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Season of Giving December 23, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in climate, economy, football, politics, taxes.
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Tis the season of giving. Time to give the loyal readers a juicy post after giving them a whole month off. With Philly Bluejay, the giving just doesn’t stop. Only the posting does. Why the long layoff? Well, I was in my lame duck session. I was tired. And I had given up on reaching my initial goal of 100 posts in the first year of Bluejay. After hitting #73 on Nov. 21st, I calculated that I needed to average a post exactly every three days to hit the century mark by Bluejay’s first birthday on Feb. 10th. And that realization made me even more tired! But perhaps the 30 day hiatus has given me a second wind. Now, if only I can average a post every 1.89 days…

Debt us all with piles of money. Tra la la la la la la la la. Where to start? How about a quick only slightly revisionist history of the tax cut compromise bill?

When the battle lines were initially drawn, I was optimistic bordering on euphoric. I thought that a tax cut for the top 2% was politically radioactive. That there was no way for Republicans to reconcile it with their rhetoric about debt reduction. That it was such a middle finger to the voters that just gave them 63 House seats that they would suffer a huge backlash in 2012, perhaps even giving Democrats the first ever 435-0 House unanimity! Of course, I wildly underestimated Republican depravity, the ideology of the liberal left, and the shallowness of my own understanding of political gamesmanship.

In reality, the tax cut for the rich was standing on two firm political legs. First, Republicans knew that it is the top 2% that wins and loses elections for them. That in the US, it’s not “one person, one vote” it’s more like “one dollar, one vote.” By November 2012 most voters will forget about October 2012 much less November 2010, and will vote by whatever ads they see on television. Those ads will be paid for by the top 2%. Second, Republicans knew that POTUS Lightning was a decent human being. That he wouldn’t allow middle-class tax cuts to expire just to make an ideological point. That he would eventually give in. And that the Democratic party would either fall in line behind him or splinter while allowing the last six weeks of Democratic majority to waste away. Win. Bigger win. And so Republicans dug in and marched single file past MSNBC cameras proclaiming that “the top 2% will use the money from the tax cuts to hire more workers.” Whether anyone believed this poppycock is debatable, but also besides the point. Republicans weren’t talking to America. They were talking to POTUS Lightning.

POTUS Lightning heard them. Congressional Democrats, Eugene Robinson, and Adam Green apparently didn’t. Either that or they are actually Republican operatives. The Democratic/Independent echo chamber led by boldprogressives.org and the two idealogues from Vermont began screaming into the wind, urging POTUS Lightning and the lame duck Democratic majority to take a unified stance alongside “98% of America” and putting the blush in John Boehner’s cheek and the grease in Eric Cantor’s hair. But seeing the bigger picture, POTUS Lighting ignored the bluster and immediately set out to cut the best deal he could. When you play hardball in a hostage situation, sometimes the hostages get killed. If you want to ensure the safety of the hostages in the present you have to give in to terrorist demands. And yes, I just called Mitch McConnell a terrorist. Personally, I preferred a different hostage exchange—if Republicans wanted tax cuts for the rich and were willing to put the entire tax code on the table to get it, they would have to swallow a carbon tax. Shockingly, that didn’t happen. But the deal POTUS cut—a 13-month extension on unemployment benefits and an increase in the estate tax—was sweet enough.

In the end, Mitch and the Boyz got a two-year stay of their precious tax cuts. In exchange, POTUS Lightning got unemployment benefits, the middle-class tax cut, and $500,000,000,000 worth of stimulus that may sufficiently improve the economy by 2012 to both keep him at 1600 Pennsylvania and restore secure majorities on both sides of the Capitol. Just in time for the Bush tax cuts to come up for renewal. Mu ha ha. Ha ha ha ha. As for POTUS Lightning, he comes out looking every inch the leader—a measured, unruffled commander negotiating a sea of political madness, a compassionate general who cares more about the people in the trenches than about the lieutenants at the extreme fringes of his own party. Lightning—you have done old TJ proud!

Tis the season to be Danny. Fa la la la la la la la la. But the Democratic haul was actually better than that. By “compromising” on taxes, POTUS freed up Congress to pass two more important pieces of legislation—a renewal of START and a repeal of DADT. Years late and ho-hum by international tolerance standards, does the repeal of DADT signal a change in American focus? Are Americans going to start worrying about actual problems rather than medicating themselves by hating on anyone who is slightly different? Let’s wait and see if the Dream Act passes.

Want to stimulate the economy? Give to the homeless! The Republican argument that giving money to the wealthy stimulates the economy is poppysmic! Rich people don’t spend additional disposable income on goods—at least not on goods produced in the US. And they aren’t likely to spend it on services either. Rich people stash additional funds in a financial market where most transactions are performed by computer—often at the behest of a baby! Not even stockbrokers get trickle down effects of tax cuts to the rich! Giving money to lower income folks is much better stimulus. Lower-income folks are likely to turn over the money quickly on food, clothing, rent, utilities, credit card debt and other basic necessities. Whereas $1 given to a rich person may represent $0.10 of economic stimulus—a tip to the dog-walker, perhaps—a $1 given to a lower income person may yield $2 of economic stimulus. By this definition, the best stimulus of all should be giving money to homeless people. Homeless people don’t pay rent, utilities, or credit card debt and don’t turn their money over to conglomerates who then stash the money in financial markets. They use it on food. Or other … “produce.” Giving a $1 to a homeless person may yield $5 in economic stimulus for all you and I know. Unfortunately, tax cuts don’t extend to the homeless and presumably unemployed. This kind of stimulus is up to you and me. Since the weather in the DC area has taken a turn for the arctic, I have given seven homeless people a total of $90. Believe me, giving $20 dollars to a homeless person feels better than giving it to your alumni association. If homeless people gave receipts, I would give to them exclusively.

Want to stimulate Philly Bluejay? Give to Wikipedia! If you read Philly Bluejay regularly, you know that I believe that Wikipedia—not YouTube, not Facebook, not even Groupon, okay maybe Groupon—is the fairest child of “Web 2.0.” For my money, there is simply no better way of getting the quick skinny on just about anything. Did you know that Ed Schultz briefly played professional football and was a Republican until 2000? Or the chain of discoveries that led to Pluto being downgraded from planet to minor-planet/Kuiper belt object? Or what Edward Fortyhands is? I know that some dismiss Wikipedia as a monoculture that suppresses the original ethos of the web while others—Nassim Taleb, your post is coming soon—consider Wikipedia as part of the Internet “shallows” and people who read Wikipedia as faux intellectuals and “bildungphilistines.” Those camps can form two lines and kiss me. Other than homeless people, the only charity/cause/goodworks I have donated to this season is the Wikimedia Foundation. I guess I just couldn’t resist the personal plea from Jimmy Wales. I mean, who can say no to Jimmy Wales? Look at that punem!

The best gift—ever! The best gift I received this holiday season? “The Miracle in the New Meadowlands“—by far the best of the 200+ Eagles games I have watched. Made better by the fact that I watched it in a bar flanked by my brother—and sister in law—on the left and an obnoxious Giants fan on the right. Four touchdowns in the last 8:17 to come back from 21 down. The first-ever “walk-off” punt return. And the driver’s seat for the NFC East and maybe a first round bye. E! A! G! L! E! S! EAGLES!

The larger gift was made possible by three smaller gifts. Gift #2 came with 7:28 remaining. Having just given up the first of the four touchdowns, the Giants fell for a “surprise” onside kick that didn’t surprise anyone at the Wing Hub on Cordell. Not only did the Giants have a conventional return team on the field rather than a hands team, but the front line was lined up 15 yards from the ball and retreated at the kick. When Riley Cooper caught the ball at the Eagles 42, there wasn’t a single Giant in the picture! Gift #3 came with 0:14 remaining. Having just gone three-and-out after giving up the game tying touchdown, the Giants had to punt from their own 30 to an Eagles team holding no timeouts. Punt out of bounds and give the eagles fourteen seconds to run two sideline plays to gain 30 yards for a field goal try. Or punt high away from DeSean Jackson and give the Eagles eight seconds to run a single play to gain the same distance. But don’t kick a line drive directly to Jackson. Or maybe do. To make things even better, Jackson muffed the punt—perhaps even intentionally—which caused the Giants to completely lose all lane and backup discipline. Here it is in case you missed it. Gift #1? Andy Reid putting the Eagles in position to stage the comeback by refusing to challenge two big plays—Nicks catch in the first and Jackson fumble in the fourth—that on replay clearly would have gone the Eagles way. Thanks SantaAndy.

Philadelphia 2—New York 0. Eagles 38—Giants 31 was the second comeback beatdown administered by Philadelphia team to a New York team last week. Here is the first.

Climate change 1—California 0. Here’s a lump of coal in your stocking. If you can even find your stocking.

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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.