Battlepanda: February 2007


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

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Studies show immigrants boosts pay

So much for taking American jobs
In the wage study, Peri examined immigration flows and wages of California workers between 1960 and 2004 using U.S. Census data.

It found that immigrants did not worsen the job opportunities of natives with similar education and experience during the entire period.

The benefit for native-born workers ranged from a 0.2% wage increase for high school dropouts to 6.7% for those with some college, the study showed.

However, the study found that other immigrants suffered wage declines by as much as 20%.

"The findings would seem to defuse one of the most inflammatory issues for those who advocate measures aimed at 'protecting the livelihood of American citizens,' " the study said.
As studies like this (and another mentioned in the the same article finding that the immigrant population has a far lower incarceration rate than native populations) roll in, it's going to be harder and harder to justify an anti-immigration stance that's not based on narrowmindedness.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Today is February 28th, the 60th anniversary of the "228 incident" -- the flash-point for a series of riots in Taiwan that resulted in brutal waves of reprisals by the Nationalist government. Wulingren quotes an almost 60-year-old article from the Nation:
On the afternoon and evening of March 8, without warning or provocation, the streets of Keelung and Taipei were cleared with gunfire to cover the entry of mainland troops. These reinforcements consisted mainly of the Twenty-first Division, a Szechuan outfit with a reputation for brutality. In the next four or five days more than a thousand unarmed Taiwanese in the Taipei-Keelung area alone were massacred. A year and a half earlier many of them had joyously welcomed the arrival of the Chinese troops. Now truckloads of soldiers armed with machine guns and automatic rifles shot their way through the streets. Soldiers demanded entry into homes, killed the first person who appeared, and looted the premises. Bodies floated thick in Keelung harbor and in the river which flows by Taipei. Twenty young men were castrated, their ears cut off, and their noses slashed. A foreigner watched gendarmes cut off a young boy's hands before bayoneting him because he had not dismounted from his bicycle quickly enough. The radio advised students who had fled from the city to return to their homes, but when they did so they were killed.
60 years later, the Taiwanese have not forgotten the horrifying incidents and the years of repressions that followed. The primary political fissure in Taiwan is not between left and right but between blue and green -- those who consider Taiwan Chinese versus who consider the Chinese the enemy. Even though both sides now acknowledge 228 as an awful tragedy, the topic have festered for too long to disappear anytime soon. Every February 28th is 228.

Lindsay lays it out

Lindsay's insider view is the best take on the Edwards campaign bloggers mess I've read. She was tapped to blog for Edwards but turned down the opportunity. There but for the grace of the-god-she-does-not-believe-in goes she.

The article answers some questions I've had about the campaign's thinking process behind hiring Amanda (incidentally my favorite feminist blogger). Yes, they knew what they were getting, but perhaps they didn't understand what they were getting into. I think future campaigns would do well to heed Lindsay's advice:
In my opinion, though, the real lesson of the Webb campaign is how effective bloggers can be when they're outside the campaign. I think the candidates who benefit the most from the netroots are the ones who can inspire bloggers to do their work for free. They create unpaid, unofficial surrogates.

Webb is a netroots success story because his team captured the imagination of independent bloggers and online activists. It was always clear that the netroots adopted Webb, not the other way around. His people figured out a way to make the relationship work. Throughout the race, besides hiring Feld and Chernila, his staffers also diligently cultivated relationships with bloggers outside the campaign. The Webb team started taking the pulse of the larger blogosphere before the Democratic primary -- and their candidate's primary victory was due, in part, to intense Internet support.

When Webb's videographer captured George Allen's "'macaca' moment," therefore, the campaign had a ready-made, receptive audience. All the campaign had to do was upload the video to YouTube and send out some well-targeted e-mails to bloggers and other supporters and wait.
I think she's exactly right. Hiring a blogger for a campaign reduces the blogger's independence, and therefore his or her credibility, and it also lays the campaign open to being attacked through the blogger.

Gore the Energy Hog

Is Al Gore a hypocrite?
Gore’s mansion, located in the posh Belle Meade area of Nashville, consumes more electricity every month than the average American household uses in an entire year, according to the Nashville Electric Service (NES).

In his documentary, the former Vice President calls on Americans to conserve energy by reducing electricity consumption at home.

The average household in America consumes 10,656 kilowatt-hours (kWh) per year, according to the Department of Energy. In 2006, Gore devoured nearly 221,000 kWh—more than 20 times the national average.

Last August alone, Gore burned through 22,619 kWh—guzzling more than twice the electricity in one month than an average American family uses in an entire year. As a result of his energy consumption, Gore’s average monthly electric bill topped $1,359.

So I haven't seen "An Inconvenient Truth" so I cannot evaluate whether the claims of the so-called "non-partisan" Tennessee Center for Policy Research is accurate and Gore really exhorted Americans to personally cut down on electricity usage while he splurged. If so, he is clearly a hypocrite.

However, the problem of global warming is wayyy beyond the capability of personal virtue to solve.

For instance, there is no doubt in my mind global warming is a real phenomenon, but I still fly, blast the air con, take taxis etc. etc. Why? Because I am not a sucker. Why should I deny myself my comforts when everybody else is pumping out CO2 anyhow?

However, I am in favor of a carbon tax. Sure, I'll be paying more for gas and other stuff, but so will everyone else. So, unlike unilaterally cutting my own output, my sacrifice might count for something in terms of my future well-being.

What I've seen Gore do very effectively is raising awareness about the issue of climate change and arguing that we should do something about it collectivelly. Not
because we liberals are all secretly commies and love to do things collectively but because it is the only fair and effective way to cut aggregate carbon output. The aforementioned carbon tax, cafe standards, investments in alternative fuel...

The difference between Al Gore and like Bill Bennett is that Bennet really is a hypocrite since he gambles and while telling the rest of us that gambling is an intrinsically immoral act. I've never heard Al Gore say that using electricity is somehow intrinsically immoral.

NPR blogging

Opting out of college for a blue-collar life: Part six of NPR's excellent college admission series.

Trailer hitch laws would ban dangling body parts
: I'll leave it to the reader to figure out which body parts they're talking about.

Before "Mad Libs", there was "Revealations"
:I guess there's really nothing new under the sun.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

NPR blogging -- College admission frenzy

NPR is doing an excellent series on the attempts by students and teachers to rachet down the crazed admissions game where a large number of tremendously smart and qualified students scramble over a tiny number of slots at big name schools that might not even be the best fit for them. This story about students who are brave enough not to play the game is essential listening, especially if you know someone who is going through the college application process right now.

Other stories I heard on NPR:

Blogs Track Long Slog Out of Debt
: Have you read those blogs that document an individual's attempt to get out of debt? It's curiously fascinating, and inspiring, reading.

Dallas DA to review Decades of Convictions:
Outsourcing of evidence analysis to a private company lead to all crime scene tissue samples being kept rather than routinely destroyed.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Plastic surgery junkies

Well, we all know that the Koreans are knife-happy, but this is ridiculous:
78 percent of S. Korean women feel the need to get cosmetic surgery
Nearly eight out of 10 women in South Korea believe cosmetic surgery is necessary to meet the expectations of an appearance-focused society, according to a survey released Wednesday.

The survey, conducted in September on 810 female residents of the capital area who are aged 18 or older, showed 77.5 percent of the respondents say cosmetic surgery is necessary to make them look more attractive.

Only 2.1 percent of the women surveyed said cosmetic surgery is not necessary while 20.4 percent said people should not have the surgery if possible, said Eom Hyeon-sin, a student of the fashion design department at Kyung Hee University, who conducted the survey as part of her doctoral thesis.

Those who said they had already had cosmetic surgery totaled 47.3 percent, according to the survey.

The rate was 61.5 percent of young women between ages 25 and 29 while 56.6 percent and 42.9 percent of the women in the 30s and 40s answered they did, respectively. Nearly 40 percent of those aged 50 or older said they had experienced cosmetic surgery.
I did a double-take when I saw this story on the wires. Can those figures really be true? Then again, I guess Korea is a country where the government gives tax deductions for cosmetic surgery. Michael Hurt has a rather scary collection of before/after pictures...individually, I have to say, with the pan-asian aesthetic in mind, the girls look prettier -- after surgery they have huge, pixie-like eyes, tiny chins, rounded cheekbones, small but perky noses. But collectively the effect is rather uncanny -- they all look kind of similar. So what happens when everybody has plastic surgery and everyone is as cute as a button? Is there going to be cosmetic surgery inflation? Is Korea going to become a nation of Michael Jacksons?

Then there are frenectomies:
I walked into class earlier this week and asked one of my ten-year-old students why she had been absent the previous class. She told me she had gone to the dentist, but her classmate quickly added, "She cut her tongue". I asked her why and she told me it would help her speak English better, and insinuated that my Korean co-teacher had said it would help her pronounce 'S' better. This student has never had any noticeable problem pronouncing English words (it's her shyness that hampers her more than anything), so the fact her parents would do something so unnecessary left me shaking my head in disgust. Actually disgust was what I felt after I asked to see the result (she was pretty blase about the whole thing, saying it had only hurt for a day or two) and saw the stitches under her tongue.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

NPR Blogging

I feel like I must be prematurely old. In addition to old-people hobbies like sewing and knitting (alas, neither of which I have the leisure to do much of anymore), my primary addictions are Oolong Tea and National Public Radio. I don't know if I've mentioned thison the blog before, but I fall asleep most nights listening to Morning Edition streaming on my computer. Air America is too abrasive, the BBC is too British, Podcasts are hit and miss. NPR is perfect. In fact, I think it is the Oolong tea of radio -- flavorful, yet soothing. No sugar or artificial sweeteners required. Make no mistake, they take on diverse topics from the hard-hitting to the zany, but somehow, once it becomes packaged by the NPR machine, it all becomes so consistently easy to listen to yet informative. It's quite appropriate that they've made their ad tagline "I heard it on NPR".

Anyhow, since I'm quite sure I listen to more NPR than just about anybody, say, not working in a pioneer valley bookstore where they keep WFCR cranked up all day, I've decided to start a semi-regular blog feature where I just throw out links to some of the more interesting stories I've heard on NPR recently, along with any commentary.

Finding Pop-up Prizes on the Internet
-- Yes it's true! All those pop-up ads promising free stuff actually do deliver...but they make you jump through a lot of hoops first. This is an oddly fascinating story of a Johns Hopkins resident who has made a hobby out of applying for those prizes. Makes you think...from an opportunity-cost point of view, I'm not sure this is the most efficient use of his time. Why wasn't I doing this while I was unemployed with scads of time on my hand? Oh, I was blogging.

Students' View of Intelligence Can Help Grades
-- also a very good New York Magazine article under the more inflammatory title "How not to talk to your kids -- the inverse power of praise." Basically, if you believe that the key to success is hard work and follow-through, then you do better than if you believe the key to success is intelligence. Duh, on one level, but it goes against a lot of conventional wisdom (and parental instinct) to praise your kids by telling them they're so smart.

Budget Would Trim Funds for Even Start -- The program teaches immigrant parents how to read English in a kid-friendly environment. Costed $225 million in '05, slashed to $99 million in '06 now proposed for elimination in Bush's latest round of budget cuts. If you take the cost of the Iraq war as $100,000 a minute (as estimated by this 2006 story) , then the equivalent 37.5 hours of the Iraq war would fund Even Start for the whole year at the '05 level (16.5 hours at the reduced '06 level). Hmm.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy Chinese New Year!

It's the year of the pig!

The dangerous purist

"One of the most difficult things in life is to draw the line between friend and foe," so quoth Caroline Glick in her column in the Jerusalem post. But one has a feeling that Ms. Glick have risen above this difficulty quite neatly by designating everyone who does not adopt a purely pro-Israel point of view as "foe."

Last week in Mecca, the Fatah terror group, which mixes the murder of Israelis with negotiations with Israelis, officially joined forces with the Hamas terror group, which murders Israelis while refusing to negotiate with us.

Although the agreement makes it clear that both are at war with Israel, on Sunday the Olmert government decided to reserve judgment on the terror unity deal. And Monday morning Vice Premier Shimon Peres warned that saying bad things about the Mecca deal would only weaken Fatah terror boss Mahmoud Abbas, whom we should strengthen because he likes to negotiate while killing.

Given how hard it is for Israel to identify its Arab foes, it is little wonder that identifying Jewish foes is a near-Herculean task.

Terrorism is everywhere to be deplored, but so is occupation. Trying to discredit your opponent for practicing the one is kind of rich when your side is practicing the other.

I found The Wind that Shakes the Barley a tad too didactic and simplistic a film for its own good, but it does present a vivid depiction of the dignity-wrecking misery of living under occupation. We are often reminded that the Israeli people are living under a constant threat of attack, that the cafe visits and bus rides we take for granted are life and death gambles for them. We are asked to empathize with them and understand how such constant fear and torment leads to extreme measures. To be honest, I've never felt the power of such appeals because it's always been so obvious to me that the prospect of living under a hostile authority is worse.

In response to Glick's column, Alon Levy had this to say:
The real danger here is of course not about relatively insignificant writers on partisan papers. Rather, it’s that governments will heed those writers’ requirements and stop negotiating. As Rabin and Peres emphasized time and time again in the wake of the Oslo Accords, peace is something you make with enemies. At the time, the Hamas bombings seemed to belie that saying; now that Palestinians are ready to move on and Fatah is no longer pro-terror, it makes perfect sense.

A pro-Palestinian purist would see Rabin as an oppressor. Why wouldn’t he? During the first Intifada, Rabin didn’t pledge support for the Palestinians, but rather said that the IDF should “Break their arms and legs” (variant quote: “break their bones”). He made peace not because of humanitarian concern with Palestinian suffering but because he realized it was in Israel’s best geopolitical interest.
The Glicks on both sides of the Israel/Palestinian conflict are not helping.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Miss and/or Mrs.

The mother of one of Gene's tutoring students identified herself as being surnamed Jiang. Seeing as how she is obviously married, I addressed her as Mrs. Jiang (江太太). She explained, "My husband's name is Lin, so I am Mrs. Lin (林太太). But I am Miss Jiang (江小姐)." My mom does the same thing, now that I think of it. She's "Mrs. Oung" but all her documents retain her maiden name.

An interesting workaround for the name change issue that seems to periodically flare up into a raging argument every once in a while. In social contexts involving the entire family, you are Mr., Mrs, and the kids Lin. On your own, however, you retain your independent identity as Miss Jiang. There is no equivalent for "Ms." -- it's Miss or Mrs., though people like Miss Jiang/Mrs. Lin see nothing unusual or awkward at all in alternating between the two. Women start businesses, write papers and sign documents using their maiden name.

I don't think this solution would fly in the US. I think people would get too confused. Changing one's name (or not changing it when one gets married) are loaded decisions -- a rite of passage for traditionalists, an act of defiance for the radicals, a guilt-ridden hobson's choice for those who are somewhere in the middle. Just sidestepping over the whole issue and choosing both? Huh, you can't do that!

By the way, the traditional way of changing names when you marry in Chinese society is to "crown" your husband's family name on top of your own. You seldom see this form being used to identify any but the most ancient women. But perhaps because the maiden name was never kicked out by tradition makes the modernized way of retaining married/maiden names easier.

(Hey, we all know how much I hate hit-and-run overgeneralizations where one extrapolates too much from one somewhat random fact, but hey, it's fun. And it's more or less my own culture, so there.)

The Science of Love

Researchers at Yeshiva University have used MRI scans to investigate the brain physiology behind the emotional experience of love.

In a group of experiments, Dr. Lucy Brown, a professor in the department of neurology and neuroscience at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, and her colleagues did MRI brain scans on college students who were in the throes of new love.

While being scanned, the students looked at a photo of their beloved. The scientists found that the caudate area of the brain -- which is involved in cravings -- became very active. Another area that lit up: the ventral tegmental, which produces dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that affects pleasure and motivation.

Dr. Brown said scientists believe that when you fall in love, the ventral tegmental floods the caudate with dopamine. The caudate then sends signals for more dopamine.

"The more dopamine you get, the more of a high you feel," Dr. Brown says.

The researchers, though, seem to have a bit of a sadistic streak.

Now their research is centered on the flip side of love. They've recruited college students who'd just been rejected by their sweethearts. Again, the scientists performed MRI's while these students looked at photos of the objects of their affection.

This time, the results were different, Dr. Brown says. The insular cortex, the part of the brain that experiences physical pain, became very active.

"People came out of the machine crying," she said. "We won't be doing that experiment again for a long time."

Oil and saber-rattling

James Surowiecki in the New Yorker provides a compelling explanation of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's saber-rattling:
This latest confrontation with the U.S. should have been the capper to a bad winter for Ahmadinejad. Strangely, though, it may instead have brought about an upturn in his fortunes. Soon, oil prices started to rise, jumping twenty per cent in just two weeks. As a result, the Iranian regime suddenly has an extra twenty million dollars or so to spend every day, a windfall that will help Ahmadinejad to placate his critics and solve some of his country’s more pressing economic problems.

The jump in oil prices wasn’t entirely a geopolitical phenomenon—the cold snap in the U.S. was also a big factor—but it was driven in part by an increase in what oil traders call the “risk premium.” When buying and selling oil, traders don’t just look at today’s supply and demand. They also try to forecast the future. And if buyers think there’s a chance that supply is going to be lower down the line—because, say, Iranian oil fields will be shut down—they will be willing to pay a higher price today in order to guarantee that they will have the oil they need. That’s why, in the run-up to the Iraq war, oil prices jumped more than fifty per cent. In the current confrontation between the U.S. and Iran, these same concerns create a perverse set of incentives: whenever the U.S. says things that make a military conflict with Iran seem more likely, the price of oil rises, strengthening Iran’s regime rather than weakening it. The more we talk about curbing Iranian power, the more difficult it gets.
And though Surowiecki doesn't mention it, a similar set of perverse incentives applies to the Bush-Cheney administration because of its cozy relationship with Big Oil.

It may sound somewhat paranoid, and I'm not claiming that it's the primary motivation behind administration saber-rattling, but think about it: if anti-Iranian rhetoric and propaganda were hurting the profits of Exxon-Mobil, we wouldn't be hearing much of it.

(Via Economist's View.)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Birds of Gay

Isn't it unbelievably awesome that the fourth gayest animal in the world is the Guianan-cock-of-the-rock? By the way, the entire top ten is interesting. Sheep and penguins didn't make it. Giraffes and black swans did. Why not white swans? I don't know.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

What would Edwards do next?

I was surprised to hear that Amanda was hired for the Edwards campaign. She seemed way too edgy for his middle-of-the-road charismatic schtick. "Who knows, maybe he's the only candidate who could hire them," I thought to myself, "kind of like how only Nixon would have gone to China..."

Now, as predictably as the day is long, the hysterical right wing machine cranked into motion. The Edwards campaign is inexplicably caught off-balance. Are they fired or not fired? The story's made it to the NY Times. It's the top item at Memeorandum. But at John Edwards HQ? There ain't no news.

Now had they hired Amanda and Shakes as some kind of strategic move the response would have been rapid-fire -- they would have prepared something along these lines and slung it right in the face of the Malkin mob. It would have been brilliant and gone a long way to combat the double standard we see in how far out of the mainstream supporters of the two political parties are allowed to be.

But there have been no rapid fire response. Instead, the campaign is twisting in the wind.

I used to put Edwards ahead of the pack when it comes to my choice for 2008.

He is no longer at the head of the pack.

Is he about to get completely left in the dust? It depends on what he does next.

A coffee shop without prices

Via the Freakonomics blog, an article in the Seattle Times about the Terra Bite Lounge, a coffee shop without prices.
With its blood-red walls and black leather sofas, Kirkland's Terra Bite Lounge looks like any other coffee shop — until you get to the menu. There are no prices listed. Terra Bite doesn't have them.

You read that right: No prices. Customers pay what and when they like, or not at all — it makes no difference to the cafe employees, who are instructed not to peek when people put money in the metal lock box.

"Does it really matter to any of our patrons ... whether they pay a dollar or three dollars or five dollars?" said Terra Bite founder Ervin Peretz, a 37-year-old Google programmer.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Financial Regulation as a Balancing Act

This was almost an aside in DeLong vs. Kling on the New Deal, but I thought this bit from Prof. DeLong was interesting.
Still, financial markets only work well when they find and transmit information about the likely future of companies and industries and bake information into prices. To do that, there must be incentives for uncovering important scraps of information and clear lines between what you can and can't do -- that is, between research and illegitimate insider trading.

The SEC has always found it tough to draw such a clear line. That's because its crisis origins have led it to focus on a different, though important, problem: shoring up investor confidence. Besides transmitting information, markets need to bundle great masses of savings from scattered individuals. To do that, investors must be confident investments can be bought and sold fairly. This doesn't work if you buy a share of a company from the corporate director's cousin, who happens to know the firm's market share collapsed during quarter. It also doesn't work if you sell a drug company's shares to someone who knows that, say, the latest test of a potential blockbuster treatment was extremely encouraging.

Financial regulation is a balancing act. And some worry that New Deal left us with a system that's too focused on leveling the field for buyers and sellers, and not focused enough on having the best informed buyers and sellers in the market. That, in turn, might give too much power to entrenched managers and not enough power to insurgent financiers.

It seems to me that prohibition of insider trading mitigates a "market for lemons" problem in the stock market. If people were allowed to trade on insider information, every transaction would fall under the sort of suspicion you have when purchasing a used car: if the stock is any good, why does this person want to sell it to me? This would drive the selling price of a stock down, making the seller unwilling to sell. In theory, the entire market could collapse because of lack of trust in sellers.

(This is analogous to the problem of adverse selection in insurance markets, where the collapse is caused by lack of trust in buyers.)

Sunday, February 04, 2007

There's more than one way to wash a cat

Friday, February 02, 2007

Another dove who was right about Iraq

Earlier this month, Megan McArdle (a.k.a. "Jane Galt") caused a bit of a kerfuffle in the blogosphere with her accusation that while doves on Iraq were right that the invasion was a bad idea, we were right for the wrong reasons, so we don't get any credit for being right.

This has not convinced me of the brilliance of the doves, because precisely none of the ones that I argued with predicted that things would go wrong in the way they did. If you get the right result, with the wrong mechanism, do you get credit for being right, or being lucky? In some way, they got it just as wrong as I did: nothing that they predicted came to pass. It's just that independantly, things they didn't predict made the invasion not work. If I say we shouldn't go to dinner downtown because we're going to be robbed, and we don't get robbed but we do get food poisoning, was I "right"? Only in some trivial sense. Food poisoning and robbery are completely unrelated, so my belief that we would regret going to dinner was validated only by random chance. Yet, the incident will probably increase my confidence in my prediction abilities, even though my prediction was 100% wrong.

In today's NYT column (full text at Economist's View), Paul Krugman pulls together a series of quotes from the late Molly Ivins predicted the Iraq fiasco with remarkable accuracy.

Nov. 19, 2002: “The greatest risk for us in invading Iraq is probably not war itself, so much as: What happens after we win? ... There is a batty degree of triumphalism loose in this country right now.”

Jan. 16, 2003: “I assume we can defeat Hussein without great cost to our side (God forgive me if that is hubris). The problem is what happens after we win. The country is 20 percent Kurd, 20 percent Sunni and 60 percent Shiite. Can you say, ‘Horrible three-way civil war?’ ”

July 14, 2003: “I opposed the war in Iraq because I thought it would lead to the peace from hell, but I’d rather not see my prediction come true and I don’t think we have much time left to avert it. That the occupation is not going well is apparent to everyone but Donald Rumsfeld. ... We don’t need people with credentials as right-wing ideologues and corporate privatizers — we need people who know how to fix water and power plants.”

Oct. 7, 2003: “Good thing we won the war, because the peace sure looks like a quagmire. ...

“I’ve got an even-money bet out that says more Americans will be killed in the peace than in the war, and more Iraqis will be killed by Americans in the peace than in the war. Not the first time I’ve had a bet out that I hoped I’d lose.”