost their jobs. But there could be worse to come. Chinese exports are likely to drop further in coming months as world demand shrinks. Qu Hongbin, an economist at HSBC, forecasts that exports in the first quarter could be 19% lower than a year ago. 2009 may well see the first full-year decline in exports in more than a quarter of a century.

Economists have become gloomier about China’s prospects, with many now predicting GDP growth of only 5-6% in 2009, the lowest for almost two decades.

I've blogged about the Chinese economy on a few occasions (most recently here), generally with the same concern: that the numbers reported cannot be relied upon. The same is true here. Interestingly, the Economist article I linked to back in May makes this point quite well, yet today's article appears to treat the Chinese government's numbers as solid.

China has changed substantially from twenty years ago, and in many ways for the better. Most ordinary Chinese today are more free — economically anyway — than they were a generation ago, and there is a lot more opportunity for individuals to set up businesses and to succeed without needing Party connections. All this is indisputable . . . yet vast swathes of the Chinese economy are a legacy of the worst command-and-control period. It's not an exaggeration to say that we can expect to discover the "official numbers" have absolutely no relationship to reality, because the numbers are compiled from various sources including both freer quasi-capitalist companies and tottering government-owned (and often People's Liberation Army-owned) conglomerates which cannot be depended upon to report anything accurately.

An example from this article: "a fall in electricity output of 6% in the year to the fourth quarter, down from average annual growth of 15% over the previous five years." That's not just a reduction in the rate of growth, that's a reported drop in output of 6%. Imagine what the state of a European or Japanese/Korean economy running at only 94% of electricity . . . it'd be something you'd only see at times of severe economic contraction, not as a sign of a slow-down in growth.

Anyway, I'm just re-iterating what I've written before.

Posted by Nicholas at 02:06 PM | Comments (0)

Combining your hobby with your work

Dr. Joan Girona had a data collection problem. The solution included model trains:

Dr. Joan Girona of the Institute of Agroalimentary Research and Technology in Catalonia, Spain, studies irrigation and the water and nutrient needs of fruit trees. In a recent study, he wanted to measure the absorption of photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) for use in analyzing growth and fruit production issues. Transpiration from fruit trees and overall evapotranspiration in orchards is closely related to absorption of solar radiation by the tree canopy, so this study would help researchers more accurately measure these processes.

The more measurements he could make, the truer Dr. Girona’s results would be, so he tried a few methods to accurately capture the needed data. First he set up a network of 32 sensors at various points on the ground around the fruit trees to measure light as it came from many angles. Dr. Girona and his co-researchers found that the values were too distant from each other for good modeling of sun movement. To get enough measurements in a net of this sort, they would need more than 1200 sensors, along with the associated dataloggers and multiplexers—impossible with the resources available.

As they thought about how to get measurements from so many points, they came up with a way to move the sensors around the measurement area precisely and quickly. They mounted the instruments [. . .] on small-scale model trains and ran the system on carefully laid-out tracks covering a large area around trees in an orchard. They placed metal markers every couple of inches along the track, and electromagnetic detectors on the train sensed these markers and signaled the datalogger to take a measurement at each point.

H/T to "Jeff the S", who thinks Dr. Girona should be nominated for a Nobel Prize for the "Best Use of Model Railroads in Agricultural Research".

Posted by Nicholas at 10:01 AM | Comments (0)

January 22, 2009

Goldberg, paging Mr. Rube Goldberg!

He'd have loved it.

H/T to "JtMc".

Posted by Nicholas at 12:43 PM | Comments (0)

Welcome to EncycloWikiBritannipedia

The Encyclopedia Britannica has decided to join 'em, since it hasn't beaten 'em:

In a move to take on Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia Britannica is inviting the hoi polloi to edit, enhance and contribute to its online version.

New features enabling the inclusion of this user-generated content will be rolled out on the encyclopedia's website over the next 24 hours, Britannica's president, Jorge Cauz, said in an interview today.

He also used the opportunity to take a swipe at Britannica's upstart nemesis and Google for helping to promote Wikipedia via its search rankings.

"If I were to be the CEO of Google or the founders of Google I would be very [displeased] that the best search engine in the world continues to provide as a first link, Wikipedia," he said."Is this the best they can do? Is this the best that [their] algorithm can do?"

Mr Cauz, who is visiting Australia, said the changes were the first in a series of enhancements to the britannica.com website designed to encourage more community input to the 241-year-old institution and, in doing so, to take on Wikipedia in the all important search engine rankings.

"What we are trying to do is shifting ... to a much more proactive role for the user and reader where the reader is not only going to learn from reading the article but by modifying the article and — importantly — by maybe creating his own content or her own content," he said.

Clearly, their initial tactic of deriding the Wikipedia model — where any Tom, Dick, or Fatima could actively edit anything — has not paid off the way they'd hoped, so this is their remaining best option. I suspect their benchmark of 20-minute turnaround for user edits will be unsustainable . . . unless they fail to attract enough active users, which would be the nightmare scenario.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:22 PM | Comments (0)

DARPA's contribution to a better world

The Register takes the time to poke fun at both the new Obama administration and DARPA:

As we're all now fully aware, the world officially became a lovelier place* on 20 January when Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th prez of the US of A — a heartwarming ceremony at which he promised sunlit meadows in which children might gaily gambol, just as soon as he'd dealt with this pesky global economic apocalypse.

Obama also laid out his multicultural agenda, describing America as "shaped by every language and culture, drawn from every end of this earth", and expressing his hope that "the lines of tribe shall soon dissolve".

This obviously rang a bell down at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), previously described by El Reg as "the legendary Pentagon barmy-boffinry bureau", and which recently suggested to the president it could fix the US economy.

Of course, DARPA's activities under president #43 — including laser energy cannons, invulnerable killbots and other high-tech dispensers of death are not exactly what's required to bring peace and prosperity to even the humblest African village.

Cue, then, the quite sensational rainbow stealth aircraft, caught here (or here on Google Earth) uncloaking over Tangier island in Chesapeake Bay:


Update: Comment thread enabled.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:10 PM | Comments (2)

January 21, 2009

Advertising's final frontier

Gregg Easterbrook discerns a trend, based on the announcement that the New York Times will accept advertising on the front page for the first time in its 158th year:

WASHINGTON (January 20, 2022). Speaking at the White House Presented by Gazprom, Eli Manning, the CVS 46th President, said today the United States would begin to accept advertising on fighter planes, naval vessels and Air Force One.

"Just think, the next time I fly to an international conference to be jeered, your company's name and logo could be right next to the stars-and-bars on Air Force One," Manning said. "Call me in my sales office and I personally will handle your order." As for ads on the sides of military aircraft and warships, President Manning said that none of the generals in the Lockheed Martin Air Force have objected, nor have admirals for the Cunard Navy 'N' Caribbean Fun Line.

U.S. government agencies and officials began to accept advertising in 2016, the final year of the Boysenberry Diet Pepsi Barack Obama Administration, after the federal deficit exceeded the Citibank Gross Domestic Product. "The bailouts of Lexus, Tiffany and the Harvard endowment were bad enough," said a White House source who asked to be identified only as someone who finds it easy and convenient to buy office products from Staples. "Unlimited direct federal subsidies for country clubs, yachts and private jets was, in retrospect, a misjudgment," the source continued. "But the bankers told us they would refuse to lend unless they had free country club memberships. We had to do it, no one under any circumstances is allowed to question a banker!"

Speaking from the CNN/ESPN/BBC/Nigerian State Television White House Press Room, framed by adverts for toothpaste, pizza delivery and drive-through colonoscopies, President Manning strongly denied critics' claims the United States is for sale. "We cannot be for sale, the Beijing Investment Trust already owns 51 percent of our preferred stock," Manning said. Negotiations are ongoing to find new investors willing to inject funds into the Capital One United States Treasury and Payday Loan Service, in hopes that Treasury bills will be raised back above junk-bond status. "Until that happens, you can still use your Treasury bills for discounts at Quiznos," President Manning reassured Americans.

In other news, Lands End First Lady Abby Manning lit the national Christmas tree, signaling the festive start of the 2022 Christmas season.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:05 PM | Comments (0)

January 20, 2009

QotD: Hot, Flat, and Hypocritical

When some time ago a friend of mine told me that Thomas Friedman's new book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded, was going to be a kind of environmentalist clarion call against American consumerism, I almost died laughing.

Beautiful, I thought. Just when you begin to lose faith in America's ability to fall for absolutely anything — just when you begin to think we Americans as a race might finally outgrow the lovable credulousness that leads us to fork over our credit card numbers to every half-baked TV pitchman hawking a magic dick-enlarging pill, or a way to make millions on the Internet while sitting at home and pounding doughnuts — along comes Thomas Friedman, porn-stached resident of a positively obscene 114,000 11,400 square foot suburban Maryland mega-monstro-mansion and husband to the heir of one of the largest shopping-mall chains in the world, reinventing himself as an oracle of anti-consumerist conservationism.

Where does a man who needs his own offshore drilling platform just to keep the east wing of his house heated get the balls to write a book chiding America for driving energy inefficient automobiles? Where does a guy whose family bulldozed 2.1 million square feet of pristine Hawaiian wilderness to put a Gap, an Old Navy, a Sears, an Abercrombie and even a motherfucking Foot Locker in paradise get off preaching to the rest of us about the need for a "Green Revolution"? Well, he'll explain it all to you in 438 crisply written pages for just $27.95, $30.95 if you have the misfortune to be Canadian.

I've been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about — in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn't make them up even if you were trying — and when you tried to actually picture the "illustrative" figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.

Matt Taibbi, "Flat N All That", New York Press, 2009-01-14

Posted by Nicholas at 10:33 AM | Comments (0)

Reason.TV's hopes and fears for the Obama administration

Hmmm. No embedding this time, apparently. Click here instead.

Adding to the "fears" category, Matt Welch has been listening to National Public Radio so you don't have to. Among the bad ideas on parade:

* A new Ministry of Culture? There was a long piece about Barack Obama will "revive American culture," boosting our allegedly beleauguered arts, taking us out of the dark days of, uh, Mapplethorpe-bashing or something.

* A European model for U.S. newspapers? I learned on Sunday that European newspapers are in "a better financial situation" than U.S. dailies (even though American newspapers are vastly more profitable, vastly more staffed, and filled with lots more and generally better journalism), and that we should be taking our newspaper-financing cues from Sweden. Where dailies are subsidized.

* A Cult of the Presidency? Where to begin? I heard a long news report on just how much of a historically post-partisan uniter Barack Obama really is. The moment after the groan-inducing Concert for Hope wrapped up at the Lincoln Memorial Sunday, the station hosts kicked it back to an analyst in Southern California for his measured take on the proceedings, and the first thing out of his mouth was "Wow, I just really wish I was back there to see such a thrilling event!" (Note: quote is approximate.) There was also an analysis of Barack Obama, the deep thinker/writer.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:06 AM | Comments (0)

January 19, 2009



Yesterday's accumulation of snow on the back deck.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:58 AM | Comments (0)

QotD: The Business Cycle

I am not an economist, nor — unlike a half-vast majority of the hairsprayheaded newsies who have somehow lately, miraculously, become overnight experts on all matters economic — do I pretend to be one on TV.

What I am is an individual who has worked hard for forty years in a difficult, exacting, and not terribly rewarding profession, which has nevertheless offered me the opportunity — an expensive one, but worth it — of telling the truth, exactly as I see it, without having to worry about what interests, corporate or otherwise, I might offend. And it seems to me that this is the moment — the very moment — when whatever I have sacrificed for that opportunity will now begin to pay off.

About halfway through those forty years, I made the acquaintance of Robert LeFevre, that great libertarian storyteller and teacher, who showed me (although I had already had suspicions in that direction) that what my generation had been indoctrinated to call the "Business Cyle" of boom and bust throughout American history was actually a government cycle of interference with the economy, followed by disaster, followed — usually — by government's backing off until prosperity restored itself, whereupon the idiotic cycle started over again.

In the 19th century, economic turndowns were called "panics", and from 1776 until 1929, two facts about them were incontrovertible. First, each and every one of them can easily be shown to have been the direct result of some particular stupidity on the part of the federal government. And second, as soon as government withdrew from the part of the economy it had damaged, the economy began to heal itself. Until 1929, no panic had ever lasted longer than about eighteen months. When the big Crash came in '29, and the Franklin Roosevelt regime decided to interfere even more, the resulting Great Depression lasted twelve years.

L. Neil Smith, "Collectivism's Last Stand", Libertarian Enterprise, 2009-01-18

Posted by Nicholas at 10:46 AM | Comments (0)

Backup hell

Chris Mellor relives those oh-so-not-glorious days of backing up your computer:

Ever tried backing up your PC to Travan tape? I made that mistake and it was a great introduction to the concept of geological time; the bloody thing stopped and started like a kangaroo tied to the spot with a bungee cord. It took so long to back up files that I went bald waiting.

The backup software was a dog and perfectly matched the awful Travan hardware. I tried restoring a file because I thought it a good idea to practise, but it would have been less painful burning my ear with a blowtorch. Finding the file in the backup software's catalogue, mounting the tape and then paring down my nails, my fingers, my thumbs, my hands and most of my arms while the backup software found the file on the tape and then restored it was an exercise in self-inflicted torture.

Just when you thought the glacial backup flow had completed, the software would proudly announce a verification run to make sure that the data really was backed up, and the Friday evening dinner date had better be put back another two hours while it laboriously and tediously examined every dratted bit of data on the tape that went through the drive as fast as a nervous nanny driving a Nissan Micra with newborn puppies on the front seat.

Of course, things aren't as bad nowadays, but we're still waiting for the ideal solution . . . I'd bet that half the folks reading this have no idea how recently they've backed up their data or (if they have) whether the backup is viable.

I'd had more than my fair share of tedious backup experiences (starting back in the dark ages, when I'd have to set aside an entire day — and a large stack of floppy discs — to run a backup). CD backup was certainly better, but it still was a largely manual operation and you had to babysit the process. DVD backup was another improvement, but you needed to be there during the task.

I tried using an external drive. That didn't go so well. It started nicely, but then faded badly. A replacement drive wasn't the solution, so I'm now backing up to a secondary internal drive, and still going through the DVD shuffle to make offline backups. There's got to be a better way.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:22 AM | Comments (2)

January 18, 2009

Flight 1549 recovery

Tugster has a series of photos showing the recovery of the aircraft from the Hudson River.

Related: the photo used on the front page of the Los Angeles Times, taken from a rescue craft on an iPhone.

Update: More details about the incident from the Boston Globe:

The blow had come out of nowhere. The NTSB said radar data confirmed that the aircraft intersected a group of "primary targets," almost certainly birds, as the jet climbed over the Bronx. Those targets had not been on the radar screen of the air traffic controller who approved the departure, Higgins said.

After the bird impact, Sullenberger told investigators he immediately took over flying from his co-pilot and made a series of command decisions.

Returning to LaGuardia, he quickly realized, was out. So was nearby Teterboro Airport, where he had never flown before, and which would require him to take the jet over densely populated northern New Jersey.

"We can't do it," he told air traffic controllers. "We're gonna be in the Hudson."

The co-pilot kept trying to restart the engines, while checking off emergency landing procedures on a three-page list that the crew normally begins at 35,000 feet.

Sullenberger guided the gliding jet over the George Washington Bridge and looked for a place to land.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:07 PM | Comments (0)

January 17, 2009

QotD: Bad SF/Fantasy Writing

[Responding to the question "what turns you off in SF/Fantasy reading:] Egregiously bad science. Backgrounds that don't hang together (vampirism should not be ancient, secret and prone to spreading like a virgin field plague. If starship navigators are rare and die after a dozen trips, there should not be a large population of tramp starships. Ideally, one should not equal two and the standard method of landing a spaceship should not be the crash-landing).

The number one thing that turns me off is when it becomes clear that the author considers most humans a waste of valuable meat. See Bova's Titan where it's clear most of the humans in the Saturn system have no productive value, despite being a collection of scientists annoying enough to have been sent almost 10 AU from home, or David Marusek's Mind Over Ship, which includes this little rant:

"So who needs people? People are so much dead weight. They eat up our profits. They produce nothing but pollution and social unrest. They drive us crazy with their pissing and moaning. I think we can all agree that Corporation Earth is in need of a serious downsizing . . ."

James D. Nicoll, posting to the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list, 2009-01-17

Posted by Nicholas at 12:38 PM | Comments (0)

Star Wars, sorta

Joe Nicolosi asks his friend Amanda (who's never watched a whole episode of Star Wars) to recount the story. Here's nearly four minutes you won't get back:

Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it) from Joe Nicolosi on Vimeo.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:04 PM | Comments (0)

January 16, 2009

Turning TV Scifi to Movie dreck

John Scalzi risks everything to point out that it's a rare TV show that can survive the transition to the big screen. In particular, he enrages one particularly enthusiastic fan-base:

Speaking of fans, I've just marked myself for death among the "Browncoats" for suggesting that Serenity, based on the TV series Firefly, might somehow have been a miserable failure. The Browncoats love their favorite series with a passionate fervor that is usually reserved only for religious icons or the Green Bay Packers, and will not brook the idea that the series and the movie based on it were popular flops, even though the show didn't last a single full season and the movie had a terrible $10 million opening weekend. "Well, Fox didn't know what to do with the series!" they'll exclaim. "Universal didn't market the movie correctly! It did great on DVD!" Yes, yes. I know, Browncoats. Come here, have a hug. Would you like a tissue? No, that's okay, you can keep it.

Lesson: It's great to have loud, passionate fans of a series, but they're only worth $10 million in opening weekend box office. Also, making a movie out of a TV series no one but hardcore fans saw? Not a recipe for popular success.

Scalzi'll need bodyguards for the next few SF conventions he attends. Real ones, not just guys in Star Trek security costumes. Browncoats aim to misbehave.

Posted by Nicholas at 03:41 PM | Comments (0)

Whitewashing Valkyrie

H/T to Ghost of a Flea.

I'm currently reading Richard Evans' second volume of his Third Reich trilogy. The final volume is to be published this month now available. Very highly recommended, based on reading about 2/5ths of the work so far. Rather than being strictly chronological, Evans writes about various aspects of German life during the rise of the Nazi regime. I've read many books about Nazi Germany, but in some ways this is the most disturbing of them all for the details the author provides on so many day-to-day aspects of life.

Update: Hmm. I guess if I go to the effort of recommending a set of books, it might help if I actually gave you the details, right? Like maybe even the names of the books?

Posted by Nicholas at 02:10 PM | Comments (0)

The French view of The Prisoner

Emmanuelle Richard looks at the profound cultural influence Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner had in France:

"Patrick McGoohan finally escaped," a reader of the French newspaper Le Monde noted with loving tenderness yesterday in an online forum dedicated to the late visionary behind the cult TV series The Prisoner. The sentiment came just short of asserting that the actor, writer, and director was better off dead, but then, the French have had a distinctly existential relationship with their revered secret agent man for 40 years now.

The Prisoner was arguably the most popular vehicle of libertarian ideas in socialist France over the past half-century. Ask a Parisian to name an Ayn Rand book and he'll give you a blank stare; mention The Prisoner and you'll likely hear back the French version of the series' catch-phrase, "Be seeing you" — Bonjour chez vous! Unveiled just months before the May '68 riots, this philosophical and rebellious series struck a nerve in an overwhelmingly Catholic country at a time when its long-haired youth were loudly questioning authority.

[. . .] For young French people to watch the Village community hound and almost lynch Number 6 in this episode for the sin of being "unmutual" (that is, for insisting on his privacy instead of happily joining the collective), was to turn a cherished French ideal on its head. In the episode, those who refuse to conform are subjected to "instant social conversion" via frontal lobotomy. When French fans felt outrage at this brain-deadening cure to "individualism" — a word almost always used as a pejorative in France — they were unwittingly swallowing a libertarian message without ever having heard the word.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:36 PM | Comments (0)

And here's the news . . . from 70 years ago

Posted by Nicholas at 10:03 AM | Comments (0)

Many Albertans finally get their wish

The Eastern bastards really did freeze in the dark:

Lights Slowly Coming Back On, But Thousands Still In The Dark Following Major Blackout

In the midst of a bitter cold snap, thousands of people in the city's west end remain without power.

The massive blackout started at about 10pm in a mainly residential area west of the downtown core after a broken water main flooded a power station.

The excess water had to be cleared out before workers could safety enter the power station and begin making the necessary fixes to help get the lights back on, however it could be 18 to 24 hours from the time the outage began before the lights come back on to affected customers, so potentially as late as 10pm Friday.

The affected area stretches from St. Clair Ave to Queen St. and from Spadina Ave. to Jane St. Residents have been advised to find shelter with friends or family if possible, or attend one of the city's reception centres to warm up. They include Metro Hall and the York Civic Centre.

As of about 7am lights started to come back on in some areas including Bloor St. east of Jane.

The situation is having a major impact on transit, as subway service currently isn't running between Keele and St. George stations, although TTC is working to get full power restored as quickly as possible. About 40 shuttle buses have been dispatched to carry passengers through the morning rush. Also, streetcars are not running along College St. between Lansdowne and Bathurst. Shuttle buses are running there as well. The TTC was bringing in generators to some subway stations including Christie to provide some power.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:56 AM | Comments (0)

January 15, 2009

QotD: Next leader of North Korea

Tyrannical dictator, action star (Team America: World Police), and opera theorist Kim Jong Il has reportedly named number-three son his successor to lead the world's worst country. As of press time, it was not immediately clear what the twentysomething Kim Jong Un had done to warrant such punishment.

Nick Gillespie, "Change North Koreans Can Believe In", Hit and Run, 2008-01-15

Posted by Nicholas at 11:53 AM | Comments (0)

Fark.com headline of the year (so far)


Source article here. Fark thread here.

Martin The Mess: Hmmm...I sort of follow this area of research as an interested amateur (why certain physical features and character traits are considered sexually attractive, and the hormones and genes linked to them), and I can recall a couple other hormones and genes supposedly discovered to be responsible for all these traits. Couple that with the whole "Hey, if we call this the Marilyn Monroe gene, do you think we can get mainstream press coverage" tone of the piece, and the ridiculously named expert "Dr. Frances Quirk", I'm getting a strong whiff of shenanigans off this article. On the other hand, Professor Quirk does indeed seem to be a faculty member at the college in question, according to a quick web search.

Remember a few months ago when Jessica Alba's publicist had a story planted that claimed that scientists had calculated the most perfectly desirable waist-to-hip ratio for a woman, and it exactly matched Jessica Alba's, making her the scientifically-certifiable hottest woman alive?

DaSwankOne: In other news: Rich guys like to have sex with hot and horny girls, giving more attractive women the chance to "trade up" if they want to.

Son of Thunder: Damn! Is there any way we can petition to get this stuff added to the water supply like fluoride?

Not so fast. TFA also says that the hormone is associated with dissatisfaction with their current partner and a tendency toward upwardly-mobile serial monogamy. Fark is already a haven for bitter chronically-rejected beta males, so I doubt that widespread distribution of this hormone would be so great an idea.

(But, y'know, that doesn't include ME or anything. Alpha all the way. I'd explain more but I gotta be at the gym in 26 minutes.)

Posted by Nicholas at 10:43 AM | Comments (0)

January 14, 2009

A Firefox review

Jon, my virtual landlord, had to troubleshoot some problems with Firefox the other day. This is the non-confidential part of the summary:

Just a note to let you know that I have installed the latest version of WebWorks Publisher and have created some test output. The Firefox problem with the "initial" links in the Index is still present — clicking on a letter at the top of the Index pane does not jump to the corresponding section in the Index.

It works in IE 7.0.5730.13, Chrome, Opera 9.25, and Opera 9.63 (but with some display issues due to how Opera interprets table cell backgrounds). I also tried it on Linux (Knoppix) and found that it works on Konqueror 3.5.5 and Iceweasel

My analysis: IE, Chrome, Opera, Konqueror, and Iceweasel are fine browsers, crafted with care and an impressive commitment to professionlism and compatibility. Firefox is a fetid swamp of bugginess, plagued with poor code written by guys who probably have trouble finding their way home at the end of the day. Actually, that last part most likely is not true; they have no problem finding their way home at night because they have never left home; they still live in their mother's basement, where they spend their time writing sloppy code. One can imagine their pathetic simpering as they chortle to themselves with every release: "Ha ha ha! Look what I am going to do to thothe WebWorkth Publisther utherths!"

If he'd included a reference to shit waffles, he'd be getting a call from Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw about intellectual property infringement.

Posted by Nicholas at 05:45 PM | Comments (0)

January 13, 2009

Dvorak's hate note to the spreadsheet

You think you dislike Microsoft Excel or some other spreadsheet package? You probably still think more highly of it than noted curmudgeon John Dvorak does:

2009 marks the 30-year anniversary of the now-ubiquitous spreadsheet program. And society as a whole has deteriorated ever since its invention. It was the spreadsheet that triggered the PC revolution, with VisiCalc the original culprit. Can anyone say that we've actually benefited from its invention? Look around: I think we've suffered.

For one thing, the spreadsheet created the "what if" society. Instead of moving forward and progressing normally, the what-if society questions each and every move we make. It second-guesses everything. Because of the spreadsheet we've been forced to "do the numbers" whenever possible; once the numbers are in the spreadsheet, the what-if process can begin.

In fact, the spreadsheet has resulted in the rise of the once-lowly accountant/bean counter to a position of influence — and often the executive suite. How often in years past — the pre-spreadsheet era, that is — did an accountant take over a company? When and why did the CFO become a title? These people, at best, were once known as comptrollers.

The spreadsheet became a sword, and the accountants knew how to wield it.

Posted by Nicholas at 04:09 PM | Comments (1)

QotD: Marketing Obama

On that historic evening in November, as Barack Obama definitively made passé the notion that we cannot, the president-elect’s acceptance speech signified a triumph not just for his campaign but for motivational wall décor. Like a Successories catalog made flesh, Obama invoked burning beacons, long roads, steep climbs, and new dawns. He was lofty, he was declamatory, he was as aesthetically challenging as a majestic golf course on a crisp autumn morning. And yet his well-worn rhetoric managed to move multitudes. Could it be that all those corny corporate psalms to Character and Service, the ones hanging in regional sales offices and telemarketing call centers across the nation, have touched us more deeply than we realized?

Greg Beato, "The Successories President: The posterized secret of Obama's success?", Reason, 2009-01-13

Posted by Nicholas at 12:05 PM | Comments (0)

Lileks quests for glasses

As I'll be soon shopping for new glasses, I have sympathy with James in his never-ending quest for something that doesn't look too dorky:

This prescription was never right, and had to be changed several times. It's the nature of the diagnosis: it's up to me to tell me if the prescription is right. Better? Worse? Better? Slightly better? Incrementally better? I don't know! You have the fargin' shingle on the wall, you tell me! The first prescription was weaker than my previous one, and I couldn't quite understand why I would want weaker glasses. Obviously I'm not walking up to strange women and telling them their lingerie tags are crimped up, and that must be uncomfortable. I don't have super-vision. Can't see through walls. Garrison Keillor's logic, yes, but a mole with an eyepatch could do that.

But they stepped me down, and I wandered around in a fog and a haze for a week before I went back, pointed to the sign on the wall that said I was guaranteed satisfaction, and asked for a different prescription. Whereupon they guided my hand to the actual position of the sign; I was pointing at the bathroom door. Which only made my point stronger.

I was never happy with the final results, and got my money back. Went three stores down in the very same mall, tried another place, got "hipper" glasses, and they were just as bad. Or so I recall. At that point I'd just given up.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:44 AM | Comments (0)

Voodoo psychology tests proliferate

If you've encountered one of these "personality profile" tests recently, you're not alone. Many employers are using them nowadays as part of their employment screening process. In some cases, it's used as a pre-offer filter, while in other cases they're part of the pre-interview process. In either case, the effectiveness is still controversial:

Many retailers have largely automated the hiring process with online personality tests such as Mr. Smith took. The system cuts the time store managers must spend in interviewing applicants. But the test also is creating a culture of cheating and raising questions for applicants about its fairness — even as it becomes a critical determinant of who gets a job and who doesn't in a stressful era of rising unemployment.

Today, many retailers are cutting their work forces, but that just makes the test even more critical. So many people now are seeking what jobs remain in retail that the test's maker says it processed about 29 applications for every opening in 2008, up from 22 in 2007. Meanwhile, for the retailers, it has become doubly important now to employ only the most productive people.

[. . .]

The more critical the test has become to getting a job, the more applicants are trying to game it. They do so by repeating the test several times, by comparing notes, by consulting an online cheat sheet or by having a friend take the test for them.

[. . .]

Melanie Shebel, who has a blog that often focuses on the alleged unfairness of Unicru, says she's seen a huge uptick in traffic as the economy has worsened and people have grown more frustrated by the job-seeking process. After an anonymous poster on her site put up an answer key to the Unicru test, she took it down, fearing a lawsuit from Kronos. But recently, she says, she re-posted it, after reviewing her legal rights.

Answer keys can also be found on Facebook. There used to be one on Wikipedia, but the site's volunteer administrators took it down after a complaint from Kronos.

The article deals mainly with retail employers, but the practice is spreading to other fields, including banking and software development.

An interesting discussion on the topic starts here on Slashdot.

plasmacutter: . . . the slightest sign of discomfort or non-conformity is construed as some kind of black mark.

Job ad says "we need free thinkers", personality test says "sorry you don't meet the 99.99999999% match we require with our VP's personality." Interestingly the most brilliant and talented people tend to be eccentric. A classic example of mediocrity rising to the top... except now only mediocrity is allowed in the door period.

The academic equivalent would be someone being passed up who knows their stuff but doesn't test well, while an incompetent who's good at telling people what they want to hear gets top marks.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:18 AM | Comments (7)

January 12, 2009

The Indiana Railroad

A brief look at a long-gone interurban rail system. H/T to Eric Kirkland.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:57 AM | Comments (0)

QotD: Hamas and civilian casualties

It is commonly said that by storing weapons in mosques and firing rockets and mortars from residential areas and school yards, Hamas is using human shields in Gaza, a war crime. But the truth is really worse than that. Hamas doesn't endanger civilians in hopes that it will deter retaliation; it does so in the hope and expectation that civilians will be killed and wounded.

This tactic is part of a larger strategy to create tragedy and disaster, which the Palestinians have developed into something akin to an industrial process. They build tunnels, but they do not build bomb shelters. They do not, apparently, suspend classes in schools in the midst of bombardments. And Hamas, with the tolerance if not approval of most Gazans, uses schoolyards as launching zones for rockets and mortars. Think about it: is there anything about a schoolyard that makes it a particularly desirable place from which to fire ordnance? No. Hamas uses schools (and mosques, and residential areas generally) in this way in the hope that civilians, especially children, will be killed.

John Hinderaker, "Manufacturing Disaster", Powerline, 2009-01-11

Posted by Nicholas at 11:44 AM | Comments (0)

Come to beautiful Belgium . . . and take sick leave

Michael Moynihan looks at the incredibly generous vacation and sick leave policies of some European countries:

Today's Wall Street Journal looks at the epidemic of healthy sick people in Belgium (i.e. people with hangovers bilking the government and their employers by taking advantage of the country's overly generous sick leave policies). In a Hit & Run post last year, I mentioned that, according to OECD figures, Sweden is one of the healthiest countries in Europe, yet its citizens topped the tables in accrued sick days. Odd, that.

Back in June, I offered the following anecdote from Sweden: "An acquaintance of mine in Stockholm was on sick leave for six months, collecting three-quarters of his salary after his girlfriend left him, rendering him "burned out" — utmattningssyndrom — and incapable of work." Well, according to the Journal, brokenhearted Belgians are also forcing the government to underwrite bad relationship decisions.

[. . .]

According to the Journal, a number of Belgian government agencies "were averaging 35 days of paid sick leave per employee each year, more than twice the national rate and seven times the U.S. average," before authorities cracked down on the cheats. And remember, Belgian workers are already the beneficiaries of four weeks of statutory vacation. With a less generous welfare state, perhaps the great Plastic Bertrand would find it necessary to start recording again.

That's rather more generous than the five days of paid sick leave I was entitled to on my last job (and given that Canada is more generous with things like that, I wonder if that seems excessive to typical American workers?).

Posted by Nicholas at 11:20 AM | Comments (0)

Scott Brown: depressing tour guide

Scott Brown takes us on a guided tour of the near future:

It's a typical morning in 2011: I start my day by bumming a few joules off a pal's bicycle generator to power up my BlackBerry and surf over to FoodTube, where starving viewers like myself salivate over clips of the "carbo-rati" noshing on hoarded snacks. (I try not to read the comments: "omg she is such a ho for eating that Combo!" "shup azz! u go girl! eat dat Combo!") One stray click and I'm rickrolled, prankishly diverted to the now-familiar footage of Rick Astley being devoured by a pack of London cannibals.

I decide to use my remaining juice to log onto Facebook, which has been looking frightfully gaunt since the Identity Panic of '09. (Friends? Who can afford friends now anyway?) Millions of "Favorite Albert Brooks Movies" lists and "Hero Abilities" requests were decimated, and we were left scrambling for whatever chums were left on Orkut. (This was before the Linden dollar crashed and Second Life avatars started jumping out of windows—and not flying.) I'd check my email, but browser-based email is a thing of the past: Vagabond freeconomic refugees now communicate by personal ad, and sex acts are routinely traded for, say, maki rolls and Pilates classes. (Craigslist, it turns out, is largely unaffected by the Awesome Depression.)

Dejected, I head downtown, a busted Guitar Hero ax slung over my shoulder. On the corner, a pack of surly former programmers dressed in surplus CES hoodies are warming their carpals around a single dingy Dell. I give them a wide berth. Farther on, a ramshackle Cubeville has sprung up in the parking lot of a burned-out Ikea. Delirious drones sit at cardboard desks and pretend they still have office jobs to complain about, tapping out "IMs" on their "keyboards"—old pizza boxes.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:02 AM | Comments (0)

The Royal Navy's historical love affair with grog

In a hand-wringing article about alcoholism in the RN, a potted history of the deeply intertwined history of the Navy and grog:

From as early as 1590, a sailor's daily rations included a gallon of beer — and the further from home, the stronger the brew.

As the Navy ventured even further afield, easier-to-preserve spirits such as brandy or arrack — an Arabic spirit — became a common substitute.

After 1655, when Jamaica was captured, rum became popular, and it was officially issued from 1731, when a half a pint was deemed equal to a gallon of beer.

Men were traditionally given a double ration after the strenuous task of repairing the mainbrace — a heavy part of a ship's rigging — and the order 'Splice the mainbrace' ultimately became a euphemism for any issue of extra drink.

Double rations were often served before battles.

In 1850, the Admiralty's Grog Committee found, unsurprisingly, that rum was linked to discipline problems, and in the following year decreased the ration to one eighth of a pint — still potent, given that the official proof of Navy rum was set at 94.5 per cent soon afterwards.

To combat drunkenness, the Admiralty also directed that no officer was to partake of liquor until the sun was over the fore yardarm.

Rum rations were abolished on July 31, 1970, known as 'Black Tot Day'.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:52 AM | Comments (0)

January 11, 2009

A modern update to Strunk & White

Just when you thought it was all randomly generated, we now discover that those entertaining offers of erectile dysfunction drugs, pornography, and free electronic devices actually do follow a formal style guide:

Elementary Rules of Usage

1. Form the possessive of nouns by adding 's, just an apostrophe, just an s, a semicolon, a w, an ampersand, a 9, or anything.

My wifesd*porcupine hot pix for u.

11. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Upon receiving this couppon, the free iPOds will greet you!

The introductory phrase modifies you, not iPOds; therefore, it is necessary to recast the sentence.

Upon receiving this couppon, you will be greeted by the free iPOds!

Or, better still (see Rule 14).

This couppon entitles you to greetings from the free iPOds!

H/T to Stewart Dean.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:16 PM | Comments (0)

Making a hash of drug policy, UK style

There's an interesting — and lengthy — post at Ministry of Truth about the complete failure of British drug policy. Well worth a read:

[. . .] this is hardly an innovative story, as the reference to last year's row over the classification of cannabis indicates. Most of what passes for official policy on drugs, not just in the UK but globally, bears little or no relationship to the actual health risks associated with particular drugs, which is why supplying adults with the two drugs which play some part in the largest number of deaths on a year-in, year-out basis, tobacco (an estimated 500,000+ deaths annually) and alcohol (200,000+ deaths), is perfectly legal, while supplying ecstasy, which is implicated in less than 50 deaths a year carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. When you put in those terms and compare the annual number of deaths associated with particular drug (legal and non-legal) its impossible not to think that there's something altogether a bit perverse about a system which generates billions of pounds in sales (and tax) revenues from the use of drugs which actively contribute to hundreds of thousands of deaths every year while, at the same time, outlawing other drugs which, at most, account for 30-50 deaths a year. It just doesn't seem rational — and it isn't.

[. . .]

By the early years of this century, a mere twenty years after joining the 'War on Drugs', the UK's original black market of a few hundred London-based registered addicts had turned into a market of 300,000 'chaotic' heroin users with a battery of associated health problems, including HIV, hepatitis, septicaemia, etc., some of whom had become heavily involved in crime and prostitution to finance their habit to the extent that an internal Downing Street report, leaked in 2005, estimated that black market drug users were responsible for 85% of shoplifting, 70-80% of burglaries and 54% of robberies.

There's a pretty obvious lesson here. Prohibition not only doesn't work but under the right (wrong?) conditions it can actually turn a relatively minor social issue into a major problem of near epidemic proportions, and this really shouldn't come as any real surprise to anyone. In fact, pretty much everything you need to know about prohibition and its impact on society was neatly encapsulated in a single paragraph, written by the wealthy industrialist (and support[er] of prohibition) John D Rockefeller in a letter reflecting on the failure of alcohol prohibition in the US.

When Prohibition was introduced, I hoped that it would be widely supported by public opinion and the day would soon come when the evil effects of alcohol would be recognized. I have slowly and reluctantly come to believe that this has not been the result. Instead, drinking has generally increased; the speakeasy has replaced the saloon; a vast army of lawbreakers has appeared; many of our best citizens have openly ignored Prohibition; respect for the law has been greatly lessened; and crime has increased to a level never seen before.

H/T to Francis Turner.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:54 AM | Comments (0)

January 10, 2009

Travel Tips for Visitors to Britain

Giles Coren offers some useful hints for visitors to Britain:

1 Do not pay full price. When shopping in Britain, bear in mind that the price marked is only a guide, it is always best to haggle.

Prices in Harrods, for example, may look ridiculously cheap to you, but locals cannot afford to pay even this much and if you pay more you will make life harder for them in the end. Do not damage their frail local economy with your powerful rupees.

2 When speaking to staff in shops, hotels and restaurants do not expect them to be solicitous, kind or helpful. What do you think they are, your bleeding butler? Effing nerve. What did your last servant die of?

3 If you do decide to make some purchases, do not forget that Savile Row suits and shirts from Jermyn Street may seem incredibly good value and look great with a tan when you're in that holiday frame of mind, but all that ethnic tat can look pretty ridiculous when you get it home.

4 Never ask a salesperson for help finding an item in your size or preferred colour - they will merely stare at you blankly as if you are an escaped lunatic and then tell you that everyfink is out on the floor. If you absolutely insist that they go and check the stockroom they will walk round a random corner, count to 30 and then go on a tea break.

5 Do not expect to find a full range of products in shops. Most shops in Britain are in receivership and merely flogging off old stock before being boarded up.

[. . .]

7 Take a good supply of colourful pens with you to give to the children who will flock around you asking for presents. And if you want to be really popular then give them knives, British children treasure these more than anything.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:11 PM | Comments (0)

Ontario's over-zealous AGCO

John Ivison reports on his surreal experience as a witness before the Alcohol and Gaming Commission of Ontario:

In the D'Arcy's case, the prosecuting lawyer cited the Post article, in which I had described members of our band as being "moist and garrulous" , if not quite "tired and emotional", as an admission that we were all intoxicated — which is an offence under the Liquor License Act. I conceded that we were in high spirits but rejected the notion of intoxication, which according to the Ministry of Government Services' own server training program means the customer is speaking too loudly, slurring, sweating and losing balance.

"You had to repeat yourself several times, did you not?" the lawyer asked.

"Yes but that happens all the time. You might have noticed I have the hint of an accent," I replied, in my strongest west Scotland brogue.

By this time things had proceeded from farce, as the lawyer flailed away in her attempts to make me admit we were all full of loudmouth soup, or something more sinister.

"As regards the subject of your conversation, is it possible the conversation was of a sexual nature?" the lawyer asked.

"Excuse me," I replied, taken aback.

"Is it possible the conversation was of a sexual nature?"

"I have no idea."

"Is it possible?"

"I have no idea. Is this relevant?" I asked.

"Your job here is to answer the questions. I will do the asking," she said, curtly.

So there you have it. It seems that not only was a public servant sitting in the shadows studying us, he was also eavesdropping on our conversation, so that he could include its contents in a report that could become a public document once the board members pronounce on whether D'Arcy's was in breach of its licence.

[. . .]

Bad enough that a public employee, who is apparently unaccountable to the people, can temporarily close down a wealth-creating private business like D'Arcy's, which employs 75 people, on the extremely subjective basis that a couple of 40-something suits "appeared to be intoxicated". Much worse that government is encroaching on the rights of the individual to the extent that a supposedly private conversation becomes a matter of public record. The Ministry of Truth would have approved.

Posted by Nicholas at 06:31 PM | Comments (0)

January 09, 2009

Latest deployment to Afghanistan

Congratulations to my friend Damian "Babbling" Brooks, who will be the first embedded blogger with the Canadian Forces in Afghanistan:

This has been in the works for awhile. Years, in fact. Memos went up the chain of command, and back down again. Never any luck. And then, just recently, approval.

I'm going to Afghanistan.

I can't say when, but it will be shortly. I can't say exactly where, nor how long I'll be gone for. DND is understandably picky about that sort of thing. But if the creek don't rise, I'll be posting from over there at some point in the fairly near future, so watch this space.

This is a first for a Canadian blogger. A fairly narrow first, but a first nonetheless: bloggers have served, but not really written about it; American bloggers have embedded with Canadian troops; Canadian bloggers have gone over unilaterally. But to the best of my knowledge, a Canadian blogger has never before been invited on a CF-sponsored visit.

He'll be out-of-pocket a few thousand dollars (he doesn't work for a media firm that might pick up his expenses), so if you can afford it, please make a donation to help defray his costs.

Posted by Nicholas at 02:30 PM | Comments (0)

Historical font-fondling

For more than you ever wanted to know about the Helvetica font and the New York City subway system:

There is a commonly held belief that Helvetica is the signage typeface of the New York City subway system, a belief reinforced by Helvetica, Gary Hustwit’s popular 2007 documentary about the typeface. But it is not true — or rather, it is only somewhat true. Helvetica is the official typeface of the MTA today, but it was not the typeface specified by Unimark International when it created a new signage system at the end of the 1960s. Why was Helvetica not chosen originally? What was chosen in its place? Why is Helvetica used now, and when did the changeover occur? To answer those questions this essay explores several important histories: of the New York City subway system, transportation signage in the 1960s, Unimark International and, of course, Helvetica. These four strands are woven together, over nine pages, to tell a story that ultimately transcends the simple issue of Helvetica and the subway.

Posted by Nicholas at 12:24 PM | Comments (0)

Sir Alan Walters

The Economist has a brief obituary for Sir Alan Walters, who served as one of Margaret Thatcher's chief economic advisors. The tone of the sub-heading ("His economic advice proved politically costly") does not match the content of the article, however:

As [Thatcher's] special adviser in Downing Street, he played a vital role in two of the most important episodes of her premiership. In 1981 he was brought back from academia to stiffen her resolve in pushing though a budget that cut public spending during a recession, the decisive break with the Keynesian past.

And in 1989, even more controversially, he returned to help her in a dispute with her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, who wanted sterling to join the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, a prelude to the euro. Sir Alan, like the prime minister, shared an instinctive distrust of such currency systems; he famously called this a "half-baked" idea. Mr Lawson resigned over what he saw as interference in economic policymaking, and Sir Alan had to go too. But in the long run Sir Alan’s view prevailed; the British still seem to prefer their pound, even in its present debauched state, to the euro.

My first trip back to Britain (I'd left as a child in 1967) was in 1979. I felt like I was visiting an Eastern Bloc nation: everything was grey, shabby, and run-down, labour unions were flexing their muscles to disrupt much of the economy, and everyone I met seemed to be feeling various levels of despair. The railway system was tottering under rotating labour actions (not real strikes, in the main, but slow-downs, walk-outs, and the like), so that even getting from London to Darlington was a weary, cold, much-delayed, and foodless (the catering union was on strike). Once we got to Middlesbrough (the very model of a Victorian industrial town at that time), the talk was all about power cuts, gas shortages, and the IRA). I'd only been back in the country for a few hours and I was already counting the days to escape back to "the west".

My next visit to the UK was several years later, and the difference was incredible: not just the physical surroundings, but in the vastly changed attitudes of the people. Where 1979 felt like entering the pages of an Orwell novel, there was little trace of that soul-numbness (though much grumbling about Margaret Thatcher . . . which was to be expected in the north of England and in Scotland).

Posted by Nicholas at 10:13 AM | Comments (0)

January 08, 2009

To confirm all of your suspicions about "abstract art"

Aelita Andre is having her work included in an abstract art exhibit at the Brunswick Street Gallery. This would not be particularly newsworthy, except that it came to light that Aelita is 22 months old:

Back in October, Fitzroy commercial gallery director Mark Jamieson was asked by a Russian-born photographer whose work he represented to consider the work of another artist. Nikka Kalashnikova showed Jamieson some abstract paintings by an artist called Aelita Andre; Mr Jamieson liked what he saw and agreed to include it in a group show, alongside work by Kalashnikova and Julia Palenov (also a Russian) at his Brunswick Street Gallery later this month.

Mr Jamieson then started to promote the show, printing glossy invitations and placing ads in reputable magazines Art Almanac and Art Collector, in which the abstract work was featured. Only then did he discover a crucial fact about the new artist: Aelita Andre was Nikka Kalashnikova's daughter, and she was then just 22 months old. She turns two tomorrow.

"I was shocked and, to be honest, a little embarrassed," Mr Jamieson said of his response to the revelation.

He thought hard about whether or not to proceed, and talked it over with his colleagues. "And then I thought, 'Well, we'll give it a go'."

Mr Jamieson says the Brunswick Street Gallery has a policy of supporting emerging artists, though that policy doesn't usually extend to artists quite so young. He stands by his decision to show the work but concedes some people will think the gallery is doing the wrong thing.

To be fair, Mr Jamieson deserves some credit: if he genuinely believes that the art is of professional quality, it should qualify to be shown with other abstract art pieces. I'm hardly a fan of that style of art myself, so I'm indulging in a little quiet amusement, but if someone is willing to pay (their own) good money for it, great. I'd be much less amused if it was a public institution putting taxpayers' money on the line, of course.

Update, 12 January: Very much related:

A controversy recently erupted in Sweden over an article published by the philosopher, Roger Scruton, in a magazine called Axess. He argued in it that Western art no longer had any spiritual, let alone religious, content; indeed, it had become afraid of the beautiful, from which it shied away as a horse from a hurdle too high for it. The result was a terrible impoverishment of our art.

The same magazine had published, shortly before, an article about Islamic art in which the author said that such art was inseparable from the religious ideas and beliefs that it embodied. This passed without remark: no one wrote in angrily to say, 'So much the worse for Islamic art.'

Professor Scruton's suggestion that western art had become impoverished as a result of its radical repudiation of anything transcendent in human existence in favour of the fleeting present moment, however, exasperated and infuriated the professional art critics of Sweden — as, indeed, it would have done the art critics of any western country. They reacted with the fury of the justly accused: for it is the professional caste of cognoscenti who have consistently applauded the trivialisation of art and its relegation to the status of financial speculation at best, and a game for children showing off to the adults at worst.

Posted by Nicholas at 03:45 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: The Madoff "victims"

If there is anything we have learned from the crisis in the financial sector, it's the urgent need for more regulation. Had federal regulators been more vigilant or wielded greater powers, all this suffering and heartache might have been averted. That's the story we've been told, and it must bring a rare smile to the face of Bernard Madoff.

Madoff was the manager of a Wall Street investment fund that he allegedly confessed to his sons was "one big lie" and "a giant Ponzi scheme." But "giant" fails to capture the scale of his fraud, which may have lost $50 billion, more than the entire gross domestic product of most of the countries on Earth.

Also striking is that his alleged victims were not rubes and simpletons but individuals of exceptional wealth and financial acumen — including various tycoons, as well as managers for banks, pension funds, and hedge funds. Even Madoff's own son, who worked for his father's firm, invested millions of dollars of his own money in the supposedly phony fund.

A Ponzi scheme, as it happens, is not a scam of dizzying complexity. It's the oldest scam in the book. You take money from new investors to pay off previous investors, and you keep doing it until the new infusions can't keep up with the withdrawals. It's about as simple as financial trickery gets.

So if regulators had been paying attention, they would have detected what was going on, right? After all, as one expert noted, Madoff was conspicuously unable to attract a lot of big institutions. "There's no Harvard management, there's no Yale, there's no Penn . . . no State of Texas or Virginia retirement system," James Hedges IV of LJH Global Investments told Fortune magazine.

Why not? "Because when you get to page two of your 30-page due diligence questionnaire," said Hedges, "you've already tripped eight alarms and said, 'I'm out of here.'"

Steve Chapman, "The Empty Case for More Regulation: The Madoff scandal shows why bigger government isn't the answer", Reason Online, 2009-01-08

Posted by Nicholas at 11:52 AM | Comments (0)

The real problem with "green" cars

Ronald Bailey links to a column by Pete Geddes of the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment (FREE):

U.S. energy policy is best described as "keep it cheap." It's ironic that our political class is berating the Big Three for building the vehicles Americans bought in response. Congress is now poised to mandate that Detroit manufacture electric and hybrid vehicles. This approach is bound to fail, for these are cars consumers (a) don't want and (b) even if they did, can't afford. The recent plunge in the price of gas at the pump has not helped. November sales of hybrid cars fell 50 percent. U.S. hybrid sales are now back where they were in 2005. (Ford's best selling product in November was the F-150 pickup.) Only when electric and hybrid vehicles really do provide more value to consumers than the alternatives will they succeed.

[. . .]

In a masterstroke of special-interest politics, the UAW used CAFE's "two fleet" rule to forbid Detroit from importing smaller cars from its foreign operations. Forced to build small cars in domestic plants, with above market labor costs, Detroit could not make a profit. (In 2007, Toyota made 9.37 million vehicles and GM about the same. Toyota made a profit of about $1,874 per car, while GM lost $4,055.) Even Japanese and European carmakers rely on sedans with moderate fuel economy for profits. Small, super-efficient cars remain a niche product. Here's an inconvenient truth: forcing Detroit to build fuel-efficient cars in UAW factories is inconsistent with viable, sustainable manufacturing.

Critics often portray the Detroit automakers as "greedy, short-sighted profit seekers." To claim Detroit is refusing to sell cars consumers "really" want, compared with the cars they actually purchase, is a stretch. Is there a simpler explanation? Perhaps alternative cars are simply not ready for prime time?

Read the whole thing.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:37 AM | Comments (0)

January 06, 2009

QotD: The dark science of dark matter

Roughly a decade ago, it was discovered the expansion of the universe is accelerating, not decreasing as expected. This led to the assumption there must be "dark energy" as well as the conjectured "dark matter," because some force must be providing the impetus of the cosmic acceleration. Dark matter, if it exists, is substance in some guise other than stars, planets, nebulae and black holes, and would explain why celestial objects move as if the galaxies contain substantially more mass than can be detected. Dark energy, if it exists, would be roughly the opposite of gravity. Gravity attracts, its effect declining with distance. The conjectured dark energy repels, and increases with distance — the farther the galaxies move apart as the cosmos expands, the more punch dark energy packs, steadily increasing cosmic acceleration. It's just that, um, er, science has only vague indications of what dark matter is and not the slightest clue what dark energy might be. Physics and astronomy departments at leading universities rather cavalierly have embraced an assumption that as much as 96 percent of all mass and energy in existence is dark matter and dark energy, neither of which can be located or explained. We can't locate 96 percent of the universe — but trust us, we're experts!

Gregg Easterbrook, "TMQ: Ministers of defense", ESPN Page Two, 2009-01-06

The origin of the state: livestock management

H/T to Paul Bonneau.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:25 AM | Comments (0)

Libertarian beliefs

L. Neil Smith is working with his daughter Rylla to produce a new book on how libertarian philosophy applies to policy. Of course, before you can get to the application, you have to clear up misconceptions about the philosophy itself:

Scott Adams, for example, creator of the famous Dilbert cartoons, proclaims himself "a libertarian minus the crazy stuff" which makes us wonder just what "crazy stuff" he means. Not destroying people's lives because they smoke the wrong vegetable? Not persecuting them for doing ordinary things — like draining a pond on their own land — that were perfectly legal 50 years ago? Not stealing half of everything people work hard for, in order to spend it violating their rights, spying on them, interfering with their lives, or starving millions of children overseas?

Many in government today appear to regard the right of Habeus corpus as "the crazy stuff". And our confidence in Adams' claim that he's a libertarian isn't exactly strengthened by his bizarre support — as reported in Wikipedia — of New York's fascistic mayor, Michael Bloomberg, for President in 2008. Clearly, there is a need for some objective criterion — a definition — regarding what it means to be a libertarian.

Happily, such a definition already exists.

If there is a central tenet, or key belief that all libertarians share, it is that each and every individual is the owner — the "sole proprietor" — of his or her own life and of "all the products of that life".

Historically, people have come to the libertarians movement from many different directions. In any given group of them, you are likely to encounter atheists (many of them readers and students of Ayn Rand), Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, and Wiccans. The all important concept of self-ownership that they share can be logically derived from more basic principles, or accepted as an axiom — a self-evident truth.

Most libertarians agree that all rights are, in effect, property rights, beginning with this fundamental right to self-ownership and control of one's own life. As owners of their own lives, individuals are completely free to do absolutely anything they wish with them — provided, of course, that it doesn't violate the identical right of others — whether the people around them approve of what they do or not.

Posted by Nicholas at 11:09 AM | Comments (0)

Vikings QB controversy?

After Tarvaris Jackson's below-expectations performance in Sunday's playoff loss to Philadelphia, Gus Frerotte expressed his frustration:

"I just don't know what to think right now," Frerotte told Silver on Sunday night. "It was a very frustrating experience, because I felt like I should've been the one playing. That might sound selfish, but I think I would've given us the best chance to win. I'm going home to St. Louis [on Monday] to be with my family and figure out where things stand, but the way things played out at the end really makes me question things."

You can interpret that pretty easily as Frerotte's notice to the Vikings that he's not planning on coming back for his final season, and there's a lot of speculation that Jackson played himself out of a starting role, so the Vikings may need to draft a quarterback in the early rounds of April's draft. Behind Jackson and Frerotte, there's only rookie John David Booty, so unless Booty has made huge strides since playing in the pre-season, he's not likely to be entrusted with the starting job.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:48 AM | Comments (0)

January 05, 2009

Vikings fall to Eagles 26-14

Yesterday's playoff match between the Vikings and the visiting Philadelphia Eagles was quite disappointing . . . after a solid performance in the first half, the Vikings did very little in the second, allowing the Eagles to dictate the pace of the game. Tarvaris Jackson did himself no favours in a lacklustre performance, while Adrian Peterson was shut down through the second half. Andy Reid clearly out-coached his former assistant Brad Childress.

The Vikings' 26-14 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in a first-round game put a quick end to the team's first postseason appearance since the 2004 season. That playoff run also ended with a loss to the Eagles. In that case, the defeat was decisive. Sunday's setback involved plenty of self-inflicted wounds.

The Vikings trailed by two at halftime, only because Eagles cornerback Asante Samuel stepped in front of a Tarvaris Jackson pass in the second quarter and returned it for a touchdown.

But in the second half, the Vikings generated a meager 106 yards and Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson rushed for 17 yards on eight carries -- this after Peterson went for 66 yards on 12 first-half carries, including a 40-yard run for a touchdown. Both Vikings touchdowns came on second-quarter runs by Peterson; they did not score in the second half.

"Kind of a tale of two halves," said Vikings coach Brad Childress, who fell to 0-2 against his former boss, Philadelphia coach Andy Reid.

It remains to be seen whether Jackson will return as the Vikings' starting quarterback next season, but the final impression he left for this season wasn't a positive one.

Jackson completed 15 of 35 passes for 164 yards with no touchdowns; the costly interception on a pass intended for Sidney Rice; and a subpar 45.4 passer rating. Meanwhile, Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb threw for 300 yards with a touchdown and an interception. He had a 92.8 rating.

More here.

Posted by Nicholas at 10:11 AM | Comments (0)

January 04, 2009

QotD: How to make a law

The British Government plans to make it illegal to have sex with a prostitute if said tart has been trafficked, or is being controlled. Nor will this crime will be limited to offences committed in the UK — it will apply to what British men get up to wherever in the world they may be.

Now I'm a classically liberal type, and I'm naturally against the criminalisation of something that no society has ever managed to extinguish. But leaving that aside, I think this is a great example of how law is now made. Stir up a fuss, lie repeatedly, change the definitions and then do what you wanted to in the first place anyway. Just as they did with passive smoking and pubs.

Tim Worstall, "Spinning the war on the UK's sex trade: Step one, inflate the size of the problem", The Register 2009-01-04

Posted by Nicholas at 03:07 PM | Comments (0)

January 03, 2009

Eddie Izzard: a real class act

Don't you wish more popular performers were as cool as this?

Will Pike, a 28-year-old Englishman, was badly injured in the tragic Mumbai terror attacks -- shattering his body in a failed escape attempt. He has since returned to the United Kingdom and entered a spinal unit in a London hospital, hoping to walk again.

During Pike's ongoing recovery, he and his girlfriend missed their eagerly awaited night out to see British comic Eddie Izzard. Pike's father wrote Izzard, asking if the comic could send along a note to ease Pike's disappointment and depression.

Izzard refused. Instead, the star of The Riches and Valkyrie showed up at the hospital and performed his entire 90 minute stand-up set at Pike's bedside.

Posted by Nicholas at 01:47 PM | Comments (0)

January 02, 2009

Belated 2008 retrospective, in song

H/T to "IllCentral".

Posted by Nicholas at 01:35 PM | Comments (0)

It's funny because it's true


Posted by Nicholas at 12:04 PM | Comments (0)

QotD: Alberto Gonzales, self-described victim

Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales actually made John Ashcroft look like the Bush administration's resident civil libertarian. By the time he left office, his zeal for executive power coupled with political ineptitude and general incompetence managed to win him contempt from both the left and the right.

Now Gonzales can't find a publisher for his book, and no one has yet offered him the cushy, high-paying job at a D.C. law firm that high-ranking public officials seem to think they're entitled to upon stepping down.

According to Gonzales, Gonzales is a victim.

Radley Balko, "Sure, Al. A Couple Hundred Tortured Detainees, 100,000+ Iraqi Citizens, the U.S. Constitution, and You", Hit and Run, 2009-01-02

Posted by Nicholas at 12:01 PM | Comments (0)

Of course he'd say it's an economic stimulus, wouldn't he?

Vikings owner Zygi Wilf is now repositioning his attempt to get the taxpayers of Minnesota to build him a new football stadium as "economic stimulus":

With the state and federal governments looking for ways to jump-start the economy, a New Jersey businessman has an ambitious public works project he says will create more than 5,500 jobs and provide $500 million or more to local contractors.

The businessman is Zygi Wilf, principal owner of the Minnesota Vikings.

The project: A $954 million, state-of-the-art stadium for his football team in downtown Minneapolis — to be constructed using more than $635 million in public money.

"Why not? The Vikings are a public asset," said Lester Bagley, the Vikings' vice president in charge of stadium development. "This is going to create an economic boost."

An excellent example of Frederic Bastiat's Broken Window Fallacy in economics:

The parable describes a shopkeeper whose window is broken by a little boy. Everyone sympathizes with the man whose window was broken, but pretty soon they start to suggest that the broken window makes work for the glazier, who will then buy bread, benefiting the baker, who will then buy shoes, benefiting the cobbler, etc. Finally, the onlookers conclude that the little boy was not guilty of vandalism; instead he was a public benefactor, creating economic benefits for everyone in town.

[. . .]

The fallacy of the onlookers' argument is that they considered only the benefits of purchasing a new window, but they ignored the cost to the shopkeeper. As the shopkeeper was forced to spend his money on a new window, he could not spend it on something else. For example, the shopkeeper might have preferred to spend the money on bread and shoes for himself, but now cannot so enrich the baker and cobbler because he must fix his window.

Thus, the child did not bring any net benefit to the town. Instead, he made the town poorer by at least the value of one window, if not more. His actions benefited the glazier, but at the expense not only of the shopkeeper, but the baker and cobbler as well.

The spending that is seen weighs more heavily in most peoples' values than the spending that cannot take place because it has been pre-empted by the forced spending. In Minnesota's case, too many people see the government's "contribution" only for the positives (new jobs, new orders for materials, etc.), ignoring the other things which cannot be obtained because the money has gone to support a billionaire's quest for a new stadium.

Posted by Nicholas at 09:54 AM | Comments (0)

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