December 2007 Archives

In 2004 Phillip Longman wrote an article about declining birthrates around the world with a lot of data and many ideas. I don't agree with all his speculations or proposals, but he did mention a really intriguing idea for solving the both the Social Security low fertility problems of the United States in one fell swoop:

Governments must also relieve parents from having to pay into social security systems. By raising and educating their children, parents have already contributed hugely (in the form of human capital) to these systems. The cost of their contribution, in both direct expenses and forgone wages, is often measured in the millions. Requiring parents also then to contribute to payroll taxes is not only unfair, but imprudent for societies that are already consuming more human capital than they produce.

This proposal is much more logical than a straight tax credit. The Social Security deduction should vary from year to year based on current population projections -- that way we won't have to fine-tune the incentive once it starts working.

Everyone was a-twitter over Mike Huckabee's subliminal cross in his Christmas video, but how about the halo in Fred Thomson's video to Iowa caucus-goers?


Sometimes a URL is more than a URL!


For whatever it's worth, here's a neat chart displaying jobs by IQ distribution.

(HT: Tom Smith and Glenn Reynolds.)

Former prime minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto was killed by an assassin, and all the MSM news coverage casts her in a very positive light despite ample evidence of corruption by the Bhutto clan.

Many cyncial Pakistanis discounted accusations against the Bhuttos as a frame-up. But all this changed when incorruptible Swiss federal prosecutors announced the Bhuttos and their Pakistan People's Party had hidden at least 20 million Swiss francs (C$20 million) made from money laundering, illegal payoffs, and, possibly, drug dealing in numbered accounts in Geneva. A Swiss firm hired by the Bhutto government to monitor customs duties was accused of having paid a percentage of their collections to the Bhutto's secret Swiss accounts. Swiss prosecutors froze the Bhutto accounts and sent their indictment to Pakistani federal prosecutors for criminal action.

'Few people believed the Pakistani government charges,' Benazir said, 'until the Swiss investigation. But that changed everything.' Indeed. Not only did the Swiss charges widely discredit the Bhutto clan in Pakistan, the accusations of massive bribery and drug dealing caused Benazir's many ardent supporters in Washington and the western media, whom she was seeking to enlist to her cause, to give her the cold shoulder. Why would the normally discreet, cautious Swiss bring such inflammatory charges unless they had overwhelming proof of guilt?

'I don't know,' insists Benazir. 'I've never had a bank account in Switzerland since 1984. Why would the Swiss do this to me? Maybe the Swiss are trying to divert attention from the Holocaust gold scandal.'

I think it's more likely that the Bhuttos, like essentially every other Islamic power-center, were deepy corrupt and largely supported by criminal enterprises. That she was more popular than the current thug ruling Pakistan means that Benazir Bhutto could have won a hypothetical "election", but even if she had she would still have been a thug herself. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Democracy is great in that it gives people the government they deserve. The Palestinians got Hamas, and the Pakistanis would have gotten in Bhutto more of the same they get now from President Pervez Musharraf. Bhutto did nothing to advance women's rights during her two tenures as prime minister, and she made a strategic alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan to help stablize the opium market. Let's not pretend that Bhutto was a pure and wholesome freedom fighter -- she was just the most popular thug in the country.

Al Qaeda is taking credit for her assassination, which is as plausible as anything. Whether they did it or not, they may have alienated another whole swath of the Muslim world by claiming credit for killing such a popular figure. Perhaps Musharraf will now have the breathing room to allow American forces into northern Pakistan where Bin Laden is most likely hiding? Or maybe we'll take the initiative ourselves if the country falls into chaos over this murder.

Someone else please leave a comment so I know the site is working!

Maybe someone with more knowledge of history can help me, but my impression is that women tend to rise to higher ranks in parliamentary governments than in governments that split executive and legislative power between two branches (like the US does). I can think of many female prime ministers, but I can only think of a few female presidents (any in a government with strong presidential powers?).

Similarly, women have thrived in America's Congress but none have yet made it to the presidency. Hillary Clinton is the closest yet, but I personally don't think she has a chance at winning (unless she can run against Huckabee perhaps).

On the other hand, America has plenty of female governors who wield a reasonable amount of power -- but don't have any responsibility for foreign relations.

Is my impression wrong, or if it's true is there some reason for it? The only thing I can think of is that executive power parliamentary systems is wielded by members who gradually rise through the ranks through seniority, whereas in presidential elections seniority can actually work against you (voters always wanting "change").

I loved my Roomba Discovery while it lasted, but unfortunately that was only about a month. Two days ago the motor that drives the counter-rotating brushes stopped working (though it still makes noise) and I've been unable to fix it.

I knew it was too good to be true :(

If anyone can tell me why the content in the left sidebar is pushed down on individual entry pages and on the most recent comments page but not on the main index, that would be great. Here's the stylesheet.

The individual pages have ad blocks that appear to be doing the pushing, so how can I avoid that? The ads are inside divs that hold content, and the other content in those divs don't push anything down. The recent comments page doesn't have any ads at all! Argh.


Fixed it. It helps if you close your div tags.

As my regular readers know, my website had grown absurdly slow on Yahoo's hosting service. So, I decided to ditch them and upgrade to Movable Type 4 at the same time. It's taken several hours to get everything working, and as you can see we've still got an off-the-shelf template. Fortunately I've got several days left of vacation to get all the details sorted out.

If you notice anything that doesn't work, please let me know.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is facing a budget crisis and is planning to release thousands of prisoners early to help save money -- and it sounds like the prisoners are mostly criminals who shouldn't (ideally) have been in jail in the first place.

In what may be the largest early release of inmates in U.S. history, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration is proposing to open the prison gates next year for some 22,000 low-risk offenders.

According to details of a budget proposal made available to The Bee, the administration will ask the Legislature to authorize the release of certain non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders who are in the final 20 months of their terms.

The proposal would cut the prison population by 22,159 inmates and save the cash-strapped state an estimated $256 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1 and more than $780 million through June 30, 2010. The proposal also calls for a reduction of more than 4,000 prison jobs, most of them involving correctional officers.

The only reason "non-serious, nonviolent, non-sex offenders" are in prison is because our society has for whatever reason forbidden almost every other form of punishment. In my opinion, non-violent criminals should generally not be imprisoned at all, but should instead be made to suffer "alternative" punishments like fines, public humiliation, community service, hard labor, and various forms of non-maiming physical punishment. It's hard for people to accept, but sometimes the human animal needs a good beating to learn a lesson.

In any event, since there aren't many alternative punishments available I expect this prisoner release program to lead to an uptick in crime and a reduced respect for law and order.

Also significant is the huge cut in jobs for correctional officers. Non-Californians may not be aware, but the correctional officer union is the most powerful public sector union in the state and donates massive amounts of money to the Democrats. This indicates to me that Schwarzenegger is trying to strike a political blow for his party while simultaneously saving the state money. Very devious/convenient.

My BS-ometer goes off whenever Democrats claim to base their policy preferences on "the children" or the welfare of "future generations". From the House Committee on Ways and Means we get this complaint over the President's tactics that forced the Democrats to patch the Alternative Minimum Tax without increasing taxes elsewhere (though nothing prevents the Democrats from cutting spending and thereby staying true to "pay-as-you-go").

Today, the U.S. House of Representatives took an important step to prevent 23 million Americans from receiving an average $2,000 tax increase per family because of the Alternative Minimum Tax.

While the precise nature of the legislation—providing tax relief without adhering to the principle of “pay-as-you-go” (PAYGO)—was not the preferred option of House Democrats, allowing the AMT to eat away at incomes of middle-class families was something that the Democrats could not let happen.

The Democrats objection to waiving PAYGO is simple: Our children and grandchildren should not have to pay for tax cuts we give ourselves. The Republican solution of waiving PAYGO seems easy only because the people who ultimately incur tax increases—our children and grandchildren—don’t vote. ...

The Administration’s very clever and deceptive trick has left House Democrats in the difficult position of choosing between American taxpayers and future generations.

Considering that these same Democrats have absolutely no problem with murdering more than 1,000,000 of "our children and grandchildren" annually in the womb, I find their complaints here to be disingenuous at best. If members of "future generations" don't deserve enough consideration to have their very lives protected, why should we worry about how our tax laws will affect them?

Another example of why I think Christopher Hitchens is a dangerous idiot: while in a drunken stupor, he equates private decisions to play Christmas music with North Korean tyranny.

"It may have struck you, ladies and gentlemen, that there's a big relationship between this marvelous time of year and living in a one-party state," Hitchens told the overflow crowd of 250. "You can't go anywhere without listening to the same music. You can't go anywhere without hearing the name of the Great Leader, and his son, the Dear Leader....All broadcasts, all songs, all jokes, all references are, just for that magic few weeks, just exactly like living in...North Korea."

The guy's a facile moron who shouldn't be taken seriously in any context. Once he sobers up he should go read about what North Korea is really like.

(HT: Instapundit via Ann Althouse.)

I just got an email from the creator of a website called Out of Pocket that is attempting to collect and disseminate ("expose") information about the true costs of various medical treatments and procedures.

As you know from my recent posts on health care, I'm a big proponent of market-based solutions and the cornerstone of the free market is freely available information. Unfortunately, it's often very difficult to compare prices between health care providers because they know a lot more than we do and most of their patients pay indirectly through insurance rather than directly out-of-pocket.

I'm very excited to see this site, and I'll be checking it before I go to the doctor -- even if just to know what my health insurance is actually doing for me.

Helen Smith writes that gender equality should lead to the elimination of alimony.

Personally, I have a hard time justifying long term alimony payments to men or women in today’s society. Years ago, when one spouse (typically women) was expected to stay home with the kids, tend the house and generally had no training or as many opportunities to make a living as women do today, I would say that alimony might have been more fair. However, in today’s world, in which women have fought for the right to equality, alimony seems more like a kid getting an allowance from daddy and I believe it should be abolished altogether except for extremely dire circumstances where a spouse is older, cannot work at all, and for only a short term period. No man or woman should be held to being a slave to an ex-spouse after a marriage ends. That said, if we are going to have alimony laws, I believe that men and women should be held to an equal standard under the law. But apparently, many women do not feel that equality holds when they are the ones who have to take responsibility.

In this Forbes article, women are angry about paying alimony:

A lot of women are indignant now that the shoe is increasingly on the other foot, says Carol Ann Wilson, a certified financial divorce practitioner in Boulder, Colo. “There’s this sense of, ‘What’s yours is ours, but what’s mine is mine,’” Wilson says. “My first response to that is, ‘All these years we have been looking for equality; well, this is what it looks like.’ I think women get angrier about having to pay than men do.”

Ex-husbands should pay alimony as long as ex-wives keep having sex with them.

(HT: Instapundit.)

I've been thinking more about the health care/insurance article I linked to yesterday and I want to add one qualification to my general agreement with the authors. They write in their conclusion:

Finally, we must repeal HIPAA and all other government regulations involving health insurance or medical care. It is immoral for doctors to be subject to criminal penalties for documentation errors that violate no rights and have nothing to do with the quality of patient care. ...

As I considered the article, the phrase I bolded above stood out to me. I won't defend HIPAA, but I don't agree that "all other government regulations involving health insurance or medical care" should be eliminated. In particular, I think a very important role of government is to mandate transparency from experts in the commercial sector. There's no way that I as a health care consumer can ever know as much as the doctors who treat me, but the final decision for any treatment I undergo still lies with me and not with them. To that end, the government should require the disclosure of treatment information from medical professionals.

I'm thinking of a medical equivalent of the nutrition information that's mandated on food packaging. I don't want the government to tell me how many Fritos I can eat, but if it weren't for government-enforced transparency I wouldn't know what goes into Fritos and I wouldn't be able to make an informed decision about how many to eat. The government already requires drug manufacturers to disclose the potential side-effects of their products (do we need them in every commercial though?) and I think there should be similar transparency in other medical arenas.

It is a legitimate role for government to prevent experts from harming or defrauding consumers with their information advantage.

Paul Hsieh (of GeekPress) and Lin Zinser explain the American health care system, including how we got where we are and how we should move forward. You'll learn something.

Merry Christmas!

I hardly ever buy anything expensive or "luxurious", but I really love my Dita Pusher sunglasses. I got them for 1/10th normal price because I had a friend who worked for Dita when I lived in Los Angeles and he gave them to me for my birthday a couple of years ago. I've got a big head, and these are some of the only glasses that have ever felt comfortable for me. Alas, despite taking good care of them they're starting to wear out. I'm not sure what I'm going to do. I really can't justify spending hundreds of dollars to replace them. Sigh.

Peter Hitchens reveals a pitiful North Korea. His bleak descriptions certainly miss the worst of it (as he concedes).

You can gaze on the gargantuan housing estates, made up of scores of apartment blocks, a great festival of concrete outdoing even Soviet Moscow in its gigantism. You may admire the Juche Tower, which symbolizes North Korea’s supposed self-reliance. The tower is a column three feet taller than the Washington Monument, weirdly topped by a great simulated red flame, like a much larger version of the World War I Memorial in Kansas City, but only when there is enough power to keep it aglow. That is not always. Voltage is a problem in Pyongyang. The streetlamps are never switched on, and there is a strange interval between sundown and total darkness, before the lights start to come on in the windows of all the apartments. There is also a wonderful quiet, since Pyongyang has hardly any motor traffic by day and even less at night. Human voices can be heard from astonishing distances, as if you were in a tranquil lakeside resort rather than in the center of a grandiose metropolis. The electric current in homes and offices seems suspiciously feeble and shuts down abruptly when the government thinks bedtime has arrived. The authorities also have views on when you ought to wake up. A siren rouses the sluggards at 7 each morning, though light sleepers will already have been alerted to the approach of the working day by ghostly plinking, plonking music drifting from loudspeakers at 5 and 6 o’clock. The sensation of living in an enormous institution, part boarding school, part concentration camp, is greatly enhanced by the sound of these mass alarms.

I think his final two paragraphs are a bit naive, but I agree that the problem is generally intractable.

(HT: Arts & Letters Daily.)

Iowahawk has a nice take on the subprime mortgage bailout. It starts:

As many of you know, I am a longtime resident of Lakewood Mobile Home Court, a gated community on the outskirts of Coralville. When I first moved to Lakewood in 2000, I was attracted by its affordable rental rates and many amenities, such as ample streetside parking, easy access to I-80, and a quiet, low-surveillance wooded area in which to store my automobiles and train my beloved sport dogs. At the time it seemed an ideal neighborhood in which to raise the various children the Iowa courts have assigned me financial support. Here was a place they could run and play carefree, while I relaxed with a drink and conversation with friendly new neighbors like Kyle and Chuck.

After several years of living in the community, however, I began to notice a change. Trash and beer cans and dog waste mysteriously began to pile up. Formerly friendly neighbors became suspicious and wary, and I was saddened to realize they were locking their trailers while away at work. Worse yet, crime skyrocketed, in large part due to the gangs of unsupervised juveniles that roamed the streets and woods. As a concerned parent, with several children facing Iowa's draconian "three strikes" sentencing guidelines, I realized that I needed to get them out of this environment but I didn't know how. Like millions of Americans I dreamed of home ownership, but it remained elusive. Early Sunday mornings I would drive slowly through Majestic Oakewoods, the new luxury housing development on the other side of the woods, with my headlights off, wistfully thinking: "someday... someday."

Meanwhile, here's a bailout you may not have heard of: SUV Bailout To Keep America Humming.

(HT: Instapundit and My Money Blog.)

The article is from 2003, but these jobs are still overpaid. I had no idea skycaps make so much -- good thing I only tip them $1.

If you're confused, like me, by meteorology terminology, here's another definition you may have wondered about: what are heating/cooling degree days?.

What are heating degree days and cooling degree days?

Heating degree days are indicators of household energy consumption for space heating. It was found that for an average outdoor temperature of 65 degrees Fahrenheit, most buildings require heat to maintain a 70 degree temperature inside. Similarly, for an average outdoor temperature of 65 degrees or more, most buildings require air-conditioning to maintain a 70 degree temperature inside.

How heating and cooling degree days are computed

Take the high and low temperature for the day, and average them. If this number is greater than 65 F, then we have (Average temperature - 65) cooling degree days. If the average temperature is less than 65 degrees, then we have (65 - Average temperature) heating degree days. Running totals are kept for these units over a time period of a year so fuel distributors and power companies can assess average demands.

So it appears that the number of heating/cooling degree days accumulated on a single calendar day can be used to estimate how much energy will be required for heating/cooling a building on that day. By adding these up over time, you can figure out how much energy has been or will be used in a season. I think.

One of the staples of science fiction is the proposition that if we discover alien life in the universe, its intelligence and way of thinking will be very foreign to humanity and perhaps even incompatible or mutually inscrutable. I see no reason why this would be the case.

Human intelligence is very adaptive -- it adjusts to accommodate the reality of the universe around it. This property may be tautological in that "intelligence" that cannot comprehend or exist within the physical bounds of our universe can't really be considered "intelligence" at all. With that understanding, and assuming that our universe and its physics are homogeneous, it's hard for me to imagine that an alien intelligence would be very different from our own.

I've got no doubt that alien cultures, religions, motivations, and biology might be quite different from our equivalents, but I see no reason for them to think in fundamentally different ways. Unless their technology or physiology violate our current understanding of the laws of physics (being then "magic") they will be bound by the same general economic and moral constraints that we are. Their mathematics and science will mesh neatly with ours (even if they use a different notation) and their history and literature will fascinate us.

I haven't been too impressed with Yahoo's hosting service. I'm considering switching away, but I before I do that I'm going to try to speed up load times a bit by removing some external loads. Let's see if this makes a difference.

From Bernardo, a Will Smith interview where he talks about the benefits of reading and running.

Will Smith on whether he has a positive attitude towards life:

"Yes, absolutely. I feel very, very confident that the keys to life for me are reading and running. The idea that there are millions and billions of people who have lived before us, and they had problems and they solved them and they wrote it in a book somewhere - there is no new problem that we can have that we have to figure out by ourselves. There’s no relationship issue, there is no issue with your parents or your brother or your government, there is no issue we can have that somebody didn’t already write a thousand years ago in a book. So, for me, that concept of reading is bittersweet because you know it’s in a book somewhere but you’ve got to find the right one that is going to give you the proper information. I said reading and running and the running aspect is how can you connect with your weakness. When you get on the treadmill you deprive yourself of oxygen. What kind of person you are will come out very, very quickly. You’re either the type of person who will say you’re going to run three miles or you stop the treadmill at 2.94 and you hit it and you call 2.94 3 miles, or you get off after a mile, or you’re the type of person that runs hard through the finish line and when you get to 3.0 you realize, ‘God, I could really do 5,’ and you go ahead and do two more. And that little person talks to you and says, 'Man, do you feel our knee? We should stop. I feel we should stop ourselves right now. This is not healthy anymore.’ When you learn to get command over that person on that treadmill, you learn to get command over that person in your life. That’s the same person that tells you, 'Man, that girl’s got some big breasts. Listen, we don’t have to do nothing, let’s just go the hotel room together.' That’s the same person. Getting command of that person has been really important."

I use an elliptical machine now instead of running, but otherwise I completely agree.

I don't envy him at all, but Brandon Sanderson has signed on to finish the late Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I've never read anything by Sanderson, but the slashdotters have strong opinions on the succession, as you might expect.

(HT: Nick.)

The LA Times has a pretty cool-looking primary tracker. Next year should be pretty exciting!

Here's a revealing interview by Larry Kudlow of Ben Stein who essentially believes that major brokerages are tricking their clients to help their shareholders. The financial dealings described might be a bit inscrutable, so I'll translate them after the quote.

BEN STEIN: Well, wait a second. First of all, all the credit over this goes to Alan Sloan who did a brilliant piece on this whole subject for Fortune. And it was that that cued my whole interest in the subject. His piece is just brilliant journalism. But apparently, if I am to understand said Mr. Sloan right, and a further raft of comments by Goldman Sachs spokesmen further, they were selling the collateralized mortgage obligations [while] simultaneously selling short either the same obligations or an index based on the same kind of obligations. That went into high gear in 2007 as they were still selling CMOs. They were also selling, and on a big scale, indexes against those CMOs. So they were on the one hand pushing the product and on the other hand, to me, seemingly indicating that they did not have confidence in the product, by shorting either the product, or a similar basket of securities.

KUDLOW: Now Ben, some would say that this kind of shorting of securities sold out, they packaged them and sold them, essentially represents a prudent hedging strategy to defend shareholders’ capital. Your thought on prudent hedging strategies?

STEIN: Well there are two things. One, I think that’s what’s known as the green shoe operation. And it’s a fairly well known thing. I don’t consider it ethical frankly. I don’t consider it ethical to on the one hand, tell your people to whom you owe a fiduciary duty, we’ve got a product for you and we stand behind it, and at the same time, short it. I question whether that is an ethical thing to do. And I think the people to whom they owe a fiduciary duty, in the way of pension funds, nurses unions, those people, stand ahead of the stockholders in terms of fiduciary duty. That’s one thing.

Second thing is as I understand the comments by the Goldman Sachs spokesman correctly, and I may not, they shifted those short sales into very high gear in 2007, maybe even earlier, way beyond what prudent, normal hedging would be in an underwriting operation. So I think we’ve got to find out more about it. But from what I understand their operations were on both sides of the deal. And that is not, it seems to me, cricket.

Translation: brokerages have obligations to two groups, their clients and their shareholders. Brokerages are supposed to steer their clients towards profitable investments, and they're supposed to generate profits themselves to pay to their shareholders. Ben Stein believes that Goldman Sachs has been selling investments to its clients that it expects to go down in value and then "selling short" those same investments so that when they do go down Goldman Sachs shareholders will turn a profit.

If this is the case, then yes, I believe the practice is highly unethical. Brokerages do have to make money for their shareholders, but they should do so by providing honest advice to their clients, not by fleecing them. Brokerages charge their clients fees, which is where their profit should come from. In addition to those fees, Ben Stein believes that Goldman Sachs is selling their clients bad investments and then profiting when those investments lose value.

Over the weekend I wrote about how dishonest reporting of Democrats' "pay-as-you-go" policy was concealing the true intentions of the majority party, and today's WSJ editorial basically says the same thing in a longer form.

Senate Democrats gave up on "paygo," as it's called, when they realized they lacked the votes to offset the $50.6 billion cost of protecting more than 20 million middle-class taxpayers from getting whacked by the Alternative Minimum Tax this year. They've spent the year floating all kinds of tax increases to make up the difference. But in the end they passed an AMT relief bill without a penny to pay for it. Paygo is now pay gone.

We should stress that this is the right decision for the economy and the federal budget. The AMT was never supposed to hit the middle class, and it only does so now because the Democrats who designed it failed to index it for inflation and raised AMT rates under Bill Clinton in 1993. With the economy in a slowdown, the last thing anyone needs now is a tax hike. The budget deficit is a little above 1% of GDP, which is below the 25-year average, and should remain so as long as the economy keeps growing.

But paygo shouldn't be allowed to expire without everyone kicking sand on its grave. That's because it has been nothing but a confidence game from the very start. Paygo doesn't apply to domestic discretionary spending, and it doesn't restrain spending increases under current law in entitlements like Medicare and Medicaid. Its main goals are to make tax cutting all but impossible, while letting Democrats pretend to favor "fiscal discipline," a la Ms. Pelosi's boast above.

Not only did Democrats and their allies in the press misrepresent "paygo", they also evaded the policy completely whenever it would have restrained their spending.

In fact, the paygo farce has been unfolding all year. Since the day they took the gavel, Democrats have been using gimmick after gimmick to evade it. The Schip bill for health care, for example, includes a spending "cliff" that disguises its actual cost. It assumes spending would rise to $14 billion in 2012, but then pretends the costs would fall to less than half that level in 2013--which just so happens to fall outside the five-year budget scoring window. Some $60 billion in spending over the next 10 years were hidden through this ploy.

"Paygo" has always been a farce, but you'd never have known that if you only paid attention to the mainstream media.

Further explanation of how the sub-prime mortgage bailout is bad for the economy.

Have we completely lost our common sense? Is it really desirable to provide easier money to people and companies that got into trouble by abusing their access to money in the first place? And is it really a good idea both to cancel mortgage bondholders' contracts for the sake of an adjustable-mortgage-rate freeze and to provide a couple of years of grace for stressed-out home borrowers who are likely to eventually default anyway? ...

What has to irk you is the disparity between who wins when things are going well and who loses when things go sour.

When banks make a lot of money, after all, they suck down the profits by giving their executives and boards outrageous pay packages worth tens of millions of dollars, justifying their actions under the rubric of entrepreneurship. And when the opposite happens? They beg taxpayers for a handout. ...

Though the rate freeze would be awesome to a mortgage holder in Muncie, Ind., who wants to get out of his adjustable-rate obligation, it sounds terrible to a pension-fund manager in Munich who isn't getting the income stream he paid for, as well as to the mortgage-servicing company that won't be getting its own piece of the future income stream.

The breaking of these obligations will not be free. Foreign investors will demand a higher "risk premium" to invest in U.S. real estate, which will make it more expensive for future mortgage seekers to get loans. And they are bound to sue to get the payments they thought they were owed, which will drive up mortgage banks' expenses.

And so forth. This sort of meddling is a bad idea all around, despite having the appearance of wisdom on the surface.

So the "Winter Weather Watch" has been canceled, the "Freezing Rain Watch" is in effect, and the "Ice Storm Warning" is off. Is it just me, or is meteorology a very imprecise science? Not only can't they predict the weather tomorrow, but their technical terminology is vague, ambiguous, and follows no logic I can discern.

Maybe it's just so complex that us untrained weather laymen should just mind our own business!

Disingenuous journalists help disingenuous Congressional Democrats when they report "pay-as-you-go" at face value.

After 11 months of insisting that all major programs be paid for with tax increases or spending cuts elsewhere, Senate Democratic leaders acknowledged Thursday they cannot persuade enough Republicans to join them. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., reluctantly allowed a vote on a long-debated middle-class tax cut that would add billions of dollars to the deficit because it is not offset elsewhere.

As everyone knows, Democrats don't propose spending cuts, so "pay-as-you-go" really means tax increases exclusively. By failing to report the truth about "pay-go" Charles Babington reveals either the shallowness of his political understanding or his collusion with the Democrats, take your pick.

Merry Christmas from the ACLU!

It's not surprising (given recent history) that few Americans believe our own intelligence agencies who claim with "high confidence" that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program.

Just 18% of American voters believe that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program. The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found that 66% disagree and say Iran has not stopped its nuclear weapons program. Twenty-one percent (21%) of men believe Iran has stopped the weapons development along with 16% of women (see crosstabs).

The survey was conducted following release of a government report saying that Iran halted its nuclear weapons development program in 2003.

The Rasmussen Reports survey also found that 67% of American voters believe that Iran remains a threat to the national security of the United States. Only 19% disagree while 14% are not sure.

It would be nice if the CIA got one right for once, though.

The holographic principle is fascinating: basically, the maximum entropy in a region of space is proportional to the area of the boundary of the region rather than its volume.

David Brooks on the power structure of China.

Suppose I took you to an acre of prairie and told you about a family of field mice who lived there. You eye would wander over the contours of the ground and vegetation and notice a myriad of details: potential shelter in holes or under bushes; insects to eat; puddles of water to drink; a vast expanse of territory that the mice could never exhaust; and generally everything the mice would require to live happy, fulfilled, and productive lives. (Such as they are.)

But suppose instead that I led you to the same acre of prairie and told you that it was home to some grizzly bears. Your eye would consider the land in a completely different manner: no shelter; no food; no water; and far too small for giant bears to enjoy.

As is probably obvious to you, the difference is scale. Mice can life in a hole in the dirt and drink from a puddle, but bears require a cave and a river full of trout. When I show you a field and tell you about mice your attention is turns to the mouse-sized details of the terrain; when I tell you about bears you see bear-sized features. Your brain automatically chunks the whole of what it observes into components at the scale of whatever it is considering.

When you write a word, the chunks are letters -- though after we learn how to spell we rarely consciously think of words as composites of letters. When you write sentences, the chunks are words (and many people spend a great deal of time choosing the right ones). When you write paragraphs, the chunks are sentences. When you write essays, the chunks are paragraphs, connected together to serve a common theme. Essays or chapters may be put into books, books into libraries, libraries into bureaucracies, and bureaucracies into governments. And so forth. At each level, from author to librarian to bureaucrat to elected official, each person considers the same terrain at a different scale and acts appropriately.

And no one really has any idea how we do it. We know that our handling of scale is dependent on chunking, because humans can only hold five to nine items in our short-term memory. However, by combining and dividing information into chunks we can fit more into those slots. For example, when you hear a sentence your comprehension isn't limited by the number of letters in each word, but rather by the number of words in the sentence -- the letters are chunked together. When you hear a lecture you're unlikely to remember many specific sentences, but you'll be able to remember a handful of points made by the speaker. At the end of the semester you won't remember many of the lectures, but you will have incorporated the main ideas of the class into your long-term memory.

All made possible by chunking, and all completely inscrutable to artificial intelligence researchers. We have no idea how the brain makes such smart decisions about how to divide the world into chunks and then recombines those chunks into knowledge.

One of the side effects of chunking is the ability to generalize. Sometimes generalizations get a bad rap (e.g., racial discrimination), but the ability to generalize is an essential component of our intelligence. Our brains can take an observation, break it into chunks, and then later recombine some of those chunks with chunks taken from another observation. Sometimes the recombinations are faulty (e.g., superstitions) but most of the time they're incredibly useful (e.g., getting hit by a red car is just as bad as getting hit by a blue truck).

Developing artificial intelligence that can generalize from prior experience is the holy grail of the field, but it won't be accomplished without chunking, and we've got no idea how to make a computer do that well because no one knows how we do it.

So say our vaunted intelligence services. I haven't commented yet on the recent revelations from the National Intelligence Estimate because I wanted to read and process the information. Despite characterizations by Democrats, it seems to me that the NIE says more about the incompetency of our intelligence services than it does about President Bush.

Twice now, President Bush's public assertions about threats of weapons of mass destruction—his prewar warnings of weaponry in Iraq and his warnings about the development of nuclear weapons in Iran—have been undermined by subsequent intelligence reports.

But the warnings themselves were based on intelligence reports generated by the same idiots who later issued the reports that undermined the president. It's not like President Bush has any sort of first-hand knowledge about Middle Eastern WMDs, he relies on America's intelligence agencies. If the new report undermines the previous one, that's not his fault -- except insofar as President Bush has been unable or unwilling to really reform our pathetic intelligence services.

Among the questions facing the president is at what point he knew the intelligence community was beginning to change its mind on Iran. Bush saw the new report on Iran for the first time last week, he said Tuesday, though Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell had advised him in August that a revised assessment was coming.

Bush lied!!!!!!!!!!

Or, maybe it can take a few months to verify important information. Before the President stands up in front of the American people and changes our stance towards our enemy, it would be nice to spend some time being sure.

As it is, I do not have "high confidence" in the accuracy of the new NIE. I sincerely hope it's right and that Iran isn't developing nuclear weapons, because at this point it seems clear that President Bush will punt the Iranian problem to his successor. If the NIE is right, it's very good news for America and for the world, so let's take a little time to appreciate that.

Get into the Christmas spirit with All Christmas Internet Radio! And if there's a carol stuck in your head but you're forced to mumble through one or two verses, find the lyrics at the All Christmas blog.

Lileks nails down the thesis underlying modern "environmentalism" that is really concerned more with hurting humanity than with promoting good stewardship of the earth.

Note: this is not to say people don’t spend too much money on things they don’t need. It’s just not my place to request the state to keep them from doing so. In any case, I suspect that the impulse to bring all these untidy unhelpful examples of flagrant individualism under the steady hand of the Ministry of Rational Allocation has something to do with that fretful busybody insistence that people are simply not living right. If we had Star Trek replicators in every house that would conjure goods and meals out of boundless energy produced by antimatter teased from a three-micron fissure that opened into a universe populated entirely by unicorns who crapped antimatter in such abundance they were happy we used it up, and used their shiny pointy horns to poke more of it through the aperture into our dimension, columnists would bemoan the disconnect between labor and goods, and the soul-corrupting influence of endless ersatz vegetables. You can’t win. Because you shouldn’t.

If they really cared about the environment, "environmentalists" would get married and stay married. Hopefully these envirofascists won't get enough traction to win any more political power.

How many times do you have to zoom out before you figure out where this suburban setting is?

Via my brother is this article about a vast salt flat in Bolivia being used to calibrate satellites.

A precise topographical map has been made of one of the flattest places on Earth: the salar de Uyuni, a vast plain of white cemented salt in the mountains of Bolivia. The ground survey, aided by global positioning systems (GPS), shows variations in elevation of less than a metre across an area almost half the size of Wales.

Intriguingly, the work reveals bumps in the salt that lie above lumps of dense rock buried several kilometres below, just as water will bulge over a bump on the ocean floor. Knowing exactly where these bumps lie will help researchers to use the flat as a giant calibration device for satellite-based radar and laser altimeters.

The place is huge. If the comparison to Wales doesn't mean anything to you, consider that the salar de Uyuni is 4,085 square miles:

  • Washington, DC: ~70 square miles
  • New York City: ~470 square miles
  • Delaware: ~2,490 square miles
  • Island of Hawai'i: ~4,028 square miles

Here's the salar de Uyuni on Google Maps.

The persecution of British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons by the Sudanese government should certainly make any Westerner considering working in a Muslim nation think twice.

A British teacher jailed for insulting Islam after allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad flew home Monday following a pardon by the president of Sudan, a British Embassy spokesman said. ...

Gibbons' conviction under Sudan's Islamic Sharia law shocked Britons and many Muslims worldwide. It also inflamed passions among many Sudanese, some of whom called for her execution.

She escaped harsh0er punishment that could have included up to 40 lashes, six months in prison and a fine.

In a written statement given to President Omar al-Bashir and read by a British mediator, Gibbons said she did not intend to offend anyone and had great respect for Islam.

Gibbons, 54, was sentenced Thursday to 15 days in prison and deportation for insulting Islam because she allowed her students to name a class teddy bear Muhammad, seen as a reference to Islam's Prophet Muhammad. Her time in jail since her arrest Nov. 25 counted toward the sentence.

This case isn't as bad as that of the Saudi Arabian gang-rape victim sentenced to 200 lashes (effectively a death sentence), but it further highlights the gaping chasm between the West and Islam. I haven't heard any prominent Muslims -- such as world leaders -- denouncing either of these incidents.

I'm not a big Michael Savage fan, but I completely support his suit against the Council on American-Islamic Relations for stealing his material for fund-raising purposes. CAIR is the domestic political wing of our violent jihadist enemies -- they're not merely American Muslims, but Muslims in America with an anti-American agenda.

The lawsuit further accuses CAIR, "which is self anointed as the representative of the civil rights of Muslim Americans," of being "a political organization that advocates a specific political agenda."

"The CAIR misappropriation [of the talk show excerpts] was done for political purposes unrelated to civil rights … [but instead] to raise funds for CAIR so that it could self perpetuate and continue to the (sic) disseminate of propaganda on behalf of foreign interests that are opposed to the continued existence of the United States of America as a free nation."

The "repackaged" material suggests a hatred for Islam, but in fact, the lawsuit said, "Michael Savage has presented various views and various perspectives. The purpose of his show (among other purposes) is to present uncensored, genuine points of view that force listeners to both think and feel in ways that normal polite discourse may not allow," said the lawsuit.

"Just as all religions are free to practice in the United States, Michael Savage is free to exercise his beliefs without having someone in the opposition steal his property and convert it for their own use. The violation of the copyright and the desecration of that copyright material is a violation of the freedoms of Michael Savage to express his views," said the action.

I think Michael Savage and I are on the same side, the American side, even though I don't line up with all this thoughts. The courts are typically the forum the Left chooses when it can't enact its will democratically, but this sort of suit might be beneficial if it raises awareness of CAIR's nefarious activities.

I'm not much for music -- I find it generally distracting -- but I do agree that interruptions kill productivity.

But in my opinion DeMarco and Lister's Peopleware is the single most important book on the subject ever written. To learn about software productivity the authors ran "coding wars" that pitted development teams from some 600 organizations against each other. Turns out experience, salary, language used, and all of the other parameters we'd normally consider important were in the noise. The biggest factor? Interruptions.

Teams with the fewest interruptions were nearly three times as productive as those suffering from the usual plague of never-ending phone calls, queries from fellow workers, the chime of ever-more incoming email, and the like.

Three times. Think about it.

Later studies by other researchers found that after an interruption it takes 15 minutes to get into a state of "flow," that Spock-like trance where you're one with the computer. Yet the average developer gets interrupted every 11 minutes.

Most managers stick their engineers in cubicles rather than private offices, ensuring that every overhead page breaks into their thoughts and anyone's ringing phone brings the entire room's productivity to a screeching halt.

Dilbert rightly calls cubes "anti-productivity pods."

I'm not sure if this is as true of females as it is of males. I tend to get grouchy when I'm interrupted while working from home, but my wife doesn't always get why. Maybe women really are better with multitasking and interruptions don't bother them as much?

Once again good intentions are poised to hurt far more people than they help as a government-imposed "solution" to the mortgage "crisis" looms.

The Treasury Department and mortgage industry leaders are putting the final touches on a plan that could save struggling homeowners from foreclosure by freezing interest rates before they reset sharply higher. ...

Regulators and the mortgage industry are focused on restructuring 30-year subprime loans that carry fixed interest rates for up to three years but then reset at higher rates, hitting borrowers with sharply higher costs. ...

As envisioned, Treasury's plan would effectively extend the fixed-rate period for stressed borrowers, shielding them from a payment spike that could push them into foreclosure.

We can at least be thankful that taxpayers won't bear the direct cost of bailing out these foolish borrowers and lenders, but there's no doubt that that this government plan (probably imposed under threat of criminal prosecutions and civil fines) will severely distort the market to the detriment of the companies and people who were wise enough refrain from undue risk-taking.

More directly to the point, this type of bailout is a bit of a slap in the face to those who approached the housing/mortgage market the "right" way. Rather than buy more house than they could afford at rates that it now turns out truly were too good to be true, there were responsible people who did the right thing instead. They bought smaller homes, used more expensive (initially) fixed rate mortgages, saved and waited, and/or practiced a number of other virtuous behaviors. All the while, they watched throngs of people less able than they move into newer and nicer houses all around them.

Their reward for waiting and doing the right thing? Higher mortgage rates across the board, as lenders have (over)reacted to the fallout of their earlier loose lending practices. Now with the bailout, these lenders are going to be aritificially holding lending rates higher for everyone else to compensate for the lost revenue caused by holding these subprime teaser rates artificially low. That's not the only impact of the bailout on these responsible folks. Those that have waited patiently for the housing market to correct will now see home prices artificially propped up as these now-subsidized loans don't fail. It may seem heartless to view it that way, but the reality is that stepping in here will artificially prop up home prices. Those poor suckers that waited patiently for a correction while saving their money? Maybe they'll learn a lesson and be a little more reckless like everyone else next time around.

Yes, I want the foolish borrowers thrown out of the houses they can't afford. Yes, I want the foolish lenders to lose tons of money and possibly go bankrupt. Yes, I want housing prices to drop rather then be propped up artificially. Yes, I want the stock market to drop to reflect the true value of assets the stocks represent. All these effects look scary in the short term, but historical evidence shows that the immediate pain would produce greater wealth in the future.

One of the few advantages that government "experts" should have over the average consumer and corporation is a willingness to take the long view and work in our country's long-term interest. If government is going to be as short-sighted as the rest of us tend to be, then what purpose does it serve?

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