Army Video Games 
Monday, January 5, 2009, 09:59 PM
The NYT has an article up a new video game experience the army is using to attract new recruits. That isn't what caught my eye, however:
Civil liberties groups have criticized the Pentagon for its efforts to reach high school students.

This just drives me up the wall. The Army isn't trying to recruit high school students -- it's trying to convince high schoolers to join once they've graduated from high school. People don't graduate from high school, wake up the next morning and say "now what am I going to do with my life?" They PLAN. If you want someone to join after graduation, common sense dictates that you talk to them while they're still in high school.

Once you're 18, you can have unspeakable acts permanently recorded on camera, distributed to sleazebags throughout the country, and be left with only a pittance to show for it. Joining the Army may not be all that bad in comparison.

In fact, for the urban youth who are the subject of the NYT article, the Army may represent the only viable path towards something that resembles normal middle class life. Without the Army they may never escape their communities and the cycle of destruction that drags so many down. The Army represents good training, a stable income, good benefits, a solid retirement, and provides good discipline. These individuals can then return to their community as an example to encourage others that it is in fact possible to rise above a seemingly hopeless situation.
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Stanley Fish Gets His Just Desserts 
Sunday, January 4, 2009, 05:35 PM
Over on his blog at the New York Times, Stanley Fish has a post up complaining about AT&T's customer service. Mr. Fish owns two homes and lives half the year at each one. When he changes homes, he has to turn on his phone service again:
“I’ve been away for some time and my services were reduced. I’d like to have them restored to what they were when I left in June.”

It turned out that this was not possible. Even though I had paid to retain my phone number, I was going to be treated as a new customer, which meant that I would have to answer a bunch of questions and decline services I had never had.

Phone companies probably don't prepare for the contingency where residential customers regularly rotate through several houses -- it is simply too small a fraction of the population that enjoys such luxuries. When adding a new customer, it makes sense to try and sell them as many services as possible.

The real thing that set Mr. Fish off, however, was the fact that the agent greeted him with the grammatically incorrect question "With whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?":
I should have quit when I was (somewhat) ahead, but I couldn’t resist returning to the greeting, with its double and ungrammatical “with.” I explained that the second “with” was superfluous, as the second “to” would be if the offending question had been, “to whom am I speaking to?”, or the second “about” if the question had been “about what are you worrying about?”

Somehow that didn’t make much of an impression on her. She said that her instructions were to greet callers in that way and that she would continue to do so. I replied that it was scandalous that a multi-billion-dollar world-wide telecommunication corporation would order its employees to commit an egregious (and comical) grammatical error millions of times a day.

She said, “I’m sorry you feel that way.”

I lost it. It has nothing to do with feelings, I ranted. It is a factual matter as to what is and is not syntactically correct.

Is it just me, or is there something wrong with taking out your frustrations with a multinational corporations on the nearest poor slop getting paid $9 an hour who happens to work for that company? After all, she obviously has no control over her employer's actions. It reminds me of a similar situation at San Diego airport the other day. Fog had grounded the planes the night before and the next morning flights were still slammed, with stranded passengers desperately trying to get out. Every single passenger service counter at each gate in the terminal had a line, as harried agents rushed to reroute passengers as quickly as possible. It took me over 40 minutes to advance 4 places in line because a man at the front refused to accept what the agent was telling him.

"Why can't I wait until the 3 p.m. flight to Portland?"
"Because that flight is full, sir."
**Five more minutes of haggling**
"I don't understand why you're trying to route me through Oakland. There's a flight at 3 p.m. to Portland."
"Sir, the flight at 3 is full. The trick right now is getting out of San Diego, and there's a flight from Oakland to Portland at 2:30 p.m. today."
**Continue ad nauseum for several more minutes**

It was as if the man thought that the agent was holding out on him -- that, like a street vendor, it was possible to wear the man down and get a better deal.

In the end, as Mr. Fish discovered, taking out your frustrations on the nearest customer service agent isn't always the wisest plan:
She changed the subject by informing me that the social security number I had given when she asked for it was not the number she had on record. I asked her to change it, but she pleaded incapacity: “No, I can’t do that. I’ll connect you to the department where they can.”

That was a promise made subsequently by five other people as I was repeatedly transferred to someone who told me, “No, I can’t do that.” Everyone I talked to assured me that within seconds I would be talking to the right person. My last interlocutor took pity on me, and although he too was not the right person, he knew someone in his division who was and said he would talk to him directly. When he came back, it was to tell me that the social security number on record was in fact the one I had given him. The whole thing had been a wild goose chase.

Oops! I'm sure it was just an honest mistake...
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En Route to Hawaii 
Saturday, December 20, 2008, 07:02 PM
Small boy: What's wrong with your arm?

Old man: I lost my arm in Vietnam.

The old man then shuffled on.
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Quotes Worth Reading 
Monday, December 15, 2008, 08:58 PM
From a friend's blog, on the danger to foreigners in Thailand: the US, several people died and women miscarried in WalMarts on Black Friday being stomped to death by angry shopping mobs. Exactly zero foreigners have died in Bangkok from these protests. You had a better chance of being hurt shopping the day after Thanksgiving than I did watching the overgrown boys in cargo shorts and backwards baseball hats throw back shots here in Bangkok.

From this past Sunday's NYT, on Clint Eastwood:
Despite what you might have read on Wikipedia, Mr. Eastwood is not a vegan, and he looked slightly aghast when told exactly what a vegan is.

And while we're on Thailand, make sure you read this article by the Economist.
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Sunday, November 30, 2008, 04:06 PM
I was researching opening a brokerage account when I read the following description:
With a Margin Account, you can buy and sell most of the same types of securities as you would in a Cash Account, but you'll have the added advantage of leveraging your investments.

Ummmm... no thank you!

If people a lot smarter than me are loosing money by the truckload in the stock market, I'm not arrogant enough to believe that trading on borrowed money is a wise personal choice.
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Efficient Markets 
Saturday, November 29, 2008, 03:34 PM
I participated in a comment thread over at Megan McArdle's blog, one of my new favorite places on the web.

What they are describing is generally called a "negative externality." A negative externality is where you do not bear the full cost of your economic activity: it is borne by another individual, group of individuals, or society as a whole. Environmental issues lend themselves to easy illustrations of this, but noise pollution from a bar could also be classified as a negative externality.

The key point here for libertarians is that markets do not function efficiently in the face of negative externalities. If I'm producing widgets for $5 and selling for $10, but Joe and Bob incur $15 of damage to their property every time I produce a widget, then society is operating at a net loss. If you don't have an efficient market, then you don't have all of the much-touted benefits of capitalism.

In general, there are two ways to deal with negative externalities:

1) You can regulate them. This involves either prohibiting certain activities (NO loud music after 2 a.m., etc) or setting caps (max carbon emissions per year, etc.).

2) You can price them in. In the widget example, this would mean that the gov't imposes a tax on me of $15 to compensate Joe and Bob.

Libertarians and conservatives tend to reflexively act against anything that calls for more government involvement. The problem here is that many confuse a useful tactic (less government regulation) with the strategic goal (an efficient market). If you achieve the former at the expense of the latter, it really doesn't count as a win.
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A Useful Addition to the National Discourse 
Saturday, November 15, 2008, 08:14 PM
I've long been critical of the way the NYT editorial page seems to make a deliberate effort to avoid adding a useful voice to the discussion of major political issues. Most often the Times is content complaining about the latest liberal pet peeve, while going out of its way to not propose a solution. It's as if the editorial board sees the job of filling up that massive space they set side for themselves as a chore, rather than an opportunity to move this country in the right direction.

The latest editorial on rebuilding the military is different. I don't agree with everything it says, but it's better researched than most Times editorials, and proposes several constructive solutions.
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Please Do Not Run For National Office Ever Again 
Sunday, November 9, 2008, 10:13 PM
Bill Kristol wrote a column complimenting Obama's skill and stating that "It's good for conservatism that conservatives will have to develop refreshed ideas and regenerated political skills to succeed in the age of Obama."

I appreciated his recognition of the skill in Obama's racial "mutt" comment. As a fellow racial mutt I like it anytime the mixed race question is acknowledged.

I was about to remark aloud what a great column it was, when I read the final sentence:
And it wouldn’t hurt for Governors Sarah Palin, Mitch Daniels, Bobby Jindal and the other possible 2012 G.O.P. nominees to begin bringing some puppies home for their kids.

No, NO, NO!

For the sake of the Republican party -- heck forget the Republican party -- for the sake of everything that is good, and true, and sweet, and honorable about this country please retire that woman from national politics. What is wrong with you Kristol?
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I just don't understand how these people are so smart 
Saturday, November 8, 2008, 11:48 PM
The Economist, exactly on the mark as usual, weighs in on the Obama victory.

On the state of racial affairs in America, and by implication the rest of the western world:
This week America can claim more credibly than any other western country to have at last become politically colour-blind.

A sprinkling of optomism:
... he won almost exactly same share of it [the white vote] as the last three (white) Democratic candidates; Bill Clinton, Al Gore and John Kerry. And he won heavily among younger white voters. America will now have a president with half-brothers in Kenya, old schoolmates in Indonesia and a view of the world that seems to be based on respect rather than confrontation.

On the challenges that lie ahead:
Non-Americans must also brace for disappointment. America will certainly change under Mr Obama; the world of extraordinary rendition and licensed torture should thankfully soon be gone. But America will, as it must, continue to put its own interests, and those of its allies, first. Withdrawing from Iraq will be harder than Mr Obama’s supporters hope; the war in Afghanistan will demand more sacrifices from Americans and Europeans than he has yet prepared them for. The problems of the Middle East will hardly be solved overnight. Getting a climate-change bill through Congress will be hard.

Hope and perspective:
Like most politicians, Mr Obama will surely fail more than he succeeds. But he is a man of great dignity, superior talents and high ideals. In choosing him, America has shown once again its unrivalled capacity to renew itself, and to surprise.

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Lessons from the Financial Crisis 
Saturday, November 8, 2008, 02:25 PM
Ever since Rupert Murdoch took over the Wall Street Journal, the Op-Ed page has largely served as an annex for deposits by the editorial board. When editorials stay focused on business they remain spot on, but those that delve into politics sound strikingly similar to Fox News. It was refreshing, in the midst of all this, to see an excellent opinion piece written by Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone. He provides solid advice on how to ensure crisis like this do not happen in the future, and reminds us once again that maxim the majority political party in Washington would be wise to keep in mind: If there's anything worse than no regulation, it's bad regulation.

You hear that Mr. Barney Frank? Your bad regulations encouraged the issuance of mortgages to unworthy borrowers. You would think that Representative Frank would step up and acknowledge his error -- or at least remain silent while this crisis sorts out and we figure out how to overhaul our regulatory structure. Instead, the Democrats have appointed him their point man in dealing with this mess he helped create. Not exactly confidence inspiring.
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