Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rigged college admissions

In an article at San Francisco Chronicle, Shikha Dalmia makes the case that elite universities' increasing promises of aid are meaningless if they keep the number of legacy admissions that they currently have. In another article for Reason, she makes the same case and cites a chancellor at Berkeley as saying that "at one Ivy League school only 40 percent of the seats are open to candidates competing on pure educational merit." This is a problem, she explains, since:

Admissions are a zero-sum game in which students vie for a finite number of seats. So every seat that a less-talented legacy gets is one less spot at Stanford available to a talented poor kid. The crucial determinant of economic diversity on campus is not how much largesse legacies expend on poor kids - but how many seats they take away from them.

It's all fine and good, until she gets to the end, where she says that she doesn't believe that private schools should have to do this, since "Stanford is a private school and should be free to set whatever admission standards it deems fit." But, is this really true? Given the tax breaks given to schools and grants for research and other things and the cross-subsidization by colleges of the different kinds of education, can you really say that "private" schools really retain the distinction as not dependent or beholden to the state? Private universities like the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins, Caltech, Stanford and MIT have all received over a half billion dollars each in federal contracts in recent years, to say nothing of state and local contracts and grants, tax breaks of all kinds, bond issues, and political clout.

If the public is going to subsidize all of this research, it ought to have the option of mandating that the entities be separate from and not cross-subsidizing rigged undergrad programs.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sydney, Athens, Beijing, London, Baku?

I wonder what the cumulative cost of long-shot Olympic bids like this one in Baku, Azerbaijan are?

Murtha's myrrh*

The WaPo has an article about Rep. John Murtha's endorsement of Hilary Clinton, and doesn't skimp on the filth that is this man. All from the man with institutionalized bribe sessions and a penchant for directing federal anti-terror/anti-drug money to his rusting town on the Pennsylvania side of the PA/WV border. And yet, somehow, despite the Democrats' rhetoric about Bush's fiscal irresponsibility, an endorsement from the House's largest recipient of pork seems to be the best thing that Clinton has going for her in Pennsylvania. Thankfully, the last two paragraphs of the article do Murtha's sliminess justice:

In 1980, Murtha testified as an unindicted co-conspirator in the Abscam trial of two House members after an FBI sting in which agents offered several lawmakers $50,000 to help a fictitious sheik with immigration problems. In a conversation that agents videotaped, Murtha responded characteristically: He refused to take the money, but he indicated that he might be able to help later if the man invested in local businesses and helped unemployed miners get new jobs.

"He understands the system, and he knows how to work it better than anybody," Rooney said. "I'm not sure there's anybody from around here who wields more influence."

* From Wikipedia: "Myrrh was burned in ancient Roman funerals to mask the smell emanating from charring corpses."

Blackboard patents invalidated

From Michael Feldstein, a follow-up to the Blackboard patent case I wrote about a few weeks ago: all of Blackboard's patents have been rejected in a ruling. Though there is still room for appeal, apparently the bar will be set very high and it's likely that this ruling will stand. It's good to see that patent system working correctly in this instance, but it would be nice it a company wouldn't need to go through such expensive and uncertain litigation to do something they should clearly have the right to do.

Private supercomputers

Despite the libertarian atmosphere of technology and the internet, it's undeniable that modern computers and indeed all science has been strongly influenced by the whims of governments. For centuries scientists have made killing machines for governments, and while they've discovered some incredible things, one can't help but wonder if they couldn't be working more efficiently – say, not on killing machines.

Supercomputers are still largely the provenance of government agencies, but recently a privately-owned supercomputer in India has become the fourth most powerful in the world. The company who owns it is CRL, a Tata outfit in Pune, India. Good to see that despite the funding lavished on governmental/quasi-governmental institutions like universities (public and "private") and research labs like Lawrence Livermore, private demand for this kind of computer power is strong enough to break through. It's also good to see India's reputation in technology coming to fruition, with high end projects like this that dwarf anything the private sector in America or Europe has to offer.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Whither, Somalia?

In continuing with my favorite topic, Somalia, I noticed a story on the about Somalia. Normally stories about Somalia are about some failed initiative or outbreak of violence between government/non-government troops, but they don't really do justice to the smallness of the the power of the "government." This story does – it says that the government lives on $19 million per annum (the rest siphoned away from corruption). And it alludes to the fact that the Transitional Federal Government doesn't control much land, but doesn't do justice to the situation by stating that "in many ways, Somalia is not a state at all, but more a lawless space between its neighbors and the sea." That's a gross simplification – much of the land (especially the produce urban areas) are under the control of governments, just not the federal government. Nomadic Somalis follow the xeer, the same code they've followed since before the Europeans. Northern Somalia is divided among the governments of Somaliland and Puntland, with weak albeit present reach. They are much less violent than the south, and for the most part have been since the start of anarchy around 1990. And anyway, the conflict is not among the traditional nomads of Somalia, but rather between invading forces and their reactions, the Islamists.

Correctly, the Times points out the failed policies of American intervention, UN intervention, and American-backed Ethiopian intervention (the current demon). However, it's reflecting only its own ignorance when it declares that "[t]he looming failure is making many people here and abroad question the strategy of installing the transitional government by force." The implication is that there was some doubt in Somalis' minds as to what any form of government, imposed by locals or foreigners, would be like for them. Somali businessmen don't have ideological commitments and consistently side with whoever will protect their business, and would be impossible to capture in the form of a permanent tax base. Somalis haven't supported the colonial powers, diaspora-backed political democracy, American-backed dictatorship, Soviet-backed dictatorship, UN-backed political democracy, or American/Ethiopian-backed political democracy. At the moment the Islamists have sway, but that seems to be a reaction to the Ethiopian invasion. Given the history and the relative mildness of Somali Islam, the Somalis would likely chafe under the Islamists if the Ethiopians withdrew.

Finally, the Times makes the eternal Somali gaffe, when it implies that anarchy in Somalia has been brutally worse than under Siad Barre and scientific socialism in the decades before: "Sometimes it seems that if anything binds this country together, it is scar tissue." This is nonsense – the Somalis have an incredibly rich culture and civilization, with a functioning and unique justice system and generally growing wealth. According to a paper called "Better off Stateless" by Peter Leeson published in 2006, key indicators of welfare in Somali have largely risen in the period since the collapse of Siad Barre's state. Infant mortality is down, underweight births per capita declined 80%, extreme poverty is down more than 15 percentage points, and access to sanitation and healthcare is up significantly. Somalia has cheap, accessible, and competitive internet and mobile phone markets as well as competitive private low-cost air carriers. Education is relatively well-provisioned by the private market, and Somalia now has a higher university enrollment than under the Barre regime.

The Times and the media in general must emerge from their paradigmatic shell of always looking to governments for indicators of society. While this might work okay in Western countries where much of the civil and social discourse is in some way filtered through government, the model breaks down for countries like Somalia where foreign and non-governmental entities and institutions are much more important to ordinary Somalis than the supposed central government.

Joints, OK; spliffs, not so much

According to the NIS, when Amsterdam's smoking ban goes into effect in July, only tobacco will be targeted. Spliff-smokers – much more common in Europe than in the US, as it's only way to smoke hashish without a pipe – must light up outside, whereas smokers of pure marijuana joints can puff away in peace. Though allowing marijuana but not tobacco might seem bizarre, it's actually more consistent with the relative harm of marijuana and tobacco. Then again, I don't see the Dutch legalizing acid, mushrooms, or ecstasy, despite the fact that they also rank lower on the harm scale.

For more on the Netherlands' schizophrenic drug laws (fun fact: selling marijuana is illegal in the Netherlands!), here's the very comprehensive Wikipedia article.

Terrorism, rent-seeking, and Academe

In an article from Wired called "Civil Libertarians See a Hopeful Dawn in 2009 ... the Fools," comes this ominous paragraph:

"There is so much money in the terrorism trough," says Steven Aftergood, who runs the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy Project. "There are constituencies within agencies who are going to be advocating for retention of those practices. It will take a lot of work to roll back practices that have been entrenched for the last seven years."

I personally got creaped out about this when I moved to Washington to go to Georgetown, and noticed a) ads by Raytheon and colleges advertising "Homeland Security" certificates in the Metro, and b) the obsession with students and academics in Georgetown's foreign studies departments with terrorism. The rent-seeking associated with anti-terrorist things is obvious – there are many companies who do a lot of business with governments. And then there's the academic side of it – academic rockstars like Samuel Huntington and Francis Fukuyama inspire future generations of grad students and aspiring academics, who in turn coax undergraduates into classes on terrorism and Arabic. This pattern isn't new: socialism and statist brewed in universities across the US and Europe in the early twentieth century, and then the ideologies bled over into the real world. But at least statism was romantic and progressive-feeling – this shit is just fear-mongering.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Amazon's DRM-free store is #2 online music seller

Only six months after opening, Amazon's MP3 service has become the second-largest online music retailer. To differentiate themselves from iTunes Music Store, they only sell DRM-free music which comes in MP3 form that you can easily share with anyone you'd like. While Apple is moving in that direction, as of yet only about a third of their catalog is DRM-free, and Amazon has more than twice the amount of DRM-free songs available.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Licensing as cartels

From Radley Balko at Fox News (yeah, I know), the most succinct article I've ever seen on the anti-competitive practice of professional licensing. The artificial scarcity of taxi cabs in large cities is pretty well known, but Balko shows that this practice is creeping into other professions: interior designers in many states, florists in Louisiana, basic equine dentistry in Texas, and hair dressers and beauty salons in many states. And on top of all that, the article points out that the exams necessary for earning a license are evaluated by already-licensed professionals, who obviously have an incentive to lessen their competition. This paper from the Reason Foundation gives a detailed look at licensing laws across the US, along with some absurd anecdotes about the hoops that people have to jump through to do what they already know how to do.

Licensing becomes particularly Kafka-esque when it comes to African hair braiding: a very time-consuming and expensive way of styling hair. Drive down any commercially-zoned street (and some that aren't) in any city with a large black population and you'll see that these salons are integrals parts of these economies. And yet, according to the Institute for Justice, the process for becoming licensed can be very time-consuming and difficult:
In all but a handful of states, performing African hairbraiding professionally without a government-issued license is against the law. And earning the license requires braiders to take more than 1,000 hours of coursework that cover techniques completely unrelated and even antithetical to the type of natural hair care braiders provide.

The State of Washington’s regulations are typical of many states, requiring even skilled braiders to take up to 1,600 hours of completely unrelated classes to get a cosmetology or barbering license to braid legally. In Mississippi, braiders can get a cosmetology license with a 1,500-hour class, or a “wigology” license with 300 hours of classes in wig care, but only two of the state’s more than 40 cosmetology schools offer wigology. That leaves most aspiring braiders in the state with only three options: attend an expensive, 1,500-hour cosmetology program that doesn’t teach braiding, abandon their profession or operate outside the law.

Recognizing this problem, Melony Armstrong, who earned her wigology license, decided to open a wigology school to teach her craft to others. But the State doesn’t allow wigology-only schools. Instead, Melony must open a cosmetology school—even if she only wants to teach braiding and wigology—which means spending more than 3,000 hours (about three academic years) in cosmetology and cosmetology instructor programs. Of course, those programs don’t teach braiding.

Consider that in the 3,200 classroom hours it would take for Armstrong to get a license to teach hairbraiding, she could instead become licensed in all of the following professions: emergency medical technician (122 hours plus five emergency runs), paramedic (1,700 hours), ambulance driver (8 hours), law enforcement officer (ten weeks), firefighter (six weeks), real estate appraiser (75 hours) and hunting education instructor (20 hours). And all of that would take more than 600 hours less than getting her license to teach braiding.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Great Psychological Firewall of China

From The Atlantic, an interesting article on the "Great Firewall of China," which the author finds out isn't all that impenetrable. The real security comes in the uncertainty of knowing whether or not you are trying to access banned information. The reasoning goes that Chinese internet users will go for the easy information – self-censored, uncontroversial news – and won't take the extra step (which is relatively easy) of using a proxy to access censored information. Though, as the article notes, China definitely isn't at totalitarian regime, this ambiguous sort of censorship encourages a police state mentality where your paranoia is a bigger check on your activity than actual repression.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Peer pressure

Since I don't know anyone who's ever been peer pressured into taking drugs, maybe DARE ought to target foreign ministries.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Five years, how many bodies?

I must admit that I didn't look very hard, but I didn't see any pieces in American media this week about the Iraqi death toll from the war in Iraq. The Guardian, however, has an excellent piece discussing the disparate estimates of the death toll. The counts range from the extremely conservative Iraq Body Count number of between 80,000 and 90,000, to as high as about a million and a half. The article delves into the epistemological and methodological nitty-gritty of the surveys, which is the type of critical science reporting that you don't see often enough in the American media. From the last two paragraphs of the article, a jarring conclusion:
Alas for Bush and Blair, most statisticians do not support their case. Nor can any journalist or other independent witness who has seen the pain of the bereaved still living in post-invasion Iraq or the millions who have escaped to Jordan and Syria. Estimates of the Iraqi deaths caused by Saddam's regime amount to a maximum of one million over a 35-year period (100,000 Kurds in the Anfal campaign in the 1980s; 400,000 in the war against Iran; 100,000 Shias in the suppressed uprising of 1991; and an unknown number executed in his prisons and torture chambers). Averaged over his time in power, the annual rate does not exceed 29,000.

Only the conservatively calculated Iraq Body Count death toll credits the occupation with an average annual rate that is less than that - some 18,000 deaths in the five years so far. Every other source, from the WHO to the surveys of Iraqi households, puts the average well above the Saddam-era figure. Those who claim Saddam's toppling made life safer for Iraqis have a lot of explaining to do.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Sex for green cards

Everyone knows about cops' not-so-infrequent sexual interactions with prostitutes, but here's one I've never heard from the NYT: "An Agent, a Green Card, and a Demand for Sex." Unsurprisingly, according to the article, this isn't anything new.

Iraq irony

These past few days have been major anniversaries for two days in Iraqi history. The one everyone noticed was the fifth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. The one everybody forgot was Saddam Hussein's gassing of the rebel Kurdish city of Halabja. Twenty years ago Sunday, on 16 March 1988, as part of Chemical Ali's Anfal Campaign, 5000 Kurds died on the spot, and 7000 were injured or have chronic illnesses.

But why is this relevant? Because the United States at the time knowingly defended and protected Saddam Hussein in the court of international opinion, according to an article in the Nation published a few months ago. And the operatives in this disinformation campaign were disturbingly familiar: Colin Powell (Reagan's National Security Adviser) and Donald Rumsfeld ("Special Middle East Envoy"). Rumsfeld especially conveyed many messages to Baghdad, signaling the US's willingness to overlook and cover up Saddam's gas attacks. Nary a month after 9/11, and Bush was already talking about the gassing of the Kurds as implicating Saddam Hussein. Of course, you know the rest.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Open spectrum

In light of the recent end of the FCC's latest spectrum auction, I think it's a good idea to examine the idea of spectrum licensing and the FCC. Currently, the FCC divides up the spectrum between technologies and companies, using its technocratic expertise as a guide. Some of it is unlicensed – like baby monitors and Wi-Fi – but appliances using it must still adhere to certain specifications, intended to eliminate interference. But is this even necessary? Some people think not. Open spectrum backers (including techno-libertarian Larry Lessig) argue that "interference" is all relative, and is not an issue (or would not be an issue with the proper competitive pressures) with technology that can separate the data from the noise. They argue not just for an increase in unlicensed spectrum – which is still subject to government interference – but a complete liberalization of the airwaves.

It might strike some as communistic, since we generally think of the airwaves as a good, and naturally market liberals would want these to be in private hands. However, they are not any old good – they're infinitely divisible, utterly non-excludable, and pretty damn indefensible – unless you have the power of the state. Without a government, it's hard to imagine any sort of collective agreement being made – more likely is that each firm would work individually to project and protect their data stream. In my mind, it's a similar situation to that of intellectual property – we've attached this label of "property" to these things and have neglected the important differences between these goods and traditional physical goods.

And when you think about all the airwaves as fundamentally planned by government, it raises questions as to how truly "natural" our information and entertainment habits really are.

Today in history

From Wired, today in history, 1474: Venice passes the first-known written law to grant and protect patents. England followed in 1623. The Constitution gave the US Congress authority to "promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries," and it used that power in 1790 to pass the Patents Act. Then France, then next thing you know, states are conspiring to enforce, spread, and harmonize patent law.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Anarchy in Somalia on Wikipedia

Last semester I wrote a paper about anarchy in Somalia, and I remember reading the Anarchy in Somalia article – there were a few citations, but it wasn't really that helpful. But I went back today, and it really has gotten a lot better. There are a lot more quotes, and some more indications of what's going on today. So, hats off to you, (not so) anonymous Wikipedians!

Monday, March 17, 2008


"Private" highways

The Washington Post today had a very interesting, but also depressing, article on the Bush administration's latest effort at corporatizing what is currently socialized: the roads. The United States, unlike countries in Europe, has largely resisted calls for the "privatization" of the nation's highways and highways-to-be (of which we have many). As a result, the government, by some estimates, spends 10% of our GNP on highway and parking subsidies.

Already, there are some conceptual issues with private highways. Firstly, and most obviously, highways derive their value from the millions of miles of auxiliary, feeder roads. These are almost never private, except in rare cases of large office parks, malls, etc. Oftentimes, the road itself was built with public money and is being privatized – it is quite possible (and likely) that in the absence of that road, no private builder would be willing to construct it. And finally, these so-called private companies make use of eminent domain, taking on quasi-governmental roles and acquiring land at non-market rates. In Colorado, the legislature banned the use of eminent domain in the building of private roads, and the governor vetoed it. The end result was an agreement whereby the state DOT makes the call, which makes me wonder how Colorado Senator Wiens could say with a straight face: "no private toll-road company will be able to condemn the private property of a Colorado citizen, period, end of story."

But as the article continues, the contradictions become startling. First of all, the focus is on a federal program that took $850 million away from the regular budget in earmarks from the Democrats (I get the feeling a lot of it was mass transit-related), which has so far not led to the construction of any highways. The money is the same money that Bloomberg wanted to use for New York's congestion fee idea. These supposedly-free market roads were not only benefitting from the government's power of eminent domain, but also received (along with private freight lines) $15 billion in tax-exempt bonds, essentially a subsidy. Pseudo-private roads have become a big industry – attracting over $100 billion in 2006. And then there's the cascading patronage, with a healthy exchange of high-salaried executives between private road operators and builders and federal government.

To me, this seems like another effort by the Bush administration to cash in on libertarian rhetoric while putting in forth plans that subsidize favored industries. The idea that a private company could ever independently build the kinds of roads that we're used to in America and be profitable while doing it is as absurd as thinking that mercenaries would have any clients if governments stopped hiring them. What these crypto-libertarians are looking to do is privatize government and have it perform the same function, and since that's obviously impossible, they settled with just corporatizing it.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Socialized music?

Of the many bizarre things to come from SXWX, your latest* act of rent-seeking: from Wired, "Music Industry Proposes a Piracy Surcharge on ISPs." Jim Griffin of the IFPI (RIAA international, basically) wants a $5/month charge on broadband connections, ostensibly mandatory, although they blabber on about seeking voluntary solutions (as if the price elasticity of demand for any given ISP were so inelastic that no one will notice a 10-20% increase in cost). They say that they will divide the money up based on the frequency of an artist showing up on file sharing websites. This is not at all unprecedented – many western countries have them on most, if not all, recording media, from cassette players to iPods. Among recording media, the US is relatively lax in that it only levies a 3% tax on stand-alone CD burners and those stupid enough to buy the Music CD-Rs. Finland has some of the most onerous levies, with a sliding scale tax up to €21 on DVRs and MP3 players with over 250 GB capacity.

The implications of it, though, are kind of perverse: who could honestly say that you were being unethical if you downloaded your fair share of music? The law, however, leaves no provision for you to download $5 worth of illegal music per month. And at today's rate, that comes to about $6 billion dollars per year, which probably is probably a small chunk of total music sales in America. And if illegal downloading doesn't slow down, they'll be in a better position to either ask for either more money or force ISPs to filter illegal downloads (legally and technologically awkward). Who knows – maybe the surcharge will increase so much that the mainstream music industry will be essentially nationalized?

*not really – there have probably been millions of acts of rent-seeking throughout the world in the few days since this article was published.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Rating site for cops gets kicked around the Internet

Rating sites have been a permanent feature on the internet since at least 2000 with Hot or Not. At first they were trivial, but then along came Rate My Professors, beloved by college students across the Anglosphere. (Web 2.0 sites have intense network effects, so hideous and poorly-designed sites like Rate My Professors and MySpace become entrenched.)

Now comes along a rating site with a civil libertarian edge: It's only been live for about two weeks, and you'll notice right now that it's down, because its host – GoDaddy, the largest web hosting site – took it down. This is just a day after a story was published about law enforcement officials' disdain for the site, some calling for a legislative prohibition on sites of that sort (obviously in violation of the First Amendment). Apparently, they even lied to him about the reason, blaming it on him surpassing a bandwidth limit that he obviously hadn't. (Later they backtracked, and blamed some really broad contract provision.) After that, the operator of the site went with RackSpace (remember those heady days when web hosting companies advertised on TV commercials?), only to be given the axe and told that RateMyCop could "could create a risk to the health and safety of law enforcement officers." According to that same Wired article, he apparently is now hosting the site temporarily himself, but my DNS servers haven't updated because I'm still getting GoDaddy's page.

RateMyCop is no doubt legal, and will in the next few days find a host. Having feedback about officers online in such an easily accessible format (Gino Sesto, the operator, said they were considering letting the officers authenticate themselves and respond to comments) might increase pressure on law enforcement to reign in some of the more uncouth elements amongst them. I know that in my home town – a wealthy, low crime area – I've heard pretty nasty stories about one officer in particular, who apparently called his boots "nigger kickers."

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Spitzer's prostitute's MySpace

Befriend the girl who led to Spitzer's downfall! 'Cause there's nothing like having a $1000/hour prostitute in your top 8.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Mass transit ridership increase

Something I hear often when I try to convince people that the prevalence of the automobile has everything to do with its below-market cost is that it wouldn't matter how much it costs, people like riding in cars. Today, though, comes a study by the American Public Transportation Association (reported by Yahoo, here's the original report) that shows that mass transit ridership has increased about 2% in the US over the last year, and about 4.5% in Canada over the same period. Population growth, I believe, is lower than this, which indicates an overall increase in mass transit ridership over the same time period as the cost of gasoline has risen about 20%.

Though I'm not up for it right now, it would be interesting to calculate the total cost of travel by car (which surely rose by much less than 20%, given that gasoline is only one of the costs), and then calculate the price elasticity of demand for car travel. Unlike most, I'd be willing to bed that its elasticity is closer to 1 than to 0.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Business method patents litmus test.

Good news on the anti-intellectual property front: the Supreme Court US Federal Circuit Court of Appeals has agreed to hear a case over business method patents, that some say could render them entirely unpatentable. Business method patents are pretty self explanatory – they patent a non-physical process, in this case, a commodities trading strategy. But they can range from the totally abstract and trivial (Amazon's infamous 1-click check-out patent) to the highly technical (like this one, apparently). The Court will hear arguments in "Bilski," as the case is known, in May. Here's the case as ruled by the last judge.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Denver legalizes small amounts of weed, Denver police arrest even more people for it

Though the drug warriors could never win on rationality, they always had the "it's the law" argument. However, in 2007, the citizens of Denver tried to change that with a ballot initiative that made policing petty marijuana crimes "the city's lowest law-enforcement priority." Earlier, the city had outright repealed municipal penalties for possession of under an ounce for those over the age of 21. Though this conflicts with state law, it's a pretty obvious sign that the citizens of the the city of Denver do not agree with the prohibition of small quantities of marijuana – if the law says it's illegal, the law is clearly inflexible and anti-democratic.

Anyway, the news is that on the backdrop of all of this, the number of adults faced with misdemeanor pot charges has actually risen by 18% in 2007 as compared to 2006. The police department is flagrantly disobeying the will of its supposed bosses, and has shown themselves stubbornly resistant to even this minor retreat in the war on drugs. Just imagine the resistance someone would encounter if they had the gall to suggest legalizing all drugs!

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Ronald Bailey on global warming

After reading about libertarian science journalist Ron Bailey's recent conversion to the man-made global warming camp, I asked myself the question that I often ask myself when reading about libertarians and global warming: why the hell wouldn't you believe in it? It's obvious to most conservatives and libertarians that communism and central planning would produce horrific environmental tragedies: the tragedy of the commons would destroy communally-owned property, and the state wouldn't have proper incentives or knowledge to maintain the environment that it controls. However, they fail to apply that logic to the American economy. Though we might indeed be one of the freest economies in the world, it would be absurd to say that the economy is totally free. In fact, the sectors of the economy which emit the most carbon – transportation, energy production, and "buildings" – are incredibly subsidized and regulated, often with environmentally damaging results.

Since at least the beginning of the 20th century, various levels of government have decided that America's mode of transportation should be almost exclusively the automobile. Before World War II, in cities, the majority of urban commuters' journeys were made via mass transit (mass transit, but rarely public transit). This all changed when local governments began instituting low density zoning regulations and building tax-payer funded roads free for public consumption, and when state and federal governments began ponying up the cash for extensive highway systems. Given that low density development, roads, and police officers patrolling roads are all complementary goods for the automobile, it's no wonder the technology took off. Throughout Americans cities and suburbs, medium or high density development is all but impossible in a lot of places, and this is an obvious prerequisite for profitable mass transit. Today, the largest public works project in the nation's history is the Interstate Highway System, governments still don't cover anywhere near the full cost of their roads with gas taxes, and the overwhelming majority of the trips made by Americans are made in cars (definitely over 90%). Due to the intense network effects associated with transit and land use, it's no surprise that the entire transportation industry has been co-opted by the state, and that it is impossible to run a profitable transit firm that doesn't rely heavily on government subsidies (as do all auto manufacturers and even privatized highways).

Now, this is clearly a problem from an economic point of view, but more relevantly, it's a huge problem from an environmental point of view. The direct effects of road travel are pretty large: over 25% of all carbon emissions in the US come directly out of the tailpipes of cars and trucks. The indirect effects are even larger: low density development encourages larger living spaces, which require more materials to construct and more energy to heat. They are also less efficiently heated/cooled than stacked spaces (i.e., tall buildings) due to the fact that they're surrounded by the elements, whereas an apartment on the 25th floor of a 50-story building is much better insulated.

So, I come away from that article wondering primarily why free market adherents are so blinded to government intervention in transportation (a complementary good to...everything) to the point that they can't fathom that our supposedly free market system could ever result in a poor outcome. But secondly, how come Ron Bailey doesn't see this, and instead decides that the way to deal with the issue is a carbon tax? Or does he recognize that it's a problem of government intervention, and believes simply (and perhaps correctly) that these state policies are too ingrained to change? (How do you explain to the American people that the American dream of owning your own single-family home in the suburbs and two SUVs parked in the driveway is a sham?)

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Blackboard and software patents

Personally, I think software patents are an absurd idea, and that eventually they will start doing damage to technological innovation (if they haven't already). Just recently, a court decided in Blackboard's favor (you probably know it if you go to an American university), against a company that was essentially providing a similar service. The problem? Blackboard has a patent on software like this! Like what, you ask? Well, essentially a web service that helps teachers and students share information, the key being that a user can be both a student and a teacher, depending on what class it is. Those who have used multi-user operating systems, or online code repositories, will find the idea quite familiar. If anyone isn't convinced that the US patent system has gone absurdly out of control, here is a particularly absurd quote from the Blackboard patent:
However, electronic networks, including the Internet, are complex technological systems requiring the user to have or acquire specialized knowledge in order to use them effectively. Even graphical user interfaces (GUIs) designed to enhance simplicity of use, such as that provided by the World Wide Web, may require specialized knowledge of network terminology and technical aspects. For example, an Internet user's ability to access information using that medium is significantly reduced if the user lacks understanding of how to use Uniform Resource Locators (URLs) to traverse (i.e., navigate) web pages. Slow adoption of new technology and lack of technological sophistication have a chilling effect on the widespread use of the medium in general. Applied specifically in an educational context, these chilling factors apply to instructors who, while possessing high expertise in their respective intellectual or educational fields, would be required to further attain technological knowledge necessary to effectively use the Internet to educate non-collocated students.

Furthermore, the complexity of using the Internet for educational purposes is compounded as the number of user choices required at the user interface increases because not only must the instructor and students acquire technological competency in the use of the medium, but they must in addition understand the presentation and consequences of a plethora of choices required by a particular user interface (e.g., a web page). The design of the user interface therefore can be critical in enabling widespread use of the medium in an educational context. Solutions other than the present invention may be characterized as having relatively complicated and confusing user interfaces. Users, including both students and instructors, of these other solutions are confronted with one or more web pages that typically require the user to review and select a subsequent web page or function from among a large array of potential user choices, thereby complicating the user's task of interacting with the system.

This is about par for the course for software and business method patents. The trick to earning one, you see, is just to overwhelm the patent office with extremely long and convoluted descriptions of trivial and common things. You see, no one will give you a patent if you apply for one for "a website that allows users to be either teachers or students in individual classes, and then allows teachers to post links online and students to click on them after they enter some username and password." However, if you make it so long and use language like "traverse web pages" and "chilling effect on the widespread use of the medium in general" (I for one am mortally terrified that people aren't using the internet because they don't know how to type in URLs!), there's a good chance that the overworked, underinformed patent officer reviewing your application is not going to understand the blinding simplicity that they're being shown, and will approve your patent. The US patent office has essentially adopted the attitude that it'll take a couple of years, but it will accept almost any patent, with the real test coming when people sue over it. This is an incredibly warped system, as it essentially forces you to pony up millions of dollars in patent lawyers' fees to get the government to take a dispassionate, careful (if you're lucky) look at the monopoly privileges that they grant by the dozens each day.

For some more software patent idiocy: Apple tries to patent the pinch; Amazon successfully patents one-click checkout (which is later revoked, but only after intimidating other online retailers); Priceline gets patent auction?