Thursday, February 25, 2010

Things I can endorse

  • The novel The Lovely Bones. Apparently the movie is basically unwatchable, which is a shame. But the book is excellent, and one of the few non-SF novels I've read in this.... lifetime.
  • This recipe for bread from the NYT's Mark Bittman. So delicious, even when it doesn't go as well as you'd hoped. But that's what second attempts are for.
  • The film The Most Dangerous Man in America, about and narrated by Daniel Ellsberg. Includes interviews with some of the leading lights of both the left and right in American politics in the early 1970s. Funniest moment: The late Howard Zinn saying, "So Noam Chomsky, Dan and I went to go see a movie..." I could only think of this.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Burning the walls for heat

Tom Philpott has a pair of excellent articles in an excellent series of them about... um, synthetic nitrogen.  Wait!  This is actually good!  The first article is about how America is increasingly reliant on imported nitrogen fertilizer.  If you liked wild price swings in the price of oil, just wait for the coming wild swings in the price of food.

The other article is both more substantial and more worrying: basically, soil chemists have shown that the application of artificial fertilizers degrade the soils ability to hang on to both carbon and nitrogen, which have the added effect of impairing the soils ability to hang on to water.  (This isn't really news to the organic food community.)  If this research is borne out, it basically means that chemical fertilizer represents a full-spectrum assault on soil.

This is yet another in our series of examples of things western industry does that look efficient but turn out not to be.  Pick your other favourite example, but synthetic nitrogen fertilizer -- responsible for feeding billions today -- may not have been worth the effort.

The advocates of conventional agriculture like to say that organic food can't feed the world.  This may be true (I think it isn't) but in any case it's a nice way of eluding two facts: one, um, you may have noticed a ton of hungry people on the planet today even with your conventional food system, and two, there's no evidence that organic agriculture undermines the ability of future generations to feed themselves.  You can't say the same thing for conventional agriculture.

So yeah, chemical agriculture "feeds the world", if you mean "feeds mostly corn and cattle, and then ignores the bottom billion people alive today, and totally ignores anyone with the misfortune to be alive 50 years from now."  If that's what you mean, we're doing just fine.

Friday, February 19, 2010

"It’s not an orgy... but it is socially vigorous."

I'm shocked, shocked that young, fit, and frankly beautiful people are getting laid like rabbits on speed:
At the Albertville winter Olympics, condom machines in the athletes’ village had to be refilled every two hours. And in Sydney the organisers’ original order of 70,000 condoms went so fast that they had to order 20,000 more. Even with the replenishment, the supply was exhausted three days before the end of the competition schedule. (For the record, athletes who were in Sydney report that the Cuban delegation was the first to use up its allocation.) Salt Lake City in 2002 went even bigger: 250,000 condoms were handed out, despite the objections of the city’s Mormon leadership.
The Salt Lake City Olympics were a bit of an absurd spectacle to my eyes, with everyone politely forgetting the massive international corruption scandal that brought the games to Utah in the first place. But ooh, Canada won Gold in Hockey! On the other hand, if the non-stop lubed-up entertainment discomfited the LDS Church as much as I imagine it must have, I'm really turning around on the whole thing.

Dear Michael Ignatieff

Dude, I'm trying not to keep hating on you. But quoting Spiro Agnew to dismiss criticism of the Vancouver Olympcis? Really?

Thursday, February 18, 2010

There goes the TV tax

So Shaw is buying Canwest (everything except the newspapers.)  The likely result of this is that 2 of the three private networks in english Canada will be owned by cable companies, with the third private network left alone with the CBC to beg for money.  Not an enviable position to be in if you want a strong showing before the government.

Except that, as it turns out, you don't need to be Canadian to extort money from cable providers.  Fox just did that to Time-Warner at the point of a metaphorical gun (the blacking out of weekend football.)  What's notable is how much smaller the amounts in the US are -- a dollar per subscriber or less.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

There are right ways and wrong ways

Problem #1 about the Internet, as far as newspapers are concerned, is that nobody but nobody pays the same amount of money for something on the Internet that they do in print. That readers don't pay the same price is basically irrelevant -- readers have never, ever paid anything close to the full cost of production for the daily paper. What is far more damaging for papers, what is the real core fault with the Internet as far as they're concerned, is that advertisers won't pay the same amount of money for online ads that they do in print -- or, as newspapermen still call it, "the real world".

I don't deny this is a real problem -- hey, we're all mercenaries in our own way -- and reporters want to be paid as much as anyone. But there are right ways and wrong ways to go about these things. And insisting on charging users as much for your new fancy iPad-enabled paper as you do for the print version when you know that advertisers still won't pony up similarly is a way of calling your readers stupider than the advertisers they're supposed to be shepherded towards.

Stupid, as in "sure you could just read this thing through your iPad's web browser, but you've apparently got more money than brains so we expect you to do this instead". Or, stupid as in "sure the advertisers who are our real customers don't give a shit about online readership numbers. But we expect you to cough up some dough to pretend that they do."

Or maybe just "hey, you're not buying the iPad because of what it does, you're buying it because you want to be seen using it while you drink your decaf soy latte at the local Starbucks. So ante up douchebag, and read the Sunday times like your peers expect you to." [1]

Okay, so maybe that's a little smart after all.

[1] Having been a guy who served lattes from behind the espresso bar, I don't really have anything against latte-drinkers. Hell, I drink lattes! But lets be clear about the social positioning and signalling going on here.

Monday, February 15, 2010


Can't remember where I read it, but a former MSFT insider wrote recently that a simple way to judge the kind of company that Microsoft is and what kind of company its competitors are is to look at how old its revenue streams are.  For example, Microsoft makes essentially all of its profits from Windows and Office, a line of products that are, conservatively, each 20 years old.  Hell, we're now 15 years out from Windows 95, right?

Meanwhile, Apple now makes more money from selling iPhones than it does selling computers [PDF] -- the iPhone being a grand total of 3 years old.  Even excluding the iPhone, "iPod and music services" (presumably iTunes Music Store, only 7 years old) account for more revenue than desktops and portable computers.  Result: Apple could lose the entire personal computing market and, while there'd no doubt be a few lean dinners at Cupertino, they'd actually be doing just fine.

Meanwhile, Microsoft's revenue stream rests basically on the presumption that an extortionate monopoly can be maintained in perpetuity.  What happens if tomorrow the US government announces they're shifting to OpenOffice? Just asking.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The zero-cost military

This is a bit old, but it made the rounds a bit earlier this week and it merits discussion:
Indeed, total spending (actual and planned) after 2001 appears much above the average for the preceding five decades. The Obama administration is contributing substantially to this trend. It plans to spend more on defense in real (inflation-adjusted) terms than did any administration since 1948 – a period encompassing the entire Cold War, including two large-scale, protracted regional wars: Korea and Vietnam.
This chart sums it up nicely.

There's something interesting here about the fact that, until recently, the US was willing to spend about the same real amount on war-fighting over a pretty long period of time: roughly 550-600 billion 2010 dollars, give or take. What's even more interesting is to consider the devaluation of what that money can buy. In 1953, it bought a stalemate with the People's Republic. In Vietnam, it bought a pretty miserable quagmire where the only way to end it was to leave. In the 1980s, the actual effect foreign policy-wise was pretty much zero except that Bush the Elder was able to fight and win the Gulf War with Reagan's leftovers.

Indeed, America's major successes during the entire post-WWII period are almost entirely political, and not military -- the creation of NATO and the UN, the negotiation of an alliance with Japan and South Korea, etc. That's not to say that a high level of military spending wouldn't have been necessary for those successes as well: there's a lot of evidence to suggest that the immediate demobilization after WWII helped convince the Soviets and DPRK that the US wouldn't or couldn't intervene in their attempt to unify the peninsula.

Nevertheless, those charts suggest to me that the point of diminishing returns on 20th century global hegemony is somewhere around $350 billion US 2010. Spending that much gets you a pretty uncontested playing field, while spending more just gets you in to a point where you're chasing good money with bad. And we're now looking at a future where the sustained spending is something like $600-700 billion, even as the US winds down one and maybe two wars.

Or, to put it another way, the difference between America's usual "resting rate" military spending and the planned future spending will be double what the Congressional health care proposals will cost even if the savings estimated by groups like the CBO never materialize. That's the most pessimistic assumption possible: that the $100 billion or so per year that the Congressional plan budgets isn't offset in any way by the projected savings.

And this is all basically uncontroversial, even though it's a sum that would be madness for any other country to spend. Meanwhile, spending a small fraction as much for the moral cause of helping the sick and poor is tantamount to eating babies.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Compare and Contrast


With this:

There's your new-economy old-economy divide right there. One treats the opposite sex as something to be pursued out of a desire to have our own lives fulfilled, the other wants to sell you an identity based on resentment.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Six degrees of this is old now

Joe Stiglitz, Zhang Ziyi, and myself all share a birthday.  That day is today.

We're not actually all the same age.  And I haven't yet won a Nobel prize or starred in a film outside of a grainy cellphone cam from a back alley behind a bar.[1]  So there's really nothing connecting us except the peculiarities of the Gregorian calendar.

[1]  Get your mind out of the gutter, perv.

UPDATE: John Walker Lindh and I have the exact same birthday.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Troubles in Europe. Gee, that's never caused problems before.

I have nothing serious to add to the commentary of Simon Johnson on the problems of sovereign default in Europe, but I will say if the Eurozone breaks up because of this there will be no end of crowing on the American right, who love to see Europe fail at anything because shut up that's why.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Clearing tabs

Could locked-down tablets be good for us?

Argh, I promised I'd stop writing about the iPad, so consider this a more generic question about an entirely-hypothetical tablet computer with more limitations than power users are used to, made by an entirely-hypothetical company. Whose name rhymes with "Snapple".

Here's my thinking: with devices like iPhones, etc. there's a benefit to the user for a lot of functions that might happen through a browser on a desktop (gmail, youtube, google maps) to become their own apps: less intensive resource use, and faster results for the user. Even if the picking and choosing of apps is open and transparent (i.e., not "Snapple") the fact that the UI is app-based naturally predisposes the user to choosing apps instead of the theoretically less constrained Web.

The result, if I'm right, is that the Web becomes something more like TV: a limited (though still very large) number of channels instead of a limitless field to wander in. (If the web was ever really like that in the first place.) Furthermore, browsing the web from something like a dedicated browser becomes, in the scenario where mobile tablets become the norm, something akin to using your computer through a command-line interface: sure, you can do it -- but why?

So why would this be good for us? Simply put, we may be running out of neurons for the firehouse of information that is being sprayed at us. W. Russel Neuman et al (PDF):
Our key conclusion is drawn from Figure 10. Indeed, it represents another growth curve, in this case the simple ratio of media supply to media demand. Such a curve follows, naturally enough, from the disjuncture of a nearly exponential growth in supply paired with a linear growth in consumption. But it is worthwhile to pause briefly to consider the actual metrics we have been at some pains to calculate. Take the ratio of supply to demand in 1960. It is 98. That represents the number of media minutes available in the typical American household in 1960 divided by number of minutes of actual consumption. It represents the fundamental a metric of choice. And it is a human scale choice. ... But if we take the ratio of supply to demand in 2005, we find a very different metric. The ratio is 20,943 – over 20,000 minutes of mediated content available for every minute to be consumed. In our view that is not a human-scale cognitive challenge; it is one in which humans will inevitably turn to the increasingly intelligent digital technologies that created the abundance in the first place for help in sorting it out – search engines, TiVo’s recommendation systems, collaborative filters. We see this as a historical variant of Beniger’s widely cited “crisis of control” in the 19th century (1986a, 1986b). Briefly, Beniger argued that the growth of automated intelligent control systems in transportation and manufacturing were not just a technical artifact but a necessary development as mechanized process speeds and complexity challenged the capacity of individual humans to control them. He cites frequent train crashes in the late 19th century resulting from human error as a particularly dramatic exemplar. We may not be confronting equivalent dramaturgy in the realm of media flows, but it represents nonetheless a critical shift in how individuals will negotiate the mediated world.
Neuman et al don't explicitly mention iPhone-like interfaces, but it seems to me this is very much part of the evolution of the web: using it in a way that narrow down the options to something humane.

Today in "No, that severed horse's head was always there" news

Keith Urban, having been visited by the lawyers of his employer, issues grovelling reversal of his previous "I don't care if you download my music" statement.

These little moments amuse me. This, however, will be the one and only time I blog about Keith Urban, unless of course it intersects with my passion for stealing from poor, benighted artists with the limitless power of my capped 5Mps DSL line.

Monday, February 01, 2010

No, really, they're actually monsters

Ever think the rich and powerful might -- gasp! -- hold different standards for proper conduct in others than they themselves follow?
Once we become socially isolated, we stop simulating the feelings of other people.* As a result, our inner Machiavelli takes over, and our sense of sympathy is squashed by selfishness. The UC Berkeley psychologist Dacher Keltner has found that, in many social situations, people with power act just like patients with severe brain damage. "The experience of power might be thought of as having someone open up your skull and take out that part of your brain so critical to empathy and socially-appropriate behavior," he writes. "You become very impulsive and insensitive, which is a bad combination."

Of course, we live in an age when our most powerful people - they tend to also have lots of money - are also the most isolated. They live in gated communities with private drivers. They eat at different restaurants and stay at different resorts. They wear different clothes and skip the security lines at airports, before sitting at the front of the plane. We shouldn't be surprised that they're also assholes.

Still got it

Bill Watterson gives his first interview in 20 years:

How soon after the U.S. Postal Service issues the Calvin stamp will you send a letter with one on the envelope?

Immediately. I'm going to get in my horse and buggy and snail-mail a check for my newspaper subscription.

Thanks, Bill. I'd forgotten what it was like to snort tea out my nose.