December 2006 Archives

Clayton Cramer sent me an email a week or more ago about a fascinating take on the Chinese price advantage by Tupper Saussy. My Saussy says that one of the main reasons the Chinese are dominating our import market for cheap goods is that their goverment is subsidizing shipping costs by essentially giving away those huge steel shipping containers.

It costs about $2000 to ship one from Shanghai to the west coast, Oakland or Seattle. I figure that it costs another $1000, minimum to get it from there to, say Kansas, by train and then truck.

Here's what inspired my thinking about those containers. I was talking to a guy who imports after-market auto parts for pick-up trucks, lots of fancy wheels and other gizmos. They all come from China. He told me that his shipper was having troubles making timely deliveries because their storage yard was packed with the containers. According to him, for every three that come here, only one ever carries anything away. So the shipping yard is packed and stacked full of "empties." ...

I build stuff for a living. Most of it's made of steel. I took a look at that big steel box and realized I'd want five figures to build one. In big time production mode, that would drop to $7500. There's that much welding involved. The steel costs alone, FOB a rolling mill in China, are over $2000. Even if I had laborers at 20 cents an hour and a factory 20 miles from the rolling mill, the overhead costs of the shop, 20 mile cartage, electricity, machine tool wear, welding rods, wastage on the steel plate, etc. would force me to a price of $6000. The box weighs 2.5 tons. $6000 ain't a bad number, given what's involved in building one. If I wanted to buy one for storage at my shop and got told, "It'll cost you $6000," I wouldn't even blink at the price.

Tumble the numbers with me. At $6000 each, three cost $18,000. The shipper made 3 x $2000, $6000, to send them to the US, full of Chinese made goods. Only one goes back for re-use. He's instantly down by $12,000, the logical result of a trade imbalance - and that doesn't even account for the fuel costs by the ship to get them here. Nobody is going to ship the empty containers by truck or rail back to a port. That would cost $1000, each. So, the shipper really ought to include the additional costs of $12,000, distributed into every three shipments. Instead of it costing $2000 to get a container full of goods from Shanghai to Seattle, it ought to cost $6000. $2000 + (1/3 x $12,000) = $6000. But even at that number he's just giving the container away at what it cost him - a very bad business practice - so the number has to be greater than $6000.

But if it cost +$6000 to ship it from China, then the Chinese labor discount vanishes from the goods in the box. The product would be the same price, or less (!) if manufactured here!

So, he concludes not only that the Chinese government must be subsidizing these shipping containers to keep costs down in America and Europe, but also that the shipping companies are making a killing by getting these containers at such a cheap price.

Now comes a nifty little Ponzi scheme. The shipper goes to a bank, a big international bank. He seeks a loan. The collateral is the shipping containers. He spent $7500 for three of them. But the fair market value is at least $18,000 (what they'd cost if built anywhere). He borrows $17,000. He buys six new containers for $15,000 and pockets $2000. But the fair market value of the new six is $36,000. He borrows another $34,000, using those six as collateral. With that $34,000, he buys 12 more containers and pockets $4000. I could keep doing the iterations, but you can see the game. It's a doubling up with each pass, with a cash profit of about 15% put into the shipping company each time. To keep it simple I started it at low figures. It's probably running at around 1,000,000 containers a year - given that 18 million of them have been built in only 30 years.

The shipping companies can offer very low rates from Shanghai to Seattle - all they want to do is break even, if that. They have a market incentive for that. They do NOT make money on the shipping. They make money by buying containers for shipping! They have to keep the shipping costs very low, as that's what's driving the whole "globalization" concept. If shipping costs were anywhere near their historical norms, then the low labor rates in China would be offset by the shipping costs, and importation would also go back to historical norms. We'd build far more stuff locally! Then the shipper would make very little money - as ocean shipping would drop substantially. But far worse from the shipper's perspective - he'd not need any more new containers. The scheme collapses.

There's a lot more, and I'd love to quote it all bit then you wouldn't have to go visit the site!

(HT: Clayton Cramer.)

The first part in what is sure to be an ongoing series about The Donald's awesomeness, Trump's immense patriotism stomps Palm Beach flat.

Donald Trump is suing this oceanside town for $10 million after being cited for flying an oversized American flag over his Mar-a-Lago Club.

Attorneys for the club filed a complaint Thursday, saying that flying the flag is a constitutionally protected expression of free speech — and that the large flag is a proper match for the size of the real-estate mogul’s patriotism.

“A smaller flag and pole on Mar-A-Lago’s property would be lost given its massive size, look silly instead of make a statement, and most importantly would fail to appropriately express the magnitude of Donald J. Trump’s and the Club’s members’ patriotism,” the lawsuit says.

I'm sure it's that, and not the simple fact that The Donald wants to do whatever he wants without regard for pesky regulations.

Town officials said Trump violated zoning codes when the lavish club hoisted a 15-by-25-foot flag atop an 80-foot pole on Oct. 3. The citation was for having a flagpole taller than 42 feet, for not obtaining a building permit and for not getting permission from the landmarks board. ...

“The day you need a permit to put up the American flag, that will be a sad day for this country,” Trump said in October.

The Donald is awesome because he does with his money what we all wish we could do: harass the government for all the stupid regulations that take the fun out of life.

(HT: Perez Hilton.)

Update 061229:

The flag is so big it can't fly at half mast for Gerald Ford!

Meanwhile, The Donald apparently isn't all that sad about former President Gerald Ford's passing. As Ben Widdicombe reports, the Stars-and-Stripes above his Mar-a-Lago property in Palm Beach is so big, it can't fly at half-mast because it would knock down the 40-foot palm trees nearby, so it's at three-quarters mast.

Merry Christmas, etc. I'm on vacation this week so I'm pretty busy doing nothing, which includes reading the news. There isn't much blog traffic either, so, I doubt anyone is reading this.

What's the best present you got this year? What's the best present you gave?

Penn and Teller have a fantastic episode of their show that explains why and how recycling is a waste of time, energy, and resources. This has always been intuitive to me, and I don't know anyone else who has openly and explicitly rejected recycling like I have. I usually get diry looks when I tell people, but now I've got evidence that I've been right all along.

(Warning: vulgar language ahead.)

Except for aluminum cans, recycling is basically a scam.

(HT: The Agitator and Geeks Are Sexy.)

I've written before that one of the few crimes worse than rape is making a false accusation of rape, and now it looks like the accuser in the Duke rape case, Crystal G. Mangum, did just that. The charges have been dropped for lack of evidence, and the tragic thing is that prosecutor Mike Nifong knew he couldn't make the case a year ago but decided to put the accused young men through hell anyway.

The district attorney dropped rape charges Friday against the three Duke University lacrosse players after the stripper who accused them changed her story again. But the men still face kidnapping and sex charges that could bring more than 30 years in prison. ...

In dropping the rape charges, Nifong filed court papers that said the accuser told an investigator Thursday that she is no longer certain whether she was penetrated vaginally with the men's penises, as she had claimed earlier. Nifong previously said he would rely on the woman's account because of a lack of DNA evidence against the players.

Lacking any "scientific or other evidence independent of the victim's testimony" to corroborate that aspect of the case, the district attorney said in court papers, "the state is unable to meet its burden of proof with respect to this offense." ...

The defense has complained that the stripper has given authorities at least a dozen different versions of her story. Among other things, she has given conflicting accounts of the number of attackers _ anywhere from three to 20 _ and the ways in which she was supposedly assaulted.

So did Nifong just screw up? How do we know it was malicious prosecutorial misconduct that should land him behind bars? Don't forget this story from last week:

The head of a private DNA laboratory [Brian Meehan] testified Friday that he and District Attorney Mike Nifong agreed last spring not to report DNA results favorable to Duke lacrosse players charged with rape. ...

In court Friday, Meehan said his lab found DNA from unidentified men in the underwear and body of the woman who said she was gang-raped at a lacrosse party in March. Nurses at Duke Hospital collected her underwear and samples from her body a few hours after the alleged assault. Meehan said the DNA did not come from Reade Seligmann, David Evans, or Collin Finnerty, who have been charged with rape and sexual assault in the case. ...

"Had Mr. Nifong said, 'We want a report on everything,' that is what we would produce," Meehan said.

"You violated the protocols of your own lab," Bannon said.

"Correct ... I don't have a legal explanation for it," Meehan said. "I was just trying to do the right thing."

Do the right thing by ignoring the evidence that suggests that a rape accusation was completely false? How is that justice?

Mike Nifong needs to face criminal charges and should be removed from his elected position as soon as possible. How many other cases has he manipulated during his tenure? They'll all have to be revisited.

And as for Crystal G. Mangum, if that is her real name, she should be put in jail for a term no less than what her victims would have faced if they had been convicted.

Clayton Cramer has fallen victim to the same New York camera scammers that stole my credit card information earlier this year.

Don't buy anything over the internet from New York-based companies!

My research indicates that these shops are mob-connected, so I'd stay as far away as possible.

I always want to understand everything, but sometimes, when looking backwards, trying to figure out "why" is impossible and overrated. The "20/20" of hindsight is often little more than after-the-fact rationalization.

Research psychologists have known for decades that it is very difficult to determine causation in mental life and thus, of behavior. For one thing, we can never perform an experiment. Take my patient Karen, 50, who spent most of the 1990s smoking crack. She is certain that the decade-long binge would never have happened had her mother not died when she was 12. We will never know if she is right because we cannot rewind Karen’s life, play it again, and see what would have happened if her mother had lived.

Reconstructing the story of one’s life is a complicated business for other reasons. What scientists call hindsight bias kicks in when we try to figure out the causal chain of events leading to the current situation. We may well come up with a tidy story but, inevitably, it will contain large swaths of revisionist history. It’s not that we bias ourselves deliberately; it happens because the mind tends to make events in the past appear comprehensible and orderly. We forget the uncertainties that might have beset us as we struggled in real time.

Sometimes we can understand ourselves by looking into the past, but getting caught up in it is a fool's errand.

It is time to retire the myth that insight is a prerequisite for change. For the patients in our clinic, change without hard-won insight is the rule. And who has time to wait? Not Natalie. This past month she and I worked on getting an abusive, shiftless boyfriend out of her apartment; finding tutoring for her son; and building a new social network to replace the drug users that she used to hang out with.

At this stage in her treatment, awareness of what she needs to do will get Natalie further than insight. Less chaos in her life means less anxiety and that means less risk of relapse.

Down the road she may ask, “Why did I use drugs?” But in the meantime, what’s important for Natalie and her son is that she is determined to stop.

Oftentimes the quest for "insight" is just a way to procrastinate making the changes we know we need.

(HT: My brother.)

Anyone who has been paying attention to the news for the past few years has heard of Blackwater USA, a private security company -- mercenaries -- who work as guards, law enforcement officers, and in other paramilitary roles all around the world, often in conjunction with American military forces. A curious phenomenon, so let's learn a little more about them.

Here's a six-part series about the company: "Blackwater: Inside America's Private Army". The articles cover their training programs, their work in Iraq, and their role in the Katrina recovery. Exhaustive and fascinating.

A reporter for Popular Mechanics tags along with Blackwater contractors who ferry VIPs from Baghdad's airport to the Green Zone.

Here's a paranoid sort of conspiracy page about the hundreds of millions of dollars Blackwater is paid by the US government to provide security for diplomats.

Finally, here's the Wikipedia entry for Blackwater USA that contains information on some of their training facilities and business divisions.

Telling kids that Santa Claus doesn't exist can get a teacher fired, but telling kids that God doesn't exist is an essential part of the curiculum.

A primary school has been accused of spoiling Christmas for pupils after a lesson telling them that Santa Claus does not exist.

Children as young as nine were told that only 'small children believe in Father Christmas'.

And yesterday their parents criticised teachers for taking the 'magic' out of the festive period. ...

Last week a primary school teacher was sacked for telling her young class that Santa does not exist.

Such stories illustrate the absurdities of our culture, in which fantasy is protected and legitimate beliefs are relegated to the shadows.

My brother pointed me to a Slashdot post about using "digital fingerprints" to catch intellectual property thieves.

Attributor analyzes the content of clients, who could range from individuals to big media companies, using a technique known as 'digital fingerprinting,' which determines unique and identifying characteristics of content. It uses these digital fingerprints to search its index of the Web for the content. The company claims to be able to spot a customer's content based on the appearance of as little as a few sentences of text or a few seconds of audio or video.

That's a giant search problem, and it won't scale well. Each "fingerprint" (or more technically, "feature") that is extracted from the input data will be searched for in a database of the web's content. Assuming a piece of intellectual property will have thousands of features that need to be found together, in the right order, you're looking at thousands of seconds of search for each song, picture, video, book, or whatever that you're trying to protect. (Searches on Google typtically take between 0.1 and 1 second.) So they're going to need processing and storage capacity on par with Google's to do their matching.

On the plus side, they'll probably only need to check each piece of IP once a week or month; catching infringements faster than that wouldn't serve much of a purpose. This isn't a difficult project from an algorithm standpoint, but setting up the hardware will be daunting.

(HT: Slashdot.)

Here's a nifty visual guide to where you tax dollars go. It doesn't include "non-discretionary spending", so it's only a partial picture, but it's still quite informative.

Daniel Muniz has a brief post about preferential traffic enforcement for beautiful women that concludes with several comments by law enforcement officers who swear up and down that they've never let a woman off a ticket they would have otherwise given to a man. Maybe it's just a cliche. Do any beautiful women out there have any experiences to share?

Reader JV passes along a couple of useful links.

First, a guide to blank DVD media that tells you which DVDs to buy (and it depends on the original manufacturer, not the brand name they're sold under).

Second, the periodic spiral, a potential improvement over the traditional periodic table of elements. There's a Flash demo, but it isn't full-featured, which makes it kinda lame.

I almost titled this post "Kids Are Dumb" but then I realized that nearly half of Americans would probably agree with the priorities of children under 10.

The poll of just under 1,500 youngsters ranked "God" as their tenth favourite thing in the world, with celebrity, "good looks" and being rich at one, two and three respectively. ...

Meanwhile "killing" and "wars" head the list of the "very worst things in the world", followed by drunks, bullies, illness, smoking, stealing, divorce and being fat. Dying is in tenth place. ...

The children who answered the survey would also put a stop to stealing, but wanted more holidays and more hospitals.

Sounds like the list was made by the Democrat Party! (Except for "divorce".) And what would happen if we put them in charge?

Asked what rules they would make if they were king or queen of the world, the number one response from the under-10s was to ban knives and guns.

They would also put a stop to fighting and killing, telling lies, drugs, bullying, drunks, and smoking.

Knives? Good luck cutting your tofurkey on Thanksgiving Academy Awards night.

It's hard to care about Florida's so-called botched execution of the murderer of Joseph Nagy. You might be confused -- where did I get the name of the victim, Joseph Nagy? He isn't mentioned in the article anywhere! Instead we're treated to pictures of Angel Nieves Diaz's family crying because their murdering kinsman is being put to death 27 years after his crime.

In Florida, medical examiner Dr. William Hamilton said Wednesday's execution of Angel Nieves Diaz took 34 minutes - twice as long as usual - and required a rare second dose of lethal chemicals because the needles were inserted clear through his veins and into the flesh in his arms. The chemicals are supposed to go into the veins.

Hamilton, who performed the autopsy, refused to say whether he thought Diaz died a painful death.

"I am going to defer answers about pain and suffering until the autopsy is complete," he said. He said the results were preliminary and other tests may take several weeks.

That seems like a waste of money. Despite his protests of innocence, even Angel Nieves Diaz's entry on Amnesty International admits that he is at least an accomplice to murder, which carries the same penalty.

Angel Diaz’s former girlfriend testified that on the night of the robbery, he had told her that Angel Toro had shot a man during the robbery. The testimony of two other witnesses, who had been in the bar at the time of the robbery, indicated that Angel Diaz was not the gunman. However, a jailhouse informant testified that when they had been held in the same jail, Angel Diaz had indicated that he had shot Joseph Nagy. Jailhouse informant testimony is notoriously unreliable.

It doesn't matter. If you rob a strip club and your partner shoots someone, you're both guilty of murder and should both be executed.

I really do feel sorry for Diaz's family -- it would be terrible to go through such an ordeal over one of my loved ones -- but I feel worse for the family members of Joseph Nagy who have gone without him since 1979.

So Time magazine's person of the year is "you" -- that is, us bloggers I guess.

The annual honor for 2006 went to each and every one of us, as Time cited the shift from institutions to individuals - citizens of the new digital democracy, as the magazine put it. The winners this year were anyone using or creating content on the World Wide Web.

This would have been groundbreaking in 2001, or even 2004... but this is 2006! Now it just comes across as pandering.

"If you choose an individual, you have to justify how that person affected millions of people," said Richard Stengel, who took over as Time's managing editor earlier this year. "But if you choose millions of people, you don't have to justify it to anyone."

Oops, I meant lazy pandering.

One of my favorite celebrities, The Don, has fired Miss USA for conduct unbecoming.

Hard-partying Miss USA Tara Conner was booted out of her ritzy Trump Place apartment and fled the Big Apple to her tiny Kentucky hometown with her reputation in shambles, as reports swirled yesterday that her runner-up had already been tapped to replace her.

"She does not live here anymore," said a doorman at the posh Upper West Side property, where the Miss USA winner is given an apartment every year. "She is not allowed any where on Trump property. She is certainly not allowed to come back. I don't think it was her choice, really."

Great! The only sad thing is that we don't hold our elected leaders to the same standards as our beauty queens.

It's hard to think of any recent scientific breakthroughs that are as as viscerally exciting as the artificial heart.

A 65-year-old Quebec man who received a new long-term mechanical heart last month is being described as the only living Canadian without a pulse.

Dr. Renzo Cecere implanted the “Heartmate II” mechanical heart into Gerard Langevin in an three-hour operation Nov. 23.

Officials at the McGill University Health Centre say the device, which is about the size of a flashlight battery, could last up to 10 years. ...

The new mechanical heart, which is powered by batteries located in pouches on Mr. Langevin's body, provides a continuous flow of blood so the patient has no pulse.

“Mr. Langevin happens to be the only individual currently living in Canada without a pulse and without a measurable blood pressure,” Dr. Cecere said Wednesday.

That's amazing, and it's pretty hard to argue that Gerard Langevin isn't a cyborg in the fullest sense of the word. Once we've perfected artificial blood we'll really be in business.

So how long until someone has an organ replaced by an implant not because it's medically necessary, but simply because the artificial version is better? I say 10 years, before we get to the moon again.

Brian M. Riedl of the Heritage Foundation lists the top 10 examples of government waste. This is why solving a problem through government should be a last resort.

Donald Norman has several suggestions for making cars more usable. First, an idea I think I've had before, the front passenger seat should be able to face the rear.

Why not allow the front seat to face to the rear? Now, suddenly, the front and rear passengers are united. Moreover, the front passenger seat could now slide forward, with its rear abutting the dashboard, thereby increasing legroom for the two facing passengers. This position allows everyone in the car to converse: front seat passenger, rear seat passengers, and even the driver, for now the driver is certainly no worse of than before, possibly better.

Folklore has it that passengers reject the idea of facing backwards. But why do they sit this way on trains? And what if it were a choice, with the front seat either swiveling or constructed like a train seat, with the backrest being movable from the rear of the seat to the front? Safety? Rear-facing seats are safer than front-facing ones – we require them for babies -- but a flexible seat poses some difficulties with crash resistance and seat belt placement, but nothing a clever designer could not overcome. This is not a new idea: see the Renault Deck'up and the Espace. An idea whose time is now.

Second, make passengers first-class citizens.

Passengers have more and more choice. Entertainment, individual temperature controls, individual video and audio controls. Cell phones, music players, video games. Lights. Where do they put all that stuff? Where do they plug it in? Years ago the need arose for places to put drinks: coffee for the adults, and canned or bottled drinks for everyone. It took years, but finally most car manufacturers obeyed the request, adding a wide variety and quantity of drink holders. (Some recalcitrant manufacturers still resist.) Today, we need places to store and plug in a wide variety of devices: music and video players, game machines and controllers, earphones, cellphones, and computers. Each needs a safe, secure place to be docked, each needs electrical power, and some need to be networked to one another. Someday soon many will need internet connections. And the same facilities have to be provided separately for everyone: the driver, the front passengers and the rear passengers (and in larger vehicles, the third-row passengers).

“But,” I can hear the automobile purists complaining, “you are confusing the automobile with the family room.”

Yup, that I am. Deliberately. Today’s vehicles are not just for driving: they are for living. And living means work and play, fun and entertainment.

I completely agree. There's no reason your car shouldn't have more power outlets, a beefier power supply, and a built-in wireless router. A car should be a traveling outpost of personal space and civilization, so it needs to keep up with the house and have more modern amenities.

(HT: My brother Nick.)

Jessica and I watch one or two episode of "Jeopardy!" almost every night, and I've long wondered what it's like to be on the show. Not just whether I could win or not, but about the whole experience. A quick Google search revealed two-game champion Karl Coryat's "Jeopardy!" story, with some insight from a real player's perspective.

Someone calling it/him/herself "Jeobirdy" also has an extremely annoying account of how contestants are chosen and later contacted to appear. I don't think I've ever waded through more painful nonsense for just a few nuggets of information.

During the course of a discussion about whether or not God exists (my response here), Bernardo made an off-hand remark that stuck with me (bolding mine).

I prefer to live in a world where everything is following the same laws all the time, rather than in a world where everything is being guided by an unseen hand that I can't predict or understand. And, throughout history, phenomena that were initially attributed to an inexplicable unseen hand were eventually understood as the sum of forces that act the same way every time (or as a relatively predictable function of some observable initial conditions). I'm not saying the world is deterministic - quantum physics throws that out the window. I'm saying the world is probably understandable.

I don't see any reason to believe that the world/universe is understandable to us, whether or not God is pulling the strings. Even if everything is perfectly rational, does that mean mankind can understand it? A don't think anyone would argue that a dog could "understand" the universe. Humans are certainly smarter than dogs, but are we so smart that everything in the universe will be comprehensible to us?

Is there some "intelligence threshold" beyond which a being is capable of understanding everything that exists, given enough time and data? If there is such a threshold, where is it? Are all humans above it, or only the smartest? Wouldn't it be rather strange for the threshold to randomly fall within the range of normal human intelligence, with some of us above and some below?

Based on some of the stupid people I've known, I think it's fair to say that there are definitely some humans who could not understand everything in the universe under any circumstances. I also know for sure that there are some things that no human yet understands. So, either the threshold is beyond some humans, or it is beyond all humans. I see no evidence to suggest the only former, and the trends tend to prefer the latter. It strikes me as both vain and irrational to believe that oneself is above the threshold and therefore capable of understanding everything.

I'm going to respond to Randy and Bernardo's discussion about God in two parts. First, in this post I'm going to largely agree with Bernardo despite coming to the opposite conclusion. In the next post I'll veer off on a tangent and ponder whether or not there is an "intelligence threshold".

So Randy and Bernardo are discussing whether or not it makes sense to believe in God, and Randy argues that there are a lot of things in the world with no other reasonable explanation. Bernardo points out that science has come up with explanations for lots of things that used to be mysterious but aren't anymore. Fine and good; I don't see much point in listing things that are hard to explain, because I think everyone will grant that there are a myriad. Bernardo's position can be summarized by one of his final paragraphs in a long series of comments:

I work pretty hard to understand where my beliefs and preferences come from, what depends on what, rather than taking the whole thing as "true" or "the only reasonable way of looking at it". It's kinda like geometry: I want to try to see how my beliefs are the result of some "axioms", and this allows me to see that if someone starts out with different axioms, they end up with different beliefs by similarly reasonable thinking. We can then compare the validity of the axioms we started out with, if you insist, but that gets real tricky, and in the end it does seem to me that those axioms are fairly arbitrary and a result of personal preference. Either you want to live in a world that has a God or you don't, and depending on that choice, you build a world-view that interprets your observations in one way or the other.

Basically I agree, and I've written a lot about the importance of faith to Christians, atheists, and everyone else. Here are a few of the posts:

Everyone with any intellectual curiousity should go read Den Deste's essays on belief in atheism and his response to theists.

So, to summarize my position as I've done many times in the past, coming to God requires faith, and faith is antithetical to proof. Belief that is compelled by force of reason or argument is not faith. Reason and argument can certainly lead an atheist towards faith, but like a horse to water, mere persuasion cannot make him drink.

(As a side note, I find it ironic that atheism ends up losing, even under its own rules. Show me a thriving society full of atheists: there are none. Show me a just, moral, happy, peaceful civilization built on atheism: again, there are none. Show me a country dominated by secularism that even has replacement rate fertility: none. Atheism, right or wrong, is doomed to obscurity by cultural natural selection. What advantage does the atheist have, even if they are right, other than a smug sense of self-satisfaction?)

Does anyone start to smoke after 18 years of age? I don't know anyone near my age who smokes who didn't start as a kid. Come to think of it, I don't know many people my age who smoke at all.

The Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act failed to attain the 2/3 vote it needed to pass the House. (I'm not sure why it needed 2/3 instead of a majority, does anyone know?) The premise of the bill is strange, as must be the motivations of its supporters and opponents.

Under rules that need a two-thirds vote for passage, the House failed to pass this measure that would have required doctors to notify women seeking abortions after 20 weeks of gestation that the fetus feels pain. Supporters contend research shows developing fetuses begin feeling pain around 20 weeks. Opponents contend the research is inconclusive.

The whole "feeling pain" aspect of abortion has always struck me as moot: whether or not you can kill something doesn't depend on if it feels pain, it depends on what that thing is. If the thing is merely a clump of cells, you can kill it regardless of pain; if the thing is a baby, you can't kill it even if you do it painlessly.

The supporters of the bill don't think they can ban abortion, but apparently believe that fewer women would get abortions if they knew the procedure would inflict pain on their victim. Opponents of the bill must feel likewise, and since the abortion industry makes a ton of money and gives it to the Democrats there's quite an incentive to prevent a reduction in business.

Turtles are cool -- everyone's favorite reptile -- but the end of this New York Times article stretches credulity with its definition of "explain".

Geneticists have proposed that the turtle shell may have appeared quite suddenly in the distant past, rather than emerging slowly through modest, mincing modifications of pre-existing structures. They suggest that the dramatic innovation could have arisen from just a few key mutations in master genes like the so-called homeobox genes, which help specify an animal’s basic body plan. If the shell did burst on the reptilian stage more or less fully formed, they said, that would explain the lack of “intermediary” fossils or prototurtles in the paleontological record.

That's an explanation that explains nothing, because no one has any reasonable proposal for how puntuated equilibrium might work. Just claiming that things evolve in short bursts doesn't "explain" anything any more than pointing at a scoreboard "explains" why UCLA is better than USC.

Sadly, the Congressional intelligence committees are anything but. The incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Silvestre Reyes (D-TX), doesn't even know that al Qaeda is a Sunni group.

The dialogue went like this:

Al Qaeda is what, I asked, Sunni or Shia?

“Al Qaeda, they have both,” Reyes said. “You’re talking about predominately?”

“Sure,” I said, not knowing what else to say.

“Predominantly — probably Shiite,” he ventured.

He couldn’t have been more wrong.

Al Qaeda is profoundly Sunni. If a Shiite showed up at an al Qaeda club house, they’d slice off his head and use it for a soccer ball.

Jeff Stein says that both Democrats and Republicans are pretty ignorant of basic facts about the War on Terror, but can you imagine President Bush getting away from such a wrong answer so easily? Someone needs to send our congressmen a link to the Middle East Buddy List.

It's sure good that Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi decided to refuse the chairmanship to experienced Intelligence Committee ranking member Jane Harman (D-CA) due to a personal grudge, despite consensus that Harman is incredibly knowledgable about national security issues.

(HT: CNN Political Ticker and Instapundit.)

UCLA sent out an alert today announcing that its students, staff, and faculty database has been hacked. Fortunately they had time to set up a website.

A sophisticated computer hacker has illegally and fraudulently accessed a restricted UCLA database containing names and certain personal information. This database includes UCLA’s current and some former students, faculty and staff, some student applicants and some parents of students or applicants who applied for financial aid. The database also includes current or former staff and faculty of the University of California, Merced, and current or former employees of the University of California Office of the President, for which UCLA does administrative processing.

UCLA is notifying all of those individuals in the database, even though a continuing investigation indicates that the computer trespasser sought and obtained only some of the information. There is no evidence to suggest that personal information has been misused.

UCLA greatly regrets the concern and inconvenience caused by this illegal activity.

This is exactly why I decided not to fill in all my alumni information after I graduated. No one uses those databases in a way that benefits me, and now lots of people could get screwed.

I'd like to join TigerHawk in thanking the giant corporations that make my life so good.

The pharmaceutical companies deliver extraordinary value to their customers, yet there is apparently great political advantage in bashing them. It is not obvious why this is so. Yes, we all wish the pharmaceutical industry would do certain things differently (I, for one, could easily go the rest of my life without hearing about "a strong, lasting erection" during prime time), but that is true of all industries. If I had to venture a guess, I would say that people resent paying money for drugs, no matter how much value they confer, because they feel they have no choice in the expenditure. Their doctor tells them that they need a prescription and they do not know enough to challenge the doctor's judgment. They have not budgeted for the expense because people do a bad job of planning even for known unknowns, so they also resent spending the money. The drug is not perceived as having value (even if it alleviates pain, calms the nerves, stems multiple sclerosis, thins the blood, lowers cholesterol, or ensures a strong, lasting erection), it is the thing that suddenly prevents you from paying for some less necessary thing. Never mind that the drug saved your life, or made your life worth living. ...

The bashing of the pharmaceutical companies matches the popular dislike of the integrated oil companies. Me, I have nothing but admiration for big oil companies. I find it amazing that we can drill a hole somewhere in West Africa or the Arctic Sea or the jungles of Indonesia, pump out petroleum, ship it across the ocean, refine it into gasoline, and deliver it to my corner gas station, and pay everybody in between an adequate profit, for even $5 per gallon, much less the $2 or so that prevails at the pump as I write this. If you give the oil industry even a moment's thought, the complexity of its operations and the courage of at least some of its employees is simply astonishing. Yet politicians, who have a nose for the popular, love to bash oil companies, especially when prices are rising. Again, I think it is because people do not plan for volatility in gasoline prices, so when they have to pay more at the pump they do not acknowledge to themselves that gasoline remains such an extraordinary value that they will not do even the simplest things to use less of it.

Big oil, big pharma, and Wal-Mart. It is apparently in our nature to attack the businesses that have done the most for our standard of living.

I'm also thankful for Microsoft and Google, E*Trade and Citibank, the aerospace and defense industry, the car companies, and probably many others if I took time to think about it. Of course I don't have to send them love letters... the beauty of capitalism is that I can thank them merely by buying their products. It's win-win.

(HT: Instapundit.)

This seems like an innovative approach to weight loss: reducing appetite by blocking the senses of smell and taste.

Compellis Pharmaceuticals of Boston said it has been issued an initial patent for a nasal spray that aims to treat obesity by blocking the senses of smell and taste.

"It seems so simple - blocking the sense of smell and taste," company chief executive Chris Adams wrote in an e-mail. "But it has never been used to treat obesity, and it really does work. Our bodies do not crave what we cannot smell or taste."

Assuming that the senses come back when you stop using the spray, this seems like a fantastic idea.

Happy 29th birthday to me. I plan on living forever, and so far so good.

Despite most of my commenters lining up to defend Ameren UE, it looks like the experts agree with me: Ameren UE has a lot of explaining to do.

Missouri's top utility regulator put AmerenUE on notice Tuesday: Find a way to stop the mass power outages.

Missouri Public Service Commission Chairman Jeff Davis gave the utility 30 days to come up with a plan.

"The response that these things just happen — that's well and good — but that line only works once a decade," Davis said in an interview while en route to St. Louis to get a firsthand look at last week's storm damage.

The storm marked the fourth time in Davis' 2 1/2-year tenure as head of the PSC that hundreds of thousands of customers were left in the dark after a major storm. More than 83,000 Ameren customers in Missouri and Illinois still were without power as of 2:22 p.m. today.

While nothing can be done to completely storm-proof the local power grid, Davis said he's tired of answering questions from upset customers.

"We've got to get some answers to people, and we've got to get them now," Davis said. "I don't want to be back here six months from now with 500,000 customers out of power."

Hundreds of thousands of customers without power... four times in 2.5 years... if that's not incompetence then someone please explain what is. You can't just blame the weather every time you screw up. It's easy to keep the power going when nothing happens.

AmerenUE said last week's storm that left a thick coat of ice on trees, poles and power lines, prompting many to snap, is unprecedented in its 100-year history. The utility made the same argument when back-to-back thunderstorms left almost a million people without electric service in the bistate area in July — some for as long as nine days.

The most pathetic part of the story is the deflection by Ameren's spokeswoman.

"We understand the commission's frustration," Ameren spokeswoman Susan Gallagher said Tuesday. "We share that frustration. Everyone is looking for an easy answer. Everyone wants to make this better, but our priority is getting everyone back on."

Right, and after the power is back on they'll say something like, "We shouldn't be looking to place blame, we just need to work together to make sure it never happens again!"

I'm going through a period of my life in which I am closely examining why I am the way I am, and why I do the things I do. Difficult questions to answer... perhaps impossible.

I have found some interesting tools to help me think about my motivations, and one of the best is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Though I certainly do not subscribe to the model as gospel, it is definitely a useful lens for focusing my thoughts.


I believe that many of my flaws stem from two sources: misidentifying one need as another; and failing to recognize when one need is sufficiently satisfied and that I should devote more attention to another.

It's sad that Rachael Bown was shot, but can you imagine anything more pathetic than a law enforcement officer begging a thug not to shoot because the government won't let the good guys carry guns?

Probationary Pc Rachael Bown suffered life-threatening injuries when she was gunned down by 24-year-old Trevon Thomas in the Lenton area of Nottingham on February 14, the city's crown court heard. ...

hat night, she said, she was chasing a burglary suspect with her more experienced partner Martin Foster when they came face to face with a young black man they had already been told by colleagues was believed to be armed.

She said today: "I saw a black object in his right hand... I assumed it to be the firearm.

"He kept on running towards us. We were both shouting: 'Stay where you are. Stop, don't shoot'."

Pc Bown said the gunman opened fire with the first shot within seconds of Pc Foster spraying him with CS gas. He kept running towards us and Martin then CS'd him. I was trying to get on the radio and say he was there."

When the good guys are armed with pepper spray and the bad guys have guns, guess who runs the show and who begs for their lives.

You're young and healthy, and your mother's brother is suffering kidney failure. He's 60 years old and not in terrible health, but he never went out of his way to stay healthy. He has quit drinking on strict orders from his doctor, and he needs kidney dialysis to live. If he doesn't get a donor kidney soon, he'll die. Your mom convinces you to get tested, and it turns out you're a tissue match for your uncle.

Do you donate a kidney to your uncle?

An article by the Financial Times about wealth distribution completely misses a fundamental economic principle: opportunities have value.

Debt is also low in poor countries because financial institutions do not exist to allow people to borrow.

In contrast, the authors say "many people in high-income countries have negative net worth and, somewhat paradoxically, are among the poorest people in the world in terms of household wealth."

Just like an unscratched lottery ticket is worth one-trillionth of the jackpot, an American with a mortgage is far richer than a peasant in China, despite his debt. From that perspective, wealth is even more "unevenly distributed" than the article claims, because the richest nations are also the most free. However, the solution isn't to redistribute money from one group to another, it's to help those enslaved by tyrants to gain their freedom. Where there's opportunity, wealth will quickly follow.

There seem to be about a million ways to pronounce the President of Iran's name, but I'm pretty sure there's just one right way. The key is to recognize that the name is really two words crammed together: "Ahmadi" and "Nejad". Before he was in the news so much, the name was often spelled "Ahmadi-Nejad" or "Ahmadi Nejad", which makes it more easily spoken by westerners.

The first part, "Ahmadi" is the most significant because it identifies the President as a follower of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad. (Not sure if he actually believes that stuff, or if it's just in his name.) I think the second part, "Nejad", is a town or region in Iran, but I'm not sure.

So I believe the correct pronunciation is: ah-MAH-di-neh-JAHD.

One of my friends passed along a link to this article about retirement plan rip-offs and how most corporate 401(k) plans have unnecessarily high fees that cut into growth.

Roughly 40 million Americans, or two-thirds of the private-sector workforce participating in a retirement plan, have only a 401(k). In 1980 that was the case for only a fifth of workers. Some big companies get competitive bids for their 401(k) business, landing low-cost funds from Fidelity, Vanguard and other vendors. But subpar offerings are a common problem at small companies, where fees often gobble up 2% to 3% of assets each year. For a worker investing in a conservative blend of stocks and bonds, a 2.5% cost wipes out a significant fraction--perhaps half--of the real return that can be expected. "Costs in this industry are way out of line," says Gregory Carpenter, chief executive of Employee Fiduciary, a firm that runs 401(k) plans at a fraction of the usual cost (see box, p. 138).

Small businesses sponsor the majority of the nation's 650,000 401(k) plans; 97% of such plans have assets of less than $10 million. Because of high fees the returns on this country's $2.9 trillion of defined contribution assets lag behind returns on traditional pension plans by one percentage point a year, estimates the Center for Retirement Research at Boston College. That one-point difference equates to $29 billion a year in fees that otherwise might have gone toward retirement savings.

Why don't employers shop around for better deals? Partly because their own money is not at stake. The company may pick up some recordkeeping costs, but the fees on the underlying funds are almost always borne by the workers. "Employers have a legal duty to oversee 401(k)s with the same care they do traditional pensions, but the incentive isn't there because employees bear the brunt of the costs," says Jerome Schlichter, whose firm, Schlichter, Bogard & Denton of St. Louis, is pushing the spate of recent suits.

So be sure to look at the fine print and check out the fees on your retirement funds. Just because they're offered through your company doesn't mean that anyone is looking out for your interests other than yourself.

Here are some responses to the comments in my earlier post about Ameren UE's incompetence.

To everyone who says that ice is nasty and the storm was big: Yes, that's why Ameren is charged with trimming the trees around their power lines. It's part of their job. If trees get icy and fall on the lines, that's Ameren's fault. Tree-trimming is supposed to be happening year-round, not just when there's warning of a coming storm.

To the defenders of the line men: I don't think anyone blames the line men for the power situation. The problem isn't that line men don't work hard enough, the problem is Ameren's handling of their responsibilities before the storm hit. Their policies are obviously flawed at a high level. I appreciate all the work the line men are doing in such a tough situation.

To people who say we don't know enough yet to make judgements: I don't need to know a lot about power generation and distribution to know that Ameren is failing in its most basic responsibility. It seems obvious to me what they should have done: trim the trees properly. Maybe that isn't the right answer, but regardless of how it's done the experts need to find a way to keep the power running through a fairly minor storm. It's their job to figure it out!

As for the political angle, it's generally safe to assume that politicians are guilty until proven innocent. Besides, they don't have to be guilty to be fired, they just have to be incompetent.

To those who suggest underground power lines: Underground utilities are one potential solution, but putting lines underground increases installation and maintenance costs by about 1000%. There is probably a cheaper solution.

If the power distribution market were competitive I would just say "too bad" -- you get what you pay for. However, considering that Ameren UE is the only game in town they don't face competition. If the problem is that electricity rates simply aren't high enough to prevent week-long outages, then I'd suspect that most people would agree that a rate increase would be useful. However, since the system is noncompetitive there's no way to know the best way to allocate resources. There's no alternate electric company to offer higher rates and higher reliability, so we're all stuck in the same boat.

Canadian scientists have demonstrated that many cancers depend on "cancer stem cells" to grow and spread.

Dr. [John] Dick's discovery of the first cancer stem cell that year has led to the flurry of recent breakthroughs redefining cancer biology. Scientists once believed all cancer cells could sprout and sustain a tumour. But proof is growing that this deadly power belongs only to a tiny subset of abnormal stem cells that had previously gone undetected. These bad seeds have now been identified as the source of cancers of the blood, breast, bone, prostate, and this week, in another finding from Dr. Dick, the colon.

The implications are staggering. Billions of dollars and decades of research may have targeted the wrong cells to cure the disease. No current treatment has been designed to kill them and they appear to be naturally resistant to the gold-standard therapies.

It's an amazing advance that's easily summarized:

1. Tumors (and blood cancers) appear to depend on cancer stem cells for growth. Fewer than 1% of tumor cells are stem cells, and non-stem cells won't grow a tumor on their own.

2. Cancer stem cells appear highly resitant to chemotherapy and radiation, which mainly kill the other 99% of a tumor's cells and cause the tumor to shrink.

When new treatments are devised that can target the cancer stem cells, it may be possible to completely eradicate most cancers.

(HT: GeekPress.)

So nefarious spammers can rig Digg and other social media sites... so what? Is anyone under the impression that traditional media isn't manipulated just as easily? Different form, same old problem.

DTA: Don't trust anyone. Except me!

Too late to catch OJ but still a potentially significant advancement in law enforcement: using artificial intelligence software to predict killers before they strike.

University of Pennsylvania criminologist Richard Berk, a trained statistician, never met a data set he didn't like.

Now, using fresh data from the Philadelphia probation department, Berk and three colleagues have built an innovative model for predicting which troublemakers already in the system are most likely to kill or attempt a killing.

With the homicide rate in Philadelphia outpacing last year's by at least 7 percent, a computer model for "forecasting murder" is in the works, Berk said, to be delivered to the probation department in the new year, with clinical trials of the new tool to begin in the spring.

Initial research suggests the software-based system can make it 40 times more likely for caseworkers to accurately predict future lethality than they can using current practices.

The project is funded with a private grant and the software is in the public domain, so the product will be delivered to the city free.

I think we should apply this sort of software to everyone with a criminal record, not just those on probation. There's no difference between using AI software and using human intelligence to reach the same conclusions, except that software is cheaper and less biased than are humans, so the results should be more accurate.

Remember, the system doesn't predict specific murders, only which people are likely to commit murders in the future. So what do we do with those people once we think we've found them? Keep a close eye on them till they get too old to cause trouble, I guess. I wouldn't be adverse to attaching ankle monitors to petty crooks who are predicted to eventually escalate.

(HT: Slashdot and Nick.)

Very simply put: Ameren UE is incompetent. For the second time in five months hundreds of thousands of St. Louis area residents are without power and Ameren is hoping to have them restored within days. Temperatures are predicted to be below freezing for the next week or so, and we're supposed to get more snow on Wednesday... just in time for power to go out again!

The storm two days ago wasn't mammoth... our area received about five inches of snow over the course of 36 hours. There weren't strong winds like in the July storm, and also unlike last time this storm was predicted for a week in advance. Gateway Pundit says that Ameren is claiming that this was the worst ice storm in St. Louis history, but they're hardly unbiased. Here's a map of the power outages... notice that the map is almost useless because it shows the number of customers without power in each region rather than the percentage of customers without power.

There is absolutely no excuse for Ameren UE to fail its customers during both the hottest and the coldest weeks of the year. I don't know any details, but I'm sure there's political corruption involved behind the appearance of industrial incompetence, and I want heads. Here's how it should work: first, we publically excoriate the management of Ameren UE; second, we indict the first politicians to jump on the bandwagon and call for investigations.

Sean Connery turned down the role of Gandalf what could have been a $434 million paycheck because he didn't "understand it".

November 30, 2006 -- SEAN Connery missed out on the "largest paycheck in cinema history" when he turned down Peter Jackson and New Line Cinema's offer to play Gandalf the Grey in the mega-hit "Lord of the Rings" trilogy. The Scotsman newspaper reports Connery's check could have been written for up to $434 million - but he refused the offer, claiming, "I never understood it. I read the book, I read the script, I saw the movie, and I still don't understand it."

I'm sure Ian McKellen's contract was worth far less, so, good job Peter Jackson!

(HT: World of Wonder.)

I'm glad I'm done with UCLA, because it's the eye of the sucky storm that's engulfing California. There's never been nearly enough parking at the campus -- not least because they keep tearing down student lots to build new offices for the professors -- but now Michael Dukakis is working his butt off to make the Westwood parking crunch worse than it already is.

The former Massachusetts governor has been at the center of a more than two-year battle against the longtime practice of "apron parking" in the neighborhood west of UCLA known as North Village. There, parked cars spill out of apartment driveways and straddle sidewalks and streets.

"It's a disaster," said Dukakis, who teaches public policy at UCLA and lives part-time in the neighborhood. "Beyond being illegal, it's dangerous. You get two SUVs with their rear ends sticking out into the street, and you end up with a one-way road. It's time to end it."

It's true that vehicles that hang out and block the street should be towed, but from my experience living near UCLA for four years they usually were. Blocking the streets has never been allowed, but the city has been lenient with cars who block the sidewalks because there just isn't anywhere else to stick a car.

Los Angeles city officials are now listening to Dukakis and the other critics of apron parking. As soon as January, parking enforcement officers will begin aggressively ticketing cars that partly block streets and sidewalks.

The campaign is expected to leave many residents scrambling for parking. There are only 857 legal curb spaces in North Village, but about 5,700 vehicles belonging to residents. The demand gets far worse when students commuting to UCLA comb the streets for parking spots.

Even finding an illegal spot in Westwood is a nightmare, but now it's going to get worse. Thanks Dukakis. Every time some failed leftist presidential candidate does something stupid I'm reminded of how disasterous their victory would have been for our country.

(HT: The Pirate.)

Happy December! Click below for some pictures of our first snowfall.

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