Archive for April, 2012

QotD: Cleansing Capitalism and the Commerce of Waste

“Yet if the Great Fire did not cleanse London, it is appropriate that commerce should do so instead. Improved methods of agriculture meant that, by 1760, manure had become a valuable commodity. Since household ash and cinders also began to be employed in brick-making, a whole new market for refuse emerged. … One eitheenth-century advertisement parades the benefits of Joseph Waller, residing by the Turnpike at Islington, who ‘keeps Carts and Horses for emptying Bog-Houses.’ When rubbish became part of commerce, the conditions of the city were improved more speedily than by any Paving Acts or Cleansing Committees.” – Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography

The Raven

I saw The Raven last night with my buddy Erik. It’s a cool idea, and seeing as how I’m a huge fan of E. A. Poe, and not well versed in movies, I was basically the ideal audience for it. So it says something about the poor quality of the film that I was not impressed.

As I said, the idea is cool. The basic premise is that the last days of Poe’s life were spent, not in an opium-and-liquor-fueled daze, but rather helping the police track down a serial killer who was basing his murders off of Poe’s stories.

Unfortunately, the casting, acting, and pacing were all sub-mediocre. John Cusack was cast in the role of Poe, which he treated basically like an obtuse, pouty version of all of his other characters. The supporting cast were mostly bland, though Luke Evans did play a sufficiently likable and badass police inspector.

The plot particulars also left a lot to be desired. Without spoiling anything, they don’t really set up the final reveal at all, and when it is revealed, it creates a few bizarre inconsistencies in the plot.

All in all, unless you’re a huge John Cusack fan or a Poe fan who doesn’t mind Hollywood playing fast and loose with his life and works, then this is definitely a skipable film. If you must see it, spare yourself the twelve bucks and get it on NetFlix.

To Be Fair, He Does Look a Bit Like a Reptile

Brendan O’Neill on Rupert Murdoch bashing as conspiracy theory hysteria:

“… the Leveson cheerleading squad, the media and celebrity groupies of this inquiry into press ethics, … are rapidly taking leave of their senses. Their depiction of Rupert Murdoch as the dastardly puppeteer of the British political sphere has crossed the line from rational commentary into David Icke territory, sounding increasingly like a conspiracy theory about secret rulers of the world. And their claim that Murdoch singlehandedly ruined British politics – that he is, in the words of one commentator, the architect of modern Britain’s ‘heartlessness, coarseness and spite’ – speaks to their inability to get to grips with the true causes of political crisis today. Yesterday’s shenanigans made it pretty clear that Murdoch-bashing has become a cheap substitute for grown-up debate.”

I submit that one could write almost the same paragraph about any number of supposedly all-influencing people. Two names from this side of the pond that I think could be slotted into that quote with a minimum of editing are George Soros and the Koch Brothers.

Do read the whole article. O’Neill’s commentary is spot on.

Lucy Kellaway of the Financial Times Should Lose Her Job

Now before you object that I’m being harsh, Ms. Kellaway and I agree on this point. Of course, we differ vastly in our reasoning. Ms. Kellaway insists that she should lose her job (or more accurately quit it) to make way for younger people wanting to enter the journalism profession.

I think she should quit because her article displayed shockingly poor reasoning, fundamental ignorance of the labor economy, and a total blindness to radical new trends in labor and workplace dynamics.

You see, Ms. Kellaway’s thesis is that, what with unemployment being so high, folks over 50 should quit their jobs to make way for younger folks. To wit:

“The young can’t advance because everywhere they find my complacent generation is in situ. Thus the only way of solving the problem is to make everyone of a certain age, say over 50, walk the plank.”

This is absolute idiocy for a few reasons. First of all, in the sort of white-collar jobs that Ms. Kellaway is suggesting get the Logan’s Run treatment, employees are not interchangeable and experience matters. Contrary to the brush-off she gives the suggestion, there are real benefits to having done a job or been in an industry for forty or more years. The senior and principal engineers in my workplace are incredible sources of information, guidance, and leadership, in large part because they’ve been perfecting their crafts for a majority of their lives.

This seems blindingly obvious to me, but Ms. Kellaway brushes this aside by asserting that “15 or 20 years’ experience, … is surely just as good as 30 or even 40.”

No. It’s not. This is so wrong that I can’t believe a grown woman who ostensibly thinks Very Seriously about things even thought it, much less wrote it.

Want to know how much better 30 years experience is, rather than 15? I can tell you. It’s twice as good. You know, being in that 30 years of learning about the industry and the job and developing skills necessary to do the work effectively is twice as many as 15.

This is not some subtle argument from ideology or my own personal suspicions about the vagaries of the labor economy. It’s math. And not even very hard math at that.

But even if her anti-experience argument weren’t crashingly, obviously wrong, it would still be a bad argument. Even if we assume that white collar workers top out magically after 15 years of experience, why would you fire half of your most productive workers? The people best able to do the jobs would be the ones with 15+ years experience and, even if they’re all doing the same level of work, it’s the highest level of work available. Why fire the best?

Kellaway has a number of other stupifyingly bad arguments for her stupendously bad idea. Take, for instance, her assertion that:

“Shifting from old to young would bring down wages and would also solve the executive pay problem in one shot. Almost all the people earning grotesque amounts are over 50 – getting rid of them would mean CEO pay would come thumping down.”

This so clearly displays not only a fundamental ignorance of labor and economics, but also such terribly sloppy thinking, that I’m starting to question that Ms. Kellaway is arguing in good faith. I mean, she clearly has a passable command of written English, and shows no signs of disordered thinking other than poor logic, so it doesn’t seem that she’s psychotic or obviously mentally impaired.

And yet here she is trumpeting that a benefit of her scheme is that it would drive down wages. This means that she sees lower wages as a desirable outcome. She also implies that high pay for executives is a serious problem. Ms. Kellaway is, in the above-quoted passage, basically saying that everyone should be paid less and, to the end of that noble goal, we should hobble our economy by firing off the best and most productive workers.

From that passage, I’m left with the conclusion that Ms. Kellaway has intense personal hatred for either logic or economic prosperity. The only other option that I can see at this point is that she suffered a traumatic head injury at an earlier age and that I’m in the uncomfortable position of mocking the disabled.

(If that is indeed the case, and Ms. Kellaway got kicked in the head by a horse during her youth, then I would like to apologize profusely and commend the BBC on their extremely ambitious work-study program for the disabled.)

More seriously, though, Ms. Kellaway is writing about a topic that she clearly hasn’t thought through. The labor economy is an interesting and important part of modern society, and there are a few fundamental facts about it that Ms. Kellaway seems to have missed.

First, the labor pool is not of fixed sized. Ms. Kellaway was, by her own admission, presented with this argument before writing this article. She either dismisses it out of hand or failed to understand the argument. I can’t tell which because immediately after she mentions it, she tries to refute it by talking about experience. It’s one of the most quickly executed non sequitors I’ve ever seen.

The other thing she misses is that supply and demand work in labor as well. Skilled workers are in shorter supply and higher demand than lower skilled ones. Ditto with experienced workers. That is why they get paid more. If less-experienced, lower-paid workers could do the jobs currently done by older, better-trained workers, then they could be competing for those same jobs and getting paid similar wages.

The reason older workers tend to have better jobs, is because they tend to have more valuable skills and experience than younger workers. This is such a fundamental part of the traditional labor economy that the fact that Ms. Kellaway is clearly unaware of it, is the single best piece of evidence that she’s unqualified for her current position.

(Speaking of which: if anyone from the BBC News is reading this, drop me a line. I’m pretty obviously much more qualified than Lucy Kellaway to write about the job market. And on the off-chance you’ve adopted her policy, I’m only 28, so you’ll get another 22 good years out of me.)

The final thing that Ms. Kellaway misses, is that the salaried-position-driven labor economy that she axiomatically assumes, is changing pretty dramatically. We live in a world where huge numbers of people are working for themselves as free-lancers, selling their skilled labor directly to consumers. Similarly, the cost of starting a new business is dropping dramatically and many young people starting their own companies, rather than working for an established firm. There is absolutely no mention in her article of contract work, free-lancing, self-employment, or entrepreneurship and yet these are increasingly how a huge number of young people are making their living.

That Ms. Kellaway ignores these trends and simply assumes a world of large, pre-existing organizations doling out a fixed number of salared positions is probably the best evidence that it’s not just her arguments about wages and labor that are flawed, its her very understanding of the labor economy.

So go on, Lucy. Have the courage of your convictions. You’ve admitted that you feel you should quit, so follow your conscience and do it. You’ll make way for a young, aspiring “commentator on office and workplace life”.

As a side benefit, you’ll spare the rest of us your hack commentary. (And seriously, BBC News. Call me.)

Dear Dr. Diamandis

God bless you, you crazy crazy, asteroid-mining bastard.

Welcome, once again, to the age of private space-flight, fellow future-dwellers.

A Modest Proposal

Despite the government’s best efforts, cocaine prices have plummeted over the past 30 years. All our best drug interdiction and anti-narcotic regulation work hasn’t put much of a dent in production or consumption. The laws of economics and technology have teamed up to ensure that technical advances, economies of scale, and improved supply chains deliver product to consumers faster and cheaper.

That got me thinking, what would the government do if it wanted to price most consumers out of the market? What would it take for government to make cocaine prohibitively expensive for most people?

My modest proposal: legalize cocaine, and then subsidize its consumption.

Now bare with me. It might seem to be a ridiculous idea on its face. After all, subsidizing consumption is what the government does when it wants to drive prices down, not up. But let’s look at the two most ambitious consumption subsidies that the US government has ever undertaken: housing and higher education.

In both instances, the government agreed to take on the burden of part or all of the purchase price of the good. In the housing market, the government pushed down interest rates, gave tax subsidies to home owners, and strong-armed mortgage lenders into lending to people with lower and lower means. Prices went up and up under the force of government subsidy, leading ultimately to a bubble that staggered the global economy.

An even closer parallel to my proposed cocaine subsidy is the higher education market. Easy money for higher education makes the vast majority of students less price sensitive. This removes the major incentive for universities to control costs and keep tuitions low. After all, if you know the majority of your students qualify for low-interest, payment-deferred loans that will comfortably cover tens of thousands of dollars a year, why not charge them tens of thousands of dollars a year and give them all the help they need on the paper work.

(This is, functionally, what financial aid advisers at universities do these days. Their job is to stream-line and support the loan application process to ensure that students get as much money as they need with as little trouble as possible.)

What have been the results of these government efforts to make housing and higher education “more affordable”? The biggest real estate bubble in human history and college tuitions that sky-rocket perfectly in tandem with increases in government subsidized educational loans.

In other words, the government is so bad at planning the economy, that when it tries to force prices down, they usually go up. And as we saw with cocaine, even when it spends almost a century trying to eradicate consumption entirely, markets manage to bring prices down anyway. In both instances, prices ended up going in the opposite direction from what the .gov intended.

But having a method that is exactly wrong most of the time is actually just as good as having one that is exactly right most of the time. All you have to do is invert the input set. So instead of subsidizing the kind of consumption that the government likes (hence inflating prices and destabilizing markets), the government should instead subsidize the use of things that it doesn’t like.

This works especially well for things like Cocaine. Say the government declared low-interest loans for anyone wanting to buy a bunch of cocaine. Dealers the world over would rejoice and raise prices in anticipation of the increased demand from customers newly flush with cheap government cash. As with the higher education market, this would kick off a feedback loop in which the government increased subsidies in response to rising prices, and the dealers increased prices in response to rising subsidies.

Before long, a night-at-the-club’s worth of dancing sugar costs as much as a used car and you have to take out loans every time you wanted to get a bump. Pretty soon it’d be impossible to get another loan because of the sheer number you had outstanding already. But you wouldn’t be able to afford the marching powder on your own, because the loan subsidies had driven prices up so high. You’d be priced out of the market and be forced to come clean.

Cocaine, like higher education, would become an unsustainably expensive habit. Just like college, you might manage to ride the white rails every night for a few years, but eventually you’d have to sober up, get a job, and finally pay off the loans from those years of partying. Make cocaine debt non-dischargeable, just like educational debt, and you have a recipe for drastically reducing the number of people spending years sucking nose candy off the backs of LMFAO albums.

And let’s face it: doing loads of coke for four years can’t be that much more damaging to one’s life prospects than getting a state school Art degree.

And so, I strongly encourage the United States government not only to legalize cocaine, but to subsidize its consumption. Cheap cocaine will be a fact of life until the US .gov recognizes the right of every man, woman, and child in this country to suck down snow on the tax payer’s dime. Then, and only then, can we finally price addicts out of the market and begin the long process of healing our national addiction to nose candy.


N.B: I apologize for any drug-related misrepresentations in this article and for any offense they may have caused any cocaine addicts in the audience. Having never done cocaine myself, I don’t know for sure if that’s what makes you like all those terrible LMFAO songs, but high-grade narcotics are the only reason I can think of for why such shitty music is so ridiculously popular.

(Hat tip to the wonderful Radley Balko for both the link and idea.)

Faith in Art: Restored

Nina Katchadourian is my new favorite photographer:

While in the lavatory on a domestic flight in March 2010, I spontaneously put a tissue paper toilet cover seat cover over my head and took a picture in the mirror using my cellphone. The image evoked 15th-century Flemish portraiture. I decided to add more images made in this mode and planned to take advantage of a long-haul flight from San Francisco to Auckland, guessing that there were likely to be long periods of time when no one was using the lavatory on the 14-hour flight. I made several forays to the bathroom from my aisle seat, and by the time we landed I had a large group of new photographs entitled Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style.

Link.

Seriously. Click that link. Go see. They are amazing. Go. Now.

“I am free to go. Yet I remain.”

“I’m not gonna lie / I’ll not be a gentleman”

I saw the Toadies open for Social Distortion on Friday Night. They were awesome live. After playing an absolutely killer version of “Possum Kingdom”, Vaden Todd Lewis muttered a bitter-sounding “Yeah, we’re that band” into the mic. Such is the fate of the solid band with one massively popular hit. It doesn’t matter if the entire rest of their discography is equally strong, they’ve sealed their catalog in most people’s minds and will, forever be, “that band that played that one song I heard on the radio in High School”.

Still, the band’s forth-coming album Play.Rock.Music should be pretty good. They played a couple of tunes off the album at the show and they sounded awesome!

The Great Springtime Shaving Cream Caper

…Or How Jeffrey A Tucker Saved Me Hundreds of Dollars, Years of Frustration, and Pints of Spilled Blood

One of my proclivities in life is that I go clean shaven only half the year. For the colder half of the year, I make use of the natural scarf that evolution has so kindly provided me and let my thick Slavo-Gaelic beard fend off the winter weather. Then, usually some time in late March or early April, I wake up one morning with a strong desire to rid myself of my magnificently hirsute face warmer. And so, after a nice hot shower and a fond farewell, I set to work with a miniature electric chain saw and part ways with my beautiful beard until autumn.

This go-beard-or-go-bare pattern has served me very well over the years. Indeed, I’ve often defended the practice not only practical and aesthetic grounds, but on moral ones as well. But for as much as both states of masculinity have to offer, my summery, clean-shaven aspect has one distinct disadvantage: maintenance.

Now shaving isn’t typically held to be a difficult task, but I have several significant disadvantages in that arena. First, only shaving for six months of the year means that I have, at any given time, less than half the practical shaving experience of your typical human male. Secondly, I’m a bit on the lazy side, so I usually only shave every few days, which means the whiskers have had time to dig in and set up fortifications, making shaving more irritating (for both mind and skin) than it needs to be. Finally, and perhaps most critically, I’m not the most dexterous of human beings. Which is an extremely kind way of saying that I am, at times, unbelievably clumsy. Even with a fresh razor, the perfect amount of shaving cream slathered just so, plenty of caffeine in my blood stream, and all the time in the world, I still end up slicing my face up more often than not.

That is, until a wonderful man by the name of Jeffrey A Tucker let me in on the most incredibly of secret truths. You see, there are truths that most men dare not utter. For in our society a thing can be true but still be vilified and denounced. But Mr. Tucker has bravely set aside all concern for his own safety and social position and trumpeted unto the world a Great Truth: Shaving Cream is a Racket.

You see, when I said above that even the “perfect amount of shaving cream” couldn’t save my face from bloody gashes? That’s because I failed to see the noble truth of the matter, which is that the “perfect amount of shaving cream” is none. But now I’ve heard the great good news, and just at the right time. I read Mr. Tucker’s essay the very day that I’d woken up with that spring-time urge to cast aside my face’s winter pelt. His arguments seemed sensible, and I was attracted by the idea of not spending the next six months with a half-shredded face. And so, with a freshly-mowed face and nothing left to lose, I decided to give it this small blasphemy a try.

Ladies and gentlemen,…well, mostly just the gentlemen, I can tell you that it absolutely works. My naked face is the least bloody its been since puberty. I get a closer shave, less irritation, and far fewer bloody cuts. Even the annoying mole on my lip that I end up shaving off several times a year seems less tricky.

It’s not a panacaea, to be sure. I’ll not be taking up barbering or be winning any olympic shaving competitions any time soon. But it definitely does improve matters dramatically. My shave is quicker and closer with less irritation and far fewer cuts and gashes.

So men, save yourselves. Throw aside the unguents and emulsions that leave your faces bloody and raw. Shaving cream is a scam and we can thank Jeffrey Tucker for bravely speaking out against it. You may be hesitant, but that’s only the weight of conformity talking. Cast off your foamy shackles and shave as man was meant to: with naught but hot water and a sharp, trusty razor.

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Magic Blue Smoke

House Rules:

1.) Carry out your own dead.
2.) No opium smoking in the elevators.
3.) In Competitions, during gunfire or while bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.
4.) A player whose stroke is affected by the simultaneous explosion of a bomb may play another ball from the same place.
4a.) Penalty one stroke.
5.) Pilsner should be in Roman type, and begin with a capital.
6.) Keep Calm and Kill It with Fire.
7.) Spammers will be fed to the Crabipede.