Sat, 31 Dec 2005

A license to steal

Knights

Back in the Y1K, a knight was invincible. A knight mounted on horseback could not be defeated by the peasantry. A suit of armor was very expensive, but it afforded the wearer the ability to do what he wanted, when he wanted. A knight could go into a village and demand tribute, and the villagers could do nothing. It was, in essence, a license to steal.

Technology created the knight, and technology ruined the knight. The steel and iron armor of the day could deflect sword and lance blows. That lasted until the invention of the Welsh longbow, and later handheld firearms. Anybody could become a knight, however a knight's steed and armor were very expensive.

Politics couldn't bring much violence to bear on knights. Only another knight could defeat a knight. The church did its best to keep knights from being the horseback equivalent of the motorcycle gang by its chivalric code.

Patents

The US patent system has become amenable to a protection racket. First, you start a patent holding company. Then you get a patent. It should be something broadly written so that everything plausibly infringes it. Then you go to a small company and say "You infringe this patent. We will sue you, or you can settle for $1000." Obviously the small company settles; it would be insane to do anything else. You keep going to more and more companies, increasing the settlement offer; but always keeping it below their cost of winning a lawsuit.

How does a patent racket differ from a protection racket? The threat differs. In a protection racket, the criminal offers harm to the victim while taking on a risk that they will get caught inflicting that harm. In a patent racket, the criminal offers harm to the victim and themselves at the same time (the cost of bringing and defending a lawsuit). The government typically opposes protection rackets (modulo bribing of police) but tolerates patent rackets.

One of these days some Attorney General planning to run for Governor will wise up to this scam, and go after these firms for criminal extortion. A patent system which allows this kind of activity is clearly unconstitutional since it doesn't "promote the progress of science and useful arts".

Posted [09:41] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 30 Dec 2005

Profit and Gain

J.D. Von Pischke writes to The Quaker Economist (not yet published there):

"The first step of emancipation is to learn to recognize when your emotions are being manipulated for profit. --Loren Cobb" Gain would be a better term than profit, which usually refers to money. Profit is a subset of gain, and gain conveys power. We should be concerned about the creation of power, its distribution, its uses and responses to it. Non-profit organizations exist to obtain power, just like profit-making enterprises. Each has governance problems, and the outcomes achieved by each are complex and hotly disputed.

Lots of people are concerned about the greed of big corporations, seeking larger and larger profits. Of much more interest to me are concentrations of power rather than profit.

Posted [10:39] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Thu, 29 Dec 2005

Neral-Matheran Light Railway

You can see how steep it is here. (Thumbnail) The July 2005 monsoons were not easy on the railway (Thumbnail) Yrs truly in front of the old steam engine (Thumbnail) Monsoon damage and the terrain (Thumbnail) Matheran Queen (Thumbnail) Diesel loco shed neral (Thumbnail) Sumit on the main line (Thumbnail) Like father, like son (Thumbnail) Russ, still blurry from entering shot, Venki, Sumit, and Manish (Thumbnail) Circular rainbow (Thumbnail)

While visiting Rediff.com, my friend Sumit Rajwade took me up to the community of Matheran, between Mumbai and Pune. It's what the Indians call a "hill station". It's a town perched on the top of a hill. Matheran is especially attractive because, although you can drive up to the top, the community does not allow any automobile traffic. On the top of a hill like that, the air is refreshingly clean. With a forest covering the entire hill, it's also cool. Small wonder people go to all the effort to get up there.

I was surprised and pleased to find a two-foot narrow gauge railway going up to Matheran. It winds its way up a ridge leading to the steepest section, and then uses four or five switchbacks to get the rest of the way up. Unfortunately, it wasn't running in December of 2005 because of the damage from the exceptional July 2005 monsoons.

After wandering around on the top, and seeing the old steam engine installed in a shed as a memorial to the railway's builder, we made our way down to the bottom and Neral. The railway meets up with the standard gauge railway there, and has its facilities at that end of the line. You don't see many operating narrow-gauge railways these days, but this is not a tourist railway (in the sense that people come to see the railway -- people use the railway to get to Matheran).

Vivek Manvi apparently got to ride the train back in July 2005.

Back in Mumbai several days later, I snapped a photo of Sumit and Siddhartha in his car, and a timer shot inside Rediff's offices. While flying back over low clouds, I noticed a circular rainbow around the airplane's shadow.

Posted [12:06] [Filed in: railroads] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 25 Dec 2005

The Sins of Sony

Hopefully everyone has heard of the most recent Sony/BMG debacle, wherein Sony used DRM (Digital Restrictions Management) on their CD so that if you inserted it into a Windows machine, it would take over control of the machine, relaxing intrinsic security controls. Sony is not a first-time sinner. They have repeatedly shot themselves in the foot with their love of DRM. Look at the war they have been fighting with their customers using the PSP. The customers figure out how to break through the device's security, so Sony changes the device. Or look at the Librie. They thought they would be successful selling ebooks that were only readable for 60 days.

Anybody have other examples of self-defeating behavior by Sony?

Posted [11:54] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 24 Dec 2005

Onshoring from India

Everyone has of course heard of offshoring: moving jobs which do not need to be performed in-person off shore, presuambly to someplace with a lower cost of living. That boat goes both ways, though. I've spent the last week working (on-site in Mumbai) for Rediff.com. No doubt there are people in India who cry "Oh! You're shifting jobs to foreigners!". Sound familiar? Sure; it's the usual protectionist nonsense heard in the US.

No links to examples; there are too many of them to pick just one.

Posted [02:57] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 11 Dec 2005

Voluntary Cooperation

I think that the society that I would prefer to live in would have the most voluntary cooperation possible. I greatly value freedom, but if you look at some other cultures, you can see that they have even more freedom than ours. Look at a comment on a CafeHayek article by Camilo about Mexican society.

Camilo points out:

Mexicans don't stop for red lights. Mexicans don't stop for anything. Mexicans are raised to do everything and anything they want. Hegel defined true freedom as adherence to the law and caprice as its opposite: the very worst of all oppressions. I tend to agree. There are few things more oppressive than the knowledge that you are one of the few paying taxes and stopping at red lights when it's every man for himself all around.

You can easily say that Mexicans have more freedom, since they do what they want when they want where they want. Camilo points out that while that's freedom, it's not a valuable freedom. The freedom to run through red lights is not voluntary cooperation.

That would sound like an argument for a strong state, but it isn't. A government does not create voluntary cooperation. A government coerces obedience and calls it cooperation. The government has created a monopoly on local roads. If you wish to travel, you must do it on a government road, observing monopoly government rules. Objecting to this may sound stupid on the face of it, but we all know that monopolies become complacent. They don't innovate, they don't create new efficiencies, they tend to solve problems slowly if at all. "We don't care. We don't have to. We're the phone company." --Lily Tomlin as Ernestine.

There is no reason why a government monopoly should be any different kind of monopoly than a corporate one.

Thus you have my call, not for greater freedom from the constraints imposed by living around other people, but a call for greater voluntariness coupled with a call for greater cooperation. Not the kind forced on us by government, but the kind of cooperation that comes from the love of our fellow man. The peaceful kind. The joyful kind. The silent night kind.

Merry Christmas!

Posted [14:28] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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President Bush needs a veto pen

President Bush needs a veto pen. I don't know that he's vetoed a single bill. Certainly he is failing to use his power to veto Congress's action. He needs a veto pen. Maybe we need to start a campaign to send him a veto pen. Throw a certain brand of pen into a priority mail envelope and mail it to the president with a label saying "Veto Pen". Any suggestions for a brand of pens which is widely available and yet distinctive at the same time?

Posted [01:58] [Filed in: politics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Wed, 07 Dec 2005

Everyone is lazy

Austrian economics reasons out economics by starting from assumptions, and expanding upon them. If the assumption generates conclusions that are not observed in the real world, then the assumption is not correct. It's very useful to know which people prefer: work or leisure. One way you can figure this out is to keep everything else the same, and then see which people choose. That's hard to do since everything else is never the same. Another way to figure it out is to assume that people prefer one to the other and see if it makes sense. Jim Thompson claims to prefer work to leisure. Let's decide if he's right or just confused.

What would someone do if they really did prefer work to leisure (again, keeping everything the same)? The difference between work and leisure is that you get paid to do things other people choose, whereas nobody pays you for leisure of your own choice. Clearly everything is not the same, so let's assume that you get paid for your leisure. If anybody preferred to work under those conditions, then they would prefer to NOT do what they wanted, but instead to do things that other people chose. Does anybody actually act that way? No, of course not. This assumption generates ridiculous conclusions like "employees will never quit no matter how little you pay them, because under identical conditions they choose work over leisure."

Clearly Jim isn't used to this kind of thinking. Why should he bother to learn it? Well, if he thinks economics is boring, he wouldn't. But if he wants to say things about economics which are coherent, then he needs to understand good economics, and where it comes from.

What does this kind of thinking tell us about the real world? Because surely some people work (do what other people want) instead of enjoying leisure (doing what they want). It tells us that everything is NOT the same (because if it were, people would seek leisure). People don't ordinarily get paid for leisure. Further, it tells us that even if people are doing work of their own choice, they prefer to get paid to doing the same thing for free. Similarly, it tells us that if you pay someone incrementally less, some times the person will choose leisure.

A preference for leisure over work is a special case of another principle: that everyone wants to minimize the value (to them) of the things they give away when they trade. People are naturally cheapskates. Again, look at the counterexample: What if somebody didn't want to minimize the value they traded away? Do you ever see people arguing that they should pay a higher price? No, of course not.

Another way of saying this is that everyone is lazy. Racists claim that blacks are lazy, and I've tried to explain why in a posting of that title. Jim claims that my thesis is wrong, but he fails to restate it correctly, so I can't tell if he's claiming that I'm wrong, or if he's disagreeing with his restatement (which surely both of us agree is wrong).

I think that everyone has a built-in tendency to be racist and sexist and ageist and every other attribute with which you can lump people together. Let's call that Xist thought. People are vociferous pattern-matching machines, and we have a natural tendency to find meaningless patterns. With every signal comes some noise. Typesetters try to avoid "rivers", which are places where the spaces in words line up vertically. It's meaningless, but distracting to the reader. It's very easy to create a pattern out of random data, like "blacks are lazy", or "italians are gangsters", or "jews are greedy". Surely some blacks are lazy, some italians are gangsters and some jews are greedy--people will be people--get enough of them together and you'll find any kind of behavior.

Xists are the people who don't understand that they're seeing a false pattern. The rest of us understand that sometimes we will see patterns that aren't real. We all need to struggle against those spurious pattern matches. Blacks aren't lazy -- just that one you saw leaning on his shovel. Whites aren't racist -- just the one that treated you unfairly because of your skin. Jews aren't greedy -- just that one who profited from the letter of the agreement.

Of course, Xism isn't limited to negative attributes. It's Xist to say that blacks jump higher than whites. I could out-jump my brother-in-law any day even if he started on a footstool. It's Xist to say that Jews are smarter than everybody else. On average, they test higher on IQ tests, but you can't say anything about the average Jew because NOBODY is average. NOBODY is normal. Normal doesn't exist; everybody is an individual.

Treating individuals as exemplars of each group they belong to is intellectual error. Let the dummies (oops!) make that mistake--don't you.

Posted [01:24] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Wed, 30 Nov 2005

Microsoft is not evil

Microsoft is not evil. I know that a lot of people will disagree with me, but they are wrong. Microsoft is an organization of people (just as is the US government, the Red Cross, my handbell choir, my family, and my town). An organization is not a moral entity, because the organization has no attributes beyond those held by the people who make it up. An organization takes no action beyond that which its members undertake.

Microsoft is made up of a group of individuals, each of whom is responsible for the decisions they make. "I was acting under orders" didn't work for the Germans at the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, and it won't work for anybody who works at Microsoft. Anything that Microsoft does that you may wish to label as "evil" is being done by a person. That person may deserve the label "evil".

Similarly, many people who work at Microsoft are not responsible for the decisions made by corporate management. No doubt some people at Microsoft disagree vehemently. Everyone has their own opinion of how things should be done. We're all individuals -- even those who deny it.

It's strategically important to remember that Microsoft is made up of disagreeing individuals. We in the open source community need to reach out to those individuals who are sympathetic to our goals and principles. If we treat Microsoft as a uniform entity, we give up the only method likely to convert Microsoft to our way of thinking. If we are always hostile to Microsoft even when they do the right thing.

Posted [15:57] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Ride starting Tue Nov 29 11:33:55 2005

18.87 km 61911.09 feet 11.73 mi 4722.00 seconds 78.70 minutes 1.31 hours 8.94 mi/hr

Simply gorgeous out today. See the temperature graph below. It's only going to last one day, so I went for a ride into town to run some errands. Blowing like a sumbitch in my face, whipping up the sand spread earlier on the snow and ice of last week. Kept up a nice pace coming back downwind, though. Cruised at 18mph, making up for the time I spent in the post orifice.

Posted [14:23] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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US Citizenshp for sale?

Startupboy points out an interesting idea: Securitize Citizenship. In other words, give every US citizen a blank passport, and let them do whatever they want with it. This is a great idea! It solves several problems. First, it allows people who don't like immigrants to buy up passports and destroy them. Second, because there will certainly be a market for purchasing these passports, it lets all US citizens benefit from their hard work in making the US a nice place to live. Third, because the price will change, it will give citizens a personal reason to increase the quality of their government as seen by the rest of the world.

Posted [11:39] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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NYS License Plate "Watermarks"

I recently discovered that New York State license plates have a "watermark". It is an invisible badge imprinted into the reflective background of the plate. All three of my family's cars have this watermark. You can see it if you stand behind the car and shine a flashlight downwards at the plate. It's only visible within about a twenty degree cone, so if you don't see it, move around a little.

Apparently license plate aficionados know about these watermarks and look for them to help date license plates.

Posted [01:29] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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The Nokia 770 is not an embedded system

The more I look at the current state of applications for the 770, the more I realize that all the problems come down to the application installer. Basically, it's crippled. Somebody seems to have made a decision that the 770 is an embedded system. As such, it needs to be a pristine execution environment into which applications are installed, and don't ever frick with the root filesystem.

Unfortunately for that concept, the 770 is actually a fully capable Unix box. It has communications, mass storage located on multiple partitions, multiple I/O devices, and supports multiple user privilege levels (root and user).

The application installer won't let you do anything interesting. For example, I've not yet figured out how to install Python. I suspect that the problem is that the Python package was written for the developer's image, but who wants to use that -- it doesn't have a web client.

Nokia wants to have a device that it sells in droves to consumers. Consumers are going to want all the crunchy goodness that we developers are creating. Nokia knows that the customers are going to complain to Nokia whenever anything goes wrong. I think that the best solution has in essence two classes of users: naive (who get tech support) and self-supporting (who don't). Here's how my plan goes:

Nokia positions and sells the 770 as a nifty web interface, with a web browser, email client, mp3 and Internet radio player. Additional applications are available via the Nokia store, and people have to purchase these applications. Nokia wallows in the gravy, and uses some of that income to certify that the applications aren't going to fux0r users, and some to compensate the developer of the application. The application installer actually installs packages into the system rather than a sandbox, so packages are full-fledged peers (that's one reason why why Nokia has to charge for the applications -- to ensure that no badness passes into the user experience).

There are, however, alternate sources of packages. When you install a non-Nokia-certified application, you are prompted "This will void your warranty. Continue or Stop?" You can always get your warranty back by reflashing with a pure Nokia image. If a naive user calls for tech support of a machine with no warranty, they are sent to instructions on how to reflash back to in-warranty status.

Hardware repair policy is simple: Nokia always reflashes if it has any trouble running diagnostics.

Obviously, developers have an interest in creating applications that Nokia will sell for them, and which keep the user in warranty. If they choose to develop applications which aren't blessed by Nokia, that's okay too.

Everybody's concern is met: Nokia gets to ship a product with an enhanced revenue stream, Customers get an easy-to-use product, and Developers get full access to the whole machine and only need to develop for one image: the standard image shipped with the 770. No need for a special developer's image.

Posted [00:56] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 27 Nov 2005

Sick Days

New scientific evidence shows that 40% of all sick days are taken on Mondays and Fridays! That's nearly half of all sick days!

That would seem to be evidence of employees cheating their employers, wouldn't it? If so, it would make sense to clamp down on employee laxness by restricting the number of Mondays or Fridays that an employee could take off.

The trouble is that the other 60% of sick days are taken on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, thus it makes more sense to restrict mid-week sick days.

And the trouble with both of these conclusions is that 40% is 2/5th and 60% is 3/5ths of the whole, exactly what one would expect of a random sample of events spread over five days. Hat tip: Liberal Order.

Posted [01:46] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 26 Nov 2005

Expert Analysis of Risk

You see this all the time. An expert stands up and says "Through my expertise, I see a problem that nobody else sees." If you listen a little more closely, you find out that the reason the expert concludes that nobody else sees the problem is that they're not paying him money to solve it. That may seem excessively cynical. I don't think so. Being experts, they overestimate the importance of their field of study (no blame: this is the human condition).

The general public lives in a sea of risk. You know what they say: "Life is short and then you die." For some people life is shorter than others, if only because humans are fragile. People perceive some risks irrationally, particularly when you get into very small risks of very bad things. I think that that is simply because people cannot make the proper mental trade-off. Which risk is worse: the risk of dying in a coal-related accident or the risk of dying in a nuclear accident? Mathematically, coal is a bigger killer, and yet people are opposed to replacing coal with nuclear power.

Nonetheless, people who mis-estimate risks under their control are likelier to die. In this way do trees serve to eliminate the imprudent from the pool of automobile drivers. It's reasonable to assume that people are correctly evaluating the risks in their life. So when an expert says "I know better than you", they're technically correct in their field of expertise, but their recommendations do not automatically make for good policy.

Posted [12:33] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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It's a feature, not a bug!

In the world of computer programmers, we have a phrase: "It's a feature, not a bug!" We use that phrase when somebody doesn't understand the subtleties of how something should work. They apply a naive analysis to it and conclude that it was a mistake, and needs to be fixed.

Many people do not understand the structure of the US government. Sadly, they are as likely to be Americans as not (the blame for which I lay at the feet of Social Studies as taught in government schools.) Because they fail to understand the subtleties, they call for the government to be fixed. Usually this entails centralization of power.

This morning on our local NPR customer I heard a news report about the dangers of chemical plants. The main thesis of the story was that mere citizens don't understand the risks of chemical plants, because if they knew what the experts knew, they would call for federal laws regulating these plants. There are two problems with this idea. I'll tackle the problem with expert analysis of risk in another post. The other problem is the call for federalization. The NPR reporter whined at the end of her report "Without a federal law, when one state restricts chemical plants, that only transfers the problem to other states."

The structure of the US government is designed to handle error. Part of being human is making mistakes. Part of being a god is being omnipotent. So did The Christ know he was making a mistake as he was doing it? If that never happened, then he was either not human or not a god. But I digress. Complete knowledge is not available to us. What we know, we know because we have experimented.

The US government is one vast, continuous experiment, or so it's supposed to be. Unfortunately, we have greatly reduced the amount of experimentation in space, and turned it into experimentation in time. That's just plain stupid. Everybody knows that "many hands make light work." That just says that work goes faster if you have lots of people doing it. The same effect works in government.

The original structure was designed to be an parallel experiment in space. The federal government was strictly limited in the laws it could pass. All other laws were to be passed by states. Of course, not all states would pass the same laws. Thus, some states would make mistakes that others would not make. That's how science works: you have a control and you have a test. You keep one thing constant and you change the other.

We have destroyed all this experimentation by allowing federalization. We no longer restrict the federal government, and in doing so we have given up science. We no longer have a control. Everyone is a test subject, so we never really know what are the effects of laws. Without having US citizens who are not subject to those laws, we can't tell if they had good results or bad. Also, instead of running multiple experiments, we can only run one experiment across the entire country. If that experiment fails, as some people have said the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has failed, all of that time has been lost. With a more distributed set of laws, other states could have been trying something different.

The other problem with federalization can be seen by flying over the US. The many regions of the US are radically different. We have mountains and streams and lakes and deserts and plains and cities and forests. How can anyone think that one law could fit everywhere? Take, for example, telecommunications. The way you address "tele"communications depends on how far is your "tele". Telephone service in an apartment building is vastly different than telephone service out west where it's not unusual to have miles between customers. Beehive Telephone serves rural Utah and Nevada. They own an airplane to fly between their central offices. I can't imagine any eastern telephone company needing an airplane.

I'm not opposed to the use of governmental power. Many problems are easier to solve by forcing everyone to solve a problem the same way (e.g. water and sewer systems). I'm opposed to the use of governmental power in inappropriate situations. But how do we, as fallible humans, to discover which solutions are inappropriate without experimentation? If you agree with me that federalization is a philosophical mistake, please contact your state representatives and tell them to take back the power that is rightfully theirs.

UPDATE 11/16: Roy asks "How exactly are they supposed to do that?" Roy, you're trying to solve problem #2 before you solve problem #1. Problem #1 is to get the state legislators to realize that the federales have stolen their power. Each individual citizen is relatively powerless. In order to magnify their power, they need to convince the powerful to do their bidding. Since power seeks more power, the most effective path is to get the slightly less powerful to attack the more powerful. Right now, the most powerful single entity on the planet sits on Capitol Hill. Collectively, the state legislatures approach them in power, but first they must be convinced to exercise their power. Exactly how they do that is problem #2. First things first.

UPDATE 11/16: Scott contributes two examples:

Flush toilets - Al Gore (and many others) thought it was great idea to limit flush toilets to 1.6 gallons per flush. The unintended consequence is that many people flush *twice*!. However, while the dry western states might very well have thought such a law was a good idea and passed it on their own, does someplace like New Orleans, literally drowning in water even when not flooded, really need to suffer through such a restriction? I was in New Orleans back in 1991, and I saw city employees clean the streets with firehoses!

911 service - I live in Israel and got a Packet8 VOIP service earlier this year. One reason I chose this service was the cost, which didn't include the overhead of 911 service. Packet8 was going to eventually offer 911 as an option. But no, that wasn't good enough for the Feds. They completely overreact to a few people who obviously didn't read the not-so-fine print that their VOIP service 911wasn't the same as standard 911, and instead of merely requiring more visible notice or disclaimer, they required all VOIP services to provide 911, whether the user wanted it or not. I live in Israel. I want an American phone line for various reasons. I don't want or need 911 service and I don't want to pay for it. I had a choice before. Now I don't.

Posted [12:32] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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ipkg versus dpkg

On the maemo-developers list, people have been arguing about the advantages of ipkg versus dpkg. Hopefully I can show rather than explain why we (the hh.org) folks prefer ipkg.

I have Debian 2.2 on a server and Familiar 6.2 on a handheld. Since we're talking about using either dpkg or ipkg on a jffs2 filesystem, all space consumption is given as a compressed tarball. Here is the space consumed by the package manager's overhead for installed packages and for available packages against ipkg and dpkg.

packages size bytes/package
ipkg total 378K
ipkg available 939 317K 388
ipkg installed 147 61K 415
dpkg total 10620K
dpkg available 15272 8660K 567
dpkg installed 301 1860K 6180

Here's how I got these numbers:

ipkg total is:
tar cfz - /usr/lib/ipkg | wc -c
ipkg available is:
tar cfz - /usr/lib/ipkg/lists | wc -c
ipkg packages installed is:
ipkg status | grep ^Package: | wc -l
ipkg available packages is:
ipkg list | wc -l
dpkg total is:
tar cfz - /var/lib/dpkg | wc -c
dpkg available is:
tar cfz - /var/lib/dpkg/available* | wc -c
dpkg packages installed is:
grep '^Status: install ok installed' /var/lib/dpkg/status | wc -l
dpkg available packages is:
grep '^Status:' /var/lib/dpkg/status | wc -l

Posted [11:24] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Wed, 23 Nov 2005

GPS Receiver

My Nemerix BT77 GPS receiver arrived today. A quick few minutes on the charge, and it's already successfully paired with the 770 and emitting NMEA data. Now to get gpsd compiled.

Posted [23:52] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Maemo is not a distro

So, as it turns out, Maemo isn't a Linux distro. It's a Linux image. If you want to remove packages, guess what? You lose! They have dpkg installed, but initially it thinks it has no packages installed, because ... it doesn't. Everything in the image has been carefully placed there, and then forgotten about. I think that by only filling up the flash half-full, they figured that nobody would ever want to delete something from the base package.

I worked on handhelds.org's Familiar distribution. We shipped images, sure, but those were images that had been created by the package manager, and retained all the package manager information. So, for example, if one package was found to have a problem, it could be upgraded to another package. I don't see how Nokia can do incremental updates except by pretending that an update package is a completely new package to be installed.

It really looks like Maemo has started back in 1999 and is intending to reproduce all the mistakes that we made. It would be better if they made new mistakes.

UPDATE 11/24: Tomas points out that Maemo isn't even TRYING to be a distro, so my anti-thesis cannot be correct. He says that the 770 is just an embedded device. If you want it to do something different you should expect to reflash it. Perhaps he's right, but I never thought of the 486 EISA machine sitting next to me as an embedded device, and yet the 770 has more resources available to it. Why should a computer cease to be a computer simply because it fits in your pocket?

Posted [17:28] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Done playing, now time to hack

Okay, I'm done playing with the vanilla 770 as shipped by Nokia. I've gotten root access, installed xterm, vim, and dropbear, so I'm all set to hack. I bought the wrong bluetooth keyboard, the HP iPAQ Bluetooth Foldable Keyboard. However, it might be possible to use it with Nils's kbdd. Don't have that working yet.

Next thing to do is get pygps and mapview to work on it. That means getting Python, pygtk, and libglade installed and if necessary ported. After that, I need gpsd, but everything in its time.

Posted [00:27] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Tue, 22 Nov 2005

Don't ask to link to somebody's page!

Do NOT ask anybody for permission to link to their page. Freedom of speech and the press includes the right to tell people where information is found. Anybody who says that you can't link to their page is LYING. Absent a contractural relationship, they have no legal ability to stop you from publishing a URL. There is no legal theory (of which I am aware, but I'm not a lawyer) which gives them that control.

Trade secret law? As long as you received the URL from someone who had no obligation to protect a trade secret of theirs, you can publish it. If they have (for example) published the URL on their website by linking to the page in question, they can hardly claim that they are keeping a secret, can they? And if they don't keep their own trade secrets secret, you have no obligation to.

Patent law? You can't patent a URL, thank god.

Trademark law? But you can always use a trademark truthfully. If a company has a trademark in their domain name, and you use it to say that a web page is at a certain location, you are either right or wrong. Either way you haven't misused their trademark. You might lie and create a URL which disparages their trademark, but you'd have to lie first, and we all know that's not free of risk.

Copyright law? You can't copyright facts. An address is a fact. There may be a creative element in an address (e.g. Apple's "1 Infinite Loop" or FTP Software's "2 High Street"), but I know of nobody who thinks that that approaches the threshold needed for copyright protection.

DO NOT ask for permission to link. When you do it, you give other people the idea that they should also. This is the web--without linking it would be useless. Don't ask, just link.

Posted [10:58] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 20 Nov 2005

Workers "vs" Capitalists

I've been corresponding with someone who has a Master's degree in Economics (he doesn't say where from; I'm sure it's because they won't admit that they gave it to him), and calls himself "The Real Economist". He says this about workers and capitalists:

There has been and there still remains a simple fundamental fact in any capitalist economy; the capitalist who has to hire at least one worker, by definition, needs that worker to help operate the business; but, the worker, if and when organized and united with other workers, don't need the capitalist employer. The workers collectively can, if they want, form and operate their own government and economy. In other words, in the macro sense, the capitalists need the workers in order to operate and grow their businesses in any major way (workers aka 80% of consumers), but the workers don't need the capitalists in order to grow and exercise their power in any major way.

That's an admirable sentiment. "Bah! Who needs capitalists anyway?" Strictly speaking, it's true. Workers don't need capitalists. They can fore-go spending, accumulate their own capital, and form a worker-owned business. It's done all the time.

But there's something invisible going on here. He's trying to claim that "Capitalists" describes a set of individuals who have it in for workers. He's further claiming that once workers have capital, they'll remain workers and won't become capitalists. The problem with these ideas is that "Capitalists" describes many people. They didn't come into that role with a predisposition to screw workers. People who have capital behave a certain way. They have to, in order to remain capitalists. If they don't behave that way, they become "Philanthropists", who have an entirely different set of goals.

Workers who have capital are no longer just Workers. They are now Worker-Capitalists, who have the interests of both classes, at the same time. If they want to keep their job and their capital at the same time, they will cheerfully cut costs by firing workers (who lose their jobs but keep their capital). The alternative is for all of the workers to lose their jobs and their capital (aka life savings).

Real Economists are trained to see the invisible.

Posted [02:52] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 19 Nov 2005

I'm an X economist

From time to time you'll hear people say "I'm an X economist", where X might be labor, historical, Marxist, behavioral, Hayekian, Chicagoan, or Austrian. It is generally a mistake to say that. I don't mean that all schools of economics have produced equally valid results. I mean that the quality of economics is independent of the school that produced it.

There are no X economics. There are only good economics, and bad economics. Limiting yourself to only one school of economics is adopting an ideology. I have found much of value in Austrian economics, but I don't think of myself as an Austrian economist. I want to be open to useful economic results no matter the source. Perhaps someday a Marxist economist might produce something of value?

Posted [03:00] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Thu, 17 Nov 2005

Nokia 770 stylus door

I got me one of those nifty-spiffy Nokia 770 Internet Tablets. It has an interesting two-piece construction, with a cover that goes on front-ways to protect the screen, and back-ways to allow access to the screen and buttons. It has a magnet and sensor to detect when the cover is hiding the screen, so the machine sleeps when the cover is on. The cover also keeps the stylus from falling out when it's closed. Unfortunately, when it's open, it also prevents you from accessing the stylus.

This is easily fixed with a little bit of Dremel Moto-tool(tm) work:

removed bit of cover (Thumbnail)

I suspect that Nokia didn't build the cover this way because they thought it would look funny. Perhaps so. Another reason to build the cover with one side shorter is that it's easier to put the cover on the 770. The lower side would help you get it into the cover more easily.

Hat tip to Simon, who photoshopped this:

asymmetric case (Thumbnail)

Posted [01:50] [Filed in: 770] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Wed, 16 Nov 2005

Intelligence and Wisdom

Some people have not yet figured out that intelligence and wisdom are independent variables.

UPDATE 11/30: Dossy contributes the following observation:

Russ points out why it's important that people play Dungeons & Dragons at some point in their life. Everyone who plays D&D knows that Intelligence and Wisdom are separate stats.

Posted [01:34] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 11 Nov 2005

Licensing as value subtraction

Businessmen like to talk about their products' value-adds. After all, customers buy the products because of the value that the business adds to the raw materials. The business converts paper into documentation, and media into a copy of the software. Nobody says much about value-subtracts. For example, if you purchase gasoline, you take the risk that the gasoline will spill into the ground and contaminate it. That's the value-subtract for gasoline. You can't possess gasoline without taking the risk of it spilling. The use of it (the value-add) is inseparable from the risk of the possession of it (the value-subtract). The first exceeds the second, which is why people buy gasoline.

A software business may think of itself as selling software, but it actually sells a bundle of goods. They sell media containing the software, service, support, training, documentation and/or handholding. Those are all value-adds. Those are the things that customers desire and will pay for if offered separately from a license for the software. The company also requires that the user license the software. No customer would separately pay for a license that restricts their rights. That would be a subtraction in value. People buy the software because the combined value of the value-subtracting license and the value-add goods exceed the price.

Bare copyright law prevents a user from redistributing the software without a license. An open source license allows recipients of the software to redistribute it, thus an open source license is a value-add. An open source license may impose some requirements on the recipient, but those requirements are usually less onerous.

A business may want to transition from a proprietary business model to an open source business model. They may, upon introspection, notice that the income they receive from the value-subtract of licensing may be much less the income they receive from their value-adds. Licensing may only be serving to reduce the income from the value-add. In that case, the company would not need to change their business model. They would need only change the license.

An additional way to bring in income is to license the software under a license with lots of requirements, such as a reciprocal license, or a grant-back license. At the same time, the company would sell the software under a standard proprietary license with no reciprocal or grant-back clause. If a customer has an active interest in not copying the software, they may perceive a proprietary license as a value-add. This provides an means for a company to have the same product be both open source and proprietary. It can be tricky, since you need to have a contributor agreement for open source contributors, but that's reasonably well understood and not terribly controversial.

Posted [11:44] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Tue, 08 Nov 2005

"I want to pay higher taxes"

I was conversing with someone recently, and they said that they wanted to pay higher taxes.

No, they didn't.

The proper response to that statement is to ask them "So what's stopping you?" Nothing is stopping them from paying higher taxes. All you have to do is send in the check. Every taxing department is perfectly happy to have you pay higher taxes.

No, what they really want is the political power to force other people to pay higher taxes. If you can get them to admit that, then you should ask them whether they think other people's money would be spent more wisely by a government employee or by the person who traded his life energy for the money.

Posted [16:55] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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First, there is a mountain

Persons above a certain age may remember the Donovan tune There is a mountain, which starts "First there is a mountain then there is no mountain, then there is." Donovan, along with other pop rock stars of the day, had looked at Zen Buddhism and (I presume) was struck by the poetic turn of that phrase.

I'm working on regulating my breathing. First, there is no breathing (you don't pay any attention to your breathing), then there is breathing (you pay attention to breathing), then there is no breathing (having succeeded in training yourself to breathe correctly, you don't need to pay attention to it anymore). Right now, I have breathing. It will be some years before I have no breathing again.

This last sentence tells you why the young do not study Tai Chi very successfully.

Posted [02:26] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Mon, 31 Oct 2005

Jim Crow

Several people have remarked on Jim Crow laws lately: Don Boudreaux at CafeHayek, Thomas Sowell, and myself. Edwin writes to me saying that he thought Thomas Sowell got to the point better, which is that free markets don't tolerate discrimination. He is quite right.

Any kind of interference in the free market which does not favor one party over another will never be favored by businessmen for two reasons. First, because it's always possible that a competitor will cheat on the sly. Regulations only regulate the honest businessman. Second, because any regulation which requires modified behavior imposes a cost, and only rarely is this cost compensated-for. Perhaps the cost is a one-time cost in the form of retraining staff members. More likely the cost will be ongoing.

A non-economist might say "but everyone has that cost imposed on them, so it's perfectly fair." No, it's not. Everything has a substitute. Before we had FedEx, time-critical packages were hand-carried on airplanes. When I was a chip designer at HP, an engineer would fly down to the Bay Area to pick up her masks. People can still do that, and if FedEx and/or UPS stopped selling overnight services, the practice of hand-carrying would resume.

The bus companies in the south discovered to their chagrin that the black people didn't HAVE to ride their busses. During the bus boycott in 60's, blacks didn't ride any busses for an entire year. They walked, bicycled, and organized jitneys (private automobiles used for pay carriage; similar to taxis).

Posted [16:17] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 30 Oct 2005

Great "He gets it" quote

"I came for the quality, but I stayed for the freedom." - Sean Neakums

Hat tip to Jeff Waugh.

Posted [22:57] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Do drugs come with violence?

Jay Warran insists, in a letter to the Daily Courier-Observer published 10/29, that we should "Remember, with drugs comes violence. Period." I'm sure that the manager of the local P&C would be surprised, since he has an entire aisle-full of drugs, and sells them daily with nary a hint of violence. The pharmacist in the nearly Eckerd's would be equally surprised, since he sells drugs non-violently all day long.

Clearly, Jay means "With illegal drugs comes violence" even though he didn't say so. And yet I have to question this too. Which came first, the drugs or the violence? If one person is peacefully selling drugs to another, and society pulls a gun on both of them to force them to stop, it seems to me that society has created violence out of peace. So yes, I agree that illegal drugs are associated with violence, but that violence has been created by the laws that made the drugs illegal.

You may think that drugs are inherently bad, and this causes the violence, but you might be wrong. Imagine if use of the number five was absurdly made illegal. Everyone can see from their life experience that they can use the number five successfully without violence. If, after the start of the War on Fives, they needed to use a five every day, they would continue to do so in spite of the ban. Any violence used to stop the use of five would clearly be caused by the law, not by the five itself. If there were profits to be had from the use of five, they would have to be distributed without recourse to the law. Any conflicts would be escalated into outright violence.

What can we do about it here in St. Lawrence County? We can't make drugs legal on our own. We can, however, instruct the county sheriff to tolerate the use of drugs in certain socially-acceptable contexts. The drugs would still be illegal, and the state troopers might cause trouble, but at least we wouldn't be wasting tax dollars creating violence where none exists naturally.

Update 11/21: Richard Gadsden points out that a drug may very well be associated with violence, e.g. some people get aggressive when they get drunk. Clearly a designer drug formulated to enrage someone would be likely to come with violence. I think that Jay Warran was referring to drug sales, so I restricted my discussion similarly.

Posted [22:08] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 28 Oct 2005

Rosa Parks, lone hero?

Is Rosa Parks really a lone hero, riding away on her bus into the sunset? Certainly she is on the fast track to sainthood. Everyone who is anyone is currently lionizing her as the hero of the battle for civil rights for blacks. Only a few, however, have mentioned that earlier in her famous summer, a pair of unnamed black women had also gotten arrested. And for many years prior to Rosa's last stand, now-anonymous blacks fought and struggled for their right to be treated equally under the law.

So what makes Rosa Parks special? I say nothing much. She was not the first black hero, nor will she be the last one. Rosa Parks the person was clearly a brave person, but Rosa Parks is not just a person at this point. She has become a symbol, standing for many unnamed brave black people, each of them unwilling to accept being unfree in the Land of the Free and The Home of the Brave [black person]. People have a tendancy to personalize groups and movements, turning real people with foibles and faults into symbols. This is, I think, the flip side of our tendency towards bigotry. Just as we praise individuals (Rosa Parks) for the attributes of the group (the many blacks who struggled to be free), we also damn individuals for the (perceived) attributes of the group.

So why were the Jim Crow laws that mandated discrimination necessary? Because the nature of bigotry in a marketplace is a commons. Bigotry can be seen as an expense to a business. No business is well-served by treating potential (black) customers badly. No business is well-served by refusing to hire hard workers simply because of their color. The more any one business indulges itself in bigotry, the less profitable it is, and the more likely a non-bigoted business will be able to out-compete them. Thus, there is a limited amount of bigotry available to anyone.

A Jim Crow law serves to increase the available pool of bigotry by mandating that everyone be bigoted. It would be in a business's interest to cheat on Jim Crow laws and thus earn some extra profit, but such cheating would be highly visible. You can't not notice a black counterman serving white folks.

What finally broke the back of Jim Crow laws was black people refusing to put up with them. They attacked the backbone of businesses, so that businesses were hurt more by Jim Crow laws than they benefitted from idulging their bigotry. In the fourty years since the civil rights struggle was won, bigotry, although still present in American culture, has become unacceptable in polite company. Thus, I don't think that Jim Crow laws could get passed anywhere now.

And that's a good thing.

Posted [23:57] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Mon, 24 Oct 2005

Ride starting Sun Oct 16 05:42:06 2005

47.92 km 157208.60 feet 29.77 mi 18835.00 seconds 313.92 minutes 5.23 hours 5.69 mi/hr

I was in Amsterdam for EuroOSCON, and the airfare was $1,000 cheaper if I travelled over a Saturday night. That gave me an extra full day, so I rented a bike and went for a ride. MacBike calls the route "The Great Waterland Bicycle Tour". The map below is fairly uninteresting because Terraserver has no coverage for the Netherlands. However, if you click on the image, it will take you to a google maps version of the same thing. Switch to the satellite view and you'll see where I sent.

It was a fairly decent ride, almost 30 miles. The pace is horrible (5.69 mph) because I stopped for lunch, stopped in a little park to do taiji, and stopped to take photos. My map generator has no tiles for the Netherlands, but you can click through to the Google Maps mash-up.

Here's a scan of the brochure. Click on it for a very large rendition of it.

Posted [01:33] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 22 Oct 2005

Visited Countries


create your own visited countries map
Posted [15:38] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 21 Oct 2005

TCP/IP

I just got back from EuroOSCON. Ran into Rael Dornfest, who told of his first time meeting Larry Wall. He was so impressed on meeting him (in the bathroom) that he just ran away with his tongue tied.

On the other hand, when he met Tom Christiansen at the urinals, he looked over at Tom and said "TC Pee, I Pee."

Posted [21:48] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 15 Oct 2005

Crusaders?

Crusaders? Since when did they move Jerusalem to Iraq?

Posted [10:56] [Filed in: politics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Thu, 13 Oct 2005

Attack Advertisements

My wife has noticed that nobody votes for anybody. That's not what gets you out to vote. You vote to make sure that the other idiot doesn't get elected. So attack advertisements serve a valuable purpose: they are intended to get you to vote against the person mentioned in the ad.

Of course, a libertarian could foil that by making an ad that said "I agree with both of my opponents in this race. They're both scum-sucking bottom feeders. I'm not. Vote for me."

Posted [00:27] [Filed in: politics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Tue, 11 Oct 2005

Risk and Reward

Probably the biggest argument against government action is the relationship between risk and reward. Whenever any government agency or private enterprise is directed to take action by a bureaucrat or entrepreneur respectively, there are risks and rewards. These are not apportioned equally in the two groups.

When a bureaucrat directs his agency to take action, he is taking the risk that the action will be wrong. The action may very well not pan out. If that happens, because he took the initiative, he will be blamed. Consider the case of Gary Miles, candidate for St. Lawrence County District Attorney. He received evidence that Dr. Latimer was prescribing large amounts of painkillers (opiates). Rather than charge Dr. Latimer, he hounded the doctor out of office through a trial by press release. For this he is being criticized and will probably lose his election to Nichole Duvé.

Let's say, though, that the action that the bureaucrat took was correct. He will receive scant reward for his efforts. The public will not remember his good deeds later, at election time. Doing well is only his job; people don't consider him worthy of reward simply for doing a good job.

Contrast this with the risk and reward available to entrepreneurs directing private enterprise. The risk is still there. Just look at HP (fired its CEO and laid off 10,000 employees). The reward, however, is substantially greater.

You can predict, then, that given scant reward and substantial risk, that bureaucrats will underperform their equivalents in private enterprise when in control of the same resources.

UPDATE: he did lose to Nichole.

Posted [02:13] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Wed, 05 Oct 2005

Ride starting Wed Oct 5 16:28:26 2005

41.06 km 134711.51 feet 25.51 mi 8564.00 seconds 142.73 minutes 2.38 hours 10.72 mi/hr

This was an out-and-back ride. There's a couple of abandoned roads I wanted to explore in the Lost Nation State Forest. Both of them end up foundering in wetlands. It looks like the fill that formed the roadbed still extends across the wetland. Since it's gotten eroded to the point where you can't drive across it, it's completely grown over with impenetrable brush. I mean, I could push my way across it with my bike, but I wouldn't want to get across and find out that I had to come back because the other end of the road was posted or even more impassable. Had to go for a ride today because tomorrow is supposed to have a low in the 30's and high in the 50's. Can't pass up a sunny day in October in the North Country.

Posted [19:38] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Tue, 04 Oct 2005

The Morality of a Living Wage

I was having a conversation with a fellow over the morality of a living wage. His point was simply that a Christian could not morally pay less than a living wage. The thing about morals is that anything can be said to be moral or immoral, depending on the principle you are applying. His principle is that Jesus instructed us to take care of the least among us. From this principle he derives the moral judgement that if an employer pays less than a living wage, they are immoral.

This is economic nonsense. Just as a bridge is supported on two ends, so is every economic action. When somebody is paid, it must be for something they have done. If people are to be paid a living wage, they must accomplish a living wage's worth of work. Everyone is fundamentally lazy (a negative description) in that they seek to accomplish their goal efficiently with an economy of effort (a positive description of the same action.) Thus, in order to gain that living wage, people will work no harder than necessary. Similarly, an employer will pay no more than necessary to gain that amount of work. The amount of pay that anybody receives for their job is a function of the pay required to hire the last employee needed. If you can hire ten people at $1/hour, but you need eleven, and the eleventh can only be hired for $2/hour, then you will end up paying all of them $2/hour. What will happen is that the $1/hour people will inevitably find out about the $2/hour person, and either ask for a raise or quit. Since the last person hired had to have an offer of $2/hour, so will the next person hired. In time, everyone will be paid the same amount as the last person hired.

Posted [11:32] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Affirmative Action

The intent of affirmative action is to correct for past prejudice. The intent of equal opportunity is to correct current prejudice. You often hear about employers advertising themselves as "Equal Opportunity / Affirmative Action" employers. The trouble with these two goals is that they are in conflict with each other. The goal of equal opportunity is to have a society with no prejudice: where all individuals are evaluated on their own merits. Affirmative action (AA, henceforth), on the other hand, requires employers and educators to treat the harmed individuals specially.

Logically, they are incompatible. There is only one way this situation can be saved: if AA is strictly limited in time. AA is a law that must eventually go away once the harm has been substantially addressed. Or the addressed groups must be limited as one group's harm is compensated but another group's remains (e.g. blacks have been under AA since the beginning, but the disabled were added later.)

It's really important that AA have a goal in sight. Prejudice is generally regarded as counter-factual. Let's say that you are prejudiced against blacks; you think that blacks make worse accountants. You would prefer to hire a white accountant. Prior to AA, it's likely that a black accountant would have had to work harder in school, in order to overcome the racism of those who think blacks would make bad accountants. So the racist's prejudice would be exactly backwards.

If AA is goes on longer than it should, then you end up with the opposite situation. Rather than blacks being given a hand up to the level of whites, blacks are effectively told "Our expectations of you are lower," "You can't do as well as whites, so we have AA for you," and "You don't have to work for success." Since a black can get into a degree-granting program with lower credentials, graduate with lower grades, and be hired by an accounting firm under AA, the racist has a concrete reason for preferring white accountants to blacks.

As reparation, AA is perfectly fine. "We harmed you in the past; this makes up for it." But reparation beyond the extent of the damage becomes a crutch. The question at hand is not "should we have AA?" but instead "has AA done its job; if so we must abolish it to avoid creating harm."

Posted [11:21] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Mon, 03 Oct 2005

Ride starting Sun Oct 2 13:46:07 2005

36.96 km 121246.45 feet 22.96 mi 8085.00 seconds 134.75 minutes 2.25 hours 10.22 mi/hr

Rode mostly the same ride as yesterday. I had seen an interesting sign, the text of which was "Unmaintained Road. Travel at your own risk". For me, that's like dangling a steak in front of a dog. They're practically asking me to ride down that road. So of course I did. It was otherwise your basic abandoned road except for one thing: it had a powerline going down it! There are paved roads with long stretches that have no power and yet here was this mere track through the woods with a power line. Turns out that it goes to the easternmost farm on Van Kennen Rd. and stops there. Strange.

Posted [00:45] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 01 Oct 2005

Ride starting Sat Oct 1 16:30:54 2005

36.58 km 120017.14 feet 22.73 mi 7167.00 seconds 119.45 minutes 1.99 hours 11.42 mi/hr

Decided to go exploring today. Went on Brookdale Rd. northeast from Brookdale. It's a pleasant little seasonal dirt road. Went up to Plumbrook Road, and back to Old Market Road south and home. Saw a very interesting formation in the sky: a contrail shadow. It was a long dark blue line against a brighter blue sky. The sun happened to be exactly lined up with a contrail and it left a very long shadow; all the way to the horizon.

Posted [19:10] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 30 Sep 2005

The Real Poverty of Understanding

Nancy Cauthen, deputy director of the National Center for Children in Poverty, has a poverty of understanding. She is so clear on this issue that she has taken to writing about it. Unfortunately, I have to wonder what would she do if there were no children in poverty? I don't mean to be excessively cynical, but I think that when people's words are directly aligned with the source of their income, a reasonable person should take them with a grain of salt. For example, she says:

But research indicates that it takes an income of anywhere between one and a half to three times the current poverty level to meet basic family needs.

And yet somehow people manage to live. What does that tell you? It suggests two things to me:

Then she asks "So what can be done?" and answers her own question with "... it's time to talk also about the obligations of government to its citizens." Ahhhhh, now we get to the prescription: more subsidies. I'm sorry, but leftist strategies are the cause of our current problems, not the solution to them. We need to be clear: government spending does not create charity; government spending *displaces* private charity. The question is not whether people will help; the question is how they will help. The decision is not between government help and no help but instead between government help and private help. Remember: a government with enough power to tax to help the poor is a government with the ability to wage a permanent floating war.

Posted [14:50] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Copyright Natural Law

I think that everyone is aware of the battle currently being waged over the distribution of music in digital form. This is currently being done by P2P (Peer to Peer) file sharing. People can share their digital music collection at the same time that they download other people's music files. Clearly this is a violation of copyright law.

Copyright law has two expressions, however: the state's law (the written-down law backed up by the power of the state) and the natural law (the way things work in the absence of state law). Many people don't understand natural law. They think that law can exist in only one fashion: through the action of the legislature in enacting a law, the action of the executive in enforcing the law, and the action of the judiciary in interpreting the law.

Natural law exists, however, and those who break it, do so at their own peril. For example, there are the three natural laws of thermodynamics, or the speed limit of sound in air, or light in transparent media. I hear people objecting to these as mere physical facts of the universe. And yet is not human nature not also a physical fact of the universe? The typical person wants to live and will do nearly anything short of killing themselves to do so. Thus there is a natural law against murder. People will take steps to ensure that they are not murdered, or if they are, then their murderer will be killed. State law has nothing to do with these natural laws, although it is one possible way of expressing natural laws.

State law cannot change natural laws.

The RIAA as breaking the the natural copyright law. They've managed to ensure that copyright never expires. The natural copyright law is a bargain between the publishers of copyrighted works and the recipients of copyrighted works. The publishers promise to eventually put the work into the public domain, and the recipients promise not to copy. Clearly, the RIAA has violated the law, and is suffering the consequences of doing so.

Whenever state law doesn't match natural law, you see massive disrespect for state law. Can you think of some examples of this?

Posted [11:41] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Thu, 29 Sep 2005

Affirmative Action must go

Affirmative action must go. It is a crutch, and any healthy person who relies on a crutch will become dependant upon it.

Posted [12:06] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Thu, 22 Sep 2005

Hijacking is so passe

Nobody will ever hijack an airplane again. The 9/11 hijackers ensured this by convincing EVERYONE EVERYWHERE that their life depends on mashing the hijackers into a pulp. 90 pound grannies will stab them with their knitting needles. Blind men will slash them with their canes. Children will bite their ankles. There will be so many people rending their flesh from their bones that most people won't have a chance to help.

The only current on-board threat to airplanes is explosives. Any effort to prevent hijacking is a Maginot line. Defenders of the concept of useless fortifications point out that the Maginot line succeeded. Defenders of real security point out that the enemy gets a vote, and he votes to attack you at your weakest point, not your strongest.

Posted [11:57] [Filed in: politics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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WAAT, WNEW and WMCA

This one is for Doc Searls. He likes taking photos from the window seat. He grew up in New York City listening to the good old AM radio stations. Turns out that their towers are over in the New Jersey meadowlands, just on the west side of the Hackensack River. You can (barely) see them in the photo below. They're in the three wetland "cells" formed by the two Conrail tracks in the foreground, the New Jersey Turnpike, and the Amtrack tracks. The right-hand border is the Belleville Turnpike. Just out of the frame to the bottom (northwest of the photo) is I95. The WAAT towers are in the near cell, probably just off the frame to the right. The WNEW towers are on the little spit of land in the middle cell. The far cell shows the WMCA towers best. In the distance you can see the Hudson River. On the Jersey side you have Hoboken, and on the New York side is Manhattan with its missing twin towers. In the Hudson is Liberty Island with the Statue of Liberty barely visible. The second photo has a better shot of the Statue of Liberty across the Passaic River in the near front, Kearny Point, the Hackensack River, Jersey City, and the Hudson.

WAAT, WNEW, and WMCA towers (Thumbnail)

Statue of Liberty (Thumbnail)

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Tue, 20 Sep 2005

Ride starting Mon Sep 19 13:17:08 2005

14.15 km 46408.89 feet 8.79 mi 2784.00 seconds 46.40 minutes 0.77 hours 11.37 mi/hr

Rode back from Mom's Schoolhouse Diner. Heather was taking Eric to his piano lesson, so they went on to Canton, and I bicycled home.

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Sun, 11 Sep 2005

Why are there so few in office?

Why are there so few economists and libertarians in elected office?

Economics: I think that if somebody thinks they can decide things for other people, they do not understand economics. If you understand economics, then you are humble and modest. Of course, that would explain why there are so few economists in elected office. You have to have a large amount of confidence that you can help people by forcing them to do things they wouldn't otherwise do.

Libertarianism has a philosophical problem in that the better a libertarian you are, the less likely it is that you will seek to control other people. The Libertarian Party is at best an effort to do the least bad possible, and who would vote for that? You're more likely to be successful in preventing the most bad by voting for the least bad major party candidate.

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Sat, 10 Sep 2005

Indirection

I asked a few friends why a significant number of people feel that it's not enough for your actions to help people; you have to have intended to help people. Also why some people think that actions intended to help people is sufficient regardless of whether the actions help or hurt them.

I got a reply from J.D. Von Pischke which I will explain in my own way below. Credit for the idea goes to J.D.; blame for a poor explanation of it goes to me.

There is a simple explanation for this: humans do not easily comprehend indirect effects. In Biblical times (which is to say the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim tradition), institutions were much simpler. Actions and results were linked more directly, and chains of actions were fewer. If you wanted to make yourself better off, you did more of the same thing. A carpenter would build more chairs or cabinets; a shoemaker more shoes; a baker more loaves. Indirect action was rare. If you wanted to help someone, you gave them help directly.

Slowly, over time, institutions became more sophisticated. People's interactions with each other and with groups became more complicated. If you want to help someone, you can still help them directly, but there are now groups and people whose life work is helping others. Your help is probably more effective when it is indirect: helping the helper.

Look at today's situation: you could drive down to the Gulf Coast to help people, but without good logistical support, it's quite possible that you could become a victim in need of aid yourself. This certainly happened a bit more than a hundred years ago at the Johnstown Flood, where the first people on the scene brought no food or water and needed to be fed alongside the victims later. Your aid is better done indirectly, by donating to the many groups who are helping. Are you helping? Surely. But because of the indirection, nobody is in a position to comprehend everything that's being done.

Just as aid organizations have become more sophisticated and effective, so have institutions which improve welfare and create wealth. They're harder to understand because they operate indirectly. Because of this, people look for simpler explanations. These may be based on scripture, such as the Biblical suspicion of material wealth -- a view was based on the creation and use of wealth in those simpler times. Other simple explanations have been used to obtain political power, as Marx's followers so devastatingly demonstrated in the past century.

Look at how Wal-Mart prepared for the storm. They knew from past experience that some of their stores would need extra supplies, so even before the storm hit landfall, they had many trucks loaded with relief supplies. They did this to make money, but indirectly they were helping people. They have also given millions of dollars in donations.

Today wealth is much more widely spread than in antiquity, as represented by modern liberal societies' great institutions, including education, health, commerce, justice, government, etc. These are also more difficult to explain and comprehend. A challenge for economists and many others is to sort out the dimensions of simplicity. This is an exceedingly complex task in an exceedingly complex world in which indirect leverage, i.e., complexity, has increasingly greater effects than direct action.

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Ride starting Fri Sep 9 15:29:07 2005

17.39 km 57053.64 feet 10.81 mi 3551.00 seconds 59.18 minutes 0.99 hours 10.95 mi/hr

A boring trip into the bank to deposit some checks and drop off a magazine article at Jimmy Sheehan's. Still, any bike riding is better than none.

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Tue, 06 Sep 2005

Like a Spitzer with his head cut off

Why is it, that the first thing a politician does when under any kind of political pressure, is to do something which is economically moronic, bereft of good sense, stupid, and out and out damfool? They're no more sensible than a chicken with its head cut off.

Consider two politicians, Elliot Spitzer, and Darryl Aubertine (who is so lame that he doesn't even have a website). Elliot Spitzer proposes to thwart the free market's efforts to conserve precious gasoline. He proposes to deal sharply with people gouging drivers by charging high gas prices. He must have been studying the gasoline supply chain in his copious spare time, because he has suddenly become an expert on gasoline pricing. At least, he proposes to be able to distinguish "who is price gouging and who is raising prices to survive."

Sorry, Elliot, but you're not that smart. I'm not that smart either. No one person is that smart. It takes a village to set the price of gasoline properly. Only by individuals deciding how badly they need gasoline can markets properly adjust the price of gasoline to match the supply of gasoline. If the price goes way up, then that is what the individuals have decided should happen. If gasoline retailers, distributors, refiners, see that there is lots of money to be made by coming up with more gasoline, then that is what they will do.

Now on to ream Darryl a new one for suggesting in the 8/28 Advance*News that New York State should lower the its gas tax. Hey, Darryl, remember studying economics in college (assuming that you did, which is probably a stretch, but if you didn't, how is it that you get to interfere in the economy when you don't understand anything about economics)? Remember the law of supply and demand? If the demand is higher than the supply, the price goes up. If the demand is lower than the supply, the price goes down. Pretty simple, eh? So where do taxes come into this? If the supply shrinks because of a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico, and demand doesn't shrink, the price will go up. Why do you think that, by lowering the New York State gas tax, either the supply will go up or the demand will go down?

Darryl, you don't have a magic wand. Lowering the NYS gas tax will only result in an unfair windfall to the gasoline retailers, distributors and refiners. Don't fiddle with things you don't understand.

Political control and free market control are inevitably at odds with each other. John Trever, Albequerque Journal, makes this obvious in this cartoon:

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Ride starting Tue Sep 6 10:52:30 2005

20.87 km 68473.57 feet 12.97 mi 5949.00 seconds 99.15 minutes 1.65 hours 7.85 mi/hr

Running errands. Dropped a Rutland Trail poster off at The Treadmill. Dropped off some WISAN modules at Clarkson. Stopped by COSI's lab to offer to give a talk on open source licensing.

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Mon, 05 Sep 2005

Ride starting Mon Sep 5 13:58:11 2005

47.99 km 157436.24 feet 29.82 mi 14792.00 seconds 246.53 minutes 4.11 hours 7.26 mi/hr

Rode most of the Rutland Trail today. If I had started in Norwood, it would have been the entire trail. There's a couple of detours off the railbed; one in Winthrop where the bridge is out and another in North Lawrence, again where the bridge is out. The trail actually extends beyond Moira by almost two miles. Beyond that, somebody used the trail as their driveway and the other end of that .58 mile section ends in another bridge that's out. Then in Brushton you have a section of the trail in the village that is basically in people's back yards, then another section behind some businesses, then another section leading up to a missing bridge, and finally the last quarter-mile section on the way out of the village has been built upon. So Brushton is a black hole as far as the Rutland Trail is concerned.

So today is our 24th wedding anniversary. Took Heather out to dinner Saturday, and out for ice cream today. She was really sweet, and drove out to Moira to pick me up after my ride. I had never ridden so much of the Rutland in one day as today. Excellent ride!

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Baby Owen

Baby Owen farted in Quaker meeting today. That would be otherwise unremarkable given that he's 8 weeks old. But the event was commemorated by a leading thanking God for sending Jesus to grow up as a human, with all the high points and low humor that entails.

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Sat, 03 Sep 2005

155 and One Reasons

155 and one reasons why the government should stay out of disaster recovery. Update 9/4: Donald Boudreaux agrees

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Fri, 02 Sep 2005

Ride starting Fri Sep 2 18:45:31 2005

18.68 km 61302.24 feet 11.61 mi 4710.00 seconds 78.50 minutes 1.31 hours 8.87 mi/hr

Wow. Almost rode in a perfect square tonight. Or, at least as perfect a square as one CAN ride here in the North Country of New York where the roads are aligned with whatever pattern of dirt the glaciers decided to leave lying around. Cleaned up some Hurricane Katarina debris off the Rutland Trail. Met a father and son riding ATVs east as I was riding west. Told them about the RTP grant that the Rutland Trail received, and about the website.

There is a tree down on the trail, mostly blocking it. Too big to move, needs chainsawing. I put an X on the map at the location of the tree, slightly east of North Stockholm. UPDATE 9/3: chainsawed the tree out of the way.

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Ride starting Thu Sep 1 15:47:07 2005

18.01 km 59074.83 feet 11.19 mi 5616.00 seconds 93.60 minutes 1.56 hours 7.17 mi/hr

Biked into town (Thumbnail) to run errands. Had to Express Mail (Thumbnail) off an NDA (Thumbnail) to Broadcom (Thumbnail) . They want a packet driver (Thumbnail) , undoubtedly for a customer making a cash register for McDonald's (Thumbnail) . Also mailed off a T-shirt (Thumbnail) to Colin Viebrock (Thumbnail) , who devised the OSI logo (Thumbnail) in the first place. Then on to Potsdam State
(Thumbnail) to drop off a contract they'd mistakenly mailed to us in Heather (Thumbnail) 's Beginning Knitting packet. Then on to the bank (Thumbnail) to get money (Thumbnail) after going bankrupt at State Fair (Thumbnail) . And finally on to Jimmy Sheehan's (Thumbnail) to pay the monthly rent on the wireless base
station (Thumbnail) .

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Bush's Katarina speech if he were truly a Republican

If George Bush were truly a Republican, here's the speech he would give:

My heart goes out to all Americans who have suffered, who are suffering, and who will suffer from the continued effects of hurricane Katarina. Their suffering has just started, as many of them have no homes to return to, no employment, and little hope.

Many American are looking to the Federal Government to help with Katarina relief. They're looking in the wrong place. In any disaster, information is scarce and needs are scattered. In all humility, we in the Federal Government simply don't know, and can't know whose needs are highest. The people who will provide the soonest help, the most help, and the best help are you, the American People. Many voluntary agencies have already mobilized to help the katarina victims, well in advance of the donations needed to pay for the mobilization.

Y'know folks, the people of the Gulf Coast need my salary more than I do. Everybody knows that I'm well off. I appreciate the salary that comes with the office of President, but I'm going to donate September's salary to my church, to the Red Cross, and to the Salvation Army. I encourage every other elected leader to lead in the most tangible manner possible: with their wallet.

For those of you who pray, pray for the people of the Gulf Coast. For those of you who do not, keep your thoughts close to the victims. They'll need your good thoughts. Thank you.

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Wed, 31 Aug 2005

Voting with their lead feet

I had occasion to drive on both I-90 and I-81 north and west of Syracuse last week. The usual speed on I-81 was 75MPH. The usual speed on I-90 was 80MPH. I think it's fair to say that drivers are voting with their lead feet to change the 65MPH speed limit on both roads.
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Tue, 30 Aug 2005

Economics Education

A fellow brought to my attention an article by Joseph E. Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics. He was shocked and horrified that Stiglitz would say:

The growth of the 'Open Source' movement on the Internet shows that not just the most basic ideas, but even products of enormous immediate commercial value can be produced without intellectual property protection.

I asked why he was so upset, and he explained that he was afraid that naive people would think that "Open Source = Public Domain". He suggested that this statement is false. He's right, the statement is false (not completely true). It's false in that only a vanishingly small amount of open source is actually in the public domain (without copyright). The statement is mostly true, though: Open Source is a success because it gives up most intellectual property protection. In context, it's true enough and for the audience Stiglitz was writing for, it wasn't worth explaining the difference.

Brian Ruth carved an eagle's head out of a log (Thumbnail)
It's very easy when writing about economics to get so detailed that you completely lose your audience. I present as evidence the fact that so many people have no clue about economics. Bad economics education. Explaining economics is like carving an eagle out of a log with a chainsaw. I saw Brian Ruth do this last week at the New York State Fair. First he roughs out the shape, when he goes back and adds more and more details. You can't present every last detail to people and expect them to comprehend it all. You have to start with the big ideas and help people understand them first.

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Mon, 29 Aug 2005

Ride starting Fri Aug 26 10:22:37 2005

61.85 km 202927.66 feet 38.43 mi 20283.00 seconds 338.05 minutes 5.63 hours 6.82 mi/hr

Rode the Ontario Pathways trail from Canandaigua to Phelps Junction. Parked the car at one end of the trail just south of Phelps Junction. The associated railroad is the Sodus Bay Branch of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It crossed the New York Central at Phelps Junction. After it was abandoned, a portion of it was converted into a siding off the New York Central, so the rail-trail actually begins shy of Phelps Junction.

Bicycled to Canandaigua on county roads. Once there, I found the western end of the rail-trail. Starts right in the middle of town next to the existing FGLK line. Parallels it on the south side for a while, then turns to the south. This is the first rail-trail I'd ever been on which is both mowed and has no ATV traffic. They have the entire railbed gated off to exclude ATVs. Without much traffic, the railbed is given over to grass. Some bicyclists have worn a narrow strip of dirt. Even that is missing in some spots, so if you bicycle this, count on several miles of riding on grass. There's a short section where they couldn't get ownership or an easement, so they negotiated access from a neighboring farmer. Further on, they built a complete new deck for the bridge over Flint Creek. Fortunately, the steel was still in place, and they were able to reuse most of the bridge decking.

Sidney is an interesting place, because three railroads come together at one point. The Lehigh went from northeast to southwest, and the Pennsy went from northwest to southeast. The Lehigh seems to be completely overgrown, and the Pennsy south of town is grown over. The Pennsy bridge over the county road is gone, but the abutments remain. Interestingly, all the grading on the south side of the abutment has been removed, so the abutment looks more like a concrete wall than anything that ever held up a bridge.

The rail-trail turns a sharp corner to head northwards towards Phelps Junction where I had parked my car. Before too long, you hit a closed section of the trail. They need to rebuild the bridge deck over County Route 5. Don't take the railbed once you hit Flint Rd. The railbed crosses at a very sharp angle, and there's no Ontario Pathways gate on the other end. Stay on Flint Rd. until you get into Flint. You can climb up the embankment like I did, or follow the approved path and take the first right after passing underneath the railroad bridge. Look for the Boces office; there's an access trail at the back of it.

After you cross Ferguson Rd., but before you enter the woods, keep your eyes out for the Rochester to Geneva trolley line that crossed the railroad. I didn't plan this ride well enough and didn't know exactly where the trolley line was, so I missed it. In Orleans, check out the old water tower next to the railbed. It's still being used by the fire department now. At this point, the railbed is again closed. Ontario Pathways owns a ways down the railbed, but they haven't improved it since it soon dead-ends in a section they have no access to. So if you ride down this way, the trail soon peters out into brush after you cross the old highway bridge.

I rode on Route 488 around the closed section, but I might have done better to turn right and go down Wheat Rd on the other side of the creek. Wheat Rd. is used to gain access to the railbed again. Flint Creek, which I've crossed twice already, is now on my right. There's another bridge to cross Flint Creek, and immediately after that is the Lehigh Valley mainline out of Geneva. There's no sign that it's open as a rail-trail (informal or otherwise), and the bridge is out and there's no way to cross the valley there. You would have to route the trail down to creek level, cross on the Ontario Pathways bridge, then make your way back up to the level of the Lehigh.

Shortly after that is another bridge over Flint Creek (four in all), the end of the rail-trail, and my car.

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Ride starting Thu Aug 25 09:16:24 2005

73.72 km 241872.59 feet 45.81 mi 18361.00 seconds 306.02 minutes 5.10 hours 8.98 mi/hr

A very fine ride on Thursday. I was staying at the New York State Fair chaperoning the boys from our county's 4-H program. Each county spends four days total running a booth at the state fair. The booth contains the best projects of the county's kids. The teen leaders staffing the booth spend their day running activities to entertain visitors.

I, on the other hand, being superfluous during the day, went for two rides on Thursday (this one), and Friday's. This ride involves two different rail-trails: the Cato-Fair Haven Trail, and the Hojack Trail.

The Cato-Fair Haven Trail is a reasonably managed trail. In spite of the signs that say "No Wheeled Vehicles", bicycles are encouraged to use the trail. The sign seems to be referring to "No Motorized Wheeled Vehicles", because snowmobiles are allowed to use the trail in the winter. In spite of the sign, ATVs are indeed using the trail. Maybe they're a small set of riders allowed on the trail to keep a section of the trail free of grass? They mow the trail with a brush-hog; indeed they were mowing it on the day I rode the trail. There are a number of missing bridges; at least two railroad bridges over the highway had been removed and have been replaced by ramps down and back up. One highway bridge over the railroad was removed and replaced by ramps up and back down. A bridge over a creek is missing and has been replaced by a ramp around the abutments and down to a culvert. Not once did I have to get off my bike, though.

The Hojack Trail needs more mowing than it's currently getting. There were some places where I had to slow way down because I couldn't see the surface of the trail for the weeds that had grown over it. Unfortunately, the trail is really just a Cayuga County trail. It goes into Oswego County a little ways, but even though they own some portion of the right of way and it's free of brush and trees, they've closed it to public access. There have been wash-outs and on the privately owned sections, development, or so reports the Oswego County Tourism Director. The extent of the trail on the map below shows all of the officially open sections of the trail. It's possible that the trail goes beyond the Cayuga County line to the south-west, but if so, it leaves the railbed to do it.

Interestingly, the Ira Town Offices in Cato (southern end of the trail) are in a modern building with railroad station detailing. I suspect that it's built in the same spot as the old Cato railroad station.

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Mon, 22 Aug 2005

Ride starting Mon Aug 22 18:20:06 2005

20.60 km 67593.94 feet 12.80 mi 3703.00 seconds 61.72 minutes 1.03 hours 12.45 mi/hr

Decent pace but a short ride. Here is where I keep whinging about the shortening day. Looking forward to riding the Cato-Fair Haven Trail later this week while we're at State Fair. Also might ride the Ontario Pathways trail from Canandaigua to Newark.

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Sun, 21 Aug 2005

The Law

Everyone who thinks government is a good thing and more government is a better thing should read The Law, by Frederic Bastiat. Amazon has it. Or listen to the free audio book recording of it. Or read it online.

It's hard to learn what good economics entails -- because you have to give up a comfortable ignorance to do it. Once you learn and understand economics, then you'll become a misfit among your Friends. You'll realize how many of them are pursing actions which are at odds with their goals. They want peace but support a powerful government even though it should be completely obvious that the bulk of society (who are not pacifists) will support the use of that government to wage war.

On the one hand, I don't like being at odds with my Friends. On the other hand, I wouldn't have my ignorance back.

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Fri, 19 Aug 2005

Burning Man

I notice that the Burning Man art festival has an awful lot of rules. Some of these rules are imposed upon it by external authority. Other rules, however, are necessary to keep people from coming to harm. The Burning Man organizers have created their own police, their own hospital, property rights, noise abatement laws, and a planned community.

Some people would say that this is evidence of a need for government. I don't think so. What is happening instead is a very large community is created from nothing in a very short period of time, and then is disbanded. If a community grows slowly on its own, or else is a permanent community, it will create its own spontaneous order. Burning Man has neither of those. The organizers end up being the source and repository of the spontaneous order. They started with no rules, and over time, having made mistakes and learned from them, they have put rules in place.

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Wed, 17 Aug 2005

Ride starting Wed Aug 17 15:13:21 2005

First portion: 49.28 km 161684.31 feet 30.62 mi 10454.00 seconds 174.23 minutes 2.90 hours 10.55 mi/hr

Second portion: 9.21 km 30218.65 feet 5.72 mi 1837.00 seconds 30.62 minutes 0.51 hours 11.22 mi/hr

Rode over to Canton today to pick up vitamins and the new glasses. I had multiple female friends tell me that my glasses look dorky. Worse, they both said "dorky". They weren't just dorky, they were doubly dorky. See my home page for the old glasses. Don't have a picture of the new glasses yet.

Stopped by some Friends (Brent and Rebecca) to see how they were doing. Brent has gone over to the grey side of the force and purchased an Apple laptop. Many open source folks have done the same thing. After all .... it's running Unix, right? Stayed long enough that my GPS software decided I'd started another trip, so the times and distances got split into two trips.

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Mon, 15 Aug 2005

Trust Free Markets

Dikalosunh writes:

My hunch is that, if low food production is a chronic but cyclical problem, the government should (and should be encourage to) put in place a system for subsidizing grain purchases in lean times - the temporary subsidization would not distort the market too much overall, I suspect.

Alas, it would completely distort the market. You see what happens is that farmers need to sell their grain every year, because they need to get cash out to purchase resources to plant new grain. The price that farmers will get changes from year to year depending on the amount of grain grown and brought to market. And yet customers don't want to have to pay huge amounts of money for grain products one year, and small amounts the next year. You end up with a situation where rich people pay the farmers a smaller total, and charge the customers of grain products a larger total, and smooth out the difference.

I suggest that many people have a problem with this because you have rich people getting richer on the backs of farmers and consumers. The only thing that can make it fair and just is when you have the competition that only free markets can create.

Trying to reproduce this process through government action cannot possibly work, because government players 1) don't have the freedom to risk taxpayer's money (and that is as it should be), 2) don't have the information that the prices produced by free market competition, and 3) government employees have zero incentive to succeed and all the incentive to not fail. "Success" and "not failing" are completely different things.

I want to be clear here: I don't worship free markets, just as I don't worship my automobile engine. I am confident that my automobile engine will get me to the places I need to go. That's not worship, that's just confidence. I feel the same way about free markets, because ultimately, the engine that drives free markets are individual's decisions, backed up by their expectations of success or failure. I don't trust systems, I don't trust magic wands, but I do trust people.

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Rutland Trail

Created a webpage for the Rutland Trail a few months ago. That's not news anymore. However, I also figured out how to use Google Maps' api, so the map image now links to a gmap using blue vectors to show the route of the trail on a map. I liked that so much that I took my database of NY railbeds, and put each one of them on its own gmap.

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Sat, 13 Aug 2005

Ride starting Sat Aug 13 17:29:18 2005

38.02 km 124736.17 feet 23.62 mi 8732.00 seconds 145.53 minutes 2.43 hours 9.74 mi/hr

Another Rutland Trail ride. Went from Knapps Station to Winthrop. Put up a good pace considering that I mostly rode on the trail. Depressingly, it's starting to get dark around 8PM these days. Early dark means that fall is coming, and when fall comes, so will the cold, and when the cold comes, so will the snow. Then comes six months of bad bicycling.

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Wed, 10 Aug 2005

Not really. Employers in the USA have always had considerable

latitude in controlling workers off-the-job behavior. On the other hand, workers in the USA have the ability to tell the employer to sod off. I was surprised to find out that a friend in Germany didn't have the right to quit. Here in the USA, you don't even have to give two weeks notice. There is a fundamental conflict between political and economic protection of workers. The more political protection, the weaker the economic protection. A friend of mine has employees at her plant nursery. She also had to make a wall chart of all the deadlines for this form, and that filing, and the other payment. All of the things that are done in the name of worker protection also have the characteristic of making it harder to employ people. Political protection of jobs reduces the amount of jobs, making political protection more necessary. Another path that the USA could go down is to eliminate worker protections, making it extremely easy to hire someone. This would increase the number of employers looking for employees, which would inevitably allow workers to pick and choose among the best jobs, and prevent employers from abusing their workers. Counter-intuitive? Sure! Economics is a science and any science worthy of the name will create counter-intuitive results. If it didn't, why would anybody bother with it? Who knows what's best for workers? A bureaucrat? Or the worker themselves? Are workers adults, able to look out for themselves? Or do they need protection like babies?
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Ride starting Tue Aug 9 19:32:22 2005

12.36 km 40553.52 feet 7.68 mi 4558.00 seconds 75.97 minutes 1.27 hours 6.07 mi/hr

Stopped by to visit Robin McClellan. I always knew he lived somewhere down one of the dirt roads to the west of Old Market Road. Thought I'd drop in on him to see what he was up to. He had told people about the availability of lots of slabwood, so when I saw it piled up, I knew I was down the right road. He showed me his new wood shop, and the hole where his new house is going to be. And then as it was getting dark, I had to be on my way.

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Sun, 07 Aug 2005

Does Open Source Software save money?

People often ask us if Open Source Software saves money over proprietary software. It would be great to always answer that question in the affirmative. Unfortunately, you can't directly compare open source software with proprietary software. It's like comparing apples and oranges. In many ways they are the same: fruit, spherical, reddish-orangish-greenish, sweet, nutritious, high in fiber, a good source of vitamin C. In many ways they are different: cold tolerant vs intolerant, many varieties of apple vs few of orange, thin skin apples vs thick skin oranges, many eat applesauce but nobody eats orangesauce.

In a perfect world, everyone knows everything. In this perfect world, everybody uses the correct mix of proprietary software versus OSS. By definition, in this world, nobody would use OSS unless it really saved money by reducing the business's reliance on somebody else's monopoly supply of software, or by using software which is easily customized for the enterprise, or by using software with no licensing fees.

We don't live in a perfect world.

The lack of perfection means that people will make mistakes. They won't switch to OSS even though it will save them money. Or they'll switch to OSS even though they would have been better off staying with their old proprietary solution. There is no one set of advice that works for everyone which will help them save money.

The most general advice is to look at the money saved from paying licensing fees for proprietary software, the risk avoided by not depending on a proprietary vendor, and the flexibility gained from having the source and permission to modify it. Against that you have to weigh the cost of modifying the software to meet your needs. This cost can exceed the license fees saved.

You don't always spend less money on software with OSS. In any enterprise, you spend money on the mix of inputs which generates the most value. If you are using proprietary software, and you switch to OSS, you can often modify or configure the software to better fit into your organization. This changes the best mix of inputs. When OSS creates more value for your organization, you would be wise to spend MORE money on software.

Many people have saved money with OSS. A few have not, and proprietary software vendors are happy to give voice to stories as cautionary tales. They are correct: there is non-zero risk involved in switching to OSS. It's possible to botch the job. The benefits available, however, are so large that switching to OSS is always the best advice.

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Reducing the influence of big money in the political system.

Some people think that big money has too much influence in the US political system. I disagree. As long as the government does things, and as long as it's democratic, the public will rightly seek to influence what the government does. This public includes non-profit and for-profit corporations.

The problem is that people expect government to do too much for them. People need to understand that they can and should do things for themselves. They do a better job for themselves because they care more about themselves than anyone else can. Providing for themselves is better for their character. Good character leads to good morality.

A strong government has the effect of infantizing adults. This cannot be a good thing.

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Wed, 27 Jul 2005

Competition as a commons

Hopefully everyone is familiar with the Tragedy of the Commons. In a sentence, the tragedy works like this: if you have a depletable resource in demand, and no person or institution can control its use, it will be entirely consumed. This principle applies to many things beyond the village grazing commons from which it was originally derived. Fish, clean water, clean air, and park benches suitable for homeless to sleep are all subject to the tragedy. A characteristic of a commons being depleted is an overinvestment in extractive resources, e.g. fishing boats.

The tragedy can also be applied to bad commons. That is, resources with a negative value, e.g. ignorance, greed, or excess profit margins. Just as we need to be careful to set property rights so that there are no unmanaged positive commons, we also need to make sure not to set property rights in such a way that we eliminate negative commons.

For example, the (typically) Nigerian 419 scammer relies on people's ignorance. In this scam, the scammer claims to have control over millions of dollars which they cannot receive themselves. Instead, they offer the victim a percentage in return for making the exchange seem to be an honest business deal. Once the victim realizes that it is a scam, no other version of the same scam will work. The ignorance is depleted. And gauging from the feverish activity of 419 spammers sending me offers, they are overinvesting in their scam.

Or for another example, free markets create a commons out of high profits. If someone invents a new way to make money (and no patent applies), anyone is free to enter the market and deplete the high profits. The purpose of the patent system is to create a manager for this commons.

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Mon, 25 Jul 2005

Ride starting Sun Jul 24 19:31:07 2005

24.40 km 80057.46 feet 15.16 mi 4778.00 seconds 79.63 minutes 1.33 hours 11.42 mi/hr

Rode around the big loop including Norwood Pond and the Rutland Trail. On the section of the trail that I rode today just before turning southwest, you can see the damage that ATVs cause. Basically, it works like this: first, you get little puddles as the ATVs kill the grass and compress the soil. The little puddles keep the soil soft and sticky. The ATV wheels go through the puddle and pick up a little bit of mud. That mud is then flung elsewhere on the trail. This makes the puddle deeper. This process, unfortunately, ends when ATVs find the mudhole so deep that they start going around the edge.

Lest ATV riders think I'm picking on them, hikers will find the above process familiar. Exactly the same process happens with hiking trails. There is only one solution: don't hike or ride through mud. Hikers have figured this out and put out alerts about wet trails. People are officially discouraged from hiking during times when a trail is wet, e.g. during mud season (the season between winter and spring).

Unfortunately, the Rutland Trail's drainage ditches are often clogged with debris. The puddles never drain and never dry out, so now there are some serious mudpits near Knapps Station, or as the map below calls it, "North Stockholm." The drainage ditches need to be cleared, and the puddle holes filled with some material which will drain.

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I can blame authorities for trying...

"You can't blame authorities for trying [to stop terrorism using methods which are not constitutional]."

Yes, I can. They know that what they are doing is a senseless waste of taxpayer dollars. Being terrified by terrorism is exactly and precisely the goal of terrorism. It is clear to anybody with two brain cells to rub together that individuals have substantial ability to kill many other individuals. It is clear to anybody with three brain cells to rub together that if you stop them from doing one thing, they will move on to do another.

How do you stop terrorism?

By not being terrified. By not overreacting. By not giving up essential liberties to obtain a little temporary safety. By not wasting treasure on useless tactics.

We are a country which kills 20,000 of its own citizens yearly with guns, and we don't ban guns. We are a country which kill 50,000 of its own citizens yearly with cars, and we don't ban cars. Heck, 30,000 US citizens kill themselves each year on purpose.

If terrorists came to America and killed 1,000 people a year, it wouldn't even begin to show up on the causes of death. We can safely ignore terrorism. Rational public policy would have put the money spent combatting terrorism into something more sensible, like a billion for energy research, another billion for alternative energy subsidization, another billion for mixed-mode transportation.

The above was published on Dave Farber's IP list. I received several "attaboy"s and one comment saying "Anyone with a single brain cell would agree that we need to stop terror." I disagree. Do we need to stop earthquakes? Hurricanes? Tornados? Volcanos? Blizzards? Or do we need to survive them?

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Sat, 23 Jul 2005

Ride starting Sat Jul 23 19:56:49 2005

26.67 km 87487.55 feet 16.57 mi 5218.00 seconds 86.97 minutes 1.45 hours 11.43 mi/hr

Whoopsies! Started this ride way too late. Should have gone on a much shorter ride. Ended up coming home in the dark. Like "headlights on and invisible to cars" dark. Oh well. It was an excellent ride, including two very much back roads.

Holding to a philosophy of riding whenever the weather permits, I am learning something about myself. I really really enjoy the feeling of being out on the road pumping the pedals. The beautiful landscape, the physical challenge, the attention to breathing, all make me very happy. And yet, I find that I have a certain reluctance to get on the saddle. I don't think the word "laziness" describes it adequately, although it would be easy to use that word. I think it may be a desire to do all the other things that I could be doing, e.g. blogging, or reading, or surfing the web.

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Fri, 22 Jul 2005

Democrats have stupid ideas

Earl asked me why Democrats have stupid ideas. I've already blogged on these topics -- that's why I had links to the blog entries, but I'll write really really succinctly here why I think the Democrats are pursuing a losing cause.

The minimum wage does one of two things: it is either so low that it doesn't help much, or it is so high that it puts the worse-off workers (the ones you'd really prefer to help) out of a job. Anything in-between is a compromise between helping people insufficiently and putting only a few people out of a job.

Public schooling hands the education of our children over to the government. The government is not your friend. It is at best an enemy you can tolerate. Such toleration should not include allowing them to teach your children.

Medicare pursues the automotive maintenance model of health care. You're the car, the doctor is the mechanic, and the government is the owner who pays the bills and decides whether the car is worth fixing or not.

Labor unions are fine as voluntary organizations. Unfortunately, they have been granted a protected status under the law that causes them to be more concerned about their own existance than protecting worker interests. Since their only task is to protect their own member's jobs, they serve private parties, not a public benefit. There is no reason to give them special protection.

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Mon, 18 Jul 2005

Democrats have ideas

Apparently the idea is going around that Democrats have no ideas. That's silly. Of course Democrats have ideas. The trouble is that they have stupid ideas. For example, they keep pushing the minimum wage or labor unions or health care or public schooling.

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Wed, 13 Jul 2005

Consumer/Worker Protection

Many people think that the role of government is to protect "the little guy" from corporations. Free-market economists disagree. It is the role of competition to protect the little guy from corporations. The problem is one of information. How do you discern the proper amount of protection? After all, you can completely protect consumers by preventing corporations from selling anything, and workers by preventing corporations from employing anyone. Set the protection level high enough, and that's what you get even if that's not what you meant.

Free-market economists believe that government cannot ever set the protection level correctly. The information cannot flow to the government quickly enough to adapt to changing workers, economic conditions, technology, procedures, and the market for safety. People's desire for protection also changes over time and their life circumstances. There is no one correct level &emdash; any one level set by the government will be wrong for some people.

Does that leave "the little guy" screwed?

No. You see, it is corporations themselves that have the information necessary to set the protection level correctly for their market. They won't volunteer that information. Instead, they will reflect it in their prices. If they are not protecting the consumer, competition will force them to charge lower prices. If they protect the consumer more, competition will allow them to charge higher prices.

Does that mean that consumers have to have perfect information in Libertopia?

No. Probably only 10% of consumers take the time to compare prices, quality, etc. These people are admired, though, and less diligent consumers listen to them. Over time, their information distributes itself among the less concerned shoppers. If a company is charging too much for too little protection, it will have lowered sales.

Free-market economists aren't in favor of less consumer protection. They're in favor of a different kind of consumer protection -- one which they believe generates a greater diversity of results which better matches the needs of individuals.

Posted [21:26] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Ride starting Wed Jul 13 19:29:32 2005

15.43 km 50610.53 feet 9.59 mi 2984.00 seconds 49.73 minutes 0.83 hours 11.56 mi/hr

Stinking hot. Still 86 degrees and it's 8:24PM. Sweating like a pig. Oink, oink.

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Economics as opinion

It seems clear to me that many people interpret differences between economists as evidence that economics is solely in the realm of opinion. I disagree with this conclusion. Economists disagree on the things which are not yet decided. Economics is very much a live discipline at this time. The person who brought transaction costs (Ronald Coase) to our attention is still alive! The founders of the public choice school of thought are still alive.

Unfortunately, economists do not do a good job informing people of the things which are well decided, about which differing opinions are not valid. It's not news when a controversy is resolved. People don't read the news for agreement; they read it to find out about controversy.

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Sun, 10 Jul 2005

Nuangola Station

I visited the Wilkes-Barre and Hazelton Railway on Saturday night. By chance, the photo I took of the remains of the station was taken from very nearly the same point that a historic picture was taken:

2005 (Thumbnail) 1912 (Thumbnail)

Some people in the house just to the right of the modern photograph told me that yes, this was the trolley line heading underneath the mountain. They said that the tunnel was blocked about 1/4 of the way. Being a half-mile tunnel, that implies that you can still travel 1/8th of a mile under Penobscot Mountain. Unfortunately, I didn't have time to make the one-mile hike back to the tunnel portal to investigate.

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Fri, 08 Jul 2005

Ride starting Fri Jul 8 09:43:01 2005

19.51 km 63998.70 feet 12.12 mi 6450.00 seconds 107.50 minutes 1.79 hours 6.77 mi/hr

The final ride, out and back on the Huckleberry trail. We sent the long ride down the hill to Ellet and back up again. The happy crew:

The Happy Crew (Thumbnail)

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Thu, 07 Jul 2005

Ride starting Thu Jul 7 15:39:30 2005

0.19 km 627.70 feet 0.12 mi 388.00 seconds 6.47 minutes 0.11 hours 1.10 mi/hr

Not a ride, but instead a record of me finding the geocache along the Huckleberry Trail.

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Wed, 06 Jul 2005

Ride starting Wed Jul 6 14:36:14 2005

83.22 km 273040.22 feet 51.71 mi 18998.00 seconds 316.63 minutes 5.28 hours 9.80 mi/hr

Rode the New River Trail. It's a former Norfolk Southern railbed from Pulaski to Galax and Fries. We rode the longer section from Galax to Pulaski. The line to Fries is only five miles long, so we didn't ride any portion of it. We (David Boynton and I) rode nearly 52 miles. The intrepid bicyclists before setting out:

David Boynton and I (Thumbnail)

The first tunnel is along the Chestnut River. You can see that Dave is swallowed up by the tunnel entrance:

Dave (Thumbnail)

It appears as if the tunnel continues on forever in the pitch-black. However, before you run out of light from the entrance, the tunnel curves enough to let you see the exit:

The exit from the entrance (Thumbnail)

I really like this picture of Dave riding out of the tunnel:

The exit from the entrance (Thumbnail)

Dave took a picture of me exiting the tunnel:

Me at the exit (Thumbnail)

We took a break at Fries Junction:

Fries Junction (Thumbnail)

You can get a sense of how pretty the trail is from this picture:

Pretty trail (Thumbnail)

The second tunnel, along the New River:

Second tunnel (Thumbnail)

It started to rain after that, and I had to stop taking pictures. The ride was downhill to the point where it left the New River to connect to the north-south line through Pulaski. All in all a very pleasant, but tiring ride.

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Ride starting Wed Jul 6 09:31:42 2005

18.64 km 61141.86 feet 11.58 mi 6719.00 seconds 111.98 minutes 1.87 hours 6.20 mi/hr

Rode to Merrimac and joined up with the Huckleberry Trail. Very pretty ride once you get off Prices Fork Road.

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Tue, 05 Jul 2005

Ride starting Tue Jul 5 09:34:34 2005

16.40 km 53811.52 feet 10.19 mi 6769.00 seconds 112.82 minutes 1.88 hours 5.42 mi/hr

On Tuesday we went out on the ride I did on Saturday. One difference is that we went down Country Club Lane to the Huckleberry Trail instead of riding on 460 Business.

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Mon, 04 Jul 2005

Ride starting Mon Jul 4 09:47:32 2005

19.07 km 62564.77 feet 11.85 mi 4670.00 seconds 77.83 minutes 1.30 hours 9.13 mi/hr

Monday's ride went out Glade Road to Tom's Creek and then back through Prices Fork. Exactly where the route turns in Prices Fork somebody has a cute sign reading "Weeds Have Rights Too" at the edge of his abbreviated lawn. The steepest part of this ride was coming up from Tom's Creek. Otherwise the hills were merely rolling, not killer.

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Sun, 03 Jul 2005

Ride starting Sun Jul 3 11:12:01 2005

9.35 km 30667.58 feet 5.81 mi 3428.00 seconds 57.13 minutes 0.95 hours 6.10 mi/hr

The first workshop day of the Gathering doesn't start until after the Gathering-wide worship on First-day, so we didn't have much time to ride. I took them out the Huckleberry Trail until half the time had elapsed and then we turned around. I rode with the short ride all week. The long riders got as far as the bridge over the existing rail line.

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Sat, 02 Jul 2005

Ride starting Sat Jul 2 09:07:56 2005

16.10 km 52816.36 feet 10.00 mi 4560.00 seconds 76.00 minutes 1.27 hours 7.90 mi/hr

Just got back from the Quaker Gathering at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA. I led the Meeting for Bicycling workshop there. The next 8 posts will cover the rides I led.

This ride, although not long, went down 700 feet into the valley.

And back up again, of course. I did this ride before the first workshop to make sure that the less-experienced riders would be able to walk the steepest sections. This is the steepest ride that we did all week.

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Tue, 28 Jun 2005

Pain and Trust

I just got back from Boston, where I took Master Yang, Jwing-Ming's Qin Na seminar at YMAA (Yang's Martial Arts Association). Qin Na is chinese joint locks, used to subdue or control someone while you do something else to them. I had already attended a Saturday morning class taught by Jim Noble. Jim is a really good teacher. I enjoyed that class, so when my friend invited me down to Boston to take the seminar with him, I jumped at the chance.

Qin Na is interesting because you have to hurt your opponent to practice, and he you. "Hurt", though, has two components: pain and damage. When you're practicing, you want to restrict yourself to causing pain, and you want the person working on you to restrict himself to causing pain. Damage is undesirable.

So how do you learn how to accept pain without fear of damage? You see, if you tense up, if you resist the joint lock, that causes your muscles to be torn, which increases the soreness. It's best to relax, which allows your tendons to stretch and increases flexiblity. The only way you can do that, though, is if you have no fear of being damaged.

Trust, you see, is the key. The trouble with a Level 1 class, which is what I was attending, is that everybody you're working with is also a beginner. Beginners tend to use too many muscles (this is true of all sports) and too much strength. Qin Na is all about technique, not strength, and a beginner doesn't have the technique, so they try strength.

I really, really didn't trust some of the students in the class.

I learned to trust the instructors and Master Yang. He's the worst of all. He causes so much pain so quickly that you can barely see it coming. Suddenly you're in his control. The instructors don't cause as much pain as Master Yang, but they cause more than the other students. I also learned to trust a few of the students.

I didn't get damaged this weekend, but I sure felt a lot of pain.

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Thu, 23 Jun 2005

Parentalism

Don Boudreaux posted about a particular kind of socialism called "parental socialism". He quotes James Buchanan's Public Choice article on the subject:

In one sense, the attitude is paternalism flipped over, so to speak. With paternalism, we refer to the attitudes of elitists who seek to impose their own preferred values on others. With parentalism, in contrast, we refer to the attitudes of persons who seek to have values imposed upon them by other persons, by the state, or by transcendental forces. This source of support for expanded collectivization has been relatively neglected by both socialist and liberal philosophers, perhaps because philosophers, in both camps, remain methodological individualists.

Parentalism as an alternative to freedom is an interesting idea. Let me relate my personal experience of parentalism. I'm a very experienced computer programmer with 30 years of experience. I've written every kind of program imaginable: graphical editors, computer language interpreters, operating systems, text editors, file browsers, map browsers, etc. I'm listed as one of the authors of the Linux kernel. It is perfectly within my ability to grab the source code of any open source program, and improve it, should I find a flaw.

But here is the thing: my life energy is limited. In order to do a good job of hacking at any one program, I would need to know quite a bit about that program. There are a large number of programs that I merely want to be a user of. I'm not afraid to be free to change them. Nobody is forcing me to not make those changes. I prefer, in that certain realm, to be infantilized. I want a parent who will look after that program for me. I want that program to be reliable. I want to trust it, just like I trusted my parents when I was five or six.

The key here is not particularly that this is socialism, it is that I am choosing to be infantilized. I want somebody else to be responsible for gcc compiling my C code into the correct binary code. I want somebody else to be responsible for the reliability of the filesystem on which my files are stored. I want somebody else to write the damned serial driver, 'cuz I've already written way too many serial drivers in my life.

Similarly, many people do not want to have a choice of health insurance. They want to pay their taxes, and hold somebody else responsible for their health.

The lesson for public choice economics is, I think, that people should have the choice to be infantilized. Vive le states rights!

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Wed, 22 Jun 2005

Ride starting Wed Jun 22 19:07:25 2005

29.00 km 95148.06 feet 18.02 mi 6545.00 seconds 109.08 minutes 1.82 hours 9.91 mi/hr

Went out on the Rutland again today. I'm writing a letter to the Town of Stockholm supervisor, asking him to spend some of the grant money on filling in the worst mudholes. In order to do that, though, I have to tell him where they are. So today was a survey of the worst parts of the trail. And then, on the way back, I decided to explore an old road intersecting the trail. So after I left the Rutland, I rode northwest for a bit on an abandoned road. Then it intersected with a dirt road that I rode up to the highway, and then over to Cook Rd back to "North Stockholm" aka Knapps Station.

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Mon, 20 Jun 2005

Open Source Copyright Infringement.

I'm not a lawyer, but I've talked to enough lawyers that this posting will be more correct than incorrect. If one of the Open Source Initiative's lawyers was to read this, I don't think they would blush. Naturally, you're a fool if you rely on an amateur for legal advice, but I plan to give no legal advice here. The US Copyright Office's section on copyright infringement may be a useful reference here.

Copyright enforcement, at least in the USA, is sometimes a civil offense, and sometimes a criminal offense. If you violate copyright in a particularly egregious way, it can be a crime and the police will come after you. Shipping 100,000 DVDs of Star Wars Episode III (obviously not legally on DVD yet) to New York City to be sold by street vendors is clearly criminal copyright violation, and the police would arrest them.

I've never heard of any criminal copyright violation of an open source program. More often, it is a civil offense. The government doesn't get involved in civil offenses. Citizens have to prosecute civil offenses themselves. So typically the copyright holder will initiate a lawsuit against the copyright violator.

But! The last thing you ever want to do is go to court. It's messy, it's expensive, and emotionally unsatisfying. Fortunately, in the open source world, copyright infringement is its own punishment. Let me explain. Open Source is not about the Source code. That's why "Free Software" is a truly inadequate term. It's really about being Open. It's really about the relationship between the users, developers, and vendors of the code.

If you're violating a copyright, then you're actively harming your relationship with other users, developers, and vendors of code. If you want to avoid the legal penalties that go with copyright infringement, you cannot be seen to have infringed the copyright. All of your efforts have to be secret. You can't explain what you're doing; you can't ask for help; you can't hire any outside developers; you can't ask for feature enhancements. It's clearly not worth jeopardizing this relationship for the scant benefit of not complying with an open source license.

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Sun, 19 Jun 2005

Father's Day, 2005

My father, Russell Edward Nelson died ten years ago last January. I feel like I should write something about him on Father's day. I'm not sure what to say, so I'll just ramble. My father worked for New York Telephone for most of his career. He was a kind and gentle man. I never saw him raise a hand in anger. Fear ... maybe ... particularly the one time when he spanked me because I crossed the road by myself. Apart from that, I was never struck by either parent. Dad wasn't the tallest of fellows. I remember growing taller than him with the pride of having surpassed my father at something.

My father knew how to build a building. I don't know where he learned. He built the extension to my family's summer home in Shohola, PA. Hired out the foundation, but he built the rest himself, during weekends and vacations. I think that he always wanted me to teach me how to build, but I was never interested.

Dad was "handy", in the sense that he had a decent collection of tools and knew how to use them. I was so used to having tools, and having been taught to use them, that I was surprised to realize one day that my Uncle Paul wasn't handy. He had a screwdriver or two, and a cheap adjustable wrench, but I'm sure he had no idea how to change the oil on his car.

He worked initially for the telephone company -- probably 15 years -- as an installer. He was affable and made a good representative for the telephone company. He got a BA in Business at Hofstra going to night school. He started in Physics, but couldn't handle the math. For some reason, they sent him off to train for a management position, and during that time, reorganized his department out of existance. They offered him a position in Traffic Engineering. That position entailed writing reports about the amount of facilities that would be needed based on residential and commercial growth. He didn't like doing that, because it wasn't concrete enough for him. Too much guesswork. Anyway, it paid well -- very well -- and he wanted his family to be well off.

My father was a racist. It was popular at the time. I remember him being somewhat disturbed that a black professional had moved into the house kitty-corner behind us. My parents were worried that Baldwin was going to become like Rockville Center and Freeport (the towns on both side of its) and become majority black towns, with an accompanying decrease in real estate values. No concern as far as that fellow went.

I remember him being disgusted by the new laws that required Bell Telephone to hire unqualified candidates simply because of their color. He told a story:

"I remember walking through the CO (Central Office) and hearing a newly hired black employee being trained. He was told "Now, you take your screwdriver" and he interrupted the trainer saying "What's a screwdriver".
This confirmed his racism, I'm sure.

He was a Reagan Republican. Had an autographed picture of old Ronnie on the wall. On the other hand, (or maybe it's the same hand) my parents were sponsors of a child in some third world nation. My father was always disgusted by the editorial decisions of the Long Island Newsday. They were the only Long Island paper, though, and he wanted the local news, so he put up with them.

My father fought in the war, but he hated war. He didn't like the fact that the USA was the only nation that had ever exploded a nuclear bomb, but he also knew that he would have been a part of the invasion force had it been necessary to invade Japan. He flew a C-47 in the Pacific Theater, part of the 63rd Troop Carrier Squadron. Basically, a glorified bus driver in the air. But still, a necessary service for the war effort. Sometimes they would do cargo drops to troops on isolated islands without a runway.

My father was of the opinion that provision of services by private parties was always better than government provision. He worked for the telephone company, so he knew how badly private parties could be. Still, he didn't like it when the government did something that could be done peacefully instead. I had a brief unthinking flirtation with socialism for about five years, and had some arguments with him over it. But I came to my senses well before he died, so we made our peace.

I love my dad, and I miss him.

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Ride starting Sun Jun 19 15:55:26 2005

32.97 km 108169.91 feet 20.49 mi 8097.00 seconds 134.95 minutes 2.25 hours 9.11 mi/hr

This ride begs some explanation. First, I left home. If you've been following my rides, then you know very well where my home is. Then I rode through West Stockholm and visited my geocache in the Southville State Forest. Spent some time wandering around because the trees have grown substantially since the last time I visited it.

Then I rode towards Potsdam with the idea of visiting another geocache. Took a side trip on Perrin Road just to avoid the monotony of riding on 11B. Rode through Potsdam and out on the River Rd., heading for the geocache. I couldn't find it, and in the meantime, the family was getting hungry. They called, and I rode back into town to meet them for a Father's Day dinner at the Cactus Grill. I turned the GPS off at that point, but given the two hunts for geocaches, my average speed was already screwed. It also explains why my GPS track disappears.

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Sun, 12 Jun 2005

Ride starting Sun Jun 12 19:32:37 2005

35.10 km 115146.23 feet 21.81 mi 7175.00 seconds 119.58 minutes 1.99 hours 10.94 mi/hr

Wanted to explore the other end of the old bridge across the West Branch of the St. Regis, which I saw yesterday. There are some very nice houses along the river, with more under construction. Came most of the way back on the Rutland Trail. It was getting a bit dark. Got slapped in the face by branches several times. And by the time I got home, it was dark enough that I had completely lost my color vision. All in all a nice ride, however.

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Private Currency

A fellow local to me, Jason Rohrer, is setting up North Country Notes (NCN), a private currency. He means for it to be an exchangable currency which can only be spent locally. This is a poorly-thought-out idea. It's tied up in the mistaken idea of trade deficits. Worrying about America's trade deficit with China is as silly as worrying about your trade deficit with your local grocery store. Do they ever buy anything from you? Is this a cause for concern? Of course not.

Here's my explanation of how money and private currencies relate. Money is simply that thing which everyone will accept in trade. A private currency can serve as money. Here's how:

In a free market, a currency naturally deflates (becomes more valuable) over time. This is because each trade increases the value. Thus the natural tendency is for prices to fall. This is somewhat disconcerting to people, because wages fall, too. Thus, a good currency manager will keep prices constant (of course, the price of everything is changing over time, so this is at best a general guideline). He will print up new bills and spend them first. That is how the manager makes money. The incentives align here, because a good manager will make sure that as many things as possible are tradable for the currency. This increases the value of the currency for those who hold it.

Some people, called gold bugs, believe that a currency has to be backed up by gold. There are a number of reasons why gold makes a good backing for a currency, but, really, gold is not necessary. What is necessary is that a currency remain as money. If the currency manager makes a mistake, and does not ensure that the currency serves as money, then the value of the currency will decline.

One way (but only one way) a currency manager can keep the value of the currency stable is to offer to trade the currency for something else of value. Gold bugs want that value to be gold. Some economists say that a basket of commodities can be used. Rohrer is going to back his currency with US treasury notes; that is, for every dollar of his in circulation, he will trade it for a one dollar treasury note.

So if one NCN is always worth one dollar, what is the point? Well, Rohrer wants to discourage people from trading. Yes, he wants to make people worse off, only he doesn't see it that way. He claims (as do many others) that local trade is better. I don't want to address local trade here. Local trade is an idea which seems to be poorly thought out, but upon closer examination, it proves to be deeply stupid. By establishing a private currency, Rohrer means to make global trade harder than local trade. You see, global traders will have no use for the local currency except to spend it among people who will accept it.

Someone running a private currency doesn't want to restrict trade. They want trade using their currency to be as widely spread as possible. The more people trading, the more value available, and the more value the notes have. The more value in the notes, the more money the currency manager will make. Rohrer isn't in the business of making money, though. But look at it this way: If local trade really is a good thing, then why not more of it? Why not expand the region where the local trade occurs? If it's good for Potsdam, let's bring Canton in, and Morley, and Gouveneur, and Watertown and Plattsburgh, Syracuse and Albany, New York City and Boston, Miami, Denver, and Los Angeles, the entire globe, galaxy, and universe. There is no point at which the benefits of local trading diminish.

Tip O'Neill famously declared "All politics is local". Similarly, all trade is local.

Posted [16:24] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Ride starting Sat Jun 11 19:45:07 2005

28.78 km 94414.65 feet 17.88 mi 5890.00 seconds 98.17 minutes 1.64 hours 10.93 mi/hr

Way too hot today. Must have hit 90 degrees F, and humid enough to drink it. Waited until late to start the ride so I wouldn't become a crispy critter. Went out on the Rutland Trail. It's been so hot and dry lately that I figured that most of the mudholes had dried up. Mostly, they have. The really bad ones are going to need to be filled in. Got to get the drainage ditches cleared out.

I thought about wading across the West Branch of the St. Regis. In the upper-right of the map, you can see where I went down the road that crosses the river. The bridge was closed and removed some years ago. Probably didn't have enough traffic to justify replacing/repairing it. The river is low enough to easily wade, but there's no good way to get down to the river from the end of the road. I'll look at it from the other side some time.

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Sat, 11 Jun 2005

Supporting the Free Software Foundation Latin America

At FISL in early June, I attended a talk by Fernanda Varden of the Free Software Foundation Latin America (the domain name is currently parked at the FSF Europe's site). She was talking about the difficulties of starting an organization. Since I went through all of that with The Public Software Fund, I sympathized with her. When, as part of the list of difficulties, she said "And we have no money", I immediately jumped up and gave her 50 reals (about $20). The audience laughed.

I did this with no thought to the political implications. I simply and honestly desired to help them. Two misconceptions apparently arose from that action. First, Fernanda said later in her talk "and we know that OSI has money." And later, I heard from someone that I was perceived as having thrown money in their face. I can understand the first (because I was at the conference as an OSI representative), but not the second. When it was time for questions, I jumped up and said (basically) "Hey, every organization needs money. There's nobody in Brazil more likely to support the FSFLA than the people in this room. You should make a donation to the FSFLA, because if you don't, nobody will." And then I added that my donation was personal, and not OSI's money.

Why support?

First, the OSI and FSF (USA) are perceived by a lot of people as being enemies. We aren't. We want the same thing: for people who write and receive software to be able to modify it and give it away. Freedom for programmers and freedom for users.

The trouble is that we think that the way they advocate freedom is actively harmful, and they think the way we advocate it is actively harmful. We're not fighting about the ends; we're fighting about the means. In a large part, this is due to Richard Stallman's insistance that the free software movement tell people who write non-free software that they are being unethical. However, not everybody in the free software movement agrees with him.

It is my judgement that Fernanda, and others in the FSFLA, do not buy into RMS's method of advocacy. They are happy to use OSI's quality argument when that's appropriate, and RMS's ethics argument when that's appropriate. I think that those arguments must be used carefully because the ethics argument works really well, but it only works for about 5% of the population. I explain more in an earlier blog posting entitled Quality vs. Ethics.

So, to the extent that the FSFLA can free itself from RMS's harmful advocacy, I think we should support them. ... and I have.

Posted [11:49] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 10 Jun 2005

Ride starting Thu Jun 9 15:50:25 2005

9.88 km 32416.58 feet 6.14 mi 7329.00 seconds 122.15 minutes 2.04 hours 3.02 mi/hr

Hehe, 3 miles per hour, eh? That's not quite accurate, since I had bicycled to a client's office to do some work for him. I actually did about 12mi/hr when you trim off the time spent in the offiice. I'm writing this on Friday. I could have gone for a ride today, but it's beastly hot AND humid. Not fit for man nor beast.

Posted [20:21] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Thu, 09 Jun 2005

Ride starting Wed Jun 8 16:49:31 2005

18.02 km 59104.81 feet 11.19 mi 3905.00 seconds 65.08 minutes 1.08 hours 10.32 mi/hr

Had to run an errand in town, and the weather was fine and I had the time, so why not bicycle? Decided to make a loop of it, so I came back via 56. It's a bit heavily trafficed, so I tend not to bicycle that way, but the shoulders are nice and wide.

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Quality versus Ethics

There are two main tactics people use when explaining open source and free software to people. One argument, mainly spread by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), is that denying people a list of freedoms is unethical. If you want to be a good person, you should write only free software, not proprietary software. Another argument, mainly spread by the Open Source Initiative (OSI) is that open source software is higher quality than proprietary software. I fall squarely into the OSI camp, for reasons I will explain below.

There are problems with both "open source" and "free software", which I won't address here. I want to talk about the persuasiveness of Quality versus Ethics in selling the idea of freedom. If you read other sections of my blog, you will see that I am passionate about freedom. I am a pacifist, and the only way to take away someone's freedom is by threatening them with violence. Thus, peace is only possible if there is freedom. All the advocates for both free software and open source are equally passionate about freedom. The only question here is what is the best way to spread this passion.

The argument from ethics starts with the idea that people must first come to value freedom. Once they understand the value of freedom, they will seek it out. This argument stems from the idea that unless people explicitly value freedom, they will not defend freedom above all.

The argument from quality says that first people must experience freedom. To get them to experience freedom, we must give them better software. Fortunately, free software can produce better software. Without the concrete example of the benefits of freedom, people will not value freedom as an abstract idea. After all, if a course of action does not convey benefits upon someone, why should they embark on it?

The FSF has been very effective in convincing programmers using the ethical argument. I, myself, am one of its converts. I am not a representative example of humanity, however. Most programmers think differently. That's what makes them programmers, and that's what makes them susceptible to the ethical argument. It is important to convince programmers, but it is not sufficient. Many programmers have no control over the licensing of their code. We can convince them, but they don't have the power to free their code.

In order to convince the general population, we must use effective arguments. We can tell programmers "Writing proprietary code is unethical", but that argument doesn't work with non-programmers and non-intellectuals. The problem is based on the structure and operation of the brain.

The human brain is roughly split into three hierarchical sections. You have the hindbrain (aka reptilian brain), the midbrain (aka mammalian brain) and the forebrain (aka human brain). The forebrain is the respository of your self identity. When you think about things (as opposed to thinking things), you are using your forebrain. Your midbrain handles all the things that your forebrain does not do. It is very clever, and the forebrain can train it to do many things, e.g. juggling, brushing your teeth, and driving a car. It is very quick to act where the forebrain is slow. It does not learn new things easily, though. The hindbrain handles the things which need no thinking, e.g. beating your heart and breathing. The hindbrain is (in essence) distributed between the bottom of your skull and your gut. The part of your brain in your gut communicates very basic ideas back to your brain, e.g. "you're hungry", or "you're going to throw up now". This part of your brain can be trained, but doing so is extremely difficult.

When you are threatened, your midbrain will shut down your forebrain. "Get out of the way ... I can take care of this." It is the source of the "fight or flight" response to an attack. What this means is that you cannot easily learn new things when you are attacked. The ethical argument simultaneously requires people to learn a new idea and attacks them as being unethical. People who have strong forebrains (e.g. intellectuals and programmers) do not resort to thinking with their midbrain. The ethical argument works with them. Other people shut down their forebrain, and their midbrain cannot make any sense of the argument.

In order to appeal to the 95% of people without a strong forebrain, you must use a different argument. You cannot threaten them. Instead, you must offer them something which is aligned with their goals. None of these people use a computer for the raw pleasure of it. All of them use a computer to solve a problem. In order to change their behavior (so they value freedom), we must help them solve their problem better with software which can only exist because of freedom. Once they get used to the level of quality which only free software can provide, they will learn to demand freedom. By not threatening people, the quality argument wins converts that the ethics argument can never reach.

Posted [14:54] [Filed in: opensource] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sun, 29 May 2005

Don't low-paid workers deserve a decent place in our society?

People don't get paid what they deserve. Nobody does. People get paid an amount of money equal to or less than the value they create for other people. If that value is less than the minimum wage, then that person is not legally employable. I know that you want to raise the minimum wage, but how many livelihoods do you want to destroy at the same time?

As a mental exercise, let's raise the minimum wage to $100/hour. What about all the people who cannot supply that much value? They will either 1) starve, 2) go on public assistance, or 3) work illegally. Starving is obviously a problem. Working illegally is also a problem because a worker has no recourse under the law for anything. Let's wipe out all the gains produced by workman's compensation, workplace discrimination, health and safety laws. So they'll go on public assistance, but who is paying the taxes? Those very few people who are allowed under the law to be productive.

Now, let's go the other way and get rid of those pernicious effects. In order to get rid of all of them, we have to reduce the minimum wage below the value producible by any person. That is probably zero.

The effect of the minimum wage law is to destroy some people's jobs, and take their pay and distribute it to the remaining workers. Don't kid yourself into thinking that workers deserve a minimum wage. Nobody deserves to have their job destroyed.

Posted [20:33] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 28 May 2005

Ride starting Sat May 28 13:25:55 2005

33.17 km 108820.22 feet 20.61 mi 10308.00 seconds 171.80 minutes 2.86 hours 7.20 mi/hr

Today was supposed to be clear in the morning, with showers and thunderstorms in the afternoon. I overheard a woman say "If this is rain, I want more of it." It's been broken clouds all afternoon. Decided to go for a relatively short ride across the Racquette River, down Pig Street Rd. (sic), back into town and then home again. Only got dripped on once or twice. Stopped by St. Lawrence Nurseries to visit with Bill MacKentley, the owner. He's got a nifty wireless Internet setup. Roadrunner into his house to Linksys #1, WDS up his windmill tower to Linksys #2, WDS up the hill to a 24dBi dish connected to Linksys #3 in his equipment shed where his summer bedroom is, and thence down to a laptop with a wlan card. Amazingly, it all works.

Posted [16:51] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Qigong and Quakerism

Qigong is, literally translated from the Chinese, Qi-study, or Qi-practice. The Chinese suffix -gong is very similar to the Greek suffix -ology. Qi is, or at least seems to be, the practice of manipulating bio-electricity flows within the body. Quakerism is the religious practices of Quakers, or members of the Religious Society of Friends, or simply "Friends" for short. Quakerism is a mystical branch of Christianity.

My taiji (and thus qigong) teacher, Tom, related an incident at his school where the Qi level was so high that he "couldn't stop shaking". That struck me so strongly of the description of some Quaker meetings that I have to wonder if Quaker and Qigong practices weren't closer together hundreds of years ago. Why do you hear about "gathered meetings" so seldom anymore? Why don't Quakers quake?

No answers; just questions.

Posted [00:40] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Ride starting Fri May 27 19:01:37 2005

23.43 km 76876.86 feet 14.56 mi 6306.00 seconds 105.10 minutes 1.75 hours 8.31 mi/hr

Not a very pretty day out there. Been showering on and off all day. There was a break with some blue sky after dinner, so I took a chance and went for a ride. Got back about ten minutes before the next shower started. Saw a pair of ducks and three ducklings in a wetland (of which we have many in St. Lawrence County). Saw two deer cross the road in front of me, but that's a non-event hardly worth of writing down. Saw a red fox on our front lawn two days ago.

Paid more attention to the position of my heels. Obviously, when clipped in, the balls of my feet cannot move. However, I can move my heels to change the angle of my feet. By fiddling around a bit, moving my heels 1/4" one way or the other, I was able to eliminate the knee pain. So it's not just keeping the knees over the toes; it's also keeping the heels in the right position as well.

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Wed, 25 May 2005

Ride starting Wed May 25 17:59:07 2005

18.80 km 61691.73 feet 11.68 mi 3706.00 seconds 61.77 minutes 1.03 hours 11.35 mi/hr

Just a little ride after dinner. Left knee hurting a little. Might be because I pushed up a hill. Might also be that I'm not keeping my knees aligned with my toes.

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Sat, 21 May 2005

Central Park

I took this photo while flying from Newark to Ottawa in early April. I was actually over West 145th Street and Amsterdam Avenue when I took this picture, but at that height, you see a few miles off your flight path even if you look "straight down". You can see Central Park in the center-right of the photo. The large building in the center-left of the park is the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

From north to south (in the photo, from lower left to upper middle), you can see the south end of Ward Island (and the foot bridge connecting it to midtown Manhattan, the Triborough Bridge, Roosevelt (formerly Welfare) Island (long thin island in the East River), the Queensboro Bridge also known as the 59th Street Bridge, subject of my favorite Simon and Garfunkel tune, The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin Groovy)(first 10 seconds) and the rest is lost in the haze of that day.

If you have NASA World Wind installed, you can see the same view.

Central Park from the north (Thumbnail)

Posted [15:05] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 20 May 2005

Ride starting Fri May 20 16:30:44 2005

42.71 km 140119.99 feet 26.54 mi 10478.00 seconds 174.63 minutes 2.91 hours 9.12 mi/hr

Longest ride of the season. Drove to Winthrop and parked in the town office parking lot. Crossed the rivers, and hopped on the Rutland Trail. Unfortunately, the bridge is out, so you have to cross on the highway bridge, and the fellow who owns the next section has it posted with a grumpy "Police Take Notice! Property is being trespassed upon!" and a posted notice below it. Not a real big deal, since you can go no more than 1/2 mile down the road to the next intersection.

Since I last rode this way, the Kraft Foods (now CoolBrands) cheese plant has both ends of their section of the trail gated and posted. A mile or so detour to the next road gets you back on the trail, however. Other than those two closures, the trail is open and ridable all the way to Moira. There are a few puddles that I portaged around rather than get my shoes wet, but only a few.

Saw a dead snapping turtle, and a dead snake. I know that some ATV riders really are environmentalists, but clearly some are not. Then again, I stepped on a snake while hiking down Azure, and I nearly hit two snapping turtles today; one on the Rutland and one on the road.

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Tue, 17 May 2005

Ride starting Tue May 17 18:47:07 2005

31.71 km 104050.21 feet 19.71 mi 6210.00 seconds 103.50 minutes 1.73 hours 11.42 mi/hr

Brrrrr..... Bit of a cool day. No more than 55 degrees when I started. Legs were chilly the whole time, even though I was working reasonably hard.

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Wed, 11 May 2005

Predatory Pricing

There is this widely-held theory that big companies can use their size to out-compete small companies by engaging in predatory pricing. They use size and profitability in other (usually monopolized) markets to outlast a smaller, specialized competitor in a niche market by writing off the losses in this small market which the competitor cannot afford to.

Back in reality, it turns out that companies that try to maintain a monopoly in this manner (predatory pricing) have a hard time making money using this tactic. It costs them more to maintain their monopoly than they can ever recoup through higher prices. Let's say that they lower their prices by ten cents for a year, and drive somebody out of the business. In order to make back that money, they need to raise their prices by ten cents over their original monopoly price. But the party that they put out of business went into business precisely because they saw a way to suck off excess profits by competing with the monopoly. Now the market price is ten cents higher, and the profits are even more attractive to a new entrant. So somebody else goes into the business, and the monopoly can't even go back to their old price. They have to go back to the old "lose ten cents per" price, because that's what's necessary to drive the competition out of business.

Predatory pricing doesn't work according to the standard theory.

Update 5/17: Adam writes to point out another problem with the theory. When the price gets lowered by the "predator", that increases demand, so the company has to sell more. When they raise prices again, that reduces the demand and makes it harder to recoup their loss.

Update 8/7: Cathal writes to say that predatory pricing can work under certain market conditions if you also know something your competitor does not (asymmetric information).

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Tue, 10 May 2005

Black Rednecks

Only a black PhD economist could get away with saying that there is such a thing as a Black Redneck.

Posted [15:13] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Economic Activity

This morning I heard on NCPR (the local NPR affiliate) a story about military base closings. The story ended with the note "[These bases] generate more than $2 billion of economic activity."

This short note is economically wrong in three ways. First, taxation does not generate anything. In fact taxation replaces private spending with public spending. Thus, a more accurate note would be "[These bases] spend more than $2B in New York State."

Second, taxation only transfers money from being spent on one thing to being spent on another[1]. Thus, when the public taxes money away from private entities, it also destroys the thing that the public would have spent the money on. Taxation also costs money: directly in the expenses of the operation of coercing taxes, and indirectly in the actions taken by citizens to reduce their taxes. Thus, an even more accurate note would be "[These bases] spend more than $2B in New York State, and destroy even more spending all over America."

Third, the whole point of trade in a free-market economy is to create value, not just activity. Economic activity includes digging a hole, and filling it in again. Unless some value was created by that activity, it was a complete and utter waste of money. Economic ignoramuses may say "ahhhh, but the workers got paid!" I say "ahhhh, but they would have been paid to do something else, productively." For one particular set of workers, that's not necessarily true. If you make the economy inefficient enough because you concentrate on activity and not value, it becomes so highly probable that it becomes truth.

So, the most accurate note would be "If the military doesn't need the bases, they wasted more than $2B spent in New York State, and destroyed a greater amount of spending all over America."

[1] Even if the money is just put in the bank, the bank will loan the money to someone, who will then spend it. Even if the money is put in a mattress, the economy will notice that that money isn't circulating anymore and will adjust the value of the remaining money higher.

Posted [09:20] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Extensive vs. Intensive Growth

You will very often hear leftists (by which I mean non-economists; leftists who understand economics become libertarians) complain about growth. Growth is bad for the environment, they say. This is not necessarily true. There are two different types of growth. Extensive growth is simply more of the same. A lumber company that cuts down twice as many trees would be growing extensively.

Intensive growth is different. With intensive growth, you have companies doing more with less. Lumber companies used to just cut down trees, then slice the trees up into lumber. They have grown intensively by using more of the same tree. The limbs get chipped and turned into chipboard. The parts of the tree which are too twisted to become lumber get turned into flakeboard. The sawdust is reused rather than treated as a waste product. The sawblades are thinner so less wood is turned into sawdust. The saw is computer-controlled so the sawyer uses his judgement to grade the cuts, then the sawmill automatically cuts the boards. More products are being made from the same amount of trees.

So when you hear somebody complain "Oh, growth is bad for Mother Earth", ask them "What kind of growth?"

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Add a little bit of cynicism to everything

I think that we should add a little bit of cynicism to everything we write. Whenever we mention an incontrovertible fact, like 2 times 5 is ten, add to it "or thirteen if Congress passes a special law." The point, expressed humorously and repetitively, is that some laws are discovered rather than legislated. These laws can be found in the area of economics as well, e.g. if you pay your employees more than you can afford, you'll go out of business, unless Congress passes a special law.

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Price Gouging

Donald J. Boudreaux is the editor of The Freeman, and also blogs at Cafe Hayek. His article in the current issue, unfortunately only available in PDF form, not HTML, deals with Price Gouging. It's very well written, but he misses a point about the justice of higher profits for producers and distributors of in-demand goods. He says that those profits could be donated to a relief effort. I say not.

When a shop-keeper in an area in emergency conditions raises his prices, he profits more. This seems to be a side effect of the more important aspect of higher prices signalling higher demand. It isn't. Emergency conditions are predictable. Where I live, the typical emergency is an ice storm. The kinds of goods that are needed to survive an ice storm are predictable: generators, fuel, food, and bottled water. Those shop-keepers who stock extra of these items during times of higher risk of ice storms will profit more. That's not unfair, that's just the reward for good speculation.

We should set the rules of a market society so that rationality is rewarded, and the seven deadly sins are punished. When a shop-keeper plans ahead wisely, if an emergency hits, he will make higher profits. This serves as an incentive to be wise. It is exactly this attribute which makes free market societies function so well. The prudent are rewarded. That is how it should be.

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The Rich Should Get Richer

You will often hear the left say "The rich get richer and the poor get poorer". They believe this both as a fact and as an ethical judgement. They think that the poor really do get poorer in a market economy. This goes back to the usual "fixed pie" theory of economics. "If you get something, you must have gotten it to my disadvantage." It takes very little examination to see that the "poor" in more-free market societies are much better-off than the poor in societies with less-free markets. Unfortunately leftists are never willing to open their eyes.

The left also mean the first part ("The rich get richer") as an ethical judgement. Even if the poor got richer as well, the left would still believe it wrong that the rich get richer. While you can make any ethical judgement you want, you should be aware of the effects of your judgement. Ethical judgements (for the worse) are intended to reduce the amount of the thing judged. That is, the left believe the world would be better if the rich didn't get richer.

But the rich should get richer in a free market society. There is no way to get rich in a free market society except by convincing people that you have something they want. Thus, people who have learned to be helpful should be encouraged to continue to be helpful. There's plenty of evidence that, having created valuable goods once, they will do so again in the future. Thus, the rich ought to get richer.

Note for the unwary: the USA is not a terribly free market society in an absolute sense. It is merely much more free than most. Thus, if you want to look for examples of non-freeness in which private parties gain from political manipulation, you will find many of them in the USA. Some people are rich not because they were helpful, but because they were skillful at manipulating politics. That doesn't invalidate the idea of free markets. Rather, it endorses the idea of reducing the centralization of power. Power can be used for good or evil, but it's usually used for evil. Better not to concentrate it.

Posted [09:20] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Selling on the Internet

I've been having a conversation with Robert Pirillo, who runs Roberts Honing & Gundrilling. He has, alas, fallen prey to a purveyor of junkware which searches for webpages containing the search terms, locates any email addresses on the page (or in the whois for the domain, or whatever), and sends advertising email. He doesn't view this as spamming, unfortunately. I fully suspect that most providers will, though, because it's unsolicited, it's bulk, and it's email.

So he thinks that this would get attention to his business, saying "Isn't that what's great about the Internet?" Well, yeah, but it's also what's horrible about it. There's at least 60,000 small businesses in the US, and what if ten of them sent you one email a day? 6,000 days later, you'd have gotten a steady stream of ten spams a day. But that's only 16 years.

No, the way to sell your business over the Internet is to give away information to your potential customers that shows that you know your business. Don't just list your services. Instead, explain how hydraulic cylinders work (or don't work), tell people how to evaluate the health of their hydraulic cylinders, and say how to fix them. Don't pay for someone to write a fancy website. Instead, give your readers a tutorial which contains pure information neutrally presented, and at the bottom says "Copyright 2005, Roberts Honing & Gundrilling". It doesn't matter if it has a few speling erorrs, or if the graphics look hokey. The important part is to make it clear that you know your shit better than anybody else. Your competition isn't going to steal your website (because you can sue them for actual damages, or triple damages if it's a registered copyright), and your customers will know exactly where to get reliable expert service.

Sign onto a mailing list of people who are likely to have the problems your company solves. When they have questions, answer them. They'll see that you're an expert, and when they want a job done right, they'll know to come to you.

That is what's great about the Internet. Not the ability to force yourself on unwilling listeners, but to participate in a conversation with potential customers.

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Readability of the Angry Economist

Wow! I've been aiming at having very readable articles. I've succeeded! The Gunning Fog Index is 7.63, which makes it easier than Reader's Digest. The Flesch Reading Ease is 71.70 (out of 100, where 100 is easiest). The Flesch-Kincaid Grade is 4.69. As in "fifth grade".

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Creating New Jobs

Let's say that you want to create a new job. Where are you going to get the employee to fill it? There are basically four ways: grow a new one (but that takes 20 years), import one from another country, buy an employee who already has a job, or export the job to another country.

I'm sure that by this time (only three sentences) any labor unionist is seething under the collar. Union organizers maintain that there are never enough jobs to go around (yes, people have actually said that; 8 times, if you believe Google). This is utter and complete nonsense, which you can immediately understand by asking this question: "If you could hire as many people you wanted for a penny a day, how many would you hire?" Clearly, then, the problem is not a lack of jobs. The capitalist system ensures that there are always enough jobs to go around, even if the government acts to make the market-clearing wage illegal.

The only reason unemployment exists in a free market is because information takes time to propagate, and because of human nature. People are reasonably cautious at accepting the first offer for anything. We like to compare offers before we decide.

So, when you create a new job, you have to buy an employee who already has a job, or persuade an employee who has no job that yours is the best job for them. But what if somebody else has out-competed you, and bought that employee away from you? The job doesn't cease to exist. Somebody needs to do it. You have to go back to the list in the first paragraph to try to find an employee to fill the job. No one of these methods harms employees in this country! If you could find an employee at the wage you're willing to pay, you would have.

It's inevitable that a growing economy needs more workers. Nobody is harmed when employers pierce country boundaries to find workers. From the point of view of the workers, the more growth, the more employers seeking employees, the better the wages.

UPDATE: I thought of another reason why unemployment exists in a free market: rising expectations. Most people get better at doing stuff as they get older. Most people expect higher pay for more value. When they switch jobs (whether by quitting or being fired), they'll be looking for more pay rather than less. Also, free markets are always creating new value, so the same job can, over time, earn more and more money. This leads an employee to want more pay rather than settling for the first job they find and lower pay.

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How to Destroy Capitalism

Attention leftists, socialists, communists, communitarians, and anarchists of all anti-property stripes! Do you want to destroy capitalism (and throw yourself and everyone else back into the poverty that is usual for mankind)? It's simple: extend the notion of liability for harm in a very small way. If I burn down your store, I am liable for the harm, of course. If I out-compete you and destroy your store that way, I am not liable. If you want to destroy capitalism, simply extend liability to the harm caused by competition. In short order, everyone who is better at anything will have to pay compensation to anybody who is worse at it. Soon, nobody will bother to become better at anything, 90% of the people in the world will die off, we'll be back to only 600 million people, we won't be putting pressure on the bugs and bunnies anymore, there will be plenty of resources for everyone, and Malthus will come back to life to direct us all in this Nirvana.

Does HTML have a <sarcasm> tag?

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Left "libertarianism"

I saw someone write this on a mailing list:

As a self-described left-libertarian (which means that I see human liberty and human cooperation as compatible, which the right-libertarians do not),"

There is no such thing as a left-libertarian OR a right-libertarian. Whoever wrote this is confused about libertarianism. Of course so-called right-libertarians believe that human liberty and voluntary human cooperation are compatible. If you believe in voluntary cooperation, then you are a libertarian, whether left, right, middle, top, or bottom. If you believe in any use of violence other than to prevent greater violence, then you aren't a libertarian. So-called left-libertarians believe in coercing desired behavior from peaceful people.

I think there's a larger issue here. "Liberal" used to mean the philosophy which is called in the US "libertarian", and which is still called "liberal" in some other countries. Since this philosophy generally promotes happiness and distributes power, people who seek power object to it. Since the philosophy is hard to understand and is counter-intuitive, it only takes a little bit of effort to undermine it. For example, you can introduce only beneficial coercion, bringing the philosophy leftwards. Thus, the "Liberal" is now applied in the US to the leftist trade-union high-taxes consumer-protection philosophy. By using the term left-libertarian, these people seek to convince people that libertarians believe in coercion. Left-libertarians are just ordinary leftists and socialists looking for cover. You can see this in the Wikipedia article on libertarian socialism. Fortunately, real libertarians are loudly objecting to their usurption of the term.

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Twenty Five Years Of Stagnation

The standard "wisdom" is that Americans have not gotten wealthier in the past twenty-five years. Lots of people believe this, even extremely intelligent people like Richard Stallman. And yet, I must believe the converse when I look at the parking situation at the local colleges. Clarkson University built a new parking lot in front of Cubley-Reynolds(1) and expanded the Hamlin-Powers(6) parking lot. SUNY Potsdam built a whole new lot out behind Bowman South(not even on the map yet).

The demographics are such that student population is down from when I attended Clarkson. At the time, we had involuntary triples, and single occupancy dorm rooms were only available to seniors in the New Dorms (which, by the way, they still call the New Dorms). Potsdam State still requires freshmen and sophomores to live on campus in order to keep the dorms at full occupancy. They didn't when I was in college. So, there are no more students, and substantially more cars. The kind of students who attend Clarkson and SUNY Potsdam have not changed as far as I can tell.

The only explanation is that Americans have indeed gotten wealthier, and that is reflected in more students who can afford cars. Cars have not exactly gotten cheaper either. They have more safety equipment, and more luxury equipment. When I was a child, only a Cadillac had window washers and electric windows. Now all cars have them, or very nearly.

Posted [09:20] [Filed in: economics] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Union [Corporate] Responsibility

Some people want corporations to be socially responsible. That is, they want corporations to have to be responsible not just to the owners of the business, but to "stakeholders". A stakeholder is anybody too cheap to buy a portion of the business, but who wants to be able to benefit from, and participate in, the operation of the business.

A union is organized as a corporation, no?

Thus, I claim that I am a stakeholder of the Communications Workers of America (just to pick on one of them), and the next time they vote on a union contract, I get to vote on it too.

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Church and Schooling

You can compel schooling, but you cannot compel learning. You can compel attendance at church, but you cannot compel belief. We are risking our eternal souls by separating religion and state. Nonetheless, America is one of the most religious countries in the world. By analogy, separating school and state would result in America being one of the most educated countries in the world.

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Minimum wage case study

Warren Meyer blogs on the effects of the minimum wage on his campground business at Coyote Blog. I have my own opinion about minimum wages.

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Saving this country at a profit

Howard L. Hunt said "If this country is worth saving, it's worth saving at a profit." It seems like a somewhat cynical thing to say. It seems to put profit before people; a usual complaint of the humane leftists. The more hopeful thing to say might be "If this country is worth saving, people will donate their time to save it."

Profit is important. Profit is the measure that you are succeeding at doing something. You can created something that people want to buy. Profit simply means that your revenues exceed your expenses. You are producing more than you are costing. There is nothing intrinsically worthwhile about a non-profit (non-taxable) or not-for-profit (taxable) entity. Any entity can eliminate its profits simply by donating all of its profits to charity. This would not be sufficient to make the enterprise worthwhile in many people's eyes.

Profit has two pleasant characteristics. First is that profit attracts capital investment. If a company is making money, then more people are going to enter into the business. If the business of the company is saving the world, then the world will be saved all the faster. Second, profit tells you that you are actually helping people. Take, for example, the case of Christian missionaries who teach people how to read....the Bible. While the ability to read is surely a good thing, it's not clear that the people who now know how to read the Bible are better off. A primary tenet of profits in a free market is that everyone who trades is better off. Somebody who runs around a third world country teaching people how to use contraception because their country is overpopulated is not clearly doing them a favor.

Charity surely has its place, but profits are better than charity, always.

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Barry Schwartz, Master Chooser

Our own Russell Roberts was just on NPR's Morning Edition, posed against Barry Schwartz, on the topic, more or less, of whether people should be allowed to choose how their retirement is invested, or whether the federal government should choose it by spending social security taxes in their name.

Barry, predictably, came out against choice. I say "predictably" because of his book The Paradox of Choice, which he has been trotting out whenever possible. The point that (unfortunately) Russell didn't push very hard, and which Barry cannot defend against, is that the choices that Barry dislikes all exist as possibilities. If the spectrum of choices is to be narrowed for the sake of people's mental health, who is to choose which possibilities will go and which will remain?

If we are to have fewer choices, those possibilities will have to not exist. Somebody will have to choose which possibilities don't exist. Who will that be? Barry Schwartz, Master Chooser? What makes him so smart? What makes him so mentally stable, so able to resist the pressure of all those choices, that he will be able to choose when I cannot? I agree with Barry that choices are hard to make, but I learned this very early on in life: if you find a choice hard, then you don't know enough to distinguish between the choices. You should either learn more about the choices, or else decide that the cost of learning exceeds the value of the choice, pick one of the choices that all appear the same, and move on. Regrets? They're foolish, silly, and immature. Move on. Mistakes? Inevitable; you're a human; that's what we do. Move on.

In essence, Barry is arguing for the infantilization of American society. We protect our children from many choices because they lack the knowledge necessary to choose. That's foolish. Teach your children to choose! That's why you exist, as a parent, and your goal should be to stop being a parent as soon as reasonable. We don't want a society of children, we want a society of clear-thinking, responsible adults.

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Who pays for government?

A note for the unwary: the following post is sarcasm. No, really, it is.

Economists Don Boudreaux and Russell Roberts just don't get it, do they? They think that when the government pays for something, people "overconsume". What they don't understand is that it's not people like you or I who pay most taxes. It's the rich people. Providing all these services by government expenditures is just a way to "even up the score". To create some justice. To make sure that the rich people "give back".

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Markets are not games

Doc Searls has a deep understanding of economics:

Chill, folks. Markets are public places where makers and vendors offer users and customers lots of choice. Not coliseums where gladiators kick and stab each other to death while the rest of us cheer over bruises and blood.

Markets are not games, and game theory has limited applicability to economics.

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Maxwell's Political Demon

Cross-posted between my old Angry-Economist blog and my new Russ Nelson blog.

James Maxwell did a lot of work on thermodynamics. One of the things he proposed was a violation of the second law of thermodynamics by a kind of entity with the finite ability to separate energetic molecules from less energetic ones. This entity is called Maxwell's Demon. There are lots of reasons why it fails in the real world; for example sensation requires sampling, and sampling requires destruction of a portion of what is sampled.

You could also posit a kind of Political Demon, which would serve to ensure that good laws are passed and bad laws are not passed. The trouble with this idea is that we already have one such: the president. His function, with his veto power, is to require that Congress only send him good laws, as he will veto the bad laws. You can see how well that has worked in reality. Just like there is a second law of thermodynamics, which dictates the behavior of physical entities, so there is a nature of political action, which dictates the behavior of political entities.

You can see various people attempt to create a Political Demon. You see inveterate attempts to reform government schools. The idea is that without changing the fundamentally coercive nature of government schools, you can have a Political Demon which sorts amongst the characteristics of government schools, eliminating the bad ones and keeping the good ones. Similarly you see attempts at campaign finance reform, or health care reform. I'm starting to see a common characteristic here. Whenever a futile attempt at change is made, it's called "reform", as if the thing under consideration was formed perfectly at one time, has been ruined by the political system, and will now be reformed back into its perfect nature.

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Steroids

[nelson@desk nelson]$ grep -i steroids Constitution 
[nelson@desk nelson]$ 
Can somebody please explain to me what Congress is doing by examining steroid use among baseball players?

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The Law of Returns

Whenever you create something, it requires a mix of inputs. Perhaps you're just whittling a stick into a shape. You'll need a stick and a knife, but you'll also need a person's time. Some combination of sticks, knives, and time will generate the most shaped sticks. That's obvious for something simple. Try creating a pencil. There are hundreds of steps involved requiring at least seven inputs: brass and rubber for the eraser, wood, graphite, glue, and paint for the pencil, plus varying amounts of labor.

These inputs do not come in infinitely varying quantities. Labor only comes in one-person chunks. You can hire people part-time of course, but they need to be trained. Wood comes in some definite length, width, and height related to the size tree it came from. Glue and paint come in pots. Graphite is malleable and is shaped to fit the size pencil being made. It would seem to be an exception, but no doubt you have to buy graphite in certain discrete amounts, e.g. a ton at a time.

Everyone is familiar with the fact that hot dogs come ten to a package, but hot dog buns come just eight to a package. These are the inputs to a hot dog. You can make yourself one hot dog, but you'll end up with nine dogs and seven buns. Another one gets you eight dogs and six buns. Keep going and you'll have two dogs left over. Optimal mix is forty hot dogs: four packages of dogs, and five packages of buns.

This implies that the larger the enterprise, the easier time it will have balancing its inputs. The larger the enterprise, however, the larger its communication and coordination costs. Bigness has its advantages pushing companies larger and its disadvantages pushing them smaller.

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Minimum Wage Sellers

Right now, if you attempt to purchase labor for a price lower than the minimum wage, that is illegal. Interestingly, though, if you attempt to sell labor for a price lower than the minimum wage, that is not illegal. Contrast this with drugs, where both buyer and seller are at risk.

There is another comment on that blog page that points out that the minimum wage is racist. The jobs that the minimum wage eliminates are disproportionately minority jobs. Why? Well, given the fact of racist employers, the minimum wage makes it possible for them to hire their preferred white employees with no penalty. Absent the minimum wage, another employer could pay blacks a lower wage. This would let them out-compete the racist employers. While one can regret the fact that racism incents even non-racists to pay blacks less, the mechanism which naturally causes harm to racists is broken by the minimum wage law.

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Marxism is not yet dead

I always thought that the quip "Marxism is dead everywhere but on the American college campus" was a cheap shot, but apparently not.

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Historical Mathematics

Imagine if mathematicians were taught to understand mathematics in terms of the history of math. In order to discern that 1+2 is 3 and that 2+1 is equally 3, you would have to look at the history of it. Has this relation been true in the past? If so, the historical mathematician thusly concludes that it is a relation that will continue in the future.

Sounds like nonsense, doesn't it? It is. Now imagine a branch of economics that does the same thing, called historical economics. It would be nonsense, and since it actually exists, it is nonsense.

Tradestation is a service which allows individuals to trade stocks on the market by entering orders under the control of a program. The program has access to all the prices of the stock sampled at five minute intervals going back years, and daily intervals before that. Using an appropriate program, you may create a theory about the market. You can test your theory against the historical prices by running your program in test mode, to see how it would have traded.

This, too, is nonsense. Prices on the market are determined by a large number of factors. These factors will not be the same in the future as they were in the past. People's opinions change, their trading method changes, companies change, industries change, and economies change. When you're writing a Tradestation program for the past, that is all that it will reliably succeed at.

This does not mean that Tradestation is useless, or harmful. It can be used to test theories about the market, but those theories must be tested using new data, not past data. Otherwise you're just fitting your theory to the shape of the curve-that-used-to-be.

So how do you trade using Tradestation successfully? You trade on the fundamentals of a stock. You build on what previous traders learned; for example Ben Graham, or Warren Buffett. You look for special situations: a stock that is undervalued by the market.

This is also what the successful economist does: creates a theory about some economic principle based on what other economists have learned; for example Ludwig von Mises, Freidrick Hayek, Ronald Coase, etc. Then she looks to see what people actually do. If she is right, then the theory is a good one. If she is wrong, she goes back to square one with a new theory.

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I'm now blogging under multiple categories

While I intend to continue blogging on the subject of economics, I find that single focus too limiting. As I'm now the President of the Open Source Initiative, I want to blog on opensource as well. And on railroads. And on bicycling. And on mapping. And on rowing. So I've established a general interest blog at blog.russnelson.com. Everything in the economics topic of that blog will also appear on angry-economist.russnelson.com.

In case you're wondering how I'm doing this, it's very simple. I moved the angry-economist pyblosxom directory into the blog/economics directory, edited the config.py file, and told apache about the new document root.

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Blacks are lazy?

I expect that everyone has heard the "Blacks are lazy" slander. I think a single economic principle has two aspects that may explain its genesis: if everything else is the same, people will prefer leisure to work. In other words, everyone is lazy. So why do blacks get picked on? Two reasons: First, racism rewards blacks less for work, giving them less incentive to work hard. Second, that the difference between the work output of a slave versus the same person as a freedman could be perceived as laziness. Even the smallest effect would be picked up by a racist looking for reasons to hate blacks.

It is a fact that blacks are paid less for the same work as whites. Black unemployment is also higher than white unemployment. Racists no doubt think there is one and only one explanation: that blacks work less hard, create less value, and their continued employment can only be justified by less pay. It's much more likely that racism is the cause of "blacks are lazy".

Anecdotal evidence is always suspect, but it can be useful for what it does not show. I, myself, know of no blacks who could remotely be called lazy. A 60-hour work week, a house on the North Shore, and daughters in Princeton and Williams is not evidence of laziness.

I cannot recall where I read this, but freed slaves worked less hard upon receiving their freedom. This is predictable since a slave owner puts the highest value on the work output of a slave, whereas the slave values leisure highest (if all else is the same). Of course, all else was not the same. The slave-holder was free to use violence and imprisonment against the slave, whereas the slave only had underwork and escape.

Note that I'm not saying that blacks actually are lazy. I'm saying that people pre-disposed to find differences between themselves and others based on race (that is, racists) are comforted by the perception that blacks are lazy. It would take very little evidence to convince them of anything bad about blacks, and very large evidence to convince them of anything good. For example, a racist will generalize from a single black person resting on his shovel to thinking that all blacks are lazy. And once a racist starts believing bad of blacks, those blacks get paid less, those blacks want to work less, and you have a vicious cycle. Even if the effect is small in time, space, or magnitude, a racist will pick it up and continue to believe that blacks are lazy.

Rather than end on that depressing note, I'll end on an even more depressing note: I don't think there's anything to be done about it other than to wait for racists to die out.

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All concentrations of power are bad

Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely -- Lord Acton.

Trying to overwhelm the concentrated power of a corporation by concentrating power in government is wrong. When a large company misuses its power, your action should be to make it smaller by buying from its competition. Even monopolies (e.g. Microsoft) have competition (e.g. Macintosh and Linux). I happen to believe that no government function is necessary, but I recognize that that is not a mainstream view. Most people support the idea of governments. How do you get away from having a monopoly government, though? How can you have competitive governments?

I believe that the United States was set up to be a collection of competitive governments: the states. If you read the Constitution with that in mind, you see that the federal government was strictly limited in what it could do. Everything else was left to the states to decide. Some things are obviously better if the states cooperate, and cooperate they do. There is no Federal Department of Driving, which ensures that driver's licenses have identical requirements, or that laws relating to driving are identical. The competition between states causes the states to end up having nearly identical laws. A state that differed wildly from its neighbors would have fewer people able to enter into it.

Why don't we have that situation anymore? I think that some time shortly after the Civil War, people became convinced of the advantages of bigness; of centralization. This was the period of the first really large companies: railroads. The centralization of a business, however, is not the same as the centralization of a government. A business has to earn money. That is its ultimate test for efficiency. If it cannot do that, it cannot survive. A government, however, does not need to make money. It can be wasteful with taxpayer dollars without suffering. Even if it does suffer, the suffering is used as a justification for spending more taxpayer dollars. "Oh, we're educating our children badly; we need smaller classes and more teachers."

So, companies that have grown too large get cut back in size. AT&T sold off NCR; it was a mistake to ever get that large. How can we cut back the federal government in size? That's what George Bush is trying to do. Whether his method will be successful or not can only be answered by the historians.

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Open Source and IT

Everybody who seeks to make a profit has a mixture of inputs to their operation. You need a mix of skills, tools, and materials. The exact mix chosen depends on the price and value of those things. A radical change in the price of any one component will make the current mix double-plus ungood (thank you, Don Lancaster). The proportions of the mix will change, with more of the cheaper input being used.

In other words, free software means that the efficiency of the IT industry has greatly increased. IT products have become cheaper. This will result in MORE total IT spending. More programmers will be needed in the future, not less. RMS got the economics completely wrong in his manifesto. We recently had a discussion about economics that ended up in me purchasing him a copy of Economics in One Lesson.

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The Lego Group, and a change in the nature of companies

I think that with widespread Internet access, we're seeing a chanage in the nature of companies. It used to go like this: someone would: have an idea for something people would want to buy, find some capitalists, hire some people with their money, make the product, sell the product hopefully at a profit, pay back the capitalists, and start over again. You have producers selling to consumers.

Notice the long feedback loop there? That's the risk, you see. Companies profits are partially earned for taking risk. Consumers don't necessarily want to purchase the goods that were made. If they don't, and the company cannot cover the cost of that risk, then it goes out of business. The company's goods get liquidated and the capitalists suffer a loss (notice, though, that the workers are not at risk of losing their earnings -- so much for Marx's exploitation of workers).

Also notice that the feedback loop consists solely of consumers buying the products of producers? In essence, the consumers play zero role in the creation of the product. I think that this is what is changing. I notice it specifically in The Lego Group (TLG). They have been producing high-quality plastic toys for almost the entire duration of the plastic age. Their core product, the Lego(tm) brick, has remained unchanged for my entire lifetime. The bricks from my childhood still merge with brand-new bricks.

Up until the creation of their Robotics Invention System, and its RCX microcontroller, TLG operated in the mode I've described above. TLG was very insular and didn't take much feedback from its consumers other than sales figures. At the time the RIS was created, it was far and away the most expensive Lego kit ever created. I'm confident that they were doubtful of its success, but they were wrong. It was successful beyond their wildest dreams, and it opened their eyes. They discovered the Adult Fans Of Lego (AFOL) community. They thought they were selling mostly to children, and that only a few mutant freak adults played with children's toys. Fully half their sales of the RIS were to adults.

TLG gingerly put out some feelers into the community. They found out that these AFOLs were creating models equally as ambitious as Lego's Master Builders, and that they were buying thousands of dollars worth of Lego products. They have now added a fan-created kit to their lineup. They've added bulk bricks to their online store. They are slowly learning to work with their consumers. As they do so, they turn consumers into customers. This tightens the feedback loop and reduces the business risk.

Fast forward to the present. Steve Hassenplug with a few cohorts, have in essence created a whole new genre of Lego designs: The Great Ball Contraption. It's a very simple and sublime idea: define a standard for interconnecting Lego constructions so that a module accepts Lego soccer balls into an input bin, and then transports them into the next module's input bin. It's a great theme for an existing Lego club to pursue, or around which to start a new one.

TLG could use this idea to tighten the feedback loop further. Right now, the only way to accumulate a significant number of Lego soccer balls is to purchase many soccer games. TLG could put together a GBC club kit. This kit would consist of the GBC standard, and several hundred soccer balls. Somebody who wanted to start a GBC club would purchase the kit, split up the balls, copy the GBC spec and get their friends together.

Consumers just buy things. Customers help design products, and help sell them. This is radical.

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Taking the money out of politics

Many well-intentioned people think that it's possible to remove the influence of money from politics. A coin has two faces: on one face you have the influence of money on politics, and on the other face you have the influence of politics on money. What would a coin with only one side look like? How can politics possibly control companies without companies wanting to control politics?

As long as the people give politicians the power to control companies, companies are going to try to control politicians. If the people don't give politicians that power, politicians have no influence to peddle. Without influence to peddle, companies have two choices: waste money buying politicians who can't help them, or spend the money competing harder with other companies.

There is one and only one way to successfully take money out of politics: to take politics out of money. As long as corrupt politicians have influence to sell, there will be corrupt businessmen to buy it. The problem here is not corrupt politicians or corrupt businessmen. The problem is that the people have chosen to give up their market power over corporations. They have turned that power into political power and concentrated it in politicians. This is wrong. Until this is fixed, no other change will help matters. If you have a screen door on your submarine, running your pump faster or slower, or diving higher or lower will not help you.

In order to take the politics out of money, you need a general agreement in society that market regulation of companies is sufficient. We don't have that now. Many people think that corporations are evil and need to be controlled. They do, but the profit motive is sufficient. Let's take an example from the initial URL. He lays the blame for obese americans on cheap high-calorie food, and says that corporations sell this food because it's profitable. This is all true. It's only profitable because people want to buy it. He doesn't say so, but I think that he is convinced that people are willing to put up with obesity to get cheap food. This seems like a ridiculous notion given the number of people seeking to lose weight. Instead of railing against corporations, he needs to start his own corporation to sell food that tastes good, and uses the more expensive ingredients that won't make you fat.

Only in America could you find a market for low-fat cheese.

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Schooling via Externalities

"Public" (that is, publicly-funded, not open to the public) schools generate large amounts of angst. It is obvious that our method of schooling our children is not particularly effective. There's a lot of ignorant smart people out there. Where were they in public school? How do we solve this problem? Democrats are influenced by the left when they call for more public control of schools. Republicans are influenced by the right when they call for school vouchers.

The problem, it seems to me, is the public education is "free". That's what socialists want: for everything to be free of market considerations. If something has no price, it cannot be controlled by the market. According to socialist arguments, market control is the problem; replacing it by political control solves the problem. But not everybody is propelled by socialist arguments. Many want public schooling for two reasons: first, because it's injust for a child to have parents who don't value schooling, and second, because educated citizens create an externality. If people around you are better able to run their lives, they'll create benefits that fall on other people.

The first argument is easily disposed of. If public schools exist to save children from bad parents, then why does public schooling start at age five? Why not start immediately after birth? A child's basic personality is set by age three. If public funding of schooling is to achieve the goal, then public funding of parenting should start as soon as a child is born. Children should be taught to walk, talk, and use a toilet by trained educators. Reductio ad absurdum -- at least I hope that everyone agrees that that is absurd!

The second argument -- that externalities justify public funding of education -- is more interesting. I see two problems with it.

First, the existance of positive externalities of an action is not evidence that the action needs to be publicly funded. If political priorities were set rationally (which they are not -- for all that behavioral economists claim that people do not make rational decisions, their alternative is not particularly rational either), then something would be publicly funded ONLY if the public gain exceeded the public cost AND if the private cost exceeded the private gain. If individuals gain a benefit from educating themselves, then they'll be willing to pay for it.

Secondly, look at the incentives. If taxpayers fund public education because of externalities, then funding it beyond the value of the externalities is irrational. If you happen to have children in school at the time, then you'll be willing to pay more. These two effects guarantee that public schooling will never have sufficient money.

We will never have the best schools, much less adequate schools, until we separate school and state.

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Perfect Competition, Perfect Markets

If you talk to people who are opposed to solving problems via the market, some of them will bring up an odd objection. They'll say that you only get optimum resource allocation in a completely free market, with so many buyers and sellers that no one could influence the market, and with "perfect information". Two examples: David C. Korten, and John E. Ikerd.

If those conditions do not exist -- if there is not perfect competition -- then these people think the case for government intervention is proven. This is foolish. When choosing between two possibilities, you do not compare one against perfection and if it's found lacking, choose the other. You compare the two choices against each other.

Many people think that government control of monopolies eliminates the problem of monopolies. This is foolish. They compare how monopolies would behave without government control against how monopolies would behave when controlled perfectly by government. They're making a very simple logical error. Government is itself a monopoly! All that they're doing is substituting the need to control multiple monopolies with the need to control one monopoly.

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On the Impossibility of Successfully Regulating Businesses

Many businesses are regulated by one agency or another. For example, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Or another, the Federal Communications Commission. Or another, the Food & Drug Administration.

The trouble with any of these regulatory agencies is that they have two basic choices: regulate from a position of ignorance, or regulate using experts (or any point between). If they choose ignorance, then the business may well get away with things it shouldn't, or be prevented from doing things that cause no harm. If they choose experts, well, where do those experts come from? They come from the industry, in which case you have to wonder if they'll be willing to regulate their former employer. Or, they come from academia. The trouble is that, once hired by the regulatory agency, there is a huge incentive for the regulated company to bribe the employee with the offer of a higher-paying job once they've influenced legislation in the company's favor.

Obviously, regulation is still possible, and goes on every day. I suggest that that regulation is not as successful as the creators of the regulation promised it would be.

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Chenango Canal

The Chenango Canal connected Utica and Binghampton in New York State from 1837 to 1878. The Canal was first seriously proposed in 1826. It was thought even then that a role of government was to help businesses, so the promoters of the Canal introduced a bill in the New York State legislature for seven years, until in 1833 the amount of $1,000,000 was authorized for the building of the canal.

The frequent reader of this blog will not be surprised to find that the canal cost over $2,500,000 to complete. Moreover, counting the cost of operation, interest on the bonds, plus a failed bid to extend the canal by 33 miles, the total cost of the Canal was $6,871,209. The total amount returned in tolls? $744,021. The difference of $6,127,188 had to be made up by state revenues from the Erie Canal.

The Canal lost money. It lost a lot of money. Were it run by a private company, everyone would of course say that this was a disaster. Because it was run by the State of New York, some people try to dismiss any need for profit. They will tell you "governments are not supposed to make a profit." or "It's the government's job to invest in things that won't turn a profit." This is foolishness, though.

Resources are limited; even and especially government resources. So what should a government spend its citizens money on? Why, those things that create the most benefit, of course. And how do you measure that benefit? Why, by profit, of course. The trouble is that governments forget this. They listen to the promoters of projects, and they believe the wild-eyed description of the potential benefits. For the Chenango Canal, it was all the businesses that would spring up along the route of the canal, exploiting the resources of the region, bringing coal from the hills into the city.

This is not a history lesson, of course. Governments still work the same way, foolishly believing the inflated benefits of this project or that project. In my own part of New York State, there is no four-lane limited access highway. This, we are promised, is what is holding back development of the North Country. "Build it and they will come" I actually heard the Jefferson County economic developer say. Listen to the story for yourself.

What keeps them making these mistakes is support from citizens who think these unproductive investments are good. When your government wants to spend money, say "No thanks! I know better how to spend my own money."

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I've seen everything now

Edward Hasbrouck (left, above) is an outspoken leftist. Perry Metzger (right, above) is a propertarian anarchist. Yet in a posting to Dave Farber's Interesting People list, Hasbrouck defends private property while Metzger explains how and why ownership of intellectual property in time reverts to "the people".

Stunning, absolutely stunning. I never fail to be amazed by the universe at least once every day.

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Software and assumptions

When you write a piece of software, you always have in mind a certain set of assumptions. You are thinking about a certain speed of CPU, a certain amount of memory, and a certain amount of storage. Those assumptions condition the structure of the program. For example, I wrote (with Patrick Naughton) Painter's Apprentice back in 1983. The program was written to be a clone of MacPaint. In order to make it work as well as MacPaint, I assumed monochrome graphics from the beginning. That assumption worked its way into every bit of the code of that program. The algorithms chosen, the amount of memory consumed, and the file formats for storing the images, were all a part and parcel of the program. It would not have been possible to write the program to the same effect without making those assumptions. In fact, assuming that I didn't have to make those assumptions is itself an assumption. No magic wand.

Similarly, our public schooling system has an assumption built into it: that every child will go through the school system. I've written about the failure of this system of compulsion one, two, and three times before. Vouchers will not work to improve the school system as long as school is compulsory. There is no magic wand.

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Economics of spam

Lots of people have proposed the idea that spam is simply an economic problem: If people have to pay to send each spam, they would send less. This is not a correct idea. I say this so flatly because people can already ask strangers to send them email with a monetary attachment. When they get email from a stranger, they autorespond to it with a message that says "Hi. Thanks for sending me email. I've never gotten email from you before, so I want you to pay me $1.17 to read your email. All you have to do is sign up for paypal, and send me $1.17 via paypal. When I get it, I'll know which email to read." The $1.17 is a key that points them to the specific email that was sent.

Nobody does this. Why? Because it doesn't work. Do you think I'm wrong? No problem! Just send $1.17 to my paypal address and include your message in Paypal's comment field. If you have too much to say, end with "to be continued...", and send the continuation to my main address.

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Job Destruction

Politicians usually brag about how they created X jobs during their rein. I wonder how many New York politicians are going to brag about having destroyed jobs? That is, after all, what they did by signing the minimum wage bill into law. Nobody knows exactly how many people will be thrown out of work by this bill. And yet we economists can say without any doubt that some people will be thrown out of work.

I've blogged about this before:

Aug2609:07minimum-wage3
Aug2311:40minimum-wage2
Jul1202:58minimum-wage-really
Jul100:41minimum-wage-wwjp
May242004a-living-wage
May242004minimum-wage
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Public Choice

Public Choice economics is a theory that says that people in government operate from the same selfish incentives as anybody else. Surprisingly that theory has not convinced all economists yet. That must be interpreted as proof that some economists are dunderheads, because the following pair of cartoons written by Wiley Miller make it completely obviously true.


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No thanks, Elliot.

A week ago, Elliot Spitzer, New York State's current Attorney General and Governor-elect (in his dreams), put out a press release explaining how he was saving New Yorkers from being able to borrow money. He didn't put it that way, but I do. He thinks that he's saving New Yorkers from high interest rate (payday) loans.

I don't think Elliot understands interest. There is a competitive market for loaning money to people with no capital. It is a very competitive market, because the product being rented is absolutely identical. You don't have to take the money to the shop to have a mechanic examine it for defects. You know that $500 at 150% interest is cheaper than $500 at 200%.

In a competitive market, holders of capital wish to earn a fair rate of interest on it. Ahhhh, but what is "fair"? Consumers decide what is fair. A business makes an offer, another business makes another offer, and yet another another. The consumer chooses the offer that is best for them. This keeps the businesses honest and fair. Businesses that aren't honest and fair are competed out of business.

Or, rather, there would be a competitive market, except that New York State chooses to interfere in it. New York State caps the interest rate for payday loans to 16% per annum. This doesn't make the market go away, it just sends the market over to the Mafia. No doubt Elliot Spitzer thinks that he's fighting organized crime. So odd, then, that he takes actions which create new profits for the Mafia!

The nature of interest is such that you cannot dictate the value of it. If you try to cap interest rates, you can only have two effects: people who need money won't get it, or they'll get it illegally. Either way, no positive effect is created from this law. If Elliot Spitzer were an honest man (but alas, he is a politician), he would refuse to enforce this law. Certainly there are more than enough laws that he can pick and choose among the ones he wishes to enforce. Too bad for the citizens of New York State that he has chosen to enforce this one.

UPDATE: TM Lutas points out that people are desirous of usury laws, and that consequently we need to pander to that desire. Nope. People also desire to commit suicide. Does that mean we should hand them a gun? Of course not. People need to learn that interest is a characteristic of the world, just like 32ft/sec/sec. If you step off a cliff, you're going to get hurt. If you want to borrow money and you have no or worse credit, you're going to have to pay a lot of money. Would I that it were otherwise? Of course, but neither do I think that everyone should have to walk around covered with foam rubber so they don't get hurt from falling. If we did that to children, they would never learn to avoid falling, because falling wouldn't hurt. They would be handicapped relative to a normal adult. We shouldn't treat adults like children.

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Political vs. Economic power, part 2

I fear that I may have misled some people in my earlier posting on Political vs. Economic power. I got a response from someone suggesting that political power derives from the use of physical force. Not true! What about, say, the Knights of Columbus, or the Rotary, or the Shriners, or any other voluntary organization? They change the world by cooperating with each other towards a goal. This is political power.

Governments use political power, but they do not create it.

A government is unique among organizations because it has, or at least tries to have, a monopoly on force in a certain physical area. The United States Government is different than most governments because its citizens reserve the right to keep and bear arms, and because it is comprised of states, each of which maintains its own National Guard troops. The U.S. Government is a well regulated monopoly, controlled by a well regulated militia. Or, at least, it was designed to be a well regulated monopoly. Lately, the regulators have been falling down on the job.

A lot of people don't appreciate this. I suspect that you, gentle reader do.

My correspondent further deponeth that consumers don't regulate, because that would require the use of political power, or the legal right to use force. That's also not true. A voltage regulator controls the level of voltage in your computer. No law gives it the power to regulate, and yet regulate it does.

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Deregulation

I'm not a big believer in the concept of "deregulation". First, because most of what is called "deregulation" is actually just a different kind of government regulations. Second, because the real way to deregulate something is to give it monopoly status with no government oversight. That is, you have to remove consumer choice, because consumer choice regulates corporate actions.

Let's look at some monopolies to see if they're truly deregulated:

Gas, Water, Electric, Sewage, Cable TV
These are often supplied by a government entity, or else under a franchise agreement. While the actual people runnning the service may not be elected, ultimately they are answerable to someone who is.
Telephone
Every state has a Public Utility Commission, which controls telephone service.
Copyright
Copyright expires eventually, in theory. In practice, nothing owned by a corporation has gone into the public domain since WWI, and nothing owned by an individual since WWII. So, my theory predicts that copyrights are effectively unregulated, with copyright owners taking advantage of purchasers. Doesn't quite work out that way, because while company FOO has a monopoly on artist BAR's work, they're competing against all other companies in the market for the fan's dollars. Consumers still have some regulating power here.
Patents
Patents expire after 20 years, so you should expect to see a decreasing amount of abuse as a patent nears the end of its life, and consumers gain the power to regulate.
I think my theory holds up pretty well.
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Political vs. Economic power

Political power comes from a willingness of one person to cooperate with another simply because they agree on a goal. Economic power comes from someone having a sufficient quantity of resources that they can trade with other people to achieve a goal they may not agree on. These two types of power are fundamentally different. Economic power can be consumed. Political power cannot. Economic power is created by the slow process of wealth creation. Political power can be created in a moment by the action of a mob.

A wealthy person does not automatically have economic power. Simply buying something is not expressing one's economic power. You have to buy something whose value others do not agree with. For example, if you build an ordinary house in an ordinary location, you are simply buying a house. If you hire Frank Lloyd Wright to create Fallingwater, you are using your economic power to create something that perhaps nobody values but you.

If you believe, as I do, that the best society is created when power (of all stripes) is widely distributed, then you'll prefer economic power to political power. The process of exercizing economic power acts to redistribute it. Political power, however, tends to become concentrated. Look at the USA. Its Constitution was designed to specifically prevent the federal government from becoming a concentration of power, and yet it happened anyway.

There seems to be only one way to disperse political power: splitting up.

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A Free Market is a Robust Economy

One reason why some people don't like free markets is because of the waste that they engender. People are allowed to create products that nobody will buy. People are allowed to put huge amounts of resources into creating a product that isn't as good as an existing product. If you had a really smart person in charge of the economy, they could get rid of that waste, and only make the good stuff that people want to buy.

Apart from the difficulty, nay, impossibility of finding anybody that smart, and the pressure that person would face to pick his friends' products, you also have the fallibility of humans. If you have a single entity in charge, which has the ability to coerce everyone into following their plan, then you have a problem. You see, ninety-nine out of a hundred times their decision will be correct, or at least better than a free market. That hundredth time, though, they'll be so wrong as to completely destroy the economy.

A free market does many things that are wrong, but it never does just one thing. Because it never does just one thing, and often does many things, it's extremely unlikely that everyone will do the wrong thing at the same time. Because of this, free markets are robust. They are not subject to a system-wide failure.

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Fair Trade

Earlier I wrote about Fair Trade. Don Boudreaux expands on the idea I suggest in my first two paragraphs -- that Fair Trade is not particularly fair -- and adds that it's probably not economically efficient either. You'd think that would make him angry, but since he ends with "Oh well...." he seems more resigned than angry.

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Building Codes

A friend comments on "Are poor people stupid?":

The trouble here is that he's not being a good economist. He's saying "bad things happen, let's prohibit the cause." That's fine enough, but what else happens when you do that? He also doesn't ask what happens when you don't enact laws. So let's go down those roads that my friend didn't.

Once you've established a principle that something should be regulated, the next question becomes: exactly how? The theory here is that everyone sits down and decides how to mitigate the harm. What must be prohibited so that the harm does not occur. Let's say that you want to make a building more resistant to electrical fires. Perhaps some fires are caused by overloaded extension cords. Well, you can require that there be an outlet every 8 feet along the wall, you can specify a minimum wire size, you can specify a maximum number of outlets per circuit breaker, etc.

The problem here is that the regulators have been given discretionary power that they didn't have before. They could greatly benefit a copper wire manufacturer by requiring one gauge thicker wire. They could benefit outlet manufacturers by requiring more outlets per foot of wall. Perhaps that power relationship gets expressed through out-and-out bribery, when a manufacturer pays money to a legislator. Perhaps it's expressed at re-election time, when a manufacturer donates to the legislator's re-election fund. Perhaps it's expressed through the legislator of a district with a big copper wire manufacturer saying "I'll vote for a bill that you want if you add in a requirement for thicker wire."

There are many ways in which this power relationship can be expressed. It's naive to think that legislators won't use that power. Assume that a legislator does not have a corrupt bone in their body. They were elected into office by making promises to the citizens of their district. From their perspective, they have been asked to make good on those promises. Other legislators have the same problem to solve, so they each trade on fulfilling promises. From their non-corrupt point of view, nobody is hurt (much) by being protected a little more than necessary.

The trouble here is that even with perfect people in office, you still have legislators doing unnecessary things for people. Even with no corruption, you still get waste. Where does the trouble come from? By citizens asking their legislators to do too much.

What happens if citizens start with the principle that laws exist to stop people from doing violence to each other, and that all other relationships between people must be voluntary? In other words, what if the people agree that there will be no building codes?

You have the usual problem that people have when spending lots of money on something they cannot necessarily evaluate themselves. How do you find out what gauge wire was used when it's hidden behind the walls? The answer is through the use of certification marks, and careful purchasing. Right now, you can purchase any old kind of extension cord with any gauge wire, and plug it in. Perfectly legal. Nobody makes unsafe ones, though. Why? Because they can't get UL to certify their extension cord unless it uses a reasonable gauge wire for its length and current capacity. UL is a private party which sells access to its certification mark. A building can come with a certification mark that it meets certain requirements.

That handles the case where people need to worry about their own building. What about the case where people need to worry about their neighbor's building burning down? Very simply, they can ask to see their neighbor's building's certification. And their neighbor's and so on. You would have a meta-certification for a building which stated that not only was it certified, but all buildings within reach of fire were also certified.

What if somebody's building lost its certification? You would think that their building would lose all its value, so that keeping up the certification would be identical to having power, water, or sewer. What if somebody built a new building without certification? Again, who would be willing to occupy such a building? A lot on a block where all the other buildings would be expensive, simply because of the value of all the other certified buildings. It wouldn't make sense to build a building without certification. Surely the rents would be that much lower.

I've made several hand-waving assertions here about the costs of things, and creating new companies from nothing. It takes money to do those, money that is not obviously spent with our existing building code regulations. What you must recognize, as a good economist, is that these regulations are costing us money right now. They're costing us money in the form of deadweight: all the little trade-offs that our theoretically incorruptible legislators have made to get the laws their citizens want. They also cost money because of the cost of complying with the law. It's the same idea as the transaction cost of purchasing the certification for the building.

I believe that it's poor economics to ignore those costs and say "Well, we must have regulations because a free market solution costs money." A free market solution is not impossible, but is instead simply more or less expensive than the regulated solution if all costs are tallied up. From my perspective as a pacifist, the expense of using the violence of the state to coerce peaceful people into creating a purported societal benefit is too high a price to pay. Since all evil has fraud or force at its root, I think that the shortest path to good is taken by avoiding the use of violence or lying, even when done to create something good.

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Are poor people stupid?

Are poor people stupid? Obviously a lot of people think so. They mean to protect the poor by denying them the ability to work for a low wage (minimum wage laws), or to live in a frugally-built house (building codes), or to force them to educate their children (compulsory schooling), and to compel everyone to pay for the education of the poor (school taxes).

If poor people really are stupid, then a different set of policies is needed than if poor people were merely poor for the moment. If poor people are stupid, then you would expect them to remain poor because of their stupidity. This could be discovered by tracking a sample of poor people, to see if they stay poor. That's been done, though, and only a small minority of poor people are poor from year to year.

The majority of poor people drift in and out of poverty. Sometimes they're young people just getting started. Can't afford a house, maybe can't even afford a car. Don't have much work experience, so they have to work at "starter" jobs. Other people might be able to earn a higher income, but are prevented by their life situation. Perhaps they're single parents, perhaps they're on probation and tied to a location with a poor job market. Perhaps they're divorced and sharing custody? Other people might have lost their old job and are temporarily poor while retraining themselves for a new career.

Policies which assume that these people are poor because they're stupid are not just philosophically wrong, they're actively harmful. A person of ordinary intelligence must be presumed to be able to make the best of their choices. If we remove choices because we don't want them to make stupid choices, we make it harder for them to pick the best choices. For example, if we force all new houses to be of a fixed minimum quality (building codes), then we force these people to live in older housing not covered by building codes. It's very presumptious to say that that's best for them. We should allow everyone the most freedom to choose, even the minority of poor people who are actually stupid. Controlling the actions of adults degrades their judgement and turns them into moral infants.

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Selling your vote

Brad Templeton points out that by-mail absentee ballots are subject to vote selling. Our secret ballots keep the secret from the vote counters, yes, but they also keep your vote secret from everyone else. That means that nobody can verify how you voted. That means that nobody would reasonably buy your vote because you have no way to prove the vote that you sold. Unless, that is, you voted using an absentee ballot by mail.

The presumption here is that selling your vote is a bad thing. Let's look at it from the other direction. A vote in favor of their candidate is worth money to them. They could buy your vote if they could trust you to the vote you sold. We have worked hard to make that impossible, and yet the desire to buy a vote is still there. They will seek to buy your vote in other ways. They will blanket you with appeals to vote their way. They will have the candidate promise to vote for things you want (do you remember what he promised last time? Did he deliver?)

Vote-buying has two good effects. One, it recognizes the reality that commercial interests stand to benefit from your vote, and why shouldn't you share in the gain? Two, it forces the party buying the votes to actually expend money. Once that money is spent, it's gone. So, they have to think very hard about the value of your vote to them. Perhaps they would do better to spend that money on something else.

UPDATE 11/7: TM Lutas points out that if vote buying were legal, then the cheapest way to take over a country would be to simply buy the votes needed. No war or coup needed. Of course, politicians are currently legally buying our votes using OUR OWN TAX DOLLARS. "Vote for me and I'll do X, Y, and Z for you!" Yeah, right, you and what bank?

I would argue that our government has already been taken over by a hostile power in exactly the manner TM Lutas fears, and worse, they used our own money to do it.

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There is not a fixed amount of work

If you travel to India, one of the first things you see are women sweeping the streets. They use a little "corn" broom which is about three inches in diameter, and two feet long. It's about as inefficient as you can get short of sweeping with your bare hands.

No doubt the reason they don't use more efficient brooms (e.g. put it on a stick and weave the broom wider) is because that would put some sweepers out of work. There is, after all, only a certain amount of street to sweep. I think that India is, in general, under the thrall of an economic misconception. It's not just India, of course, but world-wide. It's not an old misconception, like the flat earth theory. It's a current misconception.

It's the idea that there is a fixed amount of work.

I believe that Ashutosh Sheshabalaya in his book Rising Elephant is falling prey to the same misconception. He somehow thinks that there is a fixed amount of work, a fixed amount of jobs, a fixed amount of wealth, and if India becomes wealthy, that the US must suffer. Even if a job disappears in the US, and an equivalent job appears in India, that does not mean that the US economy is harmed in any way. First, we're getting the same job done for less money. Second, we've freed up someone to do a new job, a better job, a more highly-paid job.

You want our jobs, India? You can have them. We have plenty to share. We'll just make more.

Update, 11/3: Got a reply from Tosh Sheshabalaya. This is very good, because it shows that he's not just interested in throwing an opinion out there. He's seeking to close the loop between reader and writer. Rather than a lecture, he's looking for a conversation. Good job, Tosh!

He repudiates the idea of a fixed amount of work, and attributes that to the reviews. His main point seems to be that India is doing very well, and stands to do much better. He's right! But that doesn't mean that we'll do poorly just because India is doing well.

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Monopolies and market power

Various people, David Isenberg among them, seem to think that a monopoly has market power. It uses that power to dominate its market. By dominating its market, it is able to restrict its output and raise prices, creating profit margins that are only accessible to monopolies.

That would seem to be obvious, wouldn't it? No, as I've written before. In a free market, you will sometimes have market conditions that allow a single firm to out-compete everyone else. Perhaps the firm is incredibly flexible, has some really smart employees, has a first-mover advantage, or was simply surrounded by morons. They have managed to put everyone else out of business. By the definition, they have a monopoly.

They have gotten their monopoly by being successful. We want to reward success, so we should not get in the way of monopoly formation. "But won't they create monopoly pricing?", you ask. Not necessarily. Perhaps they have achieved their monopoly by lowering their prices so low that nobody else could compete. They are a monopoly, they are dominating the market, and they have the market power to exclude competitors. Yet none of these have any negative consequences. It is monopoly prices that are the negative consequences. I must mention here that nobody tries to do this anymore, because these days a monopoly is presumed to have the power to charge monopoly prices.

What matters more than anything else is whether a monopoly has the ability to restrict entrants. Clearly any business has the ability to *offer* monopoly pricing to their customers. If they can restrict competitors while offering monopoly pricing, then market intervention can be justified. In no other case does it make sense.

On the other hand, perhaps you have a market which is already being interfered with. Let's say that some infrastructure was created under one set of laws which benefits an existing company. Now the laws have been changed to make that infrastructure harder to create. This may have the side effect of restricting entry into the market, giving the company a monopoly and the ability to charge monopoly profits. In that case, either more or less market intervention is necessary. Either the company should have its prices set by a government board, or else the increased cost in building the new infrastructure should be subsidized, or the company should be forced to share the infrastructure with competitors.

I hope that you can see here that regulations do not lead to freedom. Regulations lead to more regulations. Perhaps a better solution is to go back and look at the reason the infrastructure was made more expensive. Maybe the problem wasn't as bad as to warrant all those regulations? Perhaps that law would be best repealed? That would require that legislators would have to admit to making mistakes. This would give their opponents ammunition in the next election cycle. That's probably why politicians only admit to mistakes when they plan to retire anyway. That's why I don't hold out too much hope for reform.

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Flu Vaccines, in a nutshell

Russ Roberts caught some nutjob attempting to explain the shortage of flu vaccines on the basis that "no one's in charge". Good call, Russ! No one is in charge of blogs and yet there's no shortage of readers or writers.

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The Dictator's Guide to Wealth

Dear Dictator,
      So, you want to be a wealthy dictator, eh? You've got a bit of a personal problem, then. Most dictators become such because they love having power over people. The trouble is that when you control people, you eliminate their ability to create wealth. The more control you retain, the poorer your people will be. You cannot have both wealth and power. You must choose between them.

You're still reading, eh? Okay, then obviously you've chosen wealth over power. I have more bad news for you. You must also allow your people to become wealthy as well. You do this for three reasons. First, if you let them become wealthy, they will have an incentive to work hard, be creative, and take risks. Second, if they are wealthy, they will be happy under your thumb, and won't try to revolt. Third, when they become wealthy, you will be able to take a portion of their wealth.

Incentives matter. People have to have an incentive to work hard. You could beat them, but that's expensive and unproductive. It creates not an incentive to work hard, but an incentive to avoid the beatings, which is not at all the same thing. You get the same effect when you put criminals in jail for committing crimes. Their goal then becomes not not committing the crimes, but instead avoiding getting caught.

When people get to keep most of the results of their efforts, they'll work hard. Being a dictator, that means that they'll be working hard to make you wealthy. The wealth flows directly from the hard work, and the hard work from the reward. So, your own wealth is contingent upon them keeping as much of their wealth as you can manage. The more wealth they have, the more wealth they'll be able to invest in creating more wealth. This process has no end, and there are no limits to the wealth you can accumulate in this manner.

Wealth does not itself bring happiness, but misery surely brings unhappiness. I don't refer to poverty. Poor people can be happy if they accept their poverty. The people who do not accept their povery, but instead struggle against it, are miserable. When you are over-controlling people, keeping them from improving their station in life, you are creating misery. Unless you are a cruel dictator, you don't want to create misery. Miserable people are desperate people. They will do risky things, like attempt to overthrow your rule. The prime risk of any dictator is being overthrown. You can reduce that risk by spending lots of money on an armed force, but that's an expensive way to earn money. So, to protect your position, you must eliminate as much misery as possible.

If you take a fixed amount of wealth from everyone, you will get more from the wealthy people. Therefore, to be as prosperous as you can, you should encourage people to become wealthy by taking only a fixed percentage of their wealth. If, instead, you punish the wealthy by taking more and more of their money as they get more, you will decrease their interest in being wealthy.

So, to sum up, allow your people to have private property rights, do what they're best at and trade without restriction for everything else. Tax consumption, not income, because you want to encourage them to create more capital. Use your power only to protect their (and your!) property. This will maximize your wealth, and minimize the risk of any nasty attacks by miserable people. As you raise your family in splendor, be sure to educate your children as to the source of their comfort. Teach them how to run a prosperous country, and you will be able to pass your dictatorship on to them.

Remember that political control and economic control are completely different things. If you want to see how wealth is truly rewarded, look at the reign of Alan Greenspan over the U.S. Federal Reserve. He has merely banished the scourge of inflation. For this, he has been rewarded with lifetime employment, power and prestige. No one in their right mind would think of overthrowing him. You, too, can live that kind of a life: wealthy, powerful, and free of the risk of losing your position.

If you think I'm talking about or to dictators, you'd be wrong.

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The cost of fiber optic cable, 2

Well, DANC is at it again. Their fiber loop is now installed and built. They're crowing about having seven customers, so "there must have been unmet demand." That's simply a ridiculous notion. If I take $19 million dollars from the taxpayers of New York, and redistribute it to poor unfortunate companies in the form of subsidized (below-market) telecommunications facilities, of course I would have customers.

In addition to the crowing, Tom continues to push his fantasy that there was no fiber optic cable in St. Lawrence County (SLC). Thanks To DANC, SLC will see a huge economic boom due to all the new fiber optic cable. Similar claims were made for railroads when they were built, even though some of them ended up as utter busts.

Back in the railroad boom days of the second half of the 1800's, citizens could see if there was a railroad or not. It was rather obvious. It was also obvious if they were getting a railroad, because prior to a railroad being built, local investors were courted with offers to sell stock. Back then, public infrastructure had to be sold to the public through voluntary purchases. These days, DANC is funded through tax dollars taken involuntarily, and it's much easier to fool people about infrastructure.

Take a look at this picture (click on it to make it bigger. Note that I edited the color of the two lower orange sleeves because they have faded in the sunlight. They were the depicted color when they were new.):

That picture was taken on Rt. 56 a little south of Norwood. The location is not particularly special, I just chose it because I could take a nice photograph. What you're seeing is from top to bottom, the DANC fiber, the Time-Warner fiber, and the Verizon fiber. So much for the idea that there was no fiber in St. Lawrence County.

David Sommerstein of NCPR interviewed Tom Sauter. David points out that Verizon and Time-Warner have fiber networks. He asks Tom what's different. Sauter replies " This is an open access network. The other two are proprietary networks there to serve solely the business interests of the company that owns them. This network is developed to benefit the north country region as a piece of public infrastructure. So there's really a different operating basis. It will support multiple service providers who will compete with each other over the same platform."

What Tom is implying is that Time-Warner and Verizon are a duopoly. Neither one has an incentive to lower their rates unless the other one does, because the two cooperate to keep prices up rather than compete for the largest amount of business. The trouble with this theory is the practice that DANC has just demonstrated. All it takes to compete with Time-Warner and Verizon is money. The maximum profit that either one of them can take is limited to the risk that anyone is willing to accept by installing fiber in the north country.

Tom is essentially expressing his ignorance of economics, or else hoping to persuade others to be ignorant to advance his own cause. Yes, Verizon and Time-Warner have proprietary networks that they hope to make a profit from. Nobody who owns capital voluntarily gives it away. They will spend it in the hopes of being able to make money on it, or sell it at a profit. Everyone who has money that they're not currently spending quickly figures this out. There is nothing wrong with trying to make a profit, and Tom is trying to personally profit from the DANC fiber by creating a need for his continued employment. Nothing wrong with that, except that Tom is doing this by extorting money from taxpayers. Worse, he's painting his efforts as being better for the public than the profit-seeking behavior of Verizon and Time-Warner.

That is essentially an anti-market idea, and one that I think is bad for the interests of the public that Tom claims to uphold.

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I got my teeth cleaned

I got my teeth cleaned last Thursday. The dental hygenist is new in the office. She used their nifty-snifty mouth camera system to get a picture of a shadow which seemed to be a cavity. I guess that that camera is not free to use, because when Dr. Carville looked at the tooth, he also gave her a mild rebuke, saying "Who told you to use the camera?"

I really like Dr. Carville. Like most small businessmen, he realizes that there is no magic pool of money used to pay health care costs. He understands that ultimately, individuals pay for their own health care. The more he regulates his costs, the better his bottom line. The better his bottom line, the less he can afford to charge, and the more customers he will have.

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Secession

Well, if Walter Williams can talk about secession, so can I. While there is much to love about America, there is much to dislike about its government. It surely seems as if the intent of the founders of this country intended to create a system of competing governments. The federal government has a strictly limited set of things it can do. All else is relegated to the states.

To hear people, America will live or die based on the results of the Presidential election later this fall. That's wrong, that's just wrong. The federal government is not supposed to be a concentration of power. While some people are worried about the power of corporations, they seem to be neglecting the power of the federal government. Corporate monopolies use the monopoly power of a government to force themselves on you. The trouble with federal government power is that it is the ultimate monopoly. It's the one with the guns that makes all the other monopolies work. If you live in the United States, you have no choice but to abide by federal government decisions.

The only way to escape a bad federal government decision is to emigrate from the United States. There are many reasons why that is difficult to do. If you look at the Constitution, there are many features designed to make it easy to escape a bad state government decision.

Everyone reading this can think of a round dozen really bad things that the federal government does. I don't intend to present my personal list here, because that would distract from the subject. My point here is that if you had the option of staying in the United States, and moving to a different state to escape those bad things, then you would be happier. More likely what would happen is that the states wouldn't do those bad things because it's predictable that people would vote "with their feet" to change those policies.

What to do

Of course you already know that I'm going to suggest secession. A lot of people think that secession was decided by the Civil War to be out of the question. You can go read Walter Williams article, linked from above. Without relying on the legality of unilateral secession, I would shoot for bilateral secession. A region like New York State's North Country (draw a line from Watertown to Plattsburgh; everything north of that is the North Country) is a net receiver of tax dollars from both New York State and the federal government. I would start with the idea that "you are paying us to remain in the United States. There is no sign that those payments will ever cease. We would like to leave and save you that money."

The key to this secession working is to re-create the intended conditions of the Constitution: competing governments keeping down the bad policies proposed by politicians. So, free immigration from the US, and free emigration back to the US. No tariffs with the US, no tolls, no travel restrictions. Stick with the dollar as the currency as long as the US doesn't inflate it. Stick with 120V power. Stick with driving on the right-hand side. Stick with all the things that people are used to, only make it so that the new country will thrive if it improves on USA policies.

Unrealistic, perhaps, to suggest that a region with no cohesive identity, no existing government, could secede. Maybe it would be better, then, to move to New Hampshire and join the Free State Project?

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Compulsion Schooling 3

TMLutas still thinks I should be kinder to schools than I have been, if only so as not to offend people whose cooperation is necessary to move to a kinder, gentler school system. The trouble here is that most everybody thinks that schools can be reformed. They see problems with public schools, but they're fixable by doing more schooling. They suggest full-day schooling, or schooling at an earlier age, or year-round schooling. Or maybe they think they're fixable by introducing a tiny bit of markets, so that children attending a measurably worse school can be bussed to a school which is less bad.

I want to be very, very clear here. Our system of public schooling is broken on the most fundamental basic level. The foundation has a really big crack in it, and no glue, bondo, cement, or toothpaste will fix it. The crack in the foundation is the very essence of public schooling: that everyone is required to be there. First, there is no justification for destroying the freedom of children in this way. None whatsoever. Children are people too, and love freedom as much as adults. Second, the people who really don't want to be there will do their best to make life miserable for everyone else. Why not? They have nothing better to do, from their perspective. Third, even the people who want to be there will have a harder time learning things simply because they are being forced to. Learning is an intensely intellectual practice, and caging the beast doesn't make it more rational.

Saying anything less leaves space for tinkering. The schools cannot be fixed by changing them in small ways. They can't even be fixed by changing them in large ways. They have to be changed at the lowest level, by making them optional. Only in this way will they live up to their potential, up to the children's potential, up to the teacher's potential, up to the administrator's potential.

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Compulsion Schooling 2

TMLutas thinks I should be kinder to schools. Sorry, no can do. Schools are heartless and barbaric and should be treated as such.

He does make the good point, not incompatible with my point, that the infrastructure we have created for schools can be reused. Sure! Keep the buildings, keep the bus runs, keep the classrooms. You can even pay for them with tax dollars if you simply must. Let the teachers and administrators teach individual classes, or form their own competing schools, or even just provide baby-sitting services if that's what parents want.

While it may look as if I think the people in schools are the problem, I don't. The vast majority of teachers could be very good. The teachers are not our enemies. They're as frustrated with the system as anybody. Just ask them what makes them the most unhappy and they'll tell you: the bureaucracy. Teachers would love to work in a private enterprise system which possibly paid them less but provided for much more job satisfaction and more .... education and less schooling.

UPDATE: continued

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What comes after fiber optic cable?

Fiber optic cable has a lot in common with railroads.

Railroads were replaced, for all those reasons, by the personal automobile. What will fiber be replaced by?

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Compulsion Schooling

I've been reading John Taylor Gatto's The Underground History of American Education. As one of the most socialist institutions in America, compulsion schooling must go. There are, however, so many people whose livelihoods are involved in schooling, that closing the schools will take many, many years. The process has already started. Home-schooling is legal in all 50 states. It's an extremely rewarding activity on its own basis, no matter the fact that your droplet is helping to turn the mill wheel of school destruction.

For we must make no bones about it. The system of compulsory schooling cannot be reformed, because it is at its heart broken. You cannot simultaneously compulsorily school and voluntarily educate children.

UPDATE: continued

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Risk

I am a Quaker. Most (all?) branches of Quakerism have a testimony against (that is, a objection to) gambling. None of them have a testimony against insurance or investments. Some Quakers are confused on this point, and object to insurance as if it was betting. For example, one recently said this:

And it violates Quaker principles as it is gambling. You have a very complex array of options, and you have to gamble as to which one will work best for you in the coming year. This year I made a very bad bet! But why should I have to bet?

There is a difference between gambling, and other forms of risk. Life is full of risk. You could stumble as you get out of bed and crack your head open on the corner of your nightstand. Or you could stay in bed all day, and have your ceiling fall on you in an earthquake.

There is absolutely no way to escape all risks in life. Gambling is purely invented risk. You can escape the risks involved in gambling simply by not gambling.

Not everyone values risk the same way. Most people are happy to turn a small chance of a very bad thing happening into a certainty of a slightly bad thing happening. This is called insurance. You can buy different amounts of insurance, which let you take on more or less of the risk of the very bad thing in return for paying a little less.

This is not gambling. This is simply an examination of your life circumstances followed by a decision about the amount of risk you're willing to accept. It is not a bet. You can choose not to gamble. You cannot choose not to get sick. You cannot register a preference for one illness over another.

The Quaker quoted above went on to say:

The interests of private insurance companies are to deny or limit coverage whenever they can get away with it, and the health insurance industry (in fact, the whole health care system in America) is one of the least [honest?] industries that exist. We have to take it out of their hands and make it controlled by the public interest.

Unfortunately, it seems that many non-economists think that the solution to all business problems is to turn them into government problems. Curiously, these same people will happily relate problems that they have had in getting the government to do a good job. Particularly in this case, the market for insurance is not very free. For the most part, insurance companies don't have to compete for your dollar. You must buy automobile insurance if you own a car. If you work for an employer larger than some size, your employer will purchase health insurance, and you have no say in the matter other than to switch jobs.

Okay, so we've settled that this problem is not a market problem, it is a problem of regulation. The status quo is poor regulation. How do we fix it? Given the history of poor regulation, it would be insane to suggest that more poor regulation is likely to fix the problem. Before I could support a call for more regulation, I'd like to see the advocates of regulation fix the regulations we currently have. If that can't be done, then I'd like to see the poor regulations repealed, so that people can purchase insurance through some voluntary organization of which you are a member.

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Charity must be voluntary

Charity must be voluntary. Very simply, you get what you subsidize. If you give money to people who have certain characteristics, you will find more people trying to achive those characteristics. Rather than government aid working to eliminate poverty, it functions to create more poor people.

If, on the other hand, charity is voluntary, and human judgement is applied to the decision to help someone, then that human can evaluate each need on its own merits. Sometimes some people are helped most by the kick in the butt that poverty provides. Other people are not, and no blanket rule (as governments have to apply) will get it as right.

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Abortion

Abortion is a problem here and everywhere, now and forever, because it interferes with the creation of new life. Libertarians believe fiercely that individuals have rights. Before a woman gets pregnant, she is an individual. Shortly after she gives birth, there are two individuals. Somehow, a new individual was created. This individual's rights must be respected, without initiating coercion against the mother in whose womb the baby was created.

A standard principle of libertarianism is that the best solutions are discovered when people have the most control over their own lives. Given private property and free markets, people will negotiate and trade to improve their circumstances. A difficulty with applying this principle to abortion is that neither a zygote, a fetus, nor a baby are particularly at will to enter into these negotiations. There are enough people who have an interest in protecting a baby's rights that they can act as a reasonable proxy for the baby's interests.

The libertarian problem here is that the baby has, without any intention on its own part, found itself at risk of loss of life without cooperation from the owner of the womb it needs for its nurture. The baby has done nothing wrong. The mother may or may not have done anything "wrong". The mother may have been reckless and taken undue risks of accidental impregnation. The mother may have taken reasonable precautions. Or the mother may have been raped. What is clear is that the mother does not wish to cooperate, and history has proven that cooperation cannot be easily coerced.

Pregnancy is similar to other legal quandries. Let's say that a person needs to use the resources of another to save their life, and cannot negotiate the use of those resources. A reasonable law will let them use those resources, as long as they "make the owner whole". That is, they must restore the owner's property to its original condition, and compensate them for the use of their property.

I think, then, that a libertarian solution to abortion is to allow a mother to rent her uterus to the baby. On a practical basis, that is what many parents do. Parents expect that their children will take care of them in their old age, just as they took care of the children when they were helpless and feeble. The trouble comes when a mother doesn't want the baby. Of course, there are these days any number of parents who are unable to have their own child and are willing to expect resources to adopt a baby.

So, you have a willing buyer, and a willing seller. Why not sell babies? There are obvious moral implications, in that it's akin to slavery. Purchasing a baby is nothing like slavery, though. The slave purchaser expects to get a return on their money without much further investment. Purchasing a baby is more like buying a car that needs repairing. You know that you'll have to spend more before you'll get any value.

Or, rather than buy and sell babies, perhaps anti-abortion groups could act as baby brokers. They could take a payment from someone who wanted a baby, be responsible for the actions of that person, and use the payment to compensate someone who didn't want their baby and wanted to give it up.

This would work just fine if there were no unwilling sellers. That is, if every woman had a price for which she would allow her womb to be used, then it just becomes a matter of finding enough money to clear the market. Doubtless, some women would be unwilling to allow their womb to be used for someone else's nurturing. In this case, the whole problem comes down to eminent domain. Would it be possible to "take" a woman's womb for use by a baby (that is, for public purposes). Clearly, if there were enough willing sellers of "womb services", it would be possible to establish a fair market value, and compensate women for the use of their womb.

Basically, then, the failure of current and past abortion laws to make enough people happy comes down to the confiscation of private property for public purposes without due compensation. I believe that if abortion was illegal beyond a certain date in the pregnancy, AND a woman was fairly compensated, then you would see more people cooperating with such a law.

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Heresy

Ever notice that icons of Jesus never look like a jew-boy? Jesus was a hebe, no question about it, only you'd never get that idea from the pictures of Him. He oughtta have a fucking big jewish nose. Instead he's always drawn with a dainty little european nose. In fact, Jesus should look more like your average Palestinian terrorist than anybody else. If you're a Christian, and you claim to not like Jews, you're a walking contradiction in terms. The founder of your religion, the object of your love, was a Jew. Deal with it!

Actually, the various anti-economic things that are ascribed to Jesus really bother me. On the one hand, as a person he can certainly be forgiven for not knowing things that have only been discovered in the last couple of hundred years. On the other hand, as the Son of God, he's held up by some people as the perfect model of human behavior, without flaw, without error, every word divinely inspired by God. Okay, so did Jesus never stub His toe? Did He say "shit" and hop around on one foot? He was human, fully human. Did He get sick? Did He up-chuck? Did He have diarrhea? All human babies spit up, all babies have diaper accidents. Okay, so you have to assume that Jesus shit on Mother Mary. It's likely anyway. He surely puked on her; no mother escapes baby vomit, not even Baby Jesus vomit. So if Jesus was human, did He make human errors? If He didn't, then how can He be said to be human? And if He made mistakes, were His anti-economic sayings mistakes? What else might be mistakes?

Hehe. And some people adopt Christianity because it provides a model for human behavior which is certain. I got news for 'em! Ain't none! Lotta questions, no answers!

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Some Greens don't understand economics

Some Greens don't understand economics. Consider this quote from Sen and the Art of Market-Cycle Maintenance by Molly Scott Cato:

Traditional economists see the economic system as being like the peach in the Roald Dahl story James and the Giant Peach: it will simply expand for ever, while we sit on its ever-fattening skin, enjoying the sunshine, and munching to our hearts' content. Greens, on the other hand, are opposed to growth because they recognise that planet Earth is a closed system. Growth must face the limits imposed by that system, whether they become apparent via resource depletion or the overloading of the natural environment with waste products. And, since the resources of planet Earth are finite, if there are five peaches and I eat four, that only leaves one for you. Or if we eat five between us and then our friend Bettina comes along, she will have to do without.

Wiser perspectives are available from Lester Thurow and Philip Sutton.

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redacted

I needed to rewrite this posting, and couldn't think of any way to do it and still have the name of the URL still make sense. Basically, the new posting needs to point out that neither Republicans nor Democrats are the root of all evil. If I were going to write it, it would probably go like this:

If a black gay person votes Republican, or a wealthy white person votes Democrat they probably are doing so for a good reason. If the Republicans appear corrupt and venal, it's probably because they're currently in power. I don't recall thinking too much of Bill Clinton a few years ago. The main problem with politicians is that they're the kind of people who want to have control over other people. Such people are never nice people. So if you find yourself holding your nose when you vote, it's probably because you're voting for a politician.

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Mon, 09 May 2005

Ride starting Mon May 9 16:33:25 2005

35.88 km 117704.68 feet 22.29 mi 8817.00 seconds 146.95 minutes 2.45 hours 9.10 mi/hr

Went for my first ride on the Rutland Trail today. Bright, sunny day, temperature in the middle sixties, no bugs. Rode out on the trail and back on the road. Not a bad average speed considering that I stopped several times to clean out clogged ditches, once in Stewarts for a glucose break, and twice to talk to people. There was a pair of women walking on the trail, and a couple riding an ATV. They passed me twice, and on the second time they were stopped, so I chatted them up. Told all of them that I call it the Rutland Trail and they should too. The ATVer (whose name I don't remember, sigh) had seen my Bicycling the Rutland page.

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Fri, 06 May 2005

Ride starting Fri May 6 19:23:07 2005

16.25 km 53299.77 feet 10.09 mi 3065.00 seconds 51.08 minutes 0.85 hours 11.86 mi/hr

Started the ride a bit late at night. It was a glorious day, but I missed most of it. Oh well.

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Thu, 05 May 2005

Ride starting Thu May 5 19:00:30 2005

13.01 km 42693.23 feet 8.09 mi 2403.00 seconds 40.05 minutes 0.67 hours 12.11 mi/hr

First ride in over two weeks. Weather has either been rainy, cold, or cold and rainy. Blah. Today was nice. Temperature was about sixty degrees, sun shining, birds chirping, mosquitos flying.

GPS receiver isn't perfectly recording the track, and it knows it. It says that I rode 8.19 miles. If I edit the track so that the corners aren't improperly rounded, and calculate the distance, then it is 8.19 miles. Right on the nose. So clearly the GPS has my position around the corners, but its algorithm for storing the track doesn't store the point of maximum curvature. This is the Garmin Foretrex 201. Very small, waterproof, 15-hour Li-Ion battery. Sweet. But doesn't store its tracks perfectly.

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Mon, 02 May 2005

Can we stop using the title 'Czar'?

I'd really like to see the term "Czar" (as in "Drug Czar" or "Energy Czar") go out of fashion in America. The term is the Russified version of Ceasar. It is used to refer to the leader of Russia who had absolute power. There was no "Rule Of Law" in Russia. The word of the Czar was sufficient to cause action.

"Czar" is incompatible with the American system of government. At least, I hope it is.

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Wed, 27 Apr 2005

Lincoln Tunnel

I took this photo while flying from Newark to Ottawa a few weeks ago. I was actually over Berry's Creek, west of Lyndhurst when I took this picture, but at that height, you see a few miles off your flight path even if you look "straight down". This picture shows Interchanges 16 & 18 of the Noo Joisey Turnpike. The rightmost edge of the picture barely shows one set of tollbooths, and the white line across the highway in the lower right is the other set. See the dotted white line going through that tollbooth, curving around to the right and then back to the left? That's the line of trucks heading for the Lincoln Tunnel. You can't even begin to see the entrance of the Lincoln Tunnel. This is just the line heading towards it.

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Lady Liberty

I took this photo while flying from Newark to Ottawa a few weeks ago. I was actually over the New Jersey meadowlands when I took this picture, but at that height, you see a few miles off your flight path even if you look "straight down". You can see Governors Island, Ellis Island below it, and to the right is Liberty Island, home of the Statue of Liberty.

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Tue, 26 Apr 2005

Hike starting Tue Apr 26 13:22:25 2005

7.45 km 24456.07 feet 4.63 mi 9505.00 seconds 158.42 minutes 2.64 hours 1.75 mi/hr

Went looking for more of the Clifton Iron Mine Railroad. They only operated it for a few years, because the rails were made of wood. They later put iron straps on the top, but that didn't help much. It created its own hazard when the strap curled up and penetrated the car from below. It can be a bit of a challenge to follow, because they used many trestles. They had a more-or-less infinite supply of trees, and earthmoving equipment was primitive at best.

The railroad went on the north side of the river until slightly east of the "BM 975", at which point it crossed the river. It proceeded to cut across a bend in the river, went on a trestle past Twin Falls, and then turned up the creek. Almost immediately up on turning due south, it goes onto a trestle to go over the creek. There's a very short section where it crests the hill that is a railbed. I have a photo of four strips of mossy soil which could be nothing other than the remains of the ties. Southward from there, it goes through a wetland on a trestle. I walked through a mostly clearcut stand of (former) timber, and peeked across the wetland to see if there was any trace left. Nothing. I'll have to go looking for it south from there on another trip.

Have to find a way to get across the Grasse river at Stewart Rapids, because most of the hike was just getting to the railbed. Maybe I could put my electronics into a watertight package, and swim across. Later .... when it's warmer. By the way, the (reputed) tornado last summer must have touched down (at least) exactly where it says "Stewart Rapids" on the map. There was an incredible amount of blowdown at that point. I couldn't say if it was circular because of a tornado or linear because of a wind shear/microburst. The Adirondacks has a tradition of wind shears, but not much in the way of tornados.

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Ties up? Or Ties down?

When a railroad tie rots in place over a hundred or so years, does it leave a pit? Or does it leave a mound? Richard Palmer (the railroad author) and I are having a disagreement. He says that the Clifton Iron Company's railroad ties rotted away, leaving holes where the rails were. I say that the ties fed plants, which grew into and around the ties, preserving their shape. I was convinced that I was right, but then I looked at the picture I took (below) of a side view of a pair of ties, it could go either way. Same thing for the picture below it, which shows snow melted off the peaks and remaining in the valleys. I'll have to go back and look again.

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Thu, 21 Apr 2005

On Being Searched at Airports

I believe that it's a good thing to be searched at airports. I will often make little comments like "Well, the taxi driver took my bag out of the trunk" when they ask "has anybody else handled your bags". Or, I'll carry scary-looking electronics (all purchased at your friendly neighborhood Radio Shack). That's a guarantee that you will get the special treatment. You see, the more people who desire the special treatment, the fewer people they will search who don't want the special treatment. The incentives all line up, and when they do, you can't stand in their way.

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Wed, 20 Apr 2005

Open Source as a public good

A public good is something which is non-rivalrous and non-excludable. The first critera, non-rivalrous, implies that users of the good are not rivals. Your use of the good does not interfere with my use of the good. The second criteria, non-excludable, means that if the good is provided for one, it is provided for all. Radio stations are a public good. Your reception of the signal does not interfere with my reception of it, and if you get to receive it, so do I. Lighthouses are also a public good. We can all see the beacon, and if I'm able to see it, I can't stop you from seeing it. All information in digital form is a public good; whether in the form of music, movies, books, or software.

Public goods can be underproduced relative to other forms of goods because of the difficulty of deriving revenue from public goods. In order to prevent that from happening, creative works receive a monopoly for a limited amount of time. It used to be the case that a copyright had to be claimed and secured. Under the Berne Convention, however, all works are born copyrighted even if the author is anonymous and makes no effort to restrict distribution.

Buried in Innovation, Information Technology And The Culture Of Freedom: The Political Economy Of Open Source, I noticed the term "anti-rival[rous]". They make the excellent point that software is not merely non-rivalrous. It is anti-rivalrous. That is, your use of it not only does not compete with mine, your use of it helps mine. Thus, I have an interest in promoting the software that I have written. I also should promote software that I have not written, but instead merely use. If you use it too, the author will be compensated by more fame, and more people will contribute to the project. It will have greater vitality as more people use it.

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Tue, 19 Apr 2005

Ride starting Tue Apr 19 14:50:24 2005

9.97 km 32704.94 feet 6.19 mi 2460.00 seconds 41.00 minutes 0.68 hours 9.06 mi/hr

Went up to Clarkson to talk to Sazonov. Fought a fierce (20mph) headwind most of the way, with blowing sand in my face. Yuck. Still, a bike ride is a bike ride, so I can't complain.

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Ride starting Mon Apr 18 15:14:59 2005

18.41 km 60393.70 feet 11.44 mi 4043.00 seconds 67.38 minutes 1.12 hours 10.18 mi/hr

Just went down to Hannawa Falls, instead of waiting for the car's oil change. Rode for a little bit on the Red Sandstone Trail just north of Hannawa. Also rode back behind Clarkson to look at the northernmost remains of the Hannawa Falls railroad. I keep dreaming about restoring the trestle that carried the railroad across the Racquette River. It would be excellent to have a rail-trail which people could ride all the way from Potsdam to Hannawa Falls. I don't ever expect that to happen, but I can dream about it.

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Sun, 17 Apr 2005

West Mountain Ski Area

I took this photo while flying from Newark to Ottawa last week. I was actually slightly south of my mother-in-law's house in Glens Falls when I took this picture, but at that height, you see a few miles off your flight path even if you look "straight down". I was looking slightly south of west to get this picture of West Mountain Ski Area. You can see that even on April 9th, they still have snow, although it's a little patchy. Well, maybe a lot patchy, but in the east, you take your patchiness with your spring skiing.

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Sat, 16 Apr 2005

Saranac Lake

I took this photo while flying from Newark to Ottawa a week ago. I was just a little bit north of Lake Placid (the lake, not the town) when I took this picture, but at the height jets fly, you see a few miles off your flight path. I was looking almost exactly west to get this picture of Saranac Lake. In the forefront of the picture is McKenzie Pond. The cleared area to the left is the Olympic Village, where the athletes were housed during the 1980 Winter Olympics. Above that are various lakes. From left to right, you have Ossetah Lake, Kiwassa Lake, Lower Saranac Lake, and Colby Lake, all still iced over except for Ossetah Lake where it winds its way into the village. The village proper is directly above McKenzie Pond.

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Fri, 15 Apr 2005

Ride starting Fri Apr 15 16:44:31 2005

15.23 km 49966.91 feet 9.46 mi 2880.00 seconds 48.00 minutes 0.80 hours 11.83 mi/hr

Just a ride "around the block". That is to say, I went for the shortest possible ride taking every left turn. Yes, my "block" is almost ten miles in circumference.

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Wed, 13 Apr 2005

La Guardia

I took this photo while flying from Newark to Ottawa. I was actually slightly south of the Bronx Zoo when I took this picture, but at that height, you see a few miles off your flight path. I was looking almost exactly south to get this picture of La Guardia airport. The photo is centered on the main terminal building. In the upper left corner you can see Shea Stadium (home of The Mets, the best baseball team in the American League, of course). In the lower forefront, you can see Rikers Island. In the background is Queens. If you look very carefully, you can see an airplane in final approach to runway 31 (on the left).

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Tue, 12 Apr 2005

Ride starting Tue Apr 12 16:22:37 2005

21.55 km 70691.53 feet 13.39 mi 4380.00 seconds 73.00 minutes 1.22 hours 11.00 mi/hr

Most of the snow has melted, but I saw a little snowbank piled up in the shadows in some woods. Still no daffodil blossoms, but the crocuses are out.

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Sat, 09 Apr 2005

Ride starting Sat Apr 9 15:10:37 2005

35.02 km 114880.22 feet 21.76 mi 7278.00 seconds 121.30 minutes 2.02 hours 10.76 mi/hr

Not a cloud in the sky. Temperature in Massena given as 55, but the local thermometer (in the sun) says that it's 70. The temperature is actually somewhere between the two. Am having a bit of trouble with my left ankle. Might be that I'm holding my leg incorrectly as I pedal, or it might be that the new bicycle's cleats are mis-adjusted. I'll need more experience to tell for sure. One problem I have definitely corrected is my knee soreness. I used to get sore knees after about thirty miles of riding. Then Leslie corrected my posture, saying that I should keep my knees over my toes. I noticed that I pedalled with knock knees (pointing in). Since she told me that back in October, I've pedalled with knees aligned with toes and had no problems.

Longest ride of the season. Peepers are out. No buds on the trees yet. Daffodils are up, but no blossoms yet.

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Sun, 03 Apr 2005

Beetle Bailey

In today's (4/3/2005) strip, Mort Walker has one of the Beetle Bailey characters (Plato) go off on a libertarian rant. Hooray Plato (Mort, actually, of course)! Each paragraph is a separate panel in the strip:

Communism failed because it was against human nature. People want to be rewarded for their work. They want to own what they earn.

You can call it selfish if you want, but "self" is the center of the universe. Even giving voluntarily to others is "selfish" in a way because you "get" a good feeling in return.

Dictators take power promising to help the people but soon are only helping themselves. There's a bit of the dictator even among elected officials who use their powers for their own interests.

Maybe the best system is to keep turning our officials over before they turn on you. Too long in power allows too many opportunities for corruption.

People are more productive with fewer laws and restrictions. Even good laws have flaws and room should be left for exceptions, because everyone is different with individual needs.

My own feeling about his paragraph/panel 4 is that while the officials change, typically the staff members do not. Legislation is complicated and extensive enough that the staff members end up doing the research, writing the bills, making the decisions, and suggesting the vote. We don't vote for those people. No, I think the best solution is the one that the Constitution was designed for: a central state with a small set of enumerated powers, with all other decisions left to the states. If people can retain their citizenship, and simply move from state to state, those states which are poorly run will lose their citizens.

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Fri, 01 Apr 2005

Expanding the OSI board

We've added five new board members to the OSI board, and Eric Raymond has retired to become the President Emeritus. Danese has the full list.

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Daffodils are up

The daffodils of spring are poking above the soil. No yellow yet. The next sign to look for is peepers over in the wetland next door.

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Thu, 31 Mar 2005

Ride starting Thu Mar 31 14:32:01 2005

26.56 km 87141.16 feet 16.50 mi 5488.00 seconds 91.47 minutes 1.52 hours 10.83 mi/hr

It must be spring. For one, today was a shorts day. According to the airport temperature in Massena, it's 63 degrees. According to the thermometer out back, it's 53 degrees. Either way, it was a fabulous day. And I saw two Canada geese flying north. Well, actually, they were flying south, but you know what I mean.

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Wed, 30 Mar 2005

Ride starting Wed Mar 30 15:26:47 2005

13.12 km 43047.04 feet 8.15 mi 2670.00 seconds 44.50 minutes 0.74 hours 10.99 mi/hr

Just the standard out and back ride. Saw one deer and one rabbit and got barked at by a lot of dogs.

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Sun, 27 Mar 2005

Ride starting Sun Mar 27 17:32:07 2005

16.76 km 54978.21 feet 10.41 mi 3979.00 seconds 66.32 minutes 1.11 hours 9.42 mi/hr

Bicycled to Quaker meeting because it was such a beautiful day.

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Total speculation on why Atkins works

The following is a set of facts on which I speculate. Yeah, I'm making my conclusion up. It fits the facts of which I'm aware, but that doesn't mean that I know all the facts, or that there isn't a better theory.

It's been proven through dietary testing that the Atkins diet (extremely low carbohydrates initially, followed by a slow ramping back of low-glycemic carbs) works. They catered in a bunch of people's meals, with some of them cooked regularly and the others cooked with lower carbs. The foods were carefully regulated as to caloric value. The low-carb diet was more effective at helping people lose weight even though the number of calories was identical.

So, the key feature of the Atkins diet is the training period. What is being trained, you ask? Well, did you know that there are enough ganglia in your gut for it to qualify as a second brain? There's a reason why digestion continues with no attention from your brain -- because it's being processed by a second brain in your gut. That's why Terri Schaivo is able to live even though her forebrain (the part of the brain that made Terri Terri) is non-functional. Interestingly, the brain in your gut is sophisticated enough to be trained. Unfortunately, no, I don't have a cite for that.

Now comes the speculation: that the Atkins diet trains your gut to stop relying on carbs for energy, but instead that it should expect a supply of fat that it should learn to burn efficiently instead. Your gut responds by changing the mix of chemicals in your gut so that the energy in fat is the target of digestion rather than the energy in carbs.

Hat tip to Jacqueline Mackie Paisley Passey, for whom the Atkins diet is working.

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Thu, 24 Mar 2005

Ride starting Thu Mar 24 16:01:07 2005

Warmer day, longer ride. It was probably up to 40 degrees F. Went looking for a place to run fiber optic cable through the woods to Rt. 11. Gotta get bits back to my house somehow.

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Tue, 22 Mar 2005

Ride starting Tue Mar 22 17:32:44 2005

First ride of the season. Not very ambitious; just to the end of the road and back. A little late and a little cold to do much more than that.

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Thu, 17 Mar 2005

LatLonUTMconversion

I've been doing a lot of work lately on mapping. If you go look at the bicycling category, you'll see some of it. I need to improve the programs that make those maps, but once I'm satisfied with them I'll publish them here. Most generally I want to do GIS-style analysis of maps, only without using a GIS package. The most capable open source GIS package is GRASS, but it has an incredibly steep learning curve. I've tried to learn to use it twice now, and can't get up the slope. It's easier to write my own software than to learn to use GRASS. So that's what I'm doing, and you'll find all of my Python GIS software at pygps.

In particular, today I'm releasing the LatLonUTMconversation library. It converts (predictably enough) between latitude and longitude and UTM coordinates. A GPS receiver will give you lat/lon, but UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) coordinates are more useful. For one, you can compute distances using them, since each integer UTM tick is one meter. For another, you can locate a point on a map by simple subtraction and division by the scale of the map.

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Learn Something New Every Day!

I had suspected that there was a northward-heading railroad in Pulaski, but hadn't found any details. I had already noticed the arches to the west of the bridge north of the junction. I also noticed the railbed-ish area in front of people's houses to the north of that. So, I had my suspicions. Did a bit of searching on the aerial photos, and yup, there it is! It's the Syracuse Northern Railroad. Went straight through Pulaski to Sandy Creek. Curved around to the east and met up with the RW&O at Lacona. So, just as I'd always suspected, the curve south of Pulaski used to be a crossing of two competing railroads.

UPDATE: Dick Palmer wrote an article on "Oswego County Railroads" published by the Oswego County Historical Society in 1962. He tells me that the Syracuse Northern line opened 1872, and was abandoned from Pulaski to Lacona in 1882. The engine house was located at Sandy Creek. It's also discussed in Hungerford's History of the RW&O (1927). One of Sam Sloan's first acts was to get rid of it. The line was considered redundant and was torn up despite protests. There is a birdseye view of Pulaski showing the stone bridge over Salmon River. House in back of courthouse was the depot (if it's still there). There's no listing in Existing Railroad Stations for Pulaski.

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Wed, 16 Mar 2005

Cheers!

I think that, now that OSI has voted in five new board members (only one from the US), this new international perspective is getting under our skin. For example, when we rang off the conference call this morning, we all said "Cheers".

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A Classic fire

We heat our house with a Classic outdoor wood stove. It keeps the bark, bugs, dirt, and ashes outside, while providing us with a renewable source of heat. We fill it once a day, even in the coldest weather (-30F). About every two months it needs to be emptied of ashes. I let it burn down, stir it, burn down, stir, etc. Takes about a day for the fire to die down if you give it no fuel. Today was one of those days.

There's a bit of a trick to feeding the furnace. First, you need to be careful not to throw a log so it covers the air intake hole. If you do that, all that happens is you get hot wood; no air, no combustion. Second, you also need to not cover the ashes with the flat part of the wood. When you're refilling the furnace, it typically has coals buried in the ashes. A good stir will bring them up, but if you bury them underneath the wood, you'll just put them out and the fire won't catch. To keep a fire going, you need to make sure that the air circulates around the wood. I make sure that the bottom layer is laid pointy end down, so that the coals will heat up the exposed face of the wood.

The same applies to starting a furnace emptied of ash. I start with a pair of logs split at right angles. I put them with the flats down so that the remaining split face faces the other, about 3" apart. Bridging those two goes a thinly split strip of wood cut in half. It's cut in half because otherwise it's too long and hangs over the edges of the pair of logs. If it hangs over the edges, they'll shift when you put more wood in. Into the space between the logs, I put some cardboard curled up. If you leave the cardboard flat, it doesn't have enough fuel and it can fall flat, which prevents air from getting to it. On top of the cardboard I laid a bit of Christmas tree saved for firestarting purposes. On top of that I placed several dead coals I found in the ashes I had cleaned out. They have a fair bit of heat left in them and they're quite combustible. And into and around the cardboard I placed strips of birch bark I pulled off some of the logs.

Can you tell I was a boy scout when I was young? Needless to say, with all that preparation, the furnace fire lit with one match.

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Tue, 15 Mar 2005

On the probability of past events

Apparently, creationists are trying to use probability to prove that life did not come from not-life (that abiogenesis is impossible). They refer to a "Borel's law" as proof. This is a philosophically empty idea. Evolutionists should not accept the idea that probability analysis can have any relationship to something that has already happened. The creationists are trying to argue that something which manifestly happened -- abiogenesis -- could not have happened because it was too improbable.

Philosophically, that is like saying that once you flip a coin, the coin cannot be in either state because both are improbable. Obviously, you can look at the coin and see that it indeed is either heads or tails. The creationist would say "No, no, the probability has to be much smaller to say it's impossible. That's Borel's law." No, that's nonsense.

Let's say that you want to show that something is impossible because the probability of its happening is too small. Let's pick some number, 1 of N. Make N large enough that you are satisfied that it is impossible for that event to occur. Now, flip M coins such that 2^M > N. The probability of that exact combination of flips is sufficiently small that it could not have happened. And yet, it manifestly did happen. You can look at the coins and verify that they have been flipped.

The creationist would say "No, no, that's not our argument at all. Only one particular combination of coins will result in life." So what? Obviously, we are having this discussion; we are alive; the past event, however improbable, occurred. Let's say that you believe in the branching universe theory -- where every possibility has been taken and there are correspondingly many universes. In all the universes in which life didn't happen, there is no controversy because there is no life. There are unspeakably many universes in which there is no life; there are also unspeakably many in which there is. The improbability of it all is a moot point. It happened. Deal with it. Don't try to rewrite history with some entity capable of violating the physical laws of the universe.

UPDATE: TM Lutas comments. Matt Cline disagrees with TM.

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Sun, 13 Mar 2005

Color Ortho Quads in NY

I recently found out that (somebody) created color orthographic quads of New York State. Look for your county on the NYS GIS site. Naturally, instead of publishing them in a lossless open format, they're published in the proprietary MrSID format. This is a wavelet form of compression similar to JPEG2000. There's a decoder called mrsiddecode which creates .tiff or .jpg files as you wish.

I'm in St. Lawrence County (below left). They have complete coverage for 60cmpp colorized infrared (cir) quads (below middle). Unfortunately, they only have partial coverage for 30cmpp color quads (below right). For St. Lawrence County, they only cover Potsdam, Canton, Massena and Ogdensburgh. A friend of mine, Simon St.Laurent, is another map geek. He lives in Dryden, NY, located in Tompkins County. I notice that Tompkins only has 30cm cir and 20cm cir coverage, and no color quads at all. So apparently the phrase "your mileage may vary" applies in spades.

In order to use those images, I turned them into 200x200 pixel tiles similar to those published by Terraserver. Those tiles get thrown into an in-filesystem database which is a sparse local copy of Terraserver. Whenever any of my mapping software fetches a map from terraserver, it populates the database with it. I've only published pygps and mapview. I haven't yet published maptracks (makes a map with a GPS track overlaid), make-tiles (which splits up the color ortho quads), nor make-tiles-index (which creates the coverage maps above). They need improvement before they're seriously usable.

These datasets get very large, by the way. I've recently discovered the magic of external hard drives using USB 2.0. I picked up a 120GB Western Digital drive from Office Max for $60. The ortho quads amount to 3.9GB, but if you uncompress them all to .tiffs, you'll fill up all 120GB. I need to uncompress on the fly with make-tiles.

Posted [11:31] [Filed in: gis] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Sat, 12 Mar 2005

Subaru drops the ball

Subaru drops the ball on its intermittent windshield wiper. We own two Subarus: a 2000 and a 2003 Outback. The 2000 has front and rear wipers. The front has one setting of intermittent (delay) wiping. The rear has no intermittent setting at all. The 2003 front wiper has a variable delay which is set by twisting a cylinder wrapped around the wiper handle. The rear wiper always delays in a most annoying fashion: it will only wipe after its delay has passed, even if you turn it off and then on.

Both of these "improvements" are hideously wrong.

Way back when I was in high school, I used to read Popular Electronics magazine for fun. They published an article using some MSI logic and a 1Kbit static ram chip to implement a wiper delay. This must have been published prior to 1975, since that's when I graduated from high school. Patents only last 17 years, so even if it was patented then, it's not patented now. That wiper implementation was ten times better than anything currently on the market, and twenty times better than what Subaru has done between the 2000 and 2003 models.

Here's how it works: First, all you need is a three-position switch: off, on, and fast. If the switch is off, the wiper is off. If you turn the wiper on, it starts running. If you turn it off, it stop running. Isn't that wonderful! It works the way a switch should work!

But ahhhh, there is extra magic. If you turn the wiper on and then off, a chip starts a timer. If you turn the wiper on again before the timer has expired, then the chip remembers how long you had it off, and it repeats that interval. If you turn it off, wait a bit, and then on again, it remembers how long since it last wiped and adjusts the interval. If you turn it off and then on again immediately, it uses no delay.

All of this complexity exists to do the right thing. You want the wiper to wipe when it's needed, not after some arbitrary delay. You want the wiper to measure the need from when you run it, not by twisting a delay control. You want the wiper to run whenever you ask it to run by turning it on.

Perhaps somebody we can abolish the current intermittent wiper implementations and replace them with this one. Perhaps some day genetic manipulation can graft wings onto pigs, and pigs will fly.

Posted [01:18] [Filed in: life] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 04 Mar 2005

I've never eaten clam fritters

I was going to make Clam Fritters (from the Joy of Cooking recipe) for my honey, shortly after we moved in together. Everything was going fine. I'd just separated out the egg whites when the whole universe exploded. Well, okay, just our part of it. Fortunately, we were both standing next to the kitchen counter, because the kitchen cabinets fell off the wall, and would have taken a dive for the floor except for our combined presence.

You might speculate that there was no ledger board underneath the cabinets. You would be right. The only things holding them up were a few flimsy screws. When we'd loaded it up with two people's worth of dishes and food, they pulled further and further out until BLAMMO the entire cabinet fell down. Right into the egg whites and bag of flour, knocking the former into the latter, effectively gluing it to the counter. No clam fritters for us; we ate pizza that night.

After the dust had settled, we stuffed soup cans under the cabinets to prevent further movement, and checked each other for bruises. Fine. Checked the brand-new speakers still sitting on the tops of their boxes. Fine. Checked the dishes in the cabinets. Fine. Checked the contents of the dish drainer, which was full of glassware, including my class year graduation glass. Tragedy struck! My precious Burger King Star Wars glass had shattered. Much pretend wailing and gnashing of teeth followed, once we realize that that was the only victim. Seemingly.

The next day the landlord's son came to put all right. He was a klutz, but at least he was prompt about fixing things he'd installed improperly, like the the hot-water tank which drew its hot water from the bottom, the front door which "latched" but could be sprung with a hip check, the interior walls which leaked conversation from one apartment to another, and the ground-fault interrupter circuit breaker which triggered when you turned anything on but didn't stop the flow of electricity. He re-hung the cabinet, this time with a ledger board.

We got ourselves breakfast, but when Heather poured her orange juice, it started pouring onto her feet. She did a double-take, and yes, she was pouring it INTO the glass. Turns out that that glass had been a victim of the dish drainer of destruction. It had two small puncture holes in the bottom, which didn't disturb the integrity of the glass other than its ability to hold fluids.

We've never eaten clam fritters.

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The China Syndrome

The China Syndrome, of course, is the name of a movie about a nuclear plant meltdown falling all the way through the earth to China. Of course that could never happen. What with friction and all, even if it went straight down so as to take the shortest path, it would disappear and never reach the surface of the world again.

No, I'm talking about the modern-day China syndrome, where open source projects disappear and never reach the rest of the world again. The Chinese are great consumers of open source code. Remember the great fuss made about Red Flag Linux, the Chinese national Linux distribution? It's still going strong, but you don't hear of it because of the large black hole which is China.

Why is this a problem? Well, strictly speaking, it isn't a problem. Open Source is about freedom -- the freedom to do what you want with code. So if the Chinese just take, add their improvements and never contribute them back, that's fine. Only ... it isn't, really. First, because the rest of the world misses out on the Chinese contributions. We lose. Second, because they are forking the code unnecessarily. When we make improvements, the Chinese have two choices: ignore them, or incorporate the code into their modified version. Either choice, the Chinese lose.

Open source is best when everybody cooperates with everybody else. Anybody who decides to go it alone creates inefficiency for them and everyone else. In time, the Chinese will figure this out. If you know any Chinese hackers who speak English, you can help by pointing them to this article.

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Tue, 01 Mar 2005

Resigning from OSI Presidency

I'm resigning from the presidency of the Open Source Initiative, effective last Wednesday (2/23). I have waited to make this announcement because it is not easy to admit inadequacy publicly. I have no trouble telling people that I am a poor swimmer, but that is of no matter to me since I don't care about swimming. I care very much that OSI have a good president. I don't like politics, and it's become evident in recent weeks that OSI's role has rapidly become much more political. I am not ready for the position of president; certainly not by training and perhaps not even by temperment. The entire board is unanimous in agreeing that we need a president with more political savvy than I.

Michael Tiemann is the new president pro tem. He will do an excellent job until we reconstitute a larger board. We will then elect a president for a full term of office. I'll continue to serve on the board as the chairman of the license approval committee, and as an at-large member. Congratulations to Michael!

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Mon, 28 Feb 2005

The Wise Man

The wise man is always found on the top of a mountain because none of the rest of us can stand to have him around.

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Sun, 27 Feb 2005

"We season our garlic with food"

That's a trademark of The Stinking Rose (an ancient term for garlic, for no obvious reason) in San Francisco. I went there in October of 1998, while consulting in SanFran. I'd wanted to go there for years, but never had the opportunity. So when my customer was taking me out to dinner, and we were wandering around North Beach looking for a restaurant (the problem not being a dearth, but a surplus), I hit upon The Stinking Rose.

Well, when we walked into the restaurant, our noses were immediately assailed by the perfume of garlic. Led to our seat past an impossibly long garlic chain (they claim it to be the world's longest), we opened the menus. Surprisingly, a number of the dishes had no garlic in them. Presumably the inescapable smell was sufficient seasoning for them. I located the "40 Clove Garlic Chicken", and ordered it. Our waiter pointed out the minced garlic on the table.

I split a roll and dug in with a spoon. As I heaped the garlic on the roll, my customer (Vijay), who's from India, said, with eyes ever growing wider, "Um, Russell, that's a lot of garlic. That's a LOT of garlic. Russell, I like garlic, and I wouldn't eat that much." Ignoring his sage (or was it garlic?) advice, I dove in. Again and again I hit the minced garlic, roll after roll.

By that point, when the 40 Clove Garlic Chicken arrived, it was disappointingly mild. Tasty, yes, but not the whole garlic experience I was expecting. Of course, cooking the cloves tends to mute their effect.

Had an excellent dinner that couldn't be beat, went home, and got up for the last half-day of the consulting gig. Nobody noticed anything strange about the two of us (well, me more than him but still). Vijay took me to the airport mid-morning, spending nearly an hour in an enclosed car, without saying a word about garlic.

Flew home via Philadelphia to Ottawa. Heather (wife) was waiting up for me, and forcefully noted that I reeked of garlic (remember, this is 24 hours later). In the morning, the children ran into the bedroom to greet me. They stopped mid-step as if they had hit an invisible force field. They said "Daddy, you stink!".

By itself, that's a great story. It gets better, though. A week later, Heather was telling the story to Rebecca, a Friend of the family. Rebecca said "Wait. What airline was he on?" Heather said "USAir". Rebecca said "Friday?" "Yup." "Well, I was on the next leg of that flight, and the whole airplane smelled of garlic!!"

Damn, that was a good meal.

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Thu, 24 Feb 2005

Qigong

I just took a Qigong seminar from Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming. He made an interesting statement on Monday. He said that other qigong masters were mad at him for publishing all their secrets. They wanted to know why he had done that. He said to them "You tell me why not, I tell you why."

There are people who are angry at the Open Source Initiative, just as people are angry at Dr. Yang. They are hostile to our goals, to our methods, to our community members, and even to individual OSI board members. This is unfortunate, but something we will have to live with.

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Wed, 23 Feb 2005

The Essence of Racism

The essence of racism is intellectual error. It is true that some blacks are lazy; that some Italians are mobsters; and that some Jews are miserly. It is also true that some whites are lazy miserly mobsters; and that some blacks work their butts off; that some Italians are law-abiding citizens; and that some Jews are generous to a T. The essence of racism is to make the mistake of thinking that finding any one person with two characteristics means that everybody with one of those characteristics has both of them.

For example, if somebody expressed a racist idea, and was involved in an organization, it would be an intellectual error to believe that everyone involved in the organization supported racism.

No, I don't expect an apology. I don't even expect anybody to acknowledge that they made a mistake. I comfort myself with a personal understanding of the magnitude and consequences of their mistake.

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Tue, 22 Feb 2005

Enlightenment

I now know what it takes to open my third eye, and become enlightened.

I choose not to do that.

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A one sentence story

I had a customer once whose mistress told his wife that she caught him in bed with his girlfriend.

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Mon, 14 Feb 2005

Experimenting with other flavours

Yes, "flavours". No, I haven't gone all British on you. That's the technical term for them, at least in the Blosxom / pyblosxom world. I like the look of Simon Willison's blog, so I snarfed his HTML source and changed it into a flavour. Thanks, Simon! Give it a try and tell me what you think.

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Sun, 13 Feb 2005

Too much chocolate

I used to say that there is no such thing as too much chocolate. I was in Boston for the ECAC Hockey championship some 14 years ago, and was wandering around between the semifinals on Friday and the finals on Saturday. Stopped at the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. I picked up this chocolate creation which was six inches high. The bottom was a chocolate muffin. It was topped with a huge hunk of chocolate fudge covered with chocolate mousse. The whole thing was dipped in a hard chocolate shell. Cost me $7. I couldn't finish it.

There is such a thing as too much chocolate.

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Sat, 12 Feb 2005

Historic NY State railroads

I'm working on digitizing all the old railbeds covered by Michael Kudish's Railroads of the Adirondacks. They're currently stored as lat/lon coordinates in files named using the legends on Map 1-1. They're numbered in a roughly counter-clockwise direction using Blue Mountain Lake as the center of the dial of the clock. At least, that seems to be the scheme Professor Kudish chose.

Unfortunately, Mike is not a computerphile. I don't think he's particularly afraid of computers, as a computerphobe would be. It's just that he and computers, well, they just don't get along. So I'm trying to figure out how to show this information to him. I'll probably have to save it into a shapefile, and run the Windows version of Thuban.

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Sun, 06 Feb 2005

Ride starting Sun Feb 6 09:26:10 2005

Went out with (from left to right) Linda and Bruce Buchanan, and Barb and Jay Nagle, and Dorothy and Bill Mein. We were going to be wimpy and only go on 4 to 9 (the circular trail bisected by 4), and then back on 4a. But that only took us 45 minutes, so after we got back, we looked around at each other, shrugged, and went out on trail 2 to see how far we would go. Got to trail 3, and decided "Hey! We could turn around, go back on the road, and pick trail 4 around through 9 and then back to the cabin." So we did.

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Sat, 05 Feb 2005

Ride starting Sat Feb 5 14:54:50 2005

I only went for one ski on Saturday afternoon. Took a nap after lunch because I was tired from the morning. The little appendix is the location of our cabin. I headed out trail 2, which goes down and around on the left side of the loop. It then goes straight north, where I picked up trail 7 to the left. It curves around in a big C shape and ends in the top right at trail 3. Took that back to trail 2 and back to the cabin just in time for dinner.

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Ride starting Sat Feb 5 09:12:29 2005

These are all the tracks that I skiied on at La Petite Rouge up in Quebec. Our ski club goes there every year for a weekend. I skiied 14 miles in two days. The weather was impeccable. I ended up skiing on both days in a T-shirt. Spring skiing; finestkind.

If you're wondering why these tracks are all drawn on a grey background, it's because terraserver's tiles don't cover Canada.

Posted [09:12] [Filed in: bicycling] [permalink] [Google for the title] [digg this]
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Fri, 14 Jan 2005

Ride starting Fri Jan 14 20:46:03 2005

Sold my Forerunner 201 and bought a Foretrex 201. I really wanted a foretrex in the first place. I'm not a runner, and the FR is very specialized. Very excellent, too, but not so good for a bicyclist. Not enough track memory. The FR301 has more memory, but no matter, I really want the Foretrex features.

This isn't a bike ride; not in January. I went for a drive to get something into the FR to see if I could download from it. Obviously the answer was yes.

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