Monday, January 30, 2012

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Monday, January 23, 2012

Friday, January 20, 2012

Limerick of the Day #108

Adam Smith said supply and demand
(What he called "the invisible hand")
Will achieve the effect
Markets will self-correct.
What "correct" means we don't understand.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Flea Market Economy

Lots of people talk about free market economy. They claim that if government would just leave things alone, the law of supply and demand would act to set prices, achieve employment and create a better life for everyone. Even people who don't believe in anything supernatural may buy into the magical powers of supply and demand.

The theory, laid out by Adam Smith in The Wealth of Nations (1776), is that when there's plenty of something, the price goes down because the cheapest seller will attract the most customers. On the other hand, when something's scarce, prices go up because a seller will be able to find buyers who will pay more. When the corn crop is harvested, corn is cheap because everyone's selling corn, and you can shop around for the cheapest. But if you somehow save some of your corn, you can sell it for a higher price in February, because there won't be much corn around.

The big leap is the idea that these natural up and down changes in price will lead to a good outcome. It turns out this is true because in the Free Market mentality, a good outcome is defined to mean "natural up and down changes in price." For instance, not only will some people sell corn cheaper, but some will invent better corn in order to charge more. See? Isn't that great for society? Of course, if they can't really make better corn, they'll just touch up the photo and say it's better. Works just as well.

But there's a dark side. There are some things this simple theory ignores, such as:

1) Cheating - some companies will lie about their products or use inferior materials, even contaminated foods.  The Free Market's response:  Don't worry.  These companies will go out of business once the word gets out.

2) Public Service - Some products, like drugs that can cure illnesses, should be inexpensive and widely available, even if market forces don't lead to that. The Free Market's response: The drug maker gets to control the supply and price.

3) Disasters - If you stake your life on the corn crop, and it's wiped out by an outbreak of corn blight, you're out of luck.  Sure, corn prices will go up, but you don't have any to sell.  The Free Market's response: Tough luck.  You should have had a backup plan.

4) Redundancy - The very idea of competition means multiple people and companies trying to do the same thing. Can you imagine if all the iPhone and Droid engineers got together, what kind of incredible kick-ass phone they could make? Or if the drug companies pooled their resources to cure cancer? The Free Market response:  Not going to happen.

5) Extra forces - Supply and demand don't cover everything.  If marijuana were suddenly legalized, the supply might not change right away, but demand would probably go up.  In spite of that, prices would sure as hell go down.  Also, things like copyrights, patents, etc. only have value because of laws.  If the laws are changed, all bets are off.

6) Wealth Concentration - Finally, a free market always leads to increasing wealth concentration. It has to. As backwards as it sounds, people with more money can always get things cheaper.  You pay $1 each  for a half dozen ears of corn for dinner.  Total cost: $6.00.

A rich person might buy a thousand ears for $0.25 each, and then sell 994 of them for $0.75.  Now their corn is free, and they've even made $497.00!

Rich people can also wait out bad markets. Trying to sell a house during a recession?  No problem.  Just close it up, live in one of your other houses and wait till the market improves.

So the rich keep getting richer, just as the saying goes.  And the rest of us?  We wind up rummaging through the attic and the basement, looking for stuff to sell at the flea market.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Copyrights And Wrongs

Copyrights are very trendy these days, so I'll hop on the bandwagon. The idea is that as soon as you create something ... a drawing, a novel, a comic, a blog post, whatever ... as soon as you do that, you own all the rights to it. Shocking, huh? You don't even have to register it or put a "©" on it, 'cause it's yours. Of course, you might want to register it and do the "©" thing to get some protections.

A lot of people think everything on the internet should be free. Music, movies, e-books, images, etc.  They figure if it can be downloaded, why pay for it? Some people even say "Information wants to be free." What a crock, right? Information doesn't want anything. (Actually, that's only part of a quote from Stewart Brand, who in the same breath also said "Information wants to be expensive." He was talking about the dilemma posed by technology, not trying to liberate everyone's copyright-protected stuff.)

But here's the weird part. Even if writers and artists and musicians could somehow protect their creations from being illegally copied, after some period of time, they just flat out lose ownership of those things anyway. Of course, it's a hundred years after they die, but still, why shouldn't their great great grandchildren have the benefit?

If I, by dint of hard work, plant an orchard, my descendants can keep selling the apples forever.  (By the way, Wikipedia's blacked out today to protest some stupid anti-piracy law or something, so I can get away with saying a dint is a unit of measuring hard work. I worked 2 dints today.) But anyway, my children and their children and theirs and so on can keep selling those apples.

On the other hand, if I put that same dint or two of work into writing a novel or painting a picture, then after I've been dead for a hundred years (or however long Disney has managed to jack it up by then), the government says "Too bad.  You don't own this anymore, so anyone can print and sell your book or sell posters of your painting and not owe you or your great great grandchildren a nickel for it."  What's up with that?

Monday, January 16, 2012

Friday, January 13, 2012


In Hermann Hesse's Siddartha (1922), the protagonist lists one of his skills as "waiting." This is clearly a lost art in our society. People run red lights, cut in line, and grow furious if their multi-gigabyte downloads take more than a couple of seconds. We insist on reading email and texting while having breakfast ... while driving. We use DVRs to skip commercials, and single cup coffee makers to get near instant caffeine doses. We upgrade our electronics every year or more.

My employer may have found a way to counter this tendency. They may have found the way to teach patience.

This is a privately held company that places a premium on employee satisfaction. They go to great lengths to provide every benefit and accommodation employees might require. Among these, they offer a continuous supply of a wide variety of beverages. I work in one of three buildings on the main campus, and on each floor of this building, there are roughly 200 employees. For each floor, the beverage choices include skim, low-fat and regular milk, decaf and regular coffee, four flavors of iced tea, three kinds of seltzer, apple, cranberry and orange juice, lemonade, six varieties of soda and technologically purified water. In all, 23 different beverages for the 200 employees on each floor.

And four bathrooms.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

On Death and Voting

In her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross outlined five stages of coping with death:
  1. Denial ("Can't be.  I've never felt better!")
  2. Anger ("What!  Outrageous!!  I been waiting for the iPad 3!")
  3. Bargaining ("I'll eat really healthy starting tomorrow!  No, wait.  Monday.  I'll start Monday.")
  4. Depression ("Crap.")
  5. Acceptance ("Oh, well.  Better clean up my hard drive.")
In some ways, the Republican nomination race has followed the same progression.  Think about it.
  1. Denial ("Hey!  Michele Bachmann is pretty smart!")
  2. Anger ("Oh yeah?  Then take Herman Cain!")
  3. Bargaining ("How about Newt?  He had the whole Contract with America thing.")
  4. Depression ("Santorum? Huntsman? Paul? Anybody?")
  5. Acceptance ("Well, I guess it's Romney, even though he looks like one of those pictures that comes with a new frame when you buy it.")

Limerick of the Day #107

In the first-in-the-nation primary
All the way down from Derby to Derry,
N.H. voters chose Mitt.
May that win benefit
Him as much as it once did John Kerry.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Consumer's Guide to Ideas

Many have argued that a society is best served by a free and open marketplace of ideas. The fruit of human thought and invention can be considered and weighed by others, subjected to opposing ideas, and perhaps adopted or rejected. This can help bring about reasoned debate, possible consensus, and certainly some good jokes.

We feel it is important not to enter any marketplace unprepared.  Therefore, we offer this beginning of a consumer's guide to ideas.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Rich English People

Last night, Public Television's Masterpiece series opened the second season of Downton Abbey, the latest in a long string of programmes[sic] about rich English people. American television viewers seem to have an insatiable appetite for rich English people, eagerly consuming Downton Abbey, Upstairs/Downstairs, the complete works of Jane Austen and various other 19th century English novels about rich (or want-to-be-rich) folks. Even the Masterpiece Mysteries series is mainly about which rich English person murdered which other rich English person. Apparently there's some deep yearning among television viewers to be rich English people, despite the fact that most of these stories are set in a time before the advent of indoor plumbing.

Typically, for contrast, these stories alternate between the lives of the rich English people themselves, and those of their below-stairs staffs, including cooks, maids and butlers. This creates the dramatic tension of a visual volley between House Beautiful and a Williams-Sonoma catalog.

For those of you who missed all 47 airings of this episode on the 12 different Public Television stations near you, here's a brief recap. Spoiler alert:  There are no spoilers except the rich English parents. In fact, this review was written before I actually saw the show.

The offspring of the rich English people, suffering the cruel fate of having every conceivable human desire gratified, become bored and rebel against the etiquette and propriety of their class. They engage in scandalous behavior such as going out alone or without a hat. This incurs the wrath of their proper rich English parents, but a knowing wink from the mischievously (4 syllables, please) playful grandparent/uncle/aunt/whatever.

Meanwhile, below stairs, the staff panic at the impending shortage of quince, which interrupts their near-constant bed swapping. When not thus occupied, they spend their time learning and sharing the dark secret that is invariably hidden in someone's past.

Oh, and some dramatic historical event intrudes on their lives.

Tune in next week for more.

Friday, January 6, 2012


Regular readers of this blog (if any of this blog's readers could be considered "regular") will know that I'm a big HPV fan. Of course, I'm referring not to human papillomavirus, that scourge of humankind, but to human powered vehicles.

This is the time of year when even hearty New England outdoorspeople tend to stay indoors, sometimes resorting to gyms in desperation. It was on just such an occasion, trudging along monotonously in the gym, that I started thinking about how great it would be if I could take this elliptical machine out on the road and go places with it. I really liked the motion of the elliptical, but standing around a gym is just plain boring.

This became something of an obsession. I started to consider how I might build such a contraption, perhaps from an existing elliptical machine. Many of the parts were already there. The flywheel could be fitted with a rubber tire. Some kind of front steering mechanism would have to be devised. It was an intriguing idea.

Then I discovered in a SkyMall catalog, that Mecca for shoppers with too much disposable income, the StreetStrider! It looked great. They seemed to have solved the steering and other problems, and were actually able to sell these things. In fact, it was featured as an exercise machine on Biggest Loser. Of course, I wasn't sure Biggest Loser was quite the image I wanted to evoke. Worse, there was no place to take a test ride. The only option was to order one, and return it for a full refund if not completely satisfied. The idea of hauling this thing back to the post office was too daunting for me.

But, by one of those bizarre coincidences that so often occur in blog anecdotes, I stumbled upon the ElliptiGO while doing a random Google search. (Ok, it was a search for "elliptical bike.") This was a thing of beauty. Basically as mechanically simple and elegant as a bicycle, this offers the full elliptical experience in a sleek, gainly device. Better yet, I found a local store where I could test ride it.

That's all it took. One ride. I was completely hooked. I've since spent many happy hours riding this puppy around, covering all my usual bike routes and then some. And the ElliptiGO has come to be known (affectionately) as the E-GO.

I've even found a few other local owners who are similarly unconcerned about appearance and willing to go on group rides. We are all E-GO maniacs, going on E-GO trips.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Two Wrongs Making a Right

In a wildly flawed syllogism, we can demonstrate that two false premises can lead to a valid conclusion:
  • Government is a business. (FALSE)
  • Businesses are people. (FALSE)
  • Therefore, government is of, by and for people. (TRUE)

Despite the oft-heard claim that we need business leaders to run government, nothing could be further from the truth. The purpose of a business is to make money for its owners. That's it. Any seemingly good works, such as treating employees well or serving customers or protecting the environment, is simply what the owners have decided will make them the most money. Or lies.

Government, on the other hand, exists to ... well, to form a more perfect union, establish justice, blah, blah.  It's all spelled out in the Preamble of The Constitution. You can read about it here. Nothing about making money for the owners or anything like that.

Likewise, businesses are not people. People pursue happiness. They want things like plenty of food, shelter and clothing and opportunities for their families to enjoy same. Beyond that, they want lifestyles, entertainment, friends (real and virtual), and everything else on Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

Businesses want ... repeat after me ... money for the owners.

But, as Lincoln famously noted, our government is "of the people, by the people, for the people." Government is all about serving the needs of the people. Government officials are called public servants for a reason. They're supposed to be working on our behalf. All of us. The one hundred percent.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

It's Mitt, Part 2 (Limerick of the Day #106)

In their efforts to challenge Obama, Ne-
O-Cons have been snubbing Mitt Rom-a-ney.
Now he's passed the first test
By eight votes. Will the rest
Of the states finally make him the nominee?

NOTE: Limericks of the Day numbers 1-105 may be found at Ideas Great and Dumb.

It's Mitt

Mitt Romney scored a decisive victory over rival Rick Santorum last night in the Iowa Caucuses, winning by a whopping 8 votes.  That should give him plenty of momentum to carry into the New Hampshire Primary next week.

It seems Romney had the fortunate position of being everyone's second choice.  Most of the other leading candidates could have beaten him in a one-to-one contest, but in the current free-for-all, Romney wins, in effect, by losing.  While the other Republicans divided the ABM (Anyone But Mitt) vote, perennial bridesmaid Romney sashays to the fore.

Of course, this is good and bad news.  The former Massachusetts governor and reigning flip-flop champion is the only GOP candidate who could seriously take on Obama, but also the only one who's remotely qualified to serve as president.

Besides, think how much fun it will be to say "Romney the Nom'nee."

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Beyond Belief, Part 4

You may be familiar with the old parable of the blind men and the elephant.

The gist is that a bunch of blind guys check out this elephant, but because each one finds a different part of the elephant, each has a totally different idea of what an elephant is. The guy with the tail thinks an elephant is like a rope. The leg guy thinks it's like a tree. The trunk guy like a snake, etc. That becomes the take-away from their elephant encounter. From then on, whenever one of them thinks of an elephant, he'll think only of the part he experienced.

That's how our individual realities are formed. We each have experiences that lead to different concepts about what the world actually is. None of them is right or wrong. They're all partly right, but mostly wrong, because our experiences are so limited. We're all blind.

As we grow, we can add to these experiences. The tail guy may get the trunk next time he bumps into an elephant, and little by little, form a more complete idea of what an elephant is. But his first reaction is likely to be "That's not an elephant!"

The point that's usually missed is that each of the blind men relates the elephant to something already familiar ... rope, snake, tree, etc. That's pretty much how new experiences get assimilated. Once we reach some level of awareness, anything new gets interpreted as being like something we already knew.

That causes our individual realities diverge to more and more. As we relate new, complex, unusual phenomena to different familiar ones, our personal views of the universe grow further and further apart, until we're like the Republican presidential nomination process.