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Earth Day Midlife Crisis April 22, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, economy, football, sports.
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Earth Day turns the big four-oh today. And like any self-respecting forty year old—I am fond of the term “self-respecting,” I don’t care what that says about me—it is having somewhat of a midlife crisis. The “Clean Tech” sector is churning, for lack of a better word, and universities are greening their campuses and re-aligning their science and engineering programs with the climate/sustainability axis. At the same time, the federal government is not likely to pass an energy bill that includes meaningful steps like an escalating carbon tax—which I think will be more effective than a cap and trade, and certainly simpler—or a larger pile of cash than the one that rescued AIG cum AIU and America at large is showing no signs of breaking its addiction to more. Of anything. Like a true forty year old facing a midlife crisis, the US is toying with changing careers, getting in shape, or finally learning to play the guitar. I only hope that it doesn’t eventually do what a true forty year old would, which is buy a BMW but otherwise continue with business as usual.

P.S. Bluejay got 617 views yesterday. That’s almost twice the total number of views it had previously, 377. Only 7 of these views were by subscribers. The rest were by people searching for pictures of lightning from the Eyjafjallajokull ash cloud. I posted a link to one such picture. And boom. We’re already at 238 hits today. People, read the posts! I have important things to say! And I have more pictures of Iceland volcano lightning.

P.P.S. The first round of the NFL draft is on tonight in prime time. And I could not be more excited for a sporting non-contest. I think I may add Mel Kiper Jr. to my Mt. Rushmore of Platonic forms, right between Gregg Easterbrook and my mother. With Mt. Crushmore now at capacity, the next idol will have to bump someone off. I can only hope that said next idol arrives after POTUS BO’s second term.

P.P.P.S. Feeling blue and unfulfilled by your job? Find a neighborhood construction project and volunteer for a day. Nothing beats six hours of digging, hauling, measuring, drilling, sawing, and hammering for instant gratification.

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NASA’s New Missions April 20, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, geo-engineering, science, sustainability, technology, transportation.
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Bluejay’s idol, ideal, role model, template, and Platonic form is TMQ by Gregg Easterbrook. In fact, Bluejay likes to think of itself as TMQ 0.1 minus the football analysis, deep insight into politics and economics, fancy graphics, and pictures of cheerleaders, but with third person self-references! TMQ thinks of NASA as a giant pork barrel rather than an actual federal agency. TMQ likes to post pictures from the Hubble space telescope—and these are cool, although not as cool as pictures of lightning from the Iceland volcano ash cloud—but otherwise takes a dim view of the shuttle program, the international space station, the Constellation program, etc. TMQ thinks NASA’s real core mission should be to develop techniques to protect earth from large asteroid strikes.

Apparently, Bluejay’s other idol/ideal/template/Platonic form POTUS BO agrees with TMQ’s assessment of the shuttle program, essentially forcing the agency to scrap it and to delay Constellation by five years. At the same time, however, BO is promising NASA’s a $6,000,000,000 grant to fund a circa 2035 manned mission to Mars. For the record, this is about one third of NASA’s annual budget. Here is a conservative reaction to this plan.

Bluejay is nothing if not idealistic and Platonic and thus follows the views of TMQ and POTUS. Bluejay does have something original to add to the conversation, however. Maybe. Bluejay doesn’t know what purpose the ISS serves and therefore what purpose the shuttle program—which apparently exists to supply the ISS—serves. Bluejay wonders what a manned mission to Mars will prove and/or contribute to science and society. Bluejay sees two pseudo-realistic possibilities. One, POTUS hopes that a manned mission to Mars will result in the development of medical technology for human hibernation and for sustainable power,oxygen, and food generation from fixed resources. Two, POTUS understands that the global political will to enact meaningful climate change mitigation actions doesn’t exist and is scouting Mars as a potential future home for the human race. Amen to both!

But Bluejay has an alternative suggestion in the form of alternative mission statements for NASA. Specifically, in addition to protecting earth from asteroid strikes, solar flares, and prawns, NASA should be developing two other capabilities. First, planes capable both of taking off from and landing at conventional airfields and low-orbit rocket-propelled flight. Doing this will not only cut flight times for long flights, but will also reduce the enormous greenhouse gas footprint of airplane travel. Second, NASA should develop capabilities to launch and position giant solar shields in geosynchronous orbit. As masterfully described in the previous post, we will likely need such shields to help avert dangerous climate change “tipping points” we have already locked ourselves into due to a century of action followed by nearly half a century of inaction. If NASA succeeds in developing and deploying these two technologies, solving a large part of our transportation problem and helping to head-off potential climate disaster, TMQ, POTUS BO, Bluejay, and the general public may come to view it as an albatross in the sky rather than as an albatross around the neck.

P.S. Bluejay is not a big comic book guy. Never was. And isn’t a huge fan of most comic-book-derivative movies, having seen the classic Christopher Reeve Superman trilogy and all three X-Men movies, but only the original SpiderMan, three of the 28 Batmans, and skipped several other singletons, like DareDevil, altogether. Bluejay’s favorite superhero movies of all time are IronMan—IronMan 2.0 is greatly anticipated but is sure to disappoint—and The Incredibles. Well, the duo has become a Troika.

P.P.S. Bluejay will resume its more traditional and less obnoxious first-person self-referential style tomorrow.

Shall We Geo-Engineer? April 19, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, geo-engineering, society, taxes.
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A few days ago, Fresh Air hosted Jeff Goodell about geo-engineering solutions to the climate crisis. You might be thinking “another NPR-inspired post?” No, no. This post is inspired by this NYTimes article about the same topic.

I don’t know how much you know about geo-engineering, but it encompasses a relatively wide swath of ideas for cooling the planet that don’t involve the only real long term solution—reducing our consumption of fossil fuels. Some examples? Sending giant “umbrellas” into low orbit to reduce the amount of sunlight that hits the atmosphere. Blasting soot particles into the atmosphere to reflect more sunlight. Covering glaciers with reflective thermal shields. Dumping powdered iron into the ocean to spur the growth of carbon-capturing algea. Ordering all drivers to with the windows open and the A/C on high. And so forth and so on. Many of these approaches sound loony. Many of them reek of  unintended consequences. But all share two important characteristics. First, they would likely succeed in cooling the earth to one degree or another. (Ha!) Second, they are eminently feasible from both technology and financial standpoints, rendering their “political feasibility”—my least favorite term, perhaps of all time—essentially moot. Some rogue well-intentioned country or even individual billionaire—Bill? Warren? Sergey? Sir Richard? J.K.? Tiger?—could under-write one or more of these single-handedly! Should they?

Definitely maybe. It would behoove (I promise this is the last time Bluejay will use that word) the US and other governments to undertake detailed feasibility and impacts analyses of the most readily “reversible” or “undoable” of these proposals. Dumping iron into the ocean would be pretty hard to undo. And if it turns out that the resulting algea also de-oxygenate the ocean and kill all other life in it—not that this isn’t going to happen anyway because of acidification and the great pacific garbage “patch”—then we would be adding injury to already serious injury. Similarly for using ballistics to shoot soot particle bombs into the atmosphere. But what about putting giant reflectors into orbit above glaciers, Greenland, the Arctic and precarious ice shelves of Antarctica to keep these in perpetual shade? Is this not worth a try? Or at least very serious study? What’s the worst that can happen? We find that changes in temperature gradients are changing precipitation patterns around the world in bad and unpredictable ways—meaning in ways worse and more unpredictable than they are changing already? Well, then we take the shields down with the added knowledge of the effects of “spot cooling.”

Here is the problem. Regardless of how much we cut back going forward—and sadly, as a world, we don’t seem to be serious about cutting back at all, on anything—we are already “locked in” to a certain level of future warming. This by virtue of the CO2 that’s already in the atmosphere and oceans and by the hands of vicious feedback loops we discover on an almost weekly basis. No one knows for certain, but without additional measures, this locked in warming may mean the loss of some serious “assets” like Arctic summer ice, the Greenland ice sheet, various large glaciers, etc. Unlike fictitious Wall Street assets which can be created just as quickly as they can be destroyed, these assets, once lost, will take millenia to regenerate. The Greenland ice sheet is over a mile thick. If it slides into the ocean, it will take quite some time before another mile-thick ice sheet forms on Greenland, if one ever does.

The only real long term solution is to first halt and then reverse the growth of our collective carbon footprint. But even that might be too little too late to save us from a planet with a significantly different climate—perhaps better in some places but probably worse overall—than the one we have today. To avert or at least delay real disaster, we might need more extreme measures. In an effort to buy a little time—time we shouldn’t need because we have known about this problem for 40 years and have literally done nothing about it—we may have to call on the lunatic fringe of science to save us. Do something, Walter!

P.S. Philly councilman Darrell Clark must be an avid Bluejay reader, having introduced a bill to tax non-cigarette tobacco products including pipe, loose leaf, and chewing. This vice tax is estimated to bring in $6 million annually. The city of Philadelphia is fast running out of both money and potential vices to tax. Even if the tobacco tax passes, closing the remaining $144 million budget hole would require taxing vices like spitting, cursing, nose-picking, line-jumping, excessive body odor, excessive tweeting, and excessive blogging. Oh no!

P.P.S. The bonfire of the vanities continues. Which bank is going to emerge from the meltdown of October 2008 untainted? Even my daughter’s piggy bank had some toxic sub-prime nickels in it!

P.P.P.S. Kevin, I promised someone you would drop a 50 in this series. Don’t disappoint me.

Quants Overtake Sports April 16, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, sports.
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Have you read Michael Lewis’ book “Moneyball?” At its face, the book is about Billy Beane, general manager of the Oakland A’s and how he used “sabermetrics” (advanced baseball statistics, sabermetrics is a phoneticization of SABR metrics and SABR stands for Society for American Baseball Research) to build a team that games at a rate much higher than would be suggested by its payroll. But really, the book is about how advanced statistical analysis is changing the ways in which baseball players are evaluated, and the basic structure and composition of baseball front offices. Organizations that used to be dominated by ex-players and professional scouts (most of whom are also ex-players, at least ex-minor-league-players) is now heavily populated by average-fan-stat-geeks with no playing experience above tee-ball. Billy Beane is a stat-head, but he also played in the majors, albeit not very well. Theo Epstein has been running the Boston RedSox (perhaps the second cushiest gig in all of baseball, right behind the Yankees) since 2002 when he was 29 years old! His credentials? He graduated from Yale with a degree in American Studies! He didn’t play baseball for Yale. He didn’t even play baseball in high school. He just graduated from Yale. I graduated from Yale dammit! I demand the Philadelphia Eagles give me executive power over player personnel decisions immediately! Move over, Howie!

The story of advanced statistical analysis and baseball is pretty fascinating. Essentially for the first 100 years of its existence, baseball kept relatively detailed statistics, but evaluated players using only a few of them. Offensive players were evaluated based on batting average, home runs, runs batted in, runs scored, and stolen bases. Defensively, they were evaluated on the number of fielding errors they committed at their position. Pitchers were evaluated on innings pitched, strikeouts, wins, saves, and ERA (earned run average) or how many “earned” runs—runs that aren’t the result of their own teammates’ errors—they gave up per nine innings of work. That was the hard data. The rest was scouting reports. “This guy can’t hit curveballs.” “This guy doesn’t change his pitching pattern from one turn through the order to another.” Stuff like that.

Somehow, baseball survived. But there were player evaluation and valuation inefficiencies. The SABR statheads, led by baseball outsider Bill James, noticed first. And Billy Beane was the first major league general to actually use these advanced statistics to gain a competitive advantage over his fellow general managers. Unlike the other major professional sports, baseball operates without a salary cap and has guaranteed contracts. This puts small-market low-revenue teams, like Beane’s Oakland team, at a great competitive disadvantage against large-market high-revenue teams like the New York Yankees, Boston RedSox, Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Dodgers, etc. Ingeniously, Beane looked to these advanced statistics to try to discover under-valued individual performance factors—factors that weren’t widely valued but which correlated well either with team success, either in scoring runs or preventing them—and to acquire under-valued players. In fact, his favorite maneuver was to trade overvalued players for undervalued ones to other contending teams at the midseason trade deadline, effectively strengthening his own team while weakening the competitor at the same time.

Essentially, Beane was the first “quant” in baseball. And he had the same advantage that the first quants on Wall Street had. From the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s Beane put together teams that played way above their payroll. The A’s didn’t win a World Series during this period. They didn’t even go to the world Series. But they won a ton of games. And at least made the playoffs every year. But just like on Wall Street, in traffic, and nearly everywhere else, the “fallacy” of composition eventually takes over and first mover advantage shrinks when others in the market start to copy his tactics. To stay ahead, the first mover has to constantly innovate and look for an edge. Standing still is falling behind. And other teams did start to copy Beane’s tactics. Several teams, like the Dodgers and Bluejays (no relation), hired his assistants. Others, like Boston hired new guard GM’s who valued advanced statistical analysis.

Beane gained his initial advantage by valuing on-base-percentage (OBP) over batting average, essentially realizing that getting on base in any way is a more directly correlated with team scoring than getting on base by hitting. Essentially, Beane understood that drawing walks is a vastly undervalued skill and assembled teams with players who were proficient in this skill. In retrospect, this is obvious. In fact, it’s so obvious that walks are now part of official boxscores on ESPN, CBS sportsline, CNN SI, and MLB.com and ESPN prints OBP, number of pitches seen and slugging percentage too. It’s been this way for a couple of years. 15 years ago nobody cared. After the OBP arbitrage window closed, Beane exploited defense, college power pitchers,  stars in the middle of the last year of their contracts, stars in the first years of long term contracts, and aging position players on one year deals. But the marginal advantage of each move was smaller than the previous one, and the number of teams that weren’t employing advanced stats was shrinking. By the mid 2000’s Beane lost his advantage and the A’s regained a place in the standing more commensurate with their fiscal wherewithal—last. If you want to get a taste of the kind of statistics used in player evaluation article read this little piece by longtime statistic denier Bill Simmons aka “The Sports Guy.”

Anyways, baseball is not the only sport being overtaken by quants. The NBA’s Houston Rockets GM is Daryl Morey. Morey doesn’t have a basketball background. He is a computer science major from Northwestern and has an MBA from Sloan. He’s a stats geek. The NBA is using more advanced statistics too. Rebounding rate. True shooting percentage. Points created per touch. Turnovers per touch. Individual plus/minus and plus/minus for each five-man combination. The Philadelphia Eagles new general manager is Howie Roseman. Howie went to Florida—and so at least he went to a football powerhouse school even if he didn’t play there—majored in who-knows-what and has a JD from Fordham. Detailed individual player stats are hard to come by in football except for select positions like quarterback, running back, wide receiver, but statistical analysis is becoming more widespread anyways. Just look at this analysis of the recent trade of Donovan McNabb from the Eagles to division rival Washington. I could probably give you an example from hockey, but I don’t know the first thing about that sport, nor do I care to learn it.

It’s amazing advanced quantitative analysis can provide temporary advantages and transform valuation practices and organizational charts in pretty much any competitive market. And what market is more transparently competitive than pro sports?

P.S. What’s the next leverage point in baseball? My guess would be pitcher injury risk. There is a great little website called drivelinemechanics.com which analyzes the motions of different pitchers, assesses the strains and stresses on their joints and ligaments, and estimates their chances of future injury. I found this website early last summer. At the time, it predicted that New York Met John Maine would suffer an elbow injury within the next two seasons because he had an “unsustainable” flinging-style motion. Maine was lost for the season the following week!

P.P.S. Rut-ro!

P.P.P.S. It’s too bad Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty.

P.P.P.P.S. Iceland is back up to #1 on list of places I wanted to visit (it was temporarily displaced by Hong Kong).

I’m Not a Pothead, I’m a Marijuana Consumer April 15, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in Uncategorized.
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This blog is fast becoming a dumping ground for my reactions to stories I hear on NPR on the way to and fro work. I wrote fro on purpose there, in case you were wondering. Anyway, Tuesday’s Radio Times featured Philly DA Seth Williams and Chris Goldstein (let me guess, Jewish dad, Christian mom) of PhillyNORML about a move in Philadelphia to … well … not exactly de-criminalize marijuana, but at the very least to de-penalize it. The proposal is to downgrade possession of fewer than 30 grams of tea from a misdemeanor to a summary offense, reducing the penalty from a $500 fine and up to a month in the can to a citation, no time, a possible fine, and no permanent mark on one’s criminal record. Doing this will reduce arrests in Phillly by 4,000 a year or about 10% and save Philly about 3 million dollars. The city could use this money, e.g., reopen some public swimming pools in time for summer—not the one that kicked out a school-group of black kids, that club was private and outside of Philly, and I know they wish everyone forgot about that story, but I haven’t—and maybe a library or two.

Wow! Is Pennsylvania on its way to joining those other other enlightened states like California, Massachusetts, and New York which have de-criminalized possession to various degrees? Will Pennsylvania be the tipping point that moves the Federal government to scale back its “War on Drugs” to a “War on Narcotics” and moves Mary Jane from its current status of a “gray economy” to the mainstream? I heard (or read) a few weeks ago that once 15 states adopt some measure, Washington usually makes it federal policy if only to prevent chaos due to differences in state policies. We are already a little bit past 15 states, but Pennsylvania would add to the smaller list of “big states that matter!” Ha! I’m sorry, Montana, you matter. Without you, we wouldn’t have a city called Butte. Or Larry Craig. I digress.

As this is my second post in two months about legalizing chronic, you may be wondering whether I have a personal stake here. Well, I won’t deny that I have smoked and inhaled. But I also won’t deny that the last time was sixteen years ago. I don’t bang on this issue because I want to legitimize my own consumerism. Thankfully, I don’t have a medical condition that broccoli would alleviate. And I hardly drink much less get high. To me, as it is to the district attorney, this is an economic efficiency issue. Spending tax dollars punishing an activity which may not be ideal, but which is non-violent, or at least not directly, is a not a good use of resources. Even worse, keeping weed underground is ignoring a potentially enormous tax base. If I told you how big the US ganja economy is, you would fall off the chair. It’s $35bn a year. 90% of which is grown in the US. $35bn. $35,000,000,000. I saw a talk a few weeks ago where the speaker wrote out large numbers because he said that people ingested them better that way. So again, $35,000,000,000. Corn and wheat combined are only $23,000,000,000. $35,000,000,000 is roughly the annual revenue of Intel. There is as much money in reefer as there is in Core i7 and Atom combined!

For the third, and certainly not last time, I am pro vice taxes. If there is an activity that we as a society want to discourage, be it smoking, toking, drinking, driving or all four at the same time, the solution is not to outlaw it—well, doing either of the middle two either concurrently or sequentially but in close temporal proximity to the fourth should be outlawed—but rather to tax the hell out of it. This reduces crime, eliminates black markets and bootlegging, and raises money for the government. In Pennsylvania, liquor is sold through state controlled stores. Those same stores could sell grass as well. With a $10 per gram tax—roughly 100% at current prices—five for the state and five for BO. You don’t think BO could find a good use for $17,500,000,000 a year? At the very least, it would buy three more weeks in Iraq.

As far as science can tell, the effects of ganja are roughly on level with those of alcohol. Alcohol is restricted from minors, but is otherwise an above-the-table part of the general economy. Why shouldn’t weed be the same?

P.S. I thought the funniest part of the show was Goldstein constantly referring to potheads as “Marijuana consumers.” Evidently, this is part of a national campaign to de-stigmatize Afghan-nation, to scrub their public image and improve their community standing. I laughed every time I heard it. Burnouts want to be called Marijuana consumers. Child molesters want to be called Catholic priests. Cockroaches want to be called Cowboys fans. Who’s next?

P.P.S. Think I wrote this post in part so that I can use every name for giggleweed that I can think of? You bet your dime bag I did.

Undo! Undo! April 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in drama, food, politics, religion, technology.
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Every self-respecting publication has a retractions section. Bluejay is nothing if not self-respecting (which I guess makes it nothing) and so here is the inaugural retractions section.

Several hours ago I posted about the Catholic Church’s new harder stance against sex-offending priests. That led to a comment about Stephanie Ragusa. And a short-ish rant about the lack of a double standard in statutory rape laws. My view was, there should be a double standard—currently there doesn’t appear to be one—because young boys are less psychologically damaged by sex with older women than young girls by consensual sex with older men. Well, I thought it over on the drive home. And I retract. That’s a knee-jerk, narrow view that smells of David Lee Roth’s (no relation) “Hot for Teacher.” Stealing is stealing, whether it’s stealing from rich people or poor people. And statutory is statutory, whether you’re “Hot for Teacher” or not. On the web—as in life—there is no undo. There is only strike through. And so I am striking through rather than deleting the retracted part of the previous post.

Also heard and pondered on the drive home, this entry’s post-scripts are brought to you by WHYY, Philadelphia and NPR. National. Public. Radio.

P.S. Big round for Family man Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) for making Congress eat dogfood. For the urban-dictionary-impaired: eating dogfood means playing by the same rules you set for other people.

P.P.S. As it turns out, there is a new weed out there that is resistant to each and every herbicide approved for use in the US. Farmers have had to resort to weeding by hand! Ha! Take that! How exactly did this super-weed develop? Apparently because of overuse of Roundup. And why is Roundup overused? Apparently because of the proliferation of Roundup-resistant genetically modified crops! Evolution, evidently, is not only a bitch, she’s a bitch with a sense of irony.

P.P.P.S. Twitter is going to start advertising. In other news, toilet paper is going to start advertising.

Catholic Church Going Hard? It’s About Time! April 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in crime, religion, sex, society.
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A few weeks ago, I posted an entry with the title “Catholic Church Going Soft?” in which I wrote about A-West (the Archbishop of Westminster) talking about softening the church’s stance of contraception and family planning as a temporary measure to deal with the overpopulation crisis in Africa. Someone actually made a long comment on that post—yes, there have been comments, 9 of them to be precise—about the church and its sex scandals. I wasn’t even going to go there, but I will after the Vatican announced today that it is instituting “sex abuse reform.” Reformation 2.0!

The church hasn’t provided any details about this reform. Although presumably, it is going to take a harder stance on sex abuse by its own rank and file. Hence, the inter-post punny title. I’m nothing if not punny. Actually, this is a serious topic and so let me get all of the puns out of the way now. When I first read the words “sex abuse reform”, I thought of things like “the church will institute a sex abuse mandate which will kick in in 2014”, “priests will be able to abuse their parishioners, but there will also be a public option”, “starting in 90 days priests will no longer be able to deny abuse to children with pre-existing conditions”, and so on. If you think that’s not funny, I apologize. I personally don’t think it’s funny either. Nor do I think it is funny when someone compares the “persecution” the church is receiving over this scandal to anti-semitism. Really. I hadn’t realized that bad press is roughly equal to the Holocaust. Or that Jewish clergy molested young children.

Anyways, I am Jewish and I don’t go to church. I don’t even go to synagogue much. And so I don’t care whether abusive priests are defrocked or remain frocked. What I do care about is that they go to prison. Correct me if I am wrong, but isn’t child molestation a felony? For god’s sakes, even consensual sex with a minor is a felony. Just ask Stephanie Ragusa. By the way, here’s a good MTV top 50 countdown—Stephanie is number 7. Steph is going to do 10 years—well, probably 5—for consensual sex with two 14 year old boys. Why is the church hemming and hawing about defrocking? Forget church internal matters. The first call should be to the local police. The church can deal with the offending priest when he gets out of prison, where presumably he can have as much male sex as he wants. Maybe even more than he wants. Okay, I promised I won’t pun and that was the last one. Really, I don’t understand why the church doesn’t take the hardest line possible against this. Isn’t moral high ground essentially their only currency? How can they continue to devalue it like this? Even the NFL, lenient as it is (see Stallworth, Donte) is not this lenient (see Jones, Adam “Pacman”). By the way, would Adam Jones’ wife go by “Mrs. Pacman”? Would his son go by “Pacman Jr.”? Ooops, I did it again!

Speaking of sex-abuse reform, statutory rape, and Stephanie Ragusa. I don’t know, but the fact that male-by-female statutory rape is treated symmetrically to female-by-male statutory rape (forget male-by-male and female-by-female for now) seems a little disingenuous to me. I understand that there is gender-based double-standard for non-statutory rape. People tend to look at male-by-female rape as a novelty or curiosity more than as a crime. And that may not be right, but it’s understandable given the fact that male-by-female rape is rare—or maybe it’s common but even more under-reported than female-by-male rape, although I doubt it given that it’s probably much more difficult to pull off given usual ratios of strength and the mechanics of intercourse—and given common understanding of the roles played by males and females during sex.

But why isn’t there a similar double standard for statutory rape? I understand the whole adult taking advantage of child argument, but the same sexual mechanics argument still applies, the strength ratio argument also largely applies, and the fact is that sex to men is not the same thing as it is to women. Did you know that the area of the brain devoted to thinking about sex is three times larger in men than it is in women? Maybe not in Stephanie Ragusa, but in general? I don’t know anything about this, but I would venture to guess that male victims of statutory rape are psychologically wounded to a lesser degree than female victims (I tried Googling, but couldn’t find anything). And if that is the case, then male-by-female statutory rape should be downgraded to something less than it is. Not to nothing. Stephanie Ragusa, Mary Kay LeTourneau, and their ilk are predators. And they should not be allowed near children. But on the ground, the harm they cause is probably less than people think, and this means that the punishment is probably disproportionate.

Maybe I am completely off-base on this. This is just stuff that came to me as I was scanning today’s NYT, CNN, and BBC. And if it comes to me, it’s probably coming to PhillyBluejay. Either way, it’s posts like these that make me happy that I have a readership of five.

P.S. Whatever sentence Stephanie deserves, this lady deserves a longer one.

P.P.S. And still on the subject of sex-abuse reform … Thanks for sparing us, Hef. And way to play the sympathetic figure, Kate. Really, ever since the last episode of Jon and Kate plus eight plus Jon’s girlfriend plus Kate’s lawyer minus Jon, it’s hard to tell who has become the biggest loser. Kate, you are currently in the “lead.”

P.P.P.S. Climate change denial, evolution denial, quantum mechanics denial, 2nd law of thermodynamics denial, and gravity denial are all just micro-symptoms of a more general science denial.

All In The Family April 12, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in politics, religion.
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(gravel tenor) Boy the way Glen Miller played. (impossible soprano) Songs that made the hit parade. (gravel tenor) Guys like us we had it made. (both) Those were the days.

Indeed. I remember watching “All In The Family” with my parents as a young kid. We lived in Israel then and didn’t understand English so I read the subtitles. I still remember some of the classic refrains though. “He’s a good boy, Archie!” “He’s a meathead!” And the opening song “Those were the days.” In college, one of my roommates and I occasionally butchered that song. He could do a great Edith. I have to admit I never knew what the first line of the song was until a few minutes ago. As a kid, I could never make it out, and in college … well, we didn’t have Google … and we only sang it when we were drunk.

Anyways, for the past hour or so, I’ve been Googling and reading up on “The Family” (here’s one piece from NPR) and am tempted to order Jeff Sharlet’s book from Amazon (except it will end up going on the end of a long queue and never getting read). The Family is an invisible (i.e., secret) religious society that is currently in the news because of a certain C street house and rental subsidies to Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and representative Zack Wamp (R-Tennessee), both members. I first heard about The Family about a year ago during John Ensign (R-Nevada) staffer-gate. I read a little bit back then and found out that The Fam has many members in high politics including about ten Senators, a bunch of Reps, and even former chief justice William Rehnquist. But at the time, I didn’t dig deeply into their charter or their operations (not that you can dig deeply into these things because members operate under an effective gag order and there is no paper trail). Now? Maybe I better stop reading, because the more I read the more creeped out I get.

The Family is part fundamentalist religious prayer group, part secret society, part Republican sub-party (not the centrist part either), part cabal, part mafia, all creepy.

In 1948, a group of Senate staffers met to discuss ways that the Family’s “cell and leadership groups” could recruit elites unwilling to participate in the “mass meeting approach” of populist fundamentalism. Two years later, the Family declared that with democracy inadequate to the fight against godlessness, such cells should function to produce political “atomic energy”; that is, deals and alliances that could not be achieved through the clumsy machinations of legislative debate would instead radiate quietly out of political cells. [from the NPR story]

They recruit politicians, businessmen, and other “key figures”–the former using rent-subsidized C street apartments with maid service–to push their agenda. TFam operates under a bunch of different names and through various fronts–like the Fellowship Foundation and International Christian Leadership–and it provides “spiritual guidance” for countless other foundations, charities, and non-profits. Some of TFam’s operations have multi-million dollar annual budgets, and generally speaking large sums of money flow both through TFam and between its members, but everything is apparently in non-sequential unmarked bills–everything is under the table, by gentleman’s agreement, and untraceable. You won’t find their financial statements on GuideStar.org.

The Family surfaces for one morning a year, the “National” “Prayer” “Breakfast”, which gathers 3,000 plus at the Washington Hilton for prayer, muffins, seminars, and networking sessions that lead to all sorts of hush-hush national–and international–government and corporate deals. Evidently, TF was responsible for Richard Nixon’s political pardon, the Camp David accord between Israel and Egypt, and averting full-scale civil war in South Africa. But they also count as members and associate with so many shady figures–including foreign dictators and generals–that these good works are likely balanced, or maybe even outweighed, by self-serving malfeasance. One hates to conjecture what other things TF had a hand in. A safe bet may be … everything. I’m sure TF knows where Jimmy Hoffa is buried, who masterminded the JFK assassination, and what is in area 51.

Even with a Democratic White House and Congress, TFam is still doing its thing. Bart Stupak (D-Michigan) is a member. And both Hillary Clinton and Al Gore often consult with TFam leadership–an inconvenient truth of another kind. We bitch and moan about the ineffectiveness of Congress, partisan gridlock, and the influence of corporate money. But all of this may be less relevant than we think. Or at least less directly relevant. Maybe our focus needs to shift deeper underground. Maybe we need to root out The Family and shine a little daylight on it. We are certain to be surprised at what we find. And we may also be surprised at how differently governments and corporations begin to operate. On the other hand, do we really want to know? And do we really want to see a government without The Family behind it? After all, we haven’t had one since 1935!

One nation under God, indeed. It may be one world under God. Or one world under Doug Coe.

P.S. My condolences to the entire country of Poland. Can you imagine if this happened in the US?

P.P.S. The new sports media.

P.P.P.S. A woman with an interesting resume.

P.P.P.P.S. Ironically, the first two lines of the last verse of “Those Were the Days” are “Didn’t need no welfare state. Everybody pulled his weight.” Hmmm…

Scaling Up North Carolina April 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in education, energy efficiency, politics, society, sustainability, transportation.
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North Carolina is a brilliant state. One all states should strive to emulate. They have Duke. They have a mini-Silicon valley. They have NASCAR giant deep-fried turkey legs. They sent noted racist and segregationist Jesse Helms, who once held a 16-day filibuster to stop the institution of the federal MLK holiday, to the US Senate for five terms. Now they are sending Kay Hagan, a Democrat! A red state turned blue! Also, I have many friends who live down there. And did I mention the giant deep-fried turkey legs and greased pig races?

One of the things we can learn from NC is how to better utilize resources, specifically by time-multiplexing them in extreme and novel ways. The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill triangle area is one of the fastest growing areas in the country. Roughly 20 people move to the area every day. One of the results is that schools are overflowing and the county can’t build new ones fast enough to meet the growing demand. Their solution? Cut the school year into continuous 12-week chunks. Kids go to school for nine weeks and then have a three-week break. Now chop up the classes into four and rotate such that at any time only three-quarters of the kids are going to school. The overcrowding problem is solved or at least pushed back. And school facilities aren’t sitting around idle during the summer months. Brilliant! Of course, this creative solution creates problems for working parents, who now can’t send their kids off to summer camp for months at a time but rather have to occupy them somehow for three-week periods four times a year. But guess what? A whole cottage industry has sprung up to fill in this gap.

Which brings me to my point. And yes, it usually takes me 250 words before I get to my point. Why don’t we apply this strategy much more broadly to improve utilization and reduce peak load on all sorts of resources? Why don’t we spread out and stagger work and school schedules, at any granularity–in the course of a day, during the week, or during the year as NC does–to a greater degree than we already do? Middle-schools, high-schools and elementary-schools start and finish times are already staggered so that the same fleet of school buses–by the way, why aren’t school buses hybrid?–can run triple duty. Why aren’t more things staggered this way or some other way? Specifically, why isn’t the entire American workforce staggered this way?

Hear me out. What if all businesses moved to a rotating nine-week-on/three-week-off work schedule, effectively furloughing one quarter of their employees every three weeks? If every business did this, i.e., effectively operated at three-quarter capacity, there would be 25% less commuting traffic, 25% less peak load on electricity, and so on. Of course, everyone would get paid 25% less too. But before you say “I don’t want to earn 25% less”, wouldn’t you agree to do it if you could also work 25% less? I would! I understand that I live comfortably above the poverty level and a 25% reduction in income for me is not the same as a 25% reduction in income for someone below 2x. But if you are furloughed from one business 25% of the time, there won’t be anything to stop you from filling that gap at another business.

Of course, there would be 25% less economic output also, so I am not really suggesting this. And this is where the second part of the plan comes in. Forget about 25% less traffic and 25% less peak electrical load. We have to give those back. What if to ramp back up to full capacity, every business hired 33% more workers? Wouldn’t you agree to earn 25% less if you worked 25% less and lived in a country with essentially no unemployment? I would!

I’ve never run a business, and I can see some downsides. The ratio of benefits to salary would increase. It would, but not as much as one might think, and even less if health insurance reform goes even further and costs go down. Employer taxes and contributions to retirement plans are proportional to salary. Any maybe a nine-week-on, three-week-off rotation would create too many project disruptions. Maybe if you are that kind of business, you could furlough at a finer granularity, rotating one quarter of your workforce out four out of the five weekdays. Either way, the upside seems much bigger–a healthier, better-rested, and more productive workforce.

If I started a company today–and I am not–I would try to run it this way. And since I am not, perhaps I will just start doing this in my current place of business. See you in three weeks!

P.S. Not to make an inappropriate soapbox out of tragedy, but 25 people would never be killed by a wind turbine or solar panel explosion.

P.P.S. What a shame. Republican pundits are calling Stupak the first casualty of Obamacare. But that’s ridiculous. Stupak is not a casualty of Obamacare. He’s a casualty of the mindless anti-abortion movement which doesn’t realize that what Stupak actually did was force an executive order to enforce the current restrictions on abortion coverage on the passed health care bill. The anti-abortion movement should hold up Stupak as a hero. If not for him, Obama would have gotten someone else on board without the abortion language amendment. All this shows is that, again, the abortion issue in this country is primarily a tool for political evil wielded by the right. That is all.

P.P.P.S. Thank god Stevens waited to retire until there was a Democratic congress and president! Thanks, J.P. It’s a great last act.

Net Neutrality or Fiber Utility? April 7, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, technology.
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I’m sure you’ve seen the appeals court decision against net neutrality, or rather against the FCC’s right to enforce neutrality. My first bet? This will go to the Supreme Court. My second bet? The Supremes will uphold the appeals court decision rather than expanding the powers of the FCC. My third bet? There is going to be an anti-trust suit against Comcast.

I like the concept of net neutrality, I think most people without stock in Comcast, Verizon, etc. do. The internet was born neutral, and grew to its present awesomeness in a neutral state. One gets the feeling that abolishing neutrality, or even introducing a little tilt, would stifle further growth and development in some way. Which would be a bad thing. The internet is the most efficient economic engine the world has. It is responsible for a large fraction of the economic growth in the Western world in the last decade. With the global economy being what it is, now would be an especially bad time for this engine to blow a valve.

I think a free competitive market would choose a neutral net. Just using the specifics of this case as an example. If you were a fan of BitTorrent, and Comcast either blocked BT or significantly degraded its performance but Verizon did not, which carrier would you choose? Exactly. Especially considering that a carrier that preferred its own content over a particular third party content would likely make the same preference against any perceived competitor. Why isn’t this happening now? Because in many places there isn’t real competition between carriers. Multiple fiber grids are redundant and resource inefficient. We don’t have multiple water grids or electrical grids. I know that fiber is less capital and physical plant intensive than water and electrical, which is why there is competition in some places, e.g., where I live. But maybe redundancy and competition is not necessary to create the right environment for a neutral net. Maybe what is needed is a little vertical trust-busting.

High bandwidth data is essentially a utility, like water, and electricity. It is slightly different in that it is differentiated by bandwidth–by the way, I hate the term high-speed internet, it’s high-bandwidth internet, not high speed internet, individual bits don’t travel faster, just more of them arrive in parallel or they arrive at shorter intervals, when I hear someone advertize high-speed internet, I want to scream “really? your internet uses something faster than light? you have tachyon internet?–but it’s a utility. It should be regulated like a utility, and should charge by usage modes, usage amount, quality of service, or some combination thereof. Ideally, it should provide a menu of pricing plans like a telephone service provider. Actually, it would have to because it will include telephone or something like it as one of the services.

Content provision should simply be decoupled from the fiber utility. If and when this battle continues, and a case of Comcast v. State of Pennsylvania comes before John Roberts and the Supremes, one possible–even likely result–is that the gang of 9 will forcibly break up Comcast into Comcast-fiber and Comcast-programming. Just like they broke up Ma Bell 20-some years ago.

P.S. Read this.

P.P.S. Really, crap like this is much more annoying than North Korea’s empty nuclear threats. I’m surprised KJ didn’t sentence the man to 2,000 years of hard labor and a fine of one billion jillion kazillion won. Or maybe to death by sharks with frikking lasers. Does the republic of Il have a single ally in the universe? The republic of Ahmadinejad? Can’t we get international concensus to do something here? We invaded Iraq over less!