Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Blaming PowerPoint for NASA disasters

This is slightly bizarre but I can see the point Tufte is making.

Did PowerPoint make the space shuttle crash? Could it doom another mission?

Preposterous as this may sound, the ubiquitous Microsoft "presentation software" has twice been singled out for special criticism by task forces reviewing the space shuttle disaster.

Perhaps I've sat through too many PowerPoint presentations lately, but I think the trouble with these critics is that they don't go far enough: The software may be as much of a mind-numbing menace to those of us who intend to remain earthbound as it is to astronauts.

Did PowerPoint make the space shuttle crash? Could it doom another mission? Preposterous as this may sound, the ubiquitous Microsoft "presentation software"
has twice been singled out for special criticism by task forces reviewing the space shuttle disaster.'

PowerPoint's failings have been outlined most vividly by Yale political scientist Edward Tufte, a specialist in the visual display of information. In a 2003 Wired magazine article headlined "PowerPoint Is Evil" and a less dramatically titled pamphlet, "The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint," Tufte argued that the program encourages "faux-analytical" thinking that favors the slickly produced "sales pitch" over the sober exchange of information.

Exhibit A in Tufte's analysis is a PowerPoint slide presented to NASA senior managers in January 2003, while the space shuttle Columbia was in the air and the agency was weighing the risk posed by tile damage on the shuttle wings. Key information was so buried and condensed in the rigid PowerPoint format as to be useless.

"It is easy to understand how a senior manager might read this PowerPoint slide and not realize that it addresses a life-threatening situation," the Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded, citing Tufte's work. The board devoted a full page of its 2003 report to the issue, criticizing a space agency culture in which, it said, "the endemic use of PowerPoint" substituted for rigorous technical analysis.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Politicians never learn; price controls do not work

Once again politicians are looking to easy but pernicious "solutions" to high gasoline prices. They woiuld be making a mistake as history and economic theory demonstrates. High prices serve as signals to the consumer to alter behaviour or seek alternatives. Intervention would make things worse. It's sending the wrong signals.

Mass. pols eyeing Hawaiian-style gas cap
By Jay Fitzgerald
Saturday, August 27, 2005

Gov. Mitt Romney and top legislative leaders are refusing to rule out the possibility of a gas-price cap in Massachusetts - just days after Hawaii announced price
controls in reaction to skyrocketing fuel costs.

"If the Legislature proposes one, we would carefully review it,'' said Romney communications chief Eric Fehrnstrom.

And at least one key Bay State lawmaker, Sen. Michael Morrissey (D-Quincy), thinks lawmakers should consider a cap to ``send a signal'' to oil companies and the federal government that states are fed up with spiking gas prices.

"Even if (a local cap) was pre-empted by federal law, so what? Let them take us to court,'' said Morrissey, co-chair of the Joint Committee on Energy, Utilities and

Other legislators said they've neither ruled in nor ruled out a gas cap, patterned after Hawaii's move to set a $3-a-gallon limit next month on wholesale prices on the isolated island paradise.

Ann Dufresne, a spokeswoman for Senate President Robert Travaglini (D-East Boston), said lawmakers are exploring a number of different short-term options to deal with high prices - including a possible cap or a cut in the state's 21 cent per gallon gas tax.

She emphasized discussions are preliminary and lawmakers aren't even sure if they have the power to impose a cap, possibly violating interstate commerce laws or other regulations.

A spokeswoman for House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi (D-Boston) suggested similar caveats.

"We would take a closer look at the Hawaii legislation,'' said DiMasi aide Kim Haberlin.

The refusal of free-market advocate Romney to rule out a cap would be particularly significant if lawmakers were to begin debate on the issue.

But in a twist, the liberal Rep. James Marzilli (D-Arlington) said a cap would distort market forces that are largely driven by national and overseas events. Marzilli, who owns two Toyota hybrid cars, said high prices are forcing people to reassess energy use.

Ron Planting, economist with the American Petroleum Institute, said any cap would harken back to failed energy policies of the 1970s, when fuel shortages occurred.

For once I agree with Jim Marzilli.

Meanwhile Jane Galt has a good primer on price controls and the Hawaii experiment.

Monday, August 22, 2005

RIP Bob Moog

Bob Moog, innovator and technical genius and an inspiration to every progressive rock geek died yesterday in his home in Asheville, North Carolina. Moog invented the airy sounding keyboard that bore his name.

"I can feel what's going on inside a piece of electronic equipment," he says in the Hans Fjellestad-directed documentary, Moog, "It would be egotistical to say 'I thought of it.' I opened my mind and the idea came through. It's something between discovering and witnessing."

Godspeed Bob.

More information here and here from his hometown paper

Elizabeth Blair's report for NPR is worth a listen.

Way DJ Kool: You'll never think of dominoes in the same way!

This really is a cool video. Check it out.

(Hat tip to Michele Catalano at A Small Victory)

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Robert Samuelson makes us feel better about our dis-saving

Do Americans "save" enough. It depends on how you count. Robert Samuelson explains.

... economic statistics also distort what's happened. The outlook isn't as dire as the zero personal savings rate implies. One common error is to confuse personal with national savings. Along with consumers, businesses and governments can save, too. In 2004 companies saved about $1.4 trillion in retained profits and depreciation allowances. If you own stock, your companies are saving for you. But federal budget deficits, a form of dis-saving, erase some of that. The overall result: Although our national savings rate has declined, it's nowhere near zero.

The personal savings rate is derived by subtracting Americans' total consumption spending from their total after-tax income (i.e. "disposable income''). By definition, the rest is "saving." In 1984 the personal savings rate -- savings as a share of disposable income -- was 10.8 percent. It's drifted down ever since. It was 4.6 percent in 1995 and 1.8 percent in 2004. It hit zero in June.

These low figures are not inconsistent with huge 401(k) and IRA contributions. Suppose you put $4,000 into a 401(k) account. You think you've "saved." But then you borrow $4,000 to go to Vegas or pay college tuition. Now your savings rate is zero. Ditto if you'd sold $4,000 of stock. Borrowings and stock sales offset much retirement saving.

The trouble with the official savings rate is that it excludes some items that people intuitively count as savings, notes Susan Sterne of Economic Analysis Associates. A big omission is the capital gains -- aka profits -- on housing or stocks, both realized (if you sell) or on paper (if you don't). If your home or stocks increase $10,000, you may feel comfortable borrowing $4,000 to spend. You've still got an extra $6,000 in savings. But the savings statistics ignore these value changes; all they show is that you've saved less by spending another $4,000.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

No room at the inn for faith; "Darwin's Rottweiler" Sir Richard Dawkins

How to influence people and not make many friends. Sir Richard Dawkins, Darwin's premier explicator is an atheist. This is obvious to everyone keeping tabs on the culture war. Stephen Hall in Discover magazine (reg req'd) gives us a good impression on why Sir Dawkins isn't the right person to speak for rationalism in this grand debate between science and faith. One only hopes that the folks who tie themselves up in their underwear over the alleged lack of John Bolton's diplomatic and anger management skills will also find Dawkins to be a real ass and a political loser. He tried to induce Ohioans to vote against Bush suggesting if the incumbent were to win "properly" the cue to Canada would be long. Thus far scientific evidence on the Canadian exodus is scant. Must be something to do with those genes in Columbus.

Hall's profile is worth reading only because the more Dawkins speaks the more he does damage to his cause, something he even agrees with. What's so smart about that?

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Summer reading review

Just finished reading Ron Bailey's LIBERATION BIOLOGY. I'm not overwhelmed by this polemic on the virtues of liberating biotechnology as others in the blogosphere. In fact, I find the author a little smug and dismissive of some genuine philosophical issues.

Kenneth Silber at TechCentralStation likes the book overall.

Saturday, August 13, 2005

Under-reported news: Harvard's corruption

David Warsh, to his credit, won't let go of this story. He shouldn't, for the integrity of the economics profession is on the line. How Harvard President Larry Summers ultimately handles this case is as important as controversy over women and science.

The last great financial scandal of the 1990s wrapped up in court last week when Harvard University agreed to pay the US government $26.5 million to settle charges that its star economics professor Andrei Shliefer had sought to gain a personal fortune while leading Harvard's government-sponsored mission to Moscow.

The settlement put an end to eight years of legal wrangling. US Attorney Michael Sullivan said in a statement, "The defendants were entrusted with the important task of assisting in the creation of a post-Communist Russian open-market economy and instead took the opportunity to enrich themselves."

Shleifer and his wife, hedge fund operator Nancy Zimmerman, will pay $2 million and $1.5 million respectively, according to the settlement (the latter sum having been previously announced). Shleifer's deputy, Jonathan Hay, will pay as much as $2 million over ten years, if he can earn it as a lawyer in London.

Altogether, it adds up to around $31 million, or most of the roughly $40 million that the government paid Harvard to provide disinterested advice to the Russian government.

One would think that the meting out of punishment would attract the news media. The story has a lot of intrigue. However as Warsh points out:

The Harvard case is a major story in Russia, where privatization of state-owned assets to the oligarchs is regarded as something less than a complete success. But the Financial Times last week ignored the settlement, The New York Times and Washington Post ran Associated Press accounts, and The Boston Globe buried the story at the bottom of its metro page. Such is the power of money to obscure. Only The Wall Street Journal gave the story any ink -- the redoubtable Carla Anne Robbins has followed it from the beginning.
Read the entire column.

Friday, August 12, 2005

The Boston Redevelopment Authority hasn't learned the sad history of eminent domain

The Boston Redevelopment Authority is apparently leery of a move by Republican Minority Leader Brad Jones to rein in the powers of eminent domain in the aftermath of the SCOTUS Kelo v. New London. Tis' a pity.

State Rep. Bradley Jones, R-North Reading, is spearheading the effort. The House Republican leader has filed a petition, a bill, and a proposed state constitutional amendment all aimed at limiting the use of eminent domain.

The bill would bar cities and towns from seizing private property solely for economic development.

Allowing governments to seize private property and transfer it to another private developer simply because they can generate higher taxes is wrong, he said.

"It's quickly devolving into a mathematical calculation," he said. "The logical extension of this is scary."Defenders of the state's eminent domain law say it is already restrictive enough. They say the use of eminent domain to seize blighted properties has helped improve neighborhoods and spur the creation of affordable housing.

"We are wary of any further restrictions on the Massachusetts law," said Susan Elsbree, spokeswoman for the Boston Redevelopment Authority. "Eminent domain is a very important tool for cities and towns across the commonwealth."

For Bostonians with long memories, the ruling inspired painful memories about the loss of the West End.

In the years after the World War II many cities fell on hard times as middle class residents fled to burgeoning suburbs. Boston, like many cities, responded by launching an aggressive urban renewal program. For those in power, the West End was a perfect example of "blight."

Those who called the West End home saw something very different -- a neighborhood with the invisible web of family and friends that knitted together the sturdy, if sometimes shabby brick buildings and corner stores.

That invisible but vital society was the subject of a classic study by famed sociologist Herbert Gans, who moved into the neighborhood in its twilight years. His 1962 book, "The Urban Villagers," painted a picture of a community in sharp contrast to the official designation as a "slum."

In the decades since the demolition, the West End has become one of the nation's most infamous examples of urban folly. Former residents who still feel the sting of
loss have their own spin on the sales pitch for the new West End: "If you lived
here, you'd be homeless now."

The BRA has a short memory. Does not Ms. Elsbree not remember the West End, the classic textbook case that illustrates how not to do urban renewal? This kind of ignorance could either be a farce or a tragedy.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

When liberals were interested in human rights for all.

Christopher Hitchens asks a very important question.

.. Why have several large American cities not already announced that they are going to become sister cities with Baghdad and help raise money and awareness to aid Dr. Tamimi? When I put this question to a number of serious anti-war friends, their answer was to the effect that it's the job of the administration to allocate the money, so that there's little room or need for civic action. I find this difficult to credit: For day after day last month I could not escape the news of the gigantic "Live 8" enterprise, which urged
governments to do more along existing lines by way of debt relief and aid for Africa. Isn't there a single drop of solidarity and compassion left over for the people of Iraq, after three decades of tyranny, war, and sanctions and now an assault from the vilest movement on the face of the planet? Unless someone gives me a persuasive reason to think otherwise, my provisional conclusion is that the human rights and charitable "communities" have taken a pass on Iraq for political reasons that are not very creditable. And so we watch with detached curiosity, from dry land, to see whether the Iraqis will sink or swim. For shame.

More Irshad Manji please

Someday when antiwar liberals wake up out of their delusions, they will thank Irshad Manji.

But if these anti-terror measures feel like an overreaction to the London bombings, that's only because Britons, like so many in the West, have been avoiding a vigorous debate about what values are most worth defending in our societies.

As Westerners bow down before multiculturalism, we anesthetize ourselves into believing that anything goes. We see our readiness to accommodate as a strength - even a form of cultural superiority (though few will admit that). Radical Muslims, on the other hand, see our inclusive instincts as a form of corruption that makes us soft and rudderless. They believe the weak deserve to be vanquished.

Paradoxically, then, the more we accommodate to placate, the more their contempt for our "weakness" grows. And ultimate paradox may be that in order to defend our diversity, we'll need to be less tolerant. Or, at the very least, more vigilant. And this vigilance demands more than new antiterror laws. It requires asking: What guiding values can most of us live with?

Given the panoply of ideologies and faiths out there, what filter will distill almost everybody's right to free expression? Neither the watery word "tolerance" nor the
slippery phrase "mutual respect" will cut it as a guiding value. Why tolerate violent bigotry? Where's the "mutual" in that version of mutual respect? Amin Maalouf, a French-Arab novelist, nailed this point when he wrote that "traditions deserve respect only insofar as they are respectable - that is, exactly insofar as they themselves respect the fundamental rights of men and women."

Allow me to invoke a real-life example of what can't be tolerated if we're going to maintain freedom of expression for as many people as possible. In 1999, an uproar surrounded the play "Corpus Christi" by Terrence McNally, in which Jesus was depicted as a gay man. Christians protested the show and picketed its European debut in Edinburgh, a reasonable exercise in free expression. But Omar Bakri Muhammad, a Muslim preacher and a judge on the self-appointed Sharia Court of the United Kingdom, went further: he signed a fatwa calling for Mr. McNally to be killed, on the grounds that Jesus is considered a prophet by Muslims. (Compassion overflowed in the clause that stated Mr. McNally "could be buried in a Muslim graveyard" if he repented.) Mr. Bakri then had the fatwa distributed throughout London.

Since then, Mr. Bakri has promoted violent struggle from various London meeting halls. He has even lionized the July 7 bombers as the "fantastic four." He is a counselor of death, and should not have been allowed to remain in Britain. And thanks to Mr. Blair's newfound fortitude, he has reportedly fled England for Lebanon.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Taking a page from Milton Friedman, Landsburg says government is the problem not the solution to the housing problem

Steven Landsburg is one of my favorite economist/writers. As he sees it, the housing supply problem has been created by government. This might not go over well in Cambridge and Berkeley but Landsburg's on solid ground. It's the zoning laws stupid.

... Housing prices must be driven by something other than fundamentals. Speculators, of either the rational or the irrational variety, are the obvious culprits.

Here's what's wrong with that analysis: Housing prices have to make sense on both the demand side and the supply side. No matter what you do or don't believe about the ability of crazed demanders to bid up prices, you still have to explain why competitive suppliers don't bid those prices right back down. In other words, if the housing market is so tight that builders are making a fortune, they ought to be flooding the market with
new houses—and driving down prices.

In fact, buyers' behavior is relatively easy to explain. Most of the recent explosion in housing prices has been in cities like San Francisco and Santa Barbara—in other words, in really nice places to live. It's not unreasonable to believe that, as Americans grow richer, and as technology makes us more mobile, more and more of us want to move to California.

And it's not unreasonable to expect that this trend will continue, so that even a very expensive house in the Bay Area can look like a good investment.

The great mystery is on the supply side. Instead of the traditional formula "housing price equals land price + construction costs + reasonable profit," we seem to be seeing something more like "housing price equals land price + constructions costs plus reasonable profit + mystery component." And, most interestingly, the mystery component varies a lot from city to city.

Even in cities like San Francisco, where there's little room to build and land is consequently dear (on the order of $85,000 per quarter acre, compared with $2,200 for Dallas), you can't use land prices to explain away housing prices. The mystery component in San Francisco housing—that is, the amount left over when you subtract land prices and construction costs from house prices—is the highest in the country.

Edward Glaeser of Harvard and Joe Gyourko of the University of Pennsylvania have computed these mystery components for about two dozen American cities. They speculate that the mystery component is essentially a "zoning tax." That is, zoning and other restrictions put a brake on competitive forces and keep housing prices up. (Read one of their papers here.)

When you buy a house, you're not just paying for the land and construction costs; you're also paying for a building permit and other costs of compliance. You've got to get the permits, pass the zoning and historic preservation boards, ace the environmental impact statement, win over the neighborhood commission, etc. If Glaeser and Gyourko are right, that's the mystery component right there.

Rusdie asks for a Muslim Reformation, is he asking for too much?

Before proposing for a renewal in Islamic though, Salmon Rushdie thinks little of Tony Blair's outreach to the Muslim community in Britian.
[Sir Iqbal] Sacranie is a strong advocate of Blair's much-criticized new religious-hatred bill, which will make it harder to criticize religion, and he actually expects the new law to outlaw references to Islamic terrorism. He said as recently as Jan. 13, "There is no such thing as an Islamic terrorist. This is deeply offensive. Saying Muslims are terrorists would
be covered [i.e., banned] by this provision." Two weeks later his organization boycotted a Holocaust remembrance ceremony in London commemorating the liberation of Auschwitz 60 years ago. If Sir Iqbal Sacranie is the best Blair can offer in the way of a good Muslim, we have a problem.

Rusdie thinks the world of Islam is due for a Reformation. We can only hope.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Brining home the bacon, Republican style

The Republicans have morphed into another spending party. But what I'm also noticing is that the Democrats have been strangely silent on this pork barrel extravaganza. That's because they've been taken care of as well. Every congressional district is slated to receive special funding. This is quite an accomplishment. Check out this chart from the Washington Post.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

To those who say, "Socialism has never been tried," see North Korea

The economic and political basket case that is North Korea. A rogue state with nuclear weapon capability unable to feed its own people. What did the bumper sticker say about "SOCIALISM KILLS"?

The biggest irony for the "great socialist society" is that people have to pay for textbooks and teachers' salaries, Lee said. Teachers have long been unpaid by the state and cannot leave the school because they have to teach the children. So the school collects money from the students to pay the teachers.

"I made about 80,000 Won a month selling things in the market," Lee said "The authorities take half of the money as tax and dues. Sure, I can live with 40,000 Won, but not enough to send my two boys to school."

She shrugged and added, "That's why I bribed the border guard and crossed the river to come here."

Read the whole article.

Another case of Congressional Republican (and Democrat) overreach

The big spenders in Congress know no shame. Only John McCain had the courage of his convictions of voting against the omnibus transportation bond bill last week. We thought President Bush was going to veto the spending bill; we were wrong. One thing appears to be more certain as each Congressional session passes. These Republicans are far different than Reagan Republicans, the appear to be in favor of make work projects and mass transit. Anything to get re-elected, we suppose.

"Egregious and remarkable," exclaimed Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., about the estimated $24 billion in the bill set aside for highways, bus stops, parking lots and bike trails requested by lawmakers.

McCain, one of only four senators to oppose the bill, listed several dozen "interesting" projects, including $480,000 to rehabilitate a historic warehouse on the Erie Canal and $3 million for dust control mitigation on Arkansas rural roads. His favorite, he said, was $2.3
million for landscaping on the Ronald Reagan Freeway in California. "I wonder what Ronald Reagan would say."

Reagan, in fact, vetoed a highway bill over what he said were spending excesses, only to be overridden by Congress. Meanwhile, according to a Cato Institute analysis, special projects or "earmarks" numbered 10 in 1982, 152 in 1987, 538 in 1991 and 1,850 in 1998. The 1998 highway act set aside some $9 billion for earmarks, well under half the newest plan.

With this vote, the gimmicky accounting of the costs of the war on terror and just plain stupidity the Republicans are saying "We are all free spending liberals now!"

Monday, August 01, 2005

Moral hazard and the volunteer army; asking a tough question

The economist Uwe E. Reinhardt in a very tough column laments the lack of sacrifice broadly shared in the War on Terror.

Last year kind-hearted folks in New Jersey collected $12,000 at a pancake feed to help stock pantries for financially hard-pressed families of the National Guard. Food pantries for American military families? The state of Illinois now allows taxpayers to donate their tax refunds to such families. For the entire year 2004, slightly more than $400,000 was collected in this way, or 3 cents per capita. It is the equivalent of about 100,000 cups of Starbucks coffee. With a similar program Rhode Island collected about 1 cent per capita. Is this what we mean by "supporting our troops"?

Read the whole thing even though it's not comforting to read.

In passing reference, NYT casts aside the Butler report

Belgravia Dispatch calls out the New York Times on the uranium from Niger story that keeps getting twisted. It's all to promote the meme that "Bush lied," of course.

I know I beat on this story a bit like a dead horse. I do so largely because the sixteen words of the SOTU have been used by many as partisan talking point to scream 'Bush lied'! But if you dig into the weeds of the investigations that have taken place--one must judiciously conclude that he didn't. This is not to say that intelligence was not analyzed aggressively or that there were not people at the CIA or State who were more dubious than others in the intelligence community about the Niger/uranium information available. Look, would it have been better if Bush had said in the SOTU: "The British Government suspects (rather than "has learned") that Saddam Hussein recently sought significant
quantities of uranium from Africa"? Yeah. But the statement wasn't some horrific Big Lie, even if the formulation wasn't ideal. And it's not as if, but for the Niger/uranium claim, Bush's case for war would have crumbled. Read the '03 SOTU.

A final point. You'll hear a lot from the predictable quarters that the Iraq Survey Group turned up no uranium. That's true, of course. But this doesn't have a bearing on whether Bush lied. Intelligence is a murky realm, and definitive judgments are hard to come by. One must weigh evidence and make reasoned analyses. The British did so, and are on
the record stating that there were non-forgery related sources that Iraq was seeking uranium in the late 90s from Niger and perhaps the Congo too.

Similarly, the SSCI references some DIA intel unrelated to the forgeries that, while no slam dunk, at least left open the possibility Iraq was seeking uranium in Africa. The fact that no uranium turned up after the invasion certainly means our intelligence gathering needs to be improved, and that we must continue to strenuously keep vigil that intelligence is not crudely politicized to fit pre-determined agendas. But nothing about the Iraq Survey Group's post-war uranium findings (or lack thereof) points to an administration that was knowingly, intentionally, purposefully lying on the issue in the advent to war.

Read the whole dispatch.