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Thursday, December 29, 2005

Fear Fads

When I was a kid, I was always interested in the latest "fear fad", which in those days ranged from global cooling to population explosions to the world running out of coal/oil/copper/food. The big fear fads of the 1970s and 1980s faded, and were replaced by new fear fads: global warming, "peak oil" (now available with a bonus 1970s "Greatest Hits" CD), the obesity epidemic, bird flu, and a whole host of economic gloom & doom.

My tests for a "fear fad" include the following:

1. It's BIG. It will destroy civilization as we know it, or at least wipe out millions.
2. It's coming tomorrow and time can't be wasted in further study. ACTION IS DEMANDED NOW.
3. Those who question it are IN DENIAL. Psychological arguments as opposed to scientific arguments are always at the core of a fear fad.
4. It requires GOVERNMENT ACTION, at both the national and international level.

Like a broken clock being right twice per day, eventually one of the fear fads may come to pass. But until then, this post is worthwhile reading. As FDR said, the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Friday, December 23, 2005

Merry Christmas...

Slow blogging lately; been getting geared up for Christmas. Yesterday, the last of the packages arrived in the mail, late enough to make me somewhat worried but not too late.

As for the "war on Christmas", three co-workers wished me a Merry Christmas today: one is Muslim, one is Hindu, and one is an athiest. Everyone else did the "happy holidays" thing; I guess these three should be flogged for their refusal to observe proper PC piety.

As for my bit of political incorrectness:


Monday, December 19, 2005

The history of the Western world...

as told by extracts from various essays and term-papers...

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Are Europeans really so scared of the future?

This article is about a woman who immigrates to the US from eastern Germany, and who grew up under Communism. It's a basically nice human-interest sort of story, but one quote in the story is quite revealing about the mindset of Europeans who don't have kids:

On the topic of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and her inability to find work as a kindergarten teacher: "The whole society had changed. We turned from socialism to capitalism, and people didn't know what was going to happen in the future, so they stopped having babies."

This is rather profound. Under communism, they "knew what was going to happen in the future"? I guess there's some truth to the notion that in cradle-to-grave socialism, one has a fair degree of "knowledge" about what will and won't happen. In a more dynamic system, there's more uncertainty, but life is uncertain! And the really sad thing is that the assumption is because they didn't "know" what's going to happen in the future, that unknown future must be bad, or at least bad enough to not want to raise kids.

I've always had a sort of wierdly cynical optimism. I'm never sure what the future will bring, but it's always been better than I imagined, although the path to get there is always messy. We didn't nuke the world, which was the big fear when I was kid, and pretty much every gloom and doom prediction about the future has either proved false or been averted.

Message to Europe: buck up! The future will only be bad if you let it be...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

What the heck is saving?

This article about relative savings rates in the US is interesting reading: San Jose, CA, where I grew up, is the highest-rated "saving city" in the US. This isn't surprising: San Jose is a fairly rich city with a household income around $70K, and has a large population of high-saving immigrants.

Anyway, I digress. The question I want to ask is "what is savings?" This dictionary definition has the personal savings rate as disposable income minus personal consumption expenditures.

In my own example, my wife and I max out our 401Ks, and she has a self-employed 401K. In total, we put about 20% of our gross income in these 401Ks. We also max out Roth IRAs, and have other taxable savings.

As far as I can tell, 401Ks and possibly IRAs aren't considered disposable income, so they wouldn't count towards our own savings rate. I wonder how much of the low savings rate in the US is due to people saving into these sorts of vehicles?

For our part, we use a relatively expansive definition for our own calculations: savings is the increase in net worth that results from setting money from wage or business income aside. This would include putting money in a 401K, mortgage principal paydown, putting money in a savings account, or our monthly deposits to investment accounts.

Monday, December 12, 2005

$1.99 gas in SF Bay Area

It's official - an Arco in central San Jose has gas for $1.99/gal. Given that Bay Area gas prices are routinely 20 to 50 cents more than anywhere else, this is a good thing.

Oddly, during the Katrina gas-price runup, the Bay Area had cheaper gas than many other places, although it still topped $3/gal.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

It's official: I'm a geek

according to the results of another silly test:

You're a scientific intellectual.

What Sort of Intellectual Are You?
brought to you by Quizilla

Friday, December 09, 2005

Objectivity versus Caring and Blogging

This discussion of a review of Joanne Jacobs' new book Our School is interesting. One point in particular: Drum clearly wants a more "objective" observer, as opposed to Jacobs, who is closely associated with the Downtown College Academy (DCA) project and supports charter-schools in general. This brings up an ongoing question about "objectivity" versus "depth and caring", and is why I like to read opinionated blogs versus more "objective" sources. Jacobs obviously cares about DCA in a personal way, and this caring lies behind her motivation to write a book about it. In addition to the care brought by an "insider", she also has lots of information that an objective outsider would have a hard time finding.

Finding an objective observer who cared enough to do the legwork and such to write a book would have been difficult to impossible. I find this with blogs as well: a soldier blogging from Iraq cares far more about the subject matter than a typical reporter, who would cover this story as a "story" and not as a personal mission. This will obviously slant his blog reports, but it will also mean that a vast store of knowledge and passion is brought to the subject matter that simply can't exist for someone who will move on to another story at the end of the day.

Similarly for other subject-matter blogs: you want detailed opinions about legal matters of the day, ask lawyers, not journalists, who will themselves talk to lawyers and report their findings to you as secondhand information. The same holds true for just about every field. Maybe the writing will be rougher, and you will get strong opinions versus "objectivity". But if you read three or four blogs on a particular topic - particularly if they are on different sides of the topic - you'll know far more than about the topic than you would if you went to most journalistic reports.

Not to sound geeky, but this is a real-life manifestation of the "abstraction pyramid" problem that occurs in big software projects. The more layers between the data and the user of the data (which may be another computer program in this context), the more "cooked" the data will be - and the less useful it will be.

Random crazy thoughts on CA state government...

Being a native of the crazy state of California, I like to play with crazy government ideas from time to time; there is little that seems worse than our current system, particularly in this state...

Some crazy ideas:

1. Our state Legislature term limits are overly severe, attracting political careerists who see their tenure in the Legislature as a brief detour on the road to Bigger and Better Things. So, the strategy is obvious: serve the special interests well, and they'll grease your way to higher office. So, I'd keep the term limits, but make them longer and possibly increase the length of time between elections. I also think either the Assembly or the Senate should be abolished; there seems to be little need for a bicameral system if they're both elected and aren't particularly different in numbers or representational areas.

2. Out there on the fringe: keep a bicameral legislature, but make service in the Assembly subject to a drawing among all citizens. Service could not be refused unless one is on active duty in the military or some such, and the pay would be increased to be high enough to compensate for the inconvenience of a life interrupted. These citizens would serve a single 6 or 8 year term, with 25-33% of the seats replaced every two years. It's possible that the first two years could be a "candidate" period, during which they can't vote while they learn.

This sounds utterly insane, but we already do something like this with juries and grand juries, and nothing would create a more "democratic" legislature than simple random selection. Keep a Senate that is elected. A true "government of the people" can't help but be more centrist and reasonable, and less prone to random moonbattery and capture by special interests.

3. Abolish school districts and make all schools charter schools. Or introduce vouchers for all students. Getting rid of the teacher unions and the ed schools would be a bonus.

4. Rather small-bore, but would save tons of $$: schools and other government agencies should be able to operate on rented commercial property. There is no reason for government entities to do their own property management, janitorial services, etc.

5. Allow the government to use non-union contractors for construction projects. I don't see how the state benefits from overpaying on construction and maintenance.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Our money-handling strategies

Part of the reason I have a blog is to write posts where I clarify things in my own head. This will be one of those posts...

In handling money, we're fairly frugal, although we definitely aren't sandwich-bag recyclers. Between 401Ks, Roth IRAs, and taxable savings, we save about half our income, and much of it is earmarked for retirement; we won't get any sort of pension and we figure Social Security is a bonus if we get it at all. My wife is self-employed, so to deal with taxes we withhold enough of my pay to hit the withholding safe harbor, and we save half her income into an account that we pay extra taxes from when they're due. The rest of the money is our "refund", which we use to fund retirement accounts.

In daily life, our general rules are as follows:

o Things which save lots of time but are relatively cheap, or save us from work we'd really hate doing on an ongoing basis, we pay for. So, we have a gardener and house cleaning service come every two weeks. We figure this "buys" us at least four weekend days per month - as well as a trim yard and a clean house. Total cost: about $250/month total.
o We take our lunch to work, and don't do Starbucks. Since eating out would cost a minimum of $8 or so each day for each of us, this is a big savings.
o We pay cash for cars, and drive them until they are no longer reliable.
o We eat out about once per week.
o We fix things that are easily fixed.
o We carry no debt other than our mortgage.
o We review our recurring expenses about every six months and reorganize them as things change. For example, we're about to drop our DSL, get a cable-modem, and switch to VOIP, since VOIP + cable modems is cheaper than DSL + landlines, even though DSL itself is cheaper than a cable modem. Also, the $8/month that SBC charges for voicemail really annoys the heck out of me.
o We like to go on vacations, but are more backpacker types and don't need five-star accomodations, although we're happy to stay in nice places if they can justify the expense.
o We aren't afraid to talk about money and finances.

Monday, December 05, 2005

A silly little test

A fun little test. Here's my score...

King Edward I
You scored 68 Wisdom, 73 Tactics, 52 Guts, and 59 Ruthlessness!

Or rather, King Edward the Longshanks if you've seen Braveheart. You,
like Edward, are incredibly smart and shrewd, but you win at any
costs.... William Wallace died at his hands after a fierce Scottish
rebellion against his reign. Despite his reputation though, Longshanks
had the best interests of his people at heart. But God help you if you
got on his bad side.

My test tracked 4 variables How you compared to other people your age and gender:
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 62% on Unorthodox
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 59% on Tactics
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 37% on Guts
free online datingfree online dating
You scored higher than 88% on Ruthlessness
Link: The Which Historic General Are You Test written by dasnyds on Ok Cupid, home of the 32-Type Dating Test

Bush does believe in timetables

In Iraq, the political timetables have been repeatedly met, as this Chalabi interview points out. These political timetables have been the elections, which President Bush has pushed hard for - unlike John Kerry and others in the punditocracy. Their arguments can be boiled down to this: a sort of Mazlow's Hierarchy of Needs exists at the national level which demands the complete defeat of the enemy before democratic forms can be considered. Incidentally, this is a typical argument of dictators the world over, but that's a topic for another post.

The thing these guys don't realize is a thing that anyone who has ever managed a project knows fully well: deadlines which apply positive pressure are your friends. The election deadlines put pressure on our enemies as well as the political process, and force those involved with the political process to avoid the problem of the perfect being the enemy of the good. The elections weren't a "bonus" that comes after "establishing security" - they were, and are, a crucial weapon in defeating the enemy.

On the other hand, deadlines which exert negative pressure are your enemies. Calendar dates for an Iraq troop pullout put unnecessary pressure on US and Iraqi armed forces, and give the enemy an obvious tactic: lie low and wait until we leave. The only strategy which makes sense is for us to defeat the enemy and finish the job.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Ten hard economic truths

These are ten "economic truths" that I use to define how I think about this or that policy. And in general, they are "liberal" in the classical economic sense of the word. Sorry if they seem a bit random.

1. In general, the best way to help the poor is to let the rich get richer.

2. The economy moves forward by inconviencing or harming smaller groups of people so the great mass of people is helped in a marginal way. Stopping this process leads to economic stasis and decline. Examples: Walmart, Voice over IP telephony, which are hurting existing telcos and causing layoffs there.

3. The most obvious way for government to help people rarely works as expected, and often ends up hurting them.

4. In an economy, you will get either low unemployment or artificially high salaries, but not both.

5. Corrolary to 4: a minimum wage, living wage, or other artificial minimum constraint on wages will increase unemployment among those it's supposed to help. Additionally, these will drive jobs into the underground economy.

6. Regulation helps established businesses, especially big business, by freezing business models and slowing down creative destruction. This is why big business isn't always opposed to regulation. But excessive regulation hurts new businesses and hinders the creation of new business models. (For a particularly silly example, see North Dakota's restrictions on Ebay auctioneers.)

7. Regulation and restrictions on land use drive up real-estate prices. If you want truly affordable housing in your area - particularly for the lower middle class as opposed to the poor who can qualify for "Section 8" - fight to let builders build and developers develop.

8. Restrictions on land use enrich existing landholders, creating a constituency for regulations. This constituency fights and defends regulations in the form of people fighting for the environment or "quality of life", but the result is that the lower-middle and middle class is driven out of the market. (See 6)

9. "Big Pharma" helps far more people than it hurts. Weakening or destroying "Big Pharma" will hurt untold billions by denying them the fruits of ongoing medical advances.

10. The most direct way for people to enforce their will on a bureaucracy is to make the bureaucracy compete with other similar bureaucracies for its funding. All other control mechanisms are easily captured by the bureaucracy.

Bathroom Window Democracy

This post by Sandmonkey on elections in Egypt is journo-blogging at its best, particularly the pictures of significant numbers of people climbing through bathroom windows to evade the police blocking the entrance to the polling place. Somehow this didn't make the NYT or AP.

But I suppose they aren't ready for democracy...

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