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Hardy Har Har September 28, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, economy, football, politics, society, taxes, transportation, war.
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The GOP is always good for a laugh. Regardless of how it’s pronounced, the party’s House leader spells his name Boehner. They gave us tea-bagging. And Sarah P. And wiccan-cum-Palin Christine O’Donnell. And now, just in time for the midterms, they’ve given us the Pledge To America. Yes America, congressional Republicans have an actual agenda other than filibustering Democratic legislation!

What is this agenda? Why are you asking me? Download and read it yourself! Don’t let the 10 MByte file size or 48 pages put you off. Text doesn’t take up much file space—one or two bytes per character—a 10 MByte document has to contain a large number of pictures. And in fact, PTA has 15 full pages of pictures! Of the Statue of Liberty, the Deepwater Horizon Rig, Mount Rushmore, Montcoal, the White House, Gitmo, the Capitol, K Street, House Minority Leader Boehner, Christine O’Donnell, main street USA, prison USA, a cowboy silhouetted against a sunset, Tony Romo, three old dudes at a supermarket beef counter, a CAFO, soldiers, caskets. Pictures that make you proud sick to be an American! There are also nine pages of content tables and titles like “Checks and Balances” and “Speak Out!” Plus two pages of figures for the sake of figures, including a nice one of Obama-spaghetti-care. That leaves you with only 22 pages of text. Still too much? Not to worry, the text itself is in large font, 1.5 spaced, and has huge margins. I banged it out on my iPhone between Tenleytown and Metro Center. And if this is still too long, there is the handy pocket card. Perfect for parties, or just around the water cooler! Alright, enough boilerplate and lace. Let’s briefly go over the “contents” of this bad boy, shall we?

Theme I: “shrink the government, reduce spending, and cut the Federal debt.” End TARP! Privatize the mortgage industry! Cancel the stimulus bill and reclaim all unspent Recovery Act funds! Return government spending to pre-bailout/pre-stimulus levels! Excuse me, but not even Sergey Brin is this rich! TARP was expensive, yes, but TARP also prevented a complete Wall Street meltdown and saved several US financial giants. The Fannie and Freddie bailouts were also expensive, but they did keep millions of American home “owners” temporarily afloat and the housing market from spiraling even more than it did. And yes, the unemployment was 7.7 before ARRA and 9.5 now, but what would it be now without the recovery act? And where would Philly Bluejay swim? Philly Bluejay currently swims at the sparkling Wilson Aquatic Center, proudly built using ARRA funds! But back to my point. All of these programs were and are expensive. And government spending was lower before they were enacted. But all of these programs were necessitated by Republican-led de-regulation of the financial and mortgage industries! And do you know which government programs were and are even more expensive? That’s right, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Strangely, no mention of canceling those in PTA. In fact, the only mention of Iraq and Afghanistan in PTA is in an item related to Iran. Which brings us to …

Theme II: “make America secure at home and abroad.” Protect our borders! A stronger visa program! Don’t let anyone out of Gitmo! Clean troop funding bills! Tough sanctions against Iran! A fully-funded missile shield! Let’s put the borders/visa/hate-of-Mexico/love-of-waterboarding issue aside for a minute and focus on the last three points. “Clean troop funding bills” essentially means a blank check from Congress to the Pentagon. Yes, that will definitely help to decrease spending! Tough sanctions against Iran because … well … Iran hates us and they will have nuclear capability by 2015. Actually kids, Iran will go nuclear before Passover and “tough sanctions” have as much of a chance of getting Ahmadinejad to back down as a personal plea from Philly Bluejay. Please Mahmoud, please dismantle your nuclear program. I promise not to make fun of your height or use your name and Kim Jong Il’s in the same sentence any more! That work? No? Bummer. And so what will definitely work against mini-me—oops, I did it again—Korean mini-me, and any other vertically-challenged-head-of-nuclear-state-gone-wild is a missile shield! The same missile shield will also stop hijacked planes, bombs in the New York subway system, IEDs, cyberterrorism, and attacks on our energy and water infrastructure. And it won’t blow the budget. Much. And also, to defeat attacks from the sea, the US coast will be patrolled by ill-tempered seabass with frikking lasers! A missile shield? Seriously? Do you know what would be far more effective against Herve Villechaise and Nelson de la Rosa—shame on me, I’ve just made fun of three dead dwarves in the span of 100 words—and far cheaper than a missile shield? About 50 F-16 Falcons and 10 B-2 bombers! A missile shield? A missile shield? Why not just run on “We will build a Death Star?”

Theme III: “no more Federal funding for abortion.” Ah, the abortion card! Apparently, they are saving the stem cell card for later.

Theme IV: “increase access to domestic energy sources.” Does this mean offshore wind farms in the North Atlantic and solar in Arizona or lifting the offshore drilling ban and opening up Alaska? I’m confused. Actually, I’m not. Of all the ludicrous statements in PTA, this might be the worst. I guess the fact that DC was buried under three feet of snow this past winter proves that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by Liberal scientists and that an ice age is coming! Drill baby drill!

Theme V: Two items Philly Bluejay supports: “make the Bush tax cuts permanent … for all Americans” and “oppose any carbon ‘cap-and-trade’ system.” These are solid proposals. Payroll taxes should be reduced. Even tiered income tax systems discourage people from working while doing nothing to curb massive consumption at the top. Meanwhile, cap-and-trade is complicated, provides the government with uncertain income, and doesn’t cover a sufficient number of sectors. The US needs to gradually reduce payroll taxes and combine those with a gradually increasing economy-wide carbon tax—payroll taxes should decrease by 1% per year for the next 10 years and CO2 emissions should be taxed by an additional $10 per ton per year over the same period, maxing out at $100 a ton. Think that’s high? It’s actually pretty pathetic—only about $34 per barrel of oil or $0.80 a gallon. Either way, Philly Bluejay salutes you, GOP! These two planks alone are enough to make Philly Bluejay forget about the rest of your nonsense, move to Delaware, and vote for Christine O’Donnell!

P.S. Philly Bluejay’s temporary new employer, US DOE/EERE—United States Department of Energy/Energy Efficiency and Renewables Division for the TLA/TLA/FLA impaired—has some cool programs like CYES (California Youth Energy Services). Philly Bluejay is not personally involved with these programs. Philly Bluejay is only involved with double-secret (i.e., obscure) programs.

P.P.S. Philly Bluejay’s namesakes—the Philadelphia Phillies—just wrapped up their fourth consecutive division title as for all practical purposes the number one seed in the conference. Good job, men! Red October 2010! Woot!

P.P.P.S. More “baseball news.” A California jury found Andrew Gallo—the drunk driver who last summer killed Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and two 20-something female friends—guilty of three counts of second-degree murder. Gallo could spend the next 50 years in prison. Gallo is no doubt a LEED Platium moron, but his biggest shortcoming is not being a NFL player! Less than a month before Gallo’s unfortunate accident, then Cleveland Browns wide receiver Donte Stallworth killed pedestrian Mario Reyes in a drunk driving accident in Miami Beach. Stallworth was convicted of second-degree manslaughter, spent 30 days in jail, another two years in house arrest, and came to an “undisclosed” financial settlement with the Reyes family. He was subsequently signed by the Baltimore Ravens! Oh, the hypocrisy! Philly Bluejay wonders what the sentence would have been had Stallworth killed Adenhart.

P.P.P.P.S. In other Philadelphia sporting/avian news—week 2 of the Michael Vick era and the Eagles sit atop the NFC East! This weekend, prodigal son and recent cast-off Donovan McNabb—just “recent cast-off” is not specific enough—returns to Philly. Oh, the drama! Opening line from Vegas? Eagles -7! Whowouldathunkit?

P.P.P.P.P.S. Still more football news. Philly Bluejay major icon and fellow Bethesda resident Gregg Easterbrook had absolutely nothing to say about the Andy Reid/Kevin Kolb/Michael Vick/Donovan McNabb love-hate quadrilateral in this week’s Tuesday Morning Quarterback. Although TMQ did have a funny piece about acronyms disowning their full-word namesakes. Perhaps Philly Bluejay will shoot Easterbrook a text and ask! Perhaps Philly Bluejay will also shoot Easterbrook a text to ask about licensing the name “Tuesday Morning Third-String Emergency Quarterback” or perhaps “Wednesday Afternoon Practice Squad Safety.” Although perhaps TMQ stands for nothing, in which case no text is necessary. Starting this weekend, Philly Bluejay will be known as WAPSS.


Little Additional Threat August 8, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, energy efficiency, environment, sustainability.
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There are many scary things about the Deepthroat Horizon disaster. Safety procedures on offshore platforms? Frightening. The overly cozy relationship between “regulators” and the oil industry? Terrifying. 190,000,000 gallons spilled—between 9 and 30 times the size of the Exxon Valdez spill? Mind-boggling. Future prospects for Gulf communities? Cover-your-eyes awful. But the scariest thing about it? It might be over soon.

The static kill procedure seems to be working—no more sexy videos of the gushing leak! Two relief wells will be finished soon. One quarter of the oil that spilled has been skimmed. Another quarter and change has simply disappeared—presumably evaporated. And the remaining 90,000,000 gallons that remain at large—about half of which has been “dispersed” either chemically or by natural water churn— poses “little additional threat.” Little additional threat? Phew. What a relief (well). Game over. Good night. Drive—literally—home safely. Thank G-d we didn’t pass any knee-jerk clean energy bill! Now we can get back to talking about the Iraq withdrawal/unemployment/Charlie Rangel/Brett Favre/Ellen DeGeneres.

Of all the jargon and soundbytes that Deepthroat has given us—top kill, stacked cap—”little additional threat” may be the most sinister. It’s the soothing background to the 20,000,000,000 dollar escrow account, Tony Hayward’s resignation, and the reorganization of the MMS. It’s the lullaby that finally puts us to sleep after four months of building Deepthroat fatigue. We’re tired of thinking about it—too depressing. The media is tired of talking about it—no new angles. “Little additional threat” makes it okay to move on. But is it?

31 years later, Prince William Sound has still not fully recovered from the Exxon Valdez. And Deepthroat spilled at least ten times as much! How exactly can anyone claim that 40,000,000 gallons of oil floating around the Gulf is a non-threat? And what exactly makes “dispersed” oil harmless? From what I understand, “dispersed” means broken up into tiny droplets. Did you know that plastic in the ocean becomes really harmful only after it’s broken down into tiny pellets? Because that’s when small fish can eat it and start pushing it up the food chain! Fish don’t eat plastic cups and rubber ducks and sneakers! They eat tiny pieces of orange and red plastic that look like krill. Fish are not going to get near beachball sized orange globs, but they will get near—and probably try to eat—little orange droplets of oil and dish soap! I’m sure “little additional threat” makes every Gulf resident who earns a living from the water feel so relieved! Who knows, maybe Joe Barton can get the 20,000,000,000 dollar “shakedown” reduced to 5,000,000,000!

The bigger disappointment is that the swell of clean-energy sentiment seems to have crested and crashed with no real long term effect—an energy bill with real teeth! There is nothing sadder than opportunity lost. And with “little additional threat” and the midterms coming, I smell a Republican backlash against clean energy and for the oil industry? After all, “even the worst offshore drilling accident in the history of the world didn’t turn out to be such a big deal!” [Limbaugh, Hannity, Beck, Gingrich Oct. 2010]

But here is a way to think about Deepthroat and clean-energy/energy-efficiency going forward—this is courtesy of energysavvy.com via Lane Burt@switchboard.nrdc.org. I am going to redo their math, because it doesn’t seem quite right to me, but even the much more conservative numbers I come up with are compelling enough. The average American home (AAH®) uses 11,000 kWh annually. Let’s say that an energy efficient home uses 8,000 kWh. That’s a 27% improvement—not drastic, and certainly not “zero-energy.” So an AAH wastes about 3,000 kWh a year which works to about 200 gallons of oil—one gallon of oil will get you about 15 kWh of electricity. So 1,000,000 AAHs waste about the same amount of oil a year as Deepthroat spilled—that’s 1% of all AAHs as there are about 100,000,000 of those. Now, let’s say that making an AAH energy-efficient costs 20,000 dollars. Making 1,000,000 AAHs energy-efficient would cost 20,000,000,000 dollars—that’s the same amount of money as in the BP disaster relief account. Suppose BP set aside this money to retrofit AAHs rather than to pay for cleanup/relief/compensation. That one time investment would effectively save the equivalent of one Deepthroat spill—every year in perpetuity! It would also save EEAAH owners 1,000,000,000 dollars in energy costs a year—essentially paying for itself within 20 years. Without the environmental/stock-price/public-relations damage. And no additional threat.

P.S. Summer-of-Brett 5.1. The increasingly-pathetic-looking-yet-in-reality-perfectly-rational Minnesota Vikings increase Brett Favre’s 2010 salary from 13,000,000 to 16,000,000 plus 4,000,000 in “achievable bonuses”—that’s right, kids, 1,000,000 dollars per game! Undoubtedly pleased by this sycophantic plea, Brett announces that he is “still undecided,” that he “wants to play health permitting,” and that “this isn’t about the money.” Of course it’s not about the money, it’s about the incessant ass-kissing! Or maybe its about the sexting.

P.P.S. Summer-of-Alex 6.0! In case you haven’t heard, Alex Rodriguez—aka ARod aka ARoid aka AHole—hit his 600th career home run yesterday, joining Barry “Bobblehead” Bonds, Henry “Hank” Aaron, George “Babe” Ruth, Willie “Willie” Mays, Sammy “JackO” Sosa, and Ken “Junior” Griffey. Despite its apparent magnitude, the accomplishment was met with a collective yawn. Here is a nice piece about the milestone by ESPN’s Rob Neyer. The picture in particular is fantastic.

P.P.P.S. Fringe with a better actress.

P.P.P.P.S. SPOILER ALERT! A question for people who have seen “Inception” and “Dreamscape“—a mid-80’s less sophisticated Inception with Dennis Quaid and Kate Capshaw. Anyways, in Inception, if you die in a dream, you wake up. In Dreamscape if you die in a dream, you die in real life. So which is it?

P.P.P.P.P.S. I’m sorry I missed your birthday, POTUS BO! This would never have happened if we were Facebook friends!

Philly Bluejay Is Not A Facebook Page! July 13, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, business, education, music, society, sports, technology, weird.
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I recently finished Jaron Lanier‘s manifesto “You Are Not a Gadget.” I had started it a while ago. Then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced it. And so I started with another book—Len Fisher’s “Rock, Paper, Scissors.” Then I found YANG and was immediately presented with a dilemma. Should I finish YANG while the first 150 pages are still edible, post about YANG, and then finish a still edible RPS and post about it? Or should I let YANG expire, finish a fresh RPS and post about it, then finish a rancid YANG and post about it? I decided to follow my culinary rule—always eat the oldest still-edible leftovers—and go with YANG first. Gulp.

If you haven’t heard of Jaron Lanier, he’s a computer-scientist-slash-musician-slash-I-guess-author. In computer science circles, he is known as the father of virtual reality. In music ellipses, he is unknown—at least to me. And in computer-science-slash-music hypocycloids, he is known, but not as well-known as Monzy. Lanier is an Edgie. He’s also a one-time roommate of Richard Stallman of GNU and Free Software Foundation fame. I know of both Lanier and Stallman and I did not know that—it’s always interesting to find out how famous people are connected to one another. For instance, did you know that George H. W. “41” Bush and Saddam Hussein were both Freemasons? Truth!

YANG is Lanier’s rant against “cybernetic totalism”—a term of his own coinage. Cybernetics is the study of control systems. Totalism is i) totalitarianism, ii) a new style of music that appeals superficially to neophytes and on deeper levels to sophisticates, and iii) a doctrine of wholeness imposed by brainwashing. Strangely, all of these definitions seem to fit Lanier’s dogma. As I understand it, cybernetic totalism is the opposite of humanism—it is the elevation of information and the machines that process it above humans. Cybernetically total ideas include “free culture,” open source software, crowd sourcing, and the Singularity—think “The Matrix.” Cybernetically total manifestations include Google, Facebook, Wikipedia—most of Silicon Valley and South Africa, actually—and hedge funds. Oh, and blogs! I have no use for Facebook—hi everyone, my name is Amir and I’ve been off of Facebook for ten months—or hedge funds. But where would I—or really anyone—be without Google and Wikipedia? And where would I be without blogs? In existential limbo! And how can anyone hate on open source software? Are Lanier and Stallman still on speaking terms?

Let’s start with open-source software. Actually, I understand the limitations of open-source development. There’s the “too many chefs spoil the broth” problem. There’s the “who let the cat out of the bag?” problem. And there’s the “you get what you pay for” problem. But open-source software not only provides free software, it provides “market” pressure on pay software! Yes, an open-source community may not be able to come up with a new product like an iPhone. In fact, open-source communities may be best suited to creating knock-offs. But knock-offs are a viable and a valuable economic niche. Where would we be without generic drugs?

Onto Wikipedia. Lanier doesn’t so much harsh on the idea of Wikipedia, but rather on the idea that information and its presentation should be shaped by an anonymous crowd rather than by individuals. He may or may not also be bemoaning the notion that the Wikipedia encourages shallow interaction with information—as if reading Wikipedia is akin to reading Cliff’s Notes. I love Wikipedia. I’ve learned many things from Wikipedia, even things about my own purported area of expertise. I probably read an average of ten Wikipedia entries a week. I just read the entry for Freemasonry (not quite like reading “Da Vinci Code”). Before that I read the entry for Italic Typefaces (more interesting than you would think). Other recent entries? Recession Shapes (ouch). The Avengers (my son asked me). The Sinister Six (ummm … yeah). Computational Fluid Dynamics. Navier-Stokes Equations (from latter). SSE4. NAMBLA (just checking if you’re paying attention, but it does does have a Wikipedia page). Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Clean Air Act. Reverse Osmosis. I understand that one could spend years studying each of these topics. But I don’t have years! I have half an hour and need a quick tutorial and perhaps a list of good references. Where else should I go?

Next, hedge funds. There was a lot of weird stuff in this book that I couldn’t really digest, but there was at least one suggestion that I thought was interesting and useful. And strangely enough it has to do with finance. The financial meltdown in October 2008—now that I write it, I don’t know whether that feels too recent or not recent enough—was at base a product of bad loans. But the real culprits were opaque financial instruments that chopped up the underlying risk so finely until it was no longer recognizable as risk—in the same way that industrial hamburger is no longer recognizable as beef. Lanier proposes to create a formal language for describing financial instruments and to outlaw instruments that cannot be written in this language. This would restrict financial engineers, yes, but not in a bad way. It would prevent them from creating contracts that they themselves don’t understand and which cannot be effectively tracked or regulated. When the next crash comes, we’ll know exactly who to blame and how much money was lost! I joke, but this is a really good idea and it needs to happen. Sadly, I don’t think it made it into the House finance reform bill.

Finally. Blogs. Lanier contends that most blogs are “unreadable” and urges bloggers to post only if they have something new to say. And that this something should be a non-knee-jerk reaction that took at least several weeks to ferment—lest the post dilute and devalue “real” journalism and reduce the signal to noise ratio of the noosphere. Ouch. On that note, I think I will end this post, shut down Philly Bluejay, and return to Facebook.

P.S. Speaking of Facebook. You think you have $12,600,000,000 coming, Paul Ceglia? I came up with the idea for Snuggie™ in 1995! I want my two dollars!

P.P.S. Today is the midsummer classic—the major league baseball allstar game for the unwashed. Every year around this time there is always talk about “fixing”—making better not rigging—both the game and the sport. I don’t have much to say about the game other than I don’t really care about it. As for the sport, I admit I haven’t thought a ton about this, but I have a simple and workable suggestion that should improve things and that I have not heard before. Currently, baseball’s 30 teams are divided into a 16-team National League and a 14-team American League. The NL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 6-team division. The AL consists of two 5-team divisions and one 4-team division. Both leagues send three division winners plus one “wild card” team to the playoffs. Both leagues primarily play within themselves, but each team also has 5 or 6 six inter-league series each year. You may have already guessed my suggestion—move to two 15-team leagues with three 5-team divisions in each league. This means that there will be one interleague series on every day of the schedule—occasionally there will be three—rather than packing all interleague series into a two-week stretch in June. But that’s presumably fine. The benefits will be improved fairness for NL teams, especially for teams in the 6-team NL central. Currently, teams in the 5-team AL East and Central have a 27.3% chance of making the playoffs—a 1 in 5 chance of winning their division plus a 1 in 11 chance of winning the wild card on the 4 of 5 chance they don’t win the division. Teams in the 4-team AL West have an even better chance of making the playoffs—32.3%. However, teams in the 5-team NL East and West have only a 26.2% chance of making the playoffs and teams in the 6-team NL Central have only a 22.8% chance of making it. Ignoring baseball’s economic structure—which arguably plays a bigger role in which teams make the playoffs than the division structure—is it fair that the Houston Astros enter each season almost 10% less likely to make the playoffs than the Texas Rangers? Economics aside, wouldn’t it be better if every team had an equal 26.7% of making the playoffs? I can’t believe NL Central owners haven’t gotten more upset about this.

LeBlog is LeBack July 9, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, drama, society, sports, television.
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I realize I have not posted in a little while. I was going to write an entry about Jaron Lanier’s book “You Are Not A Gadget,” but then about 40 pages from the end I misplaced that book. And then I started another book. Then the air conditioning in my house died—on a 102 degree day no less. And I hurt my finger which makes it hard to type. And the neighbor’s dog—I don’t have a dog—ate my laptop’s power cord. And. And. And. Speaking of and, here is a nice quote from Martin Gardner courtesy of little brother Bluejay.

“Wouldn’t the sentence ‘I want to put a hyphen between the words Fish and And and And and Chips in my Fish-And-Chips sign’ have been clearer if quotation marks had been placed before Fish, and between Fish and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and And, and And and and, and and and Chips, as well as after Chips?”

Not having posted in over two weeks, there’s lots to talk about. But the thing I wanted to weigh in on today is last night’s climax of the year-long LeBron James circus. In case you are either from another planet, comatose, or simply one of those people who cares more about the World Cup than you do about the NBA, you know what I am talking about. LeBron James, arguably the most coveted free agent in NBA history, is leaving his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers for the Miami Heat, where he will team up with fellow superstar Dwyane “Dwayne” Wade, superstar-wannabe Chris Bosh, and nine guys from the Boca JCC to form an NBA juggernaut. LeBron announced his decision in a one hour ESPN special called “The Decision.” It was the highest rated show in its slot—network or pay. I watched it. You watched it. Not you, mom. But everyone else!

What can I say about this that hasn’t already been said? By LeBron’s former owner, Dan “I want him DEAD! I want his family DEAD! I want his house burned down to the GROUND!” Gilbert. By Orlando Magic general manager Otis “My Man” Smith. By Bill “The Book of Basketball” Simmons and his readers. By less-interwebs-savvy Cavaliers fans. By Daily Rundown. By All Things Considered. By Marketplace—that’s right, back-to-back NPR shows had LeBron segments. Probably nothing. But let me rehash the tripe anyways.

Point one. LeBron made a bad basketball move. It makes no sense on any level. There was a better surrounding team in Chicago. A bigger challenge in New York. More money and more honor in Cleveland. Now? He joins Dwyane Wade’s team. The same team that just four years ago won a championship without him. LeBron could win the next six championships in a row. Wade will always have one more. And each of Wade’s will always be worth more. Teaming up with Wade is the weakest move LeBron could have made. The only weaker move would have been to join Kobe and the Lakers—not that Kobe would ever sign off on such a move. Can’t beat ’em? Stop trying and join ’em. By switching teams to join another superstar player who already has a ring, LeBron has effectively admitted that he doesn’t have what it takes to lead a winner. That he doesn’t have the drive and killer instinct to be an all-time great. You could tell during the show. He looked like he was going to throw up. Because individual play affects the outcomes of basketball games more than it does in other team sports, NBA greatness is measured by championships. The NBA’s inner circle is reserved for playoff killers. Bill Russell. Larry Bird. Michael Jordan. Kobe Bryant. LeBron has voluntarily taken himself out of the conversation to join that inner circle. When he came into the league, his ceiling was Michael Jordan. Actually, he had no ceiling. Even Jordan wasn’t that good that young. Now? His ceiling is Wilt Chamberlain—an athletic freak who couldn’t win if he was the best player on his own team and didn’t really care that this was the case. A prediction? LeBron’s professional arc will start to go down. Oh well.

Point two. LeBron obviously doesn’t care about being great. He also obviously doesn’t care about his “brand.” There is no other explanation for “Decision 2010.” Thinking that his decision warrants a one hour prime time special made him look narcissistic. Dumping his hometown team on national television made him look loutish. Pretending that he had made the decision that morning rather than months ago made him look disingenuous. And saying that “true fans” will understand made him look clueless. In between, he made third-person self-references—Bluejay would never stoop to such depths—talked about “his talents” and “everything he had done for the city of Cleveland and the Cavaliers franchise,” and threw up in his own mouth about twelve times. Not the most likable NBA star to begin with—he’s not a misanthrope but he’s not Magic or Barkley or Shaq either—LeBron is now seriously unlikable. Another prediction? LeBron’s marketing arc will go down as well. No tears here.

Point three. Is it really possible that professional sports matter this much? Is it really possible that 25-year old professional athletes matter this much? Is it really possible for NPR to run LeBron-themed segments in consecutive shows? Is it really possible that the Cleveland economy will suffer significantly because of this? Have we lost all perspective? The fall of the Roman empire comes to mind.

Point four. Dan, I feel for you. I think Coughlin said it best: “Everything ends badly, otherwise it wouldn’t end.”

P.S. It’s only fitting that “The Decision” would be spun as a charity event and held at the Boys-and-Girls club of Greenwich, CT—the US town that least needs a B&G.

P.P.S. Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chris Henry died last year when we was thrown off the back of a moving pickup truck driven by his girlfriend. Autopsy on his brain shows that he wouldn’t exactly have had a healthy and happy life going forward even had he lived.

P.P.S. On a somewhat happier note, here is a CNN article about Gordon Murray’s T.25—a 4′ wide car that gets 0.013 gpm (74 mpg). Almost as innovative as the T.25 is the method used to manufacture it.

P.P.P.S. This actually happened a few weeks ago, but I did finally finish the 5,000 piece puzzle of Breugel’s (the elder) “Tower of Babel.” It took over two months. I have so much free time now, I hardly know what to do with it!

P.P.P.P.S. Want to regain some perspective? Here.

The Birthday Problem May 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, economy, society, sustainability.
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No, not the classic birthday problem in which counter-intuitively the chances that any two of 30 people share a birthday is 73%. I’m talking about the problem with actual birthdays—the presents! And more specifically the packaging of children’s toys!

First, a little context. Yesterday was my son’s fifth birthday. For those of you who haven’t had the experience, I should tell you that the best thing a man can have—other than a wife like Mrs. Bluejay of course, hi dear—is a five year old son. Young enough to still be sweet and innocent and to want you to hold him. Old enough to catch a mini-football, build LEGO®, and wipe his own ass. If I could stop time—without being frozen inanimate—I would do it right now. Bluejay Jr., you’re the orange of my eye. With a side order of curly fries.

Anyways, yesterday was the small “family” birthday. The larger, more chaotic “school” birthday is in two weeks. I don’t remember why we decided to have it this way. I plead temporary insanity. The small gathering limited the number of presents, but it still took a solid 30 minutes to unwrap, extract most of the toys from their packages, and install a set of batteries. Anyways, let me start—what? you thought I had already started? I had not—by poo-poo’ing the general concepts of birthday presents themselves. Who decided that everyone who knows you must give you a gift to reward you for having been born? Why do you deserve a reward for this? Was being born really so hard? If anything, on your birthday, you should be the one giving gifts to others, for providing you with the structural and social environment that allowed you to grow into the greedy little bastard you are now! I believe that in some societies, this is how birthdays are handled in fact. Although a quick Google search reveals nothing. I am not sure where the tradition of birthday gifts started, but I am sure it has similar origins to Christmas gifts, Valentines Day gifts, and gifts associated with other arbitrary celebrations, namely as a line item in some long forgotten economic stimulus bill. It’s a wonder that ARRA didn’t include several new Federal and personal holidays complete with gift requirements! I have always been embarrassed by birthday gifts. If you want to give me a gift, donate to a charity in my name. Buy a third-world family a goat! A touching, hand-written card is good too!

Back to the birthday instance at hand. Let me begin by saying—I am beginning right now, for the record—that most children’s toys are worth little. The best toys are LEGO®—by the way, we were at the zoo this past week and there was a life-sized polar bear made of LEGO®, as well as tamarins, a frog, a snake, turtles, and a few other things. They were made over five months by a professional LEGO® sculptor. I wonder what the going rate for one of those is and whether there is a computer program that can translate a photograph to LEGO® construction instructions. But I digress—jigsaw puzzles, books, and TransformersTM. If it doesn’t improve spatial pattern recognition or fine motor skills, or if it doesn’t expand the mind or engage the imagination—or if it doesn’t transform—I have little use for it. Jigsaw puzzles and LEGO® also have the benefits of coming in minimal packages, a cardboard box with a plastic bag or two inside, that are rectangular and easy to wrap! Doubly so for books! Bluejay Jr. got a jigsaw puzzle. And a book. And LEGO®. He also got a auto-transforming Optimus Prime, a Power Ranger with motorcycle, a large-sheet coloring book, a HotWheels car and trailer, and the world’s nuttiest remote control trick vehicle.

The Optimus Prime came in an oddly shaped box. Mostly rectangular but tapered at the top and with a strange un-necessary kick-out to one side at the bottom. The box itself was one piece of cardboard that was internally folded and taped like Origami. Honestly, who designs these things? It took me a good five minutes to undo the Origami and flatten the box so that I could then recycle it. Optimus was embedded in molded PET—thin and crinkly but still indestructible, just like recent drink bottles. And not only was he embedded in the PET, he was actually secured to it by ultra-strong twist-tie/electrical-wire. In five places. This I don’t understand. The PET is needed to prevent jostling during transport. But the PET was molded around Optimus. You had to almost peel it off. What additional security do the twist-ties—which are quite difficult to untwist—provide? Do they ensure that an adult is needed to extract the toy? Are they a theft deterrant? Are they political pork thrown the way of United Twist-Tie Workers of China? The mind boggles. The Power Ranger and world’s nuttiest remote control trickster were similarly attached, but at least they came in a rectangular, non-Origami boxes.

The HotWheels car/trailer/car combo came in a long rectangular cardboard box. Inside the box was a hard clear plastic case and a black plastic base—almost for museum or collector-type displays. Is that what these are for? Can they not be sold separately then for the benefit of people who want to display their HotWheels cars rather than play with them? Are they for protection during transport? HotWheels cars are cast metal! You can run one over and not damage it other than maybe slightly bending an axle! To make matters worse, the car and trailer were screwed to the plastic base using four of the smallest non-eyeglass Phillips-head screws the world had ever seen. And car number two was screwed to the trailer in similar fashion. Again, I ask you—for what? Theft deterrance? Child proofing? United Phillips Screw Workers of China Full Employment Act?

I know that WalMart is pressuring its suppliers to reduce packaging—say what you will for behemoths like WalMart, but it can be a significant market force when it wants to—so these gifts were obviously purchased elsewhere. Why are other retailers not demanding reduced packaging as well? And why are reductions in some aspects of packaging—thickness of cardboard and PET—offset by the addition of Origami, tape, screws, and twist-ties? Is there a natural law of conservation of packaging? Perhaps the whole tradition of birthday gifts is not the brainchild of toymakers, but rather of the cardboard, PET, battery, twist-tie, and tiny Phillips screw industries. I have read—and I believe this—that a sustainable future for the planet will require a somewhat reduced standard of material living for the currently developed world. But maybe we won’t have to give up so much material. Maybe most of what we have to give up is the packaging.

P.S. I saw a Bluejay on Friday. It was on a lawn to my right as I was stopped at a light. I took a bad picture of it with my iPhone. It was the first one I have seen in Philadelphia in about three years. Maybe global warming is a hoax after all!

P.P.S. Speaking of trick vehicles, if you haven’t seen Stanford’s autonomous car backspin into a parking spot, it’s worth a look. For my money, this video would have been more impressive if the orange cones would have been replaced with orange Porches, but that’s getting greedy. The interesting thing about this is that the onboard computer is only partially calculating the maneuver using physics simulations. It’s getting the other part from “past experience”, i.e., different steering/breaking combinations and the resultant spins. “Last time I was moving this way and steered that way, this was the spin and it looks like the kind of spin I need to do now, so …” I will not be programming my Prius to do this, but if you have a Prius I could try to program yours.

P.P.P.S. Death by pirhanas may be appropriate punishment here.

P.P.P.P.S. I feel like I need to say something about Elana Kagan, but I can’t figure out what. Stay tuned.

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).

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!

Corporate School Buses March 17, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, sustainability.
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I heard on NPR yesterday that Washington, DC has jumped to #4 on the list of most-traffic-bound US cities after LA, NY, and Chicago with the biggest problem occurring in the Northern Virginia suburbs. It’s actually gotten where people are turning down jobs in the area and businesses are moving out. One anecdote was of a woman who spent an hour and forty-five minutes in traffic on the way to her first day at work. She called from the car and resigned before she ever got there. Of course, Virginia is running a budget deficit right now and a combination of political timing and pure finance is making investments in public transit infeasible right now. Not that an investment in public transit would provide relief in the short term anyway. Unless the particular form of public transit was buses and buses are slow and generally not convenient. Except there is one form of bus transit which is pretty convenient–the school bus. A school pick you up close to your house and takes you right where you need to go. And while you are riding, you can relax and socialize with friends from school. Of course, school buses are a form of public transit. But why are there no (or few) private corporate work buses?

Say you are a medium to large sized company with a semi-rigid work schedule. How much would it cost you to run your own bus/van pool to transport some significant subset of your employees–the ones that can’t reasonably get to work using public transportation and the ones that don’t live in faraway areas isolated from other employees–to and from work every day? Wouldn’t that make your company a more attractive place to work? Wouldn’t that improve your employees’ QOWL? It wouldn’t eliminate their commute. In fact it would probably make their commute a little longer (if for instance they were the first stop on the pick-up route). But it would eliminate the stress of driving and replace it with a chance to relax and socialize with co-workers, which is probably good for the company anyway. It would be like car-pooling, but on a larger scale and company-organized, operated, and funded.

Actually, it doesn’t have to be company funded. I currently pay $8 a day to park at my workplace. I would gladly pay $8 a day for someone to pick me up at a spot within a few blocks of my home and drive me to work. Heck, I would pay a premium to save on stress, gas money, and maybe even the need to own a second car. And don’t you think that a company could get a tax deduction for an expense like this? Or maybe a carbon credit or six assuming we ever install a carbon cap-and-trade system? And what about the free advertising on the side of the corporate vans? And savings from reduction in on-site parking capacity? The company may even get a little something from the city just for reducing congestion. And this isn’t just for large employers either. Smaller employers at the same complex could band together to support an efficient system like this.

Think this is a nutty idea? I worked at Intel in Haifa (Israel) in 2000. The site had about 1,500 employees at the time and they had a van-pool system like this. It was free, and I gladly availed myself of it. I am sure that some US companies have this sort of thing although Google searches on “corporate transit”, “corporate van pools”, and several other permutations of “corporate”/”company”/”transportation”/”carpool” didn’t turn up anything relevant (maybe I should have used Bing?). But why isn’t this commonplace? Come on people, isn’t this a no-brainer? Or alternatively, is it not a no-brainer? Or alter-alternatively, is it a brainer?

P.S. My new inspiration, Donna Simpson!

Flight of the Penguins March 15, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, climate, society, sustainability, transportation.
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Have you seen the movie “March of the Penguins?” You should. If anything, it will convince you that the last animal you want to come back as in your future life is an Emperor Penguin. After the penguins mate and females return to the sea, the males are left for five months to incubate the eggs in the only safe and semi-warm place they have–on the tops of their feet. What did you think I was going to say? The temperature is -70 (what’s the HTML for degree?). I don’t know whether that’s -70 Celsius or Fahrenheit, but does it really matter? To maximize warmth (and I am using that term loosely), the penguins huddle together in a big circle and because it’s warmer on the inside of the circle, they rotate perimeter duty. If the egg should fall off the feet during the rotation, the male has about 4 seconds to pick it up before it cracks and the chick inside dies. Needless to say, unless you’re the Penguin equivalent of David Beckham, you’re toast (or the anti-particle of toast). And you should see the look on a penguin’s face when this happens. You would think that it’s difficult to express anguish if you have a beak instead of a mouth. You would be wrong. Of course, female penguins don’t exactly have it easy. They have to march out 100 miles back to the ocean on those tiny little penguin feet and come back with “food” for dad and baby. Mostly for baby. Should something happen to the mother along the way–oh I don’t know she gets eaten by a sea lion–dad and baby die. It is really difficult to believe that a species would go these evolutionary lengths just to avoid competition. Yet there they are.

I find all birds fascinating. Can you tell by the name of this blog? But I find penguins especially so because they gave up the ability to fly. They had it. And they genetically “decided” they were better off without it. They were better off standing in -70 degree weather for five months with an egg on the tops of their feet than flying. And so are we. Well, not the -70 degrees part. Or the egg on the feet part. But we are better off not flying. Or at least flying less.

I read an op-ed in the NY Times recently in which the writer complained that airlines are alienating their primary constituency and only true cash cow (the business traveler) by charging for erstwhile free “amenities” like checked luggage, extra leg room, and in-flight meals. Business travelers–many of whom have to fly on the cheapest possible ticket and cannot expense upgrades–are now choosing to drive routes they would otherwise fly. I think the example was Boston to Pittsburgh, i.e., something long-ish but certainly road-trip-able. My response? Great! Way to go airlines! Go airlines go!

Aside from owning and operating your own cement plant or CAFO, flying is about the most environmentally unfriendly thing you can do. Flying is the most energy-inefficient mode of transportation. This is especially true for short-range low-altitude flying which must burn more fuel per mile to overcome higher air densities. Here is a page that shows that driving any reasonable car alone over pretty much any distance produces less CO2 than flying in a full plane over said same distance, with the relative advantages of driving increasing the shorter the distance. Presumably, the crossover point is Boston-Sydney. In that case what you should do is drive from Boston to Tierra del Fuego, take the slow boat to Perth, and then rent a car and drive to Sydney.

I’m being intentionally ridiculous because the whole argument of business flying versus business driving is ridiculous. What about business Skyping? The norms of business travel developed in a pre-high-bandwidth-Internet world. Why is so much business travel necessary in the current world? A few weeks ago, I was at a technical program committee meeting at the O’Hare Hilton. 44 of us flew in for what essentially was a 10 hour flame-session to decide which 42 of 245 submitted papers would appear at a conference in June. How different would the set of 42 papers have been had we done a conference call instead? 5%? 10%? By definition, they wouldn’t have been more than 57% different, because 18 of the selections were effectively decided before the meeting. And so what if the final set was 10% different. Trust me, it is just as likely to have been 10% better as 10% worse.

Who would actually fly these days unless it was either absolutely necessary or to some exotic destination like the O’Hare Hilton? Almost everything about flying is a giant pain in the ass. Flying itself. TSA checkpoints. Airport parking. Even buying a simple ticket on Orbitz requires clicking through 28 screens to decline everything from cancellation insurance, to rental car, to rental car cancellation insurance, to attraction tickets, to attraction tickets cancellation insurance. I predict and hope for a future in which we fly significantly less. And when we do, we will be forced to go through security naked, through a -70 degree airlock, balancing a egg on our feet.

Mayor Nutter: Tax Crack! March 6, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in business, politics.
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You can’t go online these days without seeing the words budget deficit, followed either by: i) an explanation (usually partisan) of how large deficits suppress future prosperity, ii) reading about Greece’s austerity plan, or iii) seeing a picture of holier-than-thou Jim Bunning (R-Ken). Actually, rumor has that “perfect game” Jim held up the $15 billion (one dollar a week for every American) jobless benefits bill not because he objected to adding to the deficit which would suppress the future prosperity of and increase the tax burden on his nine children (is that a congressional record?), but because the scheduling of the initial vote caused him to miss the Kentucky-South Carolina game. At least Jim is not seeking re-election which should help balance out the frightening number of Democrats who are stepping aside at the end of their current terms if not immediately. But I digress.

Well, here is some quasi-positive deficit related news: Philadelphia’s new deficit reduction plan. I don’t think this is official yet, but evidently Philly mayor Michael Nutter (a pretty cool guy who I met at Penn commencement last year) plans to close the city’s $150 million budget deficit by setting: i) a $300 trash collection fee ($200 for qualifying low income families), and … ii) a 2 cent per ounce tax on sugary drinks! The trash collection fee is a little bit obnoxious-it should be set up as a tax per pound or per standard size can or something like that rather than a flat fee-but it’s on the right track in theory. And the soda tax is absolutely brilliant. I am a firm believer that government should pay for services by taxing vices that decrease public welfare, either directly or indirectly by increasing its financial burden. People are up at arms about the soda tax, but at base it’s no different than the cigarette tax, in fact they even come to about the same per pack.  The soda tax comes to $2.88 per 12-pack and the ciggy tax comes to $2.60. And no one says a peep about the cigarette tax. And its not because of the direct effect on public welfare via second hand smoke. Smoking bans effectively take care of that. It’s because everyone understands that people who smoke will consume more health-care in the future. The tax is just a way of getting them to pay into that system now. Well, soda is the same way. If you drink enough soda to actually be impacted by the soda tax, chances are you too will consume more health-care in the future. Why should you not pay into that system now? You should! Like the cigarette tax, the soda tax will have one of two beneficial outcomes: a healthier population that consumes less health care or more money for the city to pay for this health care.

And why stop at cigarettes and soda? You want to really put economic incentives to use? Make crack/crystal-meth/marijuana/mouthwash/whatever legal and tax it. Tax the hell out of it. The real tragedy of the war on illegal drugs is not that it’s hopeless, is that by making drugs illegal, the government forfeits both a lucrative revenue stream and the ability to influence production and consumption by tax policy. Same for porn. Gambling. Dogfighting. Okay, maybe not dogfighting. Mayor Nutter, are you reading this? You need to put Philly Bluejay on your blogroll!

P.S. As for the trash collection fee? By being set up as a flat fee, it is essentially just a revenue generating device that isn’t going to influence behavior. It would be better if the fee could be set up as a per-use tax that would actually encourage people to produce less trash, i.e., to recycle and compost more and to buy fewer items with excessive packaging. I understand that the logistics here are more difficult (what’s to stop people from putting their trash into their neighbor’s cans?) but maybe someone who reads this blog will have an idea. Who am I kidding? Only my wife reads this blog. Anyways, if you read this blog, this is your homework. Come up with a trash collection scheme that will either make it difficult for people to behave dishonestly or disincentivize them from doing so.

P.P.S. I subscribe to urban dictionary “word of the day”. I’m not sure why. The words are rarely funny and often offensive. OK, now I remember why I subscribe to it. Today’s UD WOTD is “self-defecating”. Self-deprecating is intentionally downplaying a strength. Self-defecating is unintentionally playing up a weakness. Pass it on.

P.P.P.S. I took up swimming a few months ago and today for the first time, I swam a mile. Actually, a little bit more than a mile. 1,800 meters. Took me 47 minutes. Mike Phelps I will see you in 2012. On television.