Archive for January, 2011

Entrepreneurs under socialism

January 31, 2011

One of Americans’ great strengths is our entrepreneurial spirit.  Polls show that a higher percentage of Americans than of any other advanced country dream of owning their own businesses.  But a survey by the U.S. Small Business Administration shows that the percentage of Americans who actually start new businesses is less than for Canadians, Danes, Norwegians and Swiss.

U.S. government policy for the past 30 years has been aimed at encouraging business growth by cutting the marginal tax rate, which is the top tax rate, the tax rate on the next dollar earned.  The idea is that the less a business owner has to pay in taxes on additional profits, the more incentive the owner has to start and grow the business.

Along with this is the shrinking of the social safety net.  Owners of financial assets are supposed to be more productive because they have a greater incentive of gain.  Wage earners are supposed to be more productive because they have a greater incentive of fear.

But what if it doesn’t work that way?  What if, as the RSA Animate video suggests, other things were more important?

When I reported on business for the Rochester (NY) Democrat and Chronicle, the successful entrepreneurs I interviewed didn’t fit that pattern.  The typical story was somebody working for a large corporation had a good idea, couldn’t get anybody in the corporation to pursue it, and so decided to pursue it on their own.  These entrepreneurs wanted to get rich, of course.  Who doesn’t?  But the main thing was to achieve their goal.

Inc. magazine this month ran an excellent article about business start-ups in Norway. It began with a profile of Wiggo Dalmo, a high school graduate and mining equipment machanic, who got tired of working for a large company and started a successful business of his own, Momek, which now has 150 employees and $144 million in annual revenue.  He is taxed more heavily than he would be in the United States, but, according to Inc., he doesn’t mind.

“The tax system is good—it’s fair … What we’re doing when we are paying taxes is buying a product. So the question isn’t how you pay for the product; it’s the quality of the product.” Dalmo likes the government’s services, and he believes that he is paying a fair price.

Modern capitalism is possible because entrepreneurs and investors are cushioned from the worst consequences of failure. With bankruptcy laws, entrepreneurs can only lose what they have.  With limited liability corporations, investors can only lose what they put in.  Without these cushions, anybody who started a business, or even invested in a business, would be in jeopardy, when the business failed, of a debt burden they could never pay off in their lifetimes.  The consequences of failure are spread over society.  Arguably this is unfair, but by reducing fear of failure, it makes possible a dynamic, growing society.

In a welfare state such as Norway, there is more cushioning of risk.  Entrepreneurs have even less reason to fear failure than in the United States.  No matter what happens, they and their families will have access to medical care, their children will have access to a good education and their retirement income will be above the poverty level.

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Egan’s rule

January 30, 2011

When all else fails, ask yourself what’s logical.

In memoriam: 75 years of Kodachrome

January 29, 2011

The following is by Julian Stallabrass in the Feb. 3 issue of the London Review of Books.

The longest-lived of camera films has just ended its 75-year history. The only laboratory that still processed Kodachrome, the first commercially available color slide film, stopped doing so at the end of last year. Kodak progressively withdrew the film from sale between 2002 and 2009, though many photographers loved it enough to buy large stocks to keep in their freezers. Amateurs cannot develop Kodachrome, which requires a large number of carefully controlled treatments, so, with the end of laboratory processing, the film is finished.

Kodachrome is made up of layers of black and white film, each of which responds differently to colored light, and a series of filters. Only during processing are the appropriate dyes added to each layer to produce a color transparency. Compared to other color films, at least up until 1990 when Fuji introduced the garish Velvia, Kodachrome had unique advantages: its colors were rich and naturalistic, its blacks did not have the grayish cast of so many color films, it had remarkable contrast, its grays were subtle, and the lack of color couplers between its layers (which tend to diffuse light) gave the film extraordinary sharpness.

Getting my first yellow box of processed Kodachrome 25 through the post in 1982, and holding the cardboard-mounted slides up to the window, is an experience I won’t forget. I had no idea that a photograph could be so vivid, so rich in tonal range or so finely detailed. The mystery of these dark rectangles that sprang to life when backlit was further enhanced by the tiny and intricate engraving on their reverse side, visible when the slide was held in a raking light so that the contrasting lines of the image appeared in low relief.

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Jobs with the highest unemployment rates

January 28, 2011

These following figures are average unemployment rates for 2010 as estimated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

OCCUPATIONS WITH THE HIGHEST UNEMPLOYMENT RATES

Construction trades helpers, 36 percent

Telemarketers, 34.8 percent

Structural steel and iron workers, 28.4 percent

Roofers, 27.1 percent

Cement masons, concrete finishers and terrazzo workers, 25.3 percent

Bench masons, block masons and stone masons, 25.1 percent

Construction laborers, 25 percent

Drywall installers, ceiling tile installers and tapers, 23.9 percent

Interviewers, 23.4 percent

Electrical, electronics and electrical equipment factory assemblers, 23.2 percent

Carpenters, 22 percent

Production worker helpers, 21.1 percent

Hand packers and packagers, 20.4 percent

Assemblers and fabricators not otherwise classified, 20.3 percent

Cabinet makers and bench carpenters, 20.3 percent

Motor vehicle drivers not otherwise classified, 20.2 percent

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A prosperous industrial society without oil?

January 27, 2011

Sooner or later the world will use up its supply of affordable oil.  Let’s assume that when that happens, we can get equivalent energy from some combination of renewable sources, advanced nuclear reactors or clean coal.  What would such a world be like?

This is a thought experiment, not a prediction.  It is based on one thing changing and everything else staying the same, which will not happen.  But it is interesting and maybe worthwhile to speculate.

It would be a world running on electricity rather than liquid fuels, the generator rather than the internal combustion engine.

Long-distance travel would be by train, not by airplane.  Commuting would be mainly by train, not by automobile.  Electric cars would be used mainly for short-distance travel and to get to the train station.  Steam locomotives might make a comeback; electric trolley cars might make a comeback.

The Internet and electronic communication would be more important – especially for farmers and others distant from cities and railroad stations.  Families and friends who live far apart would visit virtually, on-screen or through conference calls.  Thousand-mile trips would be major and rare undertakings.  We would become a little bit like the Spacers in Isaac Asimov’s The Naked Sun, who were intimate while hardly ever seeing each other face-to-face.

Land use patterns would change.  The most desirable real estate would be along the rail lines, like Philadelphia’s Main Line in an earlier age.  Astute developers would locate shopping centers, apartment complexes and even factories along the railroads.  Real estate values would rise in cities and villages, and fall in the far-out suburbs.

Most of the cost of oil and natural gas is in the fuel cost, not the investment needed to use these sources of energy.  In contrast, renewable sources, nuclear power and coal are relatively cheap as fuels, but the capital cost is great (the capital cost of steam from coal would be greatly increased by anti-pollution technology).  The necessary investment would have to come out of taxes or increased savings by Americans – not so much from foreign investment.

Imported goods would be expensive, and locally-produced goods relatively cheaper. Wal-Mart and its imitators, whose business model is based on low inventories and just-in-time delivery over long distances, would change radically or go out of business.

The United States would no longer be a global superpower.  The Air Force, lacking aviation fuel, would no longer be able to project American power to every point on the map.  But the U.S. Navy might still rule the seas.  Nuclear aircraft carriers would be replaced by nuclear troop carriers for Marines.  The diesel-powered fleet would have to switch to nuclear or steam.

To prepare for this age, we ought to be thinking about (1) maintaining a large reserve capacity for electrical generation, which means building new plants; (2) investing heavily in research in electric batteries; (3) making sure railroad rights-of-way are not lost; and (4) making sure railroad track is kept in good repair.

Having successfully made the transition from Peak Oil, we would be planning for Peak Coal and Peak Uranium.  In the long run, industrial society will continue only if it can function on sustainable sources of energy.

What am I overlooking?

Government by randomocracy

January 26, 2011

The United States democratic process is dysfunctional.  Big money dominates the electoral and legislative processes.  Gerrymandering protects legislative and congressional incumbents.  A two-party consensus deprives voters of meaningful choice on many issues. Many Americans feel government does not represent them.

A sociologist named Erik Olin Wright has a possible solution.  In his book Envisioning Real Utopias (2010), he proposes supplementing democracy with randomocracy – government by people selected at random, like juries.

This would solve a number of problems.  It would solve the problem of control of the electoral process by monied interests.  Philosophers through the ages have said that the person most trustworthy to hold power is the person who doesn’t seek power; random selection would be better than voting for this purpose.  Many groups don’t feel represented in our present process.  Randomocracy would give members of every group equal opportunity to share power.

Raandom selection would not produce leaders of superior wisdom and virtue, but does anybody think our existing system does?  Maybe average wisdom and virtue would be an improvement.

Wright cited a randomly-selected Citizens Assembly created by the provincial government of British Colombia in 2003 to formulate a referendum proposal for a new electoral system for the provincial parliament.  The idea was that members of the existing parliament had too much of a personal stake in the decision to make an impartial decision, or to select decision-makers, and, if you elected a panel, that would recreate the same problem.

The Citizens Assembly consisted of one man and one woman from each of the province’s electoral districts, plus two “First Nations” representatives – 160 in all.  They met in Vancouver every other weekend during the spring of 2004 for lectures, seminars and discussions about alternative systems.  They received $150 for each weekend’s expenses.  Then they participated in a serious of town hall meeting around the province throughout the summer.

In the fall, they met again in Vancouver and formulated a proposal – a complicated system called Single Transferable Voting.  The proposal was submitted on referendum, and was defeated.  It got more than 57 percent of the vote, but 60 percent was necessary to pass.  Nevertheless Wright thinks the British Colombia Citizens Assembly was successful as a process, and could be applied to many different kinds of issues.

Where a state, provincial or national government has two legislative houses, one could be selected by a random process, Wright said.  This would require (1) a process that assured representation by all significant demographic groups, (2) compensation sufficient that most citizens would agree to participate and (3) a strong professional and technical staff to provide enough information for an informed decision.

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The real state of the union

January 25, 2011

A blogger whose handle is miguelitoH2O gave better and more accurate presentation on The Real State of the Union, 2011 in a post last December than anything we are likely to hear tonight.

miguelitoH2O

Oil is at 90 dollars a barrel. The governments of Europe, Japan, and the United States are saturated with debt. Housing prices in the US are falling again, and there’s no job growth in America. For some reason, many are still imagining that we’re in an economic recovery.  Our economic system remains as fragile and dangerous as it ever was.  Meanwhile the perpetrators of the financial crisis are enjoying record profits.

We find ourselves bailing out not just American banks but large banks around the world.  The economies of scale in the financial sector continue to chip away at the sovereignty of not just ours, but all the nations of the world.  In fact, we had begun refinancing foreign banks as early as 2007, indicating that the Fed was aware of a crisis long before they had admitted. Giving those monies to foreign banks without so much as a press release or a demand for better trade agreements, it is clear that even with all those big geopolitical shifts we have been hearing so much about, the United States remains the world’s sole Schmuck Superpower.  The good news?  Of the money that was used in bailing out financial institutions, about half has been returned.

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Sarah Palin’s blood slander

January 25, 2011

The trouble with Sarah Palin is not her choice of language,  nor her choice of images on her campaign literature.   The trouble with Sarah Palin is that she tells lies.  I have in mind one particular lie – the lie that President Obama intended and that the Affordable Care Act really did set up “death panels” to euthanize the terminally sick elderly and the physically handicapped.

If this really were true, the rage against the Obama administration would be fully justified, and the vandalism and threats against Democrats who voted for the bill would be, if not justified, understandable.

But the problem with lies is not that they provoke violence.  The problem with lies is that they are not true.  They make it impossible to choose candidates, set policies and legislate on the basis of reality and real issues.

Most working Americans have little leisure.  They don’t have time to fact-check what politicians and TV commentators have to say.  If something is said by someone who is a former governor, former Republican candidate for vice-president and a commentator for a national TV network, there is no reason why the ordinary person should not accept it as true.  If the statement is contradicted by some other politician or some other commentator, who is to decide who is right?  Maybe the truth lies somewhere in between.

I would call Sarah Palin a liar, but I fear she is something worse than someone who knowingly says things that aren’t true.  The worse thing is someone who cannot distinguish between truth and falsehood, but only between what their side says and the other side says.

Click on Tone Versus Substance for Conor Friedersdorf’s comment on The American Scene web log, which makes the same point.

Click on PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year for background on the origins of the  “death panel” claim and phrase.

Click on Sarah Palin and the Father of Lies for commentary on the Obsidian Wings group web log on how Sarah Palin is empowered by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.

Decision tree for computer technical support

January 23, 2011

Click on XKCD for more like this.

Hot type and roaring presses

January 22, 2011

One of the satisfactions of growing older is the knowledge of all the things that I have seen that nobody will ever see again.

The old-time newspaper composing room is one, as I was reminded when my friend David Damico, an expert on graphic design and the history of typography, e-mailed me links to these videos.  They are a documentary of the last night that the New York Times was produced with Linotype machines and hot type.

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Gun deaths and gun laws

January 21, 2011

Richard Florida, author of The Rise of the Creative Class, made this chart for The Atlantic Monthly’s web site.  It shows gun death rates by state, and indicates which states have laws to assault weapons, require trigger locks or require safe storage of guns.

His chart shows gun deaths, not gun killings, because the majority of gun deaths are suicide.  In 2006, 16,883 Americans committed suicide with guns, while 12,791 Americans were victims of homicide with guns.  There were 642 accident gun fatalities, 362 killings by law enforcement officers and 220 unclassified.

The rate of violent crime, gun-related crime and gun-related deaths have all been declining in the United States since the early 1990s.  In 1993, there were 1 million gun-related crimes; this fell to 500,000 by 2005.  The proportion of Americans keeping guns in the home also is declining, according to some surveys.  That is not to deny that United States has a high gun death rate compared to other advanced countries.  Our gun death rate is higher by some estimates even than Mexico’s or Brazil’s.

Florida said his chart showed that low gun death rates are statistically correlated with assault weapons bans, trigger lock laws and safe storage laws.  This is not obvious to me as I look at his map, but I am not a trained statistician, so I’ll take Florida’s word.  What the chart tells me is that there are states with gun restrictions with high gun death rates and low gun death rates, and states without gun restrictions with high and low rates; that means there are other factors that are more important than gun restrictions.

I don’t see anything wrong with trigger lock laws and safe storage laws. Without getting into the complexities of the legal definition of “assault weapon,” I don’t see why anybody needs a rapid-fire weapon with a 30-shot magazine such as Jared Loughner, the accused Tucson shooter, had.  Nor do I see anything wrong with banning gun ownership by people who’ve been convicted of violent crimes.

Personally, I would ban gun ownership by anyone in civil life who killed an unarmed person or whose gun was used to kill an unarmed person.  This would include law enforcement officers who kill unarmed civilians because they feel threatened.

I wonder if gun design can be made safer.  One of the reasons the highway death rate has fallen is safer automobile design.  It would be nice, for example, if guns could be keyed to biometric data so that they could only be fired by their owner, but I suppose that is still in the realm of science fiction.

Here is another Richard Florida chart from the same article.

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Extreme rhetoric is bad politics

January 21, 2011

The trouble with over-the-top language is that you make things easy for your opponents.

When DailyKos blogger Markos Moulitsas and ex-Rep. Alan Grayson liken religious conservatives to the Taliban, the conservatives no longer have to prove their ideas are right, only that they’re not like the Taliban.

When Rep. Steve Cohen likens Republican claims about the Affordable Care Act to the lies of Joseph Goebbels, the Republicans no longer have to prove their claims are truthful, only that they’re not like the Nazis.

When Tea Party members and conservative bloggers say President Obama is a Bolshevik, a fascist, a Muslim radical, a black revolutionary or a Kenyan nationalist, all Obama has to do is to show he is in the mainstream of American politics, not that his policies are actually good for working Americans.

House Republican leader Eric Cantor has been criticized for sponsoring a bill called the Repealing the Job-Killing Health Care Law Act, on the grounds that the word “killing” contributes to a climate of violence.  This is silly.  And it diverts attention from the real issue, which is that there is no evidence that the Affordable Care Act reduces employment.

Chart of Iraqi war deaths

January 21, 2011

In this chart, each pixel represents an Iraq war death during the past six years.  The blue pixels represent American and coalition troops and the green pixels represent Iraqi allies; the grey pixels represent the anti-U.S. forces.  The orange pixels are civilians.  The left chart separates them by color; the right chart puts them in order of the date of death, running from left to right and then top to bottom.

This chart was made late in 2010 by Kamel Makhloufi, a graphic designer in Quebec, using data published by The Guardian from Wikileaks.  As he notes, all the green pixels, orange pixels and grey pixels are Iraqi deaths; American deaths are limited to the slim blue strip at the top.  Click on Flickr for details.  Click on Melka for his portfolio.

Hat tip to The Daily Dish.

The best documentary film I ever saw

January 21, 2011

“Waco: the Rules of Engagement, directed by William Gazecki and released in 1997, is about the 1993 stand-off between the Branch Davidian cult and forces of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the avoidable killings that followed.  It is a little long to watch on a TV monitor, but it is the best documentary film I ever saw and one of the best examples of investigative journalism.

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Gun ownership: an inconvenient right

January 20, 2011

Whenever there is a terrible tragedy such as the Tucson shootings, the Constitutional right to keep and bear arms  becomes a subject of debate.

I am not a gun person myself.  I don’t own a gun.  I don’t have a hunting license.  I have fired guns less than half a dozen times since I qualified in marksmanship in Army basic training back in 1956.  I am not an expert on existing gun legislation.  But I don’t think it is necessary to be an expert to be aware of certain truths.

The Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution makes the right to keep and bear arms an individual right.  Because of the wording – “A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed” – some people hold that it only applies to members of the National Guard and Army Reserve.  But this is not how it has been understood, either in the Founders generation or by the present-day Supreme Court.

Chief Justice Joseph Story, in his influential Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, had this to say:

“§ 1889. The next amendment is “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

Ҥ 1890. The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them. [FN1]

And yet, thought this truth would seem so clear, and the importance of a well regulated militia would seem so undeniable, it cannot be disguised, that among the American people there is a growing indifference to any system of militia discipline, and a strong disposition, from a sense of its burthens, to be rid of all regulations. How is it practicable to keep the people duly armed without some organization, it is difficult to see. There is certainly no small danger, that indifference may lead to disgust, and disgust to contempt; and thus gradually undermine all the protection intended by this clause of our national bill of rights. [FN2]

via Justice Joseph Story on the Second Amendment.

That reads almost like a manifesto of one of the self-organized “militias” of today.

Justice Story’s vision is realized less by the present-day United States than by Switzerland, which depends for its defense on a citizen army, many of whom keep high-firepower arms at home.  In the United States, citizen militias proved inferior to disciplined British troops on the battlefield in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812; we defeated the British in the Revolution by outlasting them and by calling in the aid of professional French troops.

But the Second Amendment still stands.  The U.S. Supreme court ruled in District of Columbia vs. Heller in 2008 that “the Second Amendment protects a personal right to keep and bear arms for lawful purposes, most notably for self-defense within the home.”  And last June in McDonald vs. Chicago, it ruled that this right applies against state and local governments.

You may or may not agree with that interpretation, but until or unless the Supreme Court changes its collective mind, this is the law of the land.

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Mark Twain on the West Bank settlements

January 19, 2011

The conversation is from Mark Twain's Tom Sawyer Abroad (1894)

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Violence, violent rhetoric and Dr. King

January 17, 2011

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday we honor today, was the target of violence and violent rhetoric.  In 1956, his home was bombed.  He told of his reaction in Stride Toward Freedom.

kingml.testamentI could not go to sleep. While I lay in that quiet front bedroom, with a distant street lamp throwing a reassuring glow through the curtained window, I began to think of the viciousness of people who would bomb my home. I could feel the anger rising when I realized that my wife and baby could have been killed. I thought about the city commissioners and all the statements that they had made about me and the Negro generally. I was once more on the verge of corroding anger. And once more I caught myself and said: “You must not allow yourself to become bitter.”

I tried to put myself in the place of the police commissioners. I said to myself these are not bad men. They are misguided.

I would not have had the strength to do what Dr. King did.

Advocates of peace and reconciliation are sometimes described as weak and naive.  But after all, it was Dr. King’s nonviolent struggle, not the guns of the Black Panthers, that ended segregation by law in the United States.  It was Dr. King, not Malcolm X, who faced down police and Klansmen, who triumphed over governors and presidents.

Dr. King is the only 20th century American whose birthday is a national holiday.  And it is a true holiday.  We Americans, and not just black Americans, really do honor his memory.  But it is easier to honor him than follow his example.

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The case against teaching Huckleberry Finn

January 17, 2011

I wouldn’t recommend teaching Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn in high school, especially a majority-black high school in a poor neighborhood.

The book is peppered with the word “nigger” – much more so than Tom Sawyer, for instance – and this is not a trivial concern.  The word causes extreme resentment and hurt among black people; this is a fact a teacher has to deal with.

So why ram Huckleberry Finn down their throats?  Is the point to make the students bow down and show proper respect to the American literary canon?  Or is it to teach them something of value, and, if so, what?

The turning point of Huckleberry Finn is Huck’s decision not to turn in his friend Jim, an escaping slave, even though he has been taught and still believes that it is his duty to turn in a fleeing slave.  My guess is that if I were a black teenager, I would not be greatly impressed with the moral dilemma of a white boy trying to decide whether people like me are fully human.

Nor would I be impressed with Jim, who allows himself to be led by Huck and later Tom Sawyer, young white boys greatly his inferior in age, experience and wisdom.  The question is not whether Mark Twain’s Jim is a realistic depiction of a black slave in the 1850s.  The question is just what it is of value that black high school students are supposed to learn.

The other problem with Huckleberry Finn is its heavy reliance on dialect.  Mark Twain prided himself on being able to reproduce the accents and speech patterns of the different sub-cultures of the Mississippi Valley, with their bad grammar and with mispronunciations reproduced by phonetic spelling.

It is important for black students from poor neighborhoods to learn standard English.  They’ll be handicapped for life if they aren’t.  There are many great classics that are examples of good English.  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is a novel fully as great as Huckleberry Finn and it uses excellent English; there are other examples.  If you insist on Mark Twain and a novel with a young central character, how about The Prince and the Pauper? I think poor children in the big city could relate to that encounter of privilege and poverty.

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Ten truths of management

January 16, 2011

1. Think before you act. It’s not your money.
2. All good management is the expression of one great idea.
3. No executive devotes effort to proving himself wrong.
4. Cash in must exceed cash out.
5. All organizations have too little management capability.
6. Either an executive can do his job or he can’t.
7. If sophisticated calculations are required to justify an action,
don’t do it.
8. If you are doing something wrong, you will do it badly.
9. If you are attempting the impossible, you will fail.
10. The easiest way to make money is to stop losing it.

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Best-sellers when you and I were born

January 15, 2011

Click on this to see what was on the New York Times best-seller list when I was born.

Click on this to discover what was on the New York Times best-seller list when you were born.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution.

The kind of political rhetoric we need

January 14, 2011

Chart of Canadian health care migrants

January 14, 2011

Economist Aaron Carroll made this chart to summarize an article in the peer-reviewed journal Health Affairs.

This study examined Canadians crossing the border for care in a number of ways:

1) First, they surveyed United States border facilities in Michigan, New York, and Washington.  It makes sense that Canadians crossing the border for care would favor sites close by, right?  It turns out that about 80% of such facilities saw fewer than one Canadian per month.  About 40% saw none in the prior year.  And when looking at the reasons for visits, more than 80% were emergencies or urgent visits (i.e. tourists who had to go to the ER).  Only about 19% of those already few visits were for elective purposes.

2) Next, they surveyed “America’s Best Hospitals”, because if Canadians were going to travel for care, they would be more likely to go to the most well-known and highest quality facilities, right?  Only one of the surveyed hospitals saw more than 60 Canadians in one year.  And, again, that included both emergencies and elective care.

3) Finally, they examined data from the 18,000 Canadians who participated in the National Population Health Survey.  In the previous year, only 90 of those 18,000 Canadians had received care in the United States; only 20 of them had done so electively.

Carroll noted that this study does not necessarily prove that the Canadian health care system is flawless or that the United States system is completely bad.  What it does prove is that there is no truth to the widespread belief that Canadians flock to the United States for medical care because of long wait times in their own country.

Look, I’m not denying that some people with means might come to the United States for care.  If I needed a heart/lung transplant, there’s no place I’d rather be.  But for the vast, vast majority of people, that’s not happening.  You shouldn’t use the anecdote to describe things at a population level.  This study showed you three different methodologies, all with solid rationales behind them, all showing that this meme is mostly apocryphal.

Via The Incidental Economist.

Click on Phantoms in the Snow for the Health Affairs study.

This chart was named Chart of the Year for 2010 by Andrew Sullivan on The Daily Dish web log.

Charles Stross’s reasons to be cheerful

January 13, 2011

The science fiction writer Charles Stross opened 2011 by posting a list of reasons to be cheerful on his web log.  Here are a couple of them.

Charles Stross

Between 2000 and 2010, AIDS somehow turned into a non-fatal-if-treated chronic medical condition, and the drugs got cheap enough that even developing world countries can afford them; and despite the huge epidemic, AIDS is no longer killing more people than tuberculosis or malaria or the other classic hench-plagues of the grim reaper.

Both China and India underwent annual economic growth averaging around 10% per year throughout the decade. The sheer scale of it is mind-numbing; it’s as if the entire population of the USA and the EU combined had gone from third-world poverty to first-world standards of living. (There are still a lot of dirt-poor peasants left behind in villages, and a lot of economic — never mind political — problems with both India and China’s developed urban sectors, but overall, life is vastly better today than it was a decade ago for around a billion people.)

Click on Charlie’s Diary for his complete list.

Most of his bright spots are in the developing world.  I sometimes get discouraged about what is going on in the part of the world I’m sitting on, and it is good to get a perspective that looks at the world as a whole.

Let’s not demonize the mentally ill

January 12, 2011

Many people have pointed out that we shouldn’t use tragedies like the Arizona shootings to demonize political opponents.  SF writer John Scalzi pointed out that we should not use the accused shooter Jared Loughner to demonize the mentally ill.

John Scalzi

A friend of mine who suffers from a mental disorder wrote me a letter to suggest to me that … comments … about the possible mental illness of Loughner run the risk of carelessly painting everyone who suffers from a mental illness or a disorder with the same behaviors — i.e., they’re all bad/violent/nasty/evil/dangerous, etc.

This is a fair concern on my friend’s part, and so I think it’s worth noting that (a) a layman diagnosis of mental illness via the very limited information available online is worth exactly nothing, (b) any general equivalence between mental illness or disorder and one being bad/violent/nasty/evil/dangerous, etc. is uninformed and pretty stupid.  Loughner may or may not suffer from mental illness, but it’s going to take professional and in-person observation by trained folks to determine that. I imagine that will be happening soon if it’s not already happening. But even if he does, his individual manifestation of his illness is just that — individual, and not representative of anyone else’s.

Click on Whatever for Scalzi’s full comment.

Is the USA really getting more violent?

January 12, 2011

Is American society really getting more violent?  Or is it that we aging middle-class Americans simply feel more threatened?

Vicarious violence is increasing.  Violent imagery is increasing.  And it seems as if real violence also is increasing.  But is it?

I’m reading What Hath God Wrought, a history of the United States from 1812 to 1848.  The dominant political figure of that era was Andrew Jackson, who was proud of killing people in duels.  When he stepped down after a second term as President, he said his main regret was not having hanged John C. Calhoun or shot Henry Clay.  Foreign visitors remarked on the violent quality of American life.  Barroom brawlers had special thumb rings designed for gouging out eyes.

Violent persecution of Catholics exceeded anything done to Muslims today.  Tarring and feathering of Catholic clergy was common.  A mob burned down an Ursuline convent in Boston because, among other things, it was too close to “sacred ground” – Bunker Hill.  Mormons, Universalists and other minority sects also were targets of mob violence.

Preston Brooks caning Charles Sumner on the Senate floor

In 1856, South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks attacked Senator Charles Sumner when he was seated at his Senate desk, and beat him so severely with his cane that it took Sumner three years to recover.  The only consequence Brooks suffered was to have a city in Florida and a county in Georgia named for him, and to receive free canes as gifts.

The Ku Klux Klan, which arose after the Civil War, was a terrorist organization in the strict sense of that term.  The Klan whipped, burned and killed at will; its victims were mostly but not exclusively African-Americans who wanted or were suspected of wanting equal rights.  The Klan is marginal today, but it was an important political force down into the 1920s, not just in the South but in the Midwest as well.  Lynchings were common for more than a century.  As recently as the 1960s, there were parts of the country in which white people could kill black people with impunity.

North Carolina lynching, 1916

Jack Mendelsohn’s The Martyrs is a history of the civil rights movement of the 1960s in the form of mini-biographies of 16 people who “gave their lives for racial justice.”  One was William Moore, a naive idealist, who decided to walk from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Jackson, Miss., wearing a sandwich board saying “End Segregation in America, Eat at Joe’s, Both Black and White” and “Equal Rights for All, Mississippi or Bust.”  Given the climate of those times, it was predictable that he would be killed, and he was.  Nothing like this would happen today.

During the period 1963-1968, John F. Kennedy, Medgar Evars, Malcolm X, George Lincoln Rockwell, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were all assassinated.  The period 1978-81 saw the killings of John Lennon, San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, and Rep. Leo Ryan (who had gone to Guyana to investigate the Rev. Jim Jones’ People’s Temple), while President Ronald Reagan was shot and nearly killed.  Nothing like this has happened in the past four or six years.

I have a memory of a kind of composite TV news show of the late 1960s and early 1970s.  It began with footage of Vietnam, usually of U.S. troops jumping out of a helicopter or running down a road; then to student protest demonstrations; and then a night shot of the latest city in flames while black people rioted in the streets.  There is nothing like any of this today.

Attack on railroad strikers in East St. Louis, 1886

We do not today have the kind of violent strikes that took place in coal mines, steel mills and railroads from 1870s through the 1930s – union workers destroying property and trying to bar strikebreakers, company police shooting into crowds of strikers.

The movie Gangs of New York may be an exaggeration, but throughout the 19th century, there were sections of big cities where the organized gangs were more powerful than the police.  In the 1920s, Al Capone and other gangsters were celebrities who operated with impunity.  There is nothing like this today.  Nor is there any modern-day equivalent of Billy the Kid or John Dillinger.

Compared to our 19th century and early 20th century forebears, middle-class Americans of today are tame and mild-mannered.

Why, then, does it feel as if violence is on the increase?  Is it because there is so much more violence in our news and entertainment media?  Or is it that we middle-class Americans feel more vulnerable because we are more passive and less capable of defending ourselves than Americans of earlier generations?

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