LOCKED AS TIGHTLY AS A DRUNKEN IRISHMAN'S MOUTH

Posted in Rants on July 31st, 2007 by Ed

Sorry for the quickie today, but my lease is up and it's final move-out time.

I'd like to call the world's attention to this SF Gate story about the ironclad security of electronic voting machines. It appears that in a recent simulated exercise, state-sponsored teams of hackers (CS professors, private citizens, etc) were able to infiltrate, take control of, and alter data in the electronic voting machines used in many California counties.

I tell my students the following about EVMs: imagine that I gave an oral final exam. I read the questions, and the students gave me a verbal answer. When the test ended, I'd tell them "OK, that was a C-". No additional information, no record of what they did right or wrong, no way to review or re-evaluate the answers. Just an outcome. That's electronic voting in a nutshell. I may have to update the anecdote, however, to include the possibility that random computer hackers could infiltrate me (!!!) and dictate the mysterious grade at which I'd arrive.

What explains the fascination with switching over to EVMs? They're not cheap. They're not reliable. They're not secure from manipulation by outside parties. They don't reduce the number of poll workers required. There's just no compelling argument for them beyond "There are some problems with paper ballots" and a 1950s-ish awe at the wonders of technology that assumes anything with a plug to be superior to its non-electrical counterparts.

SEEING AMERICA, ONE ARBY'S AT A TIME

Posted in Rants on July 30th, 2007 by Ed

Henry Miller once said "You can travel 50000 miles in America without once tasting a piece of good bread." While this may not have been the case when he said it, today his quote is true mostly because one can travel 50,000 miles without finding anywhere other than Subway at which to dine.

I've driven all over this nation many times in the past 10 years, and if I have one useful piece of advice to give road-trip planners it is to stay off of the Interstate Highways as much as humanly possible. Most readers can no doubt relate to the experience of taking long drives on I-80/90/5/Whatever and the crushing boredom that inevitably results. Like one of those cheap old Hanna-Barbera cartoons in which the animators re-use the same background endlessly, Interstate drives are a stultifying repetition of gray concrete peppered with a BP, McDonald's, Subway, and so on every 3 miles. It is possible to drive from Boston to Los Angeles on the Interstates without seeing a restaurant that is not in your home town.

If getting somewhere in a hurry is your objective, the Interstates are clearly your best bet. This is true. It is true for the same reason that the drives are so boring: the Interstate highway system is a massive military project, designed largely with the goal of moving large amounts of cumbersome, bulky military hardware (and personnel) over long distances in a short time. If one were to look up the legislation establishing the system in 1956, it bears the revealing name of the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956.

[sarcasm]Like all good things[/sarcasm], our military leaders got the idea from the Nazis. American commanders in Europe were stunned by the efficiency of the Third Reich's blitzkreig tactics, which relied heavily on the rapid deployment of highly mobile mechanized units. This was aided in no small part by the reichsautobahn which linked every major city and border point in the country. With the transport capabilities of aircraft still in their infancy, moving men and material relied on ground transport or rail (an infeasible option once aerial bombing advanced to the point that railroads could be easily disrupted).

Like our space and rocketry programs (thanks, Operation Paperclip!) the American plans for a highway system relied on German expertise and experience. The plan was simple: a standardized grid of four-lane (minimum) highways with a cleared, flattened median and shoulders and no curves sharper than 15 degrees. The soft curves (and maximized number of straightaways) allow today's drivers to use the highways without ever having to brake – there are no points at which, for example, one must drop to 30mph and take a sharp corner. The original purpose of this feature was to permit the transit of plodding, poorly-maneuverable equipment like tanks, artillery, and half-tracks. The practical effect today is that drivers can practically fall asleep or pay no attention to the road but still do 75.

The cleared median and shoulders, which today are the primary cause of the extreme boredom and featurelessness of Interstate driving, also have a military purpose. While it is an urban legend that the Interstates were designed as runways for bombers, they were in fact intended to allow the emergency landing of smaller fixed-wing aircraft as well as ground transport of large equipment that would overhang the sides of the road. One can hardly move a fighter jet down the highway if the median is full of trees.

In short, the highways were not in fact designed because the government was concerned about finding you a better way to get from Kalamazoo to Lubbock. While the Interstate system has functioned as a massive subsidy to American car culture (one that the gas taxes right-wingers bitch about don't even begin to cover), it was designed with the sole intent of getting Marines from South Carolina to California in a hurry and keeping open the flow of warheads from Pantex to SAC-Omaha once the nukes started flying. Over time, of course, the development of massive cargo aircraft like the C-5 and C-130 has substantially reduced the system's military usefulness. Nonetheless its military origins have left an imprint that is still felt strongly today, and it is this legacy you can thank every time you realize you have fallen asleep behind the wheel yet are somehow still on the road and doing 70.

As Charles Kuralt said, incorporating Mr. Miller's idea into his criticism of the highway system on aesthetic grounds, "The interstate highway system is a wonderful thing. It makes it possible to go from coast to coast without seeing anything or meeting anybody. If the United States interests you, stay off the interstates." Truer words never spoken.

FORKS, ROADS, AND MANIC STREET PREACHERS

Posted in Rants on July 29th, 2007 by Ed

Well, a couple of things.

I'm back from my 4000 miles of driving in 9 days, which in my world qualifies as a fantastic vacation. Fortunately the pleasant Boy-I-Feel-Better buzz lasted all of about 15 seconds when I got back.

My employment has once again been yanked out from under me (if you're keeping score, it's gone Funding – No Funding – Funding – No Funding in the span of 8 weeks). You'd think that the presence of a signed contract would have prevented this latest episode of fundlessness, but our university apparently has a very novel interpretation of what a signed contract really means.

Thanks to Mike for holding down the fort while I was gone. Unfortunately, that was Mike's last hurrah on ginandtacos. He is off to start his own blog. I encouraged him to simply post here more regularly instead, but I was unpersuasive. I will of course direct you toward it as soon as it's up and running. Ginandtacos was something that Mike and I started many years ago on many an evening among the model soldiers in Mr. Konczal's basement. It's going to feel very odd to keep the ball running alone, although I've essentially been doing so for the better part of the last year.

Mike's humor and non-politics entries always provided an excellent balance to my ranting. Without that, I'm afraid that ginandtacos will cease to be entertaining pretty quickly. Absent any counterbalancing posts about Boston Legal, ginandtacos will take on the uncomfortable feel of a lunatic roaming the sidewalks shouting at random passersby.

Basically, I'm tired and I don't know if I have the energy for it. Having excelled at every form of failure lately (with special achievements in the fields of Career and Relationship) and lacking many remaining friendships, these long, rambling entries make me feel like the electronic equivalent of the guy who stands on the quad with a microphone yelling about Jesus. Having my real life go into the shitter makes pontificating on the internet seem a bit ludicrous. Like a fat person lecturing others about diet and exercise, the sociopolitical commentary of a tenuously-employed 28 year-old with no friends seems pointless at best and hypocritical at worst.

If any regular readers would be interested in doing some content here, let me know via email. I'd like to keep it running but I think that will necessitate having someone else share part of the load and take some of the edge off. If this site is going to continue, I don't want it to continue as a bile-flavored popsicle. The call goes out for someone slightly less polemical than I. Takers?

Anti-Work

Posted in Uncategorized on July 26th, 2007 by Mike

I really had a lot to do at work today. How was I supposed to know the Procrastination Fairy was going to show up and whisper this in my ear: "Mike…what if I was to show you a video of Zach Galifianakis lip-synching the newest Kanye West single, on a farm, while occasionally riding a tractor and wearing an absurd robe, while Will Oldham dances in the background? And even better, since it is an official Kanye West video it is hosted on a site not-blocked by your work filter, you can watch it all day."

I said "No such thing could exist! That is too much awesome to be able to be streamed on the internet tubes!"

The Procrastination Fairy replied: "Oh, but it does."

I walked into work thinking I wasn't going to watch Zach echo Kanye's desire to stop spending so much money about 200x while my boss kept walking by, but sometimes I fall short of my ideal self. Seriously, like 200x times.

(I can understand you may find that link retarded; that's fine, but I'm not going to call you the next day if you do. It's not going to work between us.)

Two excellent books about Chicago and its underclass.

Posted in Uncategorized on July 26th, 2007 by Mike

Two of the best books I've read in the past while have been on Chicago and its underclass – Off The Books and Courtroom 302. I'd like to discuss them with you below the fold.

Read more »

Walmart and Public Shame

Posted in Uncategorized on July 25th, 2007 by Mike

Walmart has officially taken to engaging in state-sponsored public shaming for shoplifters:

Earlier this year, Lisa King Fithian entered the self-checkout lane at the Wal-Mart store in her hometown of Attalla, Ala., with a lava lamp and a pet playpen. According to court documents, she then failed to scan the two items, worth $26.97, to add them to her bill and tried to leave the store. Fithian, 46, later pleaded guilty to theft in court, although she maintained the entire incident was a misunderstanding.

Fithian's sentence was unusual. The local judge, Kenneth Robertson, had been thinking about shoplifting penalties that would be different from the fines and brief jail terms, which tend to be ineffective. He talked with the local Wal-Mart Stores manager about having Fithian go out in public with a sign around her neck declaring her crime. The manager, Neil Hawkins, gave the green light. So one Saturday Fithian wore two sandwich-board signs that declared, "I am a thief; I stole from Wal-Mart."

Since then, this town of 6,859 has become a real-life experiment in whether shaming can reduce shoplifting. More than 20 people have endured the modern-day version of The Scarlet Letter in recent months…

Wal-Mart executives have been debating the optimal shoplifting policies for its stores…But earlier this month, it decided to get more aggressive.

The article is an interesting read. Two things to pay attention to:

1) If you are a taxpayer you should be very pissed. Cops, Lawyers and Judges have to be mobilized to do nonsense work for Wal-Mart when it should be doing things like dealing with domestic abuse, murderers and drunk drivers. All to deal with the menance of some 13-year dipshit stealing a Linkin Park CD, whose bulked margins are insured against.

2) As anyone who has worked in, or around, low-wage jobs, can tell you, most theft is from a company's own employees. And the industry certainly believes this – 50% of theft is from employees (and 20% from vendor fraud or general errors). And Why shouldn't they? Poor wages, shitty benefits, 70% turnover, low prospects of advacement – it is the ideal situation for employee theft. Costco offers a higher wage rate, has a tenth of the employee turnover and (surprise) has almost zero (~.2%) loss rate here. (Of course it is harder to steal [the bulk] items from Costco, bit its loss ratio is ~10% of walmart; shop-lifting can't explain all of that).

Shaming in the public sphere is a great way to distract attention, and distracting from their scorched-earth employee relations tactics is exactly what Wal-mart is in the business of doing. And it does it well.

Subprime meltdown.

Posted in Uncategorized on July 25th, 2007 by Mike

This entry may be boring for many of you, but I'll teach you how people can lie with statistics and graphs near the end. So the housing market is in free-fall; Countrywide Financial, the largest mortgage underwriter, just announced to analysts that "Home price depreciation at levels not seen since the Great Depression" and the market will be hurting till 2009. (This effects spreads across the whole market). And that is the optimistic picture. Speaking of optimism, the Fed just released a neat graph in its recent report:


So 12% of subprime (risky, to low-income people with bad credit) loans are currently being foreclosed or are 90 days without a payment. Think about that for a second. 20% of loans sold in the past two years are subprime. However the primes looks fine.

Here's the rub. Say, you have a mortgages in 2005. You get laid off (your job goes to India) and your kid needs surgery shortly after you lose your health insurance. You find a new job that doesn't pay as much, and now you have a medical payment each month. You call your bank and say you are worried about defaulting on your (prime) loan. Your agent says: "No problem, let's refinance you with a variable-rate subprime loan with great terms the first two years." You can make the payments until, of course, you can't, and you default two years later. This story is completely consistent with this graph – there's a shift of all loans away from the prime ones. For the past two years it has been impossible to default on a prime loan; you are just moved into the subprime category. Hence this skyrocketing of the default in subprime may actually reflect a collapse of prime loans.

Mutual Funds do this all the time. They collapse out their bad funds, and discontinue them, and move the money into the good funds – and just report their great returns on the good funds.

And in case you are wondering where all the foreclosures are going on, from the Big Picture (a great source for market news):

It is going to be a bumpy time.

EPIC

Posted in Rants on July 24th, 2007 by Ed

Actual conversation between myself and an employee of our fine National Park Service. Tuesday morning. El Morro, New Mexico.

(Ed enters ranger station, notes foul odor.)
Ed: "Pardon me, but something smells awful."
Ranger: "I believe that's you, sir."

(Ed pauses reflectively, concurs.)
Ed: "I see. Well, good day to you."

Like it's my fault I haven't showered in 4 days. And have cumulatively walked about 25 miles in desert heat. Someone offer me a shower and I will gladly take it.

Thanks again to Mike for holding down the fort in my absence. I look forward to getting back this weekend. And showering.

Love in the handicapped stall; Denny Crane.

Posted in Uncategorized on July 23rd, 2007 by Mike

Old news: a Republican State Representative in Florida, Bob Allen, was arrested the other week for soliciting a male undercover cop. Alright, these things happen to married Republicans; I imagine it has to be quite the stressful time to be an elected Republican. But when I heard about this, I caught that the officer who arrested him wasn't undercover on a gay hooker sting operation. Instead, he was undercover on a robbery sting. Huh? Luckily PageOneQ has the police report:

"I observed Allen walk into the men's restroom [in a public park]… I then observed Allen leave the restroom and walk towards a park bench. I then entered the bathroom to adjust my police radio. On my way out of the restroom I almost bumped into Allen who was on his way into the restroom again. Allen changed his course of direction when he saw that I was leaving the restroom and went back towards his park bench. I talked with the other officers again and then entered the bathroom and began washing my hands. Allen entered the the restroom behind me and proceeded into the first stall.

"I realized there were no paper towels to dry my hands so I walked into the handicap stall to dry my hands. As I stood in the stall drying my hands I observed Allen look over the door of my stall and make eye contact with me. Allen then stepped away and then came back to the door of my stall and looked in, making eye contact with me again.

"I said 'hey buddy' and Allen said 'hi' and then stepped away again. About 5 seconds later Allen pushed open the door to my stall and stepped inside. I was standing against the far wall of the stall. Allen closed the door behind him and stood against it. I said 'What's up?' and Allen again said 'hi.' Allen then said, 'this is kind of a public place isn't it?' I said, 'do you have somewhere else we can go?' Allen said, 'How about across the bridge, it's quiet over there.' Allen engaged me in a conversation in which it was agreed that he would pay me $20 in order to perform a 'blow job' on me. Allen stated that he wanted me to ride with him across the river before he performed the act and gave me the money. Before entering Allen's vehicle I identified myself as a police officer and detained him."

Two things of note.

1) Not being gay, maybe I'm missing an essential piece of this puzzle, but do you really have to pay someone to perform oral sex on them? Dan Savage thinks that is very common for the situation, but seriously? You'd think you could give that away.

2) Anyone watch Boston Legal? The powerful, rich, Republican named partner of the law firm, Denny Crane, is played by William Shatner. In one episode, he tries to pick up a woman who is an undercover cop, who believes he had solicited her (he also believes her to have only one leg and really wants to have sex with her because of that, but that is besides the point). Denny, in one of my favorite moments of the show, goes to the Judge at trial something close to: "Judge you know me. I have hookers all the time. They come to my hotel room, and I pay them a lot." Picking up a hooker on the street, for $20 no less? Please, I'm a Republican!

Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer my Republicans much more like that. Hotel, mirror full of cocaine, and prostitutes, all charged to an oil company lobbyist's petty cash fund. This is what the GOP is reduced to? Trolling public park bathrooms, muttering like a crazy person, following men into handicapped (!) stalls? For shame. The party really is in decline.

I do think Bob Allen should hold a press conference where he drops the Denny Crane line though.

NPF Followup

Posted in Uncategorized on July 22nd, 2007 by Mike

I'm impressed by the readers who have finished the Realdoll documentary movie, and I'm a bit embarrassed by not having finished it myself. This weekend was my birthday, and I have needed to avoid hangover/headache inducing activites, so the rest of the video will have to wait a bit longer before being finished.

And I forgot about the two-handed broadsword.

Some people have mentioned the question as to whether the people in the video are either less or more of a threat to women now that they spend their free time acting out sex crimes on an inanimate object. Do Realdolls keep them locked up voluntary in their house (de facto prison), or is it just practice for the real thing? Would it be ethical to give Ed Gein a Realdoll, or would the Realdoll just make him an even more energetic (and efficient) monster?

Luckily an economist from Clemson University wrote an interesting paper about this with porn. It has that weird air of autistic thought that economist get (the kind that defines porn as a non-rivalrous, non-excludable public good with potential positive externalities), that I love but can be very off-putting. He looked at reports of rape incidents and correlates them against % access to the internet by time in communities after controlling for all the usual suspects of variables. Here's the abstract:

The arrival of the internet caused a large decline in both the pecuniary and non-pecuniary costs of accessing pornography. Using state-level panel data from 1998-2003, I find that the arrival of the internet was associated with a reduction in rape incidence. However, growth in internet usage had no apparent effect on other crimes. … These results, which suggest that pornography and rape are substitutes, are in contrast with most previous literature.

I love natural experiments in economics, and this is a pretty good one. The study finds a 10 percent increase in Net access yields about a 7.3 percent decrease in reported rapes. The normal problems that you have with statistical studies of this sort are all accounted for – and the results are glaring in the data. It may also explain part of why teenage births have decreased since the mid-90s. (It doesn't handle long-vs-short term issues of watching porn, and if you see porn itself as analogous to rape, there is another critique to be had.)

For what it is worth, and the author himself positions himself against this view quickly, but what the hell (It's 1:30pm and I'm still hungover): whenever we have goods with these qualities we tend to think the government should be in the business of helping to provide them (markets underallocate them). And other substitute goods for criminal goods are applauded in society (afterschool programs as a substitute against gang recruitment, for instance). I suggested to someone (they were naturally horrified) that $5K of our tax dollars for a realdoll purchase voucher, in exchange for a voluntary registration as a sex offender (and maybe one of those lowjack monitor ankle things) is significantly better deal that what it "costs" if he acts otherwise. I don't think any politicians are going to run on that platform though (A Chicken in Every Pot! A Realdoll in Every Closet!), though it would be kind of neat.