Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, February 24, 2017

Three Things

1. If only more parents and economists in the Unites States understood what many parents in the poorest parts of the world do regarding markets and education:

One parent summed up the difference between these shantytown private schools and the government schools with a succinct analogy: "If you go to a market and are offered free fruit and vegetables, they will be rotten. If you want fresh fruit and vegetables, you have to pay for them."
The above comes from the pamphlet, Freedom of Education I mentioned here recently, specifically from C. Bradley Thompson's essay, "Education in a Free Society." Let me reiterate that I highly recommend this pamphlet.

2. I agree with the first commenter on this post by a popular security expert:
It's been a remarkable week for cyber justice. On Thursday, a Ukrainian man who hatched a plan in 2013 to send heroin to my home and then call the cops when the drugs arrived was sentenced to 41 months in prison for unrelated cybercrime charges. Separately, a 19-year-old American who admitted to being part of a hacker group that sent a heavily-armed police force to my home in 2013 was sentenced to three years probation.
Don't mess with Texas Brian Krebs.

3. According to tech writer, David Pogue, thanks to the new USB-C standard and chargers like the one he reviews, the power-adapter drawer will soon be extinct.

Weekend Reading

"More than the conclusions themselves, I like to look for the method by which people draw conclusions." -- Michael Hurd, in "The Art of Disagreement" at The Delaware Wave

"How in the world is somebody supposed to appreciate something when it's handed to them unconditionally?" -- Michael Hurd, in "Teach Your Children Money" at The Delaware Coast Press

"If you can get people to own their responsibilities, then reporting to you is a cooperative venture, not a command-and-control venture." -- Scott Holleran, in "Jim Brown, new Ayn Rand Institute CEO: 'Culture and society out there can look pretty irrational. Just look at the last election' (Interview)" at The Los Angeles Times

-- CAV

Powerball and Other Life Lessons

Thursday, February 23, 2017

24/7 Wall Street has run a piece on twelve things not to do if you win the now $403 million Powerball Lottery. I recommend reading the article, not only for the fun it might bring by helping you imagine what life with these millions would be like, but also for the practical advice.

Much of the advice applies to everyone, such as the following:

The 1980s film Brewster's Millions may have made it seem impossible to blow $30 million in 30 days. That was then -- now that can be blown in days or hours without even being that creative. The ongoing costs of private jets, mega-yachts, private islands, mega-mansions, luxury cars, extravagant parties, private concerts, buying luxury goods or art and collectibles, and having an entourage add up quickly. These may sound great at the time, but only until you honestly factor in the ongoing costs for a lifetime of that. Any combination of those could go over $100 million, or even $500 million, again without even being that creative. [format edits, bold added]
That reminds me of a time, way back in college, when a friend bought a new car and offered frugal, car-less me his old beater for free. It took me only a short time to consider what it might cost to own a car vs. my income to turn him down. Sure, the car might have solved a few problems I knew I had, but it would have created others I could easily imagine, and maybe a few I couldn't. (Insurance didn't even cross my young, inexperienced mind, right then, for example. That thought came to me in the form of added relief a few days later.)

It is likewise with gobs of money out of the blue. This is a worthwhile article because it repeatedly shows these things: (1) Life is not fundamentally different for the wealthy, and (2) any situation, no matter how apparently good, requires knowledge you may need to acquire to face properly. And so it is that, for much of the advice, there is food for thought for the non-lottery winners:
If you just won tens of millions or hundreds of millions of dollars, it seems obvious that you would want to tell everyone you know. After all, how could you not share that with friends and family? Reality check: Do not dare do this! try to keep your lottery winning quiet for as you can. Sadly, your friends or family members cannot be trusted to keep your secret a secret.

Telling everyone you know before you collect your winnings can put you in danger. That is danger in more ways than just one. Everyone who has ever done anything for you now may come with their hands out asking for something. You may even become a target by rather unfriendly people. You may have heard of kidnap and ransom insurance before. [bold added]
Your circumstances have just changed radically, and you will have enough to think about without having to factor in what everyone you know or even random strangers might do with this information. The huge amount of money here merely underscores the value of managing what other people know, when possible. It can thus be a useful thought exercise to see how being careful about other, less earth-shattering information can give oneself more control over his own life. If you have ever been burned by someone with loose lips, maybe you don't need this one, but the article has plenty of other good advice.

Read it all for fun and profit.

-- CAV


Today: Corrected format error in title. 

Food Labeling: Voluntary vs. Mandatory

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A couple of news stories I encountered recently brought to my mind a common assumption about regulations, namely that we "need" them, or businesses will act haphazardly with regard to customer wants and needs.

In the first story, about new (and voluntary) industry-wide guidelines for use-by dating, shows that industries can and do regulate themselves. In this case, a haphazard and confusing number of labels is being replaced by two kinds of labels to help customers stop wasting food, and thereby save money:

We've long known that the expiration date on groceries is a mess of different terms that mean absolutely nothing. Now, the Food Marketing Institute and Grocery Manufacturers Association have put together a plan that simplifies the label you'll see on food.

Right now, more than 10 different date labels exist on food, like sell by, best before, best by, expires on, and whatever else. The new initiate will use just two phrases: Best If Used By and Use By. [links and emphasis in original]
The second story, by contrast (and despite its implicitly pro-regulation stand), provides a counterexample to the idea that, without our philosopher-kings to guide us, the market would degenerate into chaos, where we'd get nickeled-and-dimed to death:
Food labeling is increasingly controlled by federal regulations. What once was a requirement that food labeling must be truthful and non-misleading now occupies thousands of pages of regulations. Adding to this, the federal government now has four new food labeling regulations pending implementation (special labeling for foods sold in vending machines, menu labeling, remodeling the Nutrition Facts Label on almost all packaged foods and changes in labeling regarding partially hydrogenated oils, or PHOs). Moreover, four more regulations are in the works, including new rules for nutrient content claims, health claims, labeling foods "natural" and mandatory GMO labeling. Even for those who believe that all of these regulations are reasonable, repeatedly requiring label changes on foods over the next few years defies rationalization.

On average, it costs food companies up to $6,000 to update the label for each product or SKU (stock keeping unit). With over 800,000 food products on the U.S. market, the overall cost of a government-mandated label change may run in the billions. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has estimated that just one of the mandated label changes now scheduled for implementation may exceed $4.6 billion. When labels have to be changed repeatedly, those costs are multiplied. Of course, regulatory compliance costs are passed on to consumers in the form of higher food prices. [bold added]
These examples do not and can not, by themselves, make a case that industries can agree to labeling standards, and that these will tend towards being simple and helpful. But they should cause people to ask themselves why they think an army of bureaucrats is necessary to goad businesses who presumably are accountable to their customers into making them be clear about what they are selling.

-- CAV

Too Much Golf, or Too Little Thought?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

A piece in USA Today considers the fact that our Presidents' political opponents have, over the past few decades, been reliable complainers about those Presidents daring to partake of leisure activities:

This is great news, particularly if you hate Trump's politics. The more time he spends playing golf, the less time he has to play president.

Rather than pleasing his critics, Trump's golf outings irritate them. It's ironic that the same people who don't want Trump to do anything complain when he doesn't do anything.
Indeed it is, and I have openly wished for Obama to play golf much more often.

Windsor Mann starts with the fact that a President you oppose who plays golf has less time to do political damage to your cause, and that's true enough. But he continues with the following interesting observation:
Golf exposes a president to derision. Critics accuse him of neglect and insouciance -- in short, of not caring enough. But a president can't possibly care about everyone; nor should he. That's not his job.
I don't know Mann's political persuasion, but he's right: It is not the President's job to be some kind of national father. Indeed, if our government were properly limited, our Presidents would probably have far more leisure time. But back to the issue of caring. Mann reminds me of a profound point about such critics that conservative blogger Walter Hudson once made in defense of one of Obama's vacations:
It's entirely legitimate to criticize someone for indulging at the expense of vital responsibilities. To the extent Obama has neglected his job, you can build a case against his vacations. But this idea that he or any person should not enjoy life while others languish in misery proves as immoral as any have-not claim upon the lives of haves. [bold added]
The best you can possibly say about such criticism is that it is poorly thought-through. Mann is absolutely correct to say, "The dumbest criticism of any president is that he plays too much golf."

-- CAV

Not-So-Super Audi Rebutted

Monday, February 20, 2017

Business writer Suzanne Lucas efficiently demolished perhaps the most insipid bit of pandering I have ever seen in a Super Bowl ad (playable at the link). For those who want one, here's her synopsis:

[T]he text begins with a dad (apparently a dad who never once read a parenting book or listened to his own parents) who says, "What do I tell my daughter?" He then goes on to say all these horrible things about how she'll be treated poorly because of her gender. "Do I tell her that her grandpa is worth more than her grandma?" and "Do I tell her that despite her education, her skills, her intelligence, she will automatically be valued as less than every man she ever meets?"

Goodness, no, dad. What kind of a parent sets out to tell his child that she'll be an utter failure? Oh wait, that's not the point. The point is the pay gap. [link dropped]
The easily-digested idea of a male-female "pay gap" is constantly being used as an insult/moral cudgel against anyone with the temerity to suggest otherwise, with the ad campaign's hash-tag as Exhibit A. Obviously, I am a regressive troglodyte if I don't turn my brain off and join the bandwagon.

I won't, and to understand why, I invite the interested reader to consider some of the many lines of evidence offered by Lucas against the idea that women are universally valued less than men or that there even is a pay-gap when controlling factors -- all of which Lucas boils down to the choices many women make -- are accounted for. Here's just one:
Women prefer to not do jobs that are dangerous. In 2013, 3,635 men died in workplace accidents, compared to 950 women. Men are far more willing to take on dangerous tasks, and dangerous jobs pay more than safe jobs. [bold and link in original.]
This is one I had not heard of before. The others are similar in nature to the main factor, time off due to bearing children, I was already familiar with.

None of this is to say that women do not face real issues as women in the workplace. Rather, such pandering trivializes that whole idea, makes it easy to dismiss out of hand, and should cause people to wonder if those who spout the idea of a "pay gap" really are concerned with such issues. It is also telling how irritated many of the same people are with Donald Trump's campaign slogan of, "Make America Great Again." They both attribute too much of his win to the slogan and give his voters (I am not one of them.) too little credit for allegedly swallowing it hook, line, and sinker. "Pay gap" is just as simple, has been repeated at least as often (and has been for longer), and is just as much an empty vessel to fill with whatever suppositions one wants.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using a memorable phrase or slogan -- so long as facts warrant doing so. Otherwise, expect to harm your cause in the eyes of your most able potential allies, and to attract an unthinking mob. That certain movements apparently cultivate mobs on purpose conversely speaks volumes.

-- CAV

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, February 17, 2017

Three Things

1. Last week, I credited the Waze app with taking much of the frustration out of driving in DC, but I didn't mention another app that also helps a bunch. Parking there would be a nightmare even if you knew the streets like the back of your hand. For that, I highly recommend Parking Panda. That and two other things: (1) Check your email (which is stored on your phone) for your reservation if you find yourself at a pay booth a mile underground, and (2) Allow yourself an extra half-hour of lead time when using an unfamiliar garage. The first tip comes from quick thinking and the second from hindsight.

2. It was nice for once to see someone with an academic interest in the subject consider the idea (via Marginal Revolution) that customers of check-cashing (aka "payday loan") stores may actually have solid reasons for using them:

"The implication of that" -- the biennial surveys of the "unbanked and underbanked" by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation -- "was these people were making poor decisions," [University of Pennsylvania professor Lisa] Servon recently told Business Insider. "I knew that the people I had worked with closely who don't have very much money know where every penny goes. They budget things. They know where to get the best deals on things. And so it struck me that if they were using check cashers, there must be a good reason for that." [link dropped, format edits, italics added]
Servon decided to learn more by working for months in such an establishment, and her conclusions make it clear that these stores benefit their customers, buttressing Thomas Sowell's past defenses of the same.

3. 3-D printer not required:
Applying an electric charge across the strip causes cells in the sample to separate according to their electrical properties, allowing researchers to isolate certain cell types. This could be used to separate out tumour cells circulating in the bloodstream, for example, and catch certain cancers at an early stage.

If researchers want to switch experiments and start counting cells instead of separating them by type, they can simply pop in a different electronic strip. "You can just draw [the strip] out on the computer and print it," [Rahim] Esfandyarpour [of the Stanford School of Medicine] says. In the future, he'd like to see a shared online database of different designs that can easily be downloaded, printed out and put to use. [link omitted]
The article notes that a regular printer with electrically conductive ink can produce one of these "printed 'labs on a chip,'" meaning this idea is a potential boon for the developing world.

Weekend Reading

"This ominous episode underlines how students are learning to be contemptuous of intellectual freedom." -- Elan Journo, in "UCLA Banned My Book on Islam From a Free Speech Event" at The Hill

"Having to rely on the ignorance of others doesn't sound very healthy to me." -- Michael Hurd, in "Lying Doesn't Feel Right When You're Mentally Healthy" at The Delaware Wave

"[J]obs are just the means to an end." -- Michael Hurd, in "The Job Isn't the Career" at The Delaware Coast Press

"Don't listen when some non-Binswanger tries to tell you that outsourcing means you don't have to cut your own hair, clean your own home, raise your own farm animals, sew your own clothes, cobble your own shoes, and fabricate your own microchips." -- Harry Binswanger, in "It's Time For All Binswangers to 'Buy Binswanger'" at RealClear Markets

"In a letter to ARI, the UCLA Law School issued a formal apology for the incident, and it explained that the decision to ban the book was inconsistent with its vigorous commitment to freedom of speech and respectful debate." -- Elan Journo, in "After Banning My Book, UCLA Explains Itself" at The Times of Israel

In More Detail

I am glad to see both that Elan Journo won a skirmish in the fight for freedom of speech in academia and that the event he covers above (twice) is "part of a wider campaign."

-- CAV

My Favorite Weather Babe

Thursday, February 16, 2017

My wife purchased an Amazon Echo around Christmas, and let me take this opportunity to sing praise to the high heavens for the following mundane use: I can (at last!) get a concise summary of the weather on a daily basis. Yes, this thing is a technological marvel, and I love having something so science-fictiony sitting unobtrusively in the kitchen (where it blends in suspiciously well with our car coffee mugs), but this has been my most pleasant surprise and favorite use so far. Here's a slightly edited transcript:

Me: Alexa what's the weather today?

Alexa: Currently in Whitetail Woods, it's 28 degrees with intermittent clouds. Today you can look for intermittent clouds with a high of 58 degrees and a low of 21 degrees.
Short, sweet, and to the point. But why has this been missing from the web?

Before I begin, let's consider the obvious benefit of Alexa's weather summary: I can get the weather immediately when I need it -- generally when getting myself and the kids ready for the day -- without having to drop everything to check my computer or phone -- or having some radio station blaring the whole time. That's a big part of it, but the summary is far superior to the barrage of verbiage, images, and advertising (however much decent formatting salvages it) from the web, or even the less-bloated output of my phone's weather app. Indeed, I looked for some time for exactly this kind of summary, in text form, a couple of years ago, in the hopes of automatically dumping it into my daily planner so I could ... just ... know ... what generally to expect. I never found one. Given that this is a popular use of the Echo, it's not as if there was zero demand for something like this.

My best guess as to why the web, for all the information available from it, never delivered something like this comes down to a few things:
  • Since it's easy to deliver gobs of information, and there's no telling how much detail what any one visitor might want, weather pages just go ahead and give it. (And one can come up with a general idea by perusing, say, the hourly forecast, but it takes more time.)
  • Web pages are delivered "free," but since someone has to pay the bills, they have to include ads. So the "weather page" suffers from having more than one purpose. No man can serve two masters ... (Alexa, though not ad-free, is a subscription service, and needn't and doesn't serve ads for things like this. You'll get an ad only if you bump into something your subscription doesn't cover.)
  • Such a summary, while it sounds simple, strikes me as something requiring artificial intelligence. Perhaps it is a happy byproduct of all the other work it took to create the Echo. Note that the web hasn't caused mass unemployment of television and radio weathermen.
In any event, it has been a joy to be able to get what I need when I need it so quickly and easily.

-- CAV