July 2006 Archives

Ilkka Kokkarinen of Sixteen Volts translates a theory about "the religion of women" originally propounded by Tommi (who is perhaps from Denmark?) (who is Finnish). In part:

The relevant universe consists of two things: Me and World. The World is considered to have a soul and is anthropomorphic: it has thoughts, preferences and motives behind its actions, just like humans do. (Let the World here be one thing for simplicity. It could also be understood, the way it usually is understood, as a complex that consists of many individual actors, but this has no effect on the basic idea.)

The most essential part of both Me and World is the personal experience, that is, emotions. In other words, the subjective experiences of the first person. The basic attitude towards the emotional sphere is utilitarian: negative emotions have a negative sign and the positive ones have a positive sign. The quality of your life is then measured as the sum of these emotions. ...

The success of My emotional life is the World's responsibility. If I don't have a good time, the World is evil and guilty. More precisely, it is mean i.e. hostile. Let me call this the Basic Rule of the ethics of the religion of women.

There's more, and more depth, and I offer it only to solicit further opinions. The comments on Sixteen Volts are interesting, both denigrating the theory and modifying it.

Luke Turf provides an utterly fascinating report about a Thailand marriage tour that starts with six single men from Denver and gets five of them engaged within a week. I can certainly relate to how these men were feeling about stereotypical American women... until I met Jessica, I never thought I'd meet the woman of my dreams. (And after meeting her, I knew pretty quick that she is the one for me. Complaints about "American women" go doubly for most women in Los Angeles, but Jessica was a shining exception.)

And here's an account of a Ukrainian marriage tour.

Here's the results of the Pacific Research Institute's study of economic freedom for 2004. Reassuringly, I moved from California, the 49th most free state, to Missouri, the 10th most free state. The rankings take a variety of factors into account and prefer low regulation, low taxes, and low spending (fitting with PRI's free market perspective on goodness).

The New York Times has a great article full of personal stories about working-age men who don't feel like working. The article portrays the men in a generally neutral light, but it's clear that these guys are pretty pathetic and/or beaten down.

Many of these men could find work if they had to, but with lower pay and fewer benefits than they once earned, and they have decided they prefer the alternative. It is a significant cultural shift from three decades ago, when men almost invariably went back into the work force after losing a job and were more often able to find a new one that met their needs.

"To be honest, I’m kind of looking for the home run," said Christopher Priga, who is 54 and has not had steady work since he lost a job with a six-figure income as an electrical engineer at Xerox in 2002. "There’s no point in hitting for base hits," he explained. "I’ve been down the road where I did all the things I was supposed to do, and the end result of that is nil."

That must be frustrating to feel like you've done all the right things and still can't succeed. It seems unwise, however, to neglect planning for the future by only trying for "home runs" when there are bills to pay.

It's a real blessing to have a job I enjoy, but I think I'd be compelled to get a job I didn't enjoy if I had to to support my family. Spending savings and incrementally selling the house wouldn't be enough.

(HT: Vox Baby.)

This morning Jessica and I visited our third church in Missouri, and the first we've really liked: First Baptist Church of Harvester. The buildings were absolutely packed to the seams and the people were all friendly, energetic, and happy to be there.

We sat near the back and observed as inconspicuously as possible, but we were quickly drawn in to the heartfelt worship service. The songs were very contemporary and the musicians were skilled, but more importantly we could tell that the people at the church were excited about praising God and glad to be together.

We weren't keen on hugging people near us during the greeting before the sermon started, but everyone was friendly enough and we escaped with hand-shaking. The sermon itself was very relevant and the pastor was passionate in his love for the people in the community and for our country. During communion I almost cried when they sang "That Old Rugged Cross", which is one of my favorite songs.

So, we're definitely going to visit again and probably check our their membership classes. On first blush we really liked the church, and we're very excited to meet some more of the people and see how we can get involved in service. The people looked like us: a lot of young people, casually dressed, and eager to serve God. The bulletin showed a lot of stuff going on each week, so we should be able to find some places to plug in. Let's see what happens!

Crunchy Con recounts his encounter with encounter with Abdullah Zainal Alireza, the Saudi Minister of State. I had a longer post about this, but the Firefox crashed and I lost it. Sigh.

Abdullah Zainal Alireza, the Saudi minister of state, came calling today here at the paper. He was in Texas this week speaking at the US-Arab Economic Forum in Houston. Abdullah came across as a highly sophisticated diplomat, and he had some interesting things to say. He said, for example, that the US cannot think of withdrawing from Iraq. For one thing, it would destroy our credibility internationally, because the US went in and destroyed the controlling institutions of Iraqi life, and can't walk away from them. For another, said Abdullah, Iraq would collapse into a massive civil war that would likely draw in Turkey, Iran and neighboring Sunni Arab states.

On Iran, he said that the US cannot allow Iran to get the Bomb. Well, I asked, what if it happens anyway? He repeated, firmly, that it must not be allowed to happen. Period. The end. ...

They particularly complained about the connection between Islam and terrorism. One of the associates, whose name I didn't get, said that there is no connection between Islam and terrorism, because by definition a terrorist is not a Muslim, so why do we in the media keep acting like there is a connection? Etc.

I'm not sure how much was posturing and how much they really believed, but they sound a little disconnected from reality.

(HT: Spengler.)

I'm blogging this from my Cingular 8100 phone/pda. There's a "severe thunderstorm warning" here now, but the power is still on thankfully. In other news... uh... the end.

The whole idea that Israel's response to Hezbollah's rocket attacks has been "disproportionate" is plainly ludicrous and can only be believed or proclaimed by someone with either no concept of morality or no understanding of history. This plain on the face. There's little hope for those who denounce Israel because of their own amorality, but for those who need instruction in the history of war I suggest you go read Charles Krauthammer's explanation of how Israel's moral scrupulousness is being paid in blood.

The word that obviates all thinking and magically inverts victim into aggressor is "disproportionate," as in the universally decried "disproportionate Israeli response."

When the United States was attacked at Pearl Harbor, it did not respond with a parallel "proportionate" attack on a Japanese naval base. It launched a four-year campaign that killed millions of Japanese, reduced Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagasaki to a cinder, and turned the Japanese home islands to rubble and ruin. Disproportionate? No. When one is wantonly attacked by an aggressor, one has every right — legal and moral — to carry the fight until the aggressor is disarmed and so disabled that it cannot threaten one's security again. That's what it took with Japan.

Britain was never invaded by Germany in World War II. Did it respond to the blitz and V-1 and V-2 rockets with "proportionate" aerial bombardment of Germany? Of course not. Churchill orchestrated the greatest land invasion in history that flattened and utterly destroyed Germany, killing untold innocent German women and children in the process.

The perversity of today's international outcry lies in the fact that there is indeed a disproportion in this war, a radical moral asymmetry between Hezbollah and Israel: Hezbollah is deliberately trying to create civilian casualties on both sides while Israel is deliberately trying to minimize civilian casualties, also on both sides.

Read the whole thing, learn a little, and hopefully adjust the calibration on your moral compass if necessary.

(HT: David Bernstein, who also points to a video of a United Nations ambulance giving terrorists a lift during a firefight in the Gaza Strip.)

It's strange to me that some clothing fabrics distinctly change color when I wipe my wet hands on them, while others do not. For instance, I can wipe wet hands on bluejeans and it's completely unnoticable, whereas if I wipe water onto a cotton shirt it makes the shirt look wet. Both the jeans and the shirt are cotton, but they take water differently. There seem to be several factors that affect how clothing looks after being wiped with water:

- Material -- cotton, silk, polyester, etc.

- Texture -- weave(?), thickness, roughness

- Color

Are there some unifying characteristics involved that I'm not noticing?

I know that Germans love David Hasselhoff, but only slightly less well-known is this: St. Louisans love the Beach Boys. Really love them. I've never heard more Beach Boys than I've heard standing in elevators and lobbies in St. Louis. Every restaurant, every store, every parking garage: the Beach Boys.

The New York Times has an article by Damon Darlin about how foolish consumers subsidize sophisticated consumers. The piece is pretty vague, but the idea behind it is one that I do my best to take advantage of in my business dealings.

The two economics professors — Mr. Laibson at Harvard and Mr. Gabaix at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Princeton — have looked at how companies hide fees and costs. They found that sophisticated consumers have somehow learned how to game the system by having enough naïve consumers around to subsidize them.

The smartest strategy, they say, is for the sophisticated consumer to choose the service with the most hidden charges and highest add-on prices, but then avoid paying those added costs. "The sophisticated consumer takes advantage of that," Mr. Gabaix said. "The naïve pay all the fees." ...

For example, you see an offer for a room at Nontransparent Hotel for $75 (which costs the hotel $100 to provide). The guy checking in behind you also rents a room, but will rack up $70 in fees from the minibar, the phone and garage parking (all of which cost the hotel $20 to provide). You, on the other hand, were not tempted by the minibar, used your cellphone for calls and took public transportation to the hotel. The other guy subsidized your room.

Smart consumers now have a strategy. They should go to the company offering the discounted product even if the company has loads of hidden fees. The sophisticated consumer then exploits the company by taking the below-cost product and shunning the fees. "It’s a perpetual battle between the firm that fools consumers into paying fees and the smart consumer who can avoid them," Mr. Laibson said.

Every time I call a creditor -- be it a utility, cellphone provider, credit card company, or whomever -- I always ask them to waive fees, cancel charges, or upgrade my service for free. Most of the time they will. I get new, free, top-of-the-line phones from Cingular all the time, and I get interest rate reductions and fee waivers from my credit card companies several times a year. Ask and thou shalt receive. Plus, I never pay the outrageous prices for food from hotel minibars or movie theaters.

(HT: Sound Mind Investing Blog.)

Slate has posted a great cheat sheet for anyone interested in exactly who's buddies with whom in the Middle East: The Middle East Buddy List. Good stuff.

While some people are working two jobs to put food on the table and others are fighting for freedom in Iraq and Afghanistan, some Americans are whining because they've got to pay for their own master's degree in "public administration". That sounds like a major designed for people who want to live their lives on the government payroll, which isn't surprising considering the tenor of this editorial.

Is access to graduate education in America exclusively for the upper class?

As a first-year graduate student struggling to make ends meet, I believe the answer is yes. In my experience, searching for funding to pay the extensive costs of my higher education has been an upward climb leading only to dead ends.

I am a single mother who qualifies for the maximum amount in federal aid for graduate students. But this amount barely covers my tuition; paying for housing, books and living expenses is up to me.

I have no college fund, trust or inheritance. I don't independently qualify for private student loans because I lack the substantial credit or employment history that is required, and I do not have the luxury of having a willing and eligible co-signer. Furthermore, I can work only part-time jobs while in school; otherwise I would not qualify for child-care assistance.

Boohoo. I paid my way though grad school the old-fashioned way: I got a job! If you can't afford to go to grad school, get a job, save up some money, and build the credit and employment history necessary to get some loans. I'm sure the author has plenty of debt she's already used to buy a car, clothes, vacations, and all the other nonsense Americans put on their credit cards, so why can't she save up a few years for school? Next thing you know she'll be expecting the government to buy her a house, which are expensive for all the same reasons.

Plus, here's a tip for Sui Lang Panoke: keep your legs closed for a while so you don't have any more kids you can't afford to take care of.

(HT: James Taranto.)

Although there are a ton of jobs available in the video game industry, they tend to be the computer science equivalent of the Southeast Asian sweatshop. Game developers work extremely long hours, under tight deadlines, and for comparatively little money. Still, there's a movie star sort of status associated with working on a popular game, which is why video game camps are sprouting up around the country for aspiring game slaves.

While some 12-year-olds spend the summer playing video games, Alex Sanford learned how to create them.

Alex, who's a student at Dana Middle School in Hawthorne, was one of a handful of South Bay kids who participated in the two-week video game design camp at California State University, Dominguez Hills.

"I want to be a movie director," Alex said Friday, the last day at camp. "Some of this stuff helps to figure out special effects."

Most of the students had no programming experience before the camp, said course instructor Jacob Thompson, who is a USC undergraduate majoring in interactive entertainment.

"They've really grown in knowledge of programming," Thompson said. "And actually having to finish a project by a deadline is impressive by any standard."

Well, as opposed to "having to", actually finishing a project by a deadline is impressive.

Even my little brother is in on the action.

Andy Kaneda, 11, has plans to become a video game designer and wants to learn more about the industry. The incoming Dana Middle School student, the youngest in the program, has been playing video games since he was 7.

I can attest to that!

I just felt an earthquake here in St. Charles, MO. It felt very weak, but lasted about 30 seconds. I supposed it could have been someone moving something heavy in the hotel, but I haven't felt anything like it over the past month we've been here. I think it was an earthquake.


Well, nothing from the USGS, so I guess I was wrong!

Pete Du Pont has a great editorial detailed the ways in which tax cuts benefit everyone.

Mr. Bush signed the most recent tax cuts into law in the spring of 2003. In the past 33 months the size of America's entire economy has increased by 20%--or, as National Review Online's Larry Kudlow put it, "In less than three years, the U.S. economic pie has expanded by $2.2 trillion, an output add-on that is roughly the same size as the total Chinese economy."

In the 2 1/4 years before the 2003 tax cuts, economic growth averaged 1.1% annually; in the three years since it has averaged 4% per year, and in the first quarter of this year it was 5.6% on an annualized basis. Inflation-adjusted per capita GDP has grown 7.8% from 2003 through the first quarter of this year.

According to the government's establishment survey, in the 36 months since the tax cuts became law, 5.3 million new jobs have been added to the economy. According to its employment survey, 288,000 jobs were added in May and 387,000 in June. The unemployment rate dropped from 6.1% when the bills were signed to 5.4% at the end of 2004 and 4.6% today, and the rate has gone down for men, women, blacks and Hispanics. Hourly wage rates for workers are up 3.9% in the past year, and they increased at an annualized rate of 4.6% in the second quarter of this year, the highest quarterly rate in nearly 10 years.

Incomes are up too. As Stephen Moore noted in The Wall Street Journal, "the percentage of Americans earning more than $50,000 a year rose from 40.8% to 44.2%" between 2002 and 2004. As for very wealthy families, the portion of total income "captured by the richest 1%, 5% and 10% of Americans is lower today than in the last year of the Clinton administration."

All this has been good news for the government. Federal tax receipts increased by 15%-- $274 billion--last year and 13%-- $206 billion--in the first nine months of this fiscal year, which, as the Journal points out, means the nine-month increases for the past two years represent the highest growth rates in 25 years. Looking ahead to the end of this fiscal year, total inflation-adjusted government receipts will likely be 23% above 2003 when the Bush tax cuts were signed into law.

Reducing the capital gains tax rate from 20% to 15% increased capital gains tax receipts by 79% from 2000 to 2004. Cutting the dividend tax rate by more than half--from 39.6% to 15%--increased dividend tax receipts by 35% from 2002 to 2004. And corporate tax receipts have nearly tripled since 2003, reaching $250 billion for the past nine months, 26% higher than the same period last year.

So why have Democrats promised to "roll back President Bush's tax cuts" (i.e., increase taxes) if they're elected in November? Because the Democratic party can only survive when people are forced to depend on the government; when people can provide for themselves, they don't need leftist "compassion". The Democrats have a vested interest in keeping as many people as poor and as dumb as possible.

Does anyone actually adjust the water temperature when they wash their hands in a public restroom? I always just use the coldest setting so that I don't accidentally burn myself, so I never use the hot water. Even at home I almost always use only cold water to wash my hands.

The ongoing nationwide power distribution crisis is a perfect illustration of how monopolies can hurt consumers.

LOS ANGELES · Days of tropical heat and humidity have driven demand for electricity to record highs in California and other states. If people can't take the weather anymore, neither could transformers and other equipment, which sputtered and shorted out and left tens of thousands of people without power.

Authorities issued a warning Monday that the high demand could lead to rolling blackouts, a dreaded term in California that brings reminders of widespread blackouts in 2000 and 2001 during an energy supply crisis.

In other parts of the country, thunderstorms have compounded problems, leaving hundreds of thousands of people in the St. Louis area without electricity since Wednesday. Thousands of people in Queens, N.Y., entered the second week without power after equipment failures there at one point left about 100,000 people without electricity.

Unfortunately, because power distribution (and to a lesser extent, power generation) is typically a "natural" monopoly, there isn't much that can be done to improve the situation over the long term -- i.e., this just about is the best we can do.

In economics, a natural monopoly occurs when, due to the economies of scale of a particular industry, the maximum efficiency of production and distribution is realized through a single supplier.

Natural monopolies arise where the largest supplier in an industry, often the first supplier in a market, has an overwhelming cost advantage over other actual or potential competitors. This tends to be the case in industries where capital costs predominate, creating economies of scale which are large in relation to the size of the market, and hence high barriers to entry; examples include water services and electricity. It is very expensive to build transmission networks (water/gas pipelines, electricity and telephone lines), therefore it is unlikely that potential competitor would be willing to make the capital investment needed to even enter the monopolists market.

It may also depend on control of a particular natural resource. Companies that grow to take advantage of economies of scale often run into problems of bureaucracy; these factors interact to produce an "ideal" size for a company, at which the company's average cost of production is minimized. If that ideal size is large enough to supply the whole market, then that market is a natural monopoly.

Some free market-oriented economists argue that natural monopolies exist only in theory, and not in practice, or that they exist only as transient states.

Natural monopolies should generally be closely regulated by the government for the best possible performance, but just imagine how awful every other sector of our economy would be if they were similarly under centralized control! Thankfully, most other industries aren't natural monopolies and thrive under competition, not regulation.

California tried deregulating its electrical distribution and generation in the 1990s, but the plan was really only partial deregulation since it set a ceiling on the price producers could charge customers; as you can imagine, the plan led directly to California's power crisis in 2000 - 2001. I believe that some other states have tried deregulation with more success, but there's going to be a limit on how well competition can work for natural monopoly industries in "small" markets.

Considering how much blame guns get for what humans do with them, it hardly seems fair for the USA Today to completely ignore the role a gun played in stopping a man on a knifing rampage. At that link Clayton Cramer quotes a version of the newspaper's story that I can't find online but which states:

ARLINGTON, Tenn. (AP) — Eight employees were stabbed Friday by a co-worker at a Memphis suburban grocery store, and four were seriously injured, police said. The victims were identified only as six females and two males who worked at the Schnucks grocery.

Memphis Police Sgt. Vince Higgins said the man suspected in the attack was in custody after the incident that was reported at about 9:25 a.m. The suspect, whose name wasn't immediately released, was complaining of chest pains and was sent to the hospital. ...

The suspect was tackled by a witness as he tried to run from the building and was held until officers arrived, Higgins said.

However, as other news reports indicate, the attack wasn't stopped by a tackle.

Ingram, chasing one victim into the store's parking lot, was subdued by Chris Cope, manager of a financial services office in the same small shopping center, Memphis Police Sgt. Vince Higgins said.

Cope said he grabbed a 9mm semiautomatic pistol from his pickup truck when he saw the attacker chasing the victim "like something in a serial killer movie."

"When he turned around and saw my pistol, he threw the knife away, put his hands up and got on the ground," Cope told The Associated Press. "He saw my gun and that was pretty much it."

The link Mr. Cramer provided to the USA Today article (actually to news.scotsman.com) now mentions the gun, so I'm not sure if the article was updated or if the link is wrong. In any event, it's interesting that the AP and the USA Today both quote Memphis Police Sgt. Vince Higgins but have him saying different things. Perhaps, also, Sgt. Higgins learned more about the event as the investigation unfolded.

In light (heh) of the recent power outages I'm thinking of buying a generator for backup power at our new house. Does anyone have experience with these who can make a recommendation? Some questions:

- Do I want diesel or gasoline? I don't want to have to mix oil, so a two-stroke is out. How do I store the fuel? In the basement? There are some generators that run on natural gas, but then I'd have to connect to the gas somehow.

- What brands are good?

- How large of a model do I need? This will obviously depend on what I want to run. Computers and the fridge should be less than 2KW, but I'm sure we'll want some lights also. How much power do air conditioners use? I bet quite a lot.

- Should I wire the generator directly into the house electricity, or just use an extension cord when needed?

- I bet generators are loud, but I'd be afraid to put one very far from the house because it might get stolen. Our neighbors wouldn't want the thing near them either, but I don't think it would be safe to run the generator in the basement without a lot of ventilation.

- Anything else I'm forgetting?

It looks like the House is going to vote soon on H.R. 3282 - Abolishment of Obsolete Agencies and Federal Sunset Act of 2005, which sounds like a good idea to me, even if it doesn't go as far as the Sunset Amendment I've been advocating for years. (This bill may or may not be the same as the Sunset Commission I mentioned last year.)

In general, federal agencies will be abolished as so:


(a) Schedule for Review- Not later than one year after the date of the enactment of this Act, the Federal Agency Sunset Commission established under section 3 (in this Act referred to as the `Commission') shall submit to Congress a schedule for review by the Commission, at least once every 12 years (or less, if determined appropriate by Congress), of the abolishment or reorganization of each agency.

(b) Review of Agencies Performing Related Functions- In determining the schedule for review of agencies under subsection (a), the Commission shall provide that agencies that perform similar or related functions be reviewed concurrently to promote efficiency and consolidation.

(c) Abolishment of Agencies-

(1) IN GENERAL- Each agency shall--

(A) be reviewed according to the schedule created pursuant to this section; and

(B) be abolished not later than one year after the date that the Commission completes its review of the agency pursuant to such schedule, unless the agency is reauthorized by the Congress.

(2) EXTENSION- The deadline for abolishing an agency may be extended for an additional two years after the date described in paragraph (1)(B) if the Congress enacts legislation extending such deadline by a vote of a super majority of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

I never really enjoyed Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, but Theodore Dalrymple quotes from The Secret Agent and I find Conrad's perception of terrorists to be quite apt.

Conrad experienced political persecution from the inside, having been exiled to Siberia during his childhood with his father by the tyrannical czarist regime. One might have expected him therefore to have sympathized with extremists of almost any stripe, but he understood only too well that those who opposed tyranny by terrorism objected not so much to tyranny as such but to the fact that it was not they who were exercising it. Indeed, the terrorist temperament was apt to see tyranny where there was none. As Conrad puts it: "The way of even the most justifiable revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds." ...

Conrad tells us that one of the sources of terrorism is laziness, or at least impatience, which is to say ambition unmatched by perseverance and tolerance of routine. Mr. Verloc, the secret agent, has a "dislike of all kinds of recognized labour," which, says Conrad, is "a temperamental defect which he shared with a large proportion of revolutionary reformers of a given social state. For"—Conrad continues—"obviously one does not revolt against the advantages and opportunities of that state, but against the price which must be paid in the same coin of accepted morality, self-restraint, and toil. The majority of revolutionists are the enemies of discipline and fatigue mostly."

Maybe I should reevaluate my dislike for Joseph Conrad.

Despite facing a primary challenge for the Senate seat he's held since 1988, Connecticut's Joe Lieberman is in an enviable position. Sure, there's a risk he might lose his seat, but the primary challenge has also created a slew of opportunities for him if he manages to win, either as a Democrat or an Independent.

Lieberman is collecting petition signatures to get on the November ballot as an independent if he loses the primary. The Quinnipiac poll found that in a three-way race against Lamont and a Republican, Lieberman would win by 24 points, although his margin has shrunk 14 points in the last month. ...

A Lieberman primary loss might cause more heartburn for Democrats nationally than for the candidate. Democratic primary voters have different views and values than even the larger number of Democrats who vote in the November election, not to mention independents and Republicans. All of which explains the string of Republicans White House victories. ...

That independent candidacy would complicate life for Democratic big-wigs, who would likely back Lamont against Lieberman in November. Among the 2008 presidential candidates who have said they would do so are front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton, and 2004 nominee John Kerry. That would almost certainly drive a wedge between Lieberman and the Democratic hierarchy if he is re-elected.

If Lieberman were to win as an independent it would give him great influence, not just in the Senate, but as the face of a new politics that transcends party labels.

Although he has pledged to caucus with the Democrats if elected as an independent, he would be a bigger player than even today as the party's former vice presidential candidate.

And he would be an awfully attractive running mate for McCain, not to mention other potential Republican White House hopefuls.

Although I disagree with many of his political positions, I have a lot of respect for Joe Lieberman, and I hope he wins as an Independent (even if just for the entertainment value).

(HT: Real Clear Politics.)

It's funny that St. Louis and Los Angeles have been together in the news so much recently.

- Both St. Louis and Los Angeles are having power outages.

- Both St. Louis and Los Angeles are experiencing extreme heat.

- The Cardinals swept the Dodgers 7-0.

All we need now are tornados and earthquakes.

Ok, so you're all heard the saga about the house we bought, but didn't, and since all the checks have cleared and we've gotten our money back now, here's the list of people I strongly recommend you don't deal with if you're ever interested in St. Louis real estate.

Dilla Goedert was the "experienced" listing agent for the sellers, and probably the most dishonest. She didn't disclose a lawsuit that directly affects the value of the property, and she pulled the purchase price out of thin air. Before the appraisal came in she repeatedly tried to get us to waive our appraisal contingency, fully aware that the house would appraise for $50,000 below asking. The appraiser was so disturbed by Dilla's behavior that she wrote a letter to Dilla's boss. Dilla also apparently lied to us about having an "all cash" backup offer that prevented her from lowering the price of the house down to the appraisal value; since the house is still on the market and there's an open house tomorrow, I'm assuming the all cash offer never existed. I hope Coldwell Banker Gundaker takes some disciplinary action against her.

Then there's Barbie Porter and her husband Bruce. Bruce owns Quality Renovations (no website), the company that bought the house and renovated it. The renovations acctually looked like they were well-done, despite being a little on the cheap side. Unfortunately for the Porters, they put too much money into 5 Berkshire Dr. and now need to sell it for far more than it will appraise for just to break even. That's a shame, but don't be the one to buy their mistake! The Porters weren't dishonest in my interactions with them, but they hid behind Dilla so there's no real way for me to know.

Shining Force II by Sonic Co. for the Sega Genesis was one of the coolest tactical role-playing games ever. To relive some of the excitement from 1994 I recommend picking up the Gens Genesis emulator and a Shining Force II rom (which is only legal if you owned the game itself). Then check out Gamefaq's Shining Force II entry for hints and The Ultimate Shining Force II Guide for all the detailed information you'll need to explore every nook and cranny of the game.

A fun way to pass the time while tornados whirl past your hotel room!

Well another storm this morning knocked out power at the hotel again, but it just came back on so we'll be able to sleep in conditioned air. Whew. We were supposed to do our home inspection for the new house today, but we couldn't because there wasn't any power to test the appliances, so we had to reschedule.

It's easy to get frustrated with delays, discomfort, and inconvenience, but just turning on the news reminds me that there are people in far worse circumstances than us. Fawzi Shobokshi, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United Nations, is blabbering on accusing Israel of purposefully assaulting Lebanese civilians without even mentioning the endless terror attacks the Israelis have suffered. We're really blessed to be in middle America with no more worries than whether our wireless internet connection will work.

Apparently events like the Ultimate Fighting Championship have actually led to a recent revoultion in mixed martial arts theory.

In the early 1990s, three styles stood out for their effectiveness in MMA competition: Amateur wrestling, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Shoot wrestling. This may be attributable in part to the grappling emphasis of the aforementioned styles, which, perhaps due to the scarcity of mixed martial arts competitions prior to the early 90s, had been neglected by most practitioners of striking-based arts.

Even though fighters combining amateur wrestling and striking dominated the standing portion of an MMA fight, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu stylists had a distinct advantage on the ground. Those unfamiliar with Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu proved to be unprepared to deal with its submission techniques. Shoot wrestling practitioners offered a balance of wrestling ability and catch wrestling based submissions resulting in a generally well rounded set of skills. The shoot wrestlers were especially successful in Japan, where the martial art initially dominated other arts.

As MMA competitions became more and more common place, those with a base in striking became more competitive as they began to acquaint themselves with takedowns and submission holds, leading to some notable upsets against the dominant grapplers. Subsequently those from the various grappling styles learned from each other's strengths and shortcomings and added striking techniques to their arsenal. This overall development of increased cross-training resulted in the MMA fighters becoming increasingly multi-dimensional in their skills.

I've only been in two fights in my life, but I won both of them using a single devestating move: a punch to the stomach. That may not sound like much, but I'm undefeated (and retired).

Here's an interesting website about Affect Control Theory, a field of study that attempts to understand how peoples' emotions shape their interactions, and how people shape their emotions to fit into their perceived roles.

Affect Control Theory proposes that:

- Individuals conduct themselves so as to generate feelings appropriate to the situation.

- Individuals who can't maintain appropriate feelings through actions change their views of the situation.

- Individuals' emotions signal the relationship between their experiences and their definitions of situations.

Here's a subpage with some interactive tools you can use to test ACT scenarios with various actors. This is new to me, but interesting enough to explore. Make sure you read some of the introduction information or you'll have a hard time figuring out what is going on.

St. Louis got rocked by a pretty tough storm last night that knocked out power throughout much of the metro area, blew part of the roof off Lambert Airport and onto the I-70, and left most of the streetlights off even this morning. Our hotel was unpowered until around 11pm last night, but then the AC came back on and we were able to sleep. The storm itself blew a nice cold breeze over the city, but once it passed the temps climbed back up into the 80s (and hotter inside) which made it hard to get comfortable. Much of the city proper won't get power for one to three days.

The lightning was spectacular, both cloud-to-cloud and cloud-to-earth. I learned on the radio this morning that you can't have lightning without ice in the storm, which is why oceanic storms (like hurricanes) rarely have lightning. News reports say a tornado actually touched down in the city last night, but I haven't seen it confirmed yet... and alas, I didn't get to see it with my own eyes. I did get to see bushes and trashcans blown down the street along with other debris, but it was too dark to take pictures. Despite the "severe thunderstorm warning" and the tornado sirens, some other hotel guests still decided to drive out into the deluge to keep whatever appointments were worth risking their lives for.

Mark Steyn ably dismantles the the myth of the noble savage by citing research showing that primitive societies were far more violent and warlike than modern Western civilization. This was well-known to men in centuries past, but it seems that modern society prefers fantasies like Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest in which the British Navy is the villain for oppressing the poor, good-hearted pirates. Writes Mr. Steyn:

But the passage [of Nicholas Wade's Before The Dawn] that really stopped me short was this:

"Both Keeley and LeBlanc believe that for a variety of reasons anthropologists and their fellow archaeologists have seriously underreported the prevalence of warfare among primitive societies. . . . 'I realized that archaeologists of the postwar period had artificially "pacified the past" and shared a pervasive bias against the possibility of prehistoric warfare,' says Keeley."

That's Lawrence Keeley, a professor at the University of Illinois. And the phrase that stuck was that bit about artificially pacifying the past. We've grown used to the biases of popular culture. If a British officer meets a native -- African, Indian, whatever -- in any movie, play or novel of the last 30 years, the Englishman will be a sneering supercilious sadist and the native will be a dignified man of peace in perfect harmony with his environment in whose tribal language there is not even a word for "war" or "killing" or "weapons of mass destruction." A few years ago, I asked Tim Rice, who'd just written the lyrics for Disney's Aladdin and The Lion King, why he wasn't doing Pocahontas. "Well, the minute they mentioned it," he said, "I knew the Brits would be the bad guys. I felt it was my patriotic duty to decline." Sure enough, when the film came out, John Smith and his men were the bringers of environmental devastation to the New World. "They prowl the earth like ravenous wolves," warns the medicine man, whereas Chief Powhatan wants everyone to be "guided to a place of peace." Fortunately, Captain Smith comes to learn from Pocahontas how to "paint with all the colours of the wind."

In reality, Pocahontas's fellow Algonquin Indians were preyed on by the Iroquois, "who took captives home to torture them before death," observes Nicholas Wade en passant. The Iroquois? Surely not. Only a year or two back, the ethnic grievance lobby managed to persuade Congress to pass a resolution that the United States Constitution was modelled on the principles of the Iroquois Confederation -- which would have been news to the dead white males who wrote it. With Disney movies, one assumes it's just the modishness of showbiz ignoramuses and whatever multiculti theorists they've put on the payroll as consultants. But professor Keeley and Steven LeBlanc of Harvard disclose almost as an aside that, in fact, their scientific colleagues were equally invested in the notion of the noble primitive living in peace with nature and his fellow man, even though no such creature appears to have existed.

Whatever failings our culture may have, we're certainly more peaceful and gentle than any who have come before us -- largely because we're rich and powerful enough that we can afford to be.

Here's a great resource for anyone interested in multiagent systems. There are links to software packages and a lot of theoretical work as well.

Also check out Agent Land, a site devoted to commercial and freeware software agents that perform a wide variety of tasks.

Which two American institutions are the among most expensive and least effective? Public education below the university level is clearly the first, strangled by a governmental near-monopoly, and William Tucker explains how American health care is similarly impeded by regulation.

A complicated system of mutual dependency distorts the incentives. "The FDA is like the FCC and Big Pharma is like the regional Bells" is what Mr. Kessler hears from Don Listwin, a former Cisco executive who now heads the Canary Foundation, a Silicon Valley-based effort to promote preventive medicine. In other words, in medicine as in telecom, the big players end up exploiting regulations more than opposing them, if only to preserve their monopolies. The Food and Drug Administration--understandably but narrow-mindedly--wants "cures" for cancer and other diseases. Thus tens of thousands of chemicals are screened, only a handful make it even to Phase I trials, and by the time a new drug is approved a billion dollars has been spent. Even then the new drug may help only 10% of patients.

Yet if someone were to invent a device with a wide, preventive usefulness--say, a nanotech implant that would spot the proteins that indicate the first minute presence of cancer--it would have to go through the same process of billion-dollar testing. Since the government and insurance companies are reluctant to add anything to their repertoire of coverage--and since such a device would be targeted at the much broader pool of people who are not sick--research might well stall in its earliest phases for lack of reimbursement-funding. ...

In one hilarious sequence, Mr. Kessler recounts trying to draw his own blood sample, in the hope of checking his cholesterol. But clinics won't draw blood without a doctor's orders. Drugstores think you want the syringe to shoot heroin. Unless you want to just gouge your own finger, you're in the clutches of organized medicine. Imagine how tightly it grips something a bit more sophisticated.

As I wrote earlier about America's health care problem:

Rather than require all practicing physicians to be certified by a government-approved authority, the government should simply require that physicians disclose their credentials and leave the certifications to private organizations (as is done in most professional fields). This would open the door for thousands of lower-cost, lower-skill physicians who would be more than able to treat common maladies like colds and broken bones. You don't need an MD to set a broken arm, so why should you have to pay for one? Because currently the government says so. Medication is similar. Consumers need the government to ensure that drug companies disclose all the potential side-effects of their products, but we don't need the FDA to tell us what we can and can't put in our bodies if we're willing to take known risks.

In the attempt to protect us from ourselves, the government stifles medical innovation and restricts the market, driving costs up and severely limiting the options available for treatments of every sort of illness.

Anyone who has taken a drug test knows that they tell you not to flush the toilet after you collect your sample. I don't know why, but even while I'm standing there wondering why I'm not supposed to flush the toilet, I do it anyway, despite the huge signs everywhere saying not to.

Jerry Bower has a reasonable explanation for why high gold (and other commodity) prices may not indicate imminent inflation.

Here's a good fundamental question: why gold? The point of a gold standard currency is to keep governments from cheating their citizens. This goes all the way back to Moses: "a just weight and measure thou shalt keep." Paper can be produced in nearly infinite supply, electrons even more so, but gold is scarce. The basic case for gold is that we get better at producing it at about the same pace that we get better at producing everything else. In other words, our gold output usually grows at about the same rate as our everything-else output. There's the rub: usually. However, sometimes gold -- and other commodities -- grow at different rates than the rest of the economy.

From the 16th century to the 18th century, gold came flooding into Europe from North America. Explorers discovered the Western Hemisphere, plundered the Indians' gold supplies, and shipped boatloads of the stuff back to Europe. Because of exploration and (then) modern shipbuilding, the European economy got much more efficient at gold 'production' than at everything else. So, even countries with a gold-based monetary system were hit with many years of inflation. Their money supply grew more quickly than their economies.

I think that we currently face the opposite scenario. We're not much better at getting gold out of the ground than we were last century, but we're much better at getting wealth out of electrons. Our economy can now grow at a faster pace, by far, than the mining industry can. Our economy now grows faster than our gold supply. This means that gold prices, reflecting gold scarcity, will be an imperfect messenger.

Sounds right to my naive intuition. I'd guess that unlike times past, a good proportion of American wealth is stored intangibly, in things like education (degrees, experience, specialized knowledge) and intellectual property. We're producing knowledge-wealth at an exponentially increasing rate, and the production of gold simply isn't keeping up.

So, how can I make money if it appears that many people are expecting inflation to go up, but I don't think it will? Are there any investment instruments I can use to profit from this situation?

(HT: Larry Kudlow.)

It's lunch time on my first Monday at work, and it looks like they won't have a problem with me blogging a bit on my own time, so that's nice. Everyone here seems great, and the work looks like it will be fascinating.

DeoDuce and I got the paperwork signed to extract ourselves from the stupid Lake House purchase, and we'll be writing up an offer this evening for the house we want now. This whole process has been very educational, and we're actually very thankful that we didn't get the Lake House. It isn't really what we need, and this other house will be much more practical and enjoyable in the long term. I'll be posting information about the Lake House's listing agent tonight, just so everyone knows not to ever do business with her.

Anyone interested in education simply must go read Clive Crook's recent piece in its entirity: "The Lure Of Education". (This means you, mom!) He echos many of the points I made in my previous two posts on this topic, "Education: America's Panacea" and "Education: America's Panacea 2", but since he's surely more prominent than I am perhaps he will be more listened to. He starts by pointing out that education has been hailed as the solution to every social ill, and that vast sums of money have been poured into our public education system for decades now, with negative results. It's easy to propose "better education" as a solution to a problem because it will take years or decades for you to be proven wrong, and even then, no one may believe it.

"Better education" is something all sides agree on, as a remedy for almost anything. Stagnant real wages for the middle class? Better education. The decline of civility in public life? Better education. The obesity epidemic? Better education. The China and India challenge? Better education. ...

And the issue has not just been serving rhetorical time. Things have happened. In America -- as in Britain -- the past 25 years have seen a torrent of educational reforms, and school systems have been deluged with cash. Per-pupil spending in the United States is way up, compared with 20 years ago. Educational systems have been in a decades-long state of permanent and well-financed revolution, with issues such as organization, management, curriculum, training, accountability, and the rest perpetually in motion. Everything has been tried, it seems. And, apparently, nothing works. After more than 20 years, you only have to consider [insert policy issue here] to realize that the country still cries out for better education.

Standards of achievement in schools have flatlined for years. In math and science, American high school students are among the poorest performing in the developed world. Remembering that the money spent has vastly increased, the productivity of the system has collapsed. If you measure it by national test scores divided by per-pupil spending on education, school productivity was two-thirds higher in 1970 than 30 years later at the end of the 1990s.

Summing up, the orthodoxy to emerge from all this is (a) better education is the answer to all our problems, and (b) improving education is extremely difficult to do (see how hard we tried?).

And then he continues by arguing that neither of these is true, and that improving education would actually be quite simple if we greatly reduced government interference.

I think this is wrong on both counts. We do know how to improve education, and, politics aside, it is not even that difficult. That is the good news. Unfortunately, if we ever get around to it, we will find that most of the problems we were trying to solve will refuse to go away. Improving education is enormously desirable in itself. Especially at the bottom of the skills pyramid, it requires no ulterior justification. We should do it. But for society at large, it is not the panacea that so many people take it to be.

What, then, is this easy method for improving education? Competition among schools.

Americans have a strange attitude toward competition. They take it for granted -- much more than most foreigners -- that competition is vital to ensure the highest standards in almost any kind of endeavor. But some things -- such as education and health care -- are then deemed "too important" to be left to the market, too important to be thrown open to competition. This makes no sense. I for one would far rather have my car or my shoes or my breakfast cereal issued to me by officials in the D.C. government than to have those officials in monopoly control of the school my children attend or the hospital my kids get taken to when they are sick. Some things are just too important to be sheltered from competition. Education is one.

There is no great mystery, no great controversy over the facts. Competition among schools raises standards. The United States has been experimenting, far too timidly, with two ways of creating educational competition: vouchers and charter schools. Economists have been tracking these initiatives. Their findings are in: The schemes work. And this is not just because charter schools are better than public schools (though often they are), or because vouchers let low-income parents opt out of failing public schools (which they do). It is also because, under pressure, the existing public schools get better. Amazing! Who would have guessed? A charter school opens, or a voucher program gets started, and before you know it, the neighborhood public schools are offering extra classes after school, Saturday morning openings, new tutoring and mentoring schemes. Why didn't we think of this before?

Mr. Crook continues by (rightly) denigrating "whole language" reading programs that have created a generation of illiterates whose teachers couldn't be bothered with phonics, and he explains why this would never have happened in an education system in which schools competed for students. He then puts his finger on an issue that I've decried for years:

School systems in this country are run to protect the interests of producers (teachers and educational bureaucrats), not consumers (parents and children). That is what happens when you declare something "too important to leave to the market." Please, no more hand-wringing about how hard it is to fix education. If anybody truly wants a solution to the problem, it is there in plain sight.

Exactly right, and refreshing to read from someone else's fingertips. Mr. Crook is on the money with this essay, and I hope he forgives my extensive quoting but I'm very excited to see my own opinions given such a skilled rendition and broad exposure. Go read the whole thing!

Sorry about all the presumably-boring life story posts, but I've hardly got time to read the news much less think about it.

I had my first day at work today, and everyone seemed very nice and well organized. It looks like the work will be interesting and I think I'm going to enjoy everything. I'm going to try working earlier than I have in the past, hopefully from 8am to 5:30pm, with every other Friday off. It's called a 9-4-9 schedule, meaning that I'll work nine hours a day for nine days, and take the tenth off (technically, I'll only have to work eight hours on one of those nine days). That will give me 26 more days off work than on a traditional 40-hour work week, which sounds very appealing. I could work 10 hours for for days a week, but that might be too much. We'll see.

We've got another house that we're very interested in, and we're hoping to make an offer on it this weekend. As soon as we get the contracts signed that withdraw us from our existing offer, we'll have more information on the real estate agent who screwed us.

This week has been incredibly draining. We moved some stuff into our house on Monday night when we arrived, and then spent Tuesday hanging curtains and fixing the place up. Then, on Wednesday we found out that the appraisal didn't match the asking price. We were agonized over whether or not we should pay more than the appraised value, but we decided not to have our furniture delivered. This evening we sent a letter to the sellers telling them that if they didn't lower the price we'd back out of the deal, and they said they wouldn't, so we exercised our appraisal contingency and moved back out of the house and took all our stuff -- including our cars -- to a hotel. So now we need to cancel the house insurance and all the utilities, as well as find a new house. We've got a great lead that we're looking into, but we're just unbelievably exhausted. Plus, tomorrow is my first day at my new job.

Anyway, that only begins to cover the drama. The listing agent apparently lied to us about various lawsuits that had been filed within the subdivision that would directly affect the value of the property we were going to buy. She lied to us about having another offer on the house and tried to pressure us into moving quickly. She assured us that the house would appraise for the right amount and tried to convince us to drop the appraisal rider before we moved in. Etc. What a nightmare. Anyway, we're back in a hotel again, with our dog, and just hoping to make the next attempted purchase work better than this one did. Pray for us!

After two-and-a-half days on the road we're finally in Missouri, though not yet to our home. We're spending the night in Springfield at a very nice Best Western that actually has the internet access it promised in the ads! We drove all the way here from Tucumcari, NM, and we're pretty whipped. The bright side is that we'll be spending tomorrow night in our new house! Yay!

Oh, does anyone have a great idea for how to get a large quantity of cash in a city where we don't have a bank account? I've never used Western Union, but is that the kind of thing it does? I cleverly packed my checkbook onto the moving truck, but we might need to pay a month's worth of rent on the house we're buying so that we can move in early.

Missouri is a beautiful state. It's fun to watch the terrain change from the high deserts of the mountain states, to the greener plains of Texas, and then to the rolling, wooded hills of Oklahoma and Missouri. The trip has been rather nice, but I'm more than ready to be done with it and off the road for a few days. I start my new job on Friday!

So the day has finally come... the day the Williams leave Los Angeles. It's been almost 30 years since my parents arrived here from St. Louis (by way of Des Moines) and now my wife and I are heading back. I can only imagine how awesome Los Angeles was in its glory days, and even now I feel a pang of regret for leaving my city, my family, my church, and all my friends behind. Still, I know we're following God's will for our family, and I'm extremely excited about my new job, my new house, and all the new friends we're going to make. It's the circle of life....

Yesterday was an adventure. The packers were coming to put all our stuff in boxes, but when we woke up there was no hot water for the shower. Strange. Let's go outside and see... oh nice, the water heater has collapsed into a pile of jagged rusty metal. So in addition to everything else we were doing yesterday, I had to purchase and install a new water heater (with enormous help from my step-dad Clayton). So it goes.

Today they come to haul the boxes and furniture and cars away, and then we ride into the sunrise in our rented Toyota Sienna packed to the gills with everything we'll need until they deliver our belongings at some indefinite time in the future. I'll try to post from the road if we can find WiFi hotspots, but no guarantees. See you soon!

Click below to see some pictures of our new house in St. Charles.

Happy Independence Day! Remember: you're as free as you want to be.

What's more iconic of American freedom than our interstate highway system? Well most people probably don't realize that when a young Lt. Dwight Eisenhower traveled in the first transcontinental military convoy from Washington, DC, to San Francisco in 1919 the trip took two months. After that experience, and his observation of the German roads during World War II, one of the most important acts of his presidency was pushing for and funding our modern interstate highway system that facilitates the transportation of people and goods from sea to shining sea. But that was the culmination of many years of planning...

Legend has it that the Interstate began with President Roosevelt drawing three lines East and West and three lines North and South on a map of the United States and asking the Bureau of Public Roads to build it. That probably is a legend but I have no doubt that the President did draw those lines on a map as we shall see.

The first formal inquiry into the possibility of building an Interstate system goes back to Section 13 of the Federal Highway Act of 1938 which states..."The Chief of the Bureau of Public Roads is hereby directed to investigate and make a report of his findings and recommend feasibility of building, and cost of, super highways not exceeding three in number, running in a general direction from the eastern to the western portion of the United States, and not exceeding three in number, running from the northern to the southern portion of the United States, including the feasibility of a toll system on such roads."

The rest is history, and the vision for the system eventually to the more than 45,000 miles of roads we have today.

Wow, it's way hotter in Los Angeles today than it was in St. Louis last week.

So. Hot.

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