Battlepanda: May 2005


Always trying to figure things out with the minimum of bullshit and the maximum of belligerence.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Fry Fry Revolution

This hilarious and heartening/disheartening story from the Guardian is old, but very amusing. Apparently, when diesel prices went up in Swansea, Wales a few years ago, drivers started filling their diesel tanks up with vegetable oil at 42 pencer per litre, as opposed to 73p per litre for diesel. Apparently, they skipped the whole biodiesel creation step, which involves mixing in a bit of methanol and sodium hydroxide, from what I understand, and just poured the stuff straight into the tank. They were going to the local supermarket and loading their carts full of the stuff in litre bottles, and the supermarket management simply put it down to the Welsh love for fried goods.
"It mixed with the little bit of diesel I had left in the tank," says Nicholson. "Not only did it work, the vehicle actually behaved better. I never heard my car sound so good, there was a fantastic noise, not a clickety-click, more of a grunt. And then, of course, there was the smell." He used vegetable oil to tide him over until the blockade ended. But so happy was he with the performance it gave, that he decided to use it full time, and set up a website to exchange information on biopower.

The disheartening part of the story is, as soon as the Department of Motor Vehiecles got wind of this practice, they swooped down with heavy fines for tax evasion for the budding biodiesel culture of Swansea.

I've long planned to make my next car a diesel and run it on waste vegetable oil. If nothing else, it'll give me a good excuse to fry, not that restaurants don't give the stuff away for free.

Saturday, May 28, 2005

Marks and Spencers boycott

Walking past Marks and Spencers (a department store) yesterday, there were a couple of noisy groups with megaphones shouting at passer-bys. I soon ascertained that one group was there to protest Mark and Spencer's support of Israel and zionism, in trade and as part of their corporate culture. The other picket was a counter demonstration by pro-Israelis.

I took a leaflet and talked to a very nice man, Collin, who was obviously very passionate about the plight of the Palestinians, and also very adamant that Jews, Muslims and Christian alike must live in equality in Palestine, which means no more Israel.

The plight of the Palestinian people is important to me, and I am destressed that the pickets is doing more harm than good. After all, Marks and Spencers is a British institution with shareholders far and wide who would be hurt by fall in sales. They are also, despite their Jewish roots, now unaligned with an nation or ideology in particular. I think people would find targeting M&S a huge turn-off. It goes without saying that I am against the boycott of Israeli individuals. What I am for is formenting an organized, national trade sanctions against Israel until they start treating Palestinians like people, but when the heck is that going to happen?

Thursday, May 26, 2005

What a deal!

Of course I'm way behind on my blogging, and I'm sure everybody is already sick and tired of The Deal, but I'd just like to say that out of all the different voices and opinions out there on this matter, my viewpoint most closely resembles Nathan Newman's. The compromise was a win for moderate Republicans, a loss for extreme Republicans and a loss for Democrats, period.
So this deal is perfect for the moderate GOPers. Filibusters are allowed only on judges that the moderate GOPers say may be filibustered. And those moderate GOPers get to vote against those candidates that are filibustered, playing the double game of keeping their conservative bona fides while claiming to uphold traditions of the Senate.

Also read Nathan's follow-up post on why it will clarify and strengthen progressive causes if we put an end to all judicial activism.
In the same vein as Bradford Plumer's short, wry take on what the deal means for the future, I think what we have done is compromised our present ability to exercise the filibuster without curbing the ability for Republicans to use filibusters in a future Democratic Senate. Imagine if, as Brad lays out in his thought experiment, if the Democrats retake the Senate and push for something that is as anathema to the Republicans as Priscilla Owens is to Democrats -- a massive healthcare bill, whatever. The Republicans will naturally filibuster, as is their right to do so according to the rules. But after all their noble words about senate tradition and minority rights, what can the Democrats to to stop them?

What a deal! (if you know Chinese)

Just bought return tickets to Hong Kong from London for £329 including taxes. Flying Virgin Atlantic. I booked at a Chinese-run travel agent. If I bought the same tickets (same airline, same flight) through Thomas Cook, a mainstream travel agent, I would have paid £487. Of course, wrestling for half an hour on the phone with the Hong Kong-ese agent (who spoke terrible mandarin chinese) was torture, but I'm quite happy about the savings.

I just wish the dollar wasn't so damn weak. It feels like everything is extra expensive just for me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Five books I should really read

Having been passed the meme from the Ethical Werewolf, I now have to reveal the five books I've been most meaning to read, but haven't yet. In no particular order...

1) The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
I wonder if I'm violating the spirit, if not the letter, of the meme by putting this in the list, since I'm reading it right now. But as I'm on 75 pages in, and by no means of assured of actually finishing the thing, I think it's fair.

2) Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
This is the book that people who know about my likes and dislikes in books often recommend to me. I also liked Diamond's subsequent book, Collapse, a lot. So I don' know why it's taking me so long to get around to it.

3) The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker
Or The Language Instinct or even How the Mind Works, if I'm really feeling ambitious.

4) The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money by John Maynard Keynes
As my outlook on economics is best described as Keynesian, eventually I should actually read the man's work.

5) Something by John Kenneth Galbraith
I don't know what, but ever since reading the review of the new John Kenneth Galbraith biography by Brad DeLong, I have been intrigued by Galbaith and his ideas. Maybe The Great Crash 1929 would be a good place to start, since it is an area of history I'm also curious about. Perhaps somebody would tell me whether, since his writings seem to be short, it is better to buy the anthology of his work.

Who to pass the meme on to? How about John Emerson, John from Dymaxion World, and Publius of Legal Fiction? Apologies if any of you guys are tagged already, I'm abroad and consequently hardly able to keep up with the blogs! It's simple...just name five books you most need to read, but somehow haven't gotten around to yet.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Quick post my internet connection might run out at any moment...

Greetings from London. I see that the Werewolf has tagged me with the "five books I really need to read" meme. I shall have to do some rumination before I can participate.

Meanwhile, I am enjoying the great ethnic food in London. My sister and I had delicious Lebanese food from Edgeware road yesterday, and later on we're going to go to Royal China for what is I my opinion the best Dim sum in the world after Hong Kong and Toronto.

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Caution: Film Criticism Ahead (Spoiler Free-ish)

(Beware: Angelica is flexing her long-dormant liberal-arts bullshitting muscle here...)


Or should I call it New Melodrama? What I'm trying to describe is the select crop of films, starting with "American Beauty", and continuing with "House of Sand and Fog" and most recently "Crash" that seek to be serious and artistic, but with a vital emotional rather than intellectual core. I know three films does not make a heck of a trend, but if you've seen them all you'll pick up on the stylistic similarities that suggest a common sensibility. The emphasis is on describing the texture of modern life in a way that poeticizes the mundane, much like the drifting plastic bag in American Beauty or the way that the reflection of headlights on a rainsoaked street are blurred into glistening circles of light in the credits of "Crash". Another common thread is the emphasis on exploring the characters' humanity and interconnectedness rather than following wish-fulfillment plot-arcs or a reliance on action to deliver interest. All work hard to arrive at arriving at some sense of transcendence. Billboards of "American Beauty" juxaposed the midriff of a nubile teen with a rose, and the text "look closer." An invitation to re-examine our increasingly secular quotidian existance and find a new kind of spirituality.

Personally, I found "American Beauty" deficient on some levels. But even so, I found myself inordinately moved when I first saw it. It was not until later, when I had the opportunity to think through its contents, that I was able to dismiss it as rather manipulative and cliched in its treatment of characters. I wonder if "Crash" will fall similarly in my esteem when I see it again. Like "American Beauty", it is well-written, intensely emotional and over-reliant on coincidences as the glue that binds us all together. But as an additional strength, it presents characters of all races in such a startlingly nuanced way that it instantly renders most of the characterizations in other "issue" movies about race unsatisfyingly flat.

Any criticism of "Crash" must be viewed in context -- it's objectively better than most of the pablum that fills our cinema screens nowadays (*cough*Star Wars*cough*). I am just very wary of anything I'm a sucker for, that's all.

(Also very interesting is the treatment of guns, which occupy pivotal place in all three movies-- they are not presented simply as instruments of violence, but metaphors for fate. Beyond universal adherance to supernatural beings, there is yet a desire to assign objects of power with the property of influencing human outcomes with inexorable force. There's a good dissertation in there somewhere...)

Friday, May 20, 2005

It's all in the wrist

Hmm. Korean researcher claims that the secret to his nation's success with stem-cell research lies in the dexterity built by a lifetime of eating with chopsticks.
"This work can be done much better in Oriental hands," cloning master Hwang Woo-suk recently told the journal Nature Medicine. "We can pick up very slippery corn or rice with the steel chopsticks."

Oh, so it's not the Christo-facist theocracy that confines research to 6 mostly defunct lines of stem cells that's holding back American scientists. It's the knife and fork.
There's more:
Cloning clashes with South Korea's traditionally cherished Confucian belief that people inherit their bodies from ancestors and should not be tampered with. But the nation's quest for international recognition, a yearning for new medical treatments and fascination with biotechnology help explain why scientists here embarked on cloning and stem cell research.
Hwang said recently his commitment to his work is rekindled each time he runs into a patient whose disease may someday be cured with stem cells.
"Anyone, unless he has a heart of steel, will recognize and accept the need to advance with the research when he sees these patients," he said.

More Nurse-practitioners

Amen, Ezra.

Using more nurse-practitioners to drive down medical care costs is an sensible idea that should be pushed. Ezra also raises an interesting angle that this is a good way to do an end run around the AMA, which is the powerful professional body ensuring that it remains absurdly hard to become an MD and therefore salaries stay high.

Out of town notice

It seems that I have omitted to mention the fact that I'm going abroad for fun and to visit family this summer. Starting Sunday. I had thought about getting a guest blogger, but figured that this blog is a little bit too low down the food chain for that luxury. So, dear readers, although posting would be sporadic, please check back once in a while because I'll be blogging from whereever in the world I happen to be (well, briefly England, then Taiwan for a month, basically.)

Naming trouble

I suppose there really are more important things in the world than this, but Matt Yglesias's recent post about women changing their names has touched off quite a lively comment section. Can you say flame bait?
For the record, I take an extremist line on this question. Adopting your husband's name isn't the worst thing in the world to do, but it's still wrong. And, no, feminism isn't all about choices. It's about equality. And, yes, given the historical dynamic changing names is often the individually rational thing to do in a self-interested sense.
Now, this really touches quite close to home since, not too long ago, the subject came up in my circle of friends from college and I realized to my surprise that most of my female ones are actually planning to change their name to their husbands after marriage. Now, I don't believe in censoring an individual for making the best choice for them personally, but I found it hard not to be disturbed that all those smart and successful women (all of them more accomplished than I) have decided to give up a part of their identity they have had since birth for the sake of name-uniformity in marriage. Individually, they all have good reasons for doing so -- many think about the children, and how awkward their name might sound doubled-barreled. Some simply doesn't think it's that big a deal. I have no problems with any individual changing their name to that of their partners, be they male or female. But a disturbing pattern starts to emerge when you realize that it always seems to be the woman that is expected to make this hobson's choice -- sacrifice your name for the sake of unity, or keep your individuality and be responsible for a (nominal) division in your family.

Understandably, many liberal women are very tetchy about the suggestion that they are bowing to societal pressure to change their name as opposed to making a free and personal choice. But for me, there's no way to separate where societal pressure ends and your free will begins in an intellectually honest way. I have heard many women who have changed or are changing their names say "it really could have gone either way...but my husband's name was shorter/more interesting/easier to pronounce." Since I have yet to hear a man who changed his name give this justification, I have to conclude that it is a comforting fiction for a woman to pretend that, had her surname been more melodious, her husband might have given up his name instead.

If you're interested in this issue at all, go to the comment strand and look out for comments by "Latts", "Dan Kervick" and Bitch. I think Latts summed up what I have to say much more elegantly in just one paragraph:
I don't think it's an issue of absolute right or wrong, but we might as well acknowledge that acquiescence to an outdated and generally unequal social standard perpetuates it, regardless of personal motivation.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

My (minor) beef with Freakonomics

Steven Sailer himself (supposedly) directed me to his rebuttal of one of Freakonomic's most attention-grabbing conclusions -- that the legalization of abortion led to the fall of crime a generation later. I found his article to be an interesting, if hyperbolic ("pre-emptive executions", indeed) objection to the way Steven Levitt sliced and diced his numbers. Levitt defends his hypothesis to my satisfaction in his blog, but I wish that he did acknowledge the spike in murders that run contra to his theory in the book itself.

I must be almost alone in thinking this, but I don't find Levitt's abortion/crime hypothesis very controversial. If you accept that sub-optimal conditions increases the possiblity that a child grows up to be a criminal, and that most mothers contemplating abortion are unlikely to provide the ideal conditions for raising the child, it would be more difficult to explain why legalizing abortion would not lower the crime rate. Whether or not this would constitute "pre-emptive executions" is a separate argument.

I actually found Freakonomic's chapter on parenting much more problematic. According to Levitt, your child's lot in life is, statistically speaking, cast as soon as the child is born -- who you are as a parent is more important than what you do for your child. Now, I have no doubt that Levitt crunched the numbers correctly, and that even after all the proper statistical controls are taken, being born in a household with highly educated parents is a far better predictor of your eventual academic success than whether your parents read to you every night as a child. But I find the comparison entirely unfair because it holds up a measure that is predictive of a whole array of child-rearing practices against a single facet of childrearing. Of course reading to your child every night is not a silver bullet with an effect large enough to show up in statistical analysis, but that is not the same thing as saying it has no real benefit. There could be no statistical correlation between, say, one's guacamole consumption and one's weight because many people of different lifestyles, tastes and habits like guacamole. This does not mean guacamole is not a fattening food.

I would go along with Levitt's assertion that modern parents are way too neurotic about doing everything exactly right for their little darlings. If he stopped there I'd be completely with him. If you don't read to your child every night, you shouldn't feel guilty as long as you're doing something else to stimulate the child's learning. But he goes on to imply that everything parents consciously do to develop their child's mind is basically bunk. That is a conclusion that I don't think is supported by his data.

But hey, those are quibbles. Freakonomics is an awesome book, and I look forwards to hearing more from Levitt and those who follow his train of thoughs in the future.

Why I blog

Because this is what I do when I'm not blogging.
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Knitting and baseball are my new drugs. It's a potent combo. Kind of like washing down barbituates with burbon, except wholesome. But why am I making big-ol' legwarmers in spring with varigated yarn? Search me.

I was in the knitting store yesterday to get help for my latest project from the owner. Somehow the subject of healthcare came up, and to my great surprise, it seems like this yarn lady in the crunchy granola town of Amherst is a Republican! She was giving Mitt Romney props for seeking to expand MassHealth, the Massachusetts state health safety net. Yet at the merest mention that perhaps we should just go the whole kitt'n caboodle and going national single payer, she dug in her heels and shook her head. She doesn't want the gub'mint to be in charge of the healthcare because it'll be too centralized and they'll screw it up. But...but...I countered, how is it any more efficient to have each state be in charge of separate entities to take care of people? No dice. She seems convinced that if healthcare is nationalized we'd all have to telephone to Washington for approval before we get our annual checkups. Meanwhile, a second yarn lady piped up that her sister knows this woman who comes down from Canada to see a doctor in the States and therefore all that Nationalized healthcare business is no good.

I don't want to give the impression that the yarn lady was ill-informed. She sure laid the smackdown on me when I unthinkingly passed on the 'taxachusetts' meme. Apparently, we have some of the lowest state taxes per capita income in the country here in Massachusetts. For instance, she informed me that Georgia taxes groceries, one of the most regressive taxes I can think of, at 6.5% whereas groceries and clothing are untaxed in Massachusetts (except for things like soda and pet food...I don't know what' sup with that.) Appropriately humbled, I promptly pleaded defeat on this issue, whereupon she had the chutzpah to bring up the Newsweek Koran scandal and how people shouldn't just believe what they read in the press unthinkingly.


I would have like to say:"Maybe Newsweek wouldn't have given the Koran story as much credence if it were not for the times we really did pile naked Iraqi prisoners into pyramids, sodomized them with sundry objects, put them on leashes, threatened them with dogs, sexually humiliated them with grinning female corporals giving the thumbs up and posing for a snapshot as if they're on a visit to the Liberty Bell or the Grand Canyon."

But you don't say things like that to a yarn lady.

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Freakonomics update and the confessions of a recoverinig bookaholic

Finally, I got my hands on a copy of Freakonomics, gratis, via the marvel that is my local library. After weeks of anticipation, of obsessively logging on to the library website, of wondering in annoyance why, if the book is already at the library, it's taking so long to process (I guess they have to put the plastic dust jacket on and barcode it before it can go in the system). I devoured it in a few hours, and realized that it was so good I'm going to have to buy a copy anyhow to give to my sister, who is a econ major at BU, along with the mind-blowingly excellent Naked Economics by Charles Wheelan.

While I'm in the book-recommending kind of mood, I have to mention American Exceptionalism: a double-edged sword by Seymour Martin Lipset. Matt Yglesias mentioned it approvingly in several of his posts (yes, I am all too malleable) and a couple of weeks after placing an interlibrary loan order for it, it arrived at my local library. That was about a month ago, and I'm still not quite done with it, even though I'm usually quite a fast reader. The way Lipset writes is quite dry and sociological, packed with statistics and neutral statements. There is little of the gripping narrative drive of a William Greider pageturner, for instance. So why am I recommending it? Because it's damned good, that's why. Because of the prose is so dense, I can only read a few pages at a time, usually accompanied by fidgeting. But by the end of those few pages I can usually be found jumping up and down at a piece of brilliant, insightful, argument Lipset constructed out of individually bloodless paragraphs much as a pointillist constructs a picture out of blobs of paint. Then I get over it and it's back to the yawns and the fidgets.

Observant readers would note a heavy reliance on the library system by me. I am a recovering bookaholic. I don't mean that I necessarily read more than anybody else, but I used to buy books the way some women buy clothes. Going to the bookstore was a social activity, a soothing and de-stressing experience. I bring home whatever books strike my fancy that day, often without reading more than the blurb and a couple of random pages. If I ended up liking the book, I'd read it and then put it on the shelf. If I ended up not liking the book, it ended up on the shelf unread. Soon I amassed a formidable collection of books, most of which I would never read again. What a crazy system! It wasn't until I decided to move to North Carolina and started liquidating 80% of what was on my bookshelves that I started to wise up. I started going to the library instead of the bookstore. I realized that even new books can be gotten with a little bit of patience, and their selection is vaster than any bookstore could be, especially if you take into account the interlibrary loan system. Now, I read the book first, decide if it's an worthy edition, then I buy it if I truly cannot live without it. My bookshelves no longer sag under the weight, and I estimate that I'm probably saving at least $20 a month.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Conspicuous Consumption

Brad DeLong has a blog post that borders on a meditation on the nature of class triggered by a New York Times article that presents a seemingly paradoxical turn of events -- class mobility, something we've always prided ourselves on in America, has decreased. But at the same time, the ability of even our poor to consume what would be considered luxury goods in previous years have never been higher. So, if our standard of living is accelerating at such a dizzying rate, why should we liberals be harping on so damn much about equality? If the pie is growing fast enough for everybody to be getting more, why should we be concerned that the way it is being divided is increasingly inequitable? I think Brad come close to nailing the problem here.
it is a mistake to say that the shop-girl of today has the same standard of living as a duchess of a century ago because the key element of being a duchess is being exceptional. To the extent that goods are valued not for the services they provide by themselves but as indices of exclusivity, it is pointless to produce them for more people because then they become less exclusive and so less valuable.
Or to take another example -- wampum, or coins painstakingly made from polished conch shells, was considered valuable by Native Americans and used as currency. Can you argue that James and David Campbell made them better off by inventing the wampum machine? No. By taking away the high costs associated with making wampum, they destroyed its value.

All acts of conspicuous consumption is affected by the wampum effect. This is what George Orwell was talking about in Road To Wigan Pier when he scathingly observed that the working class has been "compensated... by cheap luxuries which mitigate the surface of life." That is, they are like Native Americans right after the invention of the wampum machine, accepting what is no longer valuable for coinage.

Does this mean that I don't believe in the enormous increase in welfare that has come from economic progress? No. That would be silly. Getting enough food to eat...advances in healthcare...those gains are real. What I am saying is to beware of taking the proliferation of baubles as a sign that everybody in America is making economic progress. I purchased a cellphone six months ago for $50 that Bill Gates himself could not have bought for a million dollars 6 years ago. Does that mean I'm better off than Bill-6-years-ago?

No more free Bobo

So the New York Times is taking away the trough. At least for those not willing to shell out $50 annually for the collected wisdom of Brooks, Dowd, Krugman and Kristol.

I, for one, am not shedding any tears. Ezra said it well:
Blogospheric laziness has given the Times' op-ed columnists a must-read status they really don't deserve. Brooks and Tierney are widely linked, but only because they're easily demolished when you've just woken up and have nothing original to say. Krugman's nice enough, but his arguments generally ricochet through the blogosphere days, or even weeks, before he makes them. So who's left? Kristof? Herbert? Dowd? Rich? It's just not worth the cost.
Having said that, Kevin Drum has made a very entertaining game of refuting Bobo's columns with facts from the very same edition of the New York Times. Yesterday's example was particularly fruity. Enjoy while you can.

Not the NPR! Hands off my NPR!

(Via Ezra)
While Gene is a fan of the more stridently partisan Air America, I am a die-hard NPR fan. They're just about the last bastion of sanity in the media right now. Which is why this latest attempt at total media control by the Bushies is totally freaking me out.
WASHINGTON, May 15 - Executives at National Public Radio are increasingly at odds with the Bush appointees who lead the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In one of several points of conflict in recent months, the chairman of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which allocates federal funds for public radio and television, is considering a plan to monitor Middle East coverage on NPR news programs for evidence of bias, a corporation spokesman said on Friday.

The corporation's board has told its staff that it should consider redirecting money away from national newscasts and toward music programs produced by NPR stations.
Yes...more soothing classical need to get ourselves all worried about the unpleasantness going on overseas.

Together with a survey that reported 43% of the public being of the opinion that the press has too much freedom and a jaw dropping 22% who thinks the government should be allowed to censor the press, this does not bode well for the future.

Saturday, May 14, 2005

Guest blogging

Well, I'm over to Ezra's again this weekend. Any posts that's more personal or half-baked will still appear here though, so stay tuned if you've too much time on your hands.

Friday, May 13, 2005

Fight the fights that matter

Matt Yglesias is right. If big ol' hunks of rock bearing the ten commandments in our courthouses is what the people desire, lets give it to them. Same with nativity scenes galore and the "under god" bits in the pledge of allegiance. Sure, I personally find them objectionable (well, not the Christmas decorations. I'm an pro-christmas atheist), but those are not the fights that matter.

What are the fight that matter? Well, for one thing, not letting paternalistic pond scum like Dr. David Hager dictate what birth control methods are available to women.
Hager's FDA assignment is an object lesson in the potential influence of a single appointment to a federal advisory committee that in turn affects thousands, even millions, of lives. Witness the behind-the-scenes machinations that set the stage for the FDA's ruling against Plan B, a decision that the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists called a "dark stain on the reputation of an evidence-based agency like the FDA."

On December 16, 2003, twenty-seven of the FDA's advisers on women's health and nonprescription drugs gathered in Gaithersburg, Maryland, to evaluate the safety and efficacy of emergency contraception for over-the-counter use. (The Plan B pill, which drastically reduces the risk of pregnancy when used within seventy-two hours after intercourse, has long been available by prescription only; its advocates say its greater availability could significantly reduce the nation's abortion rate.) After a long day of highly technical deliberation, the advisers voted 23 to 4 to drop the prescription-only status of emergency contraception. "I've been on this committee...for almost four years, and I would take this to be the safest product that we have seen brought before us," announced Dr. Julie Johnson, a professor at the University of Florida's Colleges of Pharmacy and Medicine.

But on May 6, 2004, the FDA rejected the advice of its own experts and refused to approve the sale of Plan B over the counter. In his letter to Barr Laboratories, Steven Galson, acting director of the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, claimed that Barr had not provided adequate data showing just how young adolescent women would actually use the drug.

That issue was never voted on by the committee. It was, however, broached by Hager at the meeting; he mentioned his concern for these "younger adolescents" several times.

In his private practice back in Kentucky, Hager doesn't prescribe emergency contraception, because he believes it is an abortifacient, and, not surprisingly, his was one of the four votes against widening its availability. But rather than voice his ethical opposition to the product, Hager emphasized his concern about adolescents, which other committee members have since called a "political fig leaf." According to Dr. James Trussell, who voted in favor of Plan B, the FDA had at hand six studies examining whether teens as young as 15 would increase their "risky" behavior if they knew they had a backup emergency contraceptive--and none of the studies showed any evidence for that contention.

In his sermon at Asbury College last fall, Hager proudly recounted his role in the Plan B decision. "After two days of hearings," he said, "the committees voted to approve this over-the-counter sale by 23 to 4. I was asked to write a minority opinion that was sent to the commissioner of the FDA.... Now the opinion I wrote was not from an evangelical Christian perspective.... But I argued it from a scientific perspective, and God took that information, and He used it through this minority report to influence the decision." [Emphasis added.]

None of the four panel members I spoke with for this article were aware of Hager's "minority opinion." An FDA spokeswoman told me that "the FDA did not ask for a minority opinion from this advisory committee," though she was unable to say whether any individual within the agency had requested such a document from Hager. This past January the FDA missed a deadline to respond to a new application from Barr Laboratories, and any forward motion on making Plan B more widely available has completely stalled.
Read the whole article. It will set your teeth on edge.

I thought Libertarians are supposed to be pro-market?

Jane Galt has taken up the gauntlet on the libertarian side. Unfortunately, she is more interested in defending the recent decision to let United offload its liabilities to PBGC, on the grounds that economic disruption is bad. What the!
I'm not sure that Angelica quite understands bankruptcy law and the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation. [ed -- meorrr!] The PBGC, while it is grossly underfunded, isn't exactly "corporate welfare"; it's a government-chartered pension insurer, which forces pension plans to pay it premiums (the worse shape their pension/company is in, the higher the premium), and in return regulates the hell out of the pension plans.

If taxpayers end up having to pick up the tab (which it ultimately will because the PBGC is not self-sustainable) for United's obligations, it's corporate welfare.
I'm not really sure what Battlepanda's objection is. UAL is insolvent--can't meet its debt payments or its pension obligations. Does she think that bankruptcy law should force liquidation? Hard luck for the workers, suppliers, and so forth, no? It's pretty generally recognized that Chapter 11 bankruptcy is one of the great strengths of the American economy, allowing companies in hard times to restructure rather than expire, salvaging something for workers, creditors, and the company.

Yes indeed, there will be short-term pain. But surely a libertarian like Jane must understand that we cannot have a free market without letting unprofitable companies go out of business. Sure, there are arguments for bailing them out in a bona fide unexpected crisis, but United's problems are long-standing and irreversable. Keeping it on life support when the airlines industry is overcrowded already is not just anti-market, it's anti-common sense.
I'm also interested in Jane's favorable take of chapter 11 bankruptcy for firms on the grounds that it makes the American economy more resilient. Is she willing to extend the same curtesy to American families?
Or is she arguing against the PBGC? But should we really just abandon people who made the mistake of depending on their pensions? Tell a 58-year-old stewardess to suck it up and go to phlebotomy school?

Where did I say anything about throwing the retirees to the wolves? No, I say liquidate United to pay down the tab before we start using the taxpayer dollars.

I don't understand this discussion. Why is she the libertarian and I have to be the one arguing for letting the market do its thing?

Friday Schnauzer Blogging: Dodo and Angelica Edition

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This is Dodo before her summer haircut. We were hanging out at my neighbor Janet's. Good times.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Happy Birthday to me

I'm twenty-five today.

I don't know how I feel about that. In terms of career/academic achievements, I'm way behind my cohorts, what only a bachelors degree and working only shit jobs intermittently since graduation. But I feel like if one could keep track of more intangible signs of growth like intellectual maturity, better social skills and increased happiness, I probably did better by myself in the last couple of years than I did during college.

As always, my problem is a lack of direction. If only there is an option in life where one can specialize in being a beginner in everything, I'd do great. This is one of the reasons why I loved Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell so much. Jonathan Strange is a character that gives hope to dilettantes like me, that one day I too will find that something that I can be passionate about and make my life's work after a misspent youth flitting from one interest to another.

Hopefully, I'll find it someday soon.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Another libertarian lets me down

Alex Tabarrok chooses to respond to the recent horrendous decision to let United screw over their employees by jettisoning their pension plans and letting the taxpayers pick up most of the remaining liabilities by making a convoluted jab at Social Security:
A large organization counts on its younger workers and continuing high revenues to fund the pensions and medical care of its retired workers but finds that rising health care costs, longer life-expectancy, and its own inability to control spending force it to cut pension benefits and switch to personal accounts.

Kinda makes you go hmmm...doesn't it?

You know what makes me go "hmmm..."? The lack of honest libertarian analysis on a situation that could really use it -- corporate welfare. Is Alex's hackles not raised by the violation of free-market principles foisted on the business community by the likes of United being kept on life support? Does he not find it distasteful that his tax dollars are going towards honoring United's liabilities so that it can go on, zombie-like, for a few more quarters?

Killing the goose

Elaine, as always an invigorating read, made a good point about stop loss orders that I never really thought through.
Enlistment is way down. By 42% according to the news. The "stop loss" orders are causing a rush to the exit by nearly all potential troops who might even remotely be sent to the grinding hell of Iraq.

The stop loss orders are not just unfair to current enlistees. They are just a plain bad idea because they dry up future supplies of soldiers. In the midst of increased danger and falling benefits, recruiting is going to get more difficult as it is. It certainly doesn't help to add the fear that the military can keep you beyond the time you signed up for to the equation.

This time with actual science

A rare worthwhile discussion to come out of the fallout over the Summers debacle. Pinker and Spelke hash out their different takes on the role of genetics versus socialization in explaining the achievement gap between males and females in science. Backing up their assertions with studies and shit, rather than squabbling on the level of "Well, I'm a girl AND I'm good at maths. Take that, Summers you pig!" or "We all know that schools are biased against boys because how else would the stinky girls be doing better?"

In case you haven't guessed, I come out on Spelke's side (that is, socialization is more important in explaining the gap than genetics). I totally agree with Pinker that there are innate differences between how men and women think and problem-solve which might ultimately result in a non-equal distribution in aptitudes in different scientific fields. The problem is, we have no way of gauging that theoretical difference quantitatively in a way that relates meaningfully to real-life achievement. It becomes a convienient x factor that shinks and bloats as necessary to explain away achievement gaps of all magnitudes.

I would like to see any feminists still insisting on the extremist position that they won't be happy until there is a 50-50 male-female distribution in everything back off. Even if I were in a position to do so, I would not choose to mandate a quota in Harvard professorships. What is required now is not a revolution but patient and steady trench warfare against expectations so ingrained that we all partake -- both men and women react differently to the same baby depending on whether they were told it's a boy or a girl. They are both likely to describe the same reaction as "fearful" if they think the baby is a girl and as "angry" if they think the baby is a boy. As Spelke correctly pointed out, "no sane parents would treat a fearful child the same way they treat an angry child. If knowledge of a child's gender affects adults' perception of that child, then male and female children are going to elicit different reactions from the world, different patterns of encouragement. These perceptions matter, even in parents who are committed to treating sons and daughters alike."

Less and less can we point to a subset of men as the bad guys, the chauvinist pigs, the enemy. Not that overt sexism no longer exist, but I think it's getting stomped pretty good in academia. If we holler for more women professors at Harvard, we'd be treating the symptom instead of the cause of inequity.

When blogs merge

Ezra's Birthday post's comment section eventually descended into a Amanda-bashing melee. Amanda, as most of you know, is a blogger who joined Jesse at the Pandagon soon after the departure of Ezra for his own blog. Now, I just want to make clear that I think Amanda is an excellent blogger, and I loved her old blog, Mouse Words. But I also understand where some of the dissatisfaction is coming from. Ezra and Jesse were a team in a way that Jesse and Amanda is not. Having her join Pandagon changed its nature and made it seem more like two blogs in one as opposed to a blog with two contributors.

Of course, since we started off the situation with three excellent bloggers on two blogs and that is where we are now, I am just bellyachin'. I'm still getting all the blogged goodness. I just prefer the old branding.

Moving blues

Despite the fact that it really hasn't been that long since I set up house, I have somehow wound up with a whole apartment full o' crap. It's a good thing I'm moving to North Carolina now, because if I had gone on accumulating junk at this rate an interstate move would soon become a complete logistical impossibility. I tag-saled. I eBayed. I made countless trips to the salvation army. And still I have box after box of ill-organized belongings I don't really want to take with me but can't stand to throw away.

I have gotten good at junking stuff that is genuinely useless like unflattering clothes or a terrible pop CD I picked up in Taiwan on a whim. The stuff that confounds me is the perfectly useful stuff that nevertheless does not make sense to schlep all the way down to North Carolina. A big box of envelopes. A folding chair. A copy of War and Peace bookmarked a third of a way through and sitting unopened and reproachful on my bureau...


Matt Yglesias floats an interesting idea to confound efforts to gerrymander votes by adapting a lottery system where the percentage of votes a candidate garner becomes the percentage likelihood that they will win. Obviously, it's unworkable for many reasons, yet is it really any more unreasonable than the system we have now?

Sunday, May 08, 2005

British Election Rashomon

Was a middle-of-the-road victory with diminished majority ever really in doubt for Tony Blair's Labour party? Well, that's not going to stop pundits right and left from reading the English Breakfast tea leaves and seeing what they like.

Kos was just plain wrong. But you have to click through this Instapundit link to get a flavor of his craven mendacity in hiding behind reader emails to suggest a point of view that is to his liking but unsupported by the facts. Then he backs off with "oopsies!" updates without acknowledging that those corrections completely turns his argument on their head, and put out yet another chunk of viewer email suggesting yet another tantalizing yet completely bunkum charge.

There's a bubble all right

Still doubt there's a housing bubble? Click here.

(via Seeing the Forest)

Party of fiscal responsibility

UPDATE: Post deleted because of inability to make graph come out right. Just go read DeLong
and this Slate article by Jacob Weisberg instead.

Saturday, May 07, 2005

It's hard being the #3 guy

(Via DeLong)

It has often been quipped that we're always nabbing Al Qaida's #3 guy. But Holden from First Draft actually compiled the list of #3 -- all 5 of them. Shouldn't we catch the #4 or #5 guy once in a while for verisimiltitude, if nothing else?

The eRace to the Bottom

What to make of

The German website is a kind of eBay for workers. When you have a job to be done, you post a listings stating the nature of the work and the maximum amount you are willing to pay. Potential workers then bid for that job by undercutting each other's rates until the lowest bidder wins. The unions in Germany, and many politicians, are predictably up in arms about it. But given the unemployment rates of 12.5% in Germany, it seems cruel to denounce a new way for workers to find jobs.

Now, I know that given my general pro-union stance it might seem puzzling that I am tentatively rooting for a website that facilitates the undercutting of wages. The thing is, I think unions are necessary to correct the vast asymmetry in power between corporations on the one hand and individual workers on the other. I don't support them simply to support employees over employers. In the case of JobDumping, I suspect the employers are more likely to be individuals or small companies requiring short-term freelance labor and willing to take a risk on giving the job to the low bidder rather than interviewing for a qualified applicant. I don' think the power imbalance issue is there as it is with big companies. And by cutting down the cost of finding and hiring freelance labor, jobs that were not previously viable without JobDumping would be created. Of course I might be wrong, but I don't think the JobDumping concept is a threat to labor any more than eBay is a threat to Macys.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Another Term for Tony Blair

I'm not even going to pretend I understand their system, though I lived in England for a few years back in the high school days. The way the English pick their political leader truly makes the electoral college here seem like sweet reason itself. It seems inevitable that the older a democracy (or any governing system, really) gets, the more it picks up barnicle-like arcana. Still, the results seems decisive enough -- another term for Tony Blair, which was never really in doubt. Yet something about this election seems very unsatisfying.
Labour’s vote has gone mad, and that’s what causing a lot of the confusion - people in a lot of constituencies seem to want to punish Labour, but aren’t sure who to vote for to achieve that. In some places, that vote has been well targetted tactically but in others it’s fractured between all the opposition parties, especially where no one seems to be positioned to gain. However, the Liberal Democrats have generally been the main beneficiaries.
The decision by Blair's Labour to move to the center was a strategically brilliant body blow to their rival, the Tories, but in the process of doing so, the choice available to the British electorate narrowed from left vs. right to center vs. right. It's hard to protest against the Iraq war by voting for the even more hawkish opposition. I am glad to see that the Liberal Democrats have made major gains. But they are still a long way away from being able to break the two-party stranglehold on a national level.

Angelica watches c-span

Sorry for the recent paucity in posts, folks. I am almost moved out of my
Amherst apartment now and is spending most nights over at my boyfriend's parent's house, which is high on the country charm quotient (it's like living in a bed and breakfast for free!) but low on the connectivity. They have dialup, which feels like reading stone tablets as it is being carved, spoiled as I am by DSL.

So what have I been doing instead? Walking the schnauzer dog in the glorious New England springtime, knitting and watching wayyyy too much C-span. I can't believe that I am at that stage when C-span has become passable entertainment when there's nothing else on. I tell myself I'm tuning in just for a minute to hear the crackpot callers with their conspiracy theories, but I ended up watching the house debate the $82 billion dollars off-the-budget extravaganza for funding Iraq with the national ID hitching a ride. The passage of the thing was never in doubt, as who wants to be on the record as against more money for the troops? Never mind that we've already sunk hundreds of billions of dollars into Iraq and that many of those billions of dollars disappeared unaccounted for.

Friday Schnauzer Blogging

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Mo' morality Mo' trouble

So, the relativism/absolutism arguments rages on, chez Majikthise. Mosey on over if you want more punishment.

But I think commenter Daryl might have set off a train of thought that allowed me to articulate my own position much more clearly than I was able to earlier. I stated in this post, using quite absolutist, if not positively chauvinistic language that I think Daniel Gross is wrong, and that the Chantico is a sub-par focus-group engineered flop rather than a sublime treat. Since taste is relative to the individual by definition, how can I justify talking about the Chantico as if it is objectively better? Yet I do, and am not going to stop. Is it a paradox?

Well, not any more of a paradox than the fact that I am sitting still as I type this on the crust of a molten rock that is hurtling through space, spinning, at terrific velocities. We think and act in our everyday life as if the ground underneath us is absolutely stable. We need to in order to build houses, drive cars or even just to walk around. Yet it would be just as foolish to allow this de-facto absolutism to lull us thinking there is something immutable and absolute about the lay o' the land. Again, our ethics and morality are our maps. With out them, we are lost. Yet without the territory, the map has not intrinsic worth. And when the map no longer fits with the territory, you tear up the map, not the territory.

Sigh. I'm thinking that I should take this blog back to the real world rather than spending my time baiting libertarians and arguing about the nature of morality. But what can I possibly say that is meaningful and non-depressing about this?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

A public good

Mark Kleiman reports that scientists now think it is feasible to develop a vaccine against cavities. How much would you pay for no cavities ever, Mark wondered. $50 a year? Heck, how can you put a dollar amount on not having a drill grinding inside your mouth milimeters away from nerves? I admit it. I have a sweet tooth. Am not a good flosser. As a result, I have bad teeth. Multiple fillings (mercury -- gulp!) and even a tooth on deck for the ol' root canal. At 25. If it's available now and I can somehow go back in time to administer it to the baby Angelica, you bet I'd pay through the nose for no cavities ever.

Sadly, the long clinical trials required (longer than the patents) probably means that no pharmaceutical companies will ever take on this project. A perfect example of where it makes sense for the gubmint to take over?

Finally, Mark noted, and I agree that the organized Dental community behave like absolute champs. You'd think it wouldn't be in the interest of dentists to get water flouridated and get us all to floss, but they're fanatical about it. Scarily fanatical. In fact, just thinking about the collective frowning faces of my dentist and dental hygenist is enough to get me flossing right now.

Stay away from the Chantico

Malleable soul that I am, I knew I just had try Starbuck's fancy new hot chocolate, which their marketing department thought fit to christen "Chantico" after reading Daniel Gross' description of it on his blog.
Starbucks’ new thick, dense chocolate drink is a winner. It’s like an espresso,
but gentler and without the bitter aftertaste. As the wave of sugar and caffeine
seeps into your system, you can feel a sense of well-being wash over you.

He had me at "it's like an expresso", but with chocolate! So, with my knitting in a tow, I forsaked my local coffee house (the excellent Raos, if you're ever in Amherst, Mass) and moseyed on down to Starbucks and paid my $2.90 for a "Chantico". I took a sip from the tastefully embossed brown paper cup. Ugh! It was indeed thick and dense, but in a sludgy rather than luxurious way. And even though I like my hot chocolate sweet, this was sugary to the point of parching one's throat as the goopy, muddy mix goes down.

Oh, Daniel Gross. You columns on Business and Money on Slate is so well-written and incisive. Even your new blog is amusing. How could you have steered me so wrong?

Monday, May 02, 2005

Mayday Mayday

Yesterday was Mayday, and Catallarchy took the occasion to point out how spectacularly the communists fucked up.
How can we understand all this killing by communists? It is the marriage of an absolutist ideology with the absolute power. Communists believed that they knew the truth, absolutely. They believed that they knew through Marxism what would bring about the greatest human welfare and happiness. And they believed that power, the dictatorship of the proletariat, must be used to tear down the old feudal or capitalist order and rebuild society and culture to realize this utopia. Nothing must stand in the way of its achievement. Government–the Communist Party–was thus above any law. All institutions, cultural norms, traditions, and sentiments were expendable. And the people were as though lumber and bricks, to be used in building the new world.
I agree with everything he has to say about communism, but I just don't think it applies uniquely to communism. Communism developed as a result to the grinding oppression of the lower classes by a dysfunctional and decadent society. This is to say, the peasants had a legitimate beef. I don't think Communism became such a damaging ideology because of its initial assumptions, which were a reaction to the previous paradigm, but its stubborn inability to change and adapt when many of those assumptions proved to be spectacularly false.

Whether it is religious fundamentalism, communism, facism, or unqualified and rampant free-marketism, bad thing happen when people allow ideology to overcome their humanity. Maybe that is the deepest lesson we can take from the terrible tragedy that was authoritarian communism.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Daniel Gross blogs

(Via Bradford Plumer)

It seems that Daniel Gross of Slate now has his own blog. Well, if his blog is anything as good as his columns for State, it should be well-worth keeping an eye on.

Israel's Internal Challenge

They are often all but forgotten in discussing the conflict between Israel and it's Arab neighbors, but 20% of Israeli citizens are Arab, and that number is increasing. Juan Cole speculates that demographic forces could eventually move Israel into becoming a bi-national state. The ramifications of this possibility is very significant, and the timeline adds urgency to for Israel to make changes and mend fences. By the Israeli government's own numbers, in 2025, 30% of Israeli citizens will be Arab. It is concievable that in fifty years the Arab minority will no longer be a minority and Israel will be faced with an existential choice -- would it continue as a Jewish state by disenfranchising half of its citizens, or would it continue as an Democratic state at the expense of handing over power to the Arabs?

The ideal solution, of course, is to absorb the Arabs into Israel's citizenry so completely that (depite their different religion) they would no longer be a consolidated voting block. Granted, the resultant country would probably not be a Zionist's dream come true, but the political situation would be defused. The problem is, Israel does not seem to be very far down this path. Although Arab Israelis do have the vote, they are marginalized in other ways. They tend to live in very different neighborhoods as the Jews, and those neighborhoods recieve inferior public services. Arab towns were not even counted in a nationa cancer survey by the Israeli Ministry of Health. It goes without saying that they are underrepresented in the government bureaucracy. Even more worryingly, many Jewish Israeli have decided that the answer to the problem is not encouraging intergration but a circling of the wagons.
The Arab researcher, Assad Ghanem from the University of Haifa, released a poll earlier this month that had been carried out for the Madar research center in Ramallah. The poll indicated that 42 percent of Israeli Jews want the government to encourage Arab citizens to leave the country. Another 40 percent did not agree.
Quite frankly, the establishment of a country on the basis of a religious creed carved out of an area that does not share that creed strikes me as a bad idea. But I accept that the existence of Israel now is a good enough justification for its continual existence. The challenge in front of it is how to reconcile itself with both its Arab neighbors without and its Arab citizens within.

Don't blame the boomers

(Via Max)

We all have those assumptions we take for granted without ever thinking about. If you're like me, one of those was, "Social Security solvency has been deteriorating in the past few decades because Americans are living longer." Well scratch that assumption, because it ain't true.

* The deterioration in the 75-year actuarial balance of Social Security that has occurred since 1983 has been caused overwhelmingly by economic developments, trends in disability incidence, and programmatic changes to Social Security. [Not the famous decline in the ratio of workers-to-retirees, a decline that was fully anticipated in 1983. -- MaxSpeak]

* Sixty percent of the current shortfall would be eliminated by a reversal of two adverse economic trends that have emerged since 1983: sluggish growth in average (real) wages and erosion of the [payroll] tax base due to rapid growth in the inequality of earnings.

* Reversing the demographic change most commonly identified with placing strain on the Social Security system -- declining mortality rates -- would eliminate less than 5% of the current shortfall.

So, don't blame the baby boomers for being baby boomers, or for living too long. The decline in SS solvency since 1983 has got nothing to do with them. And besides, I've always found it distasteful when folks who have worked hard all their lives and paid into SS with every paycheck are now resented as burdens on the next generation.