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The Best Place to Work Ever

SAS is a privately owned software company in North Carolina. Read the whole article if you want to see just how astonishing the "perks" really are.

From Cnn.com:

The best perk for many employees is the centrally located health-care center, which, like other SAS buildings, is set back from giant, colorful outside sculptures. Operating 8 to 6 most days, it has a staff of 56, including four physicians, 10 nurse practitioners, nutritionists, lab technicians, physical therapists, and a psychologist (who will do short-term therapy for such conditions as depression or sexual addiction).

Although you can't get a heart transplant there -- the health center is intended to be a clinic, providing such basic care as allergy shots, pregnancy tests, and blood counts -- with each service costing employees zero, it's an unbelievable deal.

"We don't even have a billing department," says Gale Adcock, the director of corporate health services. "We charge you for one thing -- if you miss your appointment and don't give us notice. That's $10."

Last year 90% of SAS employees and their families -- Goodnight included -- made 40,000 visits. SAS says the center, with a budget of $4.5 million, still saves the company $5 million annually because employees don't kill time in waiting rooms and are more apt to seek care when they should, and SAS's medical care is cheaper than outside the gates anyway. Everybody in America complains about the American health-care system -- perhaps except for employees at SAS.

So we are supposed to believe that profit as a motive is destroying healthcare. Funny how it doesn't look that way from here.

(edit: Just a note, Jim Goodnight is the name of SAS's co-founder and CEO.)


The Rights of Racist Basketball Players Are The Rights of Orthodox Jews

"Only players that are natural born United States citizens with both parents of Caucasian race are eligible to play"

A new all-white basketball league is forming, and the commissioner of it (the "All-American Basketball League") is insisting this is not out of racism, but "to emphasize fundamental basketball instead of 'street-ball' played by 'people of color.'...'Would you want to go to the game and worry about a player flipping you off or attacking you in the stands or grabbing their crotch?' he said. 'That's the culture today, and *in a free country* we should have the right to move ourselves in a better direction.'"

My old friend and former roommate (when we were both attending Yeshiva) Yitz Jordan aka Y-Love had this to say, responding to a recent Reason blog post about a proposed racist whites-only basketball league:

In a "free country" we have the "right" to set up whites-only leagues? I hope the answer to that is a resounding "no"...since when is blatant racism and discrimination an "inalienable right" in America?

Yitz happens to be a black Orthodox Jew, a rarity among the culture. He is politically progressive and significantly more statist than me (a low benchmark for an anarchist, I know). Here is how I responded:

This guy is a racist slimebag, but in a free country he should have the right to try to set up his own exclusive little basketball league for whites only, just as wealthy WASPs should have the right to set up their own exclusive country clubs, just as Orthodox Jews should have the right to set up their own Jewish-only dating websites and mixers.

I think some Rabbi from times of yore had something to say about motes and beams in people's eyes and conditions under which one may cast the first stone. Orthodox Judaism is in no place to question ethnic and racial exclusivity, as it itself is an exclusive religion defined primarily by ethnicity. Not that that's a good thing, mind you, but I fully support the right of Orthodox Jews to have their own exclusive clubs, even if I find it distasteful and offensive.


I like to think of beer held in a man's hand. Nature, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips.

This needs verification, but I'm completely willing to believe this:

Did a thirst for beer spark civilization?
By Michael Kan
Friday, 15 January 2010

Drunkenness, hangovers, and debauchery tend to come to mind when one thinks about alcohol and its effects. But could alcohol also have been a catalyst for human civilization?

According to archaeologist Patrick McGovern this may have been the case when early man decided to start farming. Why humans turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture could be the result of our ancestors’ simple urge for alcoholic beverages.

“Alcohol provided the initial motivation,” said McGovern, a biomolecular archaeologist at the University of Pennsylvania Museum. “Then it got going the engine of society.”

There's more to it. I mean, he's not basing this on wishes, even if I am.


American Ideology

I thought this piece in the WSJ nailed it:

The Democratic party's problems, crystallized in the last-ditch scramble to save Ted Kennedy's Massachusetts Senate seat in a special election Tuesday, can be traced to a simple mistake: Many in the party misread voters' desire to switch parties in recent years as an ideological shift to the left.

In fact, there is little sign that Americans' ideological tendencies changed much at all, even as voters gave control of Congress to Democrats in 2006 and handed President Barack Obama and the rest of his party a massive victory in 2008. Ideologically, the country remained throughout this period what it was at the outset: a center to center-right nation.

My amateur analysis of why Obama won the election, which is based on talking to friends and co-workers, is as follows:

* The "middle" was unhappy with Bush's policies, especially the War and spending.
* Fashion. Obama is much cooler than Bush, especially if you're a hipster.
* White guilt.

It had nothing to do with changing attitudes about the role of government. We're not Europe, and we're not going to be Europe anytime soon.


Voter Rage

In what is perhaps the most interesting political story of recent months, Democrat Martha Coakley is currently trailing Republican Scott Brown 53-46 with 69% precincts reporting per CNN, and this includes half of Boston reporting. Even an apolitical rube like me knows what the implications are should Brown hold on for the win:

* Democrats would lose a key vote in the Senate and make healthcare reform less likely.
* Democrats are in deep, deep trouble in 2010.
* The best phrase I've heard to describe this result is "voter rage". People in the bluest of the blue states are angry as hell at Washington DC.
* I don't care what any internet pundit says, the heart and soul of the American is libertarian. That doesn't mean they're raving minarchists (obviously), but they're deeply skeptical of government power and prefer divided government.
* I don't care what anyone television pundit says, this is about healthcare. A corollary to the prior point is that Americans have always and will always reject government-run health care. They may be okay with government doing many things, but when it comes to the government being responsible for their health, they will always say no. If I may quote myself:

Based on the people I talk to every day including patients, the tide is turning. The warm-and-fuzzy glow has worn off and we're now at the "hold on just a minute, let's think this through" stage. And the fight against health care reform has barely begun. The black box hasn't even been opened yet. If you were to ask the average Joe what's in the various proposals under consideration, he would have no answer. The more reform gets delayed, the worse it gets for Obamacare's chances. When the black box is fully opened, Obama better pray that the Democratic majority is enough to override the public sentiment.

If the black box is fully opened--if the public fully understands what reform actually entails--Americans will revolt against it just like they did under Bill Clinton, FDR, and Teddy Roosevelt.


To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts?

Stephan Kinsella taught me something interesting today:

I am not sure if non-practitioners realize exactly what goes on in patenting. Quite often medium to large sized companies hold "patent mining" sessions. They are usually not trying to come up with ideas that they might use in their business. What you do is you get 5-10 engineers to sit around a coffee table, and they are led by a "facilitor" (often a patent attorney). They talk about what they've been working on, and try to find little twists or aspects of a design that they can file a patent on. Or, they'll sift thru a bunch of patents in an area that competitors are practicing in, and just brainstorm, thinking of things they can file patents on. Not because they intend to use these ideas. But just to build up a thicket of patents that they can use against another company, either defensively (i.e., a countersuit if the competitor sues them); or to extract royalties or to squelch competition.


Camp No

I know it's early, but Scott Horton's article The Guantánamo "Suicides" is the most important piece of journalism you'll see this year.

According to the NCIS, each prisoner had fashioned a noose from torn sheets and T-shirts and tied it to the top of his cell’s eight-foot-high steel-mesh wall. Each prisoner was able somehow to bind his own hands, and, in at least one case, his own feet, then stuff more rags deep down into his own throat. We are then asked to believe that each prisoner, even as he was choking on those rags, climbed up on his washbasin, slipped his head through the noose, tightened it, and leapt from the washbasin to hang until he asphyxiated. The NCIS report also proposes that the three prisoners, who were held in non-adjoining cells, carried out each of these actions almost simultaneously.

Not only this, but the surprisingly sloppy attempt at a coverup was guided by the Bush administration, and then by the Obama administration. They know what happened, and they're still lying about it.

The article is long but worth reading.


Glow-in-the-Dark Planet

I've often wondered if there's a limit to video technology. As you jam more and more pixels on a screen, do you reach a certain point beyond which it makes no difference to the viewer? As you increase the framerate, what good does it do if the human eye can't discern the effect of more hertz? Are we fast approaching the point at which video is as good as it gets? Or can video actually be better than real life? Is there such a thing as enhanced reality?

Avatar is the first movie I've seen that's better than reality. Part of it is due to the special effects, part is due to realistic 3-D, and part of it is the artistic vision involved in creating the world of Pandora. Pandora is, in a word, stunning, especially at night. So it's not surprising to me that something called "Post-Avatar Depression" exists. Clearly some sufferers are simply fanbois and fangirls who want to signal their attachment to the movie by accepting this diagnosis. But I do think there's something real about it for a few people.

I don't want to make this a full review, so I'll simply say that aside from the visuals, everything else--the characters, storyline, dialogue, cliches--was terrible. Despite that, it was an overall enjoyable experience.

One of the supposedly attractive aspects of Pandora is the harmony with which the natives interact with nature. They live in the forest, but do their best not to alter it. They only kill an animal if absolutely necessary and say a prayer when they do. Giant birds are their primary means of long-distance transport.

While I can understand the appeal of such a world, I wouldn't trade it for the current one in which we live. I'd be bored out of my mind. Sure, singing songs, hunting, flying atop giant birds, and lounging around would be fun for a while, but where's the intellectual stimulation? I'm of a particular personality that I suspect is quite common in the blogosphere. I need to learn new things all the time or else I get bored. No internet? You can keep your glow-in-the-dark trees.

Whenever I watch stories about man living in harmony with nature, harmony is implicity and intimately tied to stasis. People live now the same way their ancestors did. Is there such a thing as progress on Pandora?

On another note, living in giant trees seems to resonate with some part of our psyche. Before Pandora, there was the Ewok Village. And before that was the Green Sky trilogy by Zilpha Keatley Snyder. Some of you might remember the mid-80s computer game "Below the Root" that was based on that series of books.


Science and Motivated Skepticism

A fun new headline which might make a splash in the blogosphere in the near future:

World misled over Himalayan glacier meltdown

A WARNING that climate change will melt most of the Himalayan glaciers by 2035 is likely to be retracted after a series of scientific blunders by the United Nations body that issued it.

Two years ago the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a benchmark report that was claimed to incorporate the latest and most detailed research into the impact of global warming. A central claim was the world's glaciers were melting so fast that those in the Himalayas could vanish by 2035.

In the past few days the scientists behind the warning have admitted that it was based on a news story in the New Scientist, a popular science journal, published eight years before the IPCC's 2007 report.

It has also emerged that the New Scientist report was itself based on a short telephone interview with Syed Hasnain, a little-known Indian scientist then based at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

Hasnain has since admitted that the claim was "speculation" and was not supported by any formal research. If confirmed it would be one of the most serious failures yet seen in climate research. The IPCC was set up precisely to ensure that world leaders had the best possible scientific advice on climate change.

Whoops.

Pointing out failures in environmental science tends to invite all sorts of accusations upon the speaker. Among baser epithets, you'll face charges of denialism, or at least a kind of crypto-denialism and various sorts of motivated skepticism. The ubiquity of the term "denialism", being not-so-subtly meant to evoke the rawer emotions associated with Holocaust denialism, would do George Lakoff proud. Skeptics have fought back by drawing parallels between environmentalism and a sort of secular fundamentalism; the environmentalists, tending to be fond of the term "market fundamentalism" itself, cannot dismiss this metaphor at the outset and instead get bogged down into debates over whether environmentalism is really like religion - at which point they've already lost.

I'm not going to press this metaphor seriously, but if environmentalism is to be likened to a religion, then the vaguely-defined "scientific community" would undoubtedly be its clergy. Its higher-ranking members, through their communes with tree rings and ice sheets, speak ex cathedra from Nature Herself - or something like that. Of course, this authority only extends to the community of environmental scientists. As an economist, this deference to Science doesn't cover my discipline. I realize that the credibility of economists is at something of a nadir at the moment, but let's not pretend that it was ever that high to begin with among Science-touting left-of-center individuals, even despite the existence of a strong professional consensus on many issues that are of great contention among the general population. As Bryan Caplan (whose book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, is required reading on motivated political cognition) might observe, economics is relatively unique in its being respected as a science without its actual practitioners being given the usual intellectual deference which comes with the mantle of expertise.

I'll admit that this is somewhat embittering - that not believing in AGW can make you a pariah who is (gasp!) "anti-science", but believing that rent control is an awesome idea that only hurts rich people - often the "Other", as it were - is perfectly respectable, or at least understandable if you've spent your life learning about more important things than what happens when prices can't rise to clear a market. When you tell someone that the professional consensus is against their personal view, you're usually told either that economics is a "right-wing (or left-wing) discipline", or that economists rely on a poor model of human behavior which renders their entire discipline useless at best and dangerous at worst - didn't you know that the financial crisis discredited free markets?

But a little skepticism really isn't a bad thing. It's somewhat reassuring that the people who trumpet Science in the context of the environmental debate are such keen skeptics of the economic discipline - it shows, at least, that they do have an understanding of the general process through which the scientific investigations can be derailed. Stories like the one linked above and Climategate reveal many of the unsavory processes that are actually at work in generating consensus - scientists misrepresenting/losing/hiding data which might have been selectively chosen and shoddy, trying to silence dissent for political or financial reasons, "common wisdom" being based on narratives hopelessly distorted in a telephone game of motivated communication. This is the norm of how politicized science proceeds when the black box is cracked open, and it's understandable that environmentalists act far dumber than they actually are in trumping up the fidelity of consensus.

Trying to determine what the ex ante "optimal level of deference" to be afforded to a given expert or set of experts is an incredibly difficult problem. But like most things in life, it's probably somewhere between "none" and "infinity" - and not embracing the latter extreme does not make you "anti-science." These kinds of labels might make for effective politicking, but those who employ them would make themselves rather ironic champions of reason and science.


More Conservative Nostalgia

Since Constant seems unwilling to admit that generic conservative nostalgia for an imaginary past is a real phenomenon, I must turn to the most trusted source in news to settle this dispute once and for all: The Onion.

Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be

ESCONDIDO, CA—Spurred by an administration he believes to be guilty of numerous transgressions, self-described American patriot Kyle Mortensen, 47, is a vehement defender of ideas he seems to think are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and principles that brave men have fought and died for solely in his head.

"Our very way of life is under siege," said Mortensen, whose understanding of the Constitution derives not from a close reading of the document but from talk-show pundits, books by television personalities, and the limitless expanse of his own colorful imagination. "It's time for true Americans to stand up and protect the values that make us who we are."

According to Mortensen—an otherwise mild-mannered husband, father, and small-business owner—the most serious threat to his fanciful version of the 222-year-old Constitution is the attempt by far-left "traitors" to strip it of its religious foundation.

[...]

Mortensen said his admiration for the loose assemblage of vague half-notions he calls the Constitution has only grown over time. He believes that each detail he has pulled from thin air—from prohibitions on sodomy and flag-burning, to mandatory crackdowns on immigrants, to the right of citizens not to have their hard-earned income confiscated in the form of taxes—has contributed to making it the best framework for governance "since the Ten Commandments."

"And let's not forget that when the Constitution was ratified it brought freedom to every single American," Mortensen said.

And if you think only fake news sources are reporting this phenomenon, think again. Check out the artist Jon McNaughton glorious portrait of Jesus and the Constitution, titled, appropriately, "One Nation Under God."