Surly Curmudgeon

   The human race divides politically into those who want people to be controlled and those who have no such desire. The former are idealists acting from highest motives for the greatest good of the greatest number. The latter are surly curmudgeons, suspicious and lacking in altruism. But they are more comfortable neighbors than the other sort.
-- Robert A. Heinlein
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    Monday, August 31, 2009

    The Time Traveler's Wife

    In Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, John Gray attempts to explain the behavior of men with the simile that men are like rubber bands. They require distance to become energized for their relationships, and come snapping back with enthusiasm and vigor. After that initial re-involvement in the relationship however, they, like a rubber band, are slack and not good for much of anything. They require that distance again to build and store energy for the next relationship reunion.

    In Men are like Waffles, Women are like Spaghetti, the authors posit that men's minds are divided into little boxes, like a waffle. They have a television-watching box, a relationship box, a work box, and so forth. Everything is neatly compartmentalized, and men like it that way. They tend to "disappear" into one box or another and it's hard to move them out of the one they're in before they're ready.

    Both of these similes are an attempt to explain the emotional behavior of men in relationships, and both have their merits (and flaws, but I won't get into that right now). It occurred to me while watching The Time Traveler's Wife that Audrey Niffenegger (author of the novel upon which the movie is based) had come up with a physical metaphor for this emotional behavior.

    Henry, the time traveler in question, has a condition that causes him to bounce uncontrollably through time, usually triggered by periods of high stress. This creates various complications for his relationship with Clare, his titular wife. But I thought it really shows some of the helplessness that men feel (or at least that this man feels) when all of the "relationship energy" is used up for the moment, and we find our attention wandering to something else. Women will say "why can't you just pay attention to me?", and with great effort we can, but there is always a need to escape to a different box or to stretch out the rubber band. Henry experiences this physically, and is powerless to stop it. I experience it emotionally, and while I can hold it off for a little while, I too will eventually need to move to another box or go back to what Gray calls my "cave", just as surely as Henry must disappear from time to time, occasionally in the most inconvenient circumstances.

    It's also interesting that Henry says he tends to travel to events/people/places that are important to him, as though they have a sort of gravity that pulls him in. I find myself experiencing something similar when it comes time to switch boxes -- some boxes are easier to get to than others, and some exert a force all their own.

    The Time Traveler's Wife, it seems to me, shows this as an inescapable reality that both partners need to learn to deal with, and shows how the relationship can grow and prosper even under those conditions. I don't know if this is what Audry Niffenegger intended with her original story (and I didn't think of this at the time that I read it a couple of years ago), but if she did, it could also spark many interesting discussions about some scenes in the movie/book, such as the wedding scene (which I won't give away).

    My wife and I both enjoyed the movie, her perhaps a little more than me, but we both sorely missed one particular scene that was at the end of the book but didn't appear in the movie. We thought it was a perfect endcap to the story, and were very disappointed by its exclusion. Hopefully we'll get it in the DVD extras or director's cut. There were some other variations from the book, but nothing that really upset the flow as much as that omission.

    Bottom line: if you're in a relationship, this is a great date movie. If you're single, it's probably not for you. And if you're one of those people who doesn't like "that weird sci-fi stuff", suck it up and go see it anyway -- this is not a movie about time travel, it's about relationships. Time travel is a plot device, not a reason for being. I'd give it 8 out of 10 normally, but as a fan of the book I have to ding it a point for the "missing" scene, so it gets a 7/10.

    Posted by Tom, 8/31/2009 5:05:36 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    On the Obama Wars

    As Obama's defenders have rallied to protect him from the various criticisms being leveled by those attending Tea Parties and town hall meetings, a number of scurrilous charges have been made. The most egregious of these is that the only reason folks are opposing the plans of the Anointed One is because they're racist and he's black. This was famously done by Janeane Garofalo with the approval and encouragement of professional twit Keith Olbermann, but I've seen and heard many other folks, some of whom are generally rational and reasonable people, making the same sorts of statements.

    It's not unusual for a president or his policies to come under heavy fire from his political opposition. It is somewhat more unusual when some of his allies begin, but it really becomes a noticeable event when people who don't ordinarily concern themselves with politics start showing up at political events to make their voices heard. Since the president is black, everyone seems to be seeing through racism-covered glasses and thus sparing themselves the indignity of having to actually address the points being made.

    Reason's Steve Chapman offers a different explanation, one which I believe is probably very close to the truth:

    ...the 44th president apparently thought he had a mandate for the expansion of federal power and responsibility, which he has used on everything from bailing out automakers to showering the economy with stimulus dollars to trying to overhaul health insurance. He and his allies have therefore been surprised to face a surge of angry opposition, including some based on wild flights of paranoia.

    What they forgot is that the surest way to mobilize American political opposition, irrational as well as rational, is to enlarge the government's role in our lives. Liberals and conservatives disagree on when to distrust the government, but they share the same basic suspicion.


    That conflicts with our persistent strain of anti-government feeling. Obama's election marked no sudden ebbing of this sentiment: Last December, 52 percent of Americans felt the government was "doing too much that should be left to individuals and business"—up from 41 percent in October 2001.

    America has a strong cultural tradition of mistrusting government. A lot of the foreigners I've spoken to find it utterly baffling. "You voted for them," they say. "Why would you vote for them if you don't trust them?" My response is usually along the lines of "why would you buy a company's products if you don't trust it?" It simply underscores the point that you do the best you can with the hand you're dealt.

    Be that as it may, I certainly agree with Chapman that what Obama has done, coming in on the heels of big-government George Bush, is to find that anti-government raw nerve that was already inflamed by Bush's PATRIOT Act and various abuses of power via the TSA and DHS, and jump up and down on it with both feet. Folks who were mildly in support of Bush but disturbed by his actions are now jumping out of their seats and screaming. Folks who were screaming at Bush and looked forward to doing less with Obama, are finding that there's plenty here to complain about. And surly curmudgeons like yours truly are just as convinced as ever that nothing has changed.

    It doesn't take deep-seated racial hatred to get Americans ticked off about government intruding into their lives. I'm sure those people are out there, but I'm equally sure that we haven't actually seen any on the news, MSNBC notwithstanding. I find it far more likely that the problem here is that racism is in the eye of the beholder -- white people aren't allowed to dislike a black guy because they find him or his policies unlikeable, so they must just be racist. And besides, other white people like him, so there's all the proof we need. It's the lazy argument; the argument that refuses to even acknowledge the possibility that maybe folks just don't want to be messed with. That would require engagement, and that whole thing just smacks of effort.

    Posted by Tom, 8/31/2009 7:33:43 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, August 29, 2009

    Quote of the Day

    On why science fiction and its fans tend to be anti-religion, and why he takes pains to write all aspects of religion into his books:

    "Science fiction has always been a refuge for the very bright outcast... the geek, if you will -- the person who doesn't really fit into a comfortable social template, and who is looking for a template that he or she does fit into. And many of those people have been or believe that they have been folded, bent, spindled, or mutilated by society with the approval of the religious establishment."
    -- David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington series


    It comes from this fascinating series of videos of an interview with David Weber. He's a very interesting character in his own right.

    Posted by Tom, 8/29/2009 2:12:17 PM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, August 28, 2009

    Two Movies

    My wife and I see a lot of movies... it's our favorite activity. Most of them are entertaining, a few are great, some really make me wish I had my time and money back.

    Every once in a while, I see one that reaches deep inside me and touches an undefinable something that sets off fireworks in my mind. It's like, looking past all the action, the special effects, the acting, and so forth, I see a glimpse of raw, naked humanity on display. And perhaps it's only the sort of humanity I can personally connect with, but when it happens I almost want to address the movie itself and say "Namaste". The hard part about relating these things is that I'm almost completely convinced that I'm the only one who sees these things that really move me about these films, and none of what I have to say will make any sense to anyone else.

    The last one I remember offhand was Unleashed, back in 2005. This summer however, there have been two: The Hurt Locker and District 9.

    The Hurt Locker is a lot of what you'd expect in a Gulf War movie, and I really wasn't thinking it'd be all that fascinating to me. The folks I know who saw it and thought it was good are all military fanboys, so I figured a fair amount of their enthusiasm stemmed from that. In some ways, it even turned me off of the movie. But I decided to give it a chance, and I'm glad I did.

    Nothing about the story, setting, or action really moved me, it was the main character, Sgt William James. One of the things that has always fascinated me about certain people or characters is when they've achieved their ultimate transformation into a Randian/Maslowian self-actualized ubermensch. For Sgt James, disarming bombs isn't something he does, it's something he is. His moment of realization and embracing of that fact literally got me all choked up. It's as though the character looks into his own soul and sees the blueprint laid down by God, saying "this is what you were designed to be".

    I'm not sure what it is that makes this character in this movie stand out so strongly. After all, there are plenty of movies where a character is presented as being that ultimate gestalt of form and purpose. But there's something that I can't quite describe going on in that moment when Sgt James reaches his realization and makes his decision... somehow the movie-making team captured that moment perfectly for me, while others have failed to do so. Perhaps it's as subtle/simple as the difference between telling and showing, I don't know.

    It's also a moment that, weirdly enough, I think I've already had, but somehow feel as though it's yet to come. I've already had it in the sense of the day that I realized I am a software engineer. I feel like it's yet to come because I sense more untapped potential that I could be putting to work... a creative energy that cannot be fully funneled through my efforts in code. Anyway...

    District 9 has been discussed to death by various critics as a movie showing man's inhumanity to aliens. I think that's rather shallow. It's a movie that simply displays man's inhumanity. It does so to the point of making the audience root for the non-human (by appearance) but more human (by action) characters. It's a deft juxtaposition of human as monster and monster as human. The main character, one Wikus Van De Merwe, is a thoroughly reprehensible human being for the first half of the movie and only gains his humanity-as-soul by losing his humanity-as-appearance and identifying with the oppressed aliens.

    Watching science fiction requires a small effort on the viewer's part to suspend disbelief, but it takes considerably less effort to draw parallels between the film and the way human beings treat and talk about other human beings that they consider "less than human". I hang around (virtually speaking, on message boards) with a widely varied cross-section of people from many different subcultures. I see how hatred of the "other" informs the decisions and attitudes in every one of them. My liberal associates are blinded by their hatred of conservatives, my conservative ones are blinded by their hatred of liberals. Some otherwise rational people go into spontaneous hate-gasms whenever the conversation turns to illegal immigrants, or workers in foreign lands, or muslims. And of course there is my persistent railing against society as a whole in its hatred of sex offenders. In each case, the person doing the hating just doesn't seem to see the human being behind the "otherness".

    I believe this "us/them" dichotomy is very much an intrinsic part of the human condition, but it is also one of our greatest weaknesses, if not the greatest. I'd be tempted to call it the source of the original sin... the serpent tempted Eve by pointing out the difference between her and God, fomenting envy, which could be described as a subtle form of hatred. God created us to love... Him first of all, but each other as an expression of that love for Him.

    Being fully human, I am of course just as susceptible to the "other-hate" as the next guy. I tend to identify with libertarians and against government. I have very little patience for certain types of people, especially those who are unapologetic apologists (see what I did there?) for the State. It can take great personal effort and occasionally a fair amount of pain and discomfort to see "the divine spark" within another person when I so vehemently disagree with them. It gets easier to do the more I practice it, but breaking through that internal barrier still feels like Wikus Van De Merwe's transformation looks on screen. I think that's why I'm so enamored with this movie.

    Posted by Tom, 8/28/2009 8:48:04 PM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Monday, August 24, 2009


    From xkcd:

    Posted by Tom, 8/24/2009 7:34:50 AM (Permalink). 3 Comments. Leave a comment...

    New Machine

    Over the past several years I've developed a fairly extensive wealth of experience when it comes to fitness equipment. As one might expect, the sad truth of the matter is that 95% of what is marketed to people is absolute crap. You can't buy a little stool and "swivel your way to tight, ripped abs". That odd-looking thing promoted by the musclehead on late-night TV is not going to make you look like him. And most of it will break within the first month of serious use.

    Way back when, I had a Soloflex machine, with the "revolutionary power bands" for resistance. Interesting piece of gear, but I hated it. There was virtually no resistance at all in the beginning of a motion, and entirely too often, way too much at the end. Naturally, it got worse the longer your limbs were. Bowflex and its imitators, for all its wondrous marketing, has exactly the same problem.

    I also had a plate-stack style machine, with the cables running hither and yon to various handles that you would push or pull to do your exercises. It was another idea that was great in theory, but lost something in the translation. Cables invariably got snarled or jumped out of the pulleys or stretched. Worse, the pulleys were on tiny little axles so that after a certain threshold was reached, they would bind up in their bearings (such as they were) and you'd be working more against the resistance of the pulley than against the weight itself. On top of that, when using heavy weights with cables you stand a really good chance of losing the "balance" of the handle in pushing motions, and having an arm forcefully pulled in a way it's not designed to go, resulting in injury.

    Our local "big box" store chain is full of these bargain-basement machines and benches, and the same is apparent at other, similar stores I've visited. I don't tend to buy anything from them that could be placed in the category of "machinery". Weights, accessories, and the like are fine, but the actual machinery needs to be of a higher quality.

    I discovered a small local merchant who deals in Powertec, bought a squat rack, and haven't looked back since. Powertec makes quality gear. We've also purchased a Life Fitness X7 elliptical, and couldn't be happier with it. I've watched 5 seasons of Smallville on that thing, and will probably be watching shows on DVD well into the future while riding it.

    Our present fascination with (and dedication to) P90X has introduced us to the world of pullups. It also introduced me to the local sports medicine establishment, when a wide front pullup went awry. It comes down to this: most people can't do a full set of pullups, so P90X shows you how to use a chair to take off some of the weight. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to determine just how much leg you're using, and it varies with how tired you are in the legs, arms, and back. It went bad for me because I was just starting to transition into doing full pullups without assistance, but probably wasn't as ready to do so as I thought I was, hence the shoulder/tricep strain.

    I still fully intend to do full sets unassisted at some point in the future, but I'm going to need to get back to it slowly to avoid having the same problem. Mrs. Curmudgeon thinks it'll be a long long time before she's able to do a full set unassisted, and I think I need some way to measure and meter the assistance I'm getting so I know how I'm progressing. So we hit upon the Powertec L-CDA+ as our solution:

    Basically, you load plates on the back end of the lever arm, put your knees on the front pad, and do your pullups. As you get stronger, you reduce the assistance. When you reach zero, you go to a regular bar. As a bonus, you can also train dips in the same way... and since that hits the tricep directly, it's going to figure into my plans when I get back to powerlifting after round 2 of P90X.

    We used to have a similar machine that used Soloflex-style rubber bands for the assistance, but the change in power from the top to the bottom of the motion was just as problematic when it was helping you as it was when resisting you. It was quickly sold off, joining the long line of other gear that just didn't work.

    The best part is that we didn't pay the $700 MSRP for this thing (on sale for $549!). We found it for $325 on craigslist using SearchTempest. It's a search engine that will do a geographic-proximity search of craigslist sites near you. So if you're looking for something and don't mind driving an hour or so to get it, check it out.

    Anyway, once we got the L-CDA+ home and assembled, I loaded 70 pounds on it (because my arm is still weak) and tried a couple of experimental moves. And as I've come to expect from Powertec gear, this is going to work out fabulously for my recovery.

    I can't really say that when it comes to fitness gear, "you get what you pay for". Powertec stuff is cheaper than some things you'll find at the local big box sporting goods store. The Life Fitness X7 isn't. I've seen ultra high-tech lifting gear running several thousands that doesn't impress me as much as the Powertec machines, and I've seen ellipticals for $2,000 that still aren't high enough quality to be considered a good investment (to say nothing of the $500 pieces of crap in the usual showroom). It's pretty clear that big money is being made off of peoples' desire to get fit (as any trip to a GNC store will demonstrate), but this is one area where it definitely pays to do a lot of research before buying. Or you could just learn from experience (and lots of wasted money), like me.

    Bottom line: avoid cables. Avoid springs and rubber bands and pulleys and anything that makes you think "boing" when it moves. Get stuff that uses the direct resistance of a piece of iron, whether it's free weights or a leverage-style machine. And above all, think safety -- "what is going to happen to me if I get under this and can't lift it? Where are the weights going when my arms/legs give out?" That's why I won't buy or recommend cheap benches. Bench presses and squats should be done in a cage, with the safety rails set appropriately, unless you're lucky enough to have a spotter. Anything else is just taking unnecessary chances.

    Posted by Tom, 8/24/2009 6:57:29 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, August 20, 2009


    You may have heard about the guy who showed up at an Obama speech, legally carrying an AR-15. At a forum I visit, we've been keeping an eye on the media coverage, mostly to make fun of the reporters going all in a tizzy over the sight of a so-called "assault weapon" in public:

    I love how the terminally clueless reporters call it everything from a "machine gun" (unlikely) to a "shoulder rifle" (as opposed to a nose rifle?), and clearly want us all to be afraid of it and the guy carrying it.

    What's worse though, is how MSNBC did a segment where they cropped the video to conceal the guy's race... why, you ask? Well, to support their narrative of festering white racism, of course:

    And to think there are still people who pay attention to the television news.

    Edited to add: screenshot for posterity...

    Posted by Tom, 8/20/2009 3:09:29 AM (Permalink). 7 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Sunday, August 16, 2009

    Weekend from Hell

    When we bought the house, the master bathroom was in mid-renovation. It had been stripped clean, new fixtures bought, and the floor laid, but nothing else was done. It badly needed some drywall work and some attention to the plumbing. We had a bunch of other priorities for a few months (dog fence, dog shed, moving out the previous owners, etc.), but it finally percolated to the top.

    After paying a plumber and a drywall guy to come do the things I don't know how to do (and don't really want to learn), we set about the task of finishing off the bathroom. It needed paint, trim, a toilet, vanity, medicine cabinet, light fixture, towel racks and other stuff.

    Now it needs a vanity, medicine cabinet, light fixture, towel racks and other stuff. I really hoped that I'd get further in two days.

    The wife-unit said she wanted to do some hole plastering on the drywall, so I left her to that Saturday morning while I ran out to get paint. When I got back, she was still at it. It turns out we have different definitions of what "needs fixing"... I figure a nail hole will get gooped up with paint and therefore covered. She figures it needs spackle. So it was 4:30 pm before we actually started painting.

    After I did the rolling and left her to do the edging (our usual arrangement for painting projects), I wasn't gone 5 minutes when I heard a shriek from the bathroom and went in to find her covered in paint. As we were cleaning up the mishap, I heard a sound from the adjacent bedroom that set off alarm bells and I quickly rounded the corner to find Zack relieving himself at the foot of our bed. I don't know what it is with the dogs and having accidents in this new house, but it's seriously got to stop.

    I ran the dogs outside, saying some very un-Christian things to Zack as I did so, then worked on his mess while Mrs. Curmudgeon worked on hers. We finished at about the same time, left the dogs outside and went to grab some dinner. Afterwards, I rolled a second coat on the bathroom.

    When I went out to let the dogs in, I was going around picking up their food bowls and going through my usual routine when I noticed bloody paw prints on the ground and inside the dog shed. Quickly checking each of them, I discovered that Zeus had somehow managed to tear one of his toenails off. That prompted me to rush him into the (working) bathroom, dump him in the tub, and try to wash everything clean while discussing whether or not he needed to go to the vet. We decided to watch him for a while and see how things went.

    This morning I got to work on installing the toilet, which I've never done before, so naturally I put it in place and removed it 3 or 4 times as I worried about every last detail. Then I went through the same routine with mounting the tank. Thankfully, once everything was in place to my satisfaction, the new toilet worked like a dream.

    ASIDE: One of the other bathrooms in the house has an American Standard Champion 4 toilet in it. It's amazing for a low-flow toilet. They cost about $230 at Home Depot, but are worth every penny. That's what we put in, and that's what will eventually be in all our bathrooms.

    Anyway, by the time I was done fussing with the toilet, it was 3:30 and we were due to meet friends for a movie. I had really hoped to get the vanity and medicine cabinet installed, so by my estimation I'm already way behind on this project. Next weekend, more of the same.

    On the good side, Zeus is looking fine with his missing toenail.

    Posted by Tom, 8/16/2009 6:08:22 PM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Friday, August 14, 2009

    The Man on the Street

    Recently, there have been a rash of articles in the vein of this one from Bloomberg:

    Sales at U.S. retailers unexpectedly fell in July, raising the risk that a lack of consumer spending will temper a recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s.

    Purchases decreased 0.1 percent, the first drop in three months, as shrinking demand at department stores such as Macy’s Inc. and Wal-Mart Stores Inc. overshadowed a boost from the cash-for-clunkers automobile incentive program, Commerce Department figures showed today in Washington.

    One Associated Press writer went completely Chicken Little over the situation, perpetuating a bad economic myth:

    Economists call it the "paradox of thrift." What's good for individuals - spending less, saving more - is bad for the economy when everyone does it.


    Like a teeter-totter, when the savings rate rises, spending falls. The latter accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity. When consumers refuse to spend, companies cut back, layoffs rise, people pinch pennies even more and the recession deepens.

    The downward spiral has hammered the retail and manufacturing industries. For years, stores enjoyed boom times as shoppers splurged on TVs, fancy kitchen decor and clothes. Suddenly, frugality is in style.


    Some experts say consumers have been so shaken by how fast their wealth has shrunk, so burned by credit card debt, that they might not resume their robust spending for years, if ever.

    "People are not saving; they are building financial bomb shelters," said Mark Stevens, who runs a management consulting firm, MSCO, in Rye Brook, N.Y.

    Matthew Conrad, a financial manager at Complete Wealth Management in Orange County, Calif., says he knows of people who drive a BMW or Mercedes and eat macaroni and cheese for dinner several nights a week. That suggests some are making an awkward shift from free-spending habits and are reluctant to give them up.

    It all sounds very gloom-and-doom, doesn't it?

    On the bright side, CNN Money looked at the situation and saw a lot of good things:

    But there is one bright spot: the negative outlook has prompted many consumers to change their behavior, the study showed. As confidence falls, many have chosen to exercise prudence, paying down debt, and saving their money rather than spending it.

    The amount of money that people are putting away into short-term savings rose to an average of $901 in September from $756 in August, up nearly 20%. Americans also socked away an average of $863 into retirement accounts, up from $560 last month, a boost of about 54%.

    Meanwhile, the amount of money people used to pay down short-term debt such as credit cards, rose 6% to an average of $1,010 for the month from $953 in August.

    "People seem to be tightening their belts, saving more, paying off more of their debt," said [Scott] Spiker [chief executive of First Command].

    So what is one to make of all this?

    First, the so-called "paradox of thrift" is torn apart in this article over at It's rather long to be quoting, so I'll attempt (probably badly) to summarize.

    It helps to understand what we mean, economically speaking, by "savings", and what it actually does, both at the personal level and in the broader economic sense.

    Saving refers to delayed consumption. In fact, the only purpose of saving now is to consume in the future. If I buy more groceries at the store than I can eat in one sitting, I am saving the rest for eating at some future date. This also illustrates that saving is not limited to money -- it can be applied to literally any consumable good. I presently have a store of ammunition in my house, being saved for such time as I may decide to take a trip to the range or go hunting with it. Many people these days are storing up non-perishable food. The Mormons, who are old pros at this, even have a handy calculator to tell you how much you should have on hand.

    Saving is an indication of a lowered time preference. People with low time preferences are concerned more with their well-being in the future than in the present. Saving is a way to ameliorate that concern, by putting back items that one believes will be needed in the future.

    When it comes to saving money, it's important to remember the other side of the equation. Last year at this time, the press was in a tizzy about the supposed "credit crisis" or "liquidity crisis". The narrative presented was that banks weren't lending anymore, and that people couldn't get the credit they needed. What was never (or hardly ever) mentioned was the fact that one can only borrow what someone else has saved. I cannot borrow a hundred dollars from thin air. Someone else has to have a hundred dollars that they can spare, before that money can be borrowed. Savings therefore fuels the credit market, and without it there would be no credit.

    Government's solution, of course, was to print more money and lend it to the banks for lending out to their customers. Unfortunately, the banks for the most part didn't lend the money out but instead held onto it to shore up their balance sheets, either saving against future catastrophes in their asset valuations (the whole subprime mortgage fiasco), or saving against the time when they would have to pay the government back.

    The problem with this solution is that money in and of itself is worthless. It has to be measured against real wealth in order to have any value at all. So when governments go into inflationary mode, all they are doing is changing the ratio of money to wealth. Printing another $20 bill does not cause a concurrent production of $20 worth of goods. And when the government hands that $20 bill to someone (always a politically favored person or company), that person will go out and spend it as though they had produced $20 worth of value in order to earn it, when in fact they haven't.

    This spending of money without productive effort or wealth behind it causes distortions in the market. A person who receives $100 which was not earned with corresponding production is now demanding $100 worth of goods and services that the market doesn't have to offer them, and prices therefore rise. The rise of prices is a signal to those businesses producing the goods demanded that more production is needed. In terms of assets like stocks or real estate, the rise in prices also draws more investors looking to make a profit. The problem is that prices are a measure of relative value, and value is measured against all other goods in the market, assuming a stable money supply. When the money supply is not stable, ie, the ratio of money to wealth is changing rapidly (as with a person who has been given $100 pulled out of thin air rather than as the result of $100 worth of production), over- and under-valuations become inevitable. In the case of inflation, we've seen the overvaluation of stocks and houses for some time now, and eventually those prices must return to reality as market forces place more and more pressure on them in the opposite direction.

    When this happens, investors naturally become concerned as their net worth is wiped out. These "investors" are not limited exclusively to hedge fund managers and billionaires. These are people with money in their 401(k) and IRA accounts, or simply middle-class homeowners. Remembering that their investing/saving is fueled by concern for their well-being in the future, it makes sense that seeing efforts to care for that future well-being destroyed would raise the level of concern. Given that these people will also talk to their non-investing friends ("man, my portfolio got wiped out when the Dow crashed"), it also makes sense that their losses will fuel the anxiety of those folks as well.

    So in essence the man on the street, in the aggregate, is deciding that the time has come to start saving and cleaning up debt. This process is an attempt to correct the distortions created by the government's printing of money. It's one source of that ever-increasing pressure that the market exerts on inflated prices. What it means is not that the economy as a whole is tanking, but that the distorted sectors favored by government are being forced to return to more realistic levels. Government and its cheerleaders of course want to continue favoring these sectors, hence all the hubbub about the need to "do something" to save it. Unfortunately, the government has decided that its favored sectors represent the whole economy, when they absolutely do not. The magnitude of the correction is only alarming in the fact that it is an indication of the extent to which the government has interfered with normal market processes.

    In summary, people are saving, and that is taking money off the table for everyone, but especially for those sectors not receiving new infusions of government cash. The "Cash for Clunkers" program is receiving new cash, and people are generally willing to spend money that is simply given to them, but this is only creating a new distortion in the market (an "automobile bubble", if you will) that also must eventually burst. Those sectors favored by government which are not receiving new cash must contract, and this will cause a lot of short-term pain. Those sectors that were not favored by government, and furthest from the source of the inflationary dollars in terms of transactions, have been "earning their way", so to speak, and should see less negative impact than the rest, because their businesses have not experienced the same magnitude of distortion. Some of them may even grow as a result, as consumers rebalance their priorities.

    Finally, all of the food, ammunition, money, and other goods being saved by the people will eventually be consumed as the future for which they were saving becomes the present. It's also worth noting that all of this hullabaloo is over the fact that the US savings rate is now an astronomical 2.9 percent, while China's savings rate is closer to 50 percent, and their economy is going gangbusters. That by itself should give one pause when the "paradox of thrift" comes up in conversation.

    (Edited to add: so much for "summarize")

    Posted by Tom, 8/14/2009 7:36:52 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, August 11, 2009

    Much ado about nothing

    So it turns out that this tricep problem is nothing more than a really bad strain. I've been told to do a little physical therapy to get an estimation of how much and how long it will take to get right again. The one exercise that is 100% prevented by this particular injury is the diamond pushup: thumb and index fingertips touching, elbows flared straight out from shoulders. Other exercises may activate it to a lesser degree based on how much of that part of the muscle is used, but most of the time I'm completely unaware of the problem until I hit that spot.

    On the one hand, it's a relief that it's not that serious. On the other hand, when I hit it just right it seems downright unbelievable that something so minor could cause this much pain.

    Move along, nothing to see...

    Posted by Tom, 8/11/2009 5:04:30 PM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    The Economist on Sex Offenders

    The Economist is a magazine which I've been often told I should read, but have never really taken an interest in. It's a little more highbrow than the scrappy Reason which I favor. However, I did really appreciate this article (linked from Reason's Hit & Run Blog), on the state, rationale, and effectiveness of sex offender laws. It is probably the most complete-yet-succinct exposition I've seen thus far on the subject, and that it comes from a source like the Economist gives me hope that the nation might be slowly awakening from its hysteria.

    Among the better bits:

    Georgia has more than 17,000 registered sex offenders. Some are highly dangerous. But many are not. And it is fiendishly hard for anyone browsing the registry to tell the one from the other. The Georgia Sex Offender Registration Review Board, an official body, assessed a sample of offenders on the registry last year and concluded that 65% of them posed little threat. Another 30% were potentially threatening, and 5% were clearly dangerous. The board recommended that the first group be allowed to live and work wherever they liked. The second group could reasonably be barred from living or working in certain places, said the board, and the third group should be subject to tight restrictions and a lifetime of monitoring. A very small number "just over 100" are classified as "predators", which means they have a compulsion to commit sex offences. When not in jail, predators must wear ankle bracelets that track where they are.

    Despite the board's findings, non-violent offenders remain listed and subject to a giant cobweb of controls...

    (emphasis mine)

    One of the great dangers of the information age is the task of distinguishing meaningful data from meaningless data, or managing our "signal to noise" ratio. Sex offender registries are counterproductive in this regard, casting a net wide enough to catch both child rapists and people like this:

    Terry Norris of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association cites a man who was convicted of statutory rape two decades ago for having consensual sex with his high-school sweetheart, to whom he is now married. "It doesn't make it right, but it doesn't make him a threat to anybody," says Mr Norris. "We spend the same amount of time on that guy as on someone who's done something heinous."

    When law enforcement resources are stretched thin, it would seem prudent to stop messing with the small fry and focus on the truly dangerous, but the hysteria embodied in these laws typically won't allow such discretion.

    I also appreciated the political science angle presented by the piece, showing how politicians pander to our worst fears and imaginations, and how this only serves to make the situation worse:

    All parents want to protect their children from sexual predators, so politicians can nearly always win votes by promising curbs on them. Those who object can be called soft on child-molesters, a label most politicians would rather avoid. This creates a ratchet effect. Every lawmaker who wants to sound tough on sex offenders has to propose a law tougher than the one enacted by the last politician who wanted to sound tough on sex offenders.


    That package of reforms would bring America in line with the strictest laws in other rich countries. But few politicians would have the courage to back it. "Jane", the mother of a sex offender in Georgia, says she sent a letter to her senator, Saxby Chambliss, urging such reforms. "They didn't even read it," she says. "They just sent me a form letter assuring me that they were in favour of every sex offender law, and that [Senator Chambliss] has grandchildren he wants to protect."

    Of course, that's pretty much par for the course with politicians these days on any issue.

    The article goes on to point out what I believe should be obvious to anyone with a couple of brain cells to rub together:

    Several studies suggest that making it harder for sex offenders to find a home or a job makes them more likely to reoffend. Gwenda Willis and Randolph Grace of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, for example, found that the lack of a place to live was “significantly related to sexual recidivism”. Candace Kruttschnitt and Christopher Uggen of the University of Minnesota and Kelly Shelton of the Minnesota Department of Corrections tracked 556 sex offenders on probation and found less recidivism among those with a history of stable employment.

    If the goal is to prevent recidivism, it seems pretty stupid that we're pursuing legislative activities that by all appearances make recidivism more likely. But I guess no one ever accused the government of having the capacity for common sense.

    And then there's this item:

    Some bosses do not mind hiring sex offenders, if they know the full story and the offender does not seem dangerous. But an accessible online registry makes it all but certain that a colleague or a customer will find out about a sexual conviction. Sex offenders often report being sacked for no apparent reason. Mike had a job at a cake shop. His boss knew about his record. But one day, without warning, he was fired.

    Given the people I've talked to about the issue, it would not surprise me at all to find out that some local internet vigilante made it their own personal mission to use the registry to keep registered offenders from holding down a job. I can easily see some of the folks I've chatted with calling a local business and threatening a boycott or somesuch because they're "harboring a sex offender".

    The fact remains that many if not most "sex offenders" are not dangerous, and that all of them are human beings. Safety is not served by obsessively monitoring the whereabouts and actions of a streaker at a football game for the rest of his life, or that of a teenage girl who committed an indiscretion. They are the "noise" that keeps us from keeping a clear head and watchful eye with regard to the truly dangerous. The situation can only be made better if enough of us stop to look at things rationally and realize that we're in danger of becoming the guards in a modern-day Stanford prison experiment. I would go so far as to say many of us already are, and that should give the rest of us a moment's pause.

    Posted by Tom, 8/11/2009 7:14:17 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Monday, August 10, 2009

    Positive Vibes

    A couple of months ago, I blogged about how Zeus was barely able to stand up on his own. We took him to the vet, got some pills, and have been steadily dosing him with a powerful anti-inflammatory and some glucosamine supplements. He's been improving, but I had no idea how much until tonight.

    I'm used to him shuffling along behind the other dogs, stumbling on occasion. So imagine my surprise when I went to call them in, and Zeus came charging across the yard at a full gallop, almost looking 5 years younger and having the time of his life. It gave me hope for him, as well as for me in my current condition.

    Speaking of which, I haven't done any real P90X updates for a while because I've been carefully trying to figure out what I can actually do without messing with the bad tricep. It's not a lot, but it's enough to make me feel like I've done a workout, and I'm still improving on some exercises that don't require its use. I'm still waiting on the doctor to tell me what the MRI showed, and hoping beyond hope that he just tells me to wrap it good and see a physical therapist for a while.

    Posted by Tom, 8/10/2009 5:56:33 PM (Permalink). 1 Comment. Leave a comment...

    Thursday, August 6, 2009

    Says it all, really

    One of the main reasons that is my favorite news aggregation site is the way they post articles: submitters write their own headlines, which are often far funnier, pithier, or just better summaries of the article at hand. Witness the following:

    Referenced article is here.

    I really need to get a TotalFark subscription one of these days...

    Posted by Tom, 8/6/2009 7:13:22 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Tuesday, August 4, 2009

    Excellent article

    Here's a great one about the global warming folks vs the laws of economics, as represented by the world's poor:

    A funny thing happened on the way to saving the world’s poor from the ravages of global warming. The poor told the warming alarmists to get lost.


    In Mr. Leslie’s telling, CO2 emissions are part-and-parcel with common pollutants such as particulate matter, toxic waste, and everything else typically associated with a degraded environment. They’re not. The U.S. and China produce equivalent quantities of carbon dioxide. But try naming a U.S. city whose air quality is even remotely as bad as Beijing’s, or an American river as polluted as the Han: You can’t. America, the richer and more industrialized country, is also by far the cleaner one.

    People who live in Third-World countries—like Mexico, where I grew up—tend to understand this, even if First-World environmentalists do not. People who live in oppressive Third World countries, like China, also understand that it isn’t just greater wealth that leads to a better environment, but greater freedom, too.

    To return to Mr. Leslie, his complaint with China is that it has become too much of a consumer society, again in the American mold. Again he is ridiculous: China has one of the world’s highest personal savings rates—50% versus the U.S.’s 2.7%. The real source of China’s pollution problem is a state-led industrial policy geared toward production, and state-owned enterprises (especially in “dirty” sectors like coal and steel) that strive to meet production quotas, and state-appointed managers who don’t mind cutting corners in matters of safety or environmental responsibility, and typically have the political clout to insulate themselves from any public fallout.

    In other words, China’s pollution problems are not a function of laissez-faire policies and rampant consumerism, but of the regime’s excessive lingering control of the economy. A freer China means a cleaner China.

    The author does not specifically say so, but all of the ideas and principles to which he refers are exemplified in the Austrian school of economics. Freedom and property rights produce wealth and prosperity. Government intervention, the application of force and the extension of the broken window fallacy, does not.

    Posted by Tom, 8/4/2009 5:24:25 PM (Permalink). 4 Comments. Leave a comment...

    On Creativity

    I saw this over at Scott Kurtz's site, and found it thoroughly encouraging.

    Posted by Tom, 8/4/2009 7:32:20 AM (Permalink). 0 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Bite-sized Economics: The Broken Window Fallacy

    Let's say a boy throws a baseball through a window. The owner of the window must now go to the hardware store and purchase a new pane. Depending on how handy he is, he may also have to pay someone to install it. The hardware store owner takes his money and uses it to buy flowers for his wife. The florist uses the money to have dinner out at a restaurant. The waiter at the restaurant uses his tips to buy bread, which says nothing of what the restaurant owner uses his share to buy.

    The Keynesian economist looks at this whole chain of economic stimulation and concludes that the best way to stimulate the economy must therefore be to hire little boys to go around breaking windows. What is neglected however, is the owner of the window, who was saving his money for some other purpose -- to buy a new suit, perhaps. The money that the tailor would have earned has now gone to the hardware store. The owner of the window would prefer to have a new suit, but instead he has a new window when the previous window performed its function to his satisfaction.

    Reader TooTall wanted to know what I thought of the "Cash for Clunkers" program, and it is this: the government has elected to pay little boys to go around breaking windows. Note that all of the vehicles turned in under the program must be destroyed. One might object that it's not as though participants in the program are unwillingly having their cars destroyed... participation is entirely voluntary. This is true, but what of the taxpayer who has to foot the bill? The money he would rather spend on something other than destroying his neighbor's car has been forcefully expropriated from him.

    This is the problem with all taxation, no matter the use to which it is put. Money which would have been used in some way to satisfy the wants and needs of its owner has been taken for some other use, to purchase something which the owner prioritized differently. As in the hypothetical example, the hardware store is enriched at the expense and relative impoverishment of the tailor. In this case, it is the businesses that government favors -- defense contractors, construction companies, favored charities, and so forth -- that are enriched at the expense and relative impoverishment of those the tax victim favors.

    Some may object that to allow the tax victim to simply spend his money as he wishes would lead to all sorts of calamity, the deterioration of roads being the apparent favorite. But to return road-building to the realm of consumer choice would merely place it in the list of items that the consumer must prioritize. Almost everyone who drives a motor vehicle would at some point value the construction of roads in a particular area enough to purchase that service.

    In a market free of government interference, this would be accomplished in any one of several ways. Merchants could build the cost of road-building into their products, since it is in their best interests to have patrons able to easily access their places of business. Construction companies could take donations. Toll roads could be constructed. Indeed, all of these solutions have been used in the past, before government got into the road-building business. More importantly, the building of roads would then follow the laws of supply and demand, providing more roads where they were most needed and alleviating congestion more efficiently than the present system.

    In short, the broken window does not provide any new economic stimulation. It merely chooses businesses favored by the ruling class to receive income at the expense of those businesses favored by the ruled. The latter businesses, as well as those ruled, are respectively impoverished by their loss of business and loss of ability to satisfy their wants and needs.

    Posted by Tom, 8/4/2009 7:00:33 AM (Permalink). 2 Comments. Leave a comment...

    Saturday, August 1, 2009

    Mission Accomplished

    Posted by Tom, 8/1/2009 1:28:21 PM (Permalink). 3 Comments. Leave a comment...