Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, March 16, 2018

Four Things

1. If you've ever wondered how they make smart phones water resistant, CNET has you covered:

Speakers and microphones need air to enter and leave your phone, because creating vibrations in the air is how they produce sound. Plus, if a phone is completely airtight, the pressure inside the phone might not be equal to the outside, creating an opportunity for that pressure to breach the phone's seals and let water in.

How do they keep water out? Science! Many manufacturers of water-resistant phones place an incredibly fine mesh in front of their speakers and microphones, prompting the water to follow its natural tendency -- through cohesion and surface tension -- to "stick to itself" rather than passing through. [link omitted]
A related fact I didn't know: Australians customarily use salt water pools. Unfortunately for them, salt water can corrode metal parts in the line of defense, rendering all the other impressive measures moot.

2. Over at Smithsonian Magazine, you can learn how cheese, wheat, and alcohol affected human evolution:
A brown cow, deserving of its reputation as a source of chocolate milk. (Photo by Christian Regg on Unsplash)
Northern Europeans, on the other hand, seem to love their lactose -- 95 percent of them are tolerant, meaning they continue to produce lactase as adults. And those numbers are increasing. "In at least different five cases, populations have tweaked the gene responsible for digesting that sugar so that it remains active in adults," Hawks says, noting it is most common among peoples in Europe, the Middle East and East Africa.

Ancient DNA shows how recent this adult lactose tolerance is, in evolutionary terms. Twenty-thousand years ago, it was non-existent. Today, about one-third of all adults have tolerance. [link omitted]
Later comes interesting speculation as to why celiac disease seems not to have been selected against during that same time span.

3. A lengthy piece at BuzzFeed reminds me somewhat of the story I encounter now and again, about Abraham Lincoln's many failures:
"Couldn't hold a job" is no exaggeration. After being fired from another gig at the Illinois Central Railroad for getting into a fight, he became an Arkansas lawyer in 1915 -- when you could practice in the Justice of the Peace Court without being admitted to the bar -- but ended that career by getting "into a fistfight with his own client in court and directly in front of a judge," as [Josh] Ozersky described it in his book. He was arrested, charged with battery, and barred from further practice.

Then, he was fired from a job selling insurance.
This man's story, too, is inspiring, but you'll have to follow the link to find out who it is. I'd previously learned of his rough childhood, but this piece focuses on the ... circuitous ... route to success he took as an adult.

4. How much sunlight would you get at high noon on Pluto? NASA has a site (via John D. Cook) that will calculate your "Pluto Time."
Pluto orbits on the fringes of our solar system, billions of miles away. Sunlight is much weaker there than it is here on Earth, yet it isn't completely dark. In fact, for just a moment near dawn and dusk each day, the illumination on Earth matches that of high noon on Pluto.

We call this Pluto Time. If you go outside at this time on a clear day, the world around you will be as bright as the brightest part of the day on Pluto.
I'm still waiting on a clear day to try this.

-- CAV

Paid to Save (And Not From Your Pocket)

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Over at Inc. is yet another story you'll find incredible -- if you share the suspicion of self-interest so common today. Suzanne Lucas writes of a trucking company that set up a bonus program in order to encourage its drivers to save money. Lucas quotes the following from a Wall Street Journal report before she applies the lesson to other types of employment:

Image via Pixabay.
Pitt Ohio, a Pittsburgh trucking company that employs 1,800 drivers, in 2016 began offering $56 to employees who contribute at least $19 a week for six months to an emergency-savings account without making withdrawals. Employees who maintain that for another six months qualify for a second $56 payment.

Pitt Ohio executives grew alarmed about employees' finances after researchers at the University of Pittsburgh discovered in a 2016 survey that drivers who reported financial stress are more distracted and had more accidents, inflating the company's total by about eight accidents a year.
Lucas rightly points out what some might sneer at as an "ulterior" motive: The company stood to make significant savings of its own if its program was successful.

Just as we saw with education recently, genuine self-interest should and does motivate astute businessmen to do things most of us have been misled to believe must be addressed by the government. (Not only is this untrue, doing so is immoral since government must violate individual rights in order to do anything outside its proper function.) It's good to see that yet another social ill can be mitigated by the fire of self-interest.

More important, because the widespread lack of personal savings might not exist at all without so much improper government, we also have an example of the fact that the interests of the rational do not conflict.

-- CAV

A Boost for Right to Contract?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Forbes contributor George Leef has written about a significant case before the Supreme Court -- concerning a part of the Constitution FDR has all but consigned to oblivion. A life insurance case from Minnesota hinges on whether the Court will abide by the Contract Clause of the Constitution, whose legal hardiness Leef contrasts with that of the First Amendment:

Image via Pexels.
Conversely, imagine if the Court had developed a robust, pro-contract jurisprudence based on the Contract Clause to match its pro-speech jurisprudence emanating the its favored First Amendment. Lots of governmental interference with people's liberty to shape their lives through contracts they want -- or don't want -- would have been prevented, such as minimum wage laws.
For this reason and others in the piece, I agree with Leef that, "It would be one of the great results of its current term if the justices would not merely uphold the Eighth Circuit but also give a full-throated declaration that the Contract Clause will henceforth be read just as it was written."

-- CAV

Harding to Trump on Trade

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Preach What You Practice

Over at An Independent Mind, Jeffrey Harding nicely explains the foolishness of Donald Trump's recent tariff talk, with the President's own dealings as a point of departure:

Image of Trump Turnberry via Wikipedia.
If it is the case that we have been fools to engage in "one-sided" free trade with other countries, then Trump personally entered into a "very stupid" deal resulting in a huge personal trade deficit. He bought a couple of golf courses in Scotland and, get this, the Scots didn't buy any golf courses or anything else from him. He has poured more than $220 million into buying and operating them all for the benefit of Scottish workers. His balance of payments deficit with Scotland is $220 million! What a sap. Just so you know, "countries" don't have trade or payments deficits, businesses and individuals do because they are the ones buying foreign goods, not the "United States of America". [footnote and links omitted]
Harding goes on to offer an accessible explanation of the various errors inhering in protectionism. Furthermore, he also points out that, when Trump brags about how well the economy is doing -- while also spoiling for a trade war -- he is contradicting himself. I thank Harding for calling on Congressional Republicans to rein him in, and reminding them that a trade war was one of the major causes of the Great Depression.

-- CAV


3-14-18: Corrected spelling of "rein." (HT: C. Andrew) 

Singapore: Whose 'Norway' Is It?

Monday, March 12, 2018

Photo by Peter Nguyen on Unsplash
Hint: The Socialists Can Have It

Although "How Capitalist Is Singapore Really?" is a blog post put out by a socialist think tank, it is worth reading since one occasionally hears the island country touted as an example of comparative "economic freedom" (as if freedom of expression and freedom of action are not parts of a whole):
The Singaporean state owns 90 percent of the country's land. Remarkably, this level of ownership was not present from the beginning. In 1949, the state owned just 31 percent of the country's land. It got up to 90 percent land ownership through decades of forced sales, or what people in the US call eminent domain.

The Singaporean state does not merely own the land. They directly develop it, especially for residential purposes. Over 80 percent of Singapore's population lives in housing constructed by the country's public housing agency HDB. The Singaporean government claims that around 90 percent of people living in HDB units "own" their home. But the way it really works is that, when a new HDB unit is built, the government sells a transferable 99-year lease for it. The value of that lease slowly declines as it approaches the 99-year mark, after which point the lease expires and possession of the HDB unit reverts back to the state. Thus, Singapore is a land where almost everyone is a long-term public housing tenant. [bold added, links omitted]
That Singapore is freer and more prosperous than, say, Venezuela or Soviet Russia, is obvious, but such comparisons don't say much. (And what they do say will be heavily dependent on context and ripe for misinterpretation.) Just look at how many socialists admire Scandinavia, and get away with it because those countries are comparatively prosperous.) Nor does it surprise me much to hear the above, despite the country's relative prosperity among today's bestiary of tyrannies. The government has broad powers to interfere with the right to free speech, for example. And its history indicates that it can probably thank an authoritarian ruler who admired British law and order for whatever resemblance to a free society it has now, as Thomas Sowell once pointed out:
In short, Lee Kuan Yew was pragmatic, rather than ideological. Many observers saw a contradiction between Singapore's free markets and its lack of democracy. But its long-serving prime minister did not deem its people ready for democracy. Instead, he offered a decent government with much less corruption than in other countries in that region of the world.

His example was especially striking in view of many in the West who seem to think that democracy is something that can be exported to countries whose history and traditions are wholly different from those of Western nations that evolved democratic institutions over the centuries. [bold omitted]
It behooves the proponent of free markets to read the following, again from this socialist outlet:
Call me old-fashioned, but I don't generally associate state ownership of the means of production with capitalism. One way to see whether libertarians or conservatives actually think Singapore's system is uber-capitalistic is to imagine how they would respond to someone who ran a campaign in the US aimed at bringing the country up to the Singaporean ideal.

In this campaign, the candidate would say that the country should expropriate nearly all of the land in the country, build virtually all of the housing in the country, move almost everyone into public housing leaseholds, become the largest shareholder of more than a third of the country's publicly-traded companies...
No. We do not need this, and the blogger is correct to say that Singapore is "more than just a funny gotcha to use against right-wingers," but not in the  way he thinks. Those of us who value having the freedom to express our thoughts and act on them should be very clear about what we speak of when we say we support capitalism. I highly recommend Ayn Rand's definition:
Capitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned.
I also recommend taking the time to become familiar with and understand her defense of same, but this requires more effort than finding "gotchas" or parroting "what market socialists have been saying for a hundred years" (while ignoring what the socialists have been achieving during that same time frame).

-- CAV

P.S. The term "market socialism" is new to me, but it immediately brings two things to my mind. The first is a quote by Abraham Lincoln about patents:
The patent system changed this; secured to the inventor, for a limited time, the exclusive use of his invention; and thereby added the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.
The second is a story about a social experiment implementing, "from each according to his ability to each according to his need" in a factory in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged, from which I'll quote in part:
"It didn't take us long to see how it all worked out. Any man who tried to play straight, had to refuse himself everything. He lost his taste for any pleasure, he hated to smoke a nickel's worth of tobacco or chew a stick of gum, worrying whether somebody had more need for that nickel. He felt ashamed of every mouthful of food he swallowed, wondering whose weary night of overtime had paid for it, knowing that his food was not his by right, miserably wishing to be cheated rather than to cheat, to be a sucker, but not a blood-sucker. He wouldn't marry, he wouldn't help his folks back home, he wouldn't put an extra burden on 'the family.' Besides, if he still had some sort of sense of responsibility, he couldn't marry or bring children into the world, when he could plan nothing, promise nothing, count on nothing. But the shiftless and the irresponsible had a field day of it. They bred babies, they got girls into trouble, they dragged in every worthless relative they had from all over the country, every unmarried pregnant sister, for an extra 'disability allowance,' they got more sicknesses than any doctor could disprove, they ruined their clothing, their furniture, their homes -- what the hell, 'the family' was paying for it! They found more ways of getting in 'need' than the rest of us could ever imagine -- they developed a special skill for it, which was the only ability they showed. (613)
Both of these quotes speak to the practical results of the crime of stealing profit from the inventive, which should make anyone question "what market socialists have been saying for a century." Call me a "Randroid" all you want, but the whole idea of a market economy that is supposed to achieve prosperity without permitting ownership (at all? past a certain point?) by individuals is inhuman.

Friday Hodgepodge

Friday, March 09, 2018

Notable Commentary

"The best drama is grounded in reality, and medical drama is no exception." -- Paul Hsieh, in "How Badly Does Hollywood Distort Truth in Medical Dramas?" at Forbes.

"Civilization has benefitted from a long evolution in art; thanks to authors such as Tolstoy and Hugo, the literary microscope has been invented." -- Lisa VanDamme, in "The Literary Microscope" at Medium.

"We must be free to think: to grapple with facts, follow our judgment and draw our own conclusions." -- Steve Simpson, in "Three Free Speech Myths" at Merion West.

"There is a third flavor of socialism, which was unfortunately popularized by Milton Friedman." -- Keith Weiner, in "Socialism and Capital Consumption" at SNB & CHF.

If the right and left look alike today, it's in part because William Buckley did what he could to prevent examination of the moral premises behind the similarity. (Photo by Daniel Fazio on Unsplash)
Justice for William F. Buckley

Or: Better Late Than Never

Via HBL, I have learned of a much-needed corrective for the rash of undeserved accolades for William F. Buckley on the tenth anniversary of his passing. A fitting title, "William F. Buckley: Cowardly, Dishonest, Unjust, Racist, and Loved by Conservatives," and the following conclusion bookend the piece:
So, in the same year that Ayn Rand published Atlas Shrugged -- a hymn to individualism and individual rights -- William F. Buckley published a collectivist screed claiming that whites are "the advanced race" and contemplating when it is "worth" using violence to keep blacks in their place.

Yet conservatives lie about Ayn Rand and celebrate Buckley.

That speaks volumes.
I recommend reading this in its entirety.

Reich Is Wrong

Tom Bowden writes about a video that has been popping up at every turn lately:
To promote his new book, The Common Good, political commentator Robert Reich has recorded a video called "Trump's Brand Is Ayn Rand." In it, Reich attributes a long list of current social ills to Rand's influence over Donald Trump, political conservatives, and the culture at large. But his argument depends on distorting Rand's actual views and exaggerating her cultural influence. All three of his main points can be readily refuted. [link in original]
The detail to which Bowden does this should embarrass Reich, but it probably won't.

-- CAV

Understanding vs. Communication

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Photo by Tra Nguyen on Unsplash
Jason Kottke asserts in the title of a blog post the following: "If you can't explain something in simple terms, you don't understand it." With one reservation, I am inclined to agree with the sentiment, given the ample evidence provided from the teaching of Richard Feynman and the methods Apple uses to evaluate its own engineers. For example, Kottke quotes the following from Feynman's Lost Lecture:
Feynman was a truly great teacher. He prided himself on being able to devise ways to explain even the most profound ideas to beginning students. Once, I said to him, "Dick, explain to me, so that I can understand it, why spin one-half particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics." Sizing up his audience perfectly, Feynman said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But he came back a few days later to say, "I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we don't really understand it."
Well, if someone like Richard Feynman is saying this, and one of the world's most successful businessmen concurs, what else is there to say?

This: Feynman has gauged his audience. He has come up with a reasonable estimate of what his audience will regard as "simple." This is no mean feat, and, through my scientific training, I am acquainted with more than a handful of people, including myself, who have had difficulty doing this and, consequently, had to learn how to communicate their knowledge more effectively. Entire books have been written on the subject of effective communication because what Feynman makes look so easy is hardly a trivial matter. (Judging audience context is hardly the only skill, either, but it is most relevant to crafting a simple explanation: e.g., What can I take for granted that they know? How motivated are they about this subject?)

This is not to say that this isn't a good rule-of-thumb for judging a person's understanding of a subject: It's just that the applicability of the rule to an individual has to account for how well that individual understands (a) judging an audience and (b) expressing himself.

The title is excellent -- for those who know that the person whose knowledge they are evaluating has good communication skills. But it has to be held in context: A poor explanation might simply show that someone needs work on communication skills, particularly if that person is young or is a novice in his field. I have been guilty of thinking someone else doesn't know what they're talking about, when the problem was really ignorance of another sort: of communication skills.

-- CAV