Scrivener.net

Sunday, October 31, 2004

Holiday caution:





Meanwhile, if you want a chill, check out 2004's Scariest Halloween Costumes.

If that doesn't do it for you, take a look at the current exhibit from the Minnesota Association of Rogue Taxidermists. That ought to do it.



Saturday, October 30, 2004

Elections officially return to the sports page betting line.

The history of organized wagering on elections in the U.S. from the Civil War to 1940, with odds reported in the daily newspapers, was mentioned in a prior post. Well, everything old becomes new again.

The dead-tree version of the NY Daily News is now printing presidential election odds in its sports page betting line, right with the point spreads for this weekend's football games.

For the record, today's odds...
To win: Bush -$120, Kerry even.
To win both popular and electoral vote: Bush 4-5, Kerry even.
To win popular and lose electoral vote: Bush 8-1, Kerry 20-1.
Electoral college tie at 269 votes: 20-1
Vikings +7 over Gia




Was Osama jealous? "I'm not dead yet!"

Intelligence experts believe Osama Bin Laden was forced to go public after three years in hiding to reassert himself as overlord of the global Islamic jihad ... [and] surmised Bin Laden wants to reestablish his prominence after watching upstart Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi grab the attention in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi's head now carries the same $25 million U.S. bounty.

"Zarqawi's been sucking up a lot of airtime," said John Pike, a terror expert at GlobalSecurity.org.

SITE Institute Director Rita Katz said it's odd that Bin Laden didn't praise al-Zarqawi, who pledged a loyalty oath to him this month.

Added another top counterterrorism official said, "My best guess is he's trying to regain the limelight." (NYDN)
So Osama was maybe feeling his job standing at risk? Slighted that the bounty on him is no longer tops?

Or maybe this is a Karl Rove October Surprise production -- more persuasive than producing the bearded man in a prison camp to Teresa's "I told you so."?

Update: They're betting on everything these days...
Asked whether military intelligence officials were surprised that Bin Laden wasn't killed in Tora Bora, Afghanistan, since he hadn't been seen on fresh videotape since the 2001 battle, a Defense Department official said, "Let me ask the guy here who just lost the bet."
... and all wagers are settled before we get the official analysis.




So much for campaign finance reform -- and the Democrats as the party of the "little guy".

Billionaires George Soros, Peter Lewis, Stephen Bing, Herbert Sandler, and Andrew Rappaport have by themselves spent $74 million through 527s to defeat Bush --"about as much taxpayer money as Bush received for his entire fall campaign" reports the NY Post. (Bush and Kerry each received $74.6 million in taxpayer-financed campaign funds.)

Pro-Kerry 527s have received $23+ million each from Soros and Lewis, $14 million from Bing, and about $10 million from Sandler. (The biggest contributor to a pro-Bush 527 has given $5 million.)

A secret meeting of the billionaires with Democrat activists lead by Harold Ickes was revealed recently by the New Yorker...

"No one was supposed to know about this ... We don't want people thinking it's a cabal, or some sort of Masonic plot!"
... said a spokesman for the plotting cabal of billionaire Democrats. (But don't call them Masons!)
His concern was understandable: the prospect of rich men concentrating their wealth in order to sway an American election was an inflammatory one, particularly given the Democratic Party's populist rhetoric.
Aw c'mon, why be shy about becoming the party of plutocrats as long as you remain populist in your heart? Plutocrats can be populists too!

Surely the American people are broad-minded enough to realize that. Why wouldn't swing voters in Iowa, Ohio, and Pennsylvania be flattered to know how this particular handful of the ultra-rich are financing the acquisition of their votes for their new Democratic subsidiary? Let's see..

We all know Soros, who called Bush a "danger to the world" who "reminds me of the Germans" of Hitler's era.

Lewis inherited his money, "cruises the Mediterranean in his 250-yacht, the Lone Ranger, and crusades for decriminalizing marijuana", says the Post, possession of which lead to his arrest in New Zealand, the New Yorker says.

Stephen Bing, noted Hollywood playboy who inherited his money too, may be best known for the paternity suits he's been named in (Elizabeth Hurley, Kirk Kerkorian/Lisa Bonde).

C'mon, Harold, these are the new Democratic Godfathers! When you've got their money, flaunt it baby-- right out in the ads. Why hide like devious, lying Republicans? Play it in Iowa...

"We, the new progressive Nazi baiting, pot smoking, adulterer billionaire Democrats, are paying for your vote for John Kerry [picture of a smiling Bing with a baby on each knee] ... I'm John Kerry and I approve this message."

OK, maybe that wouldn't play so well in Iowa.

But there's no reason for Harold to be conflicted -- there's no more shame in selling out a legacy as the party of the "little guy" than in selling anything else, as long as you get a good enough price.

And they're getting the price -- $263 million for pro-Kerry 527s, versus only $81 million for pro-Bush ones, so far.

Remember way back in 2002 when the Democrats posed as champions of campaign finance reform? Ha! Ha!




Texas hanging judge of the week.

Dallas, Texas -- Amid a party atmosphere that included balloons, streamers and a cake, a judge welcomed a fugitive back to her court on Monday before pronouncing his life sentence.

"You just made my day when I heard you had finally come home," Criminal Courts Judge Faith Johnson told Billy Wayne Williams, who was captured Thursday after nearly a year on the run....

Williams, accused of choking his girlfriend until she was unconscious, failed to appear for his November trial and was convicted and sentenced in absentia... He was arrested last week in Arlington by a fugitive task force.

Before he was brought into the courtroom on Monday, Johnson directed gleeful courtroom staff members as they placed balloons and streamers around the courtroom. A colorful cake was decorated with "Welcome Home Billy Ray Williams."...(AP)
Who says handing out life sentences can't be fun? We should all endeavor to make our work as enjoyable as possible.



Friday, October 29, 2004

Bob Woodward nails down exactly what Kerry says he'd have done different than Bush in Iraq.

Quote:
At the end of last year, during 3 1/2 hours of interviews over two days, I asked President Bush hundreds of detailed questions about his actions and decisions during the 16-month run-up to the war in Iraq. His answers were published in my book "Plan of Attack."

Beginning on June 16, I had discussions and meetings with Sen. John Kerry's senior foreign policy, communications and political advisers about interviewing the senator to find out how he might have acted on Iraq -- to ask him what he would have done at certain key points. Senior Kerry advisers initially seemed positive about such an interview.

One aide told me, "The short answer is yes, it's going to happen." In August, I was talking with Kerry's scheduler about possible dates.

On Sept. 1, Kerry began his intense criticism of Bush's decisions in the Iraq war, saying "I would've done almost everything differently."

A few days later, I provided the Kerry campaign with a list of 22 possible questions based entirely on Bush's actions leading up to the war and how Kerry might have responded in the same situations.

The senator and his campaign have since decided not to do the interview, though his advisers say Kerry would have strong and compelling answers....

Here are the 22 questions... (WaPo)
OK, folks, let's imagine the strong and compelling answers we are assured Kerry would have, if Kerry had answers.

They're better than Bush's real answers, right? Sure!

This sums up the whole Kerry campaign. Everybody in it knows full well that nobody is going to vote for Kerry -- the real Kerry. That's why he's made not even a pretense of running on his 20-year record in the Senate.

Moreover, if he actually answers any of these questions about Iraq -- like Bush did -- he not only exposes himself to criticism from people who know what they are talking about but also risks splitting the moderate part of the Democratic party from its anti-war left, rivening its support for him.

Thus we get Kerry's no press conference, no questions answered, Senate record ignored, health and military records not explained and buried, all anti-Bush campaign:

Bush was AWOL, Bush lied, Bush is inept, Bush is going to bring back the draft, Bush is going to cut Social Security benefits, while Kerry would be ... better.

How? Well, we won't say -- but if we did, it would be in a strong and compelling way!

Kerry is selling a Kerry of imagination to the Democratic left, and Democratic middle, and the undecideds -- a different imaginary Kerry to each, with the idea that each will think its own imaginary Kerry better than the real Bush.

That's fair enough in politics -- it's Marketing 101. Years ago when I first entered the business world a noted marketing maven told me, "Never say too much about the product in the advertising, sell the dream." And the election season is nothing if not a grand exercise in mass marketing.

But say Kerry wins this way, by one or two or three percentage points of the vote. Then he's not going to be able to avoid questions and giving answers to them that will cost him that much of his support (we know, or he'd be willing to give those answers now).

And as that happens, he will find himself in all likelihood having to deal with a Republican House and Senate.

This strategy he is pursuing is not exactly a formula for Ruling with a Mandate.

Clinton's second term, dealing with a Republican Congress -- the one in which he got himself impeached -- could end up looking like a holiday in comparison.

That marketing maven also said that if you sell too much dream without saying enough about the product, you have to be prepared to deal with a lot of returns.




Electoral college fun scenario of the day: Cheney elects himself president.

From Electoral-Vote.com:
Suppose the EC is tied 269 to 269 and the House deadlocks 25 states to 25 states. This is exceedingly unlikely, but just suppose. Then the Senate gets to choose the vice president. Also suppose the new Senate is divided 50-50, a very real possibility. Then the sitting vice president, Dick Cheney, gets to cast the deciding vote, electing himself as the new vice president. In the absence of a president, Cheney would be acting president for four years.



Current headlines

Noted without comment...

Buckner To Red Sox Fans: Don't Forgive Me.

Republicans Urge Minorities To Vote on Nov. 3

Finger Length is Destiny -- Real Men Are On The Social Sciences Faculty



Thursday, October 28, 2004

Here's hoping human progress is the real deal.

Spent a good part of the last couple days driving to and from DC, listening to a book-on-tape history of World War I. That story is enough to make one believe in the Flynn Effect -- that we're all 27 IQ points smarter now than then. We've gotta be. It's sure as heck enough to make one sorely hope there's a Flynn Effect.




Electoral college fun


Democratic electors vote for Republican John McCain. Republican electors counter by voting for Howard Dean. This would make an election worth seeing! Read all about it.




The difference a different NY Times editor (sort of) makes.


If Howell Raines, who not so long ago as editor of the NY Times proclaimed...
Our greatest accomplishment as a profession is the development since World War II of a news reporting craft that is truly non-partisan ... It is an exercise in disinformation, of alarming proportions, this attempt to convince the audience of the world's most ideology-free newspapers that they're being subjected to agenda-driven news reflecting a liberal bias... (as earlier noted)
... and who recently in the Washingpost Post , in his own "truly non-partisan" and unbiased way, wrote ...
These are signs of the fierce conviction of some voters -- and the secret fear of a quieter and perhaps larger group -- that George W. Bush is not smart enough to continue as president ... Yet the subject is seldom taken head-on by the mainstream newspapers and network news....

Does anyone in America doubt that Kerry has a higher IQ than Bush? I'm sure the candidates' SATs and college transcripts would put Kerry far ahead...
... was still editing the Times, do you suppose it would have just run a story starting off with...
To Bush-bashers, it may be the most infuriating revelation yet from the military records of the two presidential candidates: the young George W. Bush probably had a higher I.Q. than did the young John Kerry...
Of course, even the current regime at the Times nods to Howell by talking of the IQs of "the young" George Bush and John Kerry -- preserving the possibility that Kerry has a higher IQ today. One wonders in how many other articles that its ever run we can find the Times considering the possibility of such late-in-life IQ flip flops.

Still, be thankful for small steps towards a less bad press.




Does he now switch to being a Cubs fan?


How to become the oldest man in the world -- wait for the Red Sox to win the Series.
In 113 years, Fred Hale Sr. has seen a lot. There's one thing he'd like to see again. Hale, documented as the world's oldest man, is a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan. ... Can the Red Sox win their first World Series since 1918? "That's the question," said Hale. "We'll wait and see."... (AP)
OK, he waited and waited ... and it happened! What's he wait for now? The Cubs winning the Series sounds good -- it's been since 1908 for them.

In the meantime, what's it like being informed by researchers that you are the world's oldest man?
"I don't believe it. And I ain't going to die just to satisfy them."



Wednesday, October 27, 2004

The first 100 years of the New York City subways.

Today is the Centennial of the New York City subway, which opened on this date in 1904 with the express purpose of promoting "urban sprawl" -- to enable the city's working classes to escape the noxious congested housing (such as in the notorious Five Points district) into which they were forced by the need to be able to walk their jobs in lower Manhattan.

The new subway system was designed to enable these workers to move to new homes in the wilds of Upper Manhattan ("The Dakota" apartment building on 72nd St. was called that because it seemed that far away) and then in the hinterlands of the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens.

At this the subway was, of course, a fantastic success. In 1900 most of the city's 3.5 million residents were squeezed into living in lower Manhattan, with the Lower East Side one of the most densely populated areas in all human history. After the opening of the subway the population of the Lower East Side fell by two-thirds, while the population of the Bronx, for example -- which before then had consisted of farms and small villages -- by 1925 exceeded one million.

This movement of the masses from congested slums out to homes in the countryside -- coupled with the new access they acquired to distant resort areas, such as Coney Island -- constituted a great improvement in welfare for the population. And the style and convenience with which the subway moved masses of people between home, work and recreation -- through chandeliered stations -- quickly made it a symbol of New York City that was famous around the world.

The subways also were a great engineering marvel of the era. The IRT Line that opened 100 years ago today and ran from City Hall to 145th Street was built by its private operators on time and under budget. As today's NY Daily News notes:
... astonishing to 21st-century New Yorkers: The construction of that first line - the IRT - took all of four years, from groundbreaking to opening. Think of it. All those miles and miles of tunnels, blasted and smoothed and perfected, and the track laid, and all the stations (25 of them) built. In only four years. Today there are subway escalators that have been out of service longer than four years.
The project entailed advances in construction, train operations, and technologies (such as automated signaling) that pushed forward the state of the art world-wide.

An illustrated opening day souvenir brochure explains the new subway, the history behind it and the work that went into it to the citizens of 1904. It's part of a wealth of historical information about the subway's early construction, as well as the larger history of the subways, located at David Pirmann's excellent nycsubway.org web site -- which contains far more such information than official sites associated with the subway system.

The subways soon proved to be a great business success as well. All the trains and equipment were bought and paid for by the operating company out of pocket. Stations were designed by Stanford White and the great architects of the era, each with its own individual theme. The capital cost of ground construction was financed with a bond issue arranged by the city that was paid off by the operating company -- so the city's taxpayers paid nothing. And after paying for all this, the famous "nickel fare" (worth about 95 cents in today's money, less than half today's $2 fare) left the IRT earning a healthy 20% return on investment.

All very different than today. On the other hand, as the Daily News also notes, in some ways things were pretty much same as today...
the subway opened to the public ... at 7 p.m. Among the 150,000 riders to flow into the stations was one Henry Barrett of 348 W. 46th ., who boarded the train at 28th St. wearing his $500 diamond-horseshoe pin. He then looked down and saw that it was gone. That was at 7:03 p.m.
The true golden era of the subway didn't last long, however. Here's a little historical story with a point well worth remembering still...

A decade after the 1904 opening of the IRT, the subway operators and city were planning a major expansion, creation of the BMT line, on the same general terms as the before. But at this point the IRT had for a decade been earning a 20% return after servicing the construction bonds, and the city noticed that that was a great deal more than what it was collecting for managing the bond issue.

So the city negotiated new terms for this expansion under which it contributed the proceeds of new construction bonds to the project, instead of having the operators service them, in return for 50% of the profit from operations. In effect, the city became a 50% equity investor in the for-profit subway system.

But soon thereafter the World War I inflation hit, reducing the real value of the dollar -- and the nickel -- to about only half of what it was before. And what did the city politicians do then?

Well, good populist vote-seekers that they were, they passed legislation price-controlling the fare at a nickel.

Get it? First the city gave up its position as secured creditor of the subway system in the amount it had contributed to the system (about $40 million, more than $600 million in today's money) in exchange for 50% of the profits -- then it passed a law that destroyed those profits. Clever, eh?

Of course, eliminating the profits -- reducing the subway system's real revenue per passenger by 50% -- also put the city's taxpayers on the hook for servicing all those bonds, and decimated the quality of service the operators could afford to provide to riders.

Why would the city's politicians ever do such a thing? From rational self-interest, of course -- to profit politically by collecting votes from "saving the fare". After all, the politicians weren't personally on the hook like taxpayers for the bond payments, nor like investors for investment losses, nor like subway riders for the diminished quality of service. Those were other people's problems. But getting votes from imposing a price control, that paid off for them.

Some people wonder why I am skeptical about the government price controlling prescription drugs and medical services ... but I digress.

Preserving the "nickel fare" became political orthodoxy in New York City, a sort of third rail of local politics, for another 30-odd years, as long as the subways had private operators. The privately operated subways nevertheless rolled on and were able to eke out marginal profitability through deep operating cuts -- running fewer and more crowded trains, with stations and trains that weren't cleaned as often (chandeliers removed), and no more new stations designed by the likes of Stanford White.

In the 1930s the city began operating its own, government-owned subway line, the IND (for "Independent") line. This was the creation of Mayor John Hylan, who was a later-generation politician than those who created the subway, with very different views.

The creators of the subway insisted that it be privately operated, not city owned and operated, because of the staggering sums that Tammany Hall politicians (then in exile) had stolen from municipal projects during the prior decades. But John "Red Mike" Hylan was a Tammany politician who restored its influence at City Hall.

Hylan strongly opposed having the private sector provide municipal services in general, and hated the subway companies in particular, with a personal vengance. Literally. Because as a law student he had worked as a motorman for the BMT, and one day while studying a law book while moving a train through the yard he had nearly run down the head of the BMT as the latter walked across the tracks -- and was fired on the spot. Hylan carried a grudge from that forevermore.

The routes of the IRT and BMT and been laid out to carry people where they could not otherwise go. But Hylan's IND's routes were designed with the intention of undercutting the IRT and BMT. They ran in large part parallel to the other lines' existing routes, with stations located to intercept passengers from the IRT's and BMT's "feeder" surface transit lines.

This was a different political era from 1900. Now the idea was that citizens should have a choice of riding in a non-profit government subway rather than contribute to capitalists' profits. The increased congestion and declining quality of service of the for-profit lines (caused by the government's price-fixing of the fare) proved the need for government-run, non-profit service.

Unfortunately for taxpayers the IND proved non-profit in the extreme. Its government-managed construction cost was 125% more per mile more than that of the IRT and BMT, and upon entering service its operating cost was 14 cents per passenger while charging a nickel fare -- making operating losses 180% of revenue.

To make a long story less long, in the 1940s Mayor LaGuardia decided it would be a good idea to force a city takeover of the privately operated subway lines and unify their management with that of the IND. His rationale was that the city would thus "recover" the capital it had contributed to the private lines, while the management of the private lines would take over the IND to improve its efficiency and reduce its costs. The private operators of the IRT and BMT, seeing they would never be freed to charge a fair fare, and facing new direct city-owned competition, sold out to it for what they could get.

But things worked out reverse from what LaGuardia had intended. The capital thus "recovered" by the city was a sunk cost and the taxpayers' cost of servicing the related debt wasn't reduced a penny by the takeover, while the work practices and operating costs of the of IND quickly enveloped the former privately run lines. And with the politicians now receiving and disbursing the fare, and being forced to pay for their own promises, they quickly jettisoned the political orthodoxy of the "nickel fare" -- after 45 years of existence it was rapidly doubled to 10 cents, and soon tripled to 15.

By the 1970s, after 25 years of city management, the subways were once again famous world-wide -- this time for the state of ruin they were in. Thirty percent of trains were out of service during rush hour. Trains leaving the repair shop had higher break-down rates than when they went it. Almost all trains were covered with graffiti from top to bottom, inside and out, often so that it was impossible to see through spray-painted windows -- something that became a new signature mark of New York City's image in the movies and television shows of the time, shown around the world.

The collapse finally lead state politicians to remove the subways from city management and place them under the management of a semi-independent, quasi-governmental agency, the Metropolitan Transit Authority. Since then, with massive taxpayer-financed capital investment, the quality and cleanliness of the subways has been in large part restored -- the graffiti is gone.

But as to cost ... the Chairman of the MTA, observing the 100th anniversary of the subways (and showing exquisite timing and sensitivity towards his customers) stated that riders now should expect fare hikes every other year going forward, in odd number years. The tremendous productivity gains seen over the last 100 years in every other form of transportation, including railroading, are pretty totally missing. What other form of transport costs more than double (much more, including subsidies) to move a passenger now than it did 100 years ago?

A couple of personal afterthoughts:

I find it amusingly ironic every time I see or hear some enemy of "urban sprawl" propose new urban rail lines as a means of fighting sprawl and supporting denser living -- so often citing the example of the NYC subways as a model -- without ever realizing that the NYC subways, and other successful rail systems like it, had the express purpose and very successful effect of promoting urban sprawl. What successful rail line ever promoted congestion? As Justice Holmes was wont to say, a page of history is worth volumes of theorizing.

And I will have faith in our elected politicians fixing prices for, and/or directly managing the provision of, prescription drugs, health care, housing, and other services, when the day comes that somebody shows me how today's elected politicians face a very different set of political incentives when doing so than did all those politicians who price fixed and managed the NYC subways ever since WWI. Different incentives that will produce a qualitatively different result.

Nobody's even pretended to try and show me that yet, and I'm not holding my breath.




Throw this guy off the ferry before it's too late.

The local tabloid runs a little story about how the cross New York harbor ferry service, New York Waterway, "the only regional transportation service that isn't subsidized by the government", is encountering choppy financial waters due to high fuel oil prices and the resumption of competition from (highly subsidized) cross-harbor train service that had been suspended since 9/11.

It has the typical quotes from people who use and praise the service and wouldn't like to see it fail. Then there's this guy:

"They're making money hand over fist with their exorbitant rates," said Eric Friedman, 31, of Hoboken. "I'll be sorry if they close because it's convenient for me, but people are sick of paying high prices."
Translated into English: "If they go broke while making money hand over fist I'll be sorry, because the service that they exorbitantly overcharge for is worth it to me."

It's dangerous giving some people the vote. It was competition to please guys like this that drove politicians to price fix the subway fare back then in the face of that inflation.... Throw this guy overboard before it's too late!

The company ... acknowledged yesterday that it was in talks with "governmental officials"...
Never mind. It's already too late.



Monday, October 25, 2004

Remembrance of collectibles lost.

When you were a kid, did you ever own something like a baseball signed by major league ballplayers that would be worth a small fortune today if you hadn't been such a dumb-butt as to go play ball with it and lose it?

Feel better, the major leaguers who signed it did the same dumb thing. Whitey Ford remembers...
I had met President Kennedy's father ... We were playing up in Palm Beach against the Braves; I was in the locker room about the seventh inning and a Secret Service guy comes in and says, 'Who are you?' and flashes a badge.

I said, 'Whitey Ford.' He said, 'You're just the guy I'm looking for.' Joe Kennedy wanted Mickey, Yogi, Tony Kubek and I to come visit him in his house. We met him, shook hands...

I brought a dozen baseballs for him to get the president to sign. Sure enough, a month later, I get 12 baseballs signed by JFK - three for Tony, three for Mickey, three for Yogi and three for me.

About 20 years later, I see a full-page ad in Sports Collectibles Digest -- JFK baseball, $35,000. I couldn't wait to call Yogi and Tony and Mickey.

Not one of them had any baseballs left. The kids had played with them.

My wife found one of them out in the attic. I still have it. The other 11 disappeared. (NY Post)
A couple years ago in the basement of my parents' house I found a beautiful, circa 1966, boxed Star Trek bridge set including the captain's chair, control consoles, and action figures (or whatever they called them then) of Kirk, Spock, McCoy, Scotty and the rest, all in the original packaging, unopened, proof condition. Neither my parents nor I had any idea how it got there. Maybe they bought it for me but never gave it to me and forgot about it for 35 years.

I had no idea what it was worth and didn't look it up. I just brought it home and put it in the back of my closet intending to let it sit there for another 20 years.

I still don't want to know what it was worth. I came home one day and my three-year-old had gotten into it. Aiiieeee....!




Is that a cell phone in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

"Naked News, which features nude presenters reading the day's headlines, could soon be available on mobile phones", reports Ananova...

Executive Producer David Warge said: "Naked News is the most successful transition from internet to television ever. We have shown that we offer a unique programme that attracts a large and loyal audience.

"We are planning to produce programme segments geared to the current state of mobile technology in Europe, something that our target group considers important. We will start with news, sports, entertainment and possibly even weather reports.

"As soon as North America is ready, we will produce a similar programme for that market."

Naked News was founded internationally in 1999 and quickly developed into a global media phenomenon. The broadcasts are available in 172 countries over the internet and through pay-per-view television in North America, the Caribbean and Europe.
See for yourself, assuming you haven't already. Fox, watch out! Can you imagine Bill O'Reilly .... never mind.

Naked News is sponsored in part (or should be) by Naked Air, the airline to tropical destinations for those who prefer to fly in the buff. Can you imagine Dan Rather sitting down in the seat next to ... oh, never mind.

Isn't capitalism a joyous thing?




So the World Championships are over -- who won?


This "before" version story of this event, which apparently concluded last week, is reported in several places, but I've yet to see any "after"...
Warsaw's right-wing mayor has become embroiled in another battle with the flourishing sex industry in deeply Catholic Poland by attempting to ban a highly-publicized "world sex championships"...

"Last year, the fair attracted more than 11,000 visitors. With all this publicity the mayor has generated for us, we hope to do even better this year," [organizer] Garwatowski told AFP...
If I watched the Naked News sports report I suppose I'd know the final scores.




Teeing off on a par 11,880 course.

Speaking of final scores, how is 290 over par? Not bad, considering....

Andre Tolme, 35-year-old civil engineer from Northfield, New Hampshire, somehow combined love of golf with love of Mongolia and begat a 12,000 stroke round of play across 1,200 miles of barren steppes -- with only 509 balls lost.

"Tolme's most recent stint in Mongolia was 44 days of waking up under a burning sun, making himself a cup of tea and then walking 16 miles a day with a club in his hand and not a lick of shade in sight, hitting a golf ball as he went..." (CMonitor and, of course, www.golfmongolia.com).
Somewhere between the world sex championships and golfing across Mongolia there has to be a middle-ground, safe, sane participant sport for the average human being. Chess? -- no, the sanity issue. Maybe badminton?



Sunday, October 24, 2004

Talk about inviting a baseball curse...

The co-owner with the late, great Mickey Mantle of Mickey Mantle's restaurant in Manhattan put up a sign changing its name to Ted Williams' after the Red Sox beat the Yankees in the playoffs.

Curses followed immediately...
A steady barrage of furious phone calls and threats of death and destruction from fuming Yankee fans helped convince [Bill] Liederman to send the briefly resurrected Splendid Splinter back to his liquid-nitrogen vat in Arizona.

"Unbelievable," is how Liederman described the response to his "tongue in cheek" decision to rename the eatery in honor of the Boston Red Sox Hall of Famer for the duration of the World Series.

"It was all in the spirit of fun and games and good sportsmanship, but you'd think I had started World War III," said Liederman. "I would have left the sign up, but honestly I'm the father of four children ... and the nature of some of these calls was so vitriolic, it was not worth it," he said. "Everybody's got to stop and take a deep breath — it's just a restaurant."

To him perhaps, but not to Mantle's "shocked and outraged" family. "I called our attorney first thing," the late Mick's son Danny told The Post ...



Saturday, October 23, 2004

Probability that the Red Sox will finally escape the Curse of Babe Ruth this year: 43%. Or 61%.

Baseball is the most probabilistic of sports. A game centered on smacking together two round fast-moving objects (ball and bat) can hardly be anything else. That's why it is so loved by statisticians and the statistically minded.

One of the consequences of this is that any team really will beat any other team a certain percentage of the time, even if the difference in quality between them is great (as long as it is not too absurdly great). It's not like football or basketball, where physically superior players can overwhelm weaker opposition by force.

In baseball even a short, slight platoon infielder with a .219 lifetime batting average and all of seven career home runs may be remembered decades later as a "Series Hero" for taking the opposition's All-Star pitcher downtown at a critical moment. And a good thirty-five years later he'll be enshrined on the list of those who hit the 100 Greatest Home Runs of All Time.

Things like that happen in baseball, a certain percentage of the time. They're part of what makes the game so rewarding to watch. The fact that it's the only sport where the team with the ball plays defense isn't the only thing that's unique about it.

Another consequence is that despite what all the fans and sportswriters say -- especially during second-guessing time, which Joe Torre is enjoying in New York right now -- the outcome of every individual game is mostly the result of luck, chance, contingency. The difference in quality between major league teams is not so great as to be visible in results on a game-by-game basis, no matter what fans and sportswriters think they see. It takes a 162-game season for the luck to even out and the difference in quality to assert itself in the won-lost record. In shorter stretches bad teams will frequently outperform good ones.

How likely are they to do so? The statisticians have worked it out, of course. In a given game the probability of the stronger team beating the other is pretty close to the difference in their winning percentage plus .500. So a team with a .550 record will beat a team with a .470 record 58% of the time. To figure out the odds of each team winning a series of given length, just apply the standard rules of probablility.

What does this mean to post-season playoff series, and to the World Series, where both teams are good and are pretty evenly matched? In the memorable words of Oakland general manager Billy Bean -- quoted in Moneyball, the book about him bringing statistical analysis to team building -- they're "a crapshoot".

Take the Red Sox and Yankee teams that just completed their historic series. During the regular season the Yankees won three more games than the Sox out of 162. So the difference between those two teams was just one win every 54 games. But the contest between them was only seven games, and over the season any seven-game stretch accounted on average for only about 1/8th of a win difference between them -- with the other 7/8ths (or more) of a win resulting from chance.

Or, using the formula mentioned above, on the basis of full regular season records that gave the Yankees a winning percentage 1.8% higher than that of the Sox, the Yankees had a 51.8% chance of winning each game on average, and (if my binomial calculator is working correctly) a 54% chance of winning that series. Even if you adjust for things like home-field advantage on the odd game, those odds are pretty even. (Although after the Sox lost the first three games, their coming back by winning four in a row was about a 17.5-to-1 shot.)

This "playoff crapshoot" notion isn't appreciated by many baseball purists who think games should be won by the players' fighting character and their manager's cunning and force of will in directing them to victory, but it's hard to argue against it when you look at the numbers.

One of the common pre-Series media stories has been about how the Cardinals' star manager Tony LaRussa has taken teams to the post-season playoffs 10 times yet won the Series only once. But with a team having to win three playoff series for its manager to win a ring, if the odds in each are near 50/50 he'd be expected to win through in just one of eight chances -- so Tony's about par for the course.

The Times today reports some other post-season numbers...

Before 1969, when there was only one annual best-of-seven-game postseason series, the team with the better regular-season record won 34 of 65 series, just a tick more than 50 percent.

From 1969 through 1993, when baseball played one additional preliminary series, a league championship series (first best of five games, later best of seven), the team with the best regular-season record ended up wearing rings 7 of 25 times, or 28 percent. That is very close to the 25 percent of the time a flipped coin will come up heads twice in a row.

Since 1995, when the postseason expanded to eight teams and three rounds, the best team in the regular-season has won one of nine World Series, just what a coin's theoretical probability (1 in 8, or 12.5 percent) would prescribe.

Not that any of this should in any way diminish a fan's admiration for the fighting character shown by his baseball heroes. Curt Schilling having his tendons sewn to his leg -- in a procedure that had never been done before and was only tested on a cadaver -- so he could pitch the do-or-die sixth game against the Yankees with blood seeping through his pants, was a performance that deserves to put him in any sports heroes' hall of fame for courage alone. But both teams' players are playing as hard as they can, and their managers are leading as well as they can, and that's what makes them evenly matched and the outcome a near toss-up.

Everything is older than we think, and the Times notes that the modern statistical analysis of baseball fathered by Bill James has a grandfather in Frederick Mosteller -- a Red Sox fan born in Boston four years before Babe Ruth left for New York, who's still rooting for them -- who published along these lines in the Journal of the American Statistical Association a generation earlier, starting in 1952.

What are the odds that Professor Mosteller and his intellectual heirs put on his seeing his Red Sox escape the Curse of the Babe to finally bring the championship home this year?
Boston carried in a winning percentage of .610 (including postseason), St. Louis .647. This suggests that the Cardinals have a 53.7 percent chance of winning the average game between them. And after applying Mosteller's binomial theory, the Cardinals have a 58 percent chance of beating the Red Sox to four victories.

But ... the Sox could play four games at home, and home games typically add 42 points to a team's winning percentage. Making that adjustment, the Cardinals decline to a 57 percent favorite.

Even more significantly, the two teams' rosters have changed, specifically Boston's addition of shortstop Orlando Cabrera. Using only the teams' winning percentages since the July 31 trade deadline, Boston, which has played .700 ball since then, becomes the favorite, at 61 percent.
So there you have it, in real numbers.

After more than 50 years of the development of the statistical analysis of baseball into its modern state of the art, we can say definitively: The Red Sox are either the underdog or the favorite.

My advice: Enjoy the play of the game for its own sake. Don't get too drawn into the issue of whether or not the best team is winning.



Friday, October 22, 2004

Election real-money wagering central.

"All voting is a sort of gaming, and betting naturally accompanies it."
-- Henry David Thoreau, 1848.

If you want to wager real money on the election, your "bookie central" is at the excellent RealClear Politics web site. There's data and odds from, and links to, Iowa Electronic Markets, Tradesports in Ireland, and a host of wagering shops in the UK. Get your credit card out and click to bet where you like the odds best.

Curiously, as the US polls tighten up to put Bush and Kerry in an apparent dead heat, in the real-money markets support for Bush has been firming up. At this moment at Tradesports Bush is costing 61 for a payoff of 100, up from 53 a couple days ago. Are the people wagering real money watching something that the chattering pundits following the polls are missing?

It came as a surprise to me that today's organized real-money election wagering in the US isn't so much a recent innovation as a revival of old-time practice. From after the US Civil War until 1940 organized election markets on Wall Street handled millions of dollars and betting odds on candidates were published in the daily newspapers.

Here's an article on the subject drawing from a new academic paper (.pdf) covering the history of these markets, their economic efficiency and record of predicting election outcomes.

Hey, I try to imagine the elections of tomorrow if today's election markets grow and globalize like others have: Are you an American who faces the cost of a tax hike or a Social Security benefits cutback if the wrong candidate wins? Or a foreigner who faces the cost of a tariff -- or maybe a war? Well, just call up your broker and lay off the risk in the market...
_____

Update: Perhaps Bush's rise in the betting markets has something to do with those who are minding real money noting a trend line commented upon by the astute Michael Barone (author of the excellent Almanac of American Politics) that I haven't seen mentioned anywhere else in the mainstream media.




Did Stalin really try to kill John Wayne?


From a BBC report on a biography of Wayne that I somehow missed...
Stalin was enraged when he heard about Wayne's anti-communist activities in the late 1940s ... "Stalin decided Wayne had to die" ... the FBI got wind of a Soviet plot and was prepared when two hit men called at Wayne's office at Warner Brothers studios in 1951, posing as federal agents ... the would-be killers were captured, and later requested asylum in the US.
"Hey, let's go bungle killing John Wayne, ask for asylum, move to Hollywood for the decadent capitalist good life, and get into pictures. We can be technical advisors on spy movies!"
...the Soviet campaign was cancelled after Stalin's death in 1953, because his successor Nikita Khrushchev was a fan of the film star...
Khrushchev in turn was deposed before he could kill Jerry Lewis.



Thursday, October 21, 2004

Google, tool of terrorists and the right wing.

Being that Google owns Blogger, which publishes this blog, perhaps I should clarify that it is the tool of conscientious terrorists....
Terrorists who kidnapped an Australian TV reporter in Baghdad and threatened to kill him Googled his name on the Internet to investigate his work before deciding to release him unharmed.

John Martinkus was seized early Saturday and held for about 24 hours.

Martinkus' producer, Mike Carey, said the kidnap thugs "checked on him to see if he was who he said he was. They Googled him and then went onto a Web site . . . and saw that he was who he was and that was instrumental in letting him go." (NY Post)

But can we so easily explain away allegations that Google News is part of the vast right-wing conspiracy?
Is Google News Biased?

Respected online journalism observer J.D. Lasica has penned a thought-provoking piece in the Online Journalism review comparing Google News with Yahoo News. Balancing Act: How News Portals Serve Up Political Stories compares Google News, which uses computer algorithms to identify top stories, and Yahoo News which favors old-fashioned human editors. Lasica wonders, do Google's automated search results display a conservative bias? ...

He spoke with Krishna Bharat, chief scientist for Google News, who said he was puzzled by reports that the service has been skewing politically in one direction. "The algorithms do not understand which sources are right-leaning or left-leaning," Bharat said. "They're apolitical, which is good."

Algorithms may be apolitical, but the human beings that write them are not... (Search Engine News)
Aw, c'mon. Google News is a search bot. You compare the product generated by human editors at Yahoo to that produced by an automated search bot and conclude that the bot is biased?




Ironic technological factoid of the day.

The spell checker in the Blogger software does not recognize the words "blog", "Blogger", or "Google" (which owns Blogger) and annoyingly tries to substitute something else for them every time.




Babe Ruth's daughter brings it to Boston.

"Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright.
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light.
And somewhere men are laughing, and little children shout..."

And we know where!

In Beantown, whose Sox have just escaped the Curse of Babe Ruth by hanging an all-time worst post-season loss ...
...the worst collapse in postseason baseball history ... the first time in baseball — and only the third time in any major sport — that a team holding a 3-0 lead in a best-of-seven series choked ... Humiliating, embarrassing, humbling ... "I feel like a 6-year-old who just watched his dog get hit by a car," said Paul Avvento, 19, from Wantagh, L.I., who watched the debacle last night at the Stadium... (NY Post)
... on the Yankee team with the highest payroll in baseball history -- $184 million, a mere $115 million more than the major league average of $69 million.

No team in 100 seasons, since 1905, had ever lost four games in a row to blow a best-of-seven series after winning the first three.

And, of course, no team ever had won four in a row to take a series after being down three games. So all kudos to the Red Sox.

As for the Curse of Babe Ruth, maybe The Babe this time decided to make his daughter happy...

Babe Ruth's daughter is a Red Sox fan, after years as a Yankee backer. And Julia Ruth Stevens, 86, said the "Curse of the Bambino" is way off base.

"I do not believe in the curse," Stevens told The Post yesterday in a telephone interview from her Arizona home. "It's just a coincidence. Daddy would have never put a curse on his old team. He enjoyed his time playing for Boston too much."

Since the Sox sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1920 for a mere $100,000, the Bombers have won 26 World Series titles compared to Boston's zero.

A longtime Bomber backer, Stevens switched allegiance to the Sox a few years ago, out of pity and because she makes her summer home in New England.

"I pull for Boston now," she said. "For one thing, Daddy did start out with them. But even more because I think they're overdue after all these years of losing out to the Yankees. They've had such terrible luck for all these years."

But Stevens insisted her late dad isn't turning over in his grave because of her rooting interests.

"Daddy will always be a Yankee fan, but I think he'd understand me pulling for the Red Sox because it's good for baseball," she said.

Fondly recalling her dad, Stevens said the Sultan of Swat was in a league of his own both on and off the field.

"Not only was he the best baseball player, he was the best dad," she said. (New York Post, 4/17/04)
"... But there is no joy in the Bronx,
Steinbrenner's millionaires have struck out.
"

[Right: A young Yankee fan imitates his rich heroes in playoff action.]
_____

Update: In the 21st Century is it The Curse of A-Rod?



Wednesday, October 20, 2004

Men versus women, continued...

New research findings:

Men are are better at saying "I'm sorry" than women. Well, what's the surprise here? Who gets the most practice?

Women are better at holding their alcohol than men. Maybe, but only since I retired from the field. (This younger generation is going right to hell...)




Republicans reported to have better sex lives, liberalism doomed.


If this survey holds up, liberals are kaput.

Almost all the arguments used 40 years ago to make liberalism attractive have gone sour. The march towards civil rights and equal opportunity has become defense of quotas. The fight for reproductive freedom has become defense of partial-birth abortion. Free speech has become speech codes. The fight to get kids out of segregated schools that poor families wanted to escape has become a fight against school choice to keep kids in failing schools that poor families want to escape. Modest programs to protect the old-and-poor from poverty in their final years have become $50 trillion of unfinanced promises to the old-and-richer-than-anybody-else that threaten future national insolvency. And, not least, the happy touch of youthful irresponsibility has become hectoring paternalism.

Just about its only thing left as an attractive sales point is that fun-loving liberals are supposed to have better sex lives than stuck-up, repressed conservatives.

But if Republicans really have better sex lives too, and word gets out about it, then you can stick a fork in liberalism, it's done.




Elo ratings for colleges.


This is sure to make college admissions officers happy! Four economists have applied the Elo rating and ranking system used by chess players, and now also widely in many other fields of competition, to colleges to rate their competitive success at attracting students.

The idea is to get away from the subjective measures used by newsmagazines and books that rank colleges, and instead produce an objective numerical measure of how college applicants "vote with their feet" when they have a choice of colleges to attend.

"Elo" sounds like an acronym but it's not, the system is named after Dr. Aprad Elo who developed it for the U.S. Chess Federation, which adopted it in 1960. A few years later it was adopted by the International Chess Federation, and since then it's been picked up both by organizational bodies governing many different kinds of competition and amateurs who enjoy the fun of applying their own rating systems to ... whatever. As one example, Jeff Sagarin's Elo ranking of NCAA football teams is used by the BCS in selecting the teams to play in those year-end bowl games that are supposed to determine a national champion.

It takes four economists to make obtuse what Dr. Elo made fascinating and clear, with a fine collection of entertaining illustrative stories from chess history, in his 1978 book The Rating of Chessplayers, Past and Present -- which I see is now something of a collector's item, $140 at Amazon.com. (Hey, what'd the kid do with my copy?) If you are interested in the statistical challenges of developing such a rating system, the history and failings of earlier systems, or the history of chess, then this book is well worth ... a trip to the library. I wouldn't pay $140 for it.

As to the college rankings the idea is simple: when a student has the choice of two schools the one the student selects "wins" and the other "loses". Each college's wins and losses against all the others are used to generate its rating, and the ratings are used for ranking.

If you are like all the college admissions officers seeing this for the first time you will download the paper (pdf) then skip all the prefatory blather and statistical gobbledygook to head straight for the rankings at the end...
1. Harvard 2800
2. Yale 2738
3. Stanford 2694
4. Cal Tech 2632
5. MIT 2624
.............
101. Purdue 1525
102. Colorado State 1513
103. Syracuse 1506
104. Scripps 1479
105. Loyola U 1221
OK, when you do all you have to remember is the rule-of-thumb that with a 100-point difference the higher rated competitor wins a little over 60% of the time; with a 200-point difference, 75% of the time; a 300-point difference 85% of the time, and 400-point difference over 90% of the time.

That's all there is to the whole thing!

I will add this as a former tournament chess player: chess players go nuts about their Elo ratings, sometimes postal. If colleges take them half as seriously as chess players do then all the controversy to date about newsmagazine rankings of colleges will be as nothing -- the insanity is just beginning.




Speaking of big Elo ratings, and insanity...


Bobby Fischer says he's got more that's big than just his Elo rating (2780) and shoe size (14).

What's happened to Bobby since his glory days? Well, he's got his own web site now, read it and weep.

Weep, don't laugh. This is a guy who accomplished great things, once upon a time.




Monday, October 18, 2004

Monday Night Football special NFL crime report, illustrated edition.




via footballoutsiders




Unintentionally funny movie review of the week.


David Edelstein's review of "Team America, World Police" in Slate, is pretty much summed up with his lead, "The puppets of Team America skewer the right. If only they'd stopped there".

He does enjoy the bit where the Team "ends up incinerating the Louvre to keep a terrorist from detonating a bomb inside: a nice jab at the blow-'em-up-to-save-'em school of occupation." That's funny.

But when it comes to having leftist actors pal up to Kim Jong-il, that's not so funny because it's not realistic: "Leftist actors learned from Vietnam not to cozy up to dictators: Jane Fonda, one of the best actresses of her generation, hasn't worked in more than a decade."

So let's get this straight: he's actually saying that leftist actors don't publicly cozy up to murderous dictators because they've learned it's bad for their careers. While other people might not cozy up to murderous dictators for, say, other reasons.

Hey, Parker & Stone should have put that in the movie -- it's funny and realistic. And it would've answered Edelstein's complaint about the humor being sapped by lack of realism: "Sorry, boys: This just isn't very incisive left-bashing."

It's a good thing for the movie that "incinerating the Louvre" (and destroying Eiffel Tower, Pyramids and Sphinx) is realistic enough criticism of the right for there to be no complaint about any lack of funny incisive bashing there!

Meanwhile, Roger Ebert in his review clearly feels sympathy pangs for the skewered innocents of Hollywood and rather misrepresents an exchange between Sean Penn, one of them, and Parker & Stone, stating that Penn "has written an angry letter to Parker and Stone about their comment ... that there is 'no shame' in not voting". What this has to do with reviewing the movie I don't know -- except to give a picture of the real Penn as a good citizen giving a basic civics lesson to the miscreants who lampooned him.

However, as Ebert surely knows, the actual exchange went as reported earlier here (3rd item)-- with Sean's own words giving a picture of him as a guy who's well-earned his role as a marionette.

BTW, Ebert gives the movie one star while his readers give it three-and-a-half. Does the big guy just not have a sense of humor? You decide.



Friday, October 15, 2004

The conservative case against George W. Bush.

SuperDubya had to fly off to fix straighten out those new election machines in Florida. Keeping an eye on things today in his place are ...



... the Bulging Yellow Speedo Guys.

Not missing any chance to subvert the opposition from inside, they urge you to consider the serious and thoughtful Conservative Case Against George W. Bush.

Alas, as conservatives among all people know, we live in a word of limited options.

Now if the Guys could just suggest a serious and thoughtful Conservative Case For John F. Kerry, they'd prove themselves to be true superheroes.

However, stay tuned, I may rise to that challenge and (attempt to) make such a case myself in a coming post, after donning cape, tights and all. (But no speedo, definitely no speedo.)

Blogging will resume in a couple days ... maybe ...
_________

News update:

Earlier we noted the Halperin memo instructing the minions at ABC News not to "reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable" for the truth of their statements in this election campaign, as said minions "help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying".

Well, good troops follow orders.

Further observation from the excellent RealclearPolitics election information site:

"I find it rather astonishing that Democrats and some members of the media (like Mark Halperin) continue to harp on President Bush's dishonesty while John Kerry runs around the country telling people the President is going to reinstate the draft ..."



Thursday, October 14, 2004

Bloggus Interruptus

Blogging will be light for a couple days due to technical reasons -- the need to focus on making some money to pay the ISP bill so the connection won't be cut off.

In the meantime we will rely on SuperDubya to keep an eye on things.




News update:
As to Sean Penn versus the South Parkers -- it looks like Sean is going to love the movie.



Wednesday, October 13, 2004

Netscape is ten years old today.

"Netscape is a powerful commercial navigator for the Internet, offering point-and-click network navigation. It is optimized to run smoothly over 14.4 kilobit/second modems..." (1st press release)

The first Netscape browser was released on October 13, 1994, introducing the general public to the Internet and product development to the concept of "Internet time." A whole lot sure has happened with it since then -- most in only four years, during the "browser wars". (Timeline.) It's kind of hard to believe that until a mere ten years ago there was no Internet as we know it today.

In November of 1998 Netscape was sold to AOL for stock worth $4 billion, which grew in value to almost $9 billion by the time the deal closed. (There sure was an Internet then!)

Most people consider that Netscape died then, although you can still download the Netscape browser (it's up to version 7.2) as well as its close relatives Mozilla and Firefox.

Since then there's been endless analysis of the "failure" of Netscape -- or its murder at the hands of Microsoft.

All I can say is that if I ever start a business that fails or is murdered, I sure hope it leaves me $9 billion to remember it by after I bury it, like Netscape did for its owners.

That's the kind of failure and victimization I could live with.

CNET has a special section of articles marking Netscape's 10th, and if you want to check out news of the life that remains in it hop over to Mozillazine





Kerry & Edwards promise to resurrect the dead.


When asked about the Kerry/Edwards health care plan...
Edwards took time to honor a recently-deceased actor while outlining one health care goal... "People like Chris Reeve will get out of their wheelchairs and walk again..."
Turning to easier tasks...

"We will stop juvenile diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and other debilitating diseases..." (NTR)

Cool. They've got a health care plan!




New Nobelist in economics says Bush didn't cut taxes enough -- and France should really cut taxes.
"Edward Prescott, who just won the Nobel Prize for Economics, has said President George W. Bush's tax rate cuts were 'pretty small' and should have been bigger...

"'What Bush has done has been not very big, it's pretty small,' Prescott told CNBC financial news television. 'Tax rates were not cut enough' he said..." (AFP)
Prescott's analysis says that large increases in European tax rates have reduced employment and hours worked there, and thus have reduced national income and the ability to pay future entitlement benefits (which are even larger than those promised in the US).

As Bruce Bartlett has noted...
[A study] by Edward Prescott of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis... says that Europe's higher taxes explain almost all the difference in labor-force participation rates between Europe and here. He notes that when European tax levels were comparable to those here, work hours were similar. But as Europe's taxes have risen, workers responded by working less.

Consequently, tax cuts in Europe would raise labor supplies, increase output, and raise the standard of living.

For example, if France reduced its tax burden from 60 percent of GDP to 40 percent, the average Frenchman would be able to consume 19 percent more over his lifetime than he does now. This is a very large impact... [study .pdf]
I'll be looking forward to Krugman noting this in his congratulatory column to Prescott in the Times. ;-)




Entrepreneurial rise-and-fall story of the week:

NYC's "Bill Gates of Bathroom Attendants" Brought Down by Justice

This is an interesting tale with I think more to it than first meets the eye of those who've read about it in the local tabloids. If I had more free time than I do, I'd think about it more and look up what's behind it. But here it is as it is...

First, the local "exploited worker" scandal of the week:
THE BATHROOM SLAVES

Talk about a job that stinks: Bathroom attendants at some swank city eateries take home less than $2 an hour in tips after paying for the privilege to clean up after patrons and dispense mints, a state study found.

Attorney General Eliot Spitzer yesterday said more than 40 well-known hotspots - including Tavern on the Green - work or have worked with bathroom-concession firms that illegally skim from tips and do not pay attendants an hourly wage.

After announcing settlements with Tavern and BR Guest, the owner of Ruby Foo's and Blue Water Grill, Spitzer yesterday filed a $4 million lawsuit against top bathroom-concession firm Royal Flush. Royal Flush supplies attendants to Balthazar, Tao and Planet Hollywood, among other restaurants, Spitzer's office said.

The company does not pay an hourly wage and charges attendants 25% to 30% of their tips just to get in the bathroom door, the lawsuit said. "The idea of people working without wages and having to pay a fee to stand and wait for tips is unconscionable," Spitzer said...

Under the settlement with Spitzer, Tavern has hired its 14 attendants and promised to pay minimum wage and ensure workers keep all their tips. The iconic restaurant will also pay $175,000 to compensate about 20 employees for lost wages over the past five years.

"We were happy to cooperate with the attorney general's office once we were made aware of this practice," said Tavern spokeswoman Shelley Clark. [The other restaurants are doing same.] (NYDN)
OK, so yet another damn greedy middleman corporation exploited disadvantaged workers -- but it's now been put out of business, the workers will get more, the corporation faces mllions in penalties, justice has triumphed, and the world is a better place.

Or maybe not ... there's more to the story:

SECRET LIFE OF MEN'S ROOM MOGUL

Bathroom baron Leroy Porter, accused of making $500,000 a year by skimming his workers' wages, started his empire by moving himself and his family into rest rooms.

Porter, 61, [pictured] learned his trade as a valet to big-name performers - including Sam and Dave, the Drifters and Jackie Wilson, court documents say. But faced with unemployment, the Harlem native and his immediate family spent two years handing out towels in city loos, according to the documents.

The modest beginnings grew into Royal Flush Bathroom Attendants, which was incorporated seven years ago out of a Harlem apartment. The Manhattan company was serving nearly 40 of New York's toniest restaurants and clubs and employing 75 attendants before investigators accused him last week of stiffing his workers for years.

State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer accused Porter and his business partner and stepdaughter, Donna Williams, of paying workers as little as $2 an hour - well below the minimum hourly wage of at least $3.50 such workers must get by law. Prosecutors claim he paid no salary, offered no benefits, made workers supply their own uniform and even took at least 25% of the tips they received as "lease fees" for their space in bathrooms.

Meanwhile, Porter was flush...

"The idea of people working without wages and having to pay a fee to stand in a bathroom and wait for tips is unconscionable," said Spitzer, who filed a $4 million suit against the business Thursday.

But in an interview earlier this year, Porter criticized workers who were unhappy with the arrangement. "Some stick, but more go than stick," he told Time Out New York in July. "A lot of them still have an attitude. They don't last. I'm sure they can do just as good as they could at McDonald's."

Porter has not been to his two-room, W. 45th St. offices since the lawsuit was filed, workers said ...

But a woman working there, who refused to give her name, said, "He's being made out to be a fat cat businessman who robs his workers, but that's nothing like what he is. Leroy started out from very hard beginnings and he had to work hard to build up this business."

Though the business was still supplying attendants on Friday night, New York restaurants were beginning to drop Royal Flush after hearing the accusations...

In what they said was an effort to keep the attendants from being turned out on the street, Spitzer's office sent a letter to every restaurant and club on the list, asking them to either hire the workers directly or hire a staffing service to handle it.... (NYDN)

So let's recap this situation as I understand it from these and other reports...

An unemployed valet aged in his 50s literally keeps himself off the street and off welfare by handing out towels in bathrooms himself, for tips.

Then he exercises some entrepreneurial spirit and starts working out of his home to place other people like him in similar jobs. Now, this is a job that is so low-value in the market that it commands no salary from employers, just tips from customers.

So how is he to be paid for his work in getting others' their work? By getting a share of their tips. Is any other way possible?

The arrangement is completely voluntary for all parties -- the workers are free to leave for a better job at any time (and many do). It follows that all the parties are benefiting by it:

* The attendants have better jobs than they would have otherwise (or they'd leave for the other better jobs -- which they do when they find one).

* Leroy makes more money by working to recruit attendants and using his skills to place, train and manage them than he would by still being one.

* The eateries that sublet their bathroom space to Leroy now are able to provide attendants' services to patrons -- which they wouldn't do if they had to incur the money and management costs of doing so themselves, as evidenced by the fact that they didn't.

Win-win-win.

And note that it is not just Leroy's firm that operates this way -- the AG's study found this is the industry norm that has developed in the market. Leroy's firm is the one being targeted by the AG and singled out by the newspapers because of its success.

So what happens next? The state Attorney General steps in to break up this arrangement as illegal. Leroy gets labeled in the newspapers an exploiter of "Bathroom Slaves", is put out of business, and faces a multi-million dollar lawsuit brought by the government to protect workers.

And how are those workers formerly employed under the arrangement going to be protected by the government that just ended it? By the government's writing letters to these eateries asking them to keep on the workers at a multiple of their former pay (as evidenced by the $175,000 for back pay being paid by Tavern of the Green) while also taking on the additional costs of training and supervising them and recruiting their replacements, tasks formerly performed by Leroy.

Now, it's easy for me to believe that these eateries will keep on these workers even at their higher pay for a while, especially while the newspapers and AG are looking.

But this is a high-turnover job. As attendants leave are these eateries going to take on the cost of recruiting substitutes, training and supervising them -- and of paying them an above-market wage too?

I don't know, but I can guess. And my guess is the result is going to be lose, lose, lose, LOSE, and win, for the workers, eateries, eateries' customers, Leroy, and the Attorney General (a politician now hailed in the press for 'Freeing the Bathroom Slaves') respectively.

Being an entrepreneur is dangerous, Leroy has learned.

And was Leroy ever really a "mogul" actually clearing $500,000 per year from "bathroom slave" labor as alleged in the story?

I doubt it. Let's look at the other numbers in the story: It says he employed 75 attendants who received as little as $2 an hour after remitting 25% to him. Assume each worked a full 40-hour week. That's 3,000 work hours per week giving them $6,000 and Leroy $2,000. That, over a 50-week year, gives Leroy income of $100,000 per year gross, before paying the rent on a 45th-street office and all other business expenses. That's not quite being a "mogul" in my experience.

For Leroy to gross five times as much, $500,000, the attendants would have to net five times as much, $10 an hour, well above the minimum wage. And for him to clear $500,000 profit as claimed, they'd have to be making even more.

So it seems that if the attendants were really nettting $2 an hour as claimed, Leroy was no mogul -- and if Leroy was really clearing $500,000 per year as claimed by taking 25% from 75 attendants, then they were netting more than $10 an hour and were far from the condition of slaves.

What's really going on here? I don't know, but can make a guess based on experience with simular situations. That guess is that the government wasn't getting its payroll taxes, insurance premiums and other payroll-related charges because the attendants weren't reporting their tips. Whenever it's tax time and the government asks tip-compensated workers how much they've made, the answer always is "next to nothing", of course. (Do the famous and mighty who patronize Tavern on the Green really tip only $2 an hour?)

What's the government supposed to do about this illegality? "Attorney General Cracks Down on Bathroom Attendants Making $2 An Hour" is a headline that's unlikely to get Elliot any votes in his coming run against Chuck for governor. But if we find a "mogul" exploiting "bathroom slaves", well, then with the reported pay rate of $2 an hour (whether that's real or not) there's a way to break up this arrangement industry-wide (other firms will learn from Leroy being made an example) with career-enhancing publicity spin.

What will be the final effect on employment? No doubt there will be less of it - but more of what's left will be on the books and the tax rolls, which is what the government wants.

~~~~~~
"A higher minimum wage does not seem a particularly useful way to help the poor" -- Joseph Stiglitz, Nobel laureate in economics.




The difference three days and an election result make to the New York Times.

I open my morning paper and what do I read?...

WAR IN IRAQ PLAYS A ROLE IN ELECTIONS IN AUSTRALIA

By Raymond Bonner

Gladesville, Australia. Thursday, October 7 --

On the eve of the Iraq war, Andrew Wilkie resigned from Australia's senior intelligence agency and declared that Iraq did not pose an immediate threat and that there was no concrete evidence linking Saddam Hussein to Al Qaeda.

Mr. Wilkie was largely ignored, and Australia went to war alongside the United States and Britain. Today, Mr. Wilkie has joined the debate over Australia's role in the war. As part of a national election to be held Saturday, Mr. Wilkie has taken on Prime Minister John Howard, leader of the conservative Liberal Party...

The latest polls give [Howard's] Liberals a slight lead, but in many respects it is surprising that the race is close at all. The Australian economy is in its 13th year of growth...

Opponents of the Iraq war got a lift in August when 43 retired senior military commanders and senior diplomats issued a public statement saying that Australia went to war "on the basis of false assumptions and the deception of the Australian people"...


Three days later...

AUSTRALIANS RE-ELECT HOWARD AS PRIME MINISTER

By Raymond Bonner

Sydney, Australia. Sunday, October 10 -

... the voting was not a referendum on the war. The main issue was the economy, and that is booming ...

Never mind.



Tuesday, October 12, 2004

Medicare...

What's a mere $473,000 of (hidden) debt per household (and rising) among friends? From an excellent story in USA Today that should be reported in every newspaper three times a week...

The long-term economic health of the United States is threatened by $53 trillion in government debts and liabilities that start to come due in four years when baby boomers begin to retire.

The “Greatest Generation” and its baby-boom children have promised themselves benefits unprecedented in size and scope. Many leading economists say that even the world's most prosperous economy cannot fulfill these promises without a crushing increase in taxes — and perhaps not even then.

Neither President Bush nor John Kerry is addressing the issue in detail as they campaign for the White House.

... the nation's hidden debt — Americans' obligation today as taxpayers — is more than five times the $9.5 trillion they owe on mortgages, car loans, credit cards and other personal debt. This hidden debt equals $473,456 per household, dwarfing the $84,454 each household owes in personal debt.

The $53 trillion is what federal, state and local governments need immediately — stashed away, earning interest, beyond the $3 trillion in taxes collected last year — to repay debts and honor future benefits promised under Medicare, Social Security and government pensions. And like an unpaid credit card balance accumulating interest, the problem grows by more than $1 trillion every year that action to pay down the debt is delayed...
An interactive graphic is worth a thousand words to a newspaper article, and there's an excellent one illustrating at lot about this debt -- including a calculator showing the value of the benefits you are promised compared to the taxes you will have paid.

Hey, for me it says I'm going to make a profit of $264,000 on Medicare! Whoopee! As long as the taxpayers of the future are willing to finance that deal for me and everyone else of my generation. And more. Lower-earning persons and couples with only one working spouse profit by a lot more.

In contrast, my projected gain from Social Security is only $24,000, less than 10% as much -- and only about 2% as large relative to my taxes paid into the system (Social Security taxes versus Medicare taxes).

When the topic of unfunded retirement benefits comes up in conversation almost everyone talks about Social Security. But read this story and play with that graphic, and soon you'll be saying "Medicare ... Medicare ... Medicare ..."





.... Maggots ....


Speaking of the medical care system, let's turn to the bright side with a story about the march of progress...
New York hospitals are turning to a ghastly but highly effective medical tool to cure otherwise incurable infections — maggots.

In one recent case, a man's leg was saved from amputation when, as a last resort, doctors applied the creepy crawlies to his wound. The diabetic, in his late 50s, had arrived at Brookdale Hospital in Brooklyn with an open wound on his leg that was gangrenous because of poor circulation.

With peers suggesting amputation, Dr. Edward Golembe, director of the hospital's wound center, decided first to try maggots after learning the FDA had approved their use for medical purposes in January.

"The patient accepted it, but there was a little trepidation," he said. "It was clear to the patient that the alternative was more drastic."

The maggots were applied to the wound and were covered with a cage-like dressing to keep them in place.

Maggots only ingest dead tissue, leaving behind living matter with a precision that modern medicine cannot mimic. They quickly got to work, and after two days, the wound was clean and enough living tissue was left to save the leg...
Geeze. What next, leeches?
The medical use of leeches was also approved by the FDA earlier this year... (NY Post)
Ay, carumba!




... and the Media.

Speaking of maggots and leeches, we turn to their dark side, asking: What liberal media? ABC News edition.

Last week saw the leak to outside ABC of a memo by ABC News Political Director Mark Halperin (now available at Drudge) instructing his news minions that they will "serve the public" if they do not "reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable" for the truth as the election approaches.

As the NY Post editorialized ...

Halperin, described by the network as "responsible for the planning and editorial content of all political news on the network," issued new orders. Both sides distort the truth, he said, adding in effect that Kerry's lies don't matter — but that George W. Bush's most certainly do.

"Kerry distorts, takes out of context, and mistakes all the time, but these are not central to his efforts to win." In contrast, he wrote, "the current Bush attacks on Kerry involve distortions and taking things out of context in a way that goes beyond what Kerry has done"...

Then came the instructions:

"We have a responsibility to hold both sides accountable to the public interest, but that doesn't mean we reflexively and artificially hold both sides 'equally' accountable when the facts don't warrant that.

"It's up to Kerry to defend himself, of course. But as one of the few news organizations with the skill and strength to help voters evaluate what the candidates are saying to serve the public interest, now is the time for all of us to step up and do that right."
Halperin here makes not only the judgment that the distortions and mistakes made by Kerry "all the time" are less important than those of the other side, but also one that the public is incompetent to realize this for itself if the errors of both sides are pointed out to it.

Thus, it is the duty of all of those at ABC news "with the skill and strength to help voters" to make this evaluation for them, and to educate them accordingly... "and do that right."



Monday, October 11, 2004

Merry Monday -- dead white European male's holiday version.

The 2004 IgNobel Prizes have been announced -- and Krugman has been passed over again. The competition is tough though. Some recent winnners in economics:

2001: Joel Slemrod, of the University of Michigan Business School, and Wojciech Kopczuk, now of Columbia University, for their conclusion that people will find a way to postpone their deaths if it will qualify them for a lower rate of inheritance tax.

2002: Multiple winners for adapting the mathematical concept of imaginary numbers for use in corporate finance.

2003: Karl Schwärzler and the nation of Liechtenstein, for making it possible to rent the entire country for corporate conventions, weddings, and other gatherings; and

2004: The Vatican, for outsourcing prayers to India.
Better luck next year, Paul.

Personally, I consider this year's most impressive IgNobel to be the one awarded in Biology jointly to several researchers "for showing that herrings apparently communicate by farting." Let's see an economist top that.

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The new car for cat haters. I'd almost move to Britain just to get one.

[the backstory]

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Sean Penn versus the South Parkers...
~ quote ~
It's a shame Trey Parker and Matt Stone's hot new puppet flick, "Team America: World Police," has already gone through its final cut -- the flick that skewers self-important Hollywood stars could have used a Sean Penn cameo.

The "South Park" duo were howling with laughter Friday when they received an angry letter from Penn, who was deeply upset after Parker and Stone blasted Sean Combs for his "Vote or Die" campaign.

Penn was especially infuriated after reading on PAGE SIX about Stone's theory that the U.S. might be better off, and might elect better leaders, if apathetic, uninformed voters stayed home on Election Day.

Penn wrote Parker and Stone: "... I never mind being of service in satire and silliness. I do mind when anybody who doesn't have a child, doesn't have a child at war, or isn't or won't be in harm's way themselves is [saying] that 'there is no shame in not voting if you don't know what you are talking about' ...

"You guys are talented young guys, but alas, primarily young guys. It's all well to joke about me or whomever you choose. Not so well to encourage irresponsibility that will ultimately lead to the disembowelment, mutilation, exploitation and death of innocent people around the world.

"The vote matters to them. No one's ignorance, including a couple of hip cross-dressers', is an excuse."

Penn signed off, "All the best and a sincere [bleep] you,"... A pal of Stone and Parker, upon reading the letter, laughed: "This is the most self-important, self-inflated letter ever! It's exactly what the movie ['Team America'] is about!" (NY Post)
~ end quote ~

Apparently it never occured to Sean that "the apathetic and uninformed ... who don't know what they are talking about" might not automatically vote Democratic.

----------------------

Obit of the Week:
"Jacques Derrida, who did more than any man in history to turn mediocrities into tenured mediocrities, died Friday at age 74...", notes Jack Risko (via Minuteman).
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The Rock Paper Scissors World Championship Tournament is being held in Toronto this coming October 16th. It's not too late to get in to take a shot at the $10,000 first prize, for an entry fee of only $21 (Canadian dollars.)

Get details from the World Rock Paper Scissors Society, which can help you prep with books on RPS strategy and even refer you to professional trainers.

The New York press is full of stories of contestants using computerized training and the like before heading up there to fight for the title.

You might remember Saddam practicing his RPS skills at one of his rare recent public appearances, though it's not sure he'll make it to this year's tournament.

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Political quote of the day...

"In my vision of America's future there will be a place for fried Twinkies."

-- Sen. Joseph Lieberman, in Diary of a Political Tourist, tonight on HBO.