Gubernatorial Goobers

This morning on WBUR I heard an interview with Carla Howell, the Libertarian candidate for governor of Massachusetts. I have a lot of sympathy for libertarian positions and have seriously considered voting Libertarian, but Howell just put me right off that idea )this time) with two things:

  • She claimed that private schools operate at a cost per pupil half that for public schools. First, I have to wonder where that number came from. Second, besides the usual concerns about cherry-picking or how to account for parochial-school costs, Howell’s definition also explicitly included home schooling on the “private” side. That skews the figures pretty badly, because home-schooled students are often considered to incur zero facilities cost even though the public schools are legally required (in most states) to provide access to extra-curricular activities for home-schooled students and often offer access to their facilities to all town residents. If all of these factors were taken into account private schools might well still turn out to have lower per-student costs, but there’s no way in hell it’s 2:1 in any apples-to-apples comparison.
  • When asked about the housing market and affordable housing, Howells claimed that “government rules and regulations” (her second-favorite phrase, repeated almost as nauseatingly often as “government central planning”) were the main factor in high housing costs. That’s another claim I’d really like to see backed up. There’s this little thing called supply and demand at work too, but Howell doesn’t seem to’ve heard of it.

As I said, I’d consider voting Libertarian in general, but not for someone that dishonest and that dogmatic. Which brings me to Democratic candidate Shannon O’Brien. In the debates I’ve heard, she comes across as an uncommonly aggressive debater – cutting people off to state her opinions on opponents’ time, ignoring the moderators, and generally being rude. Republican Mitt Romney apparently referred to her behavior (rightly, IMO) as “unbecoming” and she unhesitatingly played the gender card – claiming that the word is sexist. Really, Shannon? On what planet? Back here on Earth, the most common usage of the word is as part of the phrase “conduct unbecoming an officer” and has been almost exclusively applied to men. Check that with Google if you like. Trying to play this up as a gender issue is a transparently nasty ploy.

I really hope I can find something to like about Green candidate Jill Stein or independent Barbara Johnson soon, because otherwise I just might have to vote Republican and I’d rather not do that.

Bushron

I originally found this story in the form of an interview at TomPaine. Ir seems that George W. Bush was much more involved in Enron-style dealings at Harken Energy than most people seem to realize – specifically, in shielding debt through the creation of bogus partnerships. As the interview points out, this is way more serious than anything to do with Whitewater, and yet it seems to be getting much less press than Whitewater did. I dug around a bit to find the original HarvardWatch memo and some links to other stories; the Boston Globe story in particular has some interesting additional information. Amid all the crying about liberal bias in the media, it’s interesting how so few mass-media outlets have picked up on this at all, and how many of those spin it more as a story about Harvard than a story about Bush.

Science You Can Do At Home

I’m the junk-food enabler at work. I keep several types of snacks – mostly candy – in my office for anyone to take; “donations appreciated but not required” is the rule. One variety that I have in stock currently is Swedish Fish. When fresh, these little candies are soft and only slightly chewy; unfortunately, the last box I got from the wholesale club are not so fresh, so they’re too chewy. Well, I said to myself, let’s try an experiment to see if we can fix that. Into the microwave they went, and after about 25 seconds I was enjoying nice soft (and slightly warm) Swedish Fish. Yum!

The experiment was conducted at home. I can’t wait to see the reaction the first time someone sees me do this at work.

Rewarding Insecurity

Way back in freshman psychology class or thereabouts, I remember being told about how children would often misbehave to get attention, because at a certain level any kind of attention was better than being ignored. Lately it seems like a lot of adults on the net have been exhibiting the same sort of behavior. Tired of obscurity and frustrated by lack of recognition for their obvious (to themselves) brilliance and creativity, they’ve apparently decided to settle for becoming well known as thieves, vandals, or all-around jerks…as long as they’re well known, it doesn’t seem to matter.

Not me. I’ve given up on being recognized as the Greatest Living Hacker, just as many years I gave up on being world chess champion. What I do and say and know has gained me a certain amount of recognition in certain circles, but in the overall scheme of things I’m pretty obscure. Maybe it would be nice if more people appreciated some of the things I’ve done. However, I feel no urge to respond to that by seeking other less savory forms of notoriety. I’m not going to walk around with a big metaphorical sign on my back saying “NOTICE ME”. It’s not the recognition that matters; it’s the achievement. My motivation is not to be recognized more but to achieve more, and if my achievements continue to go unrecognized then c’est la vie. Better that than to be the Pete Rose or Dennis Rodman of the programming world, with any recognition I do get poisoned by enduring infamy or rude snickering…or by my own conscience.

No, this isn’t about warchalking. It’s meant to be about something entirely different, though if various warchalking proponents find it applies to them I’m neither surprised nor apologetic.

When Companies Lose Faith In Themselves

EMC Eyes File-Caching Startups. How much will EMC spend to replace me?

Paul Krugman: For Richer

Paul Krugman has written a very interesting article in the New York Times called For Richer, about the growth of income equality in the US. In light of the Fibbertarian threads that have occurred here, this is one of the most interesting excerpts:

Although America has higher per capita income than other advanced countries, it turns out that that’s mainly because our rich are much richer. And here’s a radical thought: if the rich get more, that leaves less for everyone else.

That statement — which is simply a matter of arithmetic — is guaranteed to bring accusations of ”class warfare.” If the accuser gets more specific, he’ll probably offer two reasons that it’s foolish to make a fuss over the high incomes of a few people at the top of the income distribution. First, he’ll tell you that what the elite get may look like a lot of money, but it’s still a small share of the total — that is, when all is said and done the rich aren’t getting that big a piece of the pie. Second, he’ll tell you that trying to do anything to reduce incomes at the top will hurt, not help, people further down the distribution, because attempts to redistribute income damage incentives.

Sound familiar? Krugman does a pretty good job of dismissing the first (small share) counterargument, starting with this:

the share of the rich in total income is no longer trivial. These days 1 percent of families receive about 16 percent of total pretax income, and have about 14 percent of after-tax income. That share has roughly doubled over the past 30 years, and is now about as large as the share of the bottom 40 percent of the population. That’s a big shift of income to the top; as a matter of pure arithmetic, it must mean that the incomes of less well off families grew considerably more slowly than average income. And they did. Adjusting for inflation, average family income — total income divided by the number of families — grew 28 percent from 1979 to 1997. But median family income — the income of a family in the middle of the distribution, a better indicator of how typical American families are doing — grew only 10 percent. And the incomes of the bottom fifth of families actually fell slightly.

He then goes on for a few more paragraphs to elaborate. Unfortunately, he never really dives into the second (incentive) counterargument with quite the same gusto; about all he comes up with is this:

The most impressive economic growth in U.S. history coincided with the middle-class interregnum, the post-World War II generation, when incomes were most evenly distributed. But let’s focus on a specific case, the extraordinary pay packages of today’s top executives. Are these good for the economy?

The argument for a system in which some people get very rich has always been that the lure of wealth provides powerful incentives. But the question is, incentives to do what? As we learn more about what has actually been going on in corporate America, it’s becoming less and less clear whether those incentives have actually made executives work on behalf of the rest of us.

In a slightly different vein, Krugman also talks a little about the estate tax. I never got around to making an entry about it here, but I was recently involved in a thread on Quorum about this, and what Krugman says on this topic fits well with what I was trying to say:

The most remarkable example of how politics has shifted in favor of the wealthy — an example that helps us understand why economic policy has reinforced, not countered, the movement toward greater inequality — is the drive to repeal the estate tax. The estate tax is, overwhelmingly, a tax on the wealthy. In 1999, only the top 2 percent of estates paid any tax at all, and half the estate tax was paid by only 3,300 estates, 0.16 percent of the total, with a minimum value of $5 million and an average value of $17 million. A quarter of the tax was paid by just 467 estates worth more than $20 million. Tales of family farms and businesses broken up to pay the estate tax are basically rural legends; hardly any real examples have been found, despite diligent searching.

In the interests of being fair by criticizing my intellectual allies as well as foes when they commit transgressions, I should also point out that Krugman does engage in some rather unsavory debate practices. Most notable is his tendency to poison the well, as in the following examples:

even bringing up the subject exposes you to charges of ”class warfare,” the ”politics of envy” and so on

a Heritage Foundation document titled ”Time to Repeal Federal Death Taxes: The Nightmare of the American Dream” emphasizes stories that rarely, if ever, happen in real life: ”Small-business owners, particularly minority owners, suffer anxious moments wondering whether the businesses they hope to hand down to their children will be destroyed by the death tax bill, . . . Women whose children are grown struggle to find ways to re-enter the work force without upsetting the family’s estate tax avoidance plan.” And who finances the Heritage Foundation? Why, foundations created by wealthy families, of course.

That quibble aside, though, I think Krugman overall does a pretty good job of bringing to a national audience the same issues and concerns that I’ve been discussing lately. I’d be very interested to see what his suggestions are for what to do about the situation he so eloquently describes.

Barlow, Pakistan, etc.

John Perry Barlow has written a very interesting piece about the implications of the recent US war resolution. There’s a lot of it that’s out in loony-land, and I even disagree with it’s basic thesis – I think this was a simple but strangely-worded declaration of war, not a more general and threatening extension of war powers to the executive – but there is much about it that’s thought-provoking. In particular, there’s this thought:

We’re also accepting rather blandly American support for a brutal military dictatorship in Pakistan which really *does* have nuclear weapons as well as the means to deliver them quite a distance. Why are we not disarming Pakistan?

Why not, indeed? Pakistan is particularly interesting in this regard because every argument we’re using to justify an attack against Iraq – nuclear proliferation, involvement with al Qaeda, etc. – applies even more to Pakistan than to Iraq, and yet we provide aid to Pakistan instead of invading them. Why?

Voting Systems FAQ Mirror

The regular home of the excellent Voting Systems FAQ seems non-responsive, and Google doesn’t seem to be caching a copy either, so I slurped a copy from the Wayback Machine and am hosting a copy here as a public service until the situation is resolved.

Small Form Factor Optical

A week ago I made some Storage Predictions for 2003, including this one:

Someone will start shipping some form of removable storage (probably optical) that offers 50GB or more on something the size of a CD or smaller. Initial versions will be write-once and expensive; lower costs and rewritable versions won’t hit until 2004.

Some people, including Wes Felter, expressed skepticism. I was therefore interested in this story about Small Form Factor Optical (originally found on Boing Boing, later on Slashdot). If I’m doing the math right, 4GB on a 3cm disk would translate to about 58GB on a 5.25″ (13cm) disk. It’s not 100% clear that the same density can be maintained in the larger format, or that Philips has any interest in trying, but on the other hand SFFO supposed to be rewritable even in the first iteration and the media/drive prices seem very low. It might not quite fit my prediction, but if they really pull it off in 2003 I won’t mind being “wrong”.

Software Engineering 101

We’re going through that stage at work where we’re trying to define things like code-review processes. I was about to write a document describing some “best practices” from my own experience when, much to my surprise, Steven Den Beste wrote on the very same topic. The technical part is a good read, and I pretty much agree with everything he suggests.