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Guns in Houston

This was posted on a message board I visit by someone in Houston.

I actually saw on the news that humidity is 100% percent downtown, didn't know that was possible. i finally charged my phone, but no service here. we will likely stay here for a while as centerpoint friends tell me could be 2-3 weeks. For at least as long as there is no power- very frustrating because downtown (underground grid) is only a few blocks away and we can see the lights.

It's very surreal. We've only seen some major damage, but the extent of (relatively) minor damage is amazing. Trees and power poles are down everywhere, windows broken downtown, glass and computers/office furniture in the street, the bayous are all pushing their banks and many roads are impassible- everywhere, but downtown got hit hard. There are no billboards and the street signs are all crooked if not flattened. We've heard from most of our friends and everyone's okay- but clean-up's going to be a #####. So far looting has not been a problem- everyone has guns and they are not afraid or restricted by law to use them on anyone they think may be illegally on their own or their neighbor's property. Maybe there is some sense to that after all.

We're okay, we're just really stressed out.

(Bold mine)


Over on the community aggregator...

..Mark asks a couple of questions about insurance in a voluntary society.

Insurance Against Crime

Medical Insurance

Arthur writes about left-skewed bets.


Significance of bank failures

For the past year or so, bank stocks have been keeling over one by one, and it's reached a climax (for now) today with the failure of Lehman and Merril Lynch.

I'd like to ask the smart people reading this board what it means. It seems to me like the entire modern banking system is systematically failing in some way. Is it due to investment banks using focusing on derivative instruments to make money instead of traditional instruments? Is it bad policy by the Fed? Is it some other reason?

Obviously, I believe this might be a good thing, allowing more sound decisions to be made in the future.


9/11

It snuck up on me this year. The memory and the 'bigness' of the event is fading.

One of the most memorable pieces written in the days after 9/11 was by Will Stewart, host of Techsideline.com, a VT sports fansite which I frequent, the place where I first 'met' fellow VT grad Brian Doss, which eventually resulted in the creation of this blog. The article was about a fan of a rival team who lost his wife that day. I often wonder about the significance of sports in my life and what it means to be a fan. This column puts it into perspective.

"Among Our Rivals, a Friend for Whom We Grieve"


Too many choices my ass

So I went food shopping and lo and behold, my favorite brand of natural peanut butter is gone. Natty PB is one of the great, healthy foods of our time: a low amount of carbs, decent amount of protein, and a large amount of healthy unsaturated fats. Very filling too.

My favorite brand is Valencia because it has a sweeter flavor than the rest. Yet on the shelf they only had the bland Smuckers and some other brand with a cartoon on the side. I reluctantly went with the Smuckers.

Barry Schwartz, bite me.


Since the world is going to end tomorrow...

...what is your biggest regret?

(background)

Sure, I could've learned more, worked harder, and tried more new stuff, but my biggest regret is of a personal nature. Despite my underlying skepticism towards pretty much everything, for some reason, I channeled idealism at the exact wrong time. If I had to do it all over again, I'd stick with the utter cynicism befitting life in a soulless, material, scarcity-constrained universe. I'll leave it vague like that cause that's how I roll.

What about you? What is your biggest regret?


If you wanna beat the market, you gotta be crazy

Today: Feds bail out the Feds

Many years ago on an investing forum I visit, I came across someone who said that one day Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae would "blow up", meaning go bankrupt. He based his opinion on systemic factors, not on the specifics of the balance sheet of the time. He thought that the model of banks tied so closely to the government created a moral hazard that allowed them to take on too much risk. Unsurprisingly, he gained the reputation of being a nut. History has proven him correct.

Similarly, back at the turn of the decade, a few people claimed that the gold bear market was over. One poster in particular, with whom I generally didn't get along, wrote the words, "The new gold bull has begun. The evidence is right before your eyes. Only the brave will believe the truth and make money." After a two decade bear market, he and the others were known as "wacky goldbugs". For the past decade though, those same wacky goldbugs have been laughing all the way to the bank (despite the slaughter in commodities during the last month or so).

To make higher-than-market returns, you have to believe something the vast majority of others don't. Prices reflect what the majority believes. Only when the majority is wrong and you're right will you be able to buy (or sell) at a good price. You'll be thought of as a nut. And you'll make a lot of money.


It's the edge of the world and all of western civilization

Life imitates art:

David Duchovny, who plays a sex-obsessed character on Showtime's "Californication," has entered a rehabilitation facility for sex addiction.

Duchovny's twin brother Brian Doss could not be reached for comment.


Keepin' it Real

Batman is the best of the superheroes because he is one of us. He didn't get irradiated, isn't from outer space, and doesn't possess magical items that give special powers. He's just a pissed off rich guy who has fancy toys. If he has a power at all, it's the ability to channel his rage into a moral code while not letting it corrupt him.

Because Batman is an ordinary person--simply Bruce Wayne dressed in a funny costume--realism is the key to a good Batman movie. It was the reason the original Tim Burton vision was so good but the sequels sucked, and why The Dark Knight shines. Everything that happens in TDK could conceivably happen in our world. Granted, some of it is far-fetched, but none of it defies the laws of physics.

TDK takes place in a Gotham much like any other big city in the US with the usual shimmering hi-rises, grimy streets, and yuppies climbing the social ladder. Batman's toys are designed in the research and development wing of the corporation he owns. Their capabilities are explained to the viewer--Batman's cape stretches taut when buzzed with a small electric charge, not because that's just how it is. There's an underlying logic behind everything that happens.

Note that the way I use "realism" here is different from plausibility. Realism simply means lack of supernatural elements. Plausibility is about the likelihood of events happening within a given framework. Whereas the movie was real, it often lacked plausibility, one of its shortcomings. The Joker seemed implausibly to know in advance every single thing that would happen, including how the Gotham police would react at every moment.

An amazing visual occurs when Batman glides between the skyscrapers of Hong Kong at night on his way to snatch the mobster Lau. It's because the city looks like something of this world, rather than something out of this world, that his flight becomes breathtaking. The context is the familiar and the palatable, not the fantastic. Contrast this emphasis on realism to the Schumacher sequels which had Gotham being frozen over and fortresses erupting on islands. They reveled in ostentation.

As the distance from reality is minimized, so is the necessary suspension of disbelief. Lack of CGI, which is way overused in movies these days, adds to the realism. Whereas the 90s sequels tried to bring comic books to life on the silver screen, TDK tries to instill Batman into our world. That's how you tell a good Batman story: by keepin' it real.

Despite that, I think the Batman story hasn't yet been told properly. Christian Bale doesn't completely sell the darkness at Bruce Wayne's core though he's definitely the best Batman since Michael Keaton. Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan have taken their best shots at telling the story and have come close. Who knows--maybe in another twenty years, another talented director will come along and fulfill the promise of the Batman story.


RIP Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn...


Don't you mean Fair Trade?

Steve Sailer makes the following argument:

  • Reagan instituted tariffs on Japanese cars.
  • Today, most Japanese cars are made in the US by Americans.
  • Thus, those tariffs were good policy.

The poverty of the argument lies in not imagining what the alternative world might look like had the tariffs not been instituted. The implication is that Americans would not be making Japanese cars on American soil[1]. And what if they didn't? Would that be a bad thing?

The same argument has been used by opponents of trade for hundreds of years. They imagine that because Americans who today make cars, in that alternative universe of no tariffs, would not be making cars, that they would have no jobs at all.

But are cars the only thing people want to buy? Do they want to buy other things? How strong is people's desire for things? A wise man once said that human wants are unlimited. I can't prove that's true, but everything I know about human nature tells me he's probably right.

Let me imagine a possible alternate universe in which those tariffs aren't instituted:

  • Japanese make Japanese cars on Japanese soil because it's cheaper. This is presumably why they didn't make them in the US before the tariffs (according to Sailer's argument, anyway. See footnote.)
  • Americans thus have cheaper cars to buy. Americans' standard of living is raised.
  • Those Americans who in our universe make Japanese cars on American soil instead make other things that people want in the alternate universe.

If Americans don't produce item X, that is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it could be a very good thing. And it'd be a very bad thing to use tariffs to keep Americans producing X. Isn't it a good thing that a quarter of Americans aren't farmers today like they were a hundred years ago? Basic stuff.

This pattern has been the evolution and growth of all economies: inefficient production seeks out more efficient places, countries don't keep on producing the same stuff year-in-year-out, and on net, everyone benefits over the long run.

He ends with:

It's hard to say exactly why the dogma of free trade has triumphed so completely, but status striving can't be ruled out. Economists are terribly proud that Ricardo's Law of Comparative Advantage is both significant and not trivial, so showing that you understand has become a major status marker.

Comparative Advantage theory should have starring role in the sequel to Stuff White People Like.

How I wish the "dogma" of free trade had triumphed completely! Very few people are supporters of free trade. It's really only supported by economists and a few of us wacky libertarians. And the White People from Stuff White People Like? The ones that support free healthcare and hate multi-national corporations? More likely, they're expounding on evils of free trade while drinking their fair trade coffee at the local Starbucks.


1. Even that's debatable: how expensive is to build cars in Missouri and sell them in Missouri vs building them in Japan and shipping them to Missouri?


Individuals matter

With all this talk of IQ...

...the best argument against any trait of a group is that individuals aren't completely beholden to group properties. Isn't that why you're reading this blog?

I went out with my friend tonight to Saint and then to the Lennox and the to 33 Lounge where I lost him. His night seemed to be going better than mine last I saw him before my cellphone went dead. He's apparently a Persian Jew, but most recently Bahai. I have no idea what that means, and I don't care. It doesn't matter, cause, he's my boy. And that's all that really matters.


Absolutes vs Differences

There seems to be some confusion in the monster thread below about what the consequence is of something having a genetic etiology.

Lots of things appear to have a partly genetic cause - schizophrenia, alcoholism, and even propensity to divorce, to name a few. The evidence comes from twin studies which ideally control for environment by comparing identical twins with fraternal twins. There are criticisms of twin studies but the evidence they provide is strong (IMO).

IQ is one of those things that appears to have a partly genetic cause based on twin studies. This does not mean that the Black-White IQ gap is caused by genetics. It could very well be caused by environmental factors. I've tried to say this before but it came out clunky, so I'll just quote Constant.

Let genetics be the seed, let environment be the fertilizer, and let IQ be the size of the plant. The size of the plant has a strong basis in the seed, but if blacks have smaller plants than whites, this does not mean that blacks have genetically inferior seeds than whites. It may be, instead, that blacks' seeds receive less fertilizer than whites' seeds.

To summarize: If you're skeptical of a genetic etiology for the differences in IQ between blacks and whites, you can still believe that IQ is partly genetic in origin. You can still believe that within an ethnic group, IQ is partly genetic and predicts certain life outcomes to an impressive degree. You don't have to close your mind to the entire idea of IQ.

Update: I'm Brandon Berg, and I endorse this message.


Black Hole is a racist term

Not from The Onion:

A special meeting about Dallas County traffic tickets turned tense and bizarre this afternoon.

County commissioners were discussing problems with the central collections office that is used to process traffic ticket payments and handle other paperwork normally done by the JP Courts.

Commissioner Kenneth Mayfield, who is white, said it seemed that central collections "has become a black hole" because paperwork reportedly has become lost in the office.

Commissioner John Wiley Price, who is black, interrupted him with a loud "Excuse me!" He then corrected his colleague, saying the office has become a "white hole."

That prompted Judge Thomas Jones, who is black, to demand an apology from Mayfield for his racially insensitive analogy.

Mayfield shot back that it was a figure of speech and a science term. A black hole, according to Webster's, is perhaps "the invisible remains of a collapsed star, with an intense gravitational field from which neither light nor matter can escape."

Other county officials quickly interceded to break it up and get the meeting back on track. TV news cameras were rolling, after all.

If there were cameras rolling, then this might show up on Youtube sooner or later.


No wonder I can't add McCain to my friends list

A recent visit to my parents was revealing. They had recently switched to Vonage for their telephone needs. At the same time, their telephone's built-in answering machine crapped out. So I suggested that they simply use the free voicemail service that comes with Vonage. They complained that no, it's complicated, and made a plan to buy a new phone with answering machine.

Me: Complicated? How?
Dad: You have to dial your own number, type in a passcode, press some more buttons. It's a lot of work.
Me: How exactly do you think I check my messages? It's not a big deal, really.
Mom: Yes it is. It's a huge rigmarole.
Me: Okay, how about this: you check your stock quotes on the computer right? You can check the voicemail over the computer too. Just go to the website like this, and click here.
Dad: That's too complicated. Look at all these things appearing out of nowhere.
Me: That's just a popup Media Player. It'll disappear after the message plays.
Dad: I don't want to break the computer!
Me: You're not going to break the computer. All you have to do is click a couple of icons and you can play your messages. It's cheaper than buying a new phone.
Mom: I like to walk into the house and see a number flashing on the phone on the wall that tells me how many messages we have. Then I like to just press "play" to listen to the messages.
Me: It's not that much different than sitting down in front of the laptop and hitting "refresh"!

And on and on. They wouldn't budge. When I left, they were busy trying to figure out which phone/answering machine system to buy. Apparently, the marginal effort required to check messages online was greater than cost of a new phone.

What this reinforced to me is that old people are stubborn. It's very hard for them to adapt to new technology. I'm not sure I know anyone over 55 who knows how to type. Peck, sure; type, no.

So I'm not surprised at all that John McCain is computer illiterate.

My question is-- does it matter?