Thursday, May 31, 2012

Heritage Listing is Theft in Disguise

A recurring theme of this blog is that government policies should be honest about what they cost, and who's paying. Few things irritate me more than politicians implementing policies that they pretend to be cost-free, when in actual fact the costs are just being shifted to someone else, or disguised as part of a price increase, or similar such dubious methods.

Another one to file in this category is heritage-listed properties. Some homes have real historical value - period pieces that exemplify a style of architecture, or homes of important historical figures.

So society decides that it wants to preserve those buildings. Fair enough. But how do they do it?

Simple! They slap an order restricting the owner's ability to make modifications to the home.

The home hasn't gotten any more historical. It hasn't gotten any more quaint.

It has, however, gotten a lot more difficult to replace the electrical wiring, or replace the paving in the back, or re-tile the roof, or whatever the hell they've put restrictions on.

Before you had unrestricted property rights over your house.

Now, you're a part-owner of the house, with some government bureaucrat having a part ownership stake that gives them veto-power over your renovation decisions.

So clearly they've taken something of value and paid you nothing for it. How do these thieves justify this to themselves?

Take the New South Wales Office on Environment and Heritage.

What's their justification?
There is growing evidence to support the view that heritage listing has a positive impact on property values, ...
Bulls***, you crooks! Do you know how I know this is a bald-faced lie?

Because no property owner in history has ever lobbied to have their private residence heritage listed. 
... and real estate advertisements are starting to reflect this.
It's the job of real estate agents to put lipstick on whatever turd property they're given. Hence euphemisms like 'charming' (='ugly'), 'vibrant area'  (='boring' or 'terrifying'), 'renovator's delight' (='falling to pieces'). Ensuring that they don't have to deal with disappointed prospective buyers is part of the job, so they screen out the folks (like me) who wouldn't buy a heritage-listed property in a fit.

These vultures actually have the temerity to steal part of the value of your property, and expect you to thank them for it. Talk about shamelessness.

But what are the other benefits they tout?
Heritage listing provides certainty for owners, neighbours and intending purchasers. This is important when people are looking for a particular environment within which to live and work. It explains why certain suburbs, towns, villages and rural properties are sought after.
It provides certainty that you can't add an extra bedroom, that's for sure.
Protection of an item also requires the local council to consider the effect of any proposed development in the area surrounding heritage items or conservation areas. This is positive as it ensures an appropriate context for heritage items.
Your neighbours might soon be in the same hell that you're in!
It confirms a heritage status that is a source of pride for many people. This status can be very useful for commercial operators in their advertising.
It's useful if they've got too many potential buyers coming through, and don't have enough time to show them all around. Drive them away!
The assessment process leading to listing often unearths new information on the history and style of the item.
For values of 'often' equal to 'based on how frequently local government officials go above and beyond the call of duty' (i.e. 'rarely' to 'never')
Through flexibility clauses in local environmental plans, owners of heritage items can request councils to agree to land use changes, site coverage and car parking bonuses unavailable to other owners.
You can beg for some small changes to the nearby area. See how well your requests go down. You sure as hell can't request a land use change for a new apartment on your property.
Listing gives owners access to the free heritage advisory services provided by many councils. Currently 103 councils in the state have such services.
You'll get a free listing on a website, and if you're really lucky, strangers knocking on your door on the weekend expecting your house to be a free museum.
Listing provides potential savings through special heritage valuations and concessions. If the property is listed in a Local or Regional Environmental Plan (individually or in a conservation area) you can request a “heritage restricted valuation” for land tax and local rate purposes from the Valuer-General. If your property is on the State Heritage Register under the Heritage Act, you automatically receive a heritage valuation for both local rates and land tax purposes. Heritage restricted valuations are designed to ensure that valuations of property are made on an existing development basis rather than on any presumption of future development.
When your property price goes down, you'll pay slightly less in property taxes! Score!
Listing enables access to heritage grants and loans through both the NSW Heritage Office and local councils. Listing is generally a requirement for NSW Heritage Office funding.
Listing on the State Heritage Register also enables owners to enter into heritage agreements, which can attract land tax, stamp duty and local rate concessions.
If you decide to actually turn your house into a (completely unattractive) museum, the government might kick in a hundred bucks.
Listing on the State Heritage Register makes the property eligible for consideration under the Commonwealth's Annual Cultural Heritage Grants Program, which is open to both private owners and community groups.
And they give out how much to each person? How often? Are random private property owners included? Want to bet on that?
Heritage listing enhances applications to other bodies where the building or site might be eligible for funding.
In case you want to spend the rest of your life filling in government forms.

This is such egregious theft that I can't believe they get away with it.

You know the Holmes method for heritage listing properties?

Have the government (or even better, a private group) buy them at fair market prices, and preserve them themselves.

That way nothing is stolen. You can also bet your @** that the local council is going to think a lot harder over whether that ghastly 1960s cottage really is such an amazing period piece, or actually an eyesore that nobody wants to pay a cent for.

Until that happens, should I find myself in possession of any vaguely historical property, I'm going to renovate the hell out of it immediately just to make sure that government busybodies don't find it a 'vibrant' example of period architecture. Or just bulldoze it to be on the safe side, and put in a bunch of condos.

Up yours, New South Wales Department of Heritage.

What you should be doing

Every now and again, I find myself reading somebody else's writings, and I'm filled with the urge to yell out to everyone 'Stop reading my stuff, it's all junk anyway. Put down whatever you're doing and go read this guy instead, he's much better!"

This is one of those times.

I've said it before, but go read Mencius Moldbug. Right now. Go here. Start with the posts at the top (the 'How Richard Dawkins Got Pwned) posts which I linked to earlier, and work your way down. You'll find out, for instance:

-Why the complaints that the American revolution were founded on were largely nonsense (and why reasonable people should have supported the Loyalist position).

-How you might organise a system of government where the sovereign is a profit-making corporation, and why it might work a lot better than you'd think.

- The most interesting  13 paragraph summary of the last 300 years of world history that I've read. It reads nothing like the standard narrative at all - the events are the same, but the interpretations are probably unlike anything you've encountered.

These are just to whet your appetite - it's probably better to read them in order.

I don't agree with all of it - his views on Austrian economics seem unpersuasive, and I'm not sure that his patchwork theory of sovereign corporation-states wouldn't turn into tyranny in the hands of the wrong set of shareholders. The biggest weakness to the argument, I think, is that it doesn't explain how the massive scientific and industrial revolutions occurred over the same time span that the forms of government were (in his view) going to hell. I'm about halfway down the list of posts, and maybe he has an answer to that, but the conservative in me retains a nervousness that we might be throwing out the baby with the bathwater if it turns out that economic and scientific progress are more entwined with current forms of government than he seems to assume. I imagine Moldbug might retort that the Nazis and the Soviets were both pretty good at scientific advances as well, and there's no reason to assume that democracy has any special advantage in this area. But still - we're left with the big mystery of the scientific revolution, which needs some explaining before you ought (IMHO) start meddling with current forms of government.

But that's all detail. The bottom line is that this is the most interesting stuff I've read in years.

Go read it now. Don't have time? Shut up, I don't care. Trust me on this, just do it right away.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Colourful History of Pawnee, Indiana

It's rare for civic authorities to have a sense of humour, but check out the classic welcome signs they've had over the years. Comedy gold!

Update: Athenios points out that Pawnee, Indiana is actually the fictional town from the series 'Parks and Recreation', making me feel like a right duffer, as the Brits might say.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The Real Value of the Peace Corps

I always find the Peace Corps to be an interesting idea. Started by JFK, the idea was that young Americans could go overseas and volunteer in poor countries to help in various development projects, and receive some small payment from the US government.

A number of my good friends did the program, and found it enormously beneficial (OKH did , for sure, and I hope he doesn’t take too much exception to this post). They made a lot of friends, got to see fascinating countries overseas, help out somewhat in these places, and meet the locals.

Don’t get me wrong, these are all great things. But the marginal value of the Peace Corps over, say, studying abroad, or just going backpacking for two years, is harder to tell. Along the aforementioned dimensions, the benefits seem similar, even if the Peace Corps has different advantages.

But the Peace Corps does have one particular benefit that I don’t think staying in a youth hostel can provide.
Based on my rough understanding, the Peace Corps tends to attract smart, idealistic young college graduates eager to do good in the world. This is an entirely admirable thing – a lot of them have come from liberal arts backgrounds that emphasise the injustice in the third world, and they’re eager to do their small part to rectify this.

You’ll note from my previous post that I think, sadly, that this is a Sysephean task that’s likely to result in disappointment and wasted effort.

On the other hand, convincing the average Peace Corps volunteer of this fact seems likely to be an almost equally thankless task. Do you think that after 4 years of relentless lefty agitprop from college professors the average peace corps volunteer is likely to be reasoned out of their convictions, either by my poor scribblings or those of others more eloquent than I? Hardly.

Some lessons just need to be learned firsthand. You can witness personally the sheer level of corruption and inefficiency that characterizes the governments of these benighted places. In some places, you’ll also see the hostility towards capitalism and tribalist attitudes towards wealth (“If my cousin runs a successful business, I deserve a share in the profits despite having contributed nothing”) that help to mire the place even further in permanent poverty. You can also see the general inefficiency of western charity and aid projects, whose implementation is sadly often little better than local governments, despite the loftiest of sentiments and goals.

I don’t want to come across as a total cynic here – many of the people you’ll meet are also lovely, and they have a cheerfulness and joy in their lives that the west sometimes lacks. Read some of Theodore Dalrymple's writings (who is surely no bleeding heart) comparing poor people in the third world with poor people in Britain’s public housing projects, and you realize that you’d much rather be surrounded by the former than the latter. In my own meager travels, I had more friendly strangers introduce themselves to me in India than I ever have in Australia. Some were trying to rip me off. Others just wanted to talk. Human nature is a complicated thing.

But my guess is that either way, two years in the third world is sufficient to convince most Peace Corps volunteers that their efforts to fix the world’s problems are destined to be largely fruitless.

This is useful, because such people tend to be smart and motivated folks, and they’ll do a lot more good for the world by working a regular job in America. Once you’re realized that you can’t change the world, it’s okay to go to law school.

Winston Churchill once remarked that any man who was under 30 and was not a liberal had no heart, while any man who was over 30 and was not a conservative had no brains.

The Peace Corps probably speeds this process up by about 5 years, and with a higher rate of success than the ‘they’ll just figure it out eventually’ school of thought.

And that is immensely valuable, even though it’s a heck of a long way from the intended aim of the whole thing.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Rough, Serious Business

Via Hacker News comes this amazing article from The Atlantic in 1989, written by Paul Fussell. It describes what World War II was like from the perspective of ground troops. It makes for rather shocking reading, describing in unflinching detail the parts that tend to get left out of the traditional narratives:
You would expect frontline soldiers to be struck and hurt by bullets and shell fragments, but such is the popular insulation from the facts that you would not expect them to be hurt, sometimes killed, by being struck by parts of their friends' bodies violently detached. If you asked a wounded soldier or Marine what hit him, you'd hardly be ready for the answer "My buddy's head," or his sergeant's heel or his hand, or a Japanese leg, complete with shoe and puttees, or the West Point ring on his captain's severed hand. 
Or try this description of fear in war, for something I knew but had forgotten:
More than a quarter of the soldiers in one division admitted that they'd been so scared they'd vomited, and almost a quarter said that at terrifying moments they'd lost control of their bowels. Ten percent had urinated in their pants. 
Or this description of corpse-robbers in civilian London during the Blitz:
The first thing which the rescue squads and the firemen saw, as their torches poked through the gloom and the smoke and the bloody pit which had lately been the most chic cellar in London, was a frieze of other shadowy men, night-creatures who had scuttled within as soon as the echoes ceased, crouching over any dead or wounded woman, any soignée corpse they could find, and ripping off its necklace, or earrings, or brooch: rifling its handbag, scooping up its loose change.
When they say war is hell, they mean more than they tend to describe in detail.

It is easy to look on a scene such as this:

File:Normandy American Cemetery 9830a.jpg
and think of the immense sacrifice that such soldiers made.

It is altogether another to look openly on the sheer horror that they faced, stripped of the gauzy image that Hollywood gives us.

I don't think it diminishes what they did, but rather makes it more incredible when you reflect on those that came back, and managed to get on with their lives.

Fussell recounts the words of a frontline infantryman to a somewhat naive reporter on the front lines:
Tell 'em it's rough as hell. Tell 'em it's rough. Tell 'em it's rough, serious business. That's all. That's all.
It surely is.

Read the whole thing.

I don't think that was what you intended

When magazines I never subscribed to send me letters telling me that my subscription is running out, with the words 'LAST LETTER' on the front in big red letters, I find myself thinking "Is that a threat, or a promise?"

Friday, May 25, 2012

Sometimes the solution is not where you think it is.

The story of Brett Kimberlin is a very scary one about how the American legal system can be used as a weapon to silence criticism. You can read a summary of it here or in the International Business Times here.

Have a read of one of those. Do it now. Then come back.

I want to focus on a statement attributed to Kimberlin, because I think it says a lot about the American legal system. The blogger Patterico reported on an email he received purporting to be from Kimberlin after Patterico wrote negatively about Kimberlin. The email contained the following statement:
I have filed over a hundred lawsuits and another one will be no sweat for me. On the other hand, it will cost you a lot of time and money and for what.
Let's focus on the above quote, which I assume for the time being to be genuine.

There is something deeply wrong with a legal system where a person would ever have cause to boast about the number of lawsuits they've filed.

America has a legal system uniquely well-designed for filing frivolous lawsuits. Unlike nearly every other common law country, America does not institute a loser-pays system. What this means is that if you're willing to represent yourself and sue lots of people, the only cost to you is likely to be your time.

Outside of America, it is virtually inconceivable that a statement like 'I have filed over 100 lawsuits' would be a credible threat - partly because losing a series of lawsuits would wind one up in bankruptcy long before they reached 100, but also because respondents in civil cases can take the risk of defending the suit knowing that they'll be largely reimbursed if they win. In America, for the most part if a pro se litigant sues you, no matter how ridiculous the claim, even if you win, you lose - in your time, in your lawyers fees, if you have to travel interstate to defend yourself, if you have to go through lengthy discovery processes etc. Anti-SLAPP statutes (such as California's quite robust one) help out to some extent, but they're an imperfect whack-a-mole type solution

It's a lot easier to just make it the default - if you lose, you pay.

Back when William Wilberforce was trying to outlaw the slave trade in Britain, he found it hard to get laws passed to abolish the trade directly. Instead, he very brilliantly got passed a law that allowed the Royal Navy to seize ships flying foreign flags of convenience (which is what slave ships would do). It wasn't directed specifically at slave traders, but it ended up severely depriving them of their ships and profit.

If you don't like harassing lawsuits like these, regardless of what they're about, the easiest way to stop the whole lot of them is a loser-pays legal system. Most people don't seem to regard that as the lesson of the whole affair, but it should be.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Why Foreign Aid Fails

I think at this stage in history, there’s not really much question that foreign aid has been a colossal failure. Shovelling money and goods from first world taxpayers to third world tyrants has definitively failed to improve the standard of living in third world countries. By some measures, it’s made the problem worse – foreign aid is easy to seize, and selectively distributing it to one’s political allies is a great way to shore up political loyalty for corrupt kleptocrats.

The question is, how surprised should we be that didn’t the experiment work? 

My answer is ‘not very’. And here’s why.

The reality is that the principle of foreign aid has embedded in it an important assumption about development. This assumption is so insidious that I doubt that most of the proponents of aid even realize that it’s the basis on which their whole program is built.

The assumption being made sounds almost comically simple, and it is this: poor countries are poor because they don’t have enough stuff. Hence if we give them the stuff, they’ll stop being poor.

Sounds almost too obvious to state, right?

The ‘stuff’ takes on a variety of different forms – food aid, infrastructure spending, bed nets to combat malaria, vaccines, laptops for children, cash transfers, etc.

And that’s exactly what we’ve provided. So why hasn’t this worked?

Because there’s an alternative possibility. It may be that the lack of stuff is not the problem, but is just the symptom of the problem. The real wealth of society is its ability to produce stuff. Rich countries are defined by their ability to produce all of their own bed nets, etc. And when you take the stuff away from a wealthy country, it gets replenished. Haiti, Biloxi and Fukushima all got destroyed by natural disasters. But local production was vastly different a few years later in each place. I’m sure if you switched the populations (moved the Japanese tsunami survivors to Haiti just after the hurricane, for instance) and repeated the experiment, the outcome would take longer, but the end result would be similar. The Singaporeans took 50 years to turn the whole country from a swamp into a first world nation.

What if the things that produce the wealth can’t be easily shipped in? If it’s institutions, it’s hard to transplant those in without a hefty dose of colonialism (although Paul Romer is giving it a red hot go in Honduras, and more power to him). If it’s culture (such as an allegiance to civil society, instead of a tribalist mindset), that’s much harder to fix. If it’s genetics – yikes. Thankfully, cases like Singapore suggest that you can get a hell of a large change in a short period of time without altering the genetic makeup of your country.

People have talked about all these things plenty of times. But what I think isn’t properly appreciated is that the assumption that “more stuff -> development” was entirely unproven when the aid experiment started.

Take all the rich countries in the world today. How many of them were made rich by being given stuff from other countries? The answer is of course ‘none’. Whatever caused their development, it wasn’t because they got huge transfers from the outside world. Even if you doubt this general principle (and you’d be wrong), you’d have to concede that this is surely true for the industrial revolution in England, since there wasn’t anybody richer to give them a handout.

So we know that being given stuff isn’t a necessary condition for development. And now we know that it’s not sufficient either. In this light, the complete failure of the foreign aid experiment shouldn’t come as a surprise at all. We were trying to make poor countries rich using a method that had not been successfully implemented before in human history. Like most experiments tried without a strong reason to presuppose success, the result was failure. Poor countries, it seems, can’t be made rich in any meaningful way just by giving them more stuff.

One of the current poverty ‘silver bullets’ seems to be microfinance. Like bed nets, I presume that it will have some benefit. Like bed nets, I also presume that it will be entirely insufficient to make meaningful changes to poverty levels. We’ll see if I’m right -  I’d be delighted to be proven wrong, but I’m not holding my breath.

The worst assumptions are the ones you don’t even realize you’re making.

Miscellaneous Joy

-The awesome story of the development of Apple's Graphing Calculator.

-A solid gold strategy for losing weight. The song in question is here.

-Cory Booker continues to impress me. I'd take him over a lot of Republicans any day.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The Impacts of Drug Use <<< The Impact of Being Arrested For Drug Use

Penn Jillette unloads on the Obama administration about the fact that he continues to support drug policies that lock people up for doing exactly what Obama admits to doing in his youth:
Do we believe, even for a second, that if Obama had been busted for marijuana -- under the laws that he condones -- would his life have been better? If Obama had been caught with the marijuana that he says he uses, and 'maybe a little blow'... if he had been busted under his laws, he would have done hard f*cking time. And if he had done time in prison, time in federal prison, time for his 'weed' and 'a little blow,' he would not be President of the United States of America. 
I think Jillette is right to note that relevant part about all this is not that there is hypocrisy in doing drugs yourself at one point and then maintaining the laws against drug use. People are hypocritical all the time, but that doesn't mean the right thing to do is abandon all laws. Even murderers wouldn't necessarily prefer to live in a society where murder was legal.

Few people call Obama on his hypocrisy, because I am certain that it's shared by millions of respectable middle class parents all around America. They smoked up in their youth, turned out just fine, and still dutifully turn up to the polling booths to keep marijuana illegal. They'll do this, all the while being ready to pull every string to keep their beloved child out of prison should they get unfortunately arrested for possession.

What's most striking is the sheer casualness with which the upper classes will admit to their former drug use. Obama did weed and 'maybe a little blow' (as if one might forget whether one had done blow). Bill Clinton smoked but didn't inhale. George W. Bush did 'young and foolish things when he was young and foolish', which I'm sure amounts to the same thing, if just in euphemistic form. He certainly didn't seem any more repentant than the rest.

What these statements really reveal is that our elected leaders are essentially admitting that the problem with drugs is not actually using them, but getting arrested and convicted for using them. Smoke some weed as a teenager and you'll probably turn out just fine. Get convicted for smoking some weed as a teenager and you may not.

And isn't this exactly saying that the real problems for users of marijuana are the ones created by making it illegal?

It's also sharing in the joke that enforcement is so random and sporadic that they're not even worried about admitting to what amounts to a federal crime. There's a strange gentleman's agreement that we never prosecute admissions for former drug use, if only because we'd have more prisoners than free citizens if everyone who'd ever smoked pot were to be locked up.

Now, it's not the case that extremely harsh but seldomly enforced punishments are always bad public policy. This is the Gary Becker theory of rational deterrence - you need punishments to be harsher if the probability of being caught is low, but the social harm is high, so that deterrence is strong.

Back in medieval times, things like highway robbery and horse stealing always got extremely harsh punishments. Not because they were the most repugnant crimes, but because they were committed frequently, the cost of allowing them was very high, and the punishment needed to be very nasty to encourage people not to do them.

But here's the question - can you imagine people at the time jokingly admitting in their memoirs that they'd been horse thieves and highway robbers? Of course not - they'd be hanged immediately. And that's because highway robbery was a serious social problem that the authorities were taking serious steps to try to remedy, even if they would offend our current sensibilities.

By this metric, marijuana is definitively not a serious social problem. People are happy having ridiculously harsh punishments that ruin lots of people's lives, confident that as long as they don't get caught at the time, enforcement is so lax that they can joke about it in public. It's a farce, but it's not a funny farce.

I have never, never, heard a coherent public policy rationale for why alcohol should be legal and marijuana should be illegal. Like Penn Jillette, I don't partake in either, so I have no dog in this fight personally.

But ruinous social policy is everybody's concern. It's a sick joke, and it's time to end it.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Fun run participants - stop being so god damn smug

Suppose I were to present you with the following proposition:

"Next Sunday morning, I'm going to take a dump on your front lawn.  When I'm done, I'm then going to donate $15 to charity. You'll have no say in the matter - this is going to happen regardless of what you want.  When I'm done, I'm going to walk away and feel proud of how I helped out a good cause, and you should be honoured to be part of the charity process - in your case, the cleanup."

How persuaded would you be by this logic? Would the phrase 'not very' about sum it up?

I imagine the modal answer would be something like:

"Look, I'm glad you want to give to charity, but what the hell has that got to do with crapping on my lawn? It seems that taking a dump on someone's property is the actual point of the exercise, and the charity bit is mainly a fig leaf. The whole thing seems bizarre and contrived. Donate to charity if you want to, but leave my lawn out of it."

And that's exactly how I feel about fun runs.

A bunch of yuppie, SWPL women (and their herb boyfriends) decide to go for some charity run or other. The neighbourhood gets shut down. Local residents get the joy of having their house made inaccessible, and their streets closed down.

So if you happen to be (to pick an entirely hypothetical example) dropping someone at the airport as the run is being set up, and you had the misfortune to arrive back while it was in full swing, you might find yourself unable to get back to the street that your house is on. You might also, to extend our hypothetical, be unable to even park anywhere remotely close to your house, due to the bays all being taken by everyone trying to do the same thing, resulting in swarms of angry drivers doing police-enforced U-turns looking for parking and/or an open street. Hypothetically.

So why do these damn things keep happening? Simple - a sizable fraction of the participants find it fun to get to run in a big crowd along the road that's normally reserved for cars. Not all, of course - some are just giddy with the ability to ostentatiously give to charity, and the fun run gives them an excuse to tell their friends about their generosity in a way that writing a cheque doesn't.

But a large percentage just like the idea of doing an organised run along the streets, and don't think or care if they're inconveniencing a lot of people.

You know who else does that? A**holes like Critical Mass. Fun runs are basically just Critical Mass, but with a better PR department. At least the cyclists are honest enough to admit that they're going to piss you off, and don't care. Fun run participants convince themselves that they're actually doing you, and the world, a huge service.

In order to launder the guilt properly, there has to be the maddening two-step of blame-dodging. It's the charity that organises the run. The participants just say 'look, the run was already going ahead! It's not me blocking off your streets, I just happen to like taking part.' The charity either doesn't care (more likely), or explains it as 'look, these charity fun runs raise a lot of money because SWPLs like running on city streets. If we don't do it, someone else will.'

And so they go on.

I know exactly what response this kind of claim produces from the standard whiners - "They're doing so much for charity! Why don't you just put up with a small inconvenience for a good cause?"

This is totally bogus, and just muddies the two parts.

Nothing, nothing, is stopping these people just writing a cheque to whatever charity they're supporting. You think the charity won't take your money unless you've signed up to the fun run? Don't make me laugh. Donating directly would also have the added benefit that a) all the money goes to the cause, instead of most of it subsidising the recreation, and b) then it would have to be all made up of their own money, rather than hassling their friends.

And if they won't write the cheque unless they're allowed to do the fun run, what is that telling you? To me, it sounds exactly like the first hypothetical. I'm going to use this act of charity as moral blackmail in order to do something entirely unrelated that I want to do anyway.

The Talmud has a very different idea of charity:
Charity, ideally, should be given in secret so that the two parties, the giver and the receiver, do not know each other.
By this standard, modern charity can't be accomplished without the donors literally organising their own parade run to celebrate their generosity, and then using most of the proceeds to fund the parade itself.

You'll forgive me for not getting all misty-eyed.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wodehouse on Golf

P.G. Wodehouse with a great description (in the wonderful old British style) of the golfing overconfidence of the mediocre:
It seemed to him that his troubles were over. Like all twenty-four handicap man, he had the most perfect confidence in his ability to beat all other twenty-four handicap men.

You could also say basically the same thing about tennis, ten-pin bowling, pool, and a number of other things. When you see someone equally rubbish as yourself, it's hard to not be disgusted at their lack of skill. This leads you to think that it must be easy to beat them, forgetting that you yourself are equally dismal.
Although there are, of course, endless subspecies in their ranks, not all of which have yet been classified by science, twenty-four handicap golfers may be stated broadly to fall into two classes, the dashing and the cautious - those, that is to say, who endeavor to do every hole in a brilliant one and those who are content to win with a steady nine.
Yep. The same is definitely also true for tennis. I think it also contributes to the earlier effect. The dashing think that their power will let them streak to the lead over the cautious. The cautious, meanwhile, are sure that the dashing will screw up and the cautious will overtake them like the tortoise.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An Innocent(?) Man

The Columbia Law Review is set to publish an article alleging that Texas executed an innocent man in 1989, Carlos DeLuna. He was convicted of the murder by stabbing of a women in a bar, but it's claimed that another Carlos (who looked similar) had committed the crime.

This isn't the first time that this has been alleged. There are claims that Cameron Todd Willingham was also wrongly executed for the arson murder of his children, in 2004. There, the allegation is that the expert evidence used to claim that the fire was deliberately started was mainly pseudoscience nonsense.

Jason Kottke linked to both of them. Both of them make for disturbing reading. I ended up reading them in reverse order, and it reinforced that there are actually two questions:

1. Has an innocent person been executed by capital punishment in recent times?

2. Will this fact likely be established beyond sufficient doubt such that public opinion believes that an innocent person was executed by capital punishment?

In terms of the first question, (particularly from reading the Willingham case) it seems likely to me that arson-based murder is a very likely candidate.

Think about it. For the vast majority of murders, there's not much doubt that the person was, in fact, murdered - the issue is mainly by whom. For arson, on the other hand, a large part of the determination is whether the fire was an accident or was deliberately lit. A guy that was nasty to his kids, and woke up one day to find his house on fire, looks a lot like an arsonist on paper. The main way to tell them apart is based on the scientific evidence about whether the fire was deliberately lit.

And from everything in the Willingham case, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that large amounts of this are junk science, folklore, and other kinds of nonsense. The field seems to be improving, so hopefully there's less chance of this kind of thing happening in the future.

Still, how much confidence does this give you about all the previous capital punishment for arson cases? They were very likely decided by the same kind of junk science. This makes it more likely that someone will have been executed wrongly.

But, and here's the rub, I imagine that arson cases are less likely to satisfy question #2. Precisely because it's hard to say that a fire decades ago was deliberately lit, it's also hard to say that it wasn't deliberately lit. Without this extra piece, the average person gets to the conclusion that maybe the guy might not have done it, but they aren't sure either way. Since people don't think emotionally in terms of probabilities (there's a 50% chance I should be outraged, and a 50% chance that justice was done, albeit by a shonky method), this doesn't get people fired up. Even in the Willingham case, I come to the conclusion that it certainly doesn't convince me beyond a reasonable doubt that the fire was deliberately lit (which is kind of the point). Which means he shouldn't have been convicted if I were on the jury. But there's a difference between failing to establish guilt (which is what courts determine) and establishing innocence (which, like it or not, is what death penalty opponents have to do).

Which is where the Carlos DeLuna case comes in. There, there is quite strong evidence of a specific alternative murderer, along with enormous evidence of a shockingly bungled case. So it's not just that he wasn't guilty beyond a reasonable doubt - death penalty opponents can also make an affirmative case that someone else was the murderer.

Without reading all this stuff in detail, I never quite know what to make of these cases by advocates that a particular person is innocent. I'm open to being convinced, but there seem to be a lot of false positives - death penalty opponents keep choosing pinup boys like Mumia Abu-Jamal where, despite the evidence that the investigation was not done well, it also seems quite likely that the guy did in fact kill the cop. Death penalty opponents would seem advised to be careful about crying wolf, because even potentially sympathetic audiences can start to feel like every new claim is just another beatup.

Personally, I'm a Bayesian - probabilities are never zero, and no system is failsafe. Done enough times, eventually someone will be wrongly executed. When this happens, it will be a travesty, but this doesn't turn into a categorial imperative against the death penalty, any more than the death of a single soldier provides a categorial imperative against war. Death penalty advocates are very reluctant to make the claim that a very small probability of a wrongful execution may still be worth it to secure justice for the rest.

The real mystery to me is why people focus only on death penalty cases as the source of outrage. When the state kills an innocent person after years of careful legal deliberation, all hell breaks loose. But when the state kills an innocent person immediately in a rash and shameful manner, people largely just yawn.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

How to save a life

Don Ritchie died today.

Who is Don Ritchie, you may well ask?

A good question.

In Sydney, there is a beautiful stretch of cliffs near the edge of Sydney Harbour called The Gap. Near Vaucluse, the mighty Pacific Ocean rolls in far below, with its turbulence blunted by the sheer distance, it look like a slightly ruffled blue blanket.

File:The Gap looking north.JPG

It is near this delightful area that some fifty Australians a year, desperate and out of hope, come to throw themselves off the cliffs.

Don Ritchie happened to live near the Gap. His front garden looked directly out on to the spot where people would come to end their lives.

Not exactly a selling point for the real estate brochure. Hang out in your garden long enough, and you'll see people kill themselves.

So what did Don Ritchie do about it?

For 50 years, and with very little fanfare, he talked people down from that terrible ledge.

Over 160 people, in fact. He would speak to them kindly, and invite them into his home for a cup of tea. Sometimes when everything seems hopeless, that's actually all it takes.

He was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia, and named as a Local Hero (a horribly garish title, to be sure, but apt in this case) in the Australian of the Year awards in 2011.  He used the acceptance speech to encourage others to not be afraid to speak to those most in need.

The modern age has resulted in people outsourcing their compassion towards others. When we feel sad about something, we write a cheque to some charity who claim to help the problem. Or in an even more shriveled display of action, we vote every four years for a politician who claims that they'll do something about the problem.

Don Ritchie and his wife Moya, meanwhile, were a two-person suicide prevention program, operating on nothing but a willingness to reach out to those in need.

How many of us will be able to look back on our lives and claim that we made as much difference into the lives of people as Don Ritchie did?

In the end, your morality is only as good as the way you treat the people you meet in life.

Don Ritchie understood that well.

Ave, Atque Vale, Mr Ritchie.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Taking the Power Narrative Back

With small semantic differences.

From a conversation earlier today.
DG: Man, you like taking long showers.
Shylock: Sure do. Why be in a hurry?
DG: So you like wasting water, then?
Shylock: Not "wasting". "Spending."
The longer rationale, of course, is here.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Crass consumerism wins again

An Oregon environmentalist decides to save the planet with reusable shopping bags instead of disposable plastic bags.

They instead end up giving seven girls on their daughter's soccer team the norovirus, which they got from eating cookies contaminated with said virus from the bag.

If the outbreak were limited to the parents who provided the bag, I could chug down a gallon of tasty schadenfreude without blinking, but unfortunately modish lefty causes tend to have negative externalities. (I know, right! Who could have seen that coming?)

The article is too polite to point out that the norovirus comes from 'fecal-oral contact'.

In other words, the bag was covered in someone's poo. Saving the environment one day, pooing on a cookie and offering it to your children the next!

What lesson can we learn from this?
"What this report does is it helps raise awareness of the complex and indirect way that norovirus can spread," said Aron Hall, an epidemiologist with the Division of Viral Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
His agency says the best way to fend off the virus is thorough hand-washing and cleaning contaminated surfaces with a bleach-based solution.

Or, you could learn that it's not sufficient to avoid reusable shopping bags, you also need to avoid the children of trendy parents who are too busy reusing shopping bags to wash their hands after going to the toilet.

Enjoy your norovirus, hippies!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

It's ten times better if you know the song...

XKCD on why every major sucks. My favourite line:
'By dubbing Econ 'dismal science' adherents exaggerate
The "dismal"'s fine, it's "science" where they patently prevaricate"

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Gullibility and Lies

I am a bad liar. I don't like lying, and as a result, I don't do it very much. This creates a virtuous circle - because I don't lie, I don't get practice at it, and so I'm bad at it, so I don't have any incentive to lie, since I won't be believed. I'm happy with this, because I have ethical reasons to avoid lying that aren't worth detailing here.

But it also means that I am generally bad at detecting lies.

This isn't because I can't recognise the signs of someone being shifty, or analyse where a story appears unlikely. When I'm primed to detect lies (negotiations with people I don't know, excuses for bad behavior), I'm fairly good at it.

Instead, I'm bad because my default presumption is that people are telling the truth. This is the mind projection fallacy at work - I can envisage that people might lie when cornered, or for some material advantage, such as to gain a sale.

But the idea of just casually lying about something, when there aren't large incentives to do so, is rather baffling to me. I guess that's why I get taken by surprise by it.

It turns out that Barack Obama admitted to lying in his autobiography, 'Dreams From My Father'.  He describes a girlfriend, which it turns out is actually a 'composite of several girlfriends'.

[See update at end - apparently he acknowledged doing this at the start of the book. The rest of the post is as it was written without this in mind]

Huh?!? Exactly what kind of bull$*** is that? Is this an autobiography, or an embellished work of fiction roughly based on the life of Barack Obama, written by Barack Obama?

The claimed defence is the following:
“It is an incident that happened,” [Obama] said. But not with her. He would not be more specific, but the likelihood is that it happened later, when he lived in Chicago. “That was not her,” he said. “That was an example of compression. I was very sensitive in my book not to write about my girlfriends, partly out of respect for them. So that was a consideration. I thought that [the anecdote involving the reaction of a white girlfriend to the angry black play] was a useful theme to make about sort of the interactions that I had in the relationships with white girlfriends. And so, that occupies, what, two paragraphs in the book? My attitude was it would be dishonest for me not to touch on that at all … so that was an example of sort of editorially how do I figure that out?”"
In other words, the classic 'fake but accurate' defense. It would be dishonest to not touch on the theme, so I just made stuff up. Which really is the higher truth, no?

I can understand not wanting to talk about girlfriends specifically. I can understand leaving it vague, or not mentioning who was who. I can understand leaving out names, or stories, or even the whole question of girlfriends altogether.

I cannot understand making up an entirely bogus composite character, and never mentioning that this is what you're doing.

I have only two modes with which I evaluate the truth of people's statements.

Initially, I give people the benefit of the doubt about their statements being true, unless I have a circumstantial reason to suspect that the person has a clear incentive to lie. I'll evaluate whether they might be mistaken, obfuscating or avoiding. But I generally assume  an absence of a level of bad faith sufficient to deliberately make statements that are known by the speaker to be false.

Each person, however, gets only one chance to lose that presumption. Once it's gone, every statement they make gets evaluated in the cold and cynical light of whether there is outside evidence to confirm its likelihood, and whether they might have any reason (however small) to lie.

Half Sigma notes that once you start evaluating the rest of the Obama biography in this light, there's plenty of other stuff that doesn't add up:
The story in Obama’s memoir about how he arrived in Manhattan with no money and no place to live seems rather weird. Wouldn’t Columbia make sure a promising affirmative action admit would have a dorm room? I’ve attended several colleges, and never was there not a place for me to live. I suspect that Obama just made that up to make the memoir more interesting. In reality, people’s lives are boring. I suspect that most of the best memoirs are works of fiction.
More fool me.

It's hard to express exactly why this story disgusts me so much. A politician lied? News at 11! A few paragraphs in a book you've never read are false - what's the difference?

And yet, I cannot shake the notion that for elected leaders to be so utterly shameless and unapologetic for lying over such a trivial benefit? It profits a man none to trade his soul for the whole world, but for a slightly more exciting memoir?

I cannot think this is a small thing.

The great Alexander Solzhenitsyn had something to say about living by lies:
So in our timidity, let each of us make a choice: Whether consciously, to remain a servant of falsehood--of course, it is not out of inclination, but to feed one's family, that one raises his children in the spirit of lies--or to shrug off the lies and become an honest man worthy of respect both by one's children and contemporaries.
And from that day onward he:

  • Will not henceforth write, sign, or print in any way a single phrase which in his opinion distorts the truth.
  • Will utter such a phrase neither in private conversation not in the presence of many people, neither on his own behalf not at the prompting of someone else, either in the role of agitator, teacher, educator, not in a theatrical role.
  • Will not depict, foster or broadcast a single idea which he can only see is false or a distortion of the truth whether it be in painting, sculpture, photography, technical science, or music.
  • Will not cite out of context, either orally or written, a single quotation so as to please someone, to feather his own nest, to achieve success in his work, if he does not share completely the idea which is quoted, or if it does not accurately reflect the matter at issue.
  • Will not allow himself to be compelled to attend demonstrations or meetings if they are contrary to his desire or will, will neither take into hand not raise into the air a poster or slogan which he does not completely accept.
  • Will not raise his hand to vote for a proposal with which he does not sincerely sympathize, will vote neither openly nor secretly for a person whom he considers unworthy or of doubtful abilities.
  • Will not allow himself to be dragged to a meeting where there can be expected a forced or distorted discussion of a question.
  • Will immediately talk out of a meeting, session, lecture, performance or film showing if he hears a speaker tell lies, or purvey ideological nonsense or shameless propaganda.
  • Will not subscribe to or buy a newspaper or magazine in which information is distorted and primary facts are concealed.

But there are no loopholes for anybody who wants to be honest. On any given day any one of us will be confronted with at least one of the above-mentioned choices even in the most secure of the technical sciences. Either truth or falsehood: Toward spiritual independence or toward spiritual servitude.

And he who is not sufficiently courageous even to defend his soul- don't let him be proud of his ``progressive'' views, and don't let him boast that he is an academician or a people's artist, a merited figure, or a general--let him say to himself: I am in the herd, and a coward. It's all the same to me as long as I'm fed and warm.

If we are too frightened, then we should stop complaining that someone is suffocating us. We ourselves are doing it. Let us then bow down even more, let us wail, and our brothers the biologists will help to bring nearer the day when they are able to read our thoughts are worthless and hopeless.

And if we get cold feet, even taking this step, then we are worthless and hopeless, and the scorn of Pushkin should be directed to us:

``Why should cattle have the gifts of freedom?

``Their heritage from generation to generation is the belled yoke and the lash.''

Words to live by.

Update: VarianB in the comments points out the update to the article that noted that Obama apparently noted at the start of the book that some of the characters are composites. I still don't understand why you'd want to write a not-quite-autobiography, but it's not dishonest to do so if you let people know. The implications of dishonesty are thus unfair, and retracted. I still like the rest of the post, so perhaps take the point in the abstract.

Monday, May 7, 2012

In the long run...

...we are all dead, as Mr Keynes put it.

But in the long long run, the Earth is dead too.

For a thoroughly fascinating description of how, Wikipedia has this amazing 'history of the far future'. Gaze, reader, into the abyss:

600 million
As weathering of Earth's surfaces increases with the Sun's luminosity, carbon dioxide levels in its atmosphere decrease. By this time, they will fall to the point at which C3 photosynthesis is no longer possible. All plants which utilize C3 photosynthesis (~99 percent of species) will die.

1 billionThe Sun's luminosity increases by 10%, causing Earth's surface temperatures to reach an average of 47°C and the oceans to boil away. Pockets of water may still be present at the poles, allowing abodes for simple life.

14.4 billionSun becomes a black dwarf as its luminosity falls below three trillionths its current level, while its temperature falls to 2239 K, making it invisible to human eyes.
Read on.

If Isaac Asimov's brilliant story 'The Last Question' is the death of the universe written as a dramatic ode, this is the same story told as a coroner's report.

Asimov was correct though, that in the end the only question that matters is whether entropy can be decreased. The Earth's oceans boiling away may sound pretty darn scary, but if human beings are still around in a billion years time, it's a pretty darn good bet that they'll have figured out how to live on all sorts of other planets. The chances that humans could be confined to earth for a billion years and not nuke each other out of existence is pretty damn low.

I guess it's my nod to irrationality that reading this kind of thing fills me with foreboding, even though I'll be millions or billions of years dead.

Look upon the fate of your works, ye mighty, and despair!

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Sons of Liberty

If one were forced to nominate a candidate for the "great libertarian song" (not 'greatest among a field of mediocrities', but great in an absolute sense), it's hard to beat Frank Turner's 'Sons of Liberty'

I find myself wondering how much Frank Turner and I would disagree on the solution to the problems facing England (and the West). Songs like 'Sons of Liberty' make me think that the distance might be small, but when you've also written songs called 'Thatcher f***ed the kids', part of my initial assessment is probably just projection.

But we assuredly agree on a number of the problems, and on what has been lost.

In terms of stirring opening lines, it's hard to beat these:
Once an honest man could go from sunrise to it's set
Without encountering agents of his state or government.
Quite right. It is nigh on impossible to imagine that today. You can only get something close by living somewhere incredibly rural.

Turner's assessment of how we ended up here has a lot to recommend too:
For centuries our forefathers have fought and often died,
to keep themselves unto themselves, to fight the rising tide.
And that if in the smallest battles we surrender to the state,
We enter in a darkness whence we never shall escape.
The democratic state always expands. This is the government analogue to 'The House Always Wins'. Sometimes, the expansion is jarring and immediate, like the New Deal. More often, it's slow and remorseless,  with every new regulation on food handling, bike helmets, child toy safety, maximum level of nitrate in water coming from the bore on your property, etc. etc. etc. Like a drone attack coming from everywhere, it's hard to fight them all off. The end result, as Turner describes, is that we acquiesce. 

But the song is only just starting to get interesting:
Wat Tyler led the people in 1381,
to meet the king at Smithfield
And issue this demand:
That Winchester's should be
the only law across the land,
The law of old King Alfred's time,
of free and honest men.
Are these not amongst the most remarkable lyrics in a pop/rock song that you've read in a long time?

First of all, to find anybody at all who even knows about the Peasants' Revolt, let alone has a firm opinion about it, let alone someone who is a popular musician... well, let's just say that's a lot of letting alone.

As for the virtues of King Alfred, on that Mr Turner and I agree. Holding technology and social development constant, I would much rather live under the system of government of monarchy under Alfred the Great than  democracy under David Cameron.

Democracy may tend to produce good governance (although even that is debatable), but democracy surely isn't the definition of good governance. If you can get the latter without the former, it's a boatload better than the former without the latter. The problem of monarchy, of course, is that Alfred the Great makes way for Ethelred the Unready.

But if you wanted a pithy summary of everything that's wrong with democracy in the 21st century, it's hard to beat this:
Because the people then they understood what we have since forgot:
That the government will only work for it's own benefit.
Preach it, Mr Turner!

The biggest mistake in politics is thinking that everything will be different if only your guys get elected. The reason to vote for conservative politicians is not that they'll be better administrators. Rather, it's the (probably vain) hope that they'll shrink the government, thus making it harder for you to be maladministered and expropriated.

The song ends with bold, but probably imprudent, advice:
So if ever a man should ask you for your business, or your name,
Tell him to go and f*** himself, tell his friends to do the same.
Because a man who'd trade his liberty for a safe and dreamless sleep
Doesn't deserve the both of them, and neither shall he keep
I presume he means when dealing with figures of authority, not that this advice should be taken to the limit:

Shylock: Hi Rob, how's it going?
Rob: Hi Shylock, pretty good. Shylock, I'd like you to meet my friend Tim.
Tim: Pleased to meet you. Sorry, what was your name again?
Shylock: Bah! Go f*** yourself, Tim. You too, Rob.

Seriously though, to the anarcho-capitalist, defiance of authority is a public good. It's beneficial to the public if the cops don't think they have absolute authority, but it's not necessarily personally advantageous to give Officer O'Rourke the middle finger during a traffic stop when he asks for your license.

Those at the less anarcho- end of the capitalist scale are reluctant to dispense the advice to scorn all vestiges of authority. So instead I'd rather end on the alternative rousing formulation of the chorus:

Stand up sons of liberty and fight for what you own!
Stand up sons of liberty and fight, fight for your homes!

Alas, I fear that Mr Turner knows what I know - there are precious few sons of liberty still in England, and assuredly not enough to defend their collective homes. Think of it instead as a glorious defense of a lost cause, coupled with a tiny but vain hope that maybe all is not completely lost.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Digging ditches with teaspoons, Drug War make-work edition

We previously encountered this country's illustrious drug czar, Gil Kerlikowske, here, making ridiculous claims that the drug war has ended under the Obama administration. At the risk of being impolite, it's hard to describe this as anything other than a shameless, bald-faced lie. I mean, sure, the DEA is still locking up college kids for smoking marijuana and leaving them for five days without food or water until they attempt suicide,

But on the plus side, the war on drugs has ended! I take this statement to mean merely that they're relabeled the same old crap sandwich of policies as 'Therapeutic involuntary harm-restraint of at-risk individuals' or 'community protection and engagement policies' or some other junk.

If you were tempted to conclude that Gil Kerlikowske must be a mendacious fool, I have little news with which to dissuade you. Via Radley Balko comes a dispatch from another speech of Kerlikowske's, described here:
"Just last year, the Department of Justice released data that health, workplace, and criminal justice cost of drug abuse to American society totaled over $193 billion...Contributing to the immense cost are the millions of drug offenders under supervision in the criminal justice system"
I'll give Kerlikowske this much credit - he hasn't yet taken his argument to the logical extreme that all this spending is a form of stimulus to the nation's prison warders.

But it's the same old wine of make-work accounting, poured into the slightly new bottles of the credits side of the ledger, instead of the debits.

To white, the argument is in essence: 'Look at all this money I'm spending combating this problem! Surely this illustrates how large the problem itself is, and thus the necessity of the very spending that I'm defending.'

I need to get from my house to the airport. Rather than take a bus or a taxi, I hire the Gil Kerlikowske Party Bus, decked out with government funded champagne, a bouncy castle and gold-plated seat belts, to take me there in style. This runs up a tab of $1000, which I then use to argue how crucial it is to get extra funding to address the obviously dire need of massively increased costs in the airport transportation business. Vote for my policies!

Let's let our favourite 19th Century Frenchman school the fool over this stupidity:
But let us go to the root of the matter. We are deceived by money. To demand the cooperation of all the citizens in a common work, in the form of money, is in reality to demand a concurrence in kind; for every one procures, by his own labour, the sum to which he is taxed. Now, if all the citizens were to be called together, and made to execute, in conjunction, a work useful to all, this would be easily understood; their reward would be found in the results of the work itself.
But after having called them together, if you force them to make roads which no one will pass through, palaces which no one will inhabit, and this under the pretext of finding them work, it would be absurd, and they would have a right to argue, "With this labour we have nothing to do; we prefer working on our own account."
Like M. Bastiat, I too prefer working on my own account. So too do the millions of people locked up in US prisons for non-violent drug offenses. As it turns out, neither of our opinions matters one jot.

Gil Kerlikowske has actually gone one better than the French government. Spending the drug war money on building roads no one will pass through and palaces no one will inhabit would be an enormous improvement on the current situation. Setting the money on fire would be an enormous improvement.

Instead, we spend our money to lay waste to the human capital of the nation's youth, creating untold wages of woe inside the US and abroad.

As I said, in the end it's stupid to blame the politicians for responding to the incentives we give them.

Somebody keeps voting for this madness, year after year. Lots of somebodies, in fact.

The ultimate shame is theirs. What folly, what mad, senseless folly.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Yahoo Employees Know Less About Computers Than You Think

Well, the CEO anyway.

Via Hacker News comes a letter from Third Point LLC claiming that newly appointed Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson may have, er, 'embellished' his academic credentials:
According to the Yahoo! Form 10-K/A, filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission on April 27, 2012, newly-hired Chief Executive Officer, Scott Thompson, "holds a Bachelor's degree in accounting and computer science" from Stonehill College. ...
A rudimentary Google search reveals a Stonehill College alumni announcement stating that Mr. Thompson's degree is in accounting only. ...
Furthermore, Stonehill College informed us that it did not begin awarding computer science degrees until 1983 -- four years after Mr. Thompson graduated
Hmm, that's quite a pickle, no? 

I mean, maybe he just forget to correct everybody for all these years when they talked about his computer science degree? He's reading the press release where they're lauding him for this degree that he doesn't have, and he figures 'Hey, why not? I deserved  a computer science degree. It's like an honorary PhD, but granted by the secretary at Yahoo instead of the college itself!' 

Could happen to anybody, really.

Third Point then decides to put the boot in:
We inquired whether Mr. Thompson had taken a large number of computer science courses, perhaps allowing him to justify to himself that he had "earned" such a degree. Instead, we learned that during Mr. Thompson's tenure at Stonehill only one such course was even offered - Intro to Computer Science. Presumably, Mr. Thompson took that course.
Oooh, that's gotta burn.

Third Point are an activist hedge fund, and as such are professional rabble rousers. They own 5.8% of Yahoo, and want their own people appointed. That doesn't make them wrong, of course, but it does tell you their incentives in the whole thing.

So far, Yahoo has admitted the discrepancy, but claims that it was all a clerical error. They also claim (with perhaps more credibility) that it doesn't matter anyway, since the guy has a lot of tech experience, running PayPal and Visa's Innovant division.

Personally, I think they're right. It's hard to imagine that my opinion of the guy's credentials would be much increased by the presence of a computer science degree in 1979. Learn the fundamentals of Fortran! Study the coming microprocessor revolution! And to add to the gravitas, the piece of paper certifying all this comes from a college I'm not sure I've even heard of.

This makes Third Point's claim that this "undermines [Thompson's] credibility as a technology expert" laughable. On the other hand, they do have a point that this bodes poorly as a sign of the guy's character if he's been lying about his credentials. That kind of thing is hard to come back from.

Still, Yahoo shareholders can take solace in the fact that in the bigger picture, the provenance of Scott Thompson's degree is the least of their problems:

Whether the same can be said for Mr Thompson himself remains to be seen.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Where does value come from?

Most people have very little idea what makes one business more valuable than another.

This state of affairs tends to persist, because most businesses aren't exactly eager to reveal where their competitive advantages come from either.

My favourite example of this principle is Coca-Cola. In one of the classic bits of corporate mis-direction, Coca-Cola has managed to convince the world that the key to its success is the secret recipe for Coca-Cola, closely guarded by only a few corporate executives. Astonishing numbers of people seem to believe it.

Viewed logically, this is kind of perplexing. Not least, because there's a wikipedia entry for 'Coca-Cola Formula', which lists a number of different purported recipes to try, including one uncovered by Ira Glass on 'This American Life' which claims to be the real deal.

And yet somehow, Coca-Cola doesn't seem to have collapsed since the February 11, 2011 Ira Glass show.

What's truly amazing, though, is that Coca-Cola seems to have managed to convince it's own employees that the value of Coca-Cola is in the recipe. You know this because a number of Coke employees went to Federal prison for trying to sell the Coke secret recipe to Pepsi, back in 2006.

Really?!? In this age of modern chemical analysis? When half the ingredients are listed on the back of the bottle? When the rest could probably be pieced together by a halfway decent organic chemist? That's the thing that's keeping the company afloat?

Of course not. But the myth persists.

The easiest way to see what Coke's real advantage is is to consider the obstacles you'd face if you managed to make a cola that unambiguously tasted better than Coke, to at least 70% of Coke drinkers.

Straight off the bat you've got economies of scale. Coke is enormous and gets enormous discounts. So does Pepsi though, so perhaps we could partner up or at least get financing to grow. But your new drink has to be close to as cheap to produce as Coke in order for you to be competitive.

What else? Well, marketing is the one that probably comes to most people's minds. And truthfully this is a big one. Lots and lots of people around the world know and love Coke. That means that when they go into the supermarket, they already know they'll like it, and so they buy it. Add in fancy marketing terms for affective associations between Coke, good times, and fun parties. Why? Because advertisers have crammed this into their heads over decades.

But perhaps the most neglected is simply logistics. Coke has a crazily effective distribution network. Even if you manage to set up the most-watched viral video that gets everyone fired up about your new cola, you're going to face the problem that it's damn hard for most people to purchase it. Soft drinks tend to be bought with the aim of being consumed then and there. This means that your Amazon strategy of doing internet-only distribution ain't gonna work so flash - people don't plan most of their soft drink purchases weeks in advance. The only way you'll get sales is if you can have your soft drink there at the point that the consumer is thirsty.

And how do you do that? By having your Coke alternative available to buy in every supermarket, every deli, every liquor store, and every hamburger stand. In the whole world. Supplied constantly. So that they never run out.

Think about that. How the hell are you even going to begin doing that?

And that's why you're never going to out-compete Coke.

Setting up an equally good marketing and distribution system isn't impossible, of course. It's just very hard.

It becomes even harder if you're spending all your time trying to work out the magic soft drink formula instead. Coke is happy to let you believe that this is the source of their success, for very good reasons:

In making tactical dispositions,
the highest pitch you can attain is to conceal them;
conceal your dispositions, and you will be safe
from the prying of the subtlest spies,
from the machinations of the wisest brains.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Understatement of the Day

From Mencius Moldbug's 'Letter to Open-Minded Progressives'
Thus we see why progressivism is more fashionable than conservatism. Progressive celebrities, for example, are everywhere. Conservative ones are exceptions. This is cold calculation: Bono's PR people are happy that he's speaking out against AIDS. Mel Gibson's PR people are not happy that he's speaking out against the Jews.